We met in the middle of the night in a nearly empty parking garage at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. My boss and I were returning from a weeklong business trip to the West Coast, laden with materials and personal stuff. Our flight landed at about 11:30 PM; it was approaching midnight when my boss offered to escort me to my car.
After picking up loads of stuff from the baggage claim, I rented a pushcart for the trip to my car. You were standing in the deserted elevator vestibule of the parking garage. I assumed that you were among those who scrape together the round trip train fare to O’Hare for your night job of collecting $.25 for each baggage cart you returned, hustling for tips by assisting travelers, or just hustling.
You were a teenager at the time; I’d guess about 16. We didn’t acknowledge each other when we met. I noticed that you wore the uniform of a Black urban youth when you waited for my boss and I to empty my cart so you could claim its bounty. I remembered to put my car keys in my pocket – handy for a quick retreat.
I first heard your voice when you yelled to us, “Hey!” I didn’t argue with my boss when he said, “ Just keep going.” We did, moving a little faster. You moved faster, too, then summoned us again,“Hey!” Once more, I ignored your call. I felt better about having my keys handy and remembered their potential as a self-defense tool from my street safety class. We moved fast, but you moved faster. Your call never changed, “Hey!”
I remember my relief when we reached the safe harbor of my car, followed by fear when I looked in my rear view mirror to see you directly behind my car. It was my boss who first noticed that you were pointing something towards us. I was the one to recognize this object as my briefcase. You were following us to return the briefcase I left in the luggage cart.
I can’t remember the words exchanged in our only conversation. I muttered something like “ Thank you” as I pushed a few dollars into your hand in exchange for my fully intact briefcase. But I will never forget the way you looked at me the only time we made eye contact. It wasn’t with resentment or anger or hostility. These would have been easier to accept than the resignation I saw. Your eyes expressed what you expected. Of course, you’d ignore me. Of course, you’d run away. Of course, you’d be afraid of me. Of course.
I think of you sometimes. I thought of you this weekend. I think of you every year when I listen to the Youth Award Winners from UCAN. Some of these remarkable young leaders look like you. They’ve been labeled. They’ve watched people cross the street when they come by. They’ve lived in danger. They’ve suffered trauma. They’ve been written off before they’ve even started. And, they are determined to prove doubters like me wrong about them.
I hope you’ve had a good life. Like our future leaders from UCAN, I hope that you’ve opened your heart to forgive and give the world another chance. And, if necessary, to give yourself another chance. Because we need you to live the meaningful life you deserve. We need your hope. We need your talent. We need your dreams. We need you to make a future where we do better.