“Excuse me Miss; which way is the Convention Center?”
The man had stopped me on an empty street in downtown Minneapolis on a Friday evening after work. The stranger, whom I quickly guessed was early fifty-something, was dressed in a blue polo shirt and carrying a large umbrella. He had an expensive-looking watch on his wrist.
He was also African American.
I was happy to oblige. I gave directions to the Convention Center and even walked him twenty feet to a corner and pointed. “It’s that large red building past the third traffic light,” I said.
The man expressed his appreciation and then offered, “You’re quite friendly. I’ve been walking around here for an hour and twenty minutes and all I’ve met are rude people. Even police officers and city officials were rude when I asked for directions.”
I wondered why he brought up police officers, but I let the comment pass.
I next heard, “You don’t seem like you’re a Minnesotan. Where are you from?”
Without thinking, I replied, “Iowa.”
“Hawkeye or Cyclone?”
“Hawkeye,” I answered.
He put out his hand. “My name is Randall,” he said.
Once more, I instinctively reacted and shook the man’s hand. “I’m Ellie.”
With that, a request for directions had turned into a conversation, something that was starting to feel both awkward and uncomfortable.
Randall related that he had a bachelor’s degree in something I now can’t recall and that he was in town from Los Angeles. “Back there, people are very friendly,” he said. He went on. “I’ve heard about that Minnesota nice thing, but I don’t think it’s true. Not with the people that I’ve run into here. “
For a second, I considered explaining that “Minnesota nice” actually means quite the opposite of “nice,” but dropped the thought. That uncomfortable gut feeling was getting stronger and I wanted the conversation to end. Still, I didn’t want to be one more rude person to add to this man’s list.
“I’ve been here for six days,” Randall said.
Oh, I thought. Now I get it.
With that, a huge alarm bell went off in my head. In a microsecond, I added everything up: stopped on the street; overly friendly; offering his name and wanting mine; a handshake; and now hearing about how long he’s been in a city that’s nothing like back home. I’ve been here countless times before being panhandled for bus money out of town back to someplace else.
Two and a half minutes after being approached, I reacted.
“Please don’t ask me for money,” I blurted.
In response, I saw something totally unexpected. Disgust. Pure and plain disgust.
“I don’t want your money,” Randall shot back. “I’ve got my own damn money,” he near yelled as he turned and walked away.
At that moment, something else flashed through me: shame. Instantly I understood this man wasn’t panhandling at all. No, he was simply an out-of-towner looking for someone to talk to. Someone to be nice to him.
By the time I realized this, I was already walking in the opposite direction. It was too late to do anything about what was clearly a colossal mistake on my part.
All of this would have been fairly understandable in my mind but for one thing: at noon on that very day, I had stood in front of twenty-five court system people and talked about what it means to be transgender. I spoke about how loneliness is often an outcome of transitioning genders—many trans people lose loved ones and friends because people still don’t understand.
Most importantly, I talked about needing to “go into the grey” where we stop labeling people and instead see one another for exactly what we are: humans. I related that trans people are among the most grey people you’ll find. For folks who think only in black and white, it’s difficult to relate to a trans person.
“The grey is a bumpy place,” I said. “People different than ourselves make us uncomfortable.
Yet, we have to get past the discomfort and be kind to each other,” I lectured, as if I was some kind of self-appointed expert on the human condition.
Six hours later, I wasn’t an expert at all. Instead, I was a hypocrite.
When confronted with the unexpected, I did exactly the opposite of what I’ve been telling audiences for months: I resorted to black-and-white thinking and thought only of Randall as a panhandler. I labelled him without giving it a second thought.
In doing so, I totally overlooked the fact that Randall was simply a human, reaching out to another human, doing precisely what I’ve told thousands of people to do.
And the great Ellie Krug couldn’t even recognize it.
The shame got worse as I drove toward home. Twenty minutes after my life lesson in humanity, I turned the car around and headed back downtown. I drove from corner to corner, looking for the black man in a blue polo shirt with umbrella.
I wanted to apologize, to tell Randall that I’m really a better human than I appeared. Maybe I’d even suggest we get a drink or coffee.
I never found him.
It was a lesson I’ll never forget.
Or so this hypocrite hopes.
Ellie Krug is the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.