Take My Hand (1999)

Holding that stranger’s hand had been a peak experience. For years I wondered whether I’d ever be given another like it.

TIS THE MORNING past Halloween, and my not-quite-daily jog is underway. Dodging a Twix wrapper, I note that a witch forgot her hat on a nearby mailbox. I am a scant two blocks from home, but in an age when people barely know the folks two doors down, I might as well be from Mars.

Three houses ahead, a tall girl emerges. She is 13, maybe 14. Her overstuffed backpack droops low, hiding her blonde tresses.

A young woman waits for the bus, looking concerned

A young woman waits for the bus, looking concerned

I recognize her. She’s one of three middle-school girls who wait for the school bus to arrive at 7:14 across from her house. Whenever I jog by them, I keep my eyes glued to the road, careful not to speak, glance, blink, not blink, or do anything that might be misconstrued.

Today’s jog-by may be different. Two minutes ago, her bus passed me. A minute later it picked up her two companions. As she slowly crosses her lawn, glancing left, then right, there’s no mistaking her concern: Where is everyone?

I am here. Who am I? Well, 12 hours ago, I was the dad in the white turtleneck who chaperoned five giggly girls as they trick-or-treated. I paced them from a discreet distance, flicking my flashlight every so often to reassure them I was there. Guarding them from predators.

But today I am The Jogger. Potential predator.

Predator, schmedator—I can’t let this girl wait for a bus that’s come and gone.

“I’m afraid you’ve missed it,” I call. She looks at me—our first eye contact ever.

“It came about a minute ago,” I continue. I slow to a walk, wiping my brow with my sweatband.

Her disappointment is palpable. And in a flash, I am transported to an immense parking lot in Georgia, 12 years before. I was at Air Force Plant 6, hiking from my car to the vast Building B-1, where Lockheed built huge airlifters. The hike to the guarded entrance took a good five minutes. From there, you might reach your coffee cup in six.

On that long-ago Georgia morning, a weary-looking black woman ambled up alongside me. “Do you have the time?” she asked, urgently.

I glanced at my watch. “6:57.” Our shift began at seven sharp.

She stopped. “Forget it. Might as well go home.”

“Why?” I asked. “You’ll only be a few minutes late.”

“I’m hourly,” she explained. “If I clock in late three times in a month, I’m in trouble. I’ve already been late twice. I’m better off goin’ home and calling in sick. There’s no way I can make it.”

Who makes these rules?

Instinct took over. “Yes, you can,” I announced with authority. “Give me your purse and take my hand.”

A black woman's hand clutching a white man's hand

A black woman's hand clutching a white man's hand

To my surprise, she did. Her hand in mine, I took off, she an arm’s length behind. We ran like gazelles, flying past Southern white managers as they strolled in, making them glance up from their sports page. When we reached the entrance, each breathless, she scanned her badge along the optical reader. Precisely 7 o’clock.

For me, the encounter was a peak experience. I wondered if I’d ever be given another like it.

But two years later came the horrific hearings into the character and deeds of Justice Thomas. Bam! Taking a strange woman’s hand, or a strange girl’s backpack, became unthinkable.

The following year—1992—I was fired from a Federal job after 11 months. My new supervisor and I had clashed over how I should write Government reports. But beyond that, a series of words I had spoken had been wrongly heard, construed, quoted, or recalled. As a consequence, I had been marked a harasser. Three months later, while visiting the agency, I chatted with a woman from my old department. We used to share encouragement and tips about each other’s relationship. “How are things on the romantic front?” I asked. Without hesitation, she told me. But hours later, she recalled my query as, “How’s your sex life?” She correctly recalled that I’d return on personal business the next day. When I did, security guards escorted me out the gate. My personnel file would be forever tarnished.

In the years following that nightmare, I quelled my urge to connect. If a school bus passed as I was jogging, so great was my fear that I would not lick my chapped lips, lest a witness claim I’d made a salacious gesture. The week I was fired, a female coworker had broken down crying in the hall after receiving a poor performance review. Though painfully aware she needed to be hugged, I walked on.

But not today.

I stop walking. “You know,” I begin, “the bus circles around. It’ll make a couple more stops. If you let me carry your backpack, we might be able to run up the street and catch it before it gets away.”

“No thanks,” she replies.

“Are you sure?” I ask.

“Yeah. Thanks anyway.” She walks back inside; I jog on.

Twelve minutes later I’m circling her street again. As I near her house, a red Ford Explorer pulls out from her driveway. Play it cool, Boy. Avoid eye contact. I can almost hear Mom asking, “Is that him?” Staring straight ahead, the girl replies, “That’s him, all right.”

In two seconds, the Explorer will pass on my right.

What the heck.

I glance through the windshield and smile.

Mom is too busy driving to notice. But from the passenger seat, a pair of black-and-orange braces turns and smiles back.

©1999 Paul Franklin Stregevsky

Note: In December 1999, "Take My Hand" was slated to be published in a weekly guest column that appeared each Sunday in The Washington Post 's Style Plus section. At my request, the editor agreed to hold off and publish it on the Sunday nearest to Halloween 2000. But months before Halloween, the guest column was discontinued.

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