This Time Comes…
I decided to give myself the life I’ve always wanted. It started with a question: If you could be anything in the world at all, what would that look like? More aptly, if I could have anything at all how would I go about getting it? There’s no magic genie. Only time and good common sense. The world of words is work.
I think about my favorite columnists in their respective mediums and can only dream of their mastery. The first that comes to mind is Andy Rooney. It takes a special mind to be that kind of particular curmudgeon. What drew me in to his voice when I was a child, I think, was the fact that he seemed like a Jim Henson character. By that I mean I wanted to look at as well as listen to him, and talk to him, too, just like I did Waldorf and Statler. I loved all of them the same. Mr. Rooney wasn’t a Muppet, though no less real. He could tell great stories and seemed like he gave great big Bay Rum smelling hugs. But he, just like Waldorf and Statler, was on the television screen and so I would watch and I would listen and, yeah, “He was avuncular,” I guess is the proper phrase.
And then there was Linda Ellerbee. My most vivid memory of her on screen persona is that she told great story. I stayed up to listen to her. She reminded me of what I learned to look for in news broadcasting from Big Blue Marble and In the News when I was a kid.
I was perhaps more of a Tom Brokaw groupie than a Dan Rather “fan” while growing up. Mr. Rather scared me and Mr. Brokaw seemed nice. In looking at Mr. Rather now, though, I completely get why everyone was so in love with Walter Cronkite. The level of trust that these people earn in telling us news — sharing with us what they learn — cannot be manufactured. They are who they are and love what they do. The cameras, for us, provide windows. I look at the relationship between Dan Rather and Rachel Maddow whenever she has him on and I think of how lucky she is to have the chance to talk to him. I’m not jealous — I’ve the luxury as a listener to hear special conversation between a life-long news journalist and a political science PhD. Together they talk about how they see what is happening in the world, and seeing them in action doing what they do adds to my perspective. And I am glad Rachel Maddow always seems to know to ask the right questions. In the most basic of ways it is nice to see that school never leaves us.
Who do we trust to tell us story — to give us news and information of things in comprehensive fashion? I started out with In the News and Big Blue Marble and that blue eagle, Sam, on The Muppet Show. And then it morphed into overnight news and cable. Through it all I wanted to hear empirically how things would get better— that they are getting better “right now” in the moment I am living in, not some distant unattainable future that could just as easily be next year as well as tomorrow. In thinking that I wondered, “Well, who can I trust to give me that kind of now?” I look at books and magazines and cat videos on YouTube and I go outside early in the morning for its quiet and I think, “Who can I trust most of all to tell me — to show me on a regular basis — how cool life can be?” There has to be a framework, though. Otherwise it is all pipe dream. Or it gets reduced to something like those “Mean People Suck” stickers that are both relevant and weird at the same time because the people handing them out are selling them and not really handing them out, thus implying if I say, “No,” to their solicitation I am somehow one of the mean people the sticker is talking about…and I am not. And neither are you. So I don’t trust a sticker to tell me my truth about the way the world works.
I want to be that person I trust who tells me how life gets better and things turn out okay because of all the things you hope for when you’re a kid. As a result of them. Judy and Elroy Jetson had the Internet — and Elroy had his on his watch. George had his flying car but Aladdin had a carpet. In my world there were magic toll booths and special crayons that were purple. I won’t let that stuff go because it opened my mind and allowed me to see stuff all around me differently. Possibility. Growth. I learned how not to be scared of how the world really works sometimes. Because I did not have to go down some creepy path if I did not want to, and if I did I could take a flashlight to shine on rose bushes that would have otherwise have been invisible in the darkness.
I remember Andy Rooney for his good common sense curmudgeonliness. I remember Linda Ellerbee for insight. Hers, that let me know that I could, in fact, have my own. I think of all the ways that I could not hear Dan Rather until I could finally hear him. Thank you Rachel Maddow, for that.
In the end I have decided this is about story design. My own. The context is the world around me. Observations of things that make the most sense to me is what this is about. And that could be anything. For most things I don’t have an opinion. But I can say whatever I see. And how stuff makes me feel that has everything to do with the life I’ve chosen for myself.
I won’t ever be anyone’s grandmother — I don’t have children. But little kids will look at me and think, what? Maybe they’ll see insight. Or a Muppet character. Someone they trust as proof that when we go from worlds with flying carpets and magic crayons into darkness that we come out on the other side into a place that is still as wonderful. Full of hope. And magic we ourselves create. The Internet is my magic book to look at, read, and learn from. I decided to give myself the life I’ve always wanted and I’ve got something, too, to share. And it starts by reading. It is how I listen.
