On the stairs of an apartment building on the side of the road at the corner of Lincoln Way and Campus Avenue in Ames, Iowa, sits a scrawny African-American boy. He’s no more than 10 or 11 years old, imprisoned by that awkward, ugly phase of preadolescence that leaves him too old to be adorable and too young to be handsome. His clothes, a dream to any teenage urban underground music fan and thrift store scourer, surpass him in age by nearly a decade. Nearby, his younger sister tries, in vain, to attract his attention with various 6-year-old techniques as he solemnly surveys the cars passing by. He’s holding a sign, scrawled in black marker on the remains of a cardboard box. As I approach the intersection, the street light turns yellow. I’m somewhat dismayed at the possibility of being confronted with the scene from close up, from having to meet the eyes of someone in need and succumb, inevitably, to the feelings of guilt and inadequacy that saturate these situations. As I step on the brakes, I do a rapid mental calculation of the distance I’ll be from the boy when my car reaches a complete stop, and find myself one car back from directly in front of him. I glance up, prepared to lift my eyes to meet his woeful stare with a gratuitous and apologetic shaking of my head if need be after receiving the message he’s transmitting to passersby.
The sign reads: “Keep your eyes on the road.”