Lost! Book Separation Anxiety

As a little girl I developed the habit of taking my book-of-the-moment with me wherever I went. This was in part because I wanted to read at every available opportunity, and also because Saturday outings with my mum could turn into journeys across hell and creation. Having a book handy meant that I could wait in the car and be entertained while she completed her errands.

Although I manage my own time and errands now I haven’t abandoned the habit – I still like to carry my book with me. There is more of a risk though that I’ll leave it behind, since I’m doing the running about and not sitting in the car. In that instance, I could lose my book forever or go through a deal of trouble to get it back.

That’s the situation I’m in currently. I left my book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, somewhere in the library of the University of The Bahamas. I’ve spent a lot of time on its campus over the last few days for a literature festival. I’m at home on a break between panels, and was looking forward to reading it, but alas! I’m upset enough that I can’t actually think of anything else to write about. If it were a mediocre book then it probably wouldn’t have been this big of a deal, but I am really enjoying Douglass’ autobiography and have already begun recommending it to friends.

Narrative is the first of three memoirs that he wrote, and it’s very brief, around 100 pages. I expected to be finished by now – and since I’ve left it behind am wishing that somehow I was able to  – but this week has been really busy, with functions every evening, which is when I get the most of my reading done.

Douglass has me wincing on almost every page at the atrocities he witnessed and experienced. I am shocked all over again at the horror of slavery in the Americas, and am amazed that anyone at all made it through alive, much less generations of people. Douglass gives heart-wrenching descriptions of cruelties and his emotional distress, but at the same time his retelling feels more straightforward than dramatic. Indeed, the brevity of his memoir underscores this point. He sticks to the facts and allows their stark truths to do the work of proselytising for him.

I’m at the stage where it seems Douglass is finally going to break free from his captives and begin his life as an activist. I’m burning to know how it happened, since my earlier guesses – a kind mistress helped him? A freed slave woman’s husband started him on the underground railroad? He ran away after a near-death beating by one of his masters? – all proved wrong. So then how did he do it? And what was his life like immediately after, when he was very much a fugitive, without the protection of (I’m assuming) white abolitionists and his general popularity? I have to get my book back, and find out.

The Morning Before Thanksgiving

The morning before Thanksgiving was one for the books. It’s going to go down in history as one of the most dramatic of my life. Or maybe my life in New York. Either way, completely unforgettable.

It started early, at 3.55am, when I woke up to get ready for my trip to Pittsburgh. I was out the door 20 minutes later, and 6 minutes after that waiting on the subway platform for the A train. I was eager, wide awake, and hungry. I had packed a banana and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to eat for my breakfast later in the morning, but decided to eat the banana right away instead. I opened it once I was on the train, and left the peel on the seat beside me. I didn’t think it mattered much since it was so very early; there wouldn’t be enough people travelling for it to be in the way of someone’s seat.

I started reading my book, Cutting for Stone, and a few stops in heard a man trying to get the attention of a woman in my section. It could have been me, or it could have been the woman sitting perpendicular to me. We were the only two in our part of the car. Both of us ignore him. But then he says, “Sitting next to the banana!” and it was obvious that he meant me. I continued trying to ignore him, but his voice was this ridiculous falsetto. Was he putting it on, as part of a bizarre attempt to woo me? Or did he really talk that way? (I hope it was the former, because going through life with that voice would be hard for any person, let alone a straight black man.)

The banana comment was the beginning of an endless stream of chatter. He showed remarkable skill at keeping a conversation going in spite of the fact that I was almost entirely uninvolved:

That’s how you eat? I’d like to take you out, that’s how you eat.

Just in case it wasn’t obvious enough that he was talking to me, he refers to my bright pink Jansport –

With the backpack. You a teacher or something? (no response) You do hair? (Maybe because he thinks my hair looks nice? It’s in two large twists.) If you were my teacher would I bring you a banana, instead of an apple? (Finally I give in, thinking that was cute. I nod.) Yea? That’s how you like it? (Oh my goodness, what have I done?! Completely mortified, I gaze squarely at my book, ears closed.)

