By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Jun 09, 2020 at 7:01 PM

As our community strives to come together, we are all struggling with myriad feelings. Some feelings are angry. Some are conflicted. Some are judgmental.

All feelings are valid, and no one should be made to feel as if their emotions don't matter. But (and there is a but), when we are struggling with our sensibilities – especially judgement – it's important to own up to what has sparked our sentiment and deal with it appropriately.

This opinion piece, written by Billy Ledger, former owner of 1505 Cafe in Mequon, – and originally posted to Facebook – offers food for thought in terms of how we react to the situations and messaging around us. 

This is a long, personal story born out of another sleepless night and a racing mind I cannot turn off. I felt like putting it to pen, then I decided maybe I should share it.

A couple weeks ago, I had to drop something off to a person I only knew through a connection to a mutual friend on a Facebook post I was tagged on. I love and trust my long time friend, who I know because our sons go to school together. I thought I had what was needed and I was heading that way-ish, so I decided to lend a hand.

I drive to the address I was given so I could drop off my item to the woman I had been connected to. It happens to be an apartment complex, several buildings, in an area of the city that I am somewhat familiar with. It is affordable housing with income restrictions. I go into the building and into an entrance marked "Office".

Two women are loudly talking. They look at me like they don’t know me... you know the eyes and the head position of "Who is this guy?" I introduce myself. The woman who I have been connected with smiles and introduces herself. We chat and I give her what I came to give her. We smile, we share a story or two and she thanks me (no hugs, COVID and all, but I feel there would have been one shared). I leave, passing a woman on the way out to whom I say hello and smile. Oh, all three of these women are Black. My long time friend is Black.

I walk outside. It's a stunningly beautiful day. I kind of look around at the area, at the sky and I inhale deeply. That's kind of my thing; I always look at the sky, and I often take a second to close my eyes and breath in... stop and smell the roses, so to speak.

It’s an area with numerous apartment buildings. I start walking from the building to the sidewalk that leads me to my car.  It’s a big courtyard of sorts. I see two men walking and talking. We will most certainly intersect, or close to it.

I say, "Hey fellas, how you doin’?" They look at me. They both say hello. They both smell like dope.

I turn onto the sidewalk to my car. They are now behind me, about 15 feet or so. I hear one guy say, "Hey, what size shoe do you wear?" I fully turn and tell him, but keep walking, now backwards, albeit a little slower.

"Where’d you get em?" I tell him online and also where I thought they might be available around where we were. "I like em," he says. I tell him thanks and what great shoes they are.

I get to my car door, and the man comes up to me –oh maybe two feet away – and says, "Gimme those shoes."

I say, "C’mon man, these are the only pair of shoes I’ve got. I can’t give you my shoes. If I had another pair with me, I might; but you know I can’t give them to you."

I ask him if he knows the woman I went to see. He says no, checks his phone and gives me another woman’s name, one I don’t know.

He starts talking to me; his buddy went to another car about fifty feet away. We are really the only people around and there are a handful of other cars. He tells me he recently bought a car from a guy for a couple grand and that it didn’t work right, the engine knocked. So he went back to the guy to return it and get his money back. He tells the guy it doesn’t work right, and he’d like his money back. The guy tells him he will give him back nearly all the money.

The man I am talking with finishes up his story by telling me he agrees to take less money, because he knew the other guy needed a little help. He says, "I’m like that, I’ll help someone who needs it."

He asks me how old I am; I tell him. He asks me to guess how old he is. I do. I nail it. He smiles, laughs, says I nailed it, and says he just had his birthday. I wish him a happy birthday.

He smiles and puts out his fist. I put out mine, we bump, and he walks to his buddy in the other car. I hop into mine. He slowly pulls past me looking out his window and gives me that point and look like "You’re alright." I do the same. Oh yeah, these two men are Black.

When you read this, do you find yourself judging me, judging the Black women, judging the Black men? Be honest. This story is 100% true. This isn’t a gotcha, look at me, thought experiment. It happened a couple weeks ago.

Did you judge me for being naive, stupid, a white savior, ignorant? Did you judge me for knowing what dope smelled like,? For not caring or whatever? Do it. I know you, you know me, we can talk about it.

Did you judge the Black women who I said were talking loudly? The one that gave me that suspicious tilted head glance? Did you judge that I gave something to one of them with no chance of ever seeing my item again?

Did you judge the Black men for, of course, wandering the sidewalks during the day when they should have been working? That they, of course, smelled like dope? That they, of course, demanded my shoes? That they, of course, were begging for money with their sad story?  That they, of course, were lying to me?

Consider where those judgements come from. Is it what you were taught? Is it where you grew up (neighborhood, own home)? Is it what you see on TV? What you hear from your friends? Is it fear? Perhaps it is from a personal experience?

I was robbed, point blank, in my tiny basement office at my old restaurant. A man pried a back door open, came into the office, took money off my desk one foot from me and ran out the back steps. I hesitated, actually laughed for a minute. I thought it was a friend I knew from another business being funny and even called his name.

It happened so fast. Then it hit me. So I ran up the other set of stairs to cut him off, out the back door, nearly hitting the guy with the door, and I chased him for a short time. Oh yeah, the man is Black.

Do you find yourself judging my decisions about leaving my office door open? How I was handling my money? How my first reaction was to stupidly laugh at the Black man that just stole a bag of money? Did you think: Of course, I didn’t catch him?

Do you find yourself judging the Black man for stealing?  For taking the easy way? For being lazy? For taking what doesn’t belong to him?  For obviously not having a job? For taking the money to buy dope? Even for a split second?

I don’t tell you this to make me out as some sort of better person. That’s ridiculous. I am no better than anyone, and quite honestly, I am nowhere near the man I want to be. I don’t tell you so I can feel good about the likes I may get from the post. I don’t tell you because I am a pseudo-woke white man who will post for a week and then move on back into my life. Damn, I hate the word woke.

I write this to challenge how you think about Black people, Black men in particular. What is your first thought? What does your gut tell you when you read this? What judgments do you have – good and bad – about all of us in my story? Why?

Be honest with yourself. It’s okay if you judged. It’s okay to acknowledge it, too. It’s not okay to ignore it.

As always, it’s your choice.

Billy Ledger
Husband, dad to two teenage boys, FC Wisconsin volunteer, small business investor, Marquette University graduate

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.