Three years ago, I lived in Hawthorne, in North Minneapolis. The neighborhood was primarily black, but none of my roommates were, nor were any of the other new tenants who had moved into the apartment building around the same time as us. We could afford the rent, about $1200 overall, and $300 for me. But we learned from people who had lived in the neighborhood that this was a sharp increase from what they were used to paying.
My roommates and I often ate fast food at the nearby strip mall, Hawthorne Crossing. One day I was sitting in JJ’s Fish and Chicken, waiting for my chicken wings. I’d been there for five minutes or so when a black woman in her sixties walked in, wearing a blazer and a crooked wig. She seemed confused the previous black owners were gone, and that there was an older man in the kitchen, and a younger man behind the counter. From later conversations with the young cashier, I learned that they were father and son, and Palestinian.
You could tell they were trying to renovate the place a little and making a slow go of it. The decor was sparse and the menus were printed on paper. A single LCD screen mounted over the counter featured a professional photo of some unappealing samosas.
“Do y’all still have catfish?” the woman asked.
The young Palestinian man smiled and took her order. She was waiting in a booth when she began an interview over the phone. From what I could manage to overhear, it seemed to be for a teaching job at a nearby charter school.
She said that she was currently without work. She occasionally smiled at the other diners throughout her call. I imagined that she would make a good teacher because she seemed kind.
Though visibly nervous, she laid out her credentials in a convincing tone. She had a Bachelor’s degree in a field she didn’t specify. She had previously taught in another charter school for five years. When it came to pay, she said, “I’m not fussy.”
I don’t think anyone loves listening to other people’s phone calls. That said, we were all impressed by her interview. Some of us gave her encouraging smiles.
After she finished the call, she had an announcement to make: she got the job. She repeated to random diners, “I just got a job after so long. So long.”
A young black man with dreadlocks came through the door. Without even asking him his name, she told him about her new job. He congratulated her and asked her if she would like to pray. She said she would. They sat together and held hands, and tears rolled down her face as she thanked Jesus.
Having grown up with hyper-religious black aunties, I knew that when the woman’s teary eyes met mine, I was supposed to join her in prayer. I had been raised a good little black boy after all. Though I am a non-believer, my parents are devout Muslims. I thought about what my mother probably would have had me do in that moment: inform the woman of my membership in another Abrahamic faith and assure her that I would keep her in my evening prayers. At the very least, I should have cupped my hands together and recited a fortuitous surah for her, or something, anything to mark that her newfound job security was, indeed, momentous before the Lord.
Instead, I avoided her gaze and stared out the window.
A few minutes later I saw a guy I recognized walking out of the Dollar Tree. He was one of about eight neighborhood drug dealers who tended to flock together, and he was carrying chips and candy bars. I figured he was getting snacks for himself and his colleagues.
The drug dealers were a group of boys—none could have been older than 18—whose entire world was the laundromat and the strip mall’s parking lot. They sold just one thing: $20 one-gram bags of weed. They would repeat “got loud, got loud,” or “good loud, good loud,” to literally everyone who walked by. Hardly anyone ever seemed to take them up on it.
They made me a little nervous sometimes, mostly because they just acted so weird. But they were harmless. Whenever they brought a gun to settle territorial squabbles, they would warn noncombatants to clear the area.
They didn’t have many clothes suitable for Minnesota’s extreme seasons so, to cool off during the humid and scorching months of midsummer, they simply took off their shirts.
I once saw one of them—bare-chested, shirt spread over his shoulders—begging for food outside of JJ’s. A young black woman with a mocking smile kept screaming, “Get a job! Why don’t you get a job?” at him. To this day, I regret not telling her that the young man did have a job, it was just neither very lucrative nor legal.
I only ever saw them ever make a sale, to an older black man. I have never before seen any group of people so ecstatic to earn $20. They were true salesmen that day, loudly proclaiming that their weed was “the best shit,” staring purposefully at any onlookers. Waving the tiny sack in front of him, the dealers repeatedly advised the old man that weed had changed since his day, and he had to be careful, and make sure to drink water while smoking.
Two weeks back, while at the laundromat, I had witnessed an altercation between a McDonald’s security guard and one of the young entrepreneurs. The guard, extremely eager to protect their supply of chicken McNuggets, had tased one of the boys for existing too close to the store. Then he called the police.
Out of a sense of solidarity with the dealers, I resolved to stop eating at McDonald’s for the foreseeable future. I think I was left with some emotional trauma from seeing the boy slump to the floor, his body wriggling like a salted snail. This is why I was at JJ’s that day, instead of the slightly cheaper McDonald’s, overhearing this woman’s interview. The Palestinian cashier announced my order and I picked it up.
The woman was taking deep breaths between utterances, seemingly in the throes of some religious ecstasy, gripping her prayermate’s hands and trembling. Her desperation, and the time she was devoting to honoring that moment, reminded me of the young drug dealers and the way they had celebrated when they sold that bag of weed.
I walked back to my apartment. I saw the drug dealers on their corner, in their ongoing search for another potential customer. I looked away, went home, and ate my food. I continued to boycott McDonalds for as long as I lived in Hawthorne, and a few months later, I moved to Chicago.