There’s this little dead end near my neighborhood, a little nowhere circle, with no houses around it. The only thing it’s good for is turning around, so I walk there and then walk around the circle and head back home.
But tonight, there was a police car parked on the wrong side of the road just before the circle. It made me nervous, because the only reason for a car to be there is if the driver is waiting for something or someone, and I’ve never seen a car there before.
I told myself it was silly to not want to walk to the circle just because there was a cop car there. Just ignore the car and do your thing, I told myself. But I didn’t want to. So, looking all the while at the Pokémon Go on my phone screen, I crossed the street and started walking back toward home.
I’d made it to a parking lot when the police car moved, slowly, slowly heading toward me, pausing. I stopped walking and kept looking at my phone, tracking the slow movement and then the pause of the car out of the corner of my eye. The car was moving so slowly, and then it drove past me, only to then pull in at the other end of the parking lot, pause, and then turn around and exit the parking lot back in my direction, so as to drive past me again. Fine. Fine. Fine. I will look at you.
The car drove past, and I looked at the driver. The police officer was a black woman, and she smiled and waved at me. I waved back, but weakly. I felt exposed—her wave meant that she knew that I felt uncomfortable. How did she know? I had treated her car the same as I would have treated a regular car . . . but that’s when I realized it. It wasn’t that I had treated her car and its invisible driver the same way that I would have treated a maroon SUV. It was that I had treated her car and its invisible driver differently than she was expecting a middle-aged white woman in the suburbs to react.
And then I thought about her, what it’s like for her to be the invisible driver in the cop car. I know the signaling that white people do, that conservatives do—the ways of creating an in-group of shared values. Probably being a cop in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is a lot like being in the military. At graduation every year at my university, the audience goes apeshit with applause every time it’s announced that a graduate will be serving in the military. A couple of months ago, a woman with whom I made idle chitchat while waiting for an appointment told me her son was in the Marines and then paused. I knew I was supposed to thank her for her sacrifice, but I didn’t, because the ritualized performance of pro-militarism in this city depresses me, and I didn’t want to participate, even in a small one-on-one moment with a person I would never see again. I imagine that when one of these nice people—people who cheer the loudest for the veterans in the Three Rivers Parade, people who spit at the name of Colin Kaepernick and have Blue Lives Matter signs hanging in their living room windows—sees a police car, they smile and wave, or at least do that friendly nodding thing. And then she drives by, and they see her. I wonder how many times she’s seen a smile freeze and die.
She wanted me to see her, though I don’t know exactly why. Maybe it was for her—maybe the people who feel nervous when they see a police car idling for no particular reason are the same people who will give her a real smile when they see her. Or maybe it was for me.