This morning (in the summer of 2008, during production on Lake County Juvenile Justice) I drove to Gary, Indiana, hometown of the Jackson 5.
I was scared. Make no mistake, as I crossed Interstate 80/94 on Broadway, the wasteland of Gary decaying before me, my left foot was grinding into the floorboard and my fingers were kneading the steering wheel.
The guardian of my lily white comfort zone was making his appeal: You ought not be here! You stand out like a sore thumb in your rented 2008 PT Cruiser. The rules you are accustomed to do not apply here.
And I drove on. Within the first two blocks I saw that the epithets that had been attributed to Gary in casual conversation—a wasteland, concrete ruin, an arm pit—were all warranted.
I’ve traveled in third world countries, regions torn by war, and I’ve spent lots of sidewalk time in the roughest neighborhoods of New York City during my tenure with their welfare agency.
This tied East New York, Brooklyn for being the worst. For being the sort of place where a cavalier attitude bolstered by the odds against mishap or tragedy dissolves into the sort of naiveté that gets cavalier white boys in trouble.
I swallowed my "good sense" and stopped to take photographs of a derelict BBQ joint. The only person in my midst was a young man at a bus stop half a block away. I pull to the curb. And I wait to see if I am noticed. After a beat, he turns and stares squarely at the PT Cruiser. I decline to succumb to the prejudiced thought that he is concerned with me at all.
He’s just a guy at a bus stop. Perhaps turning to the north to check oncoming traffic, timing the oncoming buses—here comes the A13, the B7 will pull up soon—and I wait for traffic to abate so I can disembark.
When it does, I step out. I close my door. He opens his cell phone, makes a call and walks in my direction. I have an expensive camera slung around my neck. I feel foolish, vulnerable. And yet I admonish myself again for the thoughts that I might be somehow a target, an attraction, an opportunity. Is that common sense, or common prejudice?
I have to cross the street to get the photograph I’m after, but I’m reluctant to leave the side of the car. I use the keychain remote to set the alarm and the car’s horn barks conspicuously, the headlights flash. And he keeps walking toward me until he is on the sidewalk just on the other side of the car.
To hell with this. I unlock the car, get back in the driver’s seat. He’s on the phone now, talking, and when I start the car, pull away from the curb, he pauses. Seems to chat idly, and I don’t see whether or not he returns to the bus stop.
My guardian assures me I’ve done the right thing. My censor admonishes me for supporting the stereotype, for abiding my fear and for the assumptions based therein, that this man noticed me at all, meant me harm or disregard…
When I worked for the HRA in New York, we often strolled neighborhoods not-quite-as-bad as this one, comforted by the fact that most of the people we met thought we were detectives. They assumed it and addressed us, “Afternoon Detective,” and we let the misconception live. We enjoyed the erroneous status and protection it gave us.
In Gary I had no such protection and nothing concrete with which to dissuade my guardian except the desire to not acknowledge the fact that I stand out differently among these desperately impoverished people than I do among my peers, among those who look like I do.
It’s difficult to deny that walking around alone, with my camera, in this neighborhood, might not be the most sensible thing to do. So all of these photographs were taken from the safety of my PT Cruiser. Still, writing that makes me feel like a little bit of a coward, a little it of a bigot . . . but I reckon that’s a fine line down a slippery slope . . .
But that just is.