I work at Spring Lake in San Marcos, Texas. The lake is man-made and is the headwaters of the San Marcos River, which travels 4 miles to confluence with the Blanco River, and then another 68 to confluence with the Guadalupe River, which collects rivers and streams throughout Central Texas and deposits those waters into the world ocean by way of San Antonio Bay, on the Gulf of Mexico.
I’ve been working there now for a year and 9 months. I am an Environmental Interpreter, otherwise known as a Tour Guide. I drive boats and I tell tales of myth and history. I entertain and educate people on the geography of the landscape, the geology, the hydrology and the biology of an artesian springs, man-made lake that has no equal in the world. In addition to staying a constant 72 degrees all year round, the high and low-pressure springs draw water from the Edwards Aquifer, the only aquifer in the world where the water does not have to be extensively treated, making it one of the cleanest sources of natural, living water in the entire world. As an on-again-off-again PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and world traveler, living in the Central Texas Hill Country is generally a wonderful and peaceful experience.
I love my job. Although the pay is minimal, I enjoy going to work every day. During the course of the year, school tours come from all over the state, children from kindergarten through high school and we play games with them and guide them through fun exercises that educate them on the different aspects of the San Marcos Springs and Spring Lake. Driving the tour and public boats, giving tours to individuals and groups of all ages fulfills a need in me to awaken people to the nature of our world and the need to respect and appreciate its beauty and majesty. People from all over the world come to see this amazing natural resource and it is my honor to serve them in this manner.
Recounting the Native American myths that deem this location and these waters to be sacred, seeing the smiles, hearing the exclamations and answering the questions people have as they listen and look with amazement in their eyes is payment beyond money as wonder is awakened and a short, half hour tour that most thought would be a good way to waste a bit of time becomes an exploration of possibility and the history of human habitation on the shores of what the scientists call a “living laboratory”; an island ecosystem where there exist creatures that occupy no other niche in any other location the world across.
It is winter in Central Texas, which is not like winter in the north. The 12 Days of Christmas have been been warm, cool and cold, with some days necessitating small jackets or large coats and even a few days when only short sleeves were necessary and even shorts could be worn without too much discomfort. There’s a saying in Central Texas that if you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes and it’ll change.
Today, it was cold. I was scheduled from 930 to 2, a typical boat shift. I opened boats, meaning I unlocked them, checked the bilges, cleaned the glass. Being cold, it was not necessary to open the windows and of our 5 boats, 4 were opened. As it was such a beautiful morning, I took numerous pictures of the lake before proceeding to open the boats, amazed as ever at the beauty of the mist rising from the constant 72 degree lake, steam which the native peoples believed represented the spirits of their ancestors, rising from the waters. Waters that they continue to believe cover an entry into the Underworld, where humanity lived before moving to the surface of the earth.
As I finished opening boats and was enjoying the last 15 minutes before the first scheduled public boat of the day at 1030, a police SUV pulled into the circle to the immediate east of the lake. Police are far from unusual on Spring Lake, the entire city loves the San Marcos river and we who work at the lake – alongside law enforcement – take the protection of those waters very seriously, as it is a Federally Recognized Critical Habitat for 8 Endangered and Threatened Species, and, therefore, off limits to swimming, boating or fishing.
As I watched the SUV sitting up there in the circle, for some reason, I felt a bit of trepidation. No obvious reason, just a feeling of discomfort. I had no reason to think that the officer was in the least bit interested in me, as cops drive on the road and the paths surrounding the lake all the time. Shrugging my misgivings off as paranoia, I walked from boat to boat conducting last minute checks. After sitting there for perhaps 5 minutes as I was on Boat 63, I exited the boat to find that the officer had also exited his vehicle and was halfway down the path headed directly toward me. My pulse jumped but I rationalized that it was a beautiful morning, steam was coming off the water and perhaps he had come down to pay homage to this precious lake like so many others.
The officer was a little dude, maybe 5’5, rather portly. He approached me kindly enough, we exchanged pleasantries and I asked him if he’d ever taken the boat ride before. He responded that he had, twice. Then he gazed at me askance and, in a deliberately offhand manner, stated that he’d never seen me on the lake before. When he said that, I knew why he had come. Automatically, my smile widened, my voice raised in tone and I began to speak consciously and clearly, entering disarm-mode, the demeanor and tone that becomes perfunctory after being practiced for so many years and mandatory in any interaction with 5-0. I told him that I’ve been working at the lake almost 2 years and, in my mind, I wanted to retort, I haven’t seen you here before either, but of course, I did not. I continued to placate him with a litany of job-related facts and ancillary information knowing that he required a justification for my presence on and around the boats. He listened, nodding and gazing at everything but me, then asked if we were open. I blinked and slowly said yes. He stated then that he did not think we were open that day.
I smiled as I thought to myself that the chain which usually blocks off the road that he had driven down to get to the lake is always closed and locked when the park is closed. Of course it had been unlocked and the chain moved to the side of the road, as the lake and park area were open. There were at least ten cars in the main parking lot and there were people even then walking around, as we spoke, and they had been out there when he had driven past them as well. He then asked if I was a student. Rather than give him the tedious details of my full status, I replied yes. And then he asked me for my ID.
