When you run at night you have to pay attention. I’ve been doing that for half of my life, and I’m still here, so obviously I’ve learned to pay attention when I’m running at night, in traffic, in serious darkness, on pot-holed roads, during encounters with dogs – in other words every minute of every run. I found out a long time ago that the moment I stop paying attention is the moment when the risks double or triple, and I’m not up for the consequences of that.
It is 11 p.m. central time. Just a few moments ago, I finished a 7.6 mile run. The confront tonight wasn’t physical. It was far more debilitating than that. Tonight a looming specter from the past, one that I could live forever without, jumped out of the darkness and got me.
Just before ten p.m., I was 3.5 miles into the run, cruising easily down St. Clair, a well-lit, street with no potholes or dark places and not much traffic. The street runs behind Huntsville Hospital, just south of downtown. I normally enjoy that stretch, but tonight I didn’t enjoy it at all.
A block before I got to the second of three traffic lights, immediately behind the hospital, I saw a family, walking to their car, stop for the traffic light. There was no traffic noise to speak of, and I could hear the father talking to his wife, and a young boy of eight or nine, who I guessed to be his grandson. It was easy to hear the man because, not only did he look like James Earl Jones, he sounded like him. Though I couldn’t distinguish his words, I could hear love and concern in every one of them. He moved with elegant grace, his arm around his wife, his hand resting easily on her waist. I imaged he was concerned about someone they had visited in the hospital, and I knew he was reassuring his family in a moment of crisis.
He reached out and pushed the button that controls the traffic light. When he did, he saw me coming down the street. He turned back to his grandson and his wife and continued talking. A casual glance at the way the family was dressed confirmed what I’d already picked up from hearing him talk, they were both successful and well educated. For a moment I was proud to just share the street with them, and if I could have shouldered some of the man’s concern, I would have. When I was just a few paces away, I said, “How are you doing?” The man didn’t turn toward me; I suspect he’d already seen enough of me seconds before when he glanced in my direction. His shoulders slumped a bit, his James Earl Jones persona slipped away, and the voice of field hand from a hundred years ago responded to my question, “I’s jest fine, Suh.”
I dropped my head and kept moving, ashamed to be an old white man, ashamed that my ancestors did something to his ancestors, or condoned something that was done to them, that all these years later makes him believe it’s necessary to pretend I’m better than he is. I am deeply ashamed of that, and of the fact that everything I’ve done to change that hasn’t been enough, not nearly enough.