The other day, I traveled the MBTA to Charlestown for an evening meeting. The prospect of unfamiliar streets in the dark made me anxious. I’m not proud of the vulnerability and suspicions it evoked but, in the spirit of Progressives outing themselves, I offer you my tale.
For most of my life I’ve been largely unbothered by physical danger. I’ve been pretty big, pretty strong, and faster than hell. I always figured that I could outrun danger. Now that I’ve gotten older, that’s not so true.
Recently, I joined a brand new nonprofit board of directors led by a former student of mine. I like the board members, mostly in their early to late thirties. They are bright, alive with dreams and ambitions, and dedicated to making the world a better place—and unabashed in saying so. The talented young CEO, all bright red hair and scrubbed face, looking seventeen at most, had convened a social event. “If we’re going to work together, we should know one another.” Who could argue.
I wanted to go and I didn’t. I like my solitude and my easy evenings with Franny, and I like the liveliness of the young people. I didn’t want to drive all the way into town during rush hour, no less a part of town that I don’t know well. But I had committed to the group so I set out by car, then by subway to Charlestown, once a very tough part of Boston.
As I entered the Allewife station, I surprised myself by thinking that this would be an adventure. There should be nothing to the journey, I assured myself, but I felt a tinge of anxiety. Boarding the train, I felt a little fragile, a little vulnerable as I anticipated the cold and the dark of unknown streets. The vulnerability felt embarrassing, even shameful. For god’s sake, millions of people travel routes like this every evening. Old women and children travel these routes. I soon talked myself out of any serious anxiety but I was vigilant.
I changed from the Red to the Orange Line, careful to go in the right direction. This route was not automatic for me. I sat down and began to read a book on my kindle—James McGregor Burns’ Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom (1940-1945). Within thirty seconds, there was a stentorian announcement by a tall, confident, young Black man.
“Everybody, I need your attention. Don’t worry, it’s just three young Black men who need your attention.”
This sounded like the start of a scene I had witnessed in the movies. It was clear that it would end in robbery, at best, likely in one or two people resisting and getting hurt, and possibly in an explosion of gun fire. Angry young men seeking revenge. Urban terrorists gone wild.
I immediately looked down at my book. Don’t make eye contact, I told myself. Stay calm. See if you can do anything to help matters. Before I could make a plan, the young man continued.
“We are three, young Black men,” the leader continued, “who want to do some dancing for you.”
Are you kidding me! He looked serious but what was in the backpacks that they carried. I continued to look down at my book. Then they began to dance, one at a time, with modest grace and agility; and, at the end of the very brief journey between Downtown Crossing and North Station, they passed around a hat. I gave a dollar, careful not to expose my wallet for too long.
As they left the train, I looked up. Two of the guys had such sweet, young faces. The other looked nervous and drawn, as though he had been dragged along by the others. They seemed a little disappointed at their haul but they were very businesslike, and virtually marched along the station walkway. It was clear that they were going to perform many times during the course of the evening.
The train hurried on and I got off a few stops later, at the Community College station. I tried to activate the GPS on my phone but, of course, I didn’t really know how to work it. In the middle of my frustration, a young man stopped me. “Hi Barry. Fancy meeting you here.” He was the young lawyer I had met at our first board meeting. Together, we walked to the apartment building on West School Street, chatting away about how he was going to build his law practice. I was grateful to have his company