II. In the Shadow of the Lady Whose Hand Holds Fire
One time I left New York and did not know I was holding my breath while descending until the airplane broke through the clouds of what must have been an overcast evening and I saw the city of Detroit from above at night. It looked like what it must feel like to be landing in an onscreen version of heaven. That is what Detroit feels like to me now first whenever I hear the word ‘Detroit’. We all have our thoughts about different somewheres that are not where we are from. Memories can always be special. I can go anywhere in all of this but I want to tell you about my New Gotham City. What it makes me think of now. How it has grown. Evolved. Come of age with me it has, my beloved town. I will remember for you now in writing what my home feels like because I am — I remain — a daughter of my beloved New York City.
I did not watch the twin towers go up. I did not watch them fall, either. They were always there to me. For me. When I see pictures now that have my new tower in the background, almost finished, almost ready to be filled with people, I remember a commercial for WPIX, Channel Eleven. When channel eleven was a channel for news and had free advertising by way of my skyline. On weekday afternoons right after school my channel eleven was also home to Tom and Jerry cartoons and call-in game shows for kids. My skyline has changed. So have I, I guess. And so I think ‘phoenix’. How can I not? It just makes sense. My beloved New York City tower of freedom.
I want to love this new building. I will. I do. Seeing that escalator being lifted into the sky did give me chills but quite frankly, watching the spire go up is what sealed the deal for me. I am a little sad I do not have the full bliss to be able to remember the whole experience the way today’s children will. They will have no memory of what was and then…well…wasn’t…, and because of them looking forward does not hurt anymore. We are feeling better as a close-knit family of New Yorkers from a different age no matter where we are, with enough courage to say that we do. Our tears mean something more. Each one a reflection of those who embrace our home. And so I say hello. Welcome. Be yourself. Nothing more. But certainly no less. One drop of truth is worth more than…
I wish I could truly say to you what it has really felt like to watch the tower grow. What it feels like to look at “Liberty Enlightening the World”, and then my skyline. The mash-up that comes to mind for me is the anticipation after having been away, of seeing the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and, whenever driving into town through Jersey, that turn just before you hit the Lincoln Tunnel. That small stretch was my private reassurance every single time I came home on break from college.
My heart, slow to heal, begins again.
My thoughts are bittersweet because of my personal memories of “before”. But do you see how hard those folks worked on building, quietly, slow and steady, through so much as people all around work hard in my beloved New York City?
Something new rolls in. We pretend like we don’t see it. Like we don’t feel. Like we aren’t just a little…dare I even think to say, excited? The stone visage comes with the territory of all five borough’s zip codes. We are a more cautious people. Reserved. That has always been a part of who we are, wherever we are from and however we manage to make our way here, home. In beautiful ways. Ways we begin to imagine now and articulate again because we are healing. We have healed.
There is something that often goes unspoken whenever we look out and up at home. A sort of, “You had to be there to appreciate here,” kindof thing that relates to time. And culture. Cultures. Memories we hold close to our hearts about our city that was also our mothers’ and our grandparents’, aunts’, uncles’, cousins’ — you name the relationships, we got ’em. We are from everywhere, and from everywhere we call this place our home. Which is really kinda cool when you think about it.
The phoenix always lives. She is protected. My beloved New York City. My home. My Gotham. My Metropolis? No. My Gotham. Definitely my Gotham.
III. Parameters: When Your Home Address Includes the @ Sign…
The part in the Fourth Amendment that I have always paid the closest attention to is, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects,” mainly, perhaps, because of what it is that I do. I get a little salty when people start looking through my notes while I am trying to form a thought. Especially when that thought is long and I want it to be more than one sentence that reads like a poem or a paragraph turning slowly into song. You never know what it is going to be sometimes until it is done and you yourself have had a chance to look back on it and listen slowly to what it is you are trying to tell yourself.
A few days ago a blogger wrote, “Is your perception of your safety worth the marginalization of other people who don’t have your privilege?” Quite by chance after reading that I came across a particular sentence used to describe the discipline of architecture by an online reviewer describing the short film of an architectural student who’d used a design program to infuse specific kind of animation into two of his own stories: Architecture is a philosophical act, as larger concerns of social systems and culture influence its practice. And then I decided to treat this essay like my Master’s exam in practice — take a set of concepts, think about them, and then sit down to write. I get very personal about what I am most driven by but have learned to disallow cliche. There is no right or wrong answer here, just thoughts on the discussion taking place around me. It got me thinking about the Internet. What exactly is its place in my life as I continue being the kind of communicator of sorts that I am?
