"Hey what's tramadol?" He asked, trying to show me his uncreased prescription and medication notes.
"I don't know," I stammered, and tried to walk around him.
"Please, what's tramadol?"
"I really don't know, I'm sorry." I said. "Good luck though."
Even as I walked away, I knew the name 'tramadol' was familiar - it was either an anti-emetic, or a pain reliever. And like most people in the US I had a computer in my pocket, with unfettered, high speed internet access. It would have taken just seconds to look the name up and tell him. But I didn't.
I walked away, making excuses to myself and then I found myself making excuses for these excuses.
My campus sits in the downtown area of a large, relatively poor Southern city. I was walking back to my office from the Children's Hospital on the other side of campus. Separating these two areas is a large hospital with a Level I trauma center and ER. It isn't the most salubrious place around, and panhandlers and vulnerable people end to congregate around the area, like so many helpless zombies in a cheap horror flick. I get panhandled all the time for smokes and change; it's a fact of life here and you learn to deal with it (the tourists don't, but then they don't usually visit this neighborhood unless they've been shot or run over).
His medication notes were uncreased, and the prescription stapled to them hadn't been bent back, as it might have been if someone had taken the time to read the notes. But medication notes aren't written for people who likely have at most a fourth grade reading comprehension level. His doctor hadn't taken the time to explain what the medication was, or what it did, and he saw me, in a suit, walking by the hospital with appropriate looking name tags and ID card, and made the assumption (both correctly and incorrectly) that I was a doctor.
It may have been a ruse to panhandle me for smokes or change. Or he might have been one of the more vulnerable innocents who gather in the shadows of the buildings and it could have got frightening or worse very quickly. It's safer to walk away. I keep telling myself that. But I keep asking myself the same question, and it makes me feel sick because I can't immediately answer it:
Would you have still kept on walking if he'd have been white?