The other day I was on my way to class, or to the library before class. I had outlines to review and offer feedback on. I was thinking through the first level of my feedback. I was rotating that with the initial sermon prep that starts in my head, rising and falling from my head to my heart, before I start studying passages or writing throughts. I was in Evanston, headed to library to work, coming from the Red line.
I had just passed the building that used to be Blockbuster. In front of an antique shop and a Thai restaurant, a guy stops me. I had seen him with his bicycle at the light. He was taking up the sidewalk, turning the bike around. I was hoping whatever he was doing would get done by the time we crossed paths. I have a rule when I’m walking: I don’t like to stop. I cross the green-lighted intersection in order to keep stepping. If I’m walking, I’m, well, walking, not stopping and waiting for a light to change. Me and this guy pass each other; we make eye contact.
Having grown up influenced by really polite people, I have another thing about eye contact on the street: if I make eye contact, I speak or nod or smile or acknowledge the contact. The guy takes my nod (only a nod because I didn’t want to say anything since it’d possibly prevent me from walking) as an invitation. He says something as we pass, and being the nice man that I am, I pause to hear him. I thought he’d ask me for directions. I am asked for directions in literally every city I’ve been in as an adult. I’m used to this. Directions to a restaurant, to a hospital last week, to the King Drive exit off of I55, a week before that.
I do not understand this. Perhaps there is an invisible-to-me sign that says “Ask Me For Directions.” It even happened to me in Vancouver, a few minutes after I arrived at my hotel. And I didn’t look Canadian. I was dressed like Chicago, south side, like I prefer to look when I travel. But the man on Chicago Avenue in Evanston wasn’t asking for directions. He was saying something about Lake Forest. Even though I heard him, I asked “what?” Like, What? He says, “Have you ever been to Lake Forest?”
When he asks this, my mind start travelling back to all the strange things I’ve heard people say. Many of them have been in church. I’ve heard my share of crazy phrases on the street. I was answering the man, shaking my head, when he said something about Lake Forest, something I ignored. I turned slightly to look down my street. It settled upon me that I had stopped walking, that the light was green, that I was listening to a stranger go on about a municipality I’d never visited. I turned back to him with the look that says “That’s cool, but I gotta go. You were headed somewhere, in a different direction. Let’s wrap this up.” It’s a slight turn of the eye, a sigh or a long exhale, accompanied by quick glances in your preferred direction of travel. It can also be multiple pullings up of the wrist if you wear a watch or yanking out a cell phone and looking at it before apologizing with your eyes and turning away. Before saying “okay,” I dropped my eyes and turned toward my destination. In the distance, blocks down and beyond a corner I couldn’t see around.
His last words were how Lake Forest can be seen as an exclusive place. Then he said, “But if you put in a little more effort exclusivity can be a good thing.” Those were his words. I wrote them down later to keep them. They stuck out the way my boy’s teeth did when they first appeared–wierd, out of place, unusual.
I added his comment to the list of strange words I’ve heard. I thought about the gentlemen in Medellin who told me it was good to see me again even though we had never met. He had dreamt of me. He was a very spiritual man so it started to sound better when he got to the God talk part, but before that, it was simply odd. In Evanston, I had no idea what the newest man meant, what way he was connecting his language. I half thought he was out of his mind. Of course, he probably considered the same about me.