There were insiders, and there were outsiders: I was definitely one of the latter. Despite its being the second largest city in the state of Iowa, Cedar Rapids struck me as having quite the “small town” character. But then, I grew up in Baltimore — and the mindset I developed in my birthplace would prove to be a catalyst for some really intense experiences when I attempted to transplant myself to the Midwest. It got me out of as much shit as it got me into! If only I’d had the foresight to write about it all as I was working my way through the terror and confusion…but who does that?
After a series of phone interviews, I was hired to work on a contract at a tech/aerospace company in Cedar Rapids. Fortunately, I had the good sense to negotiate a reimbursement of my relocation expenses, should the contract fold within a thirty-day time-frame and through no fault on my part. Assuring me that the working environment was a stable one, and that I was going to love it there, Ted (I forget his last name) had no problem in assenting to my out-clause. So, I jumped into my car and headed off from Maryland to Iowa — two days’ ride if one does it alone.
The trickiness began not long after I arrived in town, on a Sunday night. Upon checking into the hotel, I relaxed for just a few moments before calling Ted to let him know that I’d arrived safely. Not long afterward, he phoned to let me know that he was in the lobby. I exchanged pleasantries with another hotel guest on the way down, and our discussion continued as we exited the elevator and turned the corner heading to the lobby. A rather tall guy was standing in the middle of the lobby, and as he adjusted his gaze downward to meet my eyes, he asked, “Tony?” with a measure of surprise. Although he didn’t say it outright, it was clear that during our many phone conversations, Ted must’ve envisioned me to be a taller, bigger — and whiter — fellow than the one he saw walking toward him. As it turns out, Bunn is a fairly well-known (though not necessarily common) surname in those parts…and they’re mostly White folks.
Still, our meeting was pleasant enough; the bottom line was that we were all about presenting me to the client and getting the job underway. With the plan sealed for Ted to meet me again at 6:30 a.m. and take me to the work-site, he left. I went back to my room, knocked around restlessly, and then decided to hop in the car and take a spin around town to check out my new environment. Driving down the main drag past the Five Seasons (Civic) Center, the band Whitesnake billed on the marquee, I noticed a car with four rowdy guys begin to follow me rather closely. My sense of unease heightened as they continued to follow, turn for turn, no matter how convoluted my path. Having made the long circuit around a block, with my tail still in place, I headed down into a dead-end street that I’d passed earlier, turned off my lights, and just sat there…waiting. I’m certain that my followers saw where I headed. They slowed down when they came to the turn, but then sped up abruptly as if there was a quick decision to disengage. Whew! My bluff worked.
The first week of work went off without a hitch. And so, the hunt for an apartment began. Querying a couple realtors brought me some fascinating suggestions, such as getting a place in Waterloo. “I think you’ll like it there.” Although it didn’t look to be that far on the map, a fifty-mile drive there through corn country revealed the reason for the otherwise nonsensical recommendation: that’s where all the Blacks and Hispanics lived! I was beginning to get the picture of what I’d stepped into. Nonetheless, somehow I was able to find an apartment that was just five-minutes’ drive from my workplace.
During the leasing negotiations, the couple who managed the apartment complex succeeded in convincing me to rent a garage for my car in spite of my frugality. “It gets really cold up here! We’re also from Maryland — and we were shocked at how much colder it gets…” They were doing a lot of “winking and nodding,” but I think it was mostly unconscious. The problem for me was clearly one of saving money. Granted, the contract paid well. But, in addition to maintaining an apartment there, I had a home and family to maintain back in Maryland. The extra fifty dollars per month to rent a garage just didn’t make sense. When they pressed the issue to the point of slicing the garage rent in half, I began to get a different understanding of what was going on. Unlike the cars of the thirty-or-so other tenants that were parked out in the open around the complex, mine was uniquely at risk — because it was “from Maryland.” I got the message…and the garage.
Oh yeah, earlier that week, O.J. Simpson was found “Not Guilty” for the murders of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown-Simpson, and he was released.
Anyway, by the end of my second week in Cedar Rapids, I’d secured a decent apartment within spitting distance of my job — and it seemed as though everything was gonna be just fine. Saturday was spent shopping for the modest furnishings I’d need to make the place livable: a futon, kitchen table, little tv, cordless phone, etc. On Sunday night, the plot would begin to thicken.
My apartment was on the second floor, front corner of the building. If I parked beside the complex (and not in the garage), a cup of water dropped out of my bedroom window would land immediately on the roof my car. This turned out to be a perfect position for me to be able to sit in my car with my cordless phone and still acquire a signal from the landline base in my bedroom; doing so allowed me to use the car stereo for background music as I setup my outgoing voicemail message. I sat there trying to find just the right tune for my message, and suddenly, a police car pulled up beside me. The officer spied me for a few moments and then drove off. I continued what I was doing. Message completed, I decided to take a quick cruise to the market. As I turned left around the corner to the backside of the building, I noticed the police car pulling off down at the other end of the complex; he had been waiting me out. When I got to the street, he was already at the stop sign at the corner, heading for the main drag. The apartment was in a cul-de-sac: there was only one way out. The game of cat-and-mouse was well underway…
It was about 10:30 p.m., and the streets were fairly empty. Stopping at the intersection for the main drag, I scanned the four lanes in each direction, looking for my stalker…and he was nowhere to be found. After turning right and heading into the left lane, of course I wasn’t much surprised to see him sitting in a strip mall there to my right. I stopped at the red light.
