It all started with the hazy view behind a thick pane of glass. He was a stranger but also a friend. Beyond the smudged fingerprints that overcrowded the window, my obscured vision revealed a stranger. The window provided safety, but it was only after I stepped outside that I was able to see a friend. Although there was only a single sheet of glass, the view from each side offered two completely divergent perspectives. He was an eighteen-year-old African American named Michael. I knew him as Mikey Weathers, a selfless stranger who I am now lucky enough to call my friend.
It was not clear to me at the time we first met, but behind those vibrant eyes and persistent smile of his was a mountain of pain and suffering that was far beyond my naive apprehension of the world. It is difficult using only words to describe the rare emotions and changes that I experienced during the unlikely and short-lived friendship we shared. Nevertheless, this is the story of a true friend who taught me to see from the other side of the glass, a view that had once been able to flee from my vision. Here is my side of the story from both behind and beyond the fingerprints on glass.
Our lives crossed paths one day when Mikey was able to escape from his precarious lifestyle in the neighborhoods of downtown Detroit by moving to the friendly confines of Wheaton, Illinois to temporarily reside with his aunt. To Mikey, the move was like taking a vast leap from hell to utopia. To me, Wheaton, the place I called my home, was an ultra conservative town with more churches than individuals of a different race. He was alone and lost amid a predominantly white neighborhood. I remembered the night Mikey arrived. It was a brisk August night.
Peering outside my window, I watched him eagerly unpack his handful of belongings and slowly make his way into his new home, tightly clutching the few material possessions he had left to his name. With Wheaton’s lopsided racial distribution in mind, I questioned whether Mikey would ever gain the sense of acceptance and belonging that he had been desperately longing for his entire life. There was something puzzling about that little window in my room. Certain things were visible through its glass, while other things remained unseen through the small gateway within the wooden frame.
It acted as a barrier that allowed me to observe while also keeping my distance. The window was a means by which I was able to make judgments and opinions on what I saw rather than truly knowing and understanding the sights my eyes chose to detect. This was all I wanted at the time. It wasn’t that I was scared, I was just uneasy. During the first couple of days following this stranger’s arrival, I routinely gazed through the small window with a deep sense of curiosity. I tried to ignore the chemical somersaults tumbling through my body as I watched the only African-American in our neighborhood dribble a basketball alone on the street.
A part of me wanted to walk outside and introduce myself right then and there but something about his appearance placed an intangible barrier between us. Besides, I was safe behind the thick pane of glass. Though it was difficult to see out of at times, there were no real risks behind the window. I was already content with the friends I had at the time. I tried to think of what made Mikey and I so different. He was black and I was white. I was raised in the conservative town of Wheaton, Illinois, while Michael was raised in the dangerous neighborhoods of Detroit.
I stood behind my window in sheepskin moccasins wearing torn blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and a baseball cap turned backwards. At the same time, just beyond the glass, Mikey stood outside in Air Jordans wearing a black muscle shirt and a dark green do-rag to match the emerald sequins that adorned his black jeans. Still, something about Mikey caused me to ignore the whispers of my preconceived notions that were telling me to avoid the kind of people with that distinct appearance that Mikey possessed.
It’s hard to remember the exact moment when I decided to leave the safety of the window. I do know that I decided to give Mikey a chance shortly after seeing him contently unpacking his minimal belongings beneath the dim glow of the moon on that cold August night. I soon left the blurred, obstructed vision of the world through the small glass window in my room and finally introduced myself to Mikey, shattering the pane of glass that had previously stood between us. I carefully approached this kid who looked unfamiliar to me now that we were no longer separated by the glass.
A smile gradually crept up his face as he shook my hand with a firm grip, looking me straight in the eyes, which was surprising to me for a kid who lived eighteen years without a man in the house. We quickly grew comfortable talking to each other. I found myself contently suspended in the soft grass, conversing for hours with this stranger that I originally wanted nothing to do with. I began to think about life behind the window again. Most things became visible to me when I chose to leave the protection of the window.
Sure, I was exposed, but I could now see the things that were once invisible to me. The strength of Mikey’s handshake, the despair in those dark eyes of his, and his intense desire for friendship were now apparent now that I was outside my sheltered life behind the glass. The window only allowed me to see what I wanted to see. It let my preconceived notions run wild. Most of all, the window only let me make visual observations rather than actually feeling, experiencing, and knowing what I was actually seeing. That day, Mikey let me into his life.
