You will have to forgive me for not posting a picture. I looked for one, but the ones I found cost money, and the ones I took myself simply would not do. My words will have to stand in the place of photos, and hopefully color in the lines.
It is late, and I should do my taxes, for that was what I intended to spend this night doing. But instead, I find myself compelled to write. Not sure who, if anyone will read it. And maybe it doesn’t entirely matter. Although, whether I like it or not, at times, I wish for applause, however fleeting. Then beat myself bloody for wanting it. More often I write merely to release something spinning about in my head and heart, sending it out into the world like a message in the bottle. Hoping it may act as a flashlight, lighting the dark corners and keeping the creeping, ever creeping shadows at bay. For, the world seems to be overrun with shadows at the moment, as the darkness within the cracks creeps ever upon us, in teeny tiny footsteps like a nimble giant we cannot quite see.
Walking today to the grocery store, twice, I might add, because I left a bag behind the first go around, I found myself haunted by images and memories and voices of yesterday, yesteryear, and a conversation held with a relative on social media…which ended civilly enough but left in its wake, however unintended, a shadow across my heart.
Backing up a bit, as one often does when telling a story, I moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1996 from Prairie Village, Kansas, an affluent or somewhat affluent, largely white upper-middle class suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. I had spent seventeen years of my life there. When I went to school, there were maybe five or six people in a school of approximately one thousand that were not white, or rather of European descent, aka Irish, Italian, Belgium, English, French, German, and Danish. To give you a good idea how white we were, I, a white woman, six foot tall, portrayed the role of Tituba in black face in a high school presentation of The Crucible. In junior high, for a little while I walked to school with a young girl, named Cathan, who asked me to stop walking with her to school, because she wanted to walk with a boy she had a crush on. She was far from kind — stating simply that I was no fun to walk with, but I wasn’t stupid — I could tell she had a crush on the boy, and resented the competition. So I crossed the street and began walking on the unpaved, grassy side. We lived on a busy street, and school was about a mile away by foot. And that’s how I met Anu. Anu was heavier set, about my height and weight, with black hair, and dark skin, her family were recent immigrants to the US from the Middle East, and together we commiserated as we walked through the grass and often chomped through the snow, unshoveled and coming up to our hips. For Kansas winters were brutal, snow often a foot or more, with a chill below zero. She told me about her religion and what they practiced, and I shared bits and pieces of my own. Oddly enough, we found commonalities, between the lines of our meandering conversations.
I don’t know what happened to Anu, or where she is now. It was all so long ago. In between, I met others, here and there, a friend in Texas, a blue-eyed blond, about five foot three if that, whose father, a professor of engineering at a high profile Texas University, told me that it was a proven fact that white’s were more intelligent than blacks. I remember retorting that if that was the case, his daughter and himself, were clearly not that bright, since there were blacks whose intelligence and accomplishments kicked theirs to the curb, and I named a whole list of them off the top of my head, he paled and my friend shifted uncomfortably in her seat next to me. Then I carefully, shifted tracks and we discussed his childhood, why he felt this way, and how he was carefully carefully taught at a young age to look at people different from himself a certain way through childhood ditties and truncated text-books. I remember my friend, reading a rough draft of a book that I wrote, and telling me that two of the names I’d used were clearly black names and I might want to change them to prevent confusion…this blew me away. I mentioned her comment to my maternal grandmother, who with a shrug, stated simply, “well, she’s from Texas, what do you expect?”
I moved to New York City in the 1990s, and in 2001, nine-eleven happened. I’m not sure those who lived outside of the city can quite imagine what it was like that day, when the sky turned brown and black with smoke. People surprised me, with their kindness. As we cuddled together on the subway, tears running down our eyes. Borinquen, whose name was basically the Spanish name for Puerto Rico, and was half Italian, took me home with her and fixed me lunch at her small family home in the Bronx, until the sky cleared, the subways began running again, and I could make the long journey home myself.
I remember the sky falling in Brooklyn as I walked the ten to fifteen blocks from the subway station to my apartment. Paper, mostly, and this red dust. I remember staring at it in shock and dismay and thinking is this real? In the window of a junk store there were photos of the disaster that stayed up until they crumbled from age. And I remember the rage..no, wait, that is wrong…I don’t remember it, because it isn’t a memory, and it did not go away. It stuck with me like a shadow sitting upon my soul, a dark haze that would not abate. As if that day it burrowed beneath my skin like a parasite, waiting to erupt. Over time, it slowly consumed bits and pieces of my life or so it seemed, regardless of what I did to stop it. For you see, my world, as I saw it and knew it, fell apart that day. But looking back it had been crumbling for a while…and having no one to direct my rage towards, I turned it inwards and attacked myself.
