Nothing concentrates the mind like a verdict — especially a verdict in a bellwether case like O.J. Simpson’s. Or George Zimmerman’s.
I don’t mean to diminish the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death, or the apparent travesty of the law that lets it go unpunished. And I won’t presume to judge the jury, which acted under that law and, I presume, in good faith. I’m just surprised that I’ve only now noticed how the events of that ghastly night in Sanford, Florida echoed another weird night in Boston, Mass. 41 years ago.
The outcome then was very different, since I’m telling the story now. And any profiling behind it was cultural rather than racial. But it’s scary to think how close I may have come to meeting the same ending as Trayvon Martin, when I committed the same sort of trespass he did — and found myself likewise pursued by a neighborhood vigilante and brushed off by a system of justice more attuned to the anxieties of homeowners than the safety of strangers in the street.
I was a couple years older than Trayvon, one of a quarter-million college students who had descended on what was still the insular, often xenophobic city of Boston. I shared an apartment in a blue-collar neighborhood called Brighton that lies between Boston College and Boston University, and tended to favor work shirts, denim overalls and engineer’s caps, clothes no real worker wore if he didn’t have to. My long, unruly hair — still a badge of defiance and disrespectability — would have given me away anyway.
Some good friends lived on the way downtown, a half-mile away by roundabout streets, but much closer if you turned up the cul-de-sac at the next corner and cut — just as Trayvon Martin did — through the open yard of a big house that always seemed dark and empty.
One night, however, a dark sedan pulled into the cul-de-sac just as I was about to take my favorite shortcut. Thinking it might belong to the house I was about to cut past, I turned back to the main street. A block later I noticed that the sedan had also turned around and was now following me. I stopped and smoked a cigarette. The car idled. I approached it; it backed up. I set forth again, and the dark sedan followed.
The driver was a stocky guy with short, dark hair — an Italian George Zimmerman. Was he a cruiser, one of the sad closet cases every guy who hitchhiked at night in those days came to know? Or something more ominous? There was no license plate on the front of the car.
I rounded onto Commonwealth Ave, a busy strip of trolley tracks and student slums. A young woman stood at the next corner hitchhiking (it was a different era). I explained as best I could what was going on, jotted down my phone number (those were the days before guys gave girls their phone numbers for other reasons) and asked her to check for a license number when the car passed her.
Just then another car stopped to give her a ride. “Why don't you come along?” she asked, and I hopped in. The driver turned out to be an acquaintance from school named Neil, who was taking his girlfriend home — across town, to the top of Mission Hill. The mystery car followed through the narrow, twisting streets. After we dropped her off, Neil asked mischievously, “Whatcha wanna do?” and then checked his gas gauge and answered his own question: “Let’s take him for a ride.”
Neil’s car was a muscle-motored Pontiac, and he fingered the wheel like a pool shark caresses a cue. I held on and we roared off through the byways of Back Bay, Brookline, Alston and Brighton. The dark sedan followed implacably. Movies cannot begin to suggest how much fun a car chase can be. At one corner, our little caravan screeched around a police car. The cop kept going in the opposite direction. Once our pursuer pulled up beside us and shouted some gibberish. The only words I caught were “my house.”
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