Still on the Line …

I’ve always loved the song, “Wichita Lineman” (which will confirm for a friend who recently noted it, the fact of my unpredictable music tastes). I just read a fabulous LitHub piece about two lines of this song. I had no idea that other people were crazy for “Wichita Lineman,” no idea that some people think those two lines are the greatest lyrics ever. It’s a surprise discovery and a funny kind of validation.

I do love the couplet the LitHub essay focuses on, but I love the earlier couplet, too: “I hear you singing in the wires. / I can hear you through the whine.” And I love it because it’s so … “everyday.” When I listen to “Wichita Lineman” now, I’m always struck by its humanness, the totally ordinary and relatable stream of consciousness of it. This guy is out doing his job, thinking about how tired he is and the work that needs to be finished before the snow comes … and woven into his day-to-day thoughts are his thoughts about the person he loves and how much he loves them. It’s so ordinary and, therein, beautiful.

Part of the magic of this song that makes it as gorgeous to me today as when I first heard it as a kid is, of course, Glen Campbell’s voice. I love him singing this song. Everything about his voice and style is perfect on this song, right down to his choice to sing “linemun,” instead of “linemin,” which would have been tinny and distracting, or (god forbid) “lineman,” which would have killed the thing entirely.

But the heart of the magic is Jimmy Webb. His songs really just stay with you. Not just “Wichita Lineman,” but “Girl’s Song,” and “The Worst that Could Happen” (The Fifth Dimension), “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and “Galveston” (both also by Glen Campbell), and “MacArthur Park,” and “Didn’t We” (Richard Harris). And, according to the LitHub piece, he was only 21 when he wrote “Wichita Lineman,” and that amazes me. Not that 21-year-olds can’t be deep and have powerful feelings or what have you. Of course they can. But a young person writing these songs is still pretty shocking. All of these songs became hits in the late 60s — “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” was originally recorded in 1965 — so Webb was writing these things when he was in high school. That’s pretty unfathomable. (And makes me look at my own clearly-lazypants work ethic.) These Webb songs sound too old for and 18- to 22-year-old, sound as if he wrote them while channeling the experience of one of his past incarnations, a love-lorn man of a certain age.

I like all of these songs, but something about “Wichita Lineman” is extra especially magical. It never fails to win me, to pull me in. It’s an earworm I welcome because I enjoy finding myself randomly humming or singing its lines. And that repeated phrase — “and the Wichita lineman is still on the line” — says so much. He’s still there, still holding on, still waiting for his lover, still keeping the line open. He’s ready and willing.

I want to know the Wichita lineman, but more importantly and despite the fact that I’ve never done that job or any job even vaguely similar to that job, I am the Wichita lineman. I’m the person going about the regular day-to-day of her job who is caught up short by the memory of the sound of The Morphine Man’s voice, AC’s lopsided half-smile, the sexy text from the boy who dumped me last month. These things filter in as I’m typing up work plans for the new fiscal year, as I’m packing to go out of town, as I’m getting my groceries. I hear them singing in the wires. I can hear them through the whine … I don’t need them more than want them, and I certainly won’t want them for all time (well, maybe The Morphine Man), but they stay with me all the same. 


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Cute AF

I am cute. I haven’t always believed it, but I’ve grown into that awareness. While I still say my cuteness peaked at two years old, when I was so adorable I should have been declared illegal, I am happy with the face I have now. (It is, actually, very much the same face, but it has shifted a bit with age.)

I’m not cute all the time, of course. Sometimes I’m grey and exhausted and look just as bad as that sounds. I don’t usually photograph well, and the left side of my face is most emphatically not my good side. Still, overall, I put myself solidly in the “cute” category.

When I say “cute,” I am not being coy because I don’t want to say “pretty” or won’t allow myself to say “beautiful.” There are days when I could cross-post myself under “pretty” – primarily on spectacular-hair-day days – but those are moments. Cute is my steady state. Beautiful is off the table. It was never on the table, not even back at my toddler-fabulous peak. Beautiful is out of the realm of the possible primarily because of my button of a nose, the cuteness of which used to be a cause of consternation, but with which I am now at peace.

I’m not hoping people will read this and respond with choruses of, “You’re so pretty!” or “I think you’re beautiful!” It’s entirely fine with me if people think these things, but I will not be persuaded. This is an I-know-my-lane situation, and I’ll be staying here.

I know what I look like, and I like what I see. That’s the first point. The second point is that my cuteness matters not in the slightest. I acknowledge that there is “pretty privilege” and that I occasionally benefit from it. In many cases in which I might expect to benefit from it, however, misogynoir and/or fatphobia erase the benefit. In things that matter to my life and happiness – am I capable at work, do I have a solid friend circle, can I walk pain-free, do I know all the lyrics to my favorite songs … – the cuteness or not of my face gives me nothing. The ROI on cuteness reveals itself most often in things I don’t much care about.

