so white right now

by: Tara Ruttenberg

"hop in and drive" he said, coming around to the passenger side before i could get my bearings, the red light about to turn green in front of us informing my split-second non-decision outside the Old Town trolley station. i hopped off the curb and onto the street, throwing my backpack in the backseat before climbing in behind the wheel.

...i guess if i was getting kidnapped i might as well drive myself there. most likely at gunpoint. death by Craigslist my chosen way out.

i pressed for the clutch that wasn't there, challenged to find the shifter thingy, the automatic transmission unfamiliar in Tony's forest-green 1998 Honda CRV with 148,000 miles on it. the clean, empty interior stank like cigarettes. i kind of liked it.

no doubt in my mind, this car was stolen.

puffy black curls hid beneath his Padres hat. i checked myself out in his mirrored sunglasses, worried he was hiding more than just his eyes behind the lenses. i liked the freckles on his broad nose and wondered how much black he was (maybe half, i decided). i remembered his voice from our phone calls that morning, smooth and logical as we planned our meeting. he didn't sound black.

"i'll pick you up from the station," he had said a few hours earlier. famous last words, i had thought, skeptical.

he looked cool, like someone i'd probably hang out with in Costa Rica.

but this is San Diego, i reminded myself. this is the USA, remember? where the color of your skin is never just the color of your skin. and white girls like me don't often find themselves in the company of half-black men like Tony. it just doesn't happen.
and in San Diego, we just wouldn't have inhabited the same social space - ever - let alone be sharing the same breathing room at arm's length, getting to know one another as strangers becoming friends, flimsy armrests our only visible barrier.

this was the rare occasion where the rules could bend, and we could just be there and be different colors like no big deal. as if being different colors wasn't even a thing.

my brain said be scared, this guy is trying to sell you a stolen car or kidnap you and sell you into the sex trade. my brain said that because it had been conditioned to say that, all those scary stories about Craigslist encounters gone wrong, the nightly news pumping fear through our veins.

but the rest of me thought this guy was pretty damn cool, telling me about his American Indian grandfather sundancing in Wyoming, his cousins in Tucson and his deformed collarbone that never healed right from a skateboarding injury a few years' back. i wanted to be skeptical of this sense of authentic connection i felt with a stranger i was supposed to be afraid of. but as he listened to me talk about my life and work and seemed truly interested, i felt at ease. i felt like we had oceans more in common than the white surfer kid who took me out to sushi last night in Encinitas on what might have been the most boring date of all time. and he didn't even pay for dinner.

in the San Diego i knew, there were no black people. here, my friends were all white. and my days were spent surfing on white sand beaches where other white people sunbathed and frolicked with their families, looking up in varying shades of envy at other white people's million-dollar homes up high on the seaside cliffs. i shopped for groceries at Whole Foods where only white people spend their often-not-so-hard-earned money on fancy organic produce. i drank overpriced red wine at open-air bars talking about riveting subjects like landscape architecture and craft beer with other white people listening to black people music we spoke loud to hear eachother over. i went to yoga and drank wheatgrass and rarely ventured beyond the 10-mile radius of manicured lawns, fancy cars, chic cafes and surf shops dotting the Coast highway.

"god it's white here," i remembered complaining to my mom over the phone.

it was so white here we'd leave the front door open and not even think twice.

so white we'd talk about which juice cleanse gave us the fewest heart palpitations. what we'd do on our next vacation overseas. where we'd do mimosas and bennies at brunch this Sunday.

it was so white here i'd leave my bag with my wallet, car keys and iPhone on the beach when i paddled out for a surf.

so white, even, that it would all still be there when i got back.

so white you forget being white is even a thing.

so white, even, that i felt right at home.

safe. predictable. comfortable.

bored. boring.

or drunk. sometimes being drunk made doing white people things really, really fun.

"so what kind of music do you listen to?" Tony asked as i exited the freeway, nearing 10 minutes into our test-drive kidnapping date. we had already covered where we worked, what we did for fun and whether we "burned trees" or not. (me: USD, surfing, and every now and then; him: self-employed plumber, street-skating, and yes, do you want some.) i laughed into my belly. my brain still wondered where he was taking me and if he had a knife in his pocket.

