Unearned distrust of strangers

Medford Oregon is the big boy of southern Oregon.  Like Seattle, it is a central hub for the area.  Only, it’s more like Kent, for those of you local to the 206.  Within Medford, there is a park, called Hawthorne.

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On a partly sunny day, blue sky peeking through here and there and the temperature hovering around 50, I eat my lunch in my car and take in the surroundings.  A teenage couple in the car to my right, coats and winter caps on, connected at the mouth like their lives depend on it.  An obese woman with a head of wiry black hair sits on the edge of the restroom building, doing apparently nothing but sitting.  A man, probably in his early thirties but looking much older, with scruffy facial hair, dirty clothes, big boots and a full backpack lounges against a chain link fence by the baseball field.

Hawthorne has a river through it, and a trail along this river.  It is my intention to get my daily run in here.  Lunch dispatched, I check that the teenagers are still at it (they have moved on to necks by this point, I don’t want to stay for what comes next), and set off.  The park is a little run down, and even though the day is bright, I get a dark and seedy feel as I run the path.  The main building is in disrepair, the fences are bowed, the trees are bare. As I get on the trail a crew of 4 teenagers, all baggy sagged jeans, hats askew and studs on jackets, grin and leer at me.  I have my earbuds in so I don’t hear anything specific, but I catch coarse laughter as I pass them.  I start to wonder what I should do if they decide that they are bored enough to mount their bikes and set after the weird jogging man.  Scenes play out in my mind, highly reminiscent of my CFMVOAT (Current Favorite Music Video Of All Time): Rattle.

Further down the path, about a mile in, I’m breathing harder, and I approach a couple coming the opposite direction on the trail.  The man has white whiskers, a heavy coat, and a large sack on his back.   He looks like he’s been in his clothes for many days.  The woman is dressed similarly, but unburdened.  She holds a cigarette to her mouth and draws deeply as I approach. Homeless, I imagine.  I also imagine they see me in my running clothes, and judge me harshly because I have the idle time to run for the fun of it while they are out just getting from one place to another surviving.  I pass them without incident, but my impression that this area is not welcoming to a random jogger grows.  It is the domain of the delinquent teen, the drug dealer, the homeless.

I reach a good turning point, breathing heavily, and head back the way I came.  Despite the beautiful weather I feel like the trail is full of questionable characters, and I might was well call it a day. I come up behind the homeless couple again, and the man turns as I approach and steers the woman to the side.  He says loudly “Darn joggers, ya gotta watch out for ‘em!”, but he says this with a huge grin directed at me.  I’m disarmed as I thought the couple were going to glower and resent me.  I pull out my ear buds and make a grinning a mock apology back at them as friendly as I can.  As I run past them, I hear him behind me: “Stay healthy, brother!”.

The day is transformed.  The dark, suspicious lens I was seeing everything through is shattered.  Guiltily I realize that I have judged everyone on the way and found them all distasteful and reproachable.  I was creating my own shell of discomfort.

I hope to see the teens again so I can try starting a conversation with them.  My distrust and innate fear of them had me thinking the worst, I would like an opportunity to see what reality is.  Unfortunately they have moved on.  I pass many more people on the trail, and I smile broadly at them.  At worst I receive indifference, but usually a big smile back.

Arriving at the park again I take out my earbuds and walk towards my car.  A rough looking man with gym shorts, high top dark sneakers, a large coat over a dark hoodie, and a winter cap holding down overgrown dark hair is on a collision course with me, his daypack held over one shoulder.  My initial assessment is drug dealer, working his way through the park.  The obese woman on the restroom stoop makes a puffing motion at him, and he veers over to give her a cigarette.  As he resumes his course towards me, I am determined to strike up a conversation, I need to know if my judgment is off, or if there is value to it.

Me: “smoker’s always seem to be willing to help each other out”

Him: (pulls his earbuds out from under his long dark hair) “what?”

Me: “I always see other smokers willing to lend a cigarette.”

Him: “Fine by me, less for me to have.  Gave her my last one.  This park, though.  Man, there’s some scary people in it.  Me included, man, I mean…” he indicates his appearance.

Me: “yeah, I grew up around here, but am back visiting.  Some things change, some things stay the same.”

We talk for a few minutes.  His name is Jesse.  Turns out he grew up around here too, and is recently back.  He tells me a story of living with a friend in Arizona when his friend told him he had to move out on account his friend’s girlfriend was now pregnant and she was moving in.  He threw a dart at a map and found himself in Oklahoma.  While there he met a kid in the army, and one day while he was playing around on his guitar, this kid belted out with an amazing singing voice.  Jesse was insistent that this kid (Kyle) should make something of that. Since Kyle was due to get out of the military in 3 months, Jesse visited very bar and venue in town, got Kyle set up with a band to sing with and ensured he had showcases for his talent.  Now Kyle is performing all over Texas and contacts Jesse frequently to thank him for making this kind of life possible for him.

I thank Jesse for the story, and he goes on his way.  I’m reminded that getting to know people before judging them is a grand thing.

I also discover that on the path someone has taken the time draw in chalk some beautiful designs.  This is no mere scribbling but meticulous shapes and arrangements.  Done with no agenda or payment, just done to beautify the place.

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Is there any better reason for art?

2 thoughts on “Unearned distrust of strangers

  1. You found many beautiful things in Hawthorne park and you had to look past some dirt to see them. That’s wonderful, Korey. You will for sure meet more interesting people by continuing in that way– though it doesn’t hurt to keep some pepper spray in your pocket, just in case.

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