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Challenging assumptions through a chance encounter

On a recent Sunday afternoon, my son and I were in Penn Station to catch a MARC train to D.C. We bought our tickets and entered the waiting room. Much to my surprise every bench was full. We backed out and looked for a place to sit on the pair of long benches perpendicular to the ones in the waiting room, where I spotted a couple of spaces.

But on one space was a soda can belonging to a young black man in the adjacent space. I wanted him to move the can so the two of us could sit. I stopped in my tracks. With the buds in his ears and his fingers tapping, he was in another world.

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As I stood in front of the bench, I remembered two recent headlines in The Sun. One was about "gang killers" of a 12-year-old boy. The other was about crime on Baltimore public transportation. I'm among the seemingly few whites willing to use public transportation, despite the convenience of the buses and light rail. Staring down at the soda can, I didn't want a confrontation.

I pointed to the can, and the dude grabbed it, drank down what remained in it, and jumped up to toss the can into the trash. When he was back on the bench and we were squeezed together, I noticed the baggage ticket on the rolling suitcase in front of him. BWI, it said. I asked whether he was going to BWI. He explained that he had just flown into BWI, and he was waiting for a train to New York. As a former New Yorker, I asked what he was going to do in New York.

"I'm going home, man. Going home to Bed-Stuy to see my mom. I live in L.A. now."

And so I wanted to know what he did in L.A., where for a number of years I'd regularly flown out to visit my aging parents.

"I'm a dancer, man."

He whipped out his iPhone and dialed up YouTube, and there he was performing an elegant dance with his blonde partner. I asked him his name.

I thought he said, "O'Dea." That brought a laugh. "No, man," he said. "Ade, with an accent on the e." He explained that his mom had given him the African first name of Adechike but that he'd separated the two parts to make his professional name Ade Chike. He was a dancer only because his mom had sent him and his siblings to dance classes, to keep them out of trouble.

Ade asked me whether I knew the movie "Fame," which was based on his high school — Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, one of New York City's elite high schools. I had friends who had gone to Music and Art, and I really got into the conversation.

The big thing in Ade's professional life now is the TV series "Glee," which, he said, was starting its sixth season in January. There'd been a low point in his life when he gave up dancing. To make ends meet, he took jobs in retail. But, then, missing dancing he tried out for the Fox TV show "So You Think You Can Dance." Even though no one thought he'd go far, he made it into the final round. His dance career had new life, and he took the big step of auditioning for "Glee."

He didn't think he'd be chosen. There were just too many factors that the directors had to consider: Did they want a black guy, did they want a black guy with his build, did they want a black guy with only minimal acting experience? Despite all the negative possibilities, he was chosen.

I asked Ade how he'd celebrated. He said he went back to his apartment in North Hollywood and cried, and cried and cried. Despite everything going against him, he'd made the cut. He thought about his mom and all she'd sacrificed and the faith she'd put in him. Now, she'd have her reward. As he told about that day, Ade got very emotional all over again. And so did I. I wanted to throw my arm around him. Instead, I looked at my watch and told him he'd have to hurry to make his train.

Paul Marx lives in Towson and is professor emeritus at the University of New Haven. His email is PPPMARX@comcast.net.

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