I got a job. Get your boyfriend a job too. Get him off the couch. (No response.) Oh he got a job? A big job? (Studiously examining the page in front of me.)

He a cop? You like that? Tie you up? (Ohh my gosh! :O Is he kidding? I continue looking down, and perhaps my face revealed something of my horror -) Oh is that too much? (Yes, most definitely. Please be quiet, how are you still talking?)

Says something about bitches and wanting things and how I’m not like them. How he’s deduced my character and quirks from our non-conversation is beyond me. I don’t know what he read in my face after that statement – 

I’m sorry I don’t mean to curse. Too much profanity.

Then his stop comes up. 

Have a nice day. Just cuz you beautiful. You and the woman in the orange coat. I want both a y’all.

The woman in the orange coat jacket has had her head tucked into her chest, like a sleeping bird, this entire time. Neither of us acknowledge him as he goes out.

This guy was mildly entertaining, with his high pitched voice and persistent attempts to engage me in conversation, but he made me feel extremely exposed with his sexual comments. If it weren’t for his voice, I’m sure I would have felt more uncomfortable, even threatened.

After he left the car, I felt bemused, and relieved that I could get back to reading in peace. I would have been happy just to have this scene to write about: women’s lives are constantly interrupted because some strange man or another wants our attention. I think there’s an actual negative impact on our lives and the things we’re able to accomplish because of this. I wrote down a few quotes from his monologue, planned how I wanted to share what happened with friends and settled back into my book. I had a long ride to the airport ahead of me.

Barely 20 minutes later another man disrupted the quiet of the train. This guy was on the opposite side of the car from me, but yelling loudly enough that there was no mistaking what he was saying or how angry he was feeling. Initially, I ignored him. There were only a few other people in my section, all men, and they continued sitting silently too, half-sleeping. The man was spewing profanities, dropping f-bombs every other word. Maybe he was one of the mentally unstable homeless, or maybe he had an anger problem and someone upset him; either way, I knew the best thing to do was to lay low and wait for the situation to pass.

We got to the next stop, and though I thought about moving to another car, it would’ve been hard to make the quick transition with all my bags. I hoped/expected Enraged Man would leave, but he remained, and a few more people got on. One, a 20something man with long, neatly styled dreadlocks, well dressed in all black, sat down next to me. He looked around, slightly confused, as he became aware of the situation. After a second, he settled in to wait Enraged Man out too, like the rest of us.

But he only got more upset.

Someone nearby him must have said something to him – bad move – because he directed his attention toward them. A whole new onslaught of profanities ensued, and people started shifting. I looked up and realised that he was shouting at a white woman. I assumed she said something to him about calming down. A black man near her got up, moved to confront Enraged Man. Then two other men a few seats away from him also got up. There are now four men bracing themselves for a fight on a fast moving train. My anxiety level rises. This is America. Any one of those men, or someone else in the car, might have a gun and feel like they need to use it. That would be the stupidest thing of all to do, but with emotions as high as they are, I wouldn’t be surprised.

“STOP FUCKING STARING AT ME!!”

“MIND YOUR FUCKING BUSINESS! THIS IS HOW PEOPLE GET MURDERED!”

WHAT?!? If I was concerned before, I’m seriously frightened now.

The man opposite me shifts in his seat.

“I ain’t gonna touch her! I ain’t gonna touch her! I do this (mimes talking with his hand) to shut y’all up.”

The man opposite me shifts once more, rises. He takes a few steps toward the drama. The man in black next to me moves around too, also preparing for a fight. I think to myself, please, both of you, stay seated and calm. Don’t bring the fight over here.

The man next to me says to us, “I’m just trying to keep calm. Not smack his ass.” No one responds, but I wonder to myself – Where is your bravado coming from? How is it possible that you’re thinking of taking this man down while I’m here concerned about how he could seriously hurt anyone of us on this train?

“THIS IS MY FUCKING TRAIN!!!”

“STOP FUCKING STARING AT ME!!”

The atmosphere is tense and the air is almost ringing with nervous energy. The man in black says, more to me and the man opposite us than to Enraged Man, “Please don’t come this way, because I’m gonna smack the shit out of you.”