The Internet is not designed to end a thought or an idea — that much is pretty clear by now. Collectively, I think the thoughts we are working on whenever we are logged onto it actively is…us. Which is nice. But where do we now go for that private space, where we’re not so much the “brand” we are trying to create as much as we are just ourselves with simplicity? No pomp. No circumstance. This is an open question and I answer it myself every single day. I kind of enjoy the fact that when I look around I see people I do not know but recognize through behavior. You can tell when folks are thoughtful. When they are being kind. When they are caring for their community instead of being territorial. When they are just being themselves in their surroundings and just enjoying their neighborhoods. I’ve no idea what their Facebook posts say if they have them. I don’t know where to look for their pictures on Instagram. And if they are people who are eight, nine or ten years-old then those notions, for them aren’t even a factor yet. Thankfully. So then it would follow, I mean I guess that, too, the littlest kids among us may very well be the most real kinds of people. Right now, anyway. Ultimately, I get a certain level of comfort from whoever feels most comfortable being themselves, carrying on with their everyday day to day. That, most of all is what feels like home. “Is your perception of your safety worth the marginalization of other people who don’t have your privilege?” is loaded with meaning as a question, and so are all the answers. Where are you when you ask? Who exactly are you? What my own particular privileges are dependent most greatly on what I have access to. I could say the sunrise, the Internet, my own personal thoughts — the ones in my head and on paper — are what make me feel secure. I want my safety to be yours when I feel most secure in my person. As a woman of color of a certain age who has been through much, including the New York public school system, when do you suppose that has been up to now? Going forward, when and where might that be? What does it take now for me to feel most secure? Knowing that I want you to have the same degree of safety that I do, in real terms openly and honestly, what does that make you think about? Subjectivity is the word ‘privilege’, indeed.
Days and dates do matter now. Time stamps? Not so much. These are different times we’re living. A couple of weeks ago a woman asked if the Fourth Amendment was worth fighting for and my visceral reaction was to say toward the radio I was listening to when I heard her ask the question was, “We sorta kinda answered that a while ago, didn’t we? That is why we have the amendment in the first place.” It seems kind of obvious at first but then I realize for a lot of people, myself included, day to day life is not about reading the Bill of Rights every single morning. Not even if you’re a lawyer, or a school teacher, or a Mayor, or even a journalist. But for me it is about knowing there are certain things woven into the fabric of who I am as a person, no matter where I am. Personhood. This includes me walking down the street, standing in line at the supermarket and in the drugstore, as well when I am at the airport, and whenever or wherever it is I try to hail a cab.
The right to feel secure in my person…
The Internet is a funny place to exist as an entity. We are writing ourselves into existence there — here — and we are telling truth about who we are. Showing it wide open and in plain view. Some people post only pictures of themselves. Others, just music. Some people talk and talk to everyone, others only to family. Some people draw cartoons. Some people write short stories. Essays. And you know what? All of it is part of they story. What we do on the Internet as we interact with each other is no less real than when we step outside our front doors. That kid who sees you stacking blocks at recess who waits until you are almost done to knock them all down grows up to become who exactly? Whether or not I care, maybe someday they want to be something better.
There’s a certain debate that’s gotten lost on me. I am older now. What it boils down to is balance. Being measured in what you do because it makes for good common sense…which ain’t as common as we all wish it were. Protect my right to be secure in my person and I protect yours. How? For me the perception of my safety involves care. Being kind to you. Which ain’t always gonna be as nice as you’d like, but will always be thoughtful. If the man at the check-out counter treated you poorly just remember, I did not do that to you. And perhaps, just maybe, there’s my own story of experience with some kind of maltreatment that I would just as soon make something better with. So where do we go from here?
IV. The World That I Have Inherited : Taking Sad Songs, Making Them Better
In the early evening a few years back I was sitting outside of a bustling train station watching people watch my non-reaction. A person sitting next to me was making rude gestures behind my head when my back was turned. I know this for certain because every time I looked directly at the culprit she remained still, never thinking about how her movement was still attached to her shadow. I went from watching other people watch me to paying close attention to the shadow she cast as well as my own. I observed for myself in our shadows…the comedy. I can only guess that what may have appeared to be spectacle at first eventually became boring to passers by. Once I remained still and just watched my own shadow. And the culprit’s. The behavior behind my head continued for just a while longer, and then it was time to board my train. I never said a word about what I’d learned in those shadows about the truth…until now. When you’ve got other things on your mind you just kinda focus on those other things, you know? The experience itself — that one in particular — reminded me there is more than one way for a person to look after themselves. In the larger scheme of things, I also learned how best to trust my own judgement. Instinct is common sense based on past observation mostly. The more you know, the more you know.
