Maggie, our little squirrel-menacing terrier, sometimes is my sounding board when my wife is away on business.
She’s a particularly attentive listener, and she seems always to agree with my point of view, or at least has the good sense not to contradict me. Most likely she’s actually thinking I’m about to slip her some stinky cheese or take her for a walk, but I’m not above self-delusion when it suits my needs.
My most recent monologue with Maggie — it’s always a one-way conversation — came while Beverly wasn’t away, but was inside the house making salad while I was outside firing up the grill.
It was prompted by a seemingly benign incident an hour or so before.
There’s a lovely Japanese lilac tree in front of the house, and it was badly in need of a drink. I was using a hose to soak the ground around it when I noticed an African-American woman coming down the walk from perhaps a block away.
Half a block closer to me, she suddenly darted across the street. She passed by me — quickly and from the safe distance of the other side of the street.
I was briefly tempted to holler, “Hey, I only spray people when they’re asking for it!” But her expression convinced me she wasn’t looking for conversation or a joke.
Maybe that’s why she crossed the street, I said to Maggie. Maybe she just wasn’t in the mood for socializing. Maggie blinked wisely.
Yes, that must be it. I’m sure she didn’t cross the street just to avoid me. I’m not scary. At least I don’t think I’m scary. Good grief, I was wearing shorts and flip-flops and watering a tree. It had to be obvious I wasn’t carrying a weapon or lying in wait, and I surely couldn’t chase her very far, not in flip-flops. Maggie was losing interest, her attention now divided between me and a foraging squirrel.
It didn’t matter. I had convinced myself that the incident had nothing to do with me.
But, there was an underlying disquiet.
Had I done the same thing in the past? I remembered myself crossing the street in a different neighborhood to avoid a trio of young black men. Why did I do that? Were they dangerous looking or was I just reacting to my subconscious?
Years ago, when I drove through Arbor Hill in Albany with my children in the car, and I hit the automatic door lock, that was just being careful, as I explained to my kids. “There’s a lot of crime here,” I told them.
I’m not prejudiced, I assured Maggie, who was no longer listening. She does not have an unlimited attention span, and the squirrel was clearly defying her.
She took the bait, and I was now talking to myself.
Here’s my difficulty. If I would cross the street to avoid a trio of African-American youths, why should it surprise me that a black woman would cross the street to avoid a white guy?
If I automatically lock the car before I drive into a largely African-American neighborhood, why wouldn’t a black woman be fearful as she walked through my neighborhood?
Is it possible to shed the stereotypes that are ingrained in us as children? Would that we could all be like Maggie to whom a squirrel is a squirrel, no matter what color its pelt.
I don’t have any easy answers, but I have hope — hope that succeeding generations will get it right.
Irv Dean is the Gazette's city editor. Reach him at P.O. Box 1090, Schenectady, N.Y. 12301 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.