We’d just spent the day at Great Adventure, in New Jersey. It must have been early June, after classes had ended, and before I was due to go to camp. Katie, who’d been my roommate freshman year was driving her VW Rabbit, and Nicki was sitting in the front, playing with the radio. This was back in the early 80s, and we were all under 21.
We’d spent the day at the amusement park, smoking a bat and drinking beer. It was hot, and we’d done all the water rides. Nicki was loud, she liked to have people look at her. Her hair was cut really short, and she always wore her own jewelry, sliver belts and bracelets that looked like chains. She was butch and proud. Katie, on the other hand, was beautiful and small, with dark long hair. She flirted using her dark eyes with boys and girls alike. I was the quiet one. When I smoked I got even more quiet.
Around five pm we decided to head home. Nicki and I planned to stay over at Katie’s, in Westchester. The traffic going over the GW bridge was bad. Right before the tolls, the car gave out. First the air-conditioning stopped, then the radio, then the car. Katie popped the engine, and heavy steam rose up. We had a water bottle in the trunk, and used it all. Other cars were honking their horns at us, people were stuck behind us and they were yelling. Tempers were short. But soon the car started, and we crossed the bridge.
On the Henry Hudson Parkway, somewhere in Harlem, the car gave out again. Katie was able to pull over to the median – on the left side. It was a desolate area, with no real access from the city just inside of the highway, and the gravel was full of litter and dust. We didn’t know what to do. We thought about getting out and walking to try and find a telephone, but no-one wanted to walk around alone, and no-one wanted to stay in the car alone. We didn’t have much money – we were college students and we’d basically spent everything at the park. It was very hot. No music, no air. There weren’t too many cars passing by – it was almost surreally quiet for the city. Nicki tore out a piece of paper from her sketchbook and wrote WATER on it, and held it up to the car window.
Suddenly, a car passed us slowly, and then pulled up in front of us. It was a big old car, a tan sedan. Dented and dull, it looked like it might break down. There were four black men in the car. I was scared. I thought, “this is it.”
Katie says, “Stay in the car.” Nicki just looks out the window as the driver gets out and opens the trunk. He reaches in and pulls out what looks like a huge water bottle. Nicki gets out while Katie and I look at each other, still nervous. All of a sudden Nicki is hugging the driver. He’s her cousin, his name is Tariq.
So we all get out of our cars and introduce ourselves. Tariq comes over to see what’s wrong with the Rabbit, and one of the other men offers us some soda. They are worried about three young girls alone on a desolate highway, and want to make sure we are all ok.
Ok, so I really thought I was going to die, but nothing happened at all. So this is a fake near death experience. And yes, to my horror, my fear at four black men is racist. Nicki, who is black, was also scared (under the circumstances – distressed neighborhood, twilight, no people around – I think many people would have been) but that doesn’t excuse my bigotry. I don’t think of myself as prejudiced, but obviously I have some unconscious biases. I guess knowing is the first step towards changing.
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To find out about your unconscious beliefs, check out Project Implicit. A program at Harvard University, Project Implicit blends basic research and educational outreach in a virtual laboratory at which visitors can examine their own hidden biases. Project Implicit is the product of research by three scientists whose work produced a new approach to understanding of attitudes, biases, and stereotypes.