I’m a 6-foot-2 African-American male who likes to take leisurely, healing walks in my hood, and when I first moved into my apartment 14 years ago, I had much I needed to heal from, including two marriages. My walks became a way for me to attempt to get centered, to gradually dilute — step by step — the cumulative frustrations of self doubts, regrets, fears of failing health and the worry of old age without a decent pension. Nowadays, the only thing that interrupts my reverie is them. When I see them, I quickly cross the street and do my best to avoid eye contact. Knowing that I’m a black male hoofing around the neighborhood, you may be guessing the trouble I’m trying to avert would be feuding gangbangers and their errant fusillades. Far from it. It’s peaceful in the eclectic section of Los Feliz where I live. Who I try to avoid is white people.
It wasn’t always so.
In the beginning, I was willfully oblivious to everyone around me. The last thing I wanted was to have to remember names, to stress myself with polite small talk, or profound talk, for that matter. Slowly, though, I eventually emerged from my self-absorption and began to make acquaintances around the neighborhood, on my block and in my apartment building. But I also began to notice something else when I would venture off the trendy stretches of Hillhurst, Vermont and Sunset, and onto the quiet residential streets.
White people — old, young, middle aged, even teenagers — would cross the street when they saw me strolling in their direction. Even white men who seemed to be in their 20s would, more often than not, cross the street when I approached. Soon, even at a distance, I started to be able to sense when they, particularly the women, were preparing to cross the street as I drew near: First comes the sudden interest in where their wallets are. Then comes the pat down — is it in the purse; is it in the back pockets, or is it the jacket pocket?What a relief .?.?. it’s in the purse .?.?. perhaps the purse would be more snatch-proof if the strap were looped over the head and worn in the style of the old pony express mail carriers, from one shoulder and across the body.
I’ve seen these women do double takes when they look up to see that I’ve beaten them to the punch and crossed the street first.
One day after emerging from the subway at Vermont and Sunset, instead of hopping onto the shuttle bus I decided to walk up the hill to Los Feliz Boulevard. I eventually settled into a floating, meditative zone in which I was able to observe the world in what I felt was an honest way. I noticed a young woman who, at first glance, appeared very trendy with her crimson hair and black leather ensemble. She looked up from the bus bench, saw me and, in one smooth effort, quickly drew her two colorful, expensive-looking shopping bags closer to her as I passed by. As an afterthought, I did something I rarely do — I looked back at her and caught her glaring after me. That’s when it became clear: This 20-something woman actually knew that I would no sooner snatch her bags than I would apologize to her for the fact that I was wearing a suit and tie and not pushing a shopping cart filled with all my worldly belongings. But I got what she was doing.
It’s this: In today’s P.C. world, even the most intractable haters wouldn’t dream of calling me a nigger aloud (except, maybe, the indomitable Mr. Richards, who apparently does dream, and in color to boot). These days, the more sophisticated way to get the N word across loud and clear is to simply act it out. That’s what this woman’s intense stare was about while she gathered her bags close to her. It wasn’t fear at all. It was more like, “There, I still get to let you know what I think of you.” Now, another question presented itself. If the folks in this neighborhood weren’t frightened that I was going to rob them, molest them, say something weird or even make eye contact with them, then what was really taking place?
The answer was obvious, but shrouded by the hip accouterments of the supposedly liberal, urban sophisticate of the independent bookstores, book signings, cineastes’ queues, Mini Coopers, coffeehouses, biscottis, delicate tattoos, pierced bellies, yoga, Pilates and, of course, political correctness across the board. In spite of all this, when these folks cross the street to avoid me on the residential byways of Los Feliz, it registers as a silent scream of “Oh my God .?.?. nigger.” For some it may be almost instinctual, even mean. For most, crossing the street is probably nothing personal, just a wistful nod toward a collective memory when life was so much safer and simpler.
When I beat the white pedestrian to the punch and cross the street before he or she does, I feel that I accomplish several things: I mirror whatever it is that informs their behavior toward me. I get to continue on my way and not get marooned on a plateau of ugliness for the rest of my walk. If I sublimate my own anger, then, despite how negatively they may regard me, their human value (like my own) is still potentially redeemable. Finally, crossing the street myself allows me a kind of existential distance from how simultaneously ridiculous and pathetic we both are. With that, I can shake my head and giggle inwardly with sad but genuine amusement.