During a trip down State Street in Madison the first weekend of June, Todd Sharp noted “It was weirdly apocalyptic with nearly everyone in masks and all the windows boarded, yet a art gallery was being painted with hope.” Todd Sharp photo
by Todd Sharp
I’ve been working for local businesses for 48 years, starting when I was 10. I used to sit at George Johnson’s downtown Ripon store watching and listening as older kids spun 45s on the countertop player; selling records, needles and watching the shop while George, my dad and whichever third person was learning how to fix transistor radios at the time headed to the Grill for a coffee break.
When I reflect on my world as a young man, I see a world of similar small town folks going through similar small-town life.
During the pandemic, I, like so many people, stayed home, or at least stayed close to home, shopped at local grocery and hardware stores, ate local curbside pick-up and grabbed a few local craft beers. The air is clearer here, the lack of crowds is safer in a pandemic, the ability to support our local businesses is more convenient than driving to the big box stores in nearby cities.
We enjoy a comfortable, sheltered life in many ways.
From here, when we see the murder of indefensible people, devastation, protesting, and violence in the big cities, many of us view it from our televisions and phone screens. We can avoid living in face-to-face frustration and anxiety of the people being mistreated and abused. We are able to sit and watch from a seemingly safe and distant position, secure in our deck chairs and loungers.
We might understand why there is protest, why mistreatment needs to be turned around. We might be willing to say that it doesn’t affect us and simply keep going our way, comfortable and safe.
I can’t sit still.
After graduating from college in ’84, I got a job at a daily newspaper in Chippewa Falls. As a 22-year-old enjoying the popularity of Prince and following a need to expand my vision, my friends and I headed toward St. Paul and Minneapolis every chance we could get.
The first trip taken to show my visiting college girlfriend around took us to some of those same streets where they are now protesting in the Twin Cities.
As I was driving my bronze ’79 Honda Accord down Hennepin Avenue and turning off on another street to get to the downtown Mall, I was stopped by a red light with very little traffic around at all.
I noticed out of the corner of my eye a tall, broad shouldered black man heading toward the car.
His long strides made a short distance to my car door. I was scared. He knuckle rapped on the window and motioned for me to roll down the window.
I was panicked. I looked over at my petite girlfriend. Her beautiful, blue eyes were wide with fear and uncertainty.
I hesitated, the light still red, then cracked my window an inch so I could hear what he said… “YOU’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY” and he pointed out the sign. I nearly peed my pants in fear, and this fellow was making a kind gesture trying to help. I was clearly going the wrong way.
That man had effectively handed me a mirror to reflect on the way I saw myself in the world. To gaze at my initial irrational fear of another human for no reason but prejudice.
The lesson has stayed with me my entire life: I needed to change direction.
That man didn’t have to tell me I was going the wrong way.
The signs were there, I simply hadn’t paid attention.
I’m now much more conscientious of road signs and my own direction, but I also actively seek out the information I need to confront my own privilege and racism, and speak out to encourage others to do the same.
It’s scary and feels less than safe to do so. How can we all see ourselves in that mirror — different from each other, yet safe, comfortable and confident in our lives?
Some self-reflection helps.
It’s obvious we have been going the wrong way.
Editor’s note: Todd Sharp sells advertising for the Green Laker, Express and The Ripon Commonwealth Press.