Let’s get this out of the way: I’ve been sick for almost two weeks now. It’s NBD, just a really annoying cold. I’m excited to say that, perversely. My hands aren’t falling asleep and I’m not covered in lesions or anything. Just a cold! Ha ha! *clicks heels together*
Anyway. Like 99.9% of all people on the planet, being sick makes me less creative, even along the blogways. I haven’t been working on my awesome bullshit writing project either. It’s SUCH a shame too, because my job is RIFE with opportunities for time theft. I am to the point where I am often out of work by 10:30 in the morning, and everyone knows it. What can you do? A: read a lot of blogs and sigh a lot.
However, something jogged the writing impulse today. Over the loudspeaker as we neared downtown, our morning bus driver made a very stilted announcement about the potential of protests blocking roads or delaying traffic this afternoon. In part he informed us that “Metro would do its best today to transport people even if those people [protesters] decided to…uhhh…exercise their constitutional rights today.” Please don’t let him say something crackery racist, I said to myself. I felt like he was teetering on the edge of something awkward and was not used to making impromptu, required announcements like this. He did okay, though.
“What if he is transporting protesters downtown RIGHT NOW?” I asked P. “He keeps calling protesters ‘they’ but what if they are right here?”
“Are you planning something today I don’t know about?” P. asked.
I was planning to go to work and waste space and oxygen at my hourly job. But WHAT IF I thought, looking around at all the white people on my bus in their North Face jackets reading their Kindles. Maybe not.
I didn’t think about it again, really. After work, P. and I were walking to the bus together when a man darted out from a bus stop shelter, away from two other people, and made a beeline for me. He started giving me that kind of hostile patter designed to harass and get a reaction. And when you do react, the person often acts indignant and/or swears at you.
One of my tattoos was barely visible above the neckline of my shirt and he began rapid-firing about that. I darted ahead, instinctively moving faster and leaving P. behind, in part because there was a clump of people waiting for the bus at the stop the man emerged from.
“That’s a nice tattoo girl can I see it I got tattoos on my neck what is that tattoo of…”
I decided the best course of action was just to keep walking, quickly, as I always do and not react at all. I assumed P. was right behind me and would pop up next to me as soon as we left the crush of people.
I was wrong. The man started yelling.
“Man, get your HANDS off me, DON’T TOUCH ME!”
I was shocked to turn and see that he was addressing P. with this. I didn’t see what happened. The next thing I knew, the man lunged at P., grappling him and taking him down with an arm slung around his neck. P. fell on his backpack. They tussled on the ground and I froze for a second: go for phone? Start yelling? The man’s ribs were exposed and I considered kicking him with my rainboot to get him off.
Several thoughts flashed through my mind, layered on top of the “what to do?” thoughts. Did P. hit his head? He went down so gracefully. He has this incredible dexterity and he used to salsa and ballet dance. He even fell beautifully when attacked in the street by a random miscreant. It reminded me of seeing Patrick Swayze jumping over the fence in The Outsiders. Swayze was not capable of doing anything but jumping gracefully, like a gazelle. Was P. going to die? Were the man’s friends he was with at the bus stop going to jump in? HOW WAS I THINKING ALL OF THESE THOUGHTS IN THE SPACE OF ABOUT FIVE SECONDS? I settled on yelling.
“GET OFF HIM! LEAVE HIM ALONE!”
After a few more moments they broke apart. The man turned himself over on the ground like an upended turtle. I realized he was cupping a joint in his hand and it was still smoking. It seemed so absurd, launching into a fight with a joint in your hand!
A few more words were exchanged, and the man called P. a fucking asshole, and taunted him, gloating about taking him down. In the next breath he told us to call the cops, and that he would tell them that we started it. None of it made any sense, but when do these things make sense? In addition to the weed, he smelled like alcohol and like he didn’t have much else to lose.
“What is WRONG with you?” I said, standing over him. He just stared at me. We turned and started walking away quickly. By some incredible luck, a bus we could get home on was loading passengers. “Let’s take that one,” we decided, immediately.
Once I ascertained that P. was okay, and that he hadn’t hit his head, I had to ask him. “Did you touch that guy?” It seemed really wrong and super out of character. P. is NOT any kind of fight-picker.
“He went after you,” he said.
“Yeah, okay, but you could have kept walking with me, it would be okay…”
“No, I mean, when you walked away, he lunged and hit his head on your shoulder. You didn’t feel it, did you? I just put my hand on his shoulder and pulled him back away from you.”
“He tried to…headbutt me?” I asked. This was getting weirder. “I guess he got what he wanted–a fight.”
Obviously it could have turned out much worse, but it was very troubling. The man was African American, and once I calmed down I felt afraid for him, especially considering the political climate and the sad current events in the U.S. As one anonymous, unnotable white lady I don’t think I have all the power in the world, nor do I want it, but sometimes I say a little atheist prayer to myself both that I won’t get hurt and that other people, especially black men, won’t get hurt on my account. I had just listened to Jay Smooth’s latest at my desk the day before and cried a little. These issues were on my mind.
A couple of years ago, well before things came to a boil in Ferguson, I was gassing up in one of Seattle’s dodgier neighborhoods in the late afternoon, well before sunset. I was standing behind the car, as is my custom ever since I had a gas tank overflow on me once years ago, while I stood right near the tank. The girls were in the backseat, facing forward.
A young black man, probably midteens, cut through the gas station parking lot towards a bus stop, a fairly common occurrence with pedestrians in that intersection. I didn’t think much of it. He passed very close to me and muttered at me loudly, as I was probably studying a tree or a cloud or something: “Fucking white-ass bitch, I could beat your fucking ass.” He kept moving and I kept my eye on him, and he crossed the street to the bus.
I wasn’t scared or mad. I didn’t really react at all; I recognized impotent rage when I heard it. I’ve experienced it many, many times myself. That was the first time I had that guilty, unpleasant thought: if you laid a hand on me, there would probably be a special serving of trouble coming your way since I’m a middle-class, white mother gassing up my Honda, and you are a young black man in America. I don’t know how to speak or write about this, and I am aware I am klunking all over the place. I know I keep this blog pretty apolitical, save the occasional feminist screed. So I am going to sound vomitrociously sanctimonious saying this, but the awareness of my privilege made me feel sick to my stomach. Not the fear of him. Fear for him.
In a weird way I admired his brashness, since I had been young-angry once, not understanding targets or consequences. Was I the right target for his rage against white ladies and what they represent sometimes? Maybe not. It made me think a lot though. I hope the kid finds peace and an outlet, but I am also weirdly grateful to him for kicking my bubble like that.
When I said “What is wrong with you” to the man on the ground today I meant “why would you attack someone in the street like that?”, since I have apparently become the cliche of the scoldy, middle-aged white lady, someone’s future grandmother, smacking mashers with her handbag and waving her umbrella and being SHOCKED, SHOCKED that anyone would behave without at least modicum of decorum. But also, I meant please don’t let this end badly at all, for you or for us, but especially not because of the color of my skin and the color of your skin.