When I was Trayvon Martin’s age, I was a restless and lonely kid, and my restlessness and loneliness often drove me out of the house in search of motion and company, regularly at hours when I was least likely to find the latter. I would take long walks, wandering the streets of our town for two or three hours in the dead of night, sometimes not getting back to our house until the sun was coming up. My mother, an early riser, would come down and find me at the kitchen table reading the newspaper.
“How long have you been up?” she’d ask.
“Little while,” I’d say.
“What time did you go to bed?”
“You need to get better rest,” she’d say.
“I’m fine,” I’d say.
I don’t know which bothered me more, that she believed I was fine despite what I thought must be obvious evidence I hadn’t slept in days or that she didn’t know I’d been out of the house for most of the night. Shouldn’t my own mother have been woken up by the intuition that her first born had gone missing? My aggrievement at having been benignly neglected fed into my sense of isolation which then propelled me out the door again at night after everyone else had gone to bed.
I mentioned I was a teenager, right?
The streets of our town weren’t totally empty at one, two, or three in the morning. (At four, things started to get busy.) Sometimes I met someone out walking a dog. Sometimes a car would pull into a driveway or up to a curb and someone coming home from a party or very late from work would get out and we’d pretend not to notice each other. I never encountered anyone who seemed to be out doing what I was doing, walking off their melancholy, looking for company, although I was only looking for one sort of company of course, a pretty and sympathetic girl my own age to fall in step with and spend hours circling the town, talking until the birds sang, and I’d have spurned or fled any other company that offered itself.
But the thing is, I never really thought about what other sort of company might be out there besides that imaginary female secret sharer. I certainly didn’t worry about it. I knew that somewhere---somewhere else---the night was full of thieves and creeps and lunatics, but I took it for granted that they never found their way to our town, that they never even thought to look for us, as if there was a psychic force field around us that prevented them from knowing we were there at all. Actually, the force field worked the other way, preventing us from imagining that there was world where people had to live every day and every night with thieves and creeps and lunatics sharing their streets.
And I certainly never worried about meeting up with any frightened idiots with guns out pretending to be the Blue Knight, which brings me to something else I didn’t think about, much, that I was the type of company people would have spurned or fled, a lone, glowering adolescent male prowling the shadowy streets at night, that I would appear in many people’s eyes to be a “suspicious” character.
From time to time, though, I’d get reminded that this was in fact what I looked like.
By the police.
At least once a night, somewhere along the way, a squad car would cruise by. Usually, that’s all it would do, cruise by. Now and again, it would slow a bit, and then I’d give the officer inside a guy wave. I couldn’t always see if he gave me a guy wave back but he almost always kept going. Every once in a great while, though, the car would stop and the window roll down. When that happened the conversation that followed usually went like this:
Me: Evening, officer.
Officer: Out for a walk?
Officer: Nice night for it. (If it was.)
Officer: Awful cold to be out. (If it was.)
Me: Sure is.
Officer: Well, enjoy your walk.
Officer: Well, stay warm.
Me: Thanks, I will.
Me: Night, officer.
After I started college, I kept up my habit of walking at night when I was home on weekends and vacations and these conversations became a little more frequent and the officers would sound a little less friendly. But then I was taller, more filled out, and had a beard. I’m not sure how often it happened, but a couple of times, at least, the cop threw in a “You live around here?”
And I was quite happy to tell him my address and to introduce myself.
“I’m Lance Mannion.”
I expected the cop’s ears to prick up at the last name. It was on his paychecks.
For those of you who don’t know, Pop Mannion was our town supervisor for all of my high school and college years.
I wasn’t throwing my weight around. Pop Mannion had made it very plain from the beginning that we Mannion kids didn’t have any weight to throw around. He was the one with the weight and he didn’t throw it around because in a democracy when the people give you weight they expect you to be very careful with it and only throw it around on their behalf. All I intended to do was to reassure the officer that the shaggy, bearded, shadowy character prowling the night belonged here. I was somebody the cops didn’t have to worry about because they knew my parents. Some of them even knew me from times I visited Pop at his office at town hall or when they met up with us when we were out at a restaurant or in a store or at church and I was reminding them of that.
But even though I knew better than to let it creep into my voice---always be polite, always be respectful, always sound cheerful and friendly but not too cheerful, not too friendly---but at some unspoken level the cop and I understood I was doing something else. I was warning him---in a polite, respectful way---that I was not just any shaggy, bearded college kid. I was a shaggy, bearded college kid it wouldn’t be a good idea to hassle just for the sake of hassling him.
I wasn’t trying to pull a “Do you know who my father is?” because I knew that was a good way to get myself in trouble---with Pop as well as with the cop who might feel obliged to demonstrate he didn’t give a rat’s ass who my father was. I was simply putting it out there as part of the equation. If this conversation ended with me having a reason to complain, the cop would have some explaining to do, probably not to Pop, who wouldn’t have called the cop on the carpet, but to the chief, to whom Pop would have said, So, my son was out for a walk last night…
Of course to me Pop would have said, What the devil were you doing going out for a walk at three in the morning?
But that was worst case scenario thinking on my part with a touch of self-romanticizing as I imagined myself unjustly hauled off to jail and spending a night in a cell among colorful characters sprung to life out of the stories of Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, and William Saroyan. I never really worried I was going to get in trouble with the cops any more than I worried I was going to have to deal with the creeps and thieves and lunatics who prowled the streets somewhere else.
I was safe. I was secure. I was protected. And I doubt I ever thought about why. I took it all for granted without considering that it was because of where I was, who I was, and what I was, an upper middle class white male living in a prosperous suburb full of engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, college professors and teachers, small business owners, bankers, and executives of various kinds, where 90% of the kids were going to go to college, where everybody’s parents had connections and carried at least a little weight to throw around if the need arose, where we were all so goddamn lucky and so insufferably and unfairly privileged.
Update: Over at Pandagon, Jesse Taylor writes about how when he was thirteen he learned he wasn’t protected by the same bubble.