I have no desire to ever live in a large city, but I’m finding this once-a-week foray a very, very useful thing in terms of making me see the world in completely different ways.
One of the conductors now remembers my name (or at least the meaning of it) and the ticket lady at the station knows me. We’ve decided that we’re going to have coffee together in December as a sort of hurrah of the end of the term as well as a way for us to get to know each other better. I find both of these to be absolute gifts, not necessarily because they’ll develop into anything (I have fwiends!) but because it’s so fascinating to truly engage the people around me.
It’s not always a good kind of fascinating. On the train into Difficulty yesterday, there was a rowdy group of high schoolers, many of them first-time train passengers, heading to Difficulty on some field trip or other. At one point one of the boys, ever so politely, leaned over and said, “Excuse me, sir, is there WiFi on this train?”
It took me a second to realize he was asking me, as I am definitely not a sir. I do have pretty short hair and tend to wear boxier clothes, but it’s not that terribly difficult to tell, I think. But then, the kid was a kid, and kids aren’t always terribly observant. It’s not the first and it likely won’t be the last time I’m mistaken for a male, although it never really gets less surprising. What snap judgments we make on others based on appearance—and, even while being the recipient of such judgments, I still am the first to admit I characterize others rather often.
The thing that made me really think yesterday was decidedly not a good kind of fascinating at all. I’ve finally begun to make my peace with Difficulty, even thinking it a strange kind of beautiful as the lights clicked on in the creeping twilight of my walk back to the train station. Cities have their own kind of magic at night, when the darkness is held at bay by the electric-powered determination of humanity, the bright spark of defiance against a sun that dares to be elsewhere. I was walking along and thinking of this and other things, staring up the walls of skyscrapers stretching toward a starless sky, and I happened to look down at an empty shop window. It had one of the those signs of realtors propped up, For Lease Call John Smith and Paul Doe with a phone number and the available square feet written at the bottom. And someone had written on the window, right in between the names in block print so as to seem part of the list, “Niggerlovers.”
It took me several more steps to process this, to imagine someone taking the time to uncap a Sharpie and write this descriptor. A part of me wanted to go back, to pull out napkins and my water bottle and wash off this adjective of another era, this attack on whoever these two realtors were. The image of it lodged in my mind—is there still—and suddenly the city was no longer welcoming, no longer beautiful; suddenly the city was haunted by those who refuse to live in a world where we just voluntarily elected a black man to a second term as president. Suddenly the skyscrapers were no longer shining glass marvels but arrogant fingers stretching toward the realm of a God we would much rather interpret than encounter. That sign, that handmade declaration that anyone had the right to tear someone else apart in this most public and cowardly way, shut my mind down. It was not my first brush with racism, not by a long shot—I have heard it, seen it, received it. But it was so blatant and quietly present, so well-blended as to be almost unnoticeable. The brazenness of it quieted my mind in a blanket of sadness against this burbling virulence underneath humanity’s daily interactions.
I made it to the train station and got in line for my platform, chatting with the others around me. Most of them were black, and they were beautiful, and one of them reminded me of an old theatre friend of mine. One of the women had a little girl, a cappuccino-colored toddler still figuring out the art of standing still without falling over but a master of the art of making hilarious faces at me when she realized she had caught my eye. She would smile in response to my smile and I thought of the sign, thought of how I would go through every napkin and water bottle in the world to keep this girl from ever seeing a sign like that, from ever understanding what it meant for her, for me, for any who would see her and love her for knowing how to smile.
Cities, I’m told, are far more advanced than the little towns where I’ve lived. That might be true, but there the racism and sexism and hatred are out on the table, proudly displayed like last year’s mounted buck. You know that it’s coming, can brace yourself for it, can begin conversations about it. This, though, this cowardly Sharpie attack, is a faceless hatred, a terrorism all its own that never engages its supposed opponent. Where, then, do we open the conversation? How do we live side by side with the invisibly violent, the graffiti propagandists who refuse to allow the humanity of another?
I don’t know. If you do, Reader, please tell me, because my heart still aches. I’m no idealist that I didn’t know this is indeed real, will be real until the day when all are counted equal before the One Who made us. But we are called, Called, even, to look full in the face of those around us and see that they are every bit as worthwhile as we are. And the reverse; we are every bit as worthwhile as they. The ticket lady, the conductor, the fool of a teenage boy, the seatmate, the beggar, the businessman, the waitress, the professor, the classmate, the friend, the cousin, the toddler, even the person with the Sharpie—they are bound in this strange experiment called humanity, just as I am. Just as you are. All that I know to do is look them in the eye and say hello as if they are people too, as if they also at some point had to figure out this complicated business of standing still.
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God,'” he replied, “with thy whole heart, thy whole soul, thy whole strength, and thy whole mind; and thy fellow man as much as thyself.” “A right answer,” said Jesus; “do that, and you shall live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said, “But what is meant by my ‘fellow man’?” (Luke 10:27-29, WNT)