A while back in the year just past, we were low on some critical groceries, so a trip to the Jewel was needed. We live close enough to the Madison store that it is walkable in a pinch, but since it was getting late, past 9 p.m., and since I figured to be getting a good number of items, I took the car.

Even at that hour the store was still busy and the lot was fairly full, so I wound up parking in one of its more remote corners. I went in, got the needed items and returned to the car to load it up. By the time I emerged from the store, the parking lot had pretty much emptied out. My car was now all by itself in the corner where I had left it. When I got to it, there was no one anywhere nearby. But when I finished with the groceries and turned around to return the cart, a young man was approaching me.

I was more startled than scared at that point. I just had not seen him come up. He spoke, and I was expecting the usual question I get in those kinds of encounters:

“Excuse me, can I ask you a question?” followed by a request for money. But that is not what he said. Instead, he said, “Excuse me, do you happen to live around here?”

In the best of circumstances, I am never very good at handling random encounters with people I don’t know. I envy people who are good at it, people for whom these are opportunities to learn something about someone.

But for me those situations, in this world, are awkward at best or, going in the other direction, possibly risky. And frankly, at age 62, I don’t welcome being approached in a dark, deserted parking lot by anyone I don’t know, regardless of her or his race, creed, color or place of national origin, a feeling my quick weekly scan of the crime page in the Wednesday Journal does little to moderate. I mumbled that “Yes, I live nearby,” but I kept going with the cart back into the store, where I decided to do a little more shopping. When I came out again a little while later, the young man had moved on.

It was one of those glorious, balmy, breezy evenings we had so many of in the past unusually gorgeous summer. I sat out on the porch for quite a while, thinking the incident over. The young man – a light-skinned African-American, late teens or early 20s – had caught me off guard in more ways than one. The truth is that there was nothing in his manner or tone of voice that was in any way threatening. But the question he asked me did not fit my expectation for the encounter, and I couldn’t think fast enough to decide what its implications were. So rather than responding to it in a way that would allow me to discover what was going on, I basically just bailed.

It seems that ambiguity is a prominent feature of our racial relationships these days. In the famous incident in Cambridge last year was Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., a burglar or just a senior citizen having trouble with his door? Did Sgt. James Crowley go out of his way to give an African-American man a hard time, or was he just doing his job in the most thorough and professional way he knew? Closer to home, we have the curious case of a white high school superintendent who has fallen out of favor with his school board, but whose strongest supporters on that board are its African-American members.

How is one supposed to respond to events when they don’t fit your preconceived views of how the world works? Was the young man I encountered just trying to use a novel way to panhandle me, or was he in a situation where, with just a little better understanding on my part, I might have been able to help him with a problem at no peril to myself? But opening yourself up to the problems of others is another kind of risk.

I am capable of being disappointed when, encountering someone needing assistance, I find myself unable or unwilling to help. I can hear the scoffing now from the Objectivist/Libertarian crowd. I don’t care. I am comfortable in the certainty that the willingness to reach out to someone in genuine need, one on one, is the noblest human impulse.

So I never will know what the young man wanted from me that night. At the end of my thinking about it, I decided that I wished I had at least been willing to hear his story. Maybe next time.

• This white, male letter writer identified himself to Wednesday Journal but asked not to be named because of the “wide range of responses that the sensitive issue of race brings out.” He has lived in Oak Park for 16 years.

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