It’s a warm autumn, no hint of red in the trees, and it’s downhill all the way to Broadway. My head is empty of all thoughts, light or heavy. I hardly notice my steps, my surroundings or my descent from Independence to Arlington to Netherlands to Riverdale Avenue. There is a dirty fellow at the bus stop, not dirty like he’s heading home from a night shift, or like he slept rough. Dirty like that’s a condition he is careful to maintain. As I walk past him he curls his mouth into a doggy sneer and blows smoke through his lips. It could be something he saw in a movie. It’s so ugly!
The only time my sister ever said anything mean to me I was blowing cigarette smoke out of my nose and mouth at the same time and she said fiercely ‘you look so ugly when you smoke.’ I was about twenty-two and being beautiful was one of my greatest ambitions in the world. My older sisters are generous with me to a fault. So I remember each reprimand they have ever given me – about 5 between them in the last thirty years. I treasure each of these sharp slaps – they have rescued me from certain self mutilation and immolation. My friend Li explained that in his country the first born is the best, the second child is intelligent, the third is beautiful and the fourth is an idiot – it should be drowned. I am the fourth child, and I left home, left the continent where my kin thrive and expand their territory, to evade my fate as the fourth child, the family dullard.
I drop my books off in the bin outside the public library and half a block later I step into my kosher bakery. The new server recognizes me now. She’s hitting the punch line with another client and lets me wait. ‘I just say thanks to god I’m pregnant cause he could have had me, you know how that man talks sweet when he wants something.’ She sucks at her teeth. I glance at her stomach getting fat and smile a grown up smile with them. I order a 95 cent cup of coffee. It’s the cheapest cup of coffee in my neighborhood and the 2nd best. Tia’s on the corner by the train station is the best at $1.25. The pregnant server looks at the time, almost noon, and at my hair, dress, handbag and shoes.
‘You work around here?’
‘At the College.’
‘You a teacher?’
‘Do you ever come across José Guerrero?’
‘That your boy? No I don’t know him. What’s he studying?’
She gets still, stares at me waiting for my judgment.
‘That’s a smart guy, he’ll get a good job straight away,’ I assure her, and then, ‘Congratulations mom. That’s a lot of work, getting a kid into college – there are a lot of distractions out there these days.’
‘And my daughter’s already getting started, she’s taking prep classes, she’s just in high school. She wants to be an architect.’
‘That’s a smart girl. Nice work Mom.’
‘And the youngest one’s in middle school. Are you staying here?’
‘No. I’m going to school. I’m teaching tonight.’ I point at the street, my bus is pulling in.
She puts some speed into it, takes my change and hands the coffee over. She gives me the once over again, my hair, shoes, handbag, the age around my eyes and mouth, my accent almost New York but not American.
I don’t recognize the bus driver, and he ignores me when I say ‘good morning.’ The bus is almost empty. There is a woman sitting in the disabled section, and there’s the dirty smoker sitting behind her. I let them keep their space, and sit a safe distance away from both. At the traffic light on 231st, the lady calls out to the driver. ‘Excuse me can I get off here!’
‘Excuse me can I get off here! Here!’
‘No. There’s lots of eyes around here. I could get in trouble. You can get off at the busstop it’s just across the street.’
He’s right too, she can wait for the light to change and then get off at the busstop it’s 20 seconds away. She turns her body away from the driver and sends me an exaggerated eye roll. I smile but without my teeth, eyes or body. She storms off the bus at the stop, and just before the new passengers begin to board, the dirty smoker says to me in a friendly voice: ‘That’s a lazy Bitch!’
I’m irritated with them both. ‘Who told you to talk to me? Dood, u think you’ve got me, you think I have to defend the lazy bitch? Lady, I’m not fighting with the bus driver, you are. I don’t care if he’s white. Let him do his job. Dude, I’m not a bitch, not all blacks are lazy, just some of us. Dude, you’re ugly, not all of you, just some of you.’
I have this conversation with myself because talking to myself is easier than talking to every New Yorker that tries to press me into verbal intercourse. Talking to me cheers me up and I’m looking out the window and chortling, not out loud, but underneath my skin.