"oh, you know," i said, feigning non-chalance as we pulled into the Walmart parking lot. "i get into a little bit of everything depending on how i'm feeling. usually reggae, or dancehall if i'm out, or anything with a good beat. or i can get into some folky stuff. my parents are old hippies so it's kind of in my blood." he nodded, smiling in his smooth, cool little way.

i noticed my heart had slowed to steady as i pulled into a tight spot in the crowded lot, purposely in plain sight of the shopping center surveillance cameras. just in case. because my brain wouldn't let me not be scared.

a blazing purple low-rider drove past us real slow, beats blaring hot. held-back dreadlocks laid back with a cigarette out the window, staring at me from the passenger seat; soft hair extensions and gorgeous, full lips tapped her neon acrylics on the steering wheel, looking hard. a mom and her daughter walked by speaking Spanish. i hoped they'd think i was mexican. that they wouldn't listen long enough to realize i was just a little white girl, lost in the 'hood.

i had no idea where i was. but this did not feel like San Diego.

not my San Diego, anyway.

"holy shit," i said to myself, coming to terms with my surroundings. "i am so white right now."

i was terrified, my sense of security threatened by difference, everything i was taught to fear playing out in a storybook of news headlines with me as the victim in the you-name-it social tragedy of the hour.

yet, to be honest, i was also a little excited. i was starring in my own accidental adventure, surviving kidnapping car-buying in the multi-racial Walmart parking lot in non-white San Diego. this was some real-ass shit in the heat of broad daylight.

definitely not boring.
not even a little bit drunk.

popping the hood, Tony asked me what my ethnicity was, "if i didn't mind telling him." i was flattered he didn't just leave it at 'white', believing that meant he probably thought i was Latina or something. i fake-examined the engine, pretending to know what i was looking for.

"well my heritage is Eastern European," but my parents are American. thank god he didn't know that meant Jewish.

as Tony pulled the dipstick out of its little hole-thingy, assuring me the oil was clean (like i would have known the difference), our conversation was cut short. our time together neared its end.

"hey Tony!" i heard from across the parking lot, my brain identifying the voice as definitely male and probably mexican. i looked toward the spot where the voice was coming from, a corner near some bushes, a brown-skinned man in baggy pants and a wife-beater tanktop, his car mostly hidden from plain sight. he may or may not have been wearing a bandana.

"pull the car over here, Tony! i've got another customer who wants to buy the car," he said, accent thick.

for some reason, Tony didn't respond. and my inner alarm went off. i walked around to the side where my backpack was, survival mode my saving grace.  

Tony acted natural. of course he did. he was just their pick-up guy, said my brain. he's the cool and collected one, the unsuspecting frontman. and now he knows everything about me. where i work, where i live, where i surf. because he made me feel comfortable enough to be myself and not be afraid.

"come on, Tony," the guy insisted, waving at us. i looked again. there were three of them now, standing in a row in front of a dark blue sedan near the bushes. three little gangster-looking dudes, looking more than ready to tag-team the shit out of me, steal my bag and identity before smuggling me over the border into some shady drugs-and-guns-for-sex dealings in Tijuana.

"so, what do you think?" Tony said, still ignoring the guys behind him. he meant about the car. i grabbed my backpack and shook his hand abruptly.

"it was really nice to meet you," i spoke in a hurry. "but i'm really sketched out right now and i think i'm gonna go." he didn't argue. because what's there to say, really.

"okay," i heard him say after me, when i was halfway across the parking lot, bee-lining it to the Walmart women's bathroom. i didn't have to pee.

hiding out in the strangest of escapes, a place i'd otherwise never be caught dead inside, i washed my sweaty palms in the automatic sink, my face looking pale, wholly convinced i just narrowly escaped the end of my life as i knew it.

i stared into my own eyes as they welled up in self-disappointment, wanting to believe it was my divinely guided intuition, and not my socially ingrained fear-of-other that made me run that day. but seeing myself clearly now, i couldn't see any clear distinction between the two. did my survival instinct kick in because i was truly in danger? or did my fearfully conditioned brain simply choose racism over reason? i'm not sure i'll ever know the answer to that question.

because it only takes a short trolley ride to take the girl out of the white. but it's gonna take a hell of a lot more than that to take the white out of the girl.