I think a lot of people became consumed with rage that day. I think our country was, it burned through us, cutting a swath a mile wide…as if the terrorists, unknown and unnamed, outside of their faith and the color of their skin, and possibly their nationality, had burned down everyone’s home and killed everyone’s cousin. It was as if a dark cloud came down and shrouded the earth.
Shortly after that, about a year or so, turning the calendar to 2004, I temped at a French bank for a bit. It was right after my niece was born or soon thereafter. The people in the bank had been in one of the towers, they had lost friends in those towers, and were filled with the same rage. The same consuming fear, as if the boogie man lay around each corner, and he was dark of skin, and spoke with a thick accent. Each day, I would listen to them scream at each other, huddled in my cubicle. That is until, I jumped again…to a Health Insurance Provider, who turned out to be on the brink of a merger, the people in this company had also been in the second tower, and barely escaped with their lives. Losing various co-workers in the process. I heard their escape story so many times, it was burned on my soul.
My boss had a shrine to 9/11, and to George W. Bush and Rudy Giulani who she believed saved us all. Each time I walked into her office, there it was, lovingly arranged. She would rant and rail at the Muslims, the Clintons, the Democrats, and often state we had too many rights, but at the same time, she saved domestic animals, volunteered each weekend at local shelters, and was close friends with one of the attorney’s who happened to be Muslim, Atif Islam. I remember sitting with Atif for hours discussing law, fasting for Ramadam or for lent (for I was raised Catholic and still attempting to practice at that time). We discussed religion and politics. My boss and Atif would often argue politics — he was liberal and she, ultra-conservative. At one point, the head honcho told them that they sounded like Meathead and Archie Bunker from All in the Family, and I wondered if that made me Gloria? While she wondered if that made him, Edith.
There was another co-worker, who had also been in one of the towers, and much like my boss, had barely escaped with his life — yet he reacted differently than she did. While she seemed to allow the rage to consume her, and fed it daily, he pushed it away, and took pictures of the city around him. Once, at a dinner, I heard her tell him that she could not stop being angry, each year, it just built. And I remember him shrugging and saying you can’t let it take over. I watched it age her, draw lines into her face, and tear her down. And I too felt the rage bubble and froth inside of me, while I watched it consume her. Nowhere felt safe anymore, and she felt, deeply, that the world outside the US, was her enemy. This company that she’d been in for half her life, if not longer, merged, and we all were laid off, Atif, my boss, the other co-workers, and me. Over two thousand people. And we all drifted to other jobs, until I found myself once again at the mercy of yet another lay-off this time at an Isralie run video game start-up or dot.com. My ex-boss, the angry one, got me a job at her new workplace and for years we sat next door to each other…and her rage echoed in the halls and in the cubicle walls, along with all the others that I sat around, equally laid-off from far better jobs and bitter at what life had chosen to give them.
One day, while I was interviewing various people for Resident Engineer jobs, most of the candidates of Iranian, Iraquian, Saudia Arabia, or Pakistani descent, as Atif had been, albeit by way of Canada, one co-worker saw one of the names and stated, “Ah, you are interviewing would be terrorists. Might want to watch it.” I vaguely remember smiling, and blurting, “Watch it, your prejudice is showing.” We were standing next to the printer, and he sat in the cubicle directly behind my own. He flushed red, grew quiet and for a moment or two, I wondered if I should have spoken? The new job was a State and Federally funded agency that required us to find work for minority and disadvantaged business enterprises. I often railed and raged about it, because it wasn’t easy, delayed the job, and often the owners of these enterprises made me crazy with their inability to follow the procedures, attempts to haggle for higher amounts, and well, pigeon English. Most of the time, I didn’t understand a word that they were saying. I found myself thinking, dammit, why can’t they speak English? Keeping in mind that English is the only language I’ve spoke, at all well. While they knew two or three languages, and English was most likely their second or third language.
In 2015, I moved to Kensington, Brooklyn from Carroll Gardens. I moved from an Italian- Irish neighborhood, where the mafia allegedly kept their Grandmothers and Mothers safe, to Little Bangledash, Pakistan, and Russia. In my old neighborhood, they spoke the language. They were easy to understand, and most everyone was white or African-American. In the new neighborhood, I barely hear English spoken, and when I do it is in halting sentences. Women often are covered from head to foot in full Muslim attire, or men have sideburns, tall black hats, and the attire of the Orthdox Hassidic Jew. Each Jewish holiday they knock on my door to ask if I’m Jewish, most in my building are Russian Jews or Bangladash or Pakistani or so it appears. My super speaks Russian fluently, but barely speaks English. When we talk it is in short sentences and with hand signals. And in the elevator there are instructions in two languages. The subway signs are in five different languages, Chinese, Bengali, Russian, Hebrew, and English. One day, I was walking behind a white women, about my age, whining on the phone about how she was the only single white woman in her neighborhood. I wondered if I was invisible. And why it mattered.
