How scared I was surprised me. I didn’t expect to fall into fear. I wasn’t in my part of town, but I’ve never been worried about my presence. I was alone, empty gas tank and empty stomach except for the pit that seemed to fit so perfectly in my gut. Being scared surprised me.
Somewhere between Detroit and Grosse Pointe I stopped at a gas station. It wasn’t a Valero or Mobile. It wasn’t anything that I’ve seen before but it was on a convenient corner. So I stopped.
As I stepped out of my mom’s new minivan I felt a sense of urgency. Some man was hollering at me. I couldn’t understand him. He kept waving his arms and my debit card wasn’t working. The gas pump told me to pay inside and on my way some man called me beautiful. But it wasn’t the beautiful that made me feel like a queen it was that type of beautiful that made me want to scream.
I searched the shelves for the perfect snack. I scanned the fridge for a tasty drink. The cashier was on the phone. Talking in another language, angrily hitting keys on the computer. I knew that he saw me but I wasn’t sure if he was ringing up my purchase. A woman took over. Another man stood next to me. He was missing fingers and mumbling. He had a grin on his face. Told me the cookies in his hand were the best in all the land and I should try them. Some sort of shortbread. I finally paid. Slid my money through the bullet proof window and went outside. Hoping the mumbling man was gone.
The man who called me beautiful was outside. Standing by his car. Which was full of people, arms hanging out the windows. It was hot out. Had been raining. My skin was muggy, sweaty feeling even though the wind gave me chills.
The man who was hollering at me came closer. Still mumbling. Said something about money. Something about how everyone there knows him. They call him “Doc”. I wanted to ask why Doc? But I didn’t. He offered to pump my gas. He told me he wanted to pump my gas. He begged me to let him pump my gas.
I politely declined. Said, I’ll get it this time. Thanks, Doc. He asked me if I could spare some change. My pockets were empty. So I didn’t lie. But I did say no. He walked away with little hassle.
The man who called me beautiful winked my way.
The door to the van opened. I climbed in and started the engine. I drove away. Through the rain. Confused as to why I felt so insecure there. Wondering why I felt the need to be on the defense.
I used to handle those situations with ease. I used to tell people, “All you need is the confidence. Just act like you belong there and people will think you do.” But the truth is, I didn’t belong there. With my chaco sandals, rolled jeans, and dreaded hair. I didn’t belong there. My skin showed I wasn’t from around there. I didn’t quite blend in. I stuck out. I felt foreign, even and my shaking hands showed it.
I dated a boy from Detroit once. Felt comfortable in his hood. Wasn’t nervous about driving there myself, I talked to people on the streets. Went to school with kids from Southfield and Detroit. Best friends were from a harder part of town than I was, but I still felt like I belonged. I moved away from the city a few years back. I’ve spent most of my time surrounded by corn fields and farm children since then. Going back makes me anxious. Like I’m now nervous to be around the culture I used to drown myself in.
It makes me wonder. Can my understanding and my acceptance of diversity disappear with the city skyline? Can I go back in time and recreate the feeling of comfort? Or will I always now feel out of place? When did these ideas and stereotypes plant themselves in my head long enough to be rooted in my shaking hands as I fumbled with my keys? I just wanted to leave. I didn’t like it there and I usually can trust my gut.
But all he did was call me beautiful.
And all he did was ask to pump my gas.
How scared I was surprised me.