So, nothing particularly valuable gained from my looks. That’s the second point. And so we reach the third and ultimate point: being told that I am cute (or pretty or beautiful) does not mean I owe the teller a single damn thing. And this is hard for some people to fathom.

When I say “some people,” it will surprise no one to know I mean men, or to know that (some) men think the mere fact of them paying me what they assume is a compliment entitles them to my name, or my number, or my time, or anything at all. Maybe, possibly, it entitles them to a “Thanks,” but definitely nothing more. Those same men then get angry when their acknowledgment of my face yields nothing.

I need to say here that I’m obviously not talking about all men. If I know you, if you and I have been talking and you want to tell me how pretty I am in your eyes, I’m probably going to be just fine with that. If you and I are friends, and you decide to tell me you think I’m pretty, that’s okay, too. Because you’re my friend. Because you’re a man I’ve been spending time with. Because you aren’t expecting me to put out in exchange for a call-it-as-you-see-it compliment.

Not long ago, as I was headed home after a fun evening out, I heard a man on the train say, “Damn, you’re so pretty.” I was reading and didn’t look up. He moved from wherever he’d been sitting to sit beside me, poked my arm (poked. my. arm!) and said, “It’s you I’m talking to. I said you’re pretty.”

N.B. First: if you speak to someone, particularly a stranger, they aren’t required to respond. Second: if you speak to someone when they haven’t already engaged with you even as far as making eye contact, you have no reason to think they will know you’re speaking to them and respond. Third: while it might be acceptable to pat a stranger’s arm to get their attention so you can speak to them, it’s not okay to poke them really hard the way you’d poke a reluctant elevator button. Fourth: why the fuck are you talking to me at all?

I looked at that man. I was in a good mood. I was coming from a reading where I’d shared new work. I’d spent the evening with people I adore. So I gave him half a smile, said thank you and went back to reading.

He slapped my arm. (Slapped. My. Fucking. Arm.) and said, “That’s it? That’s all you can say?”

So much for my good mood. Please refer to the nota bene section above. If it’s not okay to poke strangers, you know it’s not okay to slap them. What in the all-encompassing, over-entitled fuck?

It was night. Not super late, but still nighttime. There were folks on the train, but no one was paying us any obvious attention. (Besides, I know full well not to expect anyone to step up for me if a situation gets ugly.) I didn’t want to set that fool man off. I was almost home. I just wanted to be home.

But I also couldn’t make myself give him my power, couldn’t smile sweetly in my fear of his anger and give him whatever he might want from me. Couldn’t do it. That’s not smart, but it’s real. It’s definitely not smart. There are too many stories of women beaten, women murdered because they didn’t give in to some man they didn’t know. I used to think my size might deter men from thinking they could take me, but I’ve learned that that isn’t true. So I know that to refuse to give in to this fool on the train wasn’t smart. I needed to balance my need to stay myself with my desire to get home.

I looked at him. “That’s all I can say.”

We looked at each other for a minute.

“I was wrong,” he said, sneering. “You’re ugly as fuck. And fat as anything. Should be glad anyone spoke to you.”

Because of course. We are supposed to set aside the fact that he is the one who proclaimed my beauty two minutes ago. Or, we are supposed to imagine that he did it so that a) ugly, fat me would feel a little better about myself and/or b) ugly, fat me would be so grateful for some male attention I’d be willing to give him the validation he wanted. Because, you know, fat women are desperate and easy to pull.

“Yes, exactly,” I said.

“What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”

“That I’m agreeing with you.”

We were close to my stop. I thought about riding further in the hope that he’d get off soon and I could circle back home. But what if he was headed to Coney Island? I didn’t want to take the chance that he’d be annoyed enough to ignore his own plans and follow me up to the platform, to the street. I also didn’t want to leave the train at an unfamiliar station. I thought about my long-ago decision to carry a smaller key chain, not the school custodian-style monstrosity I’d lugged around for years. My current chain has only two keys. So much easier to carry, but not an effective weapon. I thought about the fact that I hadn’t had any dinner and how that meant I couldn’t use the last-possible-scenario advice of a self defense instructor I’d worked with: vomiting on myself and him to gross him out and distract him.

He stood as we pulled into the next station. “Fucking nasty bitch,” he said as he moved to the door.

I am cute. I’m cute enough. I’ll go so far as to say I’m cute as a button. Even cute as fuck. And I don’t give a fuck. What I’d rather be is left alone. What I’d rather be is free from dealing with scumbag men. What I’d rather be is thinking about my own shit and not having to make safety plans on the fly. Acknowledgment of my face doesn’t entitle you to a damn thing.

