This is the essay I wrote for Patience Salgado's Light project last fall. It's been painted over now, but while it was on the side of the building, it felt like I'd confessed and been forgiven. Sometimes I think it didn't happen, and sometimes I can not only see everything again clearly, but hear the men shouting, the sirens, the slight smell of tobacco from the man. I've wondered about this man ever since, and wish I could have thanked him, because I don't remember saying anything to him at all. It was 1965, Rochester, NY, near the corner of Gibbs St & E. Main.
My mother was scared, although she denied it. Traffic was snarled, and she let me out of the car near the corner, told me to go straight inside; she’d come find me after she parked. There were men running down the street, shouting. Horns blowing, police whistles. I ran to the big glass doors with the heavy brass handles, but they were locked. There were people inside, but they were all standing huddled together against the far wall, and even though they could see me, they didn’t come unlock the doors. They didn’t unlock the doors for a 6 year old girl, alone on the street, amidst the confusion, the anger, the rioting. I walked farther, trying other doors, getting more frightened, starting to cry, and then heard his voice, low and soft. “Here, miss.” He caught my shoulder and pulled me up into the alcove sheltering the doorway behind him. He put me slightly behind him as he stood leaning with apparent casual ease against the wall, blocking the doorway with his body. He said “You stay still now, just wait” as he put his hand down, spread his fingers out to hide my face. My white face. His fingers were wrinkled and scarred, more pink than his brown skin otherwise, and momentarily, the wonder of this chance for close inspection distracted me from my fear. I watched between those calloused fingers as men ran, white shirts and dark trousers, arms back to throw, fists clenched, brown faces with mouths open in anger, distrust, frustration. They flickered past in the spaces between his splayed fingers, the noise of the riot interrupted by his occasional soft murmur, “yes, you just stay quiet missy, nobody will notice you,” as the riot moved away down the street. He said not to tell anyone about it, when he got someone to open the door finally and sent me inside to safety. My mother later said the same thing, even though she meant not to tell my father that they’d locked me outside. I’ve never forgotten that man’s impulse to protect me, even in such a subtle way, though it most certainly put him at risk. His fingers linger in my mind, the cars and people flashing lights between them, like a warm filter, letting me see, but keeping me safe.