7 pm. It’s dark and chilly, feeling later than it is, in the early-dark way of winter. I’ve been walking for 10 blocks, trying to find the Chinese takeout place that’s 3 blocks from work. I’ve finally figured out I was going the wrong way, turned back the right way, and then overshot by a block. So I’m feeling sheepish as I turn back and walk up the same street I just walked down. I cross the street, both to be on the right side to get to the restaurant and to avoid walking by the same folks hanging out on the sidewalk and looking silly wandering back and forth.
On the corner, there are four tall black men in baggy hoodies. As I walk by, they stare, craning their necks. I avoid eye contact, so I can’t see what their expressions are. It’s dark, they’re big. I keep walking purposefully forward.
Ten minutes later, I’ve got my food, and I step out of the restaurant. One of the men is standing right outside, leaning on a parked car. I make eye contact, and he smiles widely. I’m surprised, and I beam back.
I keep walking, still smiling. The other three men are still on the corner, standing in a huddle, blocking the middle of the sidewalk. As I walk around them, they again lean my way, to see better. But this time I look at them and see that they’re smiling.
“How you grow that?” one asks.
“It just grows there,” I reply.
He tips his head back, in the motion of a laugh. “Tha’s craaazy!” he says, with a smile and a tone of wonderment. He gently backhands his buddy, in a “will you look at that!” gesture.
I chuckle as I keep walking. I look back over my shoulder and smile. “Yeah, it just grows there.”
“Wow!” He nods a few times, smiling.