We all continue to sit in silence, waiting for the next stop. I’m hoping that this guy will get off. No one is directly engaging him anymore, at least as far as I can tell, but still, he’s carrying on with his rant.

“Old faggot niggas can suck my dick. Fuck all y’all niggas!”

This last, hate-filled declaration seems to be the end of his diatribe. He continues cussing and carrying on, but at a much lower voice. The atmosphere relaxes.

Then we reach our next stop, and after waiting a minute or so for the conductor to get us going again, he announces that the service has been terminated due to a rail problem. We all need to disembark. At 5.15 in the morning. There begins the second pressure-filled part of my day, as I deal with a repeatedly dying phone and missed uber rides in a battle to get to the airport on time.

Overheard in Transit (2)

November 17th

“Ladies and gentleman! I have an announcement to make! Tomorrow, I am getting married (someone starts clapping) to March! My paper clip!!”

This was bizarre. It was around 10.30pm and I was coming home from a wonderful dinner with a friend. The train pulled into the station and as I and other passengers were leaving, this mid 20s woman started shouting. She was able to grab the attention of the entire train car – who doesn’t want to hear about a wedding? – create feelings of goodwill and excitement, and then leave us stranded on an island of confusion and bemusement. Did I really hear paper clip? Why is it called March? At the end of her announcement our collective bewilderment was palpable, but the woman continued chattering away with the person she was travelling with as though nothing had happened. I should note, she was sober (it appeared) and sane. I guess this was just her idea of a fun time.

 

November 17th
“We didn’t even eat lunch yet, I’m not eating two lollipops!”

I was sharing a train car with a group of students who looked to be around 12 or 13. Everyone – even their teachers – had a lollipop, the hard candy kind with gum or chocolate in the centre. The lollipops caused much happiness and conversation. For example, before this boy’s declaration, some students were jealous of another boy who had somehow managed to get two lollipops. They went running to a teacher to ask for a second one for themselves and were denied. They came back, telling Two Lollipop that he was in big.trouble., but clearly still disappointed not to be in the same boat. A few minutes later, after some  more lollipop-related conversation, Proud One Lollipop made the above exclamation. It was cute, funny and unexpected. Here are all his classmates clamoring for as much candy as possible, and he’s steadfast in his desire to… preserve his appetite for lunch? Not overdo it on the sugar because it’s too early in the day? I can totally relate though. I’ve long held strict ideas about what to eat and when – breakfast for dinner? unacceptable! – I’m only just coming around to that idea. If I were in this class I’d be almost like Proud One Lollipop, the difference being that I would want a second lollipop, I would just save it for later. 😉

 

November 16th
“I wanna figure out a list of things to do before the end of the world. I wanna be the first nigga from the hood to skydive.”

One black guy to another black guy, and I’m not sure if by “the end of the world” he meant in general or as a result of Trump’s election. In any event, another thing on his list is to rent a really fast car and drive over 200mph.

But back to skydiving – I started paying attention after this comment because I wondered, why does he think he would be the first guy from the hood to skydive? In the history of skydiving? Seems completely implausible to me. What about Lil Wayne, Rae Sremmurd, Fetty Wap… I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that a trap rapper has gone sky diving. Or even someone like Rick Ross or DJ Khaled. Turns out I didn’t need to look that far, because this man’s friend had already been sky diving. When he said that, Bucket List flipped. I can’t remember what he said exactly, but there was arm flailing, wow-ing and other expressions of amazement and enthusiasm haha. What does his surprise say about the kind of expectations he (and other people like him) have for his community? I know that as a society we’re working towards equal opportunity for all, and we like to admire the progress we’ve made in that regard, but this exchange shows us that there’s much work to be done; not just in creating opportunities, but in making pipe dreams seem entirely ordinary.

 

November 16th
“I have too many addictions.”

