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Walking while white.

By PETER KNOBLER.

I WAS WALKING on Washington Square West in New York City at midnight sometime prior to the curfew, taking my life in my hands, eating a messy falafel/baba ganoush sandwich out of a paper bag. I know the Park is safe after dark, but because I grew up in the neighborhood and can recall the decade when it was not, I had decided not to cut through. The sandwich was delicious.

Occasional NotesI heard footsteps and could feel a looming presence behind me, but I was hungry and I couldn’t eat this thing properly while moving. I stopped to take a bite, bending at the waist so as not to get tahini sauce on my jacket.

“Hey!”

A deep voice to my left. I turned around, both hands to my mouth, and saw a large 30-something black man in a hoodie. I’m a 73-year-old white guy. Still bent, I looked up at him, ready for anything.

“You okay?”

I took one hand off the sandwich and waved. “I’m good.”

A couple was standing under a lighted apartment building canopy in front of me. “He bent over,” the man in the hoodie told them. “I thought he was in trouble.”

They nodded. “Thought he was having a heart attack,” he said. I went from feeling perhaps under siege to finding myself fully under protection. What a friendly New York moment among strangers.

But my own bias, while unintentional, was both obvious and worrisome. The man in the hoodie was being a good Samaritan. I was being an idiot. I like to think of myself as relatively youthful, a continuing athlete, and maybe I’d bridled because I’m a guy who doesn’t need an elbow to cross the street, certainly one who can walk without falling down. Not an old man.

But there was the element of race that I could not ignore. At least I owned up to it. I think of myself as a progressive, but we all carry our culture with us. Would I initially have felt less apprehensive, and ultimately less warmed, if he had been white?


Peter Knobler is a writer living in New York City. He has written bestselling books with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Carville and Mary Matalin, Gov. Ann Richards, Hakeem Olajuwon, Mayor David Dinkins, and Tommy Hilfiger, among others. He is the journalist who discovered Bruce Springsteen (an account is here). Knobler is currently collaborating with former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton on a memoir about the 50-year arc of policing in America.

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