It is surprising what we find in the margins, those spaces between here and there that we usually just pass through or ignore. In the late 1980s, I lived in one of those spaces, a funky neighborhood in south Minneapolis that was populated by social misfits. One morning—a bright, muggy Sunday, as I recall, when decent folks were either sleeping or at church (or both)—late-period Elvis rounded a corner, wearing a silver-studded, white jumpsuit, owlish gold sunglasses obscuring the upper part of his face. He said nothing, his mouth drawn downward with dejection, an impression amplified by his limp white cape. A second later, another man rounded the corner, a thin, pale, middle-aged black man walking lockstep with Elvis, badgering him, “What you up to, Elvis? Whatta you want, Elvis? C’mon, Elvis, talk to me.” It was such an intimate moment, I had to look away.
But those were good questions. What was Elvis up to? What did he want? Whatever the answers, Elvis wasn’t telling. Sometimes it takes Elvis strolling through a run-down inner city street to remind you how much you take for granted, how you move through life assuming so much about the world, when you really don’t know anything.
For example, just what do you know about those teenagers in the car in front of you? A lot less than you’d think, as I learned a few years ago, when I was pulling into a parking lot at the community college where I teach. I was behind a car with four teenagers in it. We were waiting to turn into the lot, the left turn signal red. When the light finally turned green, though, the car with the teens didn’t move. I waited a couple of seconds. Perhaps they hadn’t seen the light change.
When they still hadn’t moved, I beeped my horn. Clearly they weren’t paying attention. They still didn’t budge, so I laid on the horn a bit longer to indicate my irritation. One of the young men in the back seat turned to look at me. I pointed up at the green arrow. He shrugged. I honked more emphatically. Nothing. Clearly, they were just being difficult because I had embarrassed them. Then, the ambulance sped past in the oncoming lane. I hadn’t seen it from where I had been sitting at the light. They had. I felt awful.
Unlike Elvis, I felt like I had known these young men. After all, I saw them every day in my classroom. Since I was so wrong outside the classroom, I had to wonder how wrong I was inside it. It also got me to thinking about how little I know about the people with whom I’m more familiar. I look at the person across the breakfast table and make all kinds of assumptions about who he is and what he feels and believes. Often, I’m wrong, leading to misunderstandings that, while hardly cataclysmic, could have been avoided. The whole problem, of course, comes from thinking we have to know others, or assuming we already do. It is better, instead, simply to be with them, being open to whatever and whoever they are from one moment to the next, as one would with a wind unfolding in the vast sky.