The doors opened and my would-be suitor spat in my general direction as he exited the car. Not a single other passenger looked up, looked in my direction. I rode to my stop and walked myself home.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Labor (Union) Day

I have been working “official” jobs — the kind that give you a check with all your taxes siphoned off — since I was 17: first as a camp counselor in the Adirondacks the summer before college, and then during freshman year in my first work-study job in the library at my school. In nine days I’ll be 57, so that’s 40 years of sometimes-gainful employment. I worked other jobs before college — babysitting kids in the neighborhood, collecting for my brother’s paper route — but Treetops and the Esther Raushenbush Library were the first formal paid gigs of my life.

Forty years of cobbling together enough money to live on, to pay back my student loans, to take myself on vacation, to indulge my fountain pen habit.

No one ever taught me anything about working when I was in high school. I wasn’t on a vocational track, so I didn’t learn any saleable skills, and it never seemed to occur to anyone that I might have to find a job one day. I wasn’t on a vocational track, but my guidance counselor was still taken by surprise when I walked into her office saying I was ready to apply to college. I have no idea what people thought I was going to do with myself if I had no skills and wasn’t going to go to school. Crazypants.

Working was important to my family, buy my parents were too busy actually working to impart much wisdom about working. When I left for college, my mom asked that I study something that could help me get a job after graduation. I … had no idea what that meant. My answer to that request was to take a chemistry class, of all things. A class I dropped in the first month and back-filled with a class on Renaissance and Reformation England … because that was sure to lead me to some kind of quality employment. That ill-fated chem section was the only course in four years of college that I chose with the idea that I would one day need to get a job. It’s a wonder I’ve survived at all. Seriously.

In 40 years I’ve had any number of jobs, some good, some solidly crappy. I’ve learned that there are things I can make myself do and things I absolutely won’t make myself do. I’ve learned that I can put up with bullshit and take advantage of others’ stupidity. I’ve learned that sometimes I’ll have the good fortune to meet some of the best people of my life on the job and that when the job goes away I’ll be lucky enough to hold onto some of those gems. I’ve learned that I could be someone’s boss and be sexually harassed by them but not trust myself enough to believe what was happening. I’ve learned that the 90-day wait for health insurance to kick in on a new job can be the longest three months of my life.

 

In July I started a new job, a job I sincerely hope will be the last job I ever have. There’s so much to do in this job and so many ways I can imagine being productive, being challenged, being pleased at this job that it’s easy to see myself staying until I’m ready to not be working anymore.

At orientation, a representative from the union came to talk about membership and why we might want to join. The other new hires looked at the union cards and asked if they could think about it before signing up. I handed my completed card to the rep.

“You’ve already decided.”

“Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to be in a union. I feel like I can check something off my bucket list.”

Everyone laughed. The other new hires looked at me as if I was the weirdest, silliest, most careless person they’d ever seen. I just smiled, felt something settle inside me, like a giant, iron slide-lock slamming home.

It was true what I’d said to the rep. I have always wanted to be in a union. I just hadn’t ever said that out loud to myself before, hadn’t ever articulated the truth of it. There had been a few moments in the past when I’d talked a lot about my support for unions. I’d had a couple of jobs that had seemed on the cusp of becoming unionized, but in each case, it hadn’t happened. I was secretly jealous of my union-member friends. So, naturally, when presented the option of joining, I jumped right in.

The same was true with the choice of retirement benefits: sign up for a pension or choose the not-quite-a-401K option? Choosing the pension seemed so obvious, I almost didn’t do it. Surely I must be missing something because why wouldn’t I choose the pension? Why was there a need to consider other options? What wasn’t I getting about the equation? Of course I chose the pension. (It is actually true that I get to do both with this job, have a pension and sign up for retirement savings, so I really don’t get why anyone would choose not to have a pension.)

 

My parents were union members early in their work lives, but not for long enough to have long-term benefits from those memberships. Signing up for the pension plan and joining the union felt momentous to me, felt like things I should have been able to do 40 years ago when I started working. Somehow the idea of “work” for me, the idea of what a worker should expect from a job, included unionization and retirement income. And that feels super old-fashioned, and I guess it is, but it’s also real. And I didn’t know just how real it was until I got to sign those forms earlier this summer. No one “taught” me any of that, so where did it come from?

Driving in rural Louisiana about 15 years ago, I saw a billboard that showed a white hand clasping a black hand across a brilliant yellow background. The test read: Black and White Together — To Crush the Unions. What in the actual, mind-numbingly-against-your-best-interests fuck was that? I stared hard at that sign as we drove by, totally unable to fathom the logic of any worker anywhere wanting to break the unions.

