The evening before the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday, I dined with my friend William. We met in the bleachers at our sons’ high school games. He is about 45, medium build and black. If I were politically correct, I would use the term African-American, but I am not.
We were going to the latest cool restaurant in Fashion Island. He fetched me at my place in north Laguna in his luxury SUV. In CdM, he stopped for two little old ladies at a pedestrian crosswalk. We were in the slow lane. The little old ladies tottered from our lane to the next to the next to the next. Finally they stepped, slowly, onto the far sidewalk. Only then did William resume.
He saw my curious look. “It’s the law. You have to wait until they’re on the far sidewalk,” he said.
My reply. “Yeah, but that’s stupid. They were three lanes away.”
He laughed like I was stupid, and replied, “Let me show you something. Retract your seat until no one can see your head.”
I did but left enough room to see outside. William passed midtown CdM and drove aggressively, but below the speed limit and in the slow lane. A police cruiser soon was on our left. The officer kept glancing over. His head was like a swivel: look forward, swivel to William, forward, William, swivel, forward…
William said, “Now sit up.”
Two beats. A swivel. Now the officer saw one black guy and one white guy. A double take. One more. Then the cruiser accelerated past.
We arrived at dinner and the episode receded from the conversation. But the incident reminded me of a similar experience by a black employee.
My company bought a portfolio of 128 defaulted home loans in 16 states. We thought we could work with the borrowers, give them breaks and after “seasoning” the loans, sell them at a profit (we were wrong, but that is another story). I hired an experienced mid-40s loan originator-administrator to visit the homes and connect with the borrowers. That he was black seemed irrelevant.
For a month, he traveled through 10 states. He drove a late-model rental car, staying to the freeways and using cruise control set 5 m.p.h. under the speed limit.
He thought that might protect him, but police stopped him seven times. He wore professional clothes and kept a business card and work papers on a clipboard, which he would hand the officer along with the usual ID. Almost always the immediate question was, “Where are you staying tonight?” If the intended town was nearby—and this is not an exaggeration—he invariably was told cities in far places were better.
He also received three speeding tickets: Louisiana, Wyoming and Ohio. Twice he told the officer he had been driving under the limit by using cruise control, which made the officers more aggressive. In Louisiana, he was afraid to mention cruise control; a night in jail was not on his agenda.
I flashed back to William and asked, “Have you ever driven across America?”
He did not laugh. “Are you joking? I wouldn’t make it through two states.”
Now I was intrigued. Can a black man drive across America from California to Washington, D.C., without being arrested?
We clicked on our map apps and posed hypothetical route scenarios. Obviously, you could not go across the South, but how about going north to Oregon and Washington state, thence across Wyoming? Nope, free range Cheney hunting territory. No, not there.
What about across central Arizona? Nope. Sheriff Arpaio territory. Nevada would be okay if you drove a nice, but not too fancy car, but then would come lily-white Utah. Nope, not there. What about through southern Arizona (very slowly), then New Mexico (an okay place), then Texas? No way, you would not make 20 miles in Texas.
What about getting to New Mexico, then cutting north to Colorado, thence through Kansas or Nebraska, then Iowa, then skirt the Great Lakes and cut back down through the eastern states to DC. Okay, if you did all that, then maybe. That route might be safe for him. Maybe.
There is a lesson here and I honestly think most locals do not get it. If you are a black man in the northern suburbs, including
OC, you wear suits. You are low-key. You ignore insults. You do the OC version of the southern shuffle. You want no one to notice you, because usually that leads to bad things. And if you ever show any temper, you are called a thug—and yes, by that I mean the N word.
So don’t drive here while being black. Excuse me, African-American. But what do I know? I’m white. I’m exempt.
Michael Ray grew up in Corona del Mar and now lives in Laguna Beach. He makes a living as a real estate entrepreneur and is involved in many non-profits.