The two men were neighbors. They saw each other frequently, like today, while out walking their dogs. The white man, Ellis, had a doodle. The black man, Will, had a Lhasa Apso. The dogs had made friends first, and in their turn so had the men. They often stopped to chat for a few minutes about lawn care, the weather, POTUS, what they were watching on Netflix. They used to shake hands, but that was before COVID-19.
“You know what today is?” asked Will.
Ellis paused, then said, “I think you mean, do I know today is Juneteenth?”
Will nodded. “It’s good to be free. My great-grandparents weren’t free.”
“I’ll never understand, not in a million years,” said Ellis.
Both men were silent for a while, letting the dogs get their leashes tangled. Then Will said, “You know, I say I’m free, but I’m not. Not really. Probably not ever. In grand old America, land of the free, black people won’t ever be seen as equal and free to white people.”
“Will, I’m color-blind. I see you as a person and that’s all. A person I like. A person who has a very cool dog.” He reached down and petted the Lhasa. The dog jumped into his arms. The doodle, jealous, wrapped his paws around Ellis’ ankle. Will laughed. So did Ellis, but then he said, “Uh, can I tell you something? It’s about those cops last week. The ones in Minneapolis and Atlanta who gunned black men down. In the back. In cold blood.”
Will was silent. Ellis looked into his face but saw no emotion. Ellis wanted to continue speaking, wanted to share the pain and compassion and grief and fury he felt, wanted to call out those racist cops. He wanted to tell Will what he thought should be done with those cops, but the words got stuck in his throat.
“I know,” said Will. “I get it.”
Finally Ellis said, “I lived in New York for a few years. One evening I was going to visit a friend of mine in Morningside Heights. Have you ever been to New York City? No? Well, it’s a conglomeration of villages, you might say. Morningside Heights abuts Harlem. I was taking the subway and got off at the Harlem stop by accident. I figured it couldn’t be far to walk to my friend’s apartment, which looked out over Morningside Park, so with a bottle of wine under my arm, off I went across the park. I nodded and smiled as I passed by many black people. They smiled back at me, the white stranger in their neighborhood. One guy said, ‘You be careful.’ I grinned. When I told my friend what happened, he was shocked that me and my bottle of wine made it safely. It must have been your smile, he said. I laughed.”
“I so totally get that,” said Will. “That’s freedom.”
“You know what I think, Will? I think this black-white thing is all about fear. There’s so much fear in the air these days. But like President Roosevelt said long ago, the only thing we need to fear is fear itself.”
Will nodded, thought for a moment then said, “I wonder what it would be like in an America where policemen didn’t carry guns.”
They smiled sadly at each other, bumped elbows, and continued walking their dogs.