Workers, unionized and not, owd so much to unions: the 40-hour work week, weekends,  unemployment benefits, FMLA, the 8-hour work day, workplace safety standards and the creation of OSHA, Worker’s comp, sick leave, paid holidays, collective bargaining rights. And so. much. more. Unions are the fucking bomb.

And they also have a super-problematic history. My feelings about unions aren’t really based on all the great things workers enjoy because of union organizing. When I think of union membership and why it’s important to me, I think of my father. He and I certainly never once had a conversation about unions. But somehow — in that way that children understand things about the adults in their lives — I got the sense that his no longer being in a union was a sore point, that he thought his life and our life as a family would have been made better if he’d been in a union.

The more I learned about union history and the concerted effort to exclude Black people from organized labor, the more I understood the barriers between my father and a union job. And, while I have still grown up thinking unions are fabulous, I’ve also grown up with anger at their codified racism. In this context. joining a union as a Black woman becomes all that more meaningful. I join because I want and deserve the benefits of my union membership. But I also join for my ancestors who weren’t allowed to, who were systematically cut off from the benefits of membership. And I do it for the Washing Society and the Sleeping Car Porters, and for the members of every other Black labor union in this country’s ugly history.

I can’t explain why the other new hires at orientation with me didn’t jump to join the union. They were all people of color, but they were all a) non-Black POC and b) non-native to the US. So my history isn’t theirs, and the weight of union membership didn’t reverberate out from that blue membership form for them the way it did for me. Maybe. I won’t speak for them. I just know I am THRILLED to finally, after my whole life of working, be a member of a labor union. Achievement Unlocked!


(And yes the ILGWU song was embedded in my psyche. So, as much as my father and my history as a Black person explain my feelings about unions, this ad with its so-memorable song is another reason I was such a pro-union kid.)


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Euphonious Exhortations

My voice is having one of its moments. These come around from time to time. This week I’ve been told not once, not twice, but five times that my voice … “has something.” This morning, I gave a family directions on the subway and both the mom and a random person who overheard me commented on how pretty and comforting my voice is. The homeless man I gave my half sandwich to in Grand Central Market yesterday said I sounded like a fairy godmother. A friend who wants to work with me on a film project hopes I’ll do some narration because I have a good voice. And the young woman who sells me my iced chai every morning told me on Monday that I talk like I’m singing.

I’ve had that last before. A woman once asked if I was a jazz singer because she said my voice sounded like I should be. A coworker once told me I should record bedtime stories because my voice is soothing. A friend’s baby sister told me I could scold her and it wouldn’t feel like scolding because I said everything “in a warm tone.”

It’s not always cute and sweet, however, the reactions to my voice. A man who was trying to date me (quite unsuccessfully, as this will illustrate) insisted I had to be faking my voice, that there was no way I could look like me and have this voice. Clearly, I have a face and figure made for radio! Another man said I should do audio porn, that my “Snow White sound” would make sexy text that much more titillating. Yup.

My voice is fine. It has probably gotten better with time. It certainly used to be glass-shatteringly high. My students used to tease me by repeating my instructions to one another in squeaky mouse voices. I don’t know that I really sounded that awful, but my voice is high. My dream of a Lauren Bacall or Kathleen Turner deep sexiness will never come true, but my voice is fine. Like I said, better with time. I’ve come to terms with it. I think of it the way I think of my face, thoughts perfectly articulated by this limerick:

As a beauty I’m not a star,
There are others more handsome by far.
But my face, I don’t mind it
For I am behind it.
It’s the people in front that I jar.*

I don’t think anyone is particularly horrified by the sight of my face. Certainly, the whole of me has elicited startled responses, but that’s generally about racism, and those folks can’t actually see my face. I’m not always aware of the reactions people have to my face, but reactions to my voice are much more noticeable. I can hear the change in other people’s voices when I’m on the phone, can see people turn and look when I’m out and about. And, of course, there are the folks who just tell me.

I like to say it doesn’t matter, that it’s just how I talk. I know I’m lying, however. I know how I respond to certain voices. And there would be no way to count the number of times I’ve successfully used my voice to impact a situation. It matters. And that seems so unfair. We can’t help the voices we wind up with. Yes, there are classes that teach people to sound different, but why should anyone have to take those classes when they already come equipped with perfectly serviceable voices?

I can’t change that random inequity. But I suppose I can try to use my gift for good, right? What does that mean? Well, maybe it means my friend with the film project is on the right track. That baby who told me that my scolding her didn’t feel like scolding because of my dreamy, “warm tone,” was the clue. Instead of only writing my anger, maybe it’s time to put my voice to it, time to start telling people all the ways they need to step up, just how they can straighten up and fly right, just how fiercely they can work at being anti-racist, at dismantling the structures of racism that are destroying us all.

Let me just clear my throat.

