I’m sorry for reporting you to campus security.
This was September 1989, at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. In the Marshall Dormitory at the north end of campus, where I shared a much-too-small space with two roommates, Sean and Jeremy. (Sean is now the communications director for the Republican National Committee—he had to shave his head on live television last fall after losing a bet he’d made that Mitt Romney would be president. Did you know that? Crazy, right?)
You and I didn’t know each other at the time. I didn’t know anybody, really. Classes had just started that week. I had come to recognize most of the other freshman in the dorm, because we’d all had to show up a few days early for orientation. But there were lots of new faces to me.
The first time I saw you, you were walking through the dorm lobby out to the doors to the Harris dining hall. Marshall, you’ll remember, was part of a complex of six dorms situated around the dining hall. “The ‘Plex,” as everyone called it. It was mid-afternoon, and I was sitting in one of the wooden phone booths against the wall there, where I spent an inordinate amount of time the first few weeks of college, on the phone with my girlfriend from high school. She and I had been largely inseparable that summer, having fallen into the kind of lash-ourselves-together-as-the-world-burns-around-us love that only teenagers are capable of falling into, and it felt like I couldn’t take full breaths without her.
You passed by quickly, taking long, purposeful strides in blue jeans cuffed up high atop big Doc Martens combat boots tied tight with red laces. You wore a black jacket with Jamaican red, yellow and green on the back (I think it might have been a Bad Brains patch?) and square-framed glasses around your notably large eyes, propped on your notably small nose. Yours was a distinctive look on that campus, where the fashion tended towards khakis and suede bucks and Patagonia fleece. Also you’re black, and most of the students at Connecticut College were white.
I remember much of this so clearly because, though I had never seen you in person before, I recognized you immediately. I stopped my conversation with my girlfriend. “Hold on a second,” I said, putting the phone down and peeking my head out to watch you leave. Then I stepped out of the booth and over to a cinder-block column with a blue piece of paper taped to it. It was the same picture that was on lots of pieces of blue paper I had seen that day, taped up on walls and glass doors, tacked to bulletin boards, all over the ‘Plex. It was a picture of you.
“Security Alert” it said on top of the page. There had been a report of an intruder in the dorm the day before, and under your picture (which was an uncanny likeness—this was a very talented sketch artist) was a description: black man, over 6-feet tall, glasses, boots, it even mentioned the patch on your coat. It said to alert campus security if we saw you. There was a phone number.
I went back and picked up the phone. “This is crazy,” I told my girlfriend. “But there’s been reports of an intruder in our dorm, and I’m pretty sure the guy just walked past here.”
“It’s crazy.” My heart was beating fast. “There’s this poster of him. I just looked at it. It was definitely him.”
“What are you gonna do?”
“I guess I have to get off and go tell someone?”
The dorm R.A. name was a senior named Lauryn, who had a vast suite on the first floor where she liked to burn incense. I didn’t like the idea of going and telling her. I’d been to high school, I knew the rules: it’s not cool to narc. And I was new here, I wasn’t sure about anything. I didn’t want to get involved in a whole hullabaloo. On the other hand, I felt the giddy rush of adrenaline. I had seen a wanted criminal. It was job to defend my dorm. Like a hero. In a movie. I rushed to her room. You were getting away.
Lauryn answered her door with a sigh. But her face got serious when I told her my news and she slipped on her shoes.
“Are you sure it was him?” she said, leading me back down the hall to the lobby.
We ran past the phone booths to the doors to Harris. Lauryn pushed them open and scanned the scene. You were long gone. We went back to the picture taped to the column. “It was definitely him,” I said. “He was dressed exactly the way it says, wearing the same coat and everything.”
Lauryn went back to her room and called security. I went back to mine and didn’t hear anything more about it. No one came to ask me questions. The posters came down a few days later.
It was a week or so before I saw you again. Walking back into the dorm with a couple of other students, laughing loudly. I forget if it was that time or a subsequent time when I was with a few of my fellow freshman. “Isn’t that the guy that was on the pictures about an intruder breaking into the school?” I asked.
“Who?” I think it was my friend Todd who answered.
“The black guy,” I said, feeling as guilty as was appropriate. It was becoming clear what had happened.
“Sanj?” Todd said. You two had met, apparently. “No, he’s totally cool. He lives here, on the first floor.”
You lived a couple doors down from Lauryn. Later in the year, Todd and I would come down and hang out in your room sometimes. You were totally cool. Friendly and weirdo-funny and proudly punk rock without being snobbish.
I never confessed. It would have been awkward, and maybe hurt your feelings. But I always wondered: Did you not see those posters? You walked right past them. Did you see them and not recognize yourself? That seems hard to imagine. But then, it’s also hard to imagine seeing a poster like that and making the realization, hey, that’s me! Our brains are maybe not wired to work that way. It’s hard for me to imagine a lot about what it must have been like for you to attend that school. I guess that’s the thing about race, or other people in general—you can’t ever get inside anyone else’s skin. But sitting in your room with you, thinking back on that day, gave me a bummer sort of insight, or the closest I could come to such from my perspective.
Someone sees a black guy walking down the hallway of a dorm where mostly with white kids live, and makes a horrible assumption. A report is filed, posters are made up and the horribleness, the insult, is repeated—who knows how many times before someone realizes the mistake? I hope it was Lauryn, or someone else who brought it Lauryn’s attention, and then campus security’s. I hope the posters were removed without your ever knowing that they were there.
We never got to know each other very well. But you seemed like the type of guy who might have given the situation a sardonic laugh. You’d been at that school for four years. You’d been in America for twenty. It’s sad to think that you might not have been surprised.
The book Public Apology, a memoir based on the Awl column (but made mostly from new, never-before-published material) comes out March 19th through Grand Central Publishing. (Preorder it here!)
Dave Bry has a lot to apologize for.