Ohh my goodness. I was sitting opposite two old women, who looked to be in their 80s. Both of them were white, and one of them seemed very prim and proper. Her hair was in a cute skim-the-shoulder bob, she was dressed conservatively in a skirt and sweater, and I noticed a wedding band. She could be anyone’s grandmother. The other woman seemed like more of a free spirit. Unlike her friend, her clothes didn’t have any grandma patterning. Her hair was a little wild and tangly, and she was missing a good many teeth. This is the woman who said she had too many addictions.

Already an odd pairing, I was shocked when I heard her declaration. What in the world could Grandma have been suggesting to Not-Your-Grandma?! And what addictions did Not-Your-Grandma have? Do they explain her lamentable lack of teeth? I’d like to think that Grandma said that she should try a sleeping pill, but that has more to do with her appearance than any context clues.

I was also surprised by how cavalier the women were with their conversation. They were speaking on the loud side, with Not-Your-Grandma the louder of the two. I could tell they were discussing personal subjects, and was trying not to listen to their conversation, but there was no missing “I have too many addictions”! I’m not one of those people that are good at discreetly observing the person your friend points out to you, so I doubt that I was at all subtle when I looked up from my book in shock (although I know I tried to be haha). This didn’t bother either of the women at all, and they continued their mysterious conversation. Maybe they’ve lived in New York so long that they’re totally comfortable having private conversations in public. Maybe their age is what made them so bold. Either way, what a thing to hear from octogenarians!

On Riding the Subway

Riding the subway is like playing a game of chance, I never know what I’m going to get. Some trips are totally calm, uninterrupted; others are so bad I have to switch cars. People watching is often entertaining, and I have been hugely surprised, in the short time that I’ve lived here, to recognise three different people  on their commutes. What are the odds? I’m not someone that has a particular spot on the platform, nor do I get on the trains at the same time each day. Somehow though, the fates have lined up and faces that were  foreign on a previous day become familiar on the next.

One thing that is a huge peeve of mine is when people don’t adjust their legs to accommodate newcomers to their bench. It’s happened to me with both men and women, but is a more regular occurrence with men. People have discussed this elsewhere on the internet, but I have also found it to be true: they sit with their legs spread, and cannot for the life of them close them when they have a seat mate. It is so disgustingly rude and entitled, and obviously not necessary. If some men can sit with their legs closed then it must be possible for other men to do the same.

Another thing I’ve noticed with male subway riders is their tendency to make noise. The subway is supposed to be a place where you keep your personal activity just that – personal. If you’re having a conversation, watching a movie, listening to music, that’s all fine, just don’t oblige your neighbours to be involved. Well, I have been the audience for many a rap freestyle, opera singing practice and general sing-along for my fellow male riders. I’ve also had the opportunity to go to a number of free (!) mini-concerts, as men have shared their music with all of us by playing it through the speakers of their phone or stereo. There are signs all over the cars informing passengers to wear headphones and speak quietly, but these are flagrantly ignored.

Why is it that these men think it’s ok to infringe on other passengers’ personal space and activity, to disregard the rules and pretend as though their actions are not in fact disrespectful? Power. Here comes that word again. The subway presents an opportunity for them to dominate a space and make their strength and presence known. Particularly for men who are part of minority groups, who have limited abilities to demonstrate their masculinity in the expected ways of the world: wealth, career, social prestige. The subway car or platform is a place where they can assert themselves and people are forced to pay attention because of the ways they are made to feel uncomfortable. This brings me to something else I’ve noticed – no one ever confronts them.

Perhaps with seating one individual might ask the man next to them to close his legs. For myself, I do the passive aggressive thing and wiggle around until I have room, take advantage of the shifting that happens during stops and starts. However, when it comes to men performing or enjoying a performance, they’re left alone. In weighing the possible outcomes of confronting them against the benefit of keeping the peace, it seems like the odds are ever in the men’s favour. I mean, as much as they invade our spaces and intrude in our lives, they clearly feel they have a right to what they’re doing, and/or they don’t think that it’s a big deal. How then, in the space of a subway ride, could you convince them otherwise? Could you peacefully convince them otherwise? I don’t know, but it certainly makes me angry – and feel impotent – about the fact that the best answer seems to be to try and ignore them, which is what everyone does. The status quo is maintained, but we all more or less peacefully ride the subway one more day.