Fog smudged the letters on the street sign and the features of the man on the sidewalk. It was 9:30 PM, and I was lost.
Having driven past the U.S. Capitol on my way home from a class, I was then forced by construction work to take a detour. Even if I could read the sign, I thought, I wouldn’t know which direction I should be heading.
I pulled up to the man on the deserted street. The fog wrapped each of us in a cocoon and put distance between us.
“How do I get on Route 50 to Annapolis?”
He started to give directions and then said, “Hey, I’m going right near that intersection. I’d be glad to ride along and show you exactly. . . . ” He suddenly stopped.
My heart tightened. Voices echoed in my mind like scratchy old phonograph records: “Never go into that section of Washington alone at night. Never let a stranger get into your car. Roll up the window; lock the door; and go.”
As the fog cleared, I saw that he was African American. The voices took on the accents of the rigidly segregated, southern town where I grew up as a white: “You can’t trust those people. They’re all alike.”
But why had he broken off in mid-sentence? Did he see a look of doubt on my face? Could he be hearing another set of voices? “She may think you will attack her. You can’t trust those people. One false move, she calls the cops, and you land in jail.”
Then I heard a single, clear, immediate voice, piercing the static of ancient warnings: “Look at this person. What do you see?”
I saw a man who was perhaps in his 20s; neatly dressed in brown corduroy slacks and a zippered, yellow jacket; and carrying a ring binder. He, too, could have been on his way home from a class. He’d sounded eager to help.
“Sure. Thank you. Hop in.” I opened the door on the passenger side. As I followed his instructions through the maze of one-way streets, I gripped the steering wheel to still my trembling hands. We talked about how confusing the traffic circles in Washington can be, but the chit-chat failed to drown out the words: “You’ve got to be out of your mind! It’s just plain foolhardy to take a chance like this.” Yes, yes, I know. I’m completely at the mercy of this stranger. He could assault me, take my wallet, steal my car, rape me, or kill me.
“There you are,” he said, pointing to a sign that read “To Route 50 Annapolis.”
“Thank you for showing me the way.”
“Thanks for the lift.” He jumped out and strode off.
Driving the familiar highway, I laughed with relief. It was as though the stranger and I had become secret allies. Each of us had taken a chance, defied hand-me-down prejudices, and proven that a person is not a stereotype, but a unique human being.