__________

* This limerick credited both to Woodrow Wilson and a poet I never heard of named Anthony Euwer. I have no idea whose poem it actually is, but I am choosing to believe it is Euwer’s poem and that Wilson was known to recite it (I’ve seen two different stories of people saying Wilson recited it for them).


Sending a warm thank you to my friend Lisa at satsumabug.com. Her decision to start making space for short-but-with-a-whole-arc musings was a good push for me. My essays of late have been getting longer and longer and longer … so long that I cannot find my way to the end and so have nothing to post on this blog. So I’m going to try writing shorter pieces, no more than 1,000 words, and see if I can’t get through some of the topics on my pages-long list of essay ideas! If this works, I may catch up with my #52essays challenge by year’s end!

GriotGrind Next Wave logo

Done. Undone. Redone.

I was in a reading last week. I haven’t read in a while, but I always love reading for Big Words, Etc. The lineup of readers is always interesting, Stacey and Jess are such warm and lovely hosts, and the folks who come out are always so supportive of every reader.

Wednesday’s theme was “redo” and I struggled with it for a while, didn’t find my idea until the day before the reading, and didn’t finish pulling this piece together until about 10 minutes before the reading. Some of this will sound familiar, and that’s because the story within the story is one I’ve told many, many times. Working on this piece for Big Words is the first time I’ve thought about that moment in this way. The magic of the redo, right? If “redo” can also mean “rethink,” or “re-remember.” My piece didn’t have a title when I read it last week. It does now.

Done. Undone. Redone.

Redo is the dream, right? The fantasy of erasing failure, acknowledging a screw-up and fixing it. I need them all the time. One redo wish pokes at me, a moment when the universe offered me magic and possibility and I squandered it. And that squandering drives me crazy, even more today than when it happened.

* * *

I was in Paris for my junior year abroad, and working on a project on the Civil Rights Movement.  I was days and days in the American Library, my table piled with books. (My favorite find was Julius Lester’s Look Out, Whitey!  Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! I kept it on my table to scare people away.)

One afternoon, a guy handed me a flyer.  “From the books you’re reading,” he said, “you’d be interested in this.”  James Baldwin was going to be speaking somewhere nearby. I thanked him and was like: “Yeah, ok, whatever.”

(And that would be because I was a pure fool. I was young and dumb and had no idea who and how important Baldwin was. )

My mother and sister came to visit, and I was wrapped up in seeing them and set other things aside.  We were standing on a train platform one afternoon, and suddenly there was that guy. “Don’t forget,” he said, “Baldwin will be here in a couple of days.”

My mother said it would be great if I could go … and I said something like, “Sure, but you guys are here, so I don’t know, we’ll see.”  (Still young and dumb.)

A couple of days later, I was walking down the street and there was the guy, walking up to me and saying, “I’m on my way to meet Baldwin now, why don’t you come?”  So I went, and in the hotel bar there was this funny looking little man and the guy introduced us and I sat next to him and ….

… started talking and talking and talking about myself!  Because, obviously, my ridiculous, 20-year-old life was intensely interesting and important, and was surely exactly what James Baldwin wanted to be talking about.  On and on I went. In the bar, on the metro, walking to the lecture hall.

He was unbelievably nice, asking questions, offering advice, basically putting up with my unfathomable stupidity in the gentlest, more generous way.

And then he gave his talk.  And, with every passing moment, I realized just how brilliant this “funny-looking little man” was, just how uncommonly stupid I was.  I wanted to sink through the floor.

* * *

The most obvious “redo” here is to be less stupid, to have read Baldwin before that moment so I’d know who he was and appreciate the gift I was given to meet and talk with him. I would of course have wanted a redo on our conversation, to talk about something other than myself

My deeper dream is a redo knowing what I know today, a time-travel redo that lets me talk to him from the future, get some “I am not your Negro” insight into this world I’ve grown up into. 

There was a point in our metro ride when we could have gone there, when our conversation strayed from my nonsense. I told him about my study project and my frustration after all the reading I’d been doing, the obviousness of an ongoing problem and no organized action taking it on. I asked him why he thought the Civil Rights Movement’s push for equality had stopped.

He told me I was mistaken, that there was a movement, and it was active, even if I wasn’t aware of it, that the work had gone underground and would resurface in its own time.

I always forget about that exchange. When I think of this story, I focus entirely on my ignorance and idiocy, not on this flicker of light.

I still want my redo because, my god, can you imagine all James Baldwin  would have to say in 2019?

But I have what he did say, and  wasn’t it totally about today, isn’t it the Movement for Black Lives, isn’t this the resurfacing Baldwin was so certain would come? I want my redo so I can expand that conversation, talk about what my work in this resurfacing could be. That conversation might have kept me from floundering as I struggled against despair, struggled to find my way to work for change.

