My morning walk was cooler than it’s been in awhile. Gray skies and the possibility of rain. Still humid as hell, but when you’re in Florida in late August, a dip into the mid 70s can put a spring in your step. They say those gray skies may portend a Labor Day hurricane, but I’ll go ahead and enjoy them for now.
I saw an older black guy on an pedal bike stopped at the corner. He appeared to be rolling up his rain jacket. He had a boom box in the front basket, playing some cool ’70s soul number at mid volume. Sounded like Al Green. “Let’s Stay Together,” maybe. I liked it.
Usually when people play their music in public, the music is very shitty and very loud. Way too much bass and the only lyrics you can make out have to do with motherfuckers. This tune was just right, fading pleasantly as he pedaled away down the empty street. The song was still in my head three miles later.
If the guy had looked my way, I might have smiled or nodded or given him an inane thumbs-up. But you don’t want to be seen as patronizing. Here in Jacksonville, race is never too far from the surface. An older black guy doesn’t need an older white guy appearing to validate his musical selections.
Maybe I think about that too much. A couple of times in the past three or four years, out walking in the same neighborhood, I’ve passed black guys who called me, respectively, “pussy bitch” and a “fuckin’ pussy.” The common denominator being “pussy,” which still kind of rankles. Look, I’m a man, yes I am and I can’t help but lovin’ you. All I’m askin’, for a little R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
Of course I immediately confronted each of them and beat them into bloody mudholes. Or that was the fantasy I constructed later. The truth is, I kept walking, pretending I hadn’t heard. My mother didn’t raise no fool, and even if she had, this fool has grown cautious about mixing it up with truculent guys twice my size and half my age.
I still don’t know what I did to provoke the “pussy” sobriquet. Maybe the pussiness radiates off me like cartoon stink waves. But I have a feeling it was because they were young and black and had at some point suffered similar insults from somebody who was older and white. Which is not unthinkable, in the age of Trump — or really, almost any age from, say, 1619 onward.
I saw another guy on the walk this morning. He was clad in a brilliant white t-shirt, size XXXL, and pajama pants with a playful cat motif. He was washing his clothes at the drinking fountain in Confederate Park. The park is near State and Union Streets, where homeless people of all stripes congregate because so many social services are concentrated in that section of Jacksonville. (When you consider the name of the park, the idea that racism might have something to do with it is hard to dismiss.)
I knew he was washing his clothes because his main pants, blue jeans frayed at the hems, were hanging out to dry on a tree just outside the park fence. And he was taking special care with his other white t-shirt, holding it under the water, inspecting it critically, and continuing to rub away at whatever stain was there.
Usually I’m pretty judgmental about homeless people. They always want money and they rarely bother to pretend it will make one iota of difference in their ruined lives. Help them out and they mark you for a sucker and will watch for you next time. They have discarded the concept of dignity in the same way they toss all the donated clothes and the styrofoam food containers somebody is always handing out on State Street.
But a guy washing his clothes at a drinking fountain on a Wednesday morning. He cared enough to want his clothes clean. He didn’t ask for money. Maybe that’s why I felt like giving him some. But you don’t want to be seen as patronizing.