I took a stroll the other night to the songs of cicadas, punctuated every now and then by a chorus of nightbirds, with scattered amens from barking dogs.
Overhead bats fluttered in nervous orbits around streetlights, but never too close for comfort.
Occasionally, a plane would wink its way across the sky, trailed by the muted roar of its jet engines.
There is something soothing about the soft sounds of a warm spring night, as if God gently laid a blanket over the noisy bustle of the day.
That is, until an SUV hurtles by and someone (actually more than one person) sneers something loud and unintelligible at you.
I couldn’t make out the words. But the tone was clear.
They weren’t wishing me a restful evening.
As for what I had done to invite a jeer from a carload of strangers?
So far as I can tell, nothing.
I simply happened to be there, walking on a sidewalk, in a part of town I’ve lived in for 25 years.
But that, it appears, was enough to earn their scorn or ridicule or whatever this was.
You could chalk it up as an isolated incident.
If it hadn’t happened at least half a dozen times before over the last few months.
The pattern has become all too familiar.
I’m walking, minding my own business.
And for a reason I’m still struggling to understand, that seems to bother some people.
So they jeer and taunt and heckle.
All of the incidents have occurred after sunset, except one.
During one of my morning jogs a vehicle cruised past on a quiet residential street, and its occupants yelled something.
I wasn’t blocking traffic. Whenever I’m running, I try to be respectful of motorists. I was toeing the curb as I usually do.
So I waved and yelled back, “Have a good day!”
With more than a little bit of sarcasm.
Also, in every case I have been alone, except for the one time my wife was with me.
Write me off as “a snowflake” if you will.
But is a quiet walk after sunset too much to ask?
Are these what they call “micro-aggressions,” as in acts of racism inflicted by a thousand tiny cuts?
To be honest, I don’t know.
So far as I can tell (but I’m not entirely sure) the hecklers have been white and you may have noticed by now that I am not.
I say “so far as I can tell,” but it’s hard to know for sure. They’ve “sounded white,” but this is the South. So it’s neither smart nor easy to think you can tell someone’s race by voice alone. Drawls are us.
In only one case did I see a white face for certain.
Nor have I been able to make out what is being said.
But the incidents do recall my childhood, when walking while Black in certain parts of Greensboro guaranteed being called names from passing cars and or being told I needed to be somewhere else. Or else.
And those were clearly racially motivated.
The nicest thing they called me was “soul brother.” The worse was, well, you know.
Those days are past … at least mostly they are. I think.
I can’t say the more recent incidents have frightened me. The vehicles don’t stop or even slow down.
They could be groups of bored teenagers.
Also, six times in five months isn’t a lot.
But isn’t once too much?
And what are the odds that it would happen to me even that often?
The setting is also odd: the leg of Regents Park Lane that snakes through Lake Jeanette in Greensboro, a reasonably integrated community where most people seem friendly.
In fact, when I’ve encountered other pedestrians and runners, as well as cyclists, they’ve tended to be people of all kinds of hues.
So, what gives?
In any case, the taunts are jarring and aggravating.
For me, walking almost creates a meditative state for me. It soothes my soul and refreshes my spirit.
Being interrupted by passing hooligans, well, just because, does not.
Could it be that I’m just unlucky and this is merely a series of unfortunate coincidences?
Which is to say I could be wrong about who has done this and why.
I certainly hope I’m wrong.
But what I hope more than anything is that the next time I decide to take a walk at night, I’ll be allowed to go in peace.
Allen Johnson is executive editorial page editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., and the Winston-Salem Journal.