As I made the left turn, preparing to cross a small bridge that led to the section where the supermarket was located, I noticed in the rear-view mirror that the police car was again “on the move.” Right in the middle of the bridge, between here and there, the flashing lights switch on, and I immediately come to a halt.
“Why’d you go through that red light back back there?”
“Officer, you know that I stopped at the light. I saw you sitting there in the strip mall.”
“Oh. Well, who were you visiting in those apartments back there?”
“I live there. Just moved in a couple days ago.”
“We’ve been having problems with gangs coming from Chicago, bringing drugs into the area. You’re from Maryland, huh? You know where Catonsville is?”
You see where this was headed.
I don’t remember whether I was asked for license and registration, as is the normal protocol. However, I remember the officer continuing to attempt to “clean up” his motivation for the stop, even though it was beginning to rain lightly. Incensed, though quite frightened, I tried to keep him talking — so that he might get as wet as possible. Satisfied that I was no immediate threat, he bid me farewell and let me go on my way. The situation could’ve ended a lot differently. But then, it wasn’t really over. This was just the beginning…
The next day at work, I was quite rattled. During the lunch break, out in the courtyard, I ran into the one other Black man I knew to work there in this sprawling facility. As I began to ask him about the character of the police in the area, telling him about the preceding night’s encounter, I got more and more agitated. No doubt, I was completely out of my element. A bit of my “Baltimore-style” bravado emerged as I exclaimed, “I was about to feed him a piece of my car door.” What a mistake that was!
Before long, I was invited by the manager of my section (who happened to be a mixed-race fellow from England) to visit with the company psychologist. “She’s married to a Black man, so she’ll probably have a good understanding of what you’re going through!”
The psychologist was a gracious woman. After allowing me to voice my concerns, she began to share her understanding of the situation:
“Did you mention that you were going to assault a cop?”
“No. Not really.”
She shared with me a few anecdotes about her husband’s experiences; he was a military veteran, a Black man who grew up in the area. Toward the end of our discussion, she informed me that although many people “from the outside” have difficulty acclimating to the area, she was confident that I would do just fine.
The rest of the week was fairly uneventful. I visited the Sam’s Club in a nearby town and found it to have a much wider selection of goods than the ones in Maryland. I found a Chinese restaurant where the Kung Po Chicken was definitely done right. Starting to become lonely, I bought an acoustic bass guitar at a local music store; surely, it would help me keep myself company.
Everything came undone the following week. A young and quite attractive White woman began working in our section the preceding week. Although we usually sat with our backs toward one another, there was idle conversation from time to time. Like me, she was sort of an outsider. As time went on, our discussions became more relaxed and frequent. I asked if she’d be interested in going out for lunch with me on the following day — just to break the monotony. She agreed; but, that lunch date never happened. A short while later, I got a call from Ted, asking that we meet for lunch to discuss a few things.
It wasn’t until we got to the restaurant that he sprung it on me: the contract had blown-up, and I was being terminated. He proceeded to inform me that my mounting suspicions weren’t unfounded, that he’s never seen such behavior from “his people” — and that he wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes. And because this all came to a head on the thirtieth day of the contract, he would be glad to honor our agreement for reimbursement of my relocation expenses. In fact, he had a check covering my final week’s pay, the reimbursement, plus a little extra, right there with him. When we went back to the facility, they had everything I’d touched (with the exception of the computer, desk, and chair) waiting for me in two boxes at the guard station. Although the job was over, the ordeal was still playing out.
Once back at the apartment, I closed the shades and took a nap. To say I was completely confused would be quite the understatement. Arising at around 5:00 p.m., I opened the shades and just stood there looking out the window and wondering what my next move was going to be. Suddenly, a police car came down the street and began dancing a slow, ominous circuit, back and forth in front of my apartment — for the better part of half an hour. I don’t think I was imagining the message being sent. Completely spooked, I climbed into my car around 2:00 a.m. and headed back to Baltimore. I drove for twenty hours straight.
At a rest stop in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, a Christian minister shared with me how odd he thought was the coincidence of my being a Marylander there in the Midwest at the same time that all the Black men from there were at the Million Man March in Washington. However, there’s not much that’s more ironic than my standing on my front porch, back in the ‘hood after a grueling journey, hearing gunfire ringing out from only a few blocks away — and feeling so at-peace that I was back home!
On October 17, 1995, a Maryland State Trooper was gunned down on the Eastern Shore, following a traffic stop. Keenly aware of the climate, I returned to Cedar Rapids in a rented van a week later, to close out my apartment and collect my things. My landlords were kind enough to not penalize me for breaking my lease. They understood.