"Do either of you ladies have five ones for a five?" the man asked as we walked by. This was a simple enough question, but what I heard instead was loaded down by 50 years of Durham's history. My initial response has haunted me for days.
My friend Cara and I were walking west on Main Street near the new health department buildings after exploring Golden Belt, which sits further to the east. It was dusk on a warm and breezy evening. We were on an "exploring Durham" trek to poke into newly renovated corners of town. We both lived out on the county edge and rarely came into downtown, so we planned to do a walkabout every week until we knew the revived city center inside and out. That night, we'd planned to try a new restaurant.
Durham has been my home for almost 50 years. As we walked, I explained to Cara how, in my high school years, my friends and I never ventured very far east. We walked downtown after school let out at Durham High to shop at Belk, a department store once near Five Points, and to have a soda at Woolworth. We'd go no further. The previous week I had shown Cara where I lived on West Knox Street in the '60s, and then I took her just one block up and across Watts Street, where the road was dusty and the neighborhood poor. The path of Durham's progress over the past 50 years was on my mind as we walked again this evening: the era of what was essentially segregation in the '60s, the years of school integration in the '70s, the subsequent white flight to the suburbs in the '70s, '80s and '90s, and now the return of those with means to revive downtown and gentrify surrounding neighborhoods—causing new issues of de facto segregation, to be sure.
When the man leaned forward from his bench and asked me for change for a five, I instantly returned to high school again—a white kid in a part of town where I didn't belong. I heard just the word "change." My reflex answer, from years of having such answers stored and ready, was a falsely cheerful, "Sorry, I didn't bring my wallet with me." Without breaking stride, I walked on past him.
But then I stopped. In a split second, I was whipped forward 50 years again, and—without conscious thought—every fiber of my being rebelled against what I had just done. I walked back and said, "Wait—I have some cash in my pocket. Let me see what I've got." I pulled out a jumble of bills and sorted it out: two fives and exactly five ones.
The man and I exchanged bills, and he thanked me. It was then that I noticed that he was sitting in a bus shelter, needing a smaller bill for his fare.