Remembering what Baldwin said on that train brought Naima Penniman to mind. She wrote:

“When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, almost everything lost its footing. Houses were detached from their foundations, trees and shrubbery were uprooted, sign posts and vehicles floated down the rivers that became of the streets. But amidst the whipping winds and surging water, the oak tree held its ground. How? Instead of digging its roots deep and solitary into the earth, the oak tree grows its roots wide, and interlocks with other oak trees in the surrounding area. And you can’t bring down a hundred oak trees bound beneath the soil. How do we survive the unnatural disasters of climate change, environmental justice, over-policing, mass-imprisonment, economic inequality, corporate globalization, and displacement? We must connect in the underground, my people! In this way, we shall survive.”

Reading that was both a strong embrace and a body slam. I have spent so much time in the last five years castigating myself over the ways I do and don’t step up in this fight.

Then I saw the Toni Morrison movie. She spoke about her choices during the Civil Rights Movement, and it shook me, made me recommit to writing about racism, about misogynoir, about the vast sea of white folks needing to do the work, all the ways they could and don’t do it. Morrison’s reminder nudge, coupled now with this memory of Baldwin’s assertion about the work underground are breathing me back into being, back to what I know is true.

This redo isn’t erasing failure, isn’t about failure. It’s about remembering and starting again, about resetting my course, about picking up my tools and moving forward. Redo. Redo. Redo.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Reverberations

So last weekend the news was about Elizabeth Lederer’s decision to stop being a lecturer at Columbia University Law School. It’s a little satisfying, seeing people put in the spotlight, seeing the (at-long-last-and-finally) negative impact caused by the harsh lens of Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries about the Central Park 5, When They See Us. I am glad enough that Lederer won’t be a vaunted lecturer at Columbia’s law school anymore. I am, however, totally not here for her effort to control the narrative, saying she stepped down because she doesn’t want the distraction of publicity to affect the college rather than acknowledging that she has culpability. Notice that the weekend’s headlines aren’t about Lederer being fired.

I read a NYT article from a few years ago, an article written in 2013 after the airing of the Ken and Sarah Burns documentary about the jogger case, and after Frank Chi created an online petition demanding that Columbia fire Lederer from her teaching position. The article acknowledges that Lederer was involved in the perpetration of an injustice, but it clearly faults Chi for wanting her to have to pay any consequences for that involvement.

The five boys who’d been sent to prison were still trying to build lives after the justice system had done everything in its power to destroy them, and the writer of that Times piece was upset that anyone should point a finger at Lederer for her part in that heinous miscarriage of justice.

The writer, Jim Dwyer, says: “The petition against Ms. Lederer, in part, reduces her life in public service to a single moment, the jogger case. In fact, she has a lengthy résumé of unchallenged convictions in cold cases, having pursued investigations of forgotten crimes. No one lives without error. And designating a single villain completely misses the point and power of the documentary. The jogger case belongs to a historical moment, not any one prosecutor or detective; it grew in the soils of a rancid, angry, fearful time.”

Could he really have been serious? Does he really believe that, because she tried other cases that didn’t involve harming innocent people, that we should forget about what she did in this case, in this case in which she participated in the destruction of five innocent boys’ childhoods, in this case which impacted the families of each of these innocent boys? He says “the jogger case belongs to a historical moment,” as if we weren’t, at the exact moment he was writing that line, living in the reality of a system that regularly brutalized Black and brown people. Ferguson wouldn’t become a national flashpoint for another year, but it’s not as though anyone actually trying to look would have been able to miss the simple fact that the justice system treats Black and brown folks unjustly on the regular.

And even if we really could consign the jogger case to history, why should that mean the people who carried out that hideousness should be allowed to thrive and make money, in part because they point to their success in that case? Chi was absolutely right to call for Lederer’s dismissal. Columbia didn’t listen, though. Not then and not in the years since then when students at the school made the same call. Only now, in the wake of When They See Us being the most streamed show in Netflix history, are any dominoes falling — or, more accurately, are some dominoes falling and a few others removing themselves from the game.

 

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to watch When They See Us. I knew a) it would be painful, b) it would be enraging, and c) that I wouldn’t be able to sleep well after watching because d) my brain wouldn’t be able to stop running through the story, through all the moments when people in power could have decided another way, through all the moments when one or another of those innocent children was harmed.

I finally watched on Sunday. I went to a friend’s house and we watched together. We watched two episodes, took a short break, then watched the final two. She drove me to the train and I made my way home. I stayed up awhile, even though it was already late and I had an early meeting Monday morning. I was afraid to go to sleep, certain I would dream the worst parts of the show.

I didn’t dream the show, but I didn’t fall asleep right away, either. I couldn’t … because, every time I closed my eyes, my brain did what I’d known it would: began running through the moments of choice in the story, through the moments of casual brutality. I tried thinking about other things, tried reading a book, tried playing games on my phone. No good.

