This has been a weird evening. It was incredibly mundane, but it was also a microcosm of sooo much. This post starts off slow and meandering, but gathers momentum and closes strong and poignant.
I am hanging out in Seattle, staying with a friend on Capitol Hill. I’m here to visit with family, catch up with friends, and catch up on all of the annoying little computer tasks that are hard to keep track of when you’re a shifty bum with inconsistent internet access Friend is out attending Feelings Class (its an ongoing nonviolent communication workshop, he just calls it “feelings class” for short), so I have his apartment to myself for the evening.
Playing the car shuffling game with capitol hill street parking… yesteday I got away with only moving my car once in a 2hr zone, and I never saw any chalk on my tires. I was pleased with myself for finding an easy nook. Today I got over-confident. Or lazy. “Wow, maybe they’re just in the habit of skipping that block,” I think to myself. “Or maybe they do it every other day… I should move my car.” But ’round noon, I ignore my intuition buzzer. Then I ignore it at 2pm. And at 3pm. And by this time, it’s almost six anyways.
I smoke half a joint on the way from the hacker lab that Friend works at, where I’ve been computering on my computer all day, towards my car. The joint is soothing, reassuring. As I walk up to my car, I feel the sinking feeling as I glimpse the telltale white envelop on my windsheild. $53, Holy Fuck. GAAAAGH. Yeach.
I get in the car and relax, get all Zen about it. Whatever.
Drive my car over to Madison Co-op, since I have to move it anyways, and I carefully navigate clockwise around the block so I can make a right turn into their tiny parking garage, instead of a left turn in the middle of a block on Madison, a busy main road. I walk down the stairs as as I round the sharp corner to the front doors of the co-op, a begger catches my attention. That is what he’s doing. He is catching people’s attention. He’s being subsmissive, in the acceptable beggar fashion, his feet barely move. But he stands in the middle of the path, just on the edge where the sidewalk meets the archway of the building. He is white, middle aged, pudgy, but not overwheight. His clothes are worn and frumpy, but not obviously dirty.
As each person walks by, he leans into them without moving his fee, “Do you have any spare change? Please, anything.” I brush past him, with my customary bleeding heart guilt, my throaty whisper, “No I’m sorry.” I console myself thinking, well at least I acknowledged him and treated him like a human being. Then I forget about him. I do my shopping.
On my way back out, he catches me again, and I repeat my performance. Except this time it eats at me. Maybe it’s because I’m high, maybe it’s making me more open and vulnerable. Maybe it’s making my more sympathetic. Sympathy is useless, I say.
But poor people are the most generous. They’re more likely to stop and help a stranger. They’re more likely to go out on a limb for a friend. They’re more honest. As a traveller, I have experienced this truth over and over again. Every time I’m in a pickle, lost in a strange land, spinning in circles, don’t speak the language, the people who are the most helpful are typically poor people. I mean, if you’re homeless and jobless, you probably don’t have a lot of material aid to offer. But even then, people take care of each other.
It’s always the shitty clunker cars that are the most interesting rides when I’m hitching. People in shiny cars who pick up a white girl hitching alone on the freeway because they’re worried some letch is gonna pick her up and rape her… are almost always boring people. Those rides are a game of endurance. And those people are often the most like to drop you off in a hard spot to catch your next ride, and you end up having to walk a mile down the freeway to get to somewhere useful, but you don’t care, cause you just want to get the heck out of their car so you don’t have to listen again about how dangerous hitchiking is, and how you really need to be careful.
I make a habit of trusting strangers. I make a habit of expecting the best in people. Overwhelmingly, it works out. I get to go on neat adventures. I get to have thrilling conversations on the bus about theology and feminism with Somali immigrants. I get invited over to an apartment in the projects for a traditional Ethiopian meal.
Sure, there have been creeps. There was a creepy little old man in sleepy coastal town in Italy, who found me at the bus stop and invited me home for a meal, even though he doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Italian. He was maybe 90 lbs. Maybe 5’6″ I am 6′ tall. 200 lbs. Unafraid, I followed him through the sleepy, winding roads of the Italian version of a suburban retirement community. It was something like a cross between a mobile home park, and a Florida condo complex.
When we got back to his house, I realized that he couldn’t cook anything that wasn’t pasta, which I can’t eat, so I accepted a cup of tea and an orange. Then he started trying to touch me, miming that he wanted to touch one breast. Just one, please. Please, just one, just a little touch… I slowly backed out the door, literally holding him at arms length with my hand firmly planted on his chest, and him flailing his arms toward me indignantly, wailing, and i catch the word “BRUTUS” over and over again… He looked like he might cry. I suppose I could have been snarky, indignant. Justifiably outraged. I could have slapped him. But I was still pretty strongly dissociated from my body then, and the reality of what was happening poured over me like molasses, and my reactions were like molasses. And I was worried I might severely damage his frail frame. I suppose if I had been afraid of him, if he’d been a person in my own community, if he’d had any kind of authority over me, I might have reacted more violently. Or more submissively. But his advances were just so completely absurd I couldn’t help chortling even as I physically restrained him. He stopped still about two feet from his door still wailing about my brutality, and I walked briskly back to the road wondering, “What just happened? Did that really just happen?” I was now motivated to hoof it to the freeway, instead of waiting for the bus, and proceeded to hitchike the rest of the way to Rome.