Each day, I share the subway with women and men who speak Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Polish, and Hebrew. They hold the Koran or the Torah and silent pray on the train beside me. They smile in greeting and are helpful and polite. When a pregnant woman enters the train they will give her their seat. And they huddle into themselves when someone is loud or rowdy, so as to not to be noticed. They wait on me at the grocery store with patience, and at the pharmacy. In the laundry room, a woman in a Sari, pulls her clothes out of a dryer and piles them up, so I can use it. And she puts the other clothes on a table so I can use the basket. In many ways, they are kinder than the people I grew up with in the suburbs of Kansas City, who spent little time outside their cars or houses, and pushed their way through the grocery store aisles wide enough to handle four carts at a time. In the city, the aisles are smaller. There is less room. We are bunched in together. Hearing each others conversations, smelling each others dinners, hearing each others music and the television sets echoing through the walls.
There was more rage in Caroll Gardens, somehow, here, in Kensignton, it is calmer. Today, I and a Russian woman halted an elderly Muslim woman from running into a car, although the car slowed down on a crosswalk on Ocean Parkway. And at the Coop-Op, when I left a bag behind, they put it in the fridge for me to pick up. The Caribbean woman, kindly waited for me, even though she was in the midst of leaving her shift for the day, buying her own groceries to take home. Down the street, the local health food store, had a sign in the window, “Refugees are Welcome Here”. And like all Brooklyn Streets, each block held a different nationality and a different immigrant. A Pakistani, Indian, Bangladash restaurant sat next door to a gym, a Mexican deli, and a Hebrew meeting hall. Across the street sat a small Baptist Church. The people were lower middle class on this block, and as I moved down the street, they became more affluent. Little pink signs sat on the telephone poles and street lamps indicating that no parking was permitted on Wednesday due to a movie being filmed. One of many that have been filmed in the area. While from the sky drifted light snow-flakes, touching my hat, nose and cheeks like frozen kisses.
At work, my co-workers are Caribbean, African-American, Indian, Saudia Arabian, Russian, and well basically every nationality or ethnicity that I can think of. Some speak English in halting sentences, others with a thick accent, requiring me to listen with my whole body. This week I interviewed three people from Saudia Arabia and Syria, who were smart engineers, that had worked around the world — most recently on projects in Saudia Arabia, Algeria, and France. They struggled with the interview questions, English clearly a second language and not an easy one. Careful to answer them correctly, and somewhat desperate for work. My heart went out to them, for I knew far too well what it felt like to be on the other side of that table. I did what I could to facilitate the interview and keep them calm. To counter-act the impatience of my team, not to mention my own increasing boredom.
In a way, I have been given gifts others have not. In my anger — I’ve been placed near or next to others who are far more righteously angry than I or so it appears. Seeing how rage consumes and burns, and fighting not to fall under it’s deadly grasp. And I’ve had the opportunity to have my own prejudices revealed for the nonsense that they are. I wish I could say that I did not rail at the Muslims, the Arabs, the Saudis, the Middle East during 9/11 and there after. Oh I did. I did. But the Universe the consummate jokester, saw fit to throw into my path the very people I chose to blame for the acts of others. Atif Islam worked to find me another job, he was kind, and he made it impossible for me to hate Pakistanis or Muslims. For he reminded me every day that he was one. And countless others have done the same. It’s very hard to hate someone based on race or size or orientation or what have you when you know them, you see them day in and day out, and they become your friend, and no longer this unknown other. When you reach the point, in which you stop seeing their skin color, shape of their face, size, religion or what have you, but the kind and loving person behind the eyes staring into your own. The shell peels back at that point, and we, well are not quite the same exactly, but not as different as we like to think. It’s not color blindness, no, it’s, seeing the person as an unique individual, not part of some group or category that fits in slot on someone’s wall. After a while I would forget Atif was a lawyer, Pakistani, or Muslim, he was just a cohort, a friend, who when we parted ways, I missed.
If I could wish anything today, it is this…that others would have this experience too. That it would shine a light in the dark corners of their minds and hearts and bring in a rainbow shining after a horrible storm. That’s what our country, our world needs right now, I think, rainbows. Lots of rainbows.
Thank you for reading my message in a bottle.