He shared his feelings and he told me his story. After his father abandoned him, Mikey was left to fend for himself in the city of Detroit with the inadequate help of his impoverished mother and an imprisoned brother as his only source of guidance and support. His brother had been in and out of jail for the past decade for illegal possession of firearms and charges of distributing illicit substances. Mikey’s mother could only afford to feed him one meal a day in a house that often lacked electricity. He had never been outside of his isolated world of Detroit until now.
In a calm demeanor, he spoke softly, telling me that he used to work with his brother, dealing drugs to support their family. They sold anything from ecstasy, to methamphetamine, cocaine, and even heroin. While I spent my time studying, going to hockey practice, and playing tennis, Mikey was exchanging illicit drugs for cash. Every dollar that was made from dealing was slipped into their mother’s sock drawer so that she could afford electricity and enough food. To this day, Mikey’s mother never knew where the money came from because she never dared to ask.
This was all before Mikey watched his brother get shot multiple times while making a sale. His brother ended up in prison the day he was released from the hospital. Soon after his brother was shot and imprisoned once again, Mikey left his mother to move in with his aunt so that he could seek refuge from the streets and find a new life. He was ready for a change. Mikey was enrolling at the College of DuPage to study engineering in hopes of being able to support his mother in the future. As each day passed, our friendship grew exponentially. Mikey was no longer a stranger; I was finally away from the disillusioned vision behind the window.
Once again, I thought back to the window. What was it about the window that made certain things invisible to me before? I remember seeing a dark-skinned boy around the same age as me. There was a basketball, a do-rag, and black jeans that glimmered in the sun’s golden rays. He looked dangerous. This was all the glass allowed me to see. Everything else was faint and unnoticeable. Everything else was hidden. Whether I was physically was unable to see certain things or just choosing not to see these things, I wasn’t quite sure of at the time.
The window allowed me to ignore the things I was unsure of. It allowed me to ignore the things that scared me. Obviously, translucent windows aren’t true barriers to our eyesight. To me the window in my room symbolized the way I saw the things around me before and after meeting Mikey. When I look back on the story, the pane of glass represented a cultural barrier rather than a physical barrier between Mikey and I. A relationship based on observations and judgments made from behind a window cannot compare to a relationship based on feelings and experiences that can only be formed beyond the glass.
Less than a week later, I invited Mikey to accompany our family on a weekend vacation to my cabin in Wisconsin. One day later, Mikey and I were riding my family’s jet ski, a strange machine that he had never seen in person before. I was jealous of Mikey’s bravery. The last time he was even near water was to try to rescue his best friend from drowning. Because neither Mikey nor his friend were capable of swimming, that day ended with Mikey clutching the lifeless body of the only true friend he ever had.
I saw the sadness run throughout Mikey’s body as he told me yet another harsh struggle in his life. I enjoyed his stories nonetheless, because they offered me a new perspective on life. Here I was, gaining new perspectives on life from a troubled former drug dealer, a new neighbor, a stranger, but a friend. At the end of the day, we sat together at the end of the dock with our two different colored pairs of feet dangling in the lake. He put his arm around me and said, “This is the best day of my life. You’ve been like a best friend to me you know that?
God, I wish my mother could be here to see this. ” The pain and suffering behind his eyes that I had previously noticed had now dissipated. We were standing right next to each other, but our lives were so far apart. Those two days were just another normal weekend to me. To Mikey, that weekend meant so much more. At that moment, I realized that the vast differences between our cultures were what intrigued me about him. It was what kept me curiously gazing out of my window from time to time when he first arrived. It was the reason I had built up enough courage to introduce myself.
When the weekend was over, we both packed our bags and hopped in the car. I never saw Mikey again but I find myself randomly gazing out of that very same window in hopes of seeing him happily bouncing a basketball outside. But the reality of it is, it’s only until after I leave the safety of my window when I can actually feel that Mikey is with me, dangling his feet in the water beside me. If Mikey taught me one thing, it was to open my eyes and see the world without that pane of glass there to obscure my vision. Beyond the layer of glass lies a different sight.
In the light’s clarity, new things are revealed. Sights that were previously invisible behind the fingerprints on glass are now visible. Instead of seeing green do-rags and emerald sequins, I saw a caring individual who was filled with so much pain and sorrow yet somehow capable of pouring out more love and friendship than most people could ever offer. That day was just an ordinary day for me but so much more for him. What I took for granted, he took as a blessing. This was life beyond the window, beyond the glass, and beyond the fingerprints that covered them.