I did finally sleep. I had an equally hard time sleeping Monday night. I’m practically a zombie right now, running on a combined total of about 5 hours of sleep in 72 hours. I will probably have this same issue for several nights to come.

If I can’t sleep, and I am 100 percent not culpable of anything in this case, how do the people entirely responsible sleep? How have they been able to live their lives without remorse? I don’t make room for the possibility that they honestly believed they had served justice. There is no chance they aren’t guilty of pushing children into harm’s way to benefit themselves: to resolve a terrible crime … and to feed a popular narrative that enabled them to build and strengthen their own careers by showing how tough on crime they were, how skillfully they could win high-profile cases.

I don’t feel any kind of sorry for Fairstein or Lederer. I’m also not surprised that the primary fallout from the show (so far?) has centered on women. That’s predictable and problematic, but it doesn’t make me feel sorry for these two. Not at all.

Rather, I want everyone with dirt on their hands to suffer blowback. All the cops who beat and lied and terrorized confessions into those children.? The cops who decided to scoop up Korey Wise because he was 16 and they could do what they wanted with him without calling his mother. Every person along the way who saw lies being constructed and put their heads down and let it happen. Every prison guard and inmate who harmed Korey Wise during his years of incarceration. I want every single last one of the people connected to the criminalization and brutalization of those five children to face consequences. It’s good that Lederer and Fairstein don’t get to keep making money off the unforgivable thing they did, but it’s not enough. Do I sound like some raging angel of vengeful retribution? I am truly okay with that.

After Chi’s online petition took off six years ago, Chi asked Ken Burns to sign on. That was a no-go: “Burns said […] he and the other filmmakers wanted nothing to do with the campaign. “It is just simple retribution, and we are appalled by it,” he said. “We don’t subscribe to any of it.”” It was simple retribution. Yes. Exactly. Why not? Lederer had used her success in that trial to burnish her reputation. She benefited directly from the harm done to those boys. Retribution sounds entirely correct. But Burns couldn’t let himself get too close to that. It might get in the way of his ability to keep making documentaries and winning accolades for his compelling historical narratives. (He’s made 10 documentaries since 2013. That isn’t a gravy train you’d want to stop.) I obviously have no idea what Burns was thinking when he made that comment about the “fire Lederer” petition, but how could he have dug into the case and seen what was done, yet not felt that Lederer and everyone else involved had a price to pay?

And now, in response to When They See Us, New York City’s Public Advocate, the Legal Aid Society, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, and the New York County Defender Services have called on Manhattan’s District Attorney to a) fire Elizabeth Lederer, who continues to work as a prosecutor for the City, and b) reopen and re-investigate sex crime cases that were handled by Lederer and Fairstein between 1976 and 2002. The Manhattan DA has said that the jogger casewas a profound injustice” … but he has no intention of doing anything about it, at least not anything like holding “an attorney in good standing” on his team accountable for her part in that tragedy.

Lederer won’t get a bonus check for lecturing at Columbia anymore. Her choice. Columbia didn’t fire her. She still has her well-paid job with the City. She’s fine and she’s going to be fine. Fairstein can run around slandering Ava DuVernay, skating on the edge of calling that woman out of her name. Her books will still sell. She’ll write new ones and some publisher is going to pick her up. She’s pissy right now, but she’ll be fine.

Yeah. I mean, I’m not at all surprised, but I’m entirely disgusted.

Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, and Yusef Salaam. We don’t call their names at Black Lives Matter events. Of course not. They are all still alive. They have all managed to grow up and make lives. Thank God. But there’s no question but that the child in each of them was killed in 1989.

 


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

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One Sappy Sucker … Get Over It

I posted on FB after watching Netflix’s new rom-com, Always Be My Maybe. I said I’d watched it, loved it, and was setting up to watch it again. This tiny bit of completely unimportant and fairly uninteresting information so concerned a friend of mine that she emailed me about it:

“Were you serious with that rom-com bullshit? I mean, you? Since when do you get into stupid shit like that? If you were making a joke, I think I get it, but maybe we can talk and clear this up.”

(She and I talked the following day and I let her know I was totally going to mock her in a blog post … and she isn’t exactly “cool” with that, but she knows, and I’m not using her name, and Anne Lamott said I own everything that’s happened to me, so …)

But, before I get to the mocking, however, I want to talk about the movie.

SPOILERS AHEAD!! DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!

Seriously, I am going to say stuff about this movie and other movies and if you don’t like spoilers, you should just stop reading now. Thanks for coming.

No, listen. I’m being for real. Spoilers.

You can scroll down to the next bit of big red text if you want to skip the spoilers and get right to my righteous anger, but you might see something as you scroll and then you’ll be pissed. Because … spoilers. This is your last warning.

