On Being a Suspicious Character

Had an interesting encounter this evening in the West Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago. I was waiting outside Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church — an African American Lutheran church — to rehearse some music with Minister of Music Sam Widemon. (We’re playing at Resurrection Lutheran’s Worship in the Street next Sunday, and I have asked him to join me at Lion & Lamb Festival.) Sam is an amazing musician, and it turns out, is deeply in love with my music.

But Sam was late. (He called me, told me I was tied up in traffic.) So, I sat in my van, waiting, at the corner of West End and Keeler. Now, West Garfield Park is a rough neighborhood. It was once a very German immigrant neighborhood, from sometime in the late 19th century until probably the early 1950s, when the children and grandchildren of White European migrants — Swedes, Germans, Norwegians, Danes — left for the suburbs. And were replaced, initially, on the south and west sides of Chicago by African Americans.

There’s still the bits and pieces of the old German infrastructure around. Churches with foundation stones and stained glass in German. A few old synagogues now doing duty as Missionary Baptist Churches. While never well loved by the powers that be, West Garfield Park has fallen into decay and disrepair. Abandoned homes. Boarded up apartment buildings that were probably once quite lovely for a working-class neighborhood. The neighborhood lost 25 percent of its residents in the 1990s as folks who could leave did. Leaving behind those who, for whatever reason, cannot leave.

Anyway, there I was, alone in my van. Sitting with my backpack and my guitar (in a gig bag) next to me. I’ve been waiting a half hour when a couple of young men approach the van, and ask me to roll down the window.

“How can I help you, sir?” I ask.

“You go here?” asks one young man, pointing to the church.

“Yes sir, I do. I’m waiting for Sam Widemon, the minister of music.”

He seems to relax a bit. “We know Sam. Okay. But we just needed to check. Trying to keep suspicious characters out of the neighborhood, you know.”

And as they turn away, I notice the second young man has two screwdrivers, which he had been holding behind him. One in each hand.

They hung around the car, at a distance, for about 15 minutes. A younger boy asks me for money, which I say I don’t have. And the other two appear to dress him down for it.

And then they leave.

Over the course of the next 10 minutes, three police SUVs drove by. No one in them even slowed down to give me a second look.

It was an interesting encounter. I was a little bit nervous, uncertain what exactly was going to happen when I was asked to roll the window down. Exactly where things would go from there.

But I also had to appreciate this — I was a lone white man, sitting alone in a non-descript silver van, with something that might have looked like a weapon (my guitar in the gig bag). I was a suspicious character. (I have seen a few white people in the neighborhood, usually folks very down on their luck. The only white people in cars I’ve seen there were either police or there to buy drugs. I have been asked twice if I was there to buy drugs.) I think the young man who spoke to me was sincere, on some level, about what his intentions were. Had robbery been the point, I doubt that my being at Bethel Church would have saved me.

I have to appreciate that I’ve lived a very different experience of race in American than many white people. Largely because I was Muslim for many years, which made me the minority. (I still remember the afternoon, after prayer, when a young boy whose parents were Libyans looked up at me, grasped the side of my head with his small hands, and exclaimed: “Your eyes! They’re blue!”) Among African American Muslims, that made me one of them. I’ve been asked for my slave name (my Muslim name was Omar), lived and worked and prayed in places people who look like me would be too afraid to even think about going into.

Once, I even worked for a member of the Nation of Islam. Which is a fun story that I will tell someday. But not today.

But, I also know that none of this experience is apparent. That no one can look at me and know those things about me. I know that I am no longer Muslim, I no longer dress as a Muslim, and so I cannot be identified as a Muslim in a neighborhood like West Garfield Park. Instead, I am something much less interesting and much more problematic: a white man. And I carry the baggage of all that means in a place like Chicago.

(This ability to easily slip between worlds, to know that the rules of American race don’t really apply to me anymore because I have joined a community of people who have generally seceded from them, is one of the things I miss terribly about not being Muslim.)

I don’t focus so much on my safety (though I never try to do anything too careless of stupid), but rather what my presence — and who I appear to be — means for those around me. I do not want to be an attractive nuisance in a neighborhood like West Garfield Park, do not want to be the reason someone else gets themselves into trouble. That way of thinking about one’s own personal safety then makes it a way of thinking about others. I find it helpful. But then I have a very unique set of experiences on this. A very unique perspective.

I’m still not sure what today was about, what my meeting with the ad hoc neighborhood watch committee on Keeler meant. I find myself wondering what would have had to happen for the whole encounter to have gone badly. I do not know who the young men were, what their interest was. For a moment I was a suspicious character. I do not wish to speculate.

But for a moment, I was a suspicious character.