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But Brooklyn

September 2, 2013

Yesterday was the one year anniversary of our arrival in Brooklyn. It made us a little nostalgic, so we took ourselves out to dinner at the Japanese restaurant we went to on that very first night, even though we don’t like it very much.

And that, in itself, sums up the first year of our Brooklyn experience, really. We keep doing things even when we don’t like them very much, because somewhere deep down we seem to remember that we used to like them and just forgot how. And now a year in, we are starting to like some of them. We are tired of the humidity and streets that perpetually smell like dog piss. We are tired of the garbage that blocks the sidewalk on Tuesday and Friday nights, and the subways that are packed to the gills. And the Japanese restaurant really is a bit depressing. But. Brooklyn.

It’s been like getting to know a foreign country. In fact, it has felt more foreign than some foreign countries I’ve lived in. We are studious of the cultural norms. We have become disdainful of tourists who are uninformed, of the slow walkers, of people who block turnstiles, and don’t know how to order coffee, of anyone slow at anything, really. If you are slow, this is not the place for you. But we are careful with grandmothers and the afflicted. We give directions to the lost and sometimes escort them where they need to go. We roll our eyes at double strollers but let them pass, because we know what it takes to get a toddler up and down the subway stairs. Because we will be old someday. Because we have been lost too.

As we entered the city on high alert for cultural difference, we notice these things and puzzle them over. We have learned not to talk to people on the street, because in city of more than 8 million people, that would be way too much talking. And while this is a city of incessant, irrepressible, exuberant noise, we are silent to strangers. Unless we are doing the dance of trying to pass each other on the sidewalk. “Urban angst,” a fellow dance partner once muttered as we finally managed to pass each other and we nodded in agreement. Or unless you are a black man in a deserted stretch of street and you are passing a white woman and then you say hello. What you are really saying is “I will not hurt you.” And she smiles and says hello back and what she is really saying is, “I know and I’m glad.” And what she is thinking is that she is glad it was said and she wishes he didn’t feel the need to explain and she wishes she didn’t feel the need for the explanation.

Which is why I think you should read this. Or if you don’t want to do that, ponder this question that it asks: “What does it say about America when to be black is the ontological crime, a crime of simply being?” This is not a new question. But it is still an important one, one that needs to be asked again. Because no one should feel like they have to talk to me at 6 a.m. — even if you live with me. But you should especially not need to apologize for being there yourself. If anything, I should apologize for my complicity in the whole affair. But we don’t apologize. We walk on. And maybe next time, we will see things differently.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 2, 2013 7:18 pm

    All kinds of ways of being different. Why do people feel so entitled to be disdainful of those who are slow-moving, almost equating it with slow-thinking?

  2. September 2, 2013 7:21 pm

    I wonder that too. But I confess I tend to be one of them. Or I have, anyway. I weave through pedestrian traffic and get impatient. I’m working on it, but there’s not a lot of encouragement to improve here. But I do wonder how the very young and the very old and the infirm manage in this city. It’s physically difficult to live here and there is often too little compassion, not because people have it in for you, but because you are invisible to them (it’s a mental state you need to be in to be in a city this crowded). And I’m not sure that’s better.

  3. September 3, 2013 5:03 am

    I’ll make the same confession. When feet are all I have to get me where I want to go, and I encounter a slow moving herd of people stretched completely across the sidewalk, I wonder if they never consider that others might be moving faster. To me that’s just as much of an entitlement attitude. Or perhaps they are utterly without any situational awareness.

  4. September 3, 2013 6:02 pm

    I recently saw “The Butler” and left the theatre feeling that I needed to apologize to everyone who was black.

  5. September 4, 2013 8:04 am

    I haven’t seen that film, but I have a feeling I would feel the same way.

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