Back then, it simply made more sense for me to shave my head once I got to my destination to make it clear without saying a word that I knew in that moment I was alone. From Nepal to Southern India, the path through Sarnath became a pilgrimage. For me. Over land, mostly. Meditation helped a lot. I thought a great deal about the Brooklyn I grew up in. And Sojourner Truth. Really… that is what I thought about, uninterrupted. My mind opened up. The whole earth became a private room of my own to think quietly in. And I would need the experience — the knowledge of what coming through all of that and being okay felt like. It held for me the beginning of the realization that I would have to slow down, and that it is beautiful to remember everything without the distraction of very mean people and their long afternoon shadows. The calm of memory is what brings me back to life.
Not long ago I was riding down the street on a bicycle in a quiet Brooklyn neighborhood smack dab in the middle of the afternoon. As I was rolling past a small low rise apartment building on a beautiful tree lined block, I saw a family that appeared to just be finishing the packing up furniture and home into a large moving truck. The littlest boy among them shouted, “Hey look, a nigger!” No need to sugar coat this as it wasn’t the first time I’d been called ‘nigger’ by a child. It was the reaction of one of the adults in the group that was what was strange to me — a loud gasp immediately followed by “Shhh!” My first thought in terms of reaction was inaction. To do absolutely nothing. The day was otherwise beautiful and at my casual pace I would soon be out of earshot anyway. I saw no reason to speed up or slow down. The family in question was packing their stuff. They weren’t moving in, they were moving out. There are worse things happening in the 21st century landscape. There are also things to report on that are so much better. People…children…whose parents don’t have to worry whether or not what their kids learn at home will shame them.
I have the luxury of thinking about exactly where I want to go with this as I write it all down for you. And I look at the clock. 4:41 in the morning. A.M. Still dark outside. And yet birds outside my window manage to sing. I wonder who hears it but me at first and then I kinda know it doesn’t matter. It’s not that deep. Sometimes birds sing early in the morning a little over an hour before sunrise. It has a calming effect. Because it is Brooklyn and the sound I am hearing just before dawn is not trash cans.
It took me a while to get over the first time I’d been called a nigger. To be called that to my face, I mean. I know much better than to wonder if the last time will in fact be the last. What I am certain of, though, is that there are some things about feeling safe in my own person that I’ll just never know. Instead I gather patience and I watch news more informed as a reader about people’s behavior. I pay close attention to what my favorite artist’s influences are. Quite literally. The way to become inspired is also the way to cope. What was I thinking about mostly while waiting for the train that time? There was this restaurant that had really nice people and amazing food and the fact that it had been a while since I had eaten. I thought about how I just wanted a bit of rest, and soon I would be able to have exactly that, with a bit of something soft coming from the speakers playing in the background. And, too, how it just makes sense to choose battles wisely. Thoughts flow. What looks like navel gazing boredom to the untrained eye might actually be active thought, measured. Or reminiscing of some kind or another. Maybe even bridled anticipation. Perhaps. Never underestimate the power of meditation. Have no care of what it looks like from the outside. Trust what you hear. Your rhythm Your music. Now here, this — when people read your work, they will know.
The first time I heard “that word” I did not use restraint or good judgement. I was in the Deep South but somehow I decided my response would be to throw sand in the eyes of the children who’d called me ‘that’. I did not feel threatened. I was eight and they were younger — I was insulted. Livid. Fuming with indignation. When their older brother came seemingly out of nowhere to defend them I asked him accusingly where they’d learned ‘that word’. The thought didn’t enter my mind until this very moment that the answer may very well have been, “Our parents.” All of us fell silent for a moment, just glaring at each other. And then we went our separate ways. Had it not been for the throwing of sand I would never have thought I did anything wrong. But I’d thrown sand in the eyes of children, and I knew better. That’s the part I wish I could take back now. Their word against mine has, “Black girls from the North throw sand,” as part of their narrative, and that ain’t right. However, their narrative is not one I especially look for now. I kinda don’t know what to say to folks who say, “My family and I used to call black people niggers on sight.” That includes all kinds of folks who seem to have no problem letting that word roll off their tongues more easily, based perhaps on some of the music they hear, instead of their native “Dzaoww-shung haoww,” “O-hayou gozai masu,” “An-nyŏng-ha-se-yo?,” or “Buenos Dias!” A sincere “Boungiorno!,” in a thick mother tongue among the gentry is wonderful to hear every once in a while. Hey, it all happens.