At that point, I balked. My brow raised and I paused, watching him as he watched me, my mind cycling through possible responses. I knew that he had no legal right to see my ID; I could have said no. But a lifetime of dealing with cops and authority figures who have seen it as their right in life to question my activities or presence has given me a very clear understanding of the potential pathways that open or close depending upon my responses. He saw my brow raised and waited, fidgeting just a bit, but otherwise relaxed, as I still was as well. I told him patiently that the lake was indeed open and that if he thought there was a problem, he could walk up to the ticket booth to speak to the PIC (person in charge). He did not respond to that directly and again stated that he thought that the lake was closed. He turned slightly then and mumbled something that I could not clearly hear into his radio. The response was clear though: the Dispatcher told him that the lake was open for business. I watched him with a smile that no longer reached my eyes. But I gave him my school ID.
He then asked me if employment at the lake was a student job, I told him we had some work study, but most were regular hourly employees. That I was. I said that to emphasize to him without actually saying the words that a student ID was not necessarily required for employment at the lake as not everyone who worked there was a current student. Still, he called in my ID number and, in only a second or two, the Dispatcher confirmed that I was indeed a student at Texas State. Still smiling, the conversation always cordial and even, we exchanged a few more comments – I hesitate to call them pleasantries as, by this point, he was well aware by the expressions crossing my face that I had recognized his underlying assumptions – before he handed back my ID and made his exit, meandering back up the path to his SUV as I watched him walk away, snapping a couple of pics, my mind immediately recounting and framing the encounter contextually. Being a writer, I think in stories and this story was and is very clear.
I have enjoyed working at Spring Lake, explicating upon the many mysteries as well as the known and explored quantities that comprise the Central Texas Hill Country, the Edwards Aquifer and the headwaters of the San Marcos River. I have considered it an honor to speak for the Great Lady, to explore the memory of her waters and to engage in the task of awakening wonder in the minds of those who come to hear the tales and the facts, the stories and the science. Whether or not this officer would have responded the same way to any of my fellow employees who might have been working when he arrived is a question that I cannot answer. What I can answer is that this officer saw me walking around, entering and exiting the boats carrying cleaning materials and keys while wearing a bright, yellow walkie talkie around my neck. The boats had obviously been opened by someone. He had entered a park that had obviously been unlocked and opened by someone. There were numerous cars in the main parking lot obviously driven there by people who knew that the park was open. And yet, he assumed that, for whatever reason, there was a chance that I did not belong there and that I might be engaged in some activity that might not have been proper or legal. In essence, that I did not belong at the park or on or around the boats.
He saw me as a potential threat. Having been seen that way many times before, I knew how to respond and so the situation did not devolve in the slightest. Let me be clear, there was absolutely no moment in which there was the threat of violence or misunderstanding. I played my role and gave the obligatory answers, engaging decades worth of experience and cultural programming in the pacification of this officer of the law. Placating his suspicions with patented, truthful and clipped responses with the corresponding body language employed to keep him at ease: open arms held slightly away from my body, my stance considered and conciliatory, submission and acceptance of his authority to question my presence on my job granted and given with apparent graciousness.
As a police officer, I understand that it is his duty to protect the public. And property. He was doing his job. Making normative assumptions for peace officers in his position as per the societal customs and prejudices of the day.
That, for a span of time, my sense of comfort and belonging on my job was displaced by this officer of the law was a reminder of the nature of the beast and also of how perception guides interaction. If I were someone else, that interaction could have easily gone another way. To have succumbed to anger at being questioned would not have been appropriate for me. And yet, consideration of this series of events brings other black men to mind. The fatal anger of Trayvon Martin at being approached and confronted by some strange dude that wasn’t even a cop as he was walking through a neighborhood. He felt, rightly or wrongly, that he had a right to travel from the store to his father’s house without being accosted. The anger of Michael Brown, who had paid for his cigars, to then be confronted and killed by a cop later, on the streets. The anger of Eric Garner as he argued with cops who had a history of harassing him for allegedly selling a few cigarettes on a street corner, resulting in his choking death. I can’t breath, he repeated, over and over again.
I recognize this anger intimately. It is an anger that comes from a space of personal affront. A mental position that many take for granted as being a natural, human right. The right not to be accosted for little or no reason, while one is engaged in the very stuff of life, on public thoroughfares, by those who presume in turn that they have the God-given right to do so.
If I’d responded in anger? There’s no telling what might have occurred. I thank God for my parents who gave me “the talk” early on and many times as necessary in my early life. Pounded into my hard head that I could not act like my white friends. That I had to be better, smarter, work harder, do more, just to get by, let alone to succeed and prosper in life. My experiences have confirmed the truths they taught me and have made me the man I am, for better or for worse. For those who grew up without parents like mine, who have continued to guide me even in the midst of life’s trials and tribulations, who have not had the opportunities to explore themselves and to deal with issues of experience and emotion and to make the shifts necessary in thier own thinking to come to some semblance of self-control or mastery, alternative endings to stories like the one I just told are not only possible, but probable. Endings that we see in the news and that contribute to the increasing heartbreak of communities across this nation.
I cannot foresee a time in my life in this society where men like me will not be seen as a threat by some. First impressions remain lasting until interaction shifts the quick, stereotypical judgments that people snap to into some real approximation of character and personality. Unfortunately, situations between representatives of the system and those they consider Other/Threats rarely allow for real interaction as they generally occur in the context of stress and the imposition of outside, perceptively higher authority into situations that are banal, even petty in nature. That should not result in death, but that sometimes, heartrendingly, do. For my sons sakes, I pray that such a shift does occur. And that their lives can be lived outside of the constant stress of low-level hostility and avoidance that typifies the experience of we who must face it day in and day out.