I woke up groggy, feeling the jet lag from the previous nights travel. It was an adventurous ten days in Hawaii, but now it was time to head back to the East Coast. At the time, I was glad we stayed the night at the LAX Sheraton. Back to back six hour flights are rough. I forced myself out of bed and made my way to the third floor lounge to get a cup of coffee and bite to eat. Maybe it was the coffee talking, but I was excited! At the end of the day I would be back home in New Jersey. Little did I know that the excitement I felt would soon vanish.
My younger sister and travel roommate, Lauren, comes to breakfast about an hour later and my parents are not too far behind. We crack a few jokes, and reflect on how fun the vacation was. A successful family trip indeed. All we had to do now was catch a shuttle to LAX.. After all that we did the past ten days, this would be a cinch, I thought.
As we finished breakfast Lauren excused herself and left for the room. I was is in no rush, I knew we had another thirty minutes before we left and I was all packed up. Shortly after, my mom and dad got up to leave, so I decided to walk with them. We couldn’t have been more than a few minutes behind Lauren. We took the elevator to the fourth floor. My dad had a poor sense of direction for as long as I can remember, and upon exiting the elevator he went the wrong way. My mom and I follow him, since his voice oozed with confidence. We went down the wrong hall. Shocker. When he tried to take us down another hall, he again went the wrong way. Luckily I didn’t trust him twice. My mom and I chuckled as we watched him try to make sense of the hallway.
I found the right hallway, but when I reached my room, I realized something was off. My door was cracked, and my intuition immediately suspected something was off. I traveled with my sister a good deal; I know her tendencies and habits. This was unusual. Regardless, I pushed open the door, and, to my surprise, felt resistance. The resistance wasn’t strong. It felt like trying to open your bathroom door but with a towel on the floor, bunching up and jamming underneath the frame. Maybe I placed a suitcase by the door, I thought. Yea, that’s probably it. I pushed harder this time, but to my dismay, the door pushed back. Now it was completely shut. The anger and frustration took over and as I put my key in the door. I pushed as hard as I could, planning to knock out whatever is behind this inch and a half piece of wood. My force was felt and I busted through; however, what I saw next had my heart in my throat.
Standing before me was a middle aged African American male. He stood behind my door, looking bewildered. My first thought was Lauren. Was she safe? I quickly looked left to the bathroom and saw the lights on and the door shut. I immediately called to her to see if she was in there- and most importantly- alright. She replied with a casual and reassuring “yea.” The man looked frazzled, his voice almost trembling as he stammered out, “oh my bad man, I must be in the wrong room.” He repeated this line twice. I just stared at him and nodded my head. For one of the first times in my life, words escaped me.
We looked at one another. Our eyes seemed to be locked for what felt like hours. Face to face- just staring at each other. Both of us trying to make sense of what was going on; trying to size up the other person’s next move. It was strange- I had no inclination to harm the man. Instead of rage, I felt shock, but more so curiosity. My sister was safe- this I knew. But I couldn’t read the man. I’m quickly processing his words, his body language, while also analyzing his tone. I teach a course on the art of nonverbal communication. I was stumped. His body language was not aggressive; on the contrary, he looked ashamed- possibly even sorry. He knew he had no business being in my room. That was clear. But when he said sorry, and passed it off as an honest mistake, I didn’t believe him. I don’t believe you just end up in someone’s room ‘by accident.’ Especially not on a Saturday morning. He pushed my door shut. He did his best to keep me outside- and to keep him safe and secure behind my door. In my fucking room! Thank God I had my key.
By this point he’s frazzled. My father then rolled up behind me and my mother popped out of her room. There we were, the three of us together. All we were missing was Lauren..
I stood between the man and his escape. He again apologizes, and makes a move to get past me. We brush shoulders, he makes right down the hallway, and is gone. I don’t really bother to see where he went; I was just trying to get my head to stop spinning. Did he steal anything? Was Lauren truly alright? How the hell did he get in my room? All of these questions were running through my mind, as I stood there, baffled.
We immediately checked to see if anything was stolen. I opened one of my bags. Everything was there. I then remember that I left my wallet right on top of the dresser by the door. I open it up thinking all of my cash would be gone. Nope. The $100 I took out at the airport the night before was still there. By this point Lauren comes out of the bathroom wondering what the hell was going on. Luckily she had no idea that she was alone in a room with a man looking for something. What he was looking for was something I wasn’t sure of. Did he follow my little sister, hoping to do something to her? Maybe he was lurking through the hallways, looking for a room to hit quick, grab anything with value, and roll out. No one will ever know, but these questions kept running through my mind. All the “what ifs.” Just like any situation where you feel as though you dodged something life altering, you can’t shake it and continuously wonder what could have been. That’s how I felt.
My dad called the front desk to report what happened, but when they asked if anything was stolen, or if anyone was injured, he replied, “well no, nothing was taken and we are OK.” They couldn’t do anything. Technically, nothing happened. Just a man who claims he was in the wrong room. I couldn’t prove that he wasn’t.
The truth can be hard to come by sometimes. My instincts tell me this man was looking for something, but I will never know if he wanted something materialistic, or something more with my sister. That thought sends chills down my spine.
I stood in my room, stuck in my imagination. I played out countless scenarios again and again without any relief. The adrenaline was still running through my body. I felt uneasy. In some ways I believed this man. Maybe in some strange scenario he was in the wrong room. I tried to empathize with him. Here was a man who could have stole my wallet, with my cash, credit cards, and most importantly my ID. I would have been stranded in Los Angeles for who knows how long. Worst of all, he could have tried to force himself on my little sister. However, when it was all said and done, nothing happened.
I kept thinking of his eyes. They evoked emotions that made you feel sorrow when you looked through them. The empty, glazed stare won’t leave my mind. The deepness and darkness of those bloodshot eyes; the sadness and pain they seemed to convey. His body language and tone seemed genuinely sorry and ashamed. Eyes cast towards the ground, head tilted down, shoulders slumped, with his arms limp. Everything about him seemed lost. Maybe that’s because he was lost- not just in my room, but also in society.
Society passes judgement on African American males far too frequently. That’s one of the reasons why there is such a disparity in incarceration rates between white men and men of color. I fought the urge to pass judgement. I fought hard to resist racial stereotypes. The man in question looked to be in his mid forties, with loose cornrows, baggy pants, boxers showing, and a hoodie. Not to mention a backpack.
He would have easily fit in with all of those men on the cover of Kendrick Lamar’s album cover To Pimp a Butterfly. This judgement that we unconsciously pass onto others is something Kendrick hoped to shed light on with his album cover: “You look at these individuals and you look at them as bad people or a menace to society, but they’re actually good people, just a product of their environment,” he says. “Only God can judge these individuals right here.”
We made our way to the airport and I was still replaying the scene in my head. I’ll never know how things would have went down had my parents and I stayed at breakfast another few minutes. Regardless, I am grateful to have thwarted all the “what ifs” by entering my room when I did. This experience taught me a valuable lesson: Reserve judgement towards other, but also be prepared to act- especially in situations where the truth is hard to come by.