It’s filling up now. There’s a man in a Chuck Norris t-shirt. What a blast from the past. There are 16 identical passport pictures of Chuck, wearing his eternally expressionless expression. Each portrait is captioned with a new emotion: Happy, sad, mad, depressed. I’m attracted to the irony of his t-shirt before I begin to appreciate that the guy is in his late forties and looks fabulous, still flat on the stomach and strong in the arms, chest and shoulders. He is sitting in the granny section next to a young woman with a walking stick. As she attempts to exit the bus, a granny with a cane bumps into her, insisting that the aged have right of way. Suddenly the granny spies the young woman’s cane, almost identical to her own, and she apologizes and lets her exit the bus. Hayzeus – when did everyone get so entitled. And then there’s a voice, strident and persistent. ‘I got a wheelchair!’ As if someone was blocking her passage.
The driver lowers the stairs, evicts Chuck Norris from priority seating and lets the lady with the child in a wheelchair onto the bus. She rebuffs his offer of help to belt the chair.
‘I got it.’
As he allows the passengers on board he calls back to her ‘put the brake on!’
‘I did. It’s the first thing I did!’ She doesn’t snap but you can tell she wants to. I wonder how many times a day she gets advice on how to take care of her boy in a wheelchair from good citizens who wouldn’t babysit him for five minutes so she could pee with the door closed just this once.
It seems like yesterday, but I see Nadia’s posts on facebook and I remember that she’s grown now. She’s done with grad school and her pictures show a woman with the tall white stick, composed, radiant, loved by many and adoring life. We lived at the young women’s residence on Capitol Hill. I wasn’t so young at 34, I just made the cut off point for eligible residents, but she really was young, just over 20, but at the time, still as delicate and pretty as a child.
We were walking the short walk to Union Station together, she led me easily with her stick. It was nice to be around her because she was so young, they all were, and they made me feel maternal and wise. After a day buried in texts on international courts and sexual violence, I enjoyed returning home to them, the youngsters, their insatiable, crazy hunger at the dinner table, and the careful way they took notes when I dispensed advice.
A man lurked in the doorway of the restaurant at Union Station that Michelle Obama had lunched in only the day before. He was wrinkled by filth and neglect, and his body was bent forward as if his back could not straighten. I saw him, and I waited for him to greet me. I had been in DC for half a year and was finally used to African Americans meeting my eyes, greeting me and demanding my civil response. This old black man ignored me. Instead, he lurched out of the doorway towards Nadia, and his body barely avoided a collision with the hand holding, guiding her blind man’s stick. He put his mouth close to her ear, and in a powerful baritone said ‘God bless you girl.’ Even bent over, he was a large man, with a large voice, but his tone was tender, so tender, that she didn’t break stride, didn’t recoil or flinch from him.
Sitting in the train I finally blurted out, ‘does that happen to you a lot?’
She smiled at my childish astonishment. ‘Yes.’
PS I’ve seen Beatriz Preciado speak twice in the past week – totally amazing. She is now officially number one on the list of my deep and eternal intellectual crushes: (ii) Fiounnuala Aolain (iii) Carlos Decena
PPPS I stood in the studio of Wangechi Mutu last night. I dropped off copies of my book – the cover art of which is Mutu’s work….Her assistant told me to feel free and look around, and I said ‘I can’t, I’d need about 4 hours to pore through everything.’ She had National Geographics in there dating back to the 1950s. Opening night at the Brooklyn Museum – I’ll try and race over after I’m done with my juniors at 5PM. We’re discussing Brodkin Sack’s ‘How Jews Became White‘, it’s the first time I’m using it in class, and need to read it one more time – alot of new facts for me too. It’s a smart and sharp text, and I’m counting on Sacks to disrupt students simplistic understanding of race privilege/oppression before we move on to our European case studies.
PPPS Aside from Preciado this week, I fell in love with another magnificent woman, the French Minister of Women’s Rights and the Spokesperson of the French government…Moroccan born and born in 1977….Meeting both her and Preciado and standing in Mutu’s studio reminded me to get off my backside and get to work…no more slacking Chiz. It’s been an earth shifting week for me. See the meeting and interview with Najat Vallaud-Belkamen.