Over Cobb salad and mushroom ragù our youngest son tells us he was pulled over by the LAPD, their guns drawn as they approached his 1994 faded turquoise pickup.
He delivers this news while we are finishing up Sunday dinner at a local French bistro on Green Street in Pasadena, a small town just east of Los Angeles where the wide boulevards are lined with palm and oak trees and former Rose Bowl Queens reside.
I put my fork down, look at him sitting across from me.
“Where did this happen?” I ask.
“On Alameda, right by Chinatown, at 4:30 in the afternoon.”
I know this stretch of Alameda, on the edge of LA’s Chinatown. The tracks of the Gold Line subway looming high above. This is an isolated spot, a cut-through where a young man could be killed and the story never told.
My son looks away like his eyes are being drawn back to an afternoon memory of officers with guns.
“They came up to my truck and asked what I was doing.”
I can only imagine what went through his mind. Did he think of us? Did he remember my departing words, “be safe and I love you,” said each time he walked from my door? Did he think of his father, a teacher at a high school a few miles away from where two LAPD cops have guns pointed at him? I know he must’ve thought of those other Black boys—Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin…gunned down, gunned down, their blood flowing in America’s streets.
“What did you do?”
“I put my hands up. I didn’t want to get shot.”
“What did you say?”
He waits until the waiter fills our water glasses and leaves before he answers.
“I told them I was moving a sculpture from my art show. Then I said, ‘What’s up, dude?’ They were young, young like me, Mom.”
Our son is an artist; his rebellious nature and questioning mind was subdued that afternoon in front of officers with guns drawn. Perhaps it was the “What’s up, dude?” his hands in the air, but guns were put away. My son was told to go on, no ticket written, no violations, only by the LAPD. Somehow his Black body is a threat, his Black body can be violated, his Black body still must bow down, even now…yes’em, master.
The waiter returns and asks about dessert. Crème brûlée, flourless chocolate cake and a raspberry tart.
What does one order when your son is telling you about having guns drawn on him?
“Just two coffees, please,” my husband says. The waiter leaves.
“Were you afraid?” Such an obvious question, but it needs to be asked.
The answer is yes, but now anger and confusion fills the table. His voice becomes louder. His fist comes down near his plate. Water spills and a couple behind us look up. This is what he knows: his white friends never have this happen. They never are pulled over for no reason, lives threatened, their mere existence questioned.
When he was a baby I would kiss him over and over again, telling him how beautiful his dark skin was, it was the best. He believed me and as a boy always thought this skin, his skin, his deep dark blackness, his fine mind were blessings, something to be honored and praised. He now stomps around our home, declaring that young Black men are engaged in an endless battle, “They are trying to kill us, Mom. It’s a war.”
Each death is personal to my boy.
“It’s worse since Obama was president!” he says. “A Black man was president, and they still can do this shit to us.”
My husband says he understands. “I used to get pulled over all the time back in Boston. The cops always said a car that looked like mine was involved in a robbery. I drove a silver vintage 1965 Mercedes. There were no cars like mine.”
The waiter brings the check. A credit card is placed down on a silver tray.
“When did this happen?”
It is now December.
“Why didn’t you tell us then? Why did you wait?”
My son looks at me now.
“Because, Mom, you already worry enough. I didn’t want to scare you.”
So this is what it looks like when you unpack this oppression, this seemingly bottomless pit of racism. He carries the responsibility of protecting himself, of calculating how to walk safely in the world that often doesn’t see his worth. In his America, where he knows his education and class sometimes protect him, his “What’s up, dude?” might have saved his life, this time. He feels he has to shield me from this.
“You should have told us then. Maybe we could have done something.”
These are hollow words, seem empty as they leave my mouth. I wonder what we could have done. Two armed police who left no visible trace. They hadn’t killed him after all, only drawn guns. What harm in that, easily erased, never recorded?
Dinner is over. The table is cleared. We make our way towards the door. The restaurant is more crowded now. The hum of conversations mixed with laughter and a mother soothing a crying baby fill the air. On top of each linen-covered table is a small candle, giving the restaurant a soft amber glow. Most times I would have been comforted by this place, by a good meal out on a Sunday night, knowing we have earned membership in this world of candle-lit dinners, chilled wine, and crusty bread pulled and delicately dipped in seasoned virgin olive oil. Yet, tonight this restaurant with its seemingly polite people dining on carefully crafted plates feels like a surreal tapestry, weaving itself around me as I try to find my way out.
In front of me I see a white middle-aged couple with their adult son. They are laughing. The mother reaches out and rubs her son’s arm tenderly. Clear long-stemmed glasses filled with deep ruby-colored wine are raised in a toast of celebration. The mother glances up at me and smiles. She thinks we are the same, out on a Sunday evening with our grown sons. She looks like someone I could have been friends with once. We would have shared a carpool, arranged play dates, worried over how to set limitations for our little boys while we organized a fundraiser gala for the PTA. I would have been her one Black friend. Yet, we would never truly talk about how my concerns for my little boy might be different than hers. She would never ask, and I wouldn’t reveal the things that divided us. I have no smiles for her tonight, no balm for my own rage. I look away and follow my son’s lead out of the restaurant.
I pause at the glass door, waiting for a moment before stepping out into the night. There are little sparkling white lights strung outside along the restaurant’s wrought-iron patio railing. Beyond the lights, I see my son and husband standing side by side. These two men, one young, the other older, sharing the same American story. My husband reaches up, hugs our son in a deep embrace.
It is winter in this desert. A cold chill sweeps across my face as I step outside. My son puts his hands in his jeans’ pockets. I’m standing next to them now.
“I love you, son,” my husband says.
My boy is lighter now, the dinner conversation behind him.
“Where are you heading?” I ask.
“Over to Echo Park to meet some friends. It’s still the weekend, you know, Mom.” He smiles.
“Okay. Be safe and I love you.”
He grabs me around the shoulder, kisses my cheek and then makes his way down the alley towards his truck.
My husband and I watch as he walks away from us. We don’t say anything, just watch his tall thin frame in black skinny jeans and a blue oversized jacket go off into the night.