Italian men are misogynistic lecherous creeps. It’s not personal, it’s just statistics.
So yeah, when you talk to strangers and sometimes follow them, there are creeps. But there are also amazing sweet fellows who you met in a cafe in the next little town, who are chatty and friendly and invite you truffle hunting with them and their specially trained truffle hunting dog, so you get in their car and they drive to a protected old growth forest, and you skirt the edges of the maybe 10 acre postage stamp of protected forest on the cow pasture back side that you can’t see from the freeway, and we sneak into the barbed wire fence and I get to learn how a truffle dog finds truffles. And not one time does he hit on me or try to touch me in any way other than friendly handsakes and a hug or two.
Trusting strangers works for me, with a ratio of maybe 80:20. Eighty percent awesomeness, 20 percent shitty. That’s pretty good odds, in my book.
Maybe that’s why the man begging outside the co-op got under my skin. I sat in my car, and pulled all of the cash out of my walled, six $1 bills. As I rounded the corner where I was standing, I rolled down my passenger window and handed him the bills. “Thanks a lot, he said with relief.” Perhaps he’ll use it to by beer, or cigarettes, or something more assertive. Perhaps he just needs to eat. Perhaps he knows where to find free food, cause there’s free food for bums every night in the week, but a person just needs a little spending money in order to feel like a person in this society.
As I hand him the money, I notice another man, standing on the other side of the corner at the same door. He is black. Thirties, maybe fourties. Not thin, but not round. He was watching. Surveying. Taking things in. He watches me hand money to the white guy, and he looks at me, and I look at him, and he starts to say something along the lines of, “hey, you got something for me too?” But I don’t have any more cash. Maybe he just got there. Maybe he was there the whole time, but I never saw him because I never passed that side of the building. Maybe I just didn’t see him because of his dark clothes and dark skin. I don’t have any more cash. I don’t have anything else he wants.
“Sorry, I didn’t see you”, I call to him as I round the corner and pass him. He looks indignant, incredulous. I can see that look on his face, that look of, “did that just happen?” He is not submissive.
It was perfectly reasonable for me to not see him. I was never in view of that side of the VS Magic? Neither, because Free Will is statistically insignificant. building. And he’s standing on the dark side. In dark clothes. But he doesn’t know that. From his perspective, he saw a white lady randomly stop her car to give money to the white beggar, and give nothing to the black guy on the same corner, doing the same work.
I have the option of shrugging this off and forgetting about it. Of saying, “Well shit, there you go. Can’t give people money, cause there’s always another one wanting more handouts!” But I just see more need. So much need. So many beggars. Don’t you See the suffering? What other way is there than just learning how to take care of each other?
And that guy doesn’t really have the option of forgetting about it. The black guy just saw a white lady stop her car to give the white guy some cash, and nothing for him. I know that my actions, my intentions, don’t match his experience. But he doesn’t. How many slights? How many unconscious, “Sorry, I didn’t see yous!” has he experienced in his life? It’s just a little wound, what’s more on top of so many others. Death by a thousand tiny slices. “Oops, sorry”. Slice. “I didn’t see you”. Slice, slice, slice.
Those are the words he is left with: “I didn’t see you. You are invisible to me. You are less worthy of helping.” Because maybe if I were black, I would have noticed him. Maybe if I weren’t so white, I would have more awareness, maybe I would have more ability to notice his dark skin in the dusky evening. It doesn’t matter. It’s not personal, it’s just statistics.
Because regardless of my intentions, that black man lives in a world where 1/3 of the population of men in his community will go to jail. He lives in a “post-racial” world, where black people are twice as likely as white people to be unemployed. It’s not personal, it’s just statistics.
Maybe his reality is 80:20 too. twenty percent people actually being racist: eighty percent people being accidentally, circumstantially, unintentionally racist. And of the people being actually racist, at least half of them still don’t realize they’re being racist; they think they are just following protocol. They’re just doing what makes sense to them. It’s not personal, it’s just statistics.
I’m not racist, I just exist in a racist system. I’m not racist, he’s just oversensitive. I’m not racist, it’s just statistics. And from my perspective, there’s an eighty percent chance that if I stopped and chatted with of these men, they’d say something that might qualify as sexual harassment. Not intentionally. Just accidentally. Its just the programming he’s carrying. He’s not sexist, he just exists in a patriarchal system. He’s not sexist, I’m just oversensitive. He’s not sexist, it’s just statistics.
It’s not personal, it’s just statistics.