As a kid I was changed by that experience. To a degree. I never told my parents about it. We were visiting the South for pleasure and my eight year-old self put it out of my mind not long after because I had other stuff to think about — amusement park rides and hats with ears and little singing doll robots. Things have a way of coming full circle eventually. The only one who remembers that incident from my perspective is me.
Tech writer Chris Matyszczyk asked an interesting question regarding the whole addition of the technological aspect of things and trust and, well, so much more because clearly we are all deeply entrenched in rethinking the ways in which people share. “Ultimately…is there anyone you can truly believe in? The minute clever people saw that technology would entice more people to offer more information about themselves more openly, they tried to take advantage. Every entity on the web is looking us in both eyes and saying: ‘trust us.’ How can we do that when we can’t even trust ourselves?” I would like to offer that maybe the breakdown is only highlighted by the range of the Internet. The volume and the speed. How do we change the picture being painted? For my own peace of mind, really, I guess it all boils down to restraint. There are so many mixed messages and everything gets jumbled up after a while. Must every single instance of everyday strange take precedence over everyday beautiful? Especially without context? I think not. That birds sing matters just as much as the person casting a beautiful silhouette before doing something mean — to anyone. Everything has an effect. Perhaps we’ll trend away from foolishness for a while but I don’t wait for that day.
Oddly enough, I started off wanting to talk about Buster Brown. The shoes. Specifically the shoes. How all kids used to wear them. The graduation to Thom McAn seemed organic. Actual shoes…not sneakers. I was probably wearing a pair of Buster Brown’s that day, back when I was a kid and in the Deep South, called way too far outside of my name. That little kid a couple of months ago? Shorts, a tee shirt, and basketball sneakers.
We’re never going to stop looking at each other’s skin. It is one of the many things that make us uniquely beautiful. Every culture has poetry about it. That our color is either a plus or a minus depending on the neighborhood, the street, the house or the office environment? That’s a different story. This isn’t pre-1965. A lot has happened. But it is not pre-1965 and a lot has happened. Does there come a point where we stop being knuckleheads? I live behind these eyes of mine. I want to be able to say yes. In the most basic of ways people don’t start out as complete assholes. Little kids look. They stare. They observe what’s around them. Everything is learning. Their questions are the ones that make most sense. It is perfectly fine for children to examine the basic differences that make us not each other, but who we are as ourselves. Their curiosity informs our meaning, not the other way around. Never stop learning.
This is not 1965. A legitimate conversation about race has to happen now. It is the backbone of every national discussion we have, but fear in too many directions makes us pretend like it is not there waiting. There are no “clear” people. But silence on the matter still renders too many of us invisible.
We are more than equipped to develop a framework that is caring. And we are more than capable. Are we ready…?
“Hey look, a nigger!”
After all this time, really?
We’ve got to do better than that.
Are we ready?
It’s time to remove the option of saying no.
Acknowledging the truths of who we are does not mean every discussion has to be “warts and all’. The warts are kind of nasty, though, and ignoring them is part of the reason some of us are here now, wherever here is, examining this closely. “Hey look, a nigger!” Those are some harsh words to have learned to receive in stride. Over time they wear you down. This is not 1865. “Speak as little as possible,” I say to myself. “See who they think you are.” Trust me, it doesn’t take long. A person of restraint can tell you things if they want to, without saying a word. Writing is more often the simple answer to a series of tests rather than a complex answer to one simple question. Per tuttu il tempo che sono testati. Noi sopportiamo. All the time we are tested. We endure. Reactions all the way around can be different now.
I live behind these eyes of mine
In the skin that I am in
This time neither sword nor fire only.
My pen. My pen. My pen.
Neither sword, nor fire only…
I know these words I trust
For my own peace of mind
Neither sword, nor fire only
This time comes… .
And I am here. And so are we. Us. Together.
What lifting every single voice in harmony sounds like, the quiet legacy of a people learning from each other and making their own world inside their heads a better place.
This is my reading of the power of the Internet. And wherever it is I go. We see each other differently when we learn to look at ourselves on the page in each others work.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I love to read folks who take good care. Their work shines on these here Interwebs,
and what I see are stars in the Internet constellation.
Reading has done so much for me…and learning.
How do I even begin to tell you? When you read you will know.
Thank you for taking a bit of time to read.