So.

I knew I had a bias in favor of this movie from the moment I saw the teaser trailer. I like both lead actors (Ali Wong and Randall Park), and I loved that the movie was centered on POC. Even if it hadn’t turned out to be totally excellent, I was predisposed to be happy with it. So, total bonus that it’s super funny and clever and sweet and goofy and all that good rom-com stuff.

But let’s come back to the “centered on POC” part. To what I’m sure would be my friend’s horror, I love another Netflix romance offering: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (TATBILB). It’s entirely adorable and charming and the leads (Lana Condor and Noah Centineo) are winning and there’s the major perk of getting a little dose of John Corbett (Chris in the Morning!) for your money.

The book the movie is based on is by Jenny Han, and Lara Jean, the character Condor plays, is Asian American. I wouldn’t describe this movie as “centered on POC,” however, as Lara Jean and her sisters, along with one Black secondary character and one Black tertiary character are the only folk of color we see more than in passing. TATBILB is adorable, and I’m glad Han fought to keep Lara Jean Asian (studio execs wanted a whitewash).

Having Lara Jean fall in love with Peter Kavinsky — the cute, white dude-bro — isn’t exactly ground breaking. But having her Asianness be entirely a thing and yet not be a thing kind of is groundbreaking. White folks walk in the house and take off their shoes and there are no foolish comments or sight gags. When Peter tastes Kitty’s yogurt smoothie (from the Korean grocery), there’s no drama about its “foreignness.” It’s not “weird” food, it’s just something he’s trying for the first time. There’s no exoticizing of Lara Jean or her sisters.

Always Be My Maybe has some of these little touches. And then it has some excellent, more in-your-face bits, such as the fact of Marcus’s (Park’s character) band being called “Hello Peril.” The movie centers Asianness in ways that TATBILB doesn’t attempt. There are no white primary characters in Always. There’s a bit character who’s white, and there is, of course, Keanu Reeves (playing a ridiculously bizarre version of himself that is beyond fabulous), but that’s it. The absence of whiteness is a complete pleasure. When Daniel Dae Kim’s character starts dating someone else … she. isn’t. white!! He hooks up with Padma Lakshmi (because, hey, who wouldn’t?). When Marcus’ dad (played to beautiful, sweet-and-warm-hearted perfection by James Saito) starts dating someone, she’s not white!

This movie is steeped in non-whiteness, it is deeply, super-unapologetically-specifically Asian, and I am here for every second of it. There have already been plenty of wonderful reviews and think pieces from people who speak to this both better than I can and from lived experience. I definitely recommend reading those for a deeper dive. I will just say how much this movie pleased me.

Okay. That’s it for the spoilers.

Yes, spoilers are done … but my friend’s email and our conversation about it are still stuck in my teeth.

Her email is nuts. Let’s just be clear about that right up front. Nothing about the fact of my having watched Always Be My Maybe should inspire such a response. From anyone. Who the hell cares that I watch rom-coms? Seriously. Why should anyone care? And if you, for some unfathomable reason, do care … you shouldn’t care so much that you resort to colorful language … you shouldn’t care so much that you need the fact of my watching a Netflix movie “cleared up.” Maybe you thought I was made of stone, thought I’d rather claw out my own eyes then watch a romantic comedy. Okay, but would you ever need to react this strongly? If my ridiculous status makes you type the words, “maybe we can talk and clear this up,” the person needing to do some soul searching here is you. Also? It seems you’ve forgotten that I am in no way required to live my life based on any wacky notion about me that you hold.

More importantly, how has this woman been my friend for a significant amount of time and not figured out one of the most foundational truths about me: I am pathetically sappy and a total sucker for love stories. I love romantic comedies. Love them. Love them. LOVE. THEM. Are they all I watch? No, of course not. Do I spend all my time talking about them? Again, of course not. Have I watched every rom-com ever made? Hell no. But do I watch a fair number of them and enjoy them, including some of the ones that are contrived and trope-y and aggravatingly dated? Yeah, pretty much.

I am a big sappy sap. I own this. I wear it proudly. Okay, maybe not always “proudly.” I didn’t, for example, run around telling anyone that I was binge-rewatching TATBILB. I mean, it’s a teen rom-com, for heaven’s sake! But binge-rewatch I did. That movie is too adorable to leave alone.

When we spoke, I let my friend know that I found her email both ridiculous and annoying as fuck. Unsurprisingly, she was defensive in the face of my annoyance. She was so shocked by my displeasure that she felt compelled to explain herself.

The reason she couldn’t accept my rom-com love? She thought my time wasted on Always would have been better spent raging about racism and other injustices. It’s what I do, you see, what she expects from me, and how could I look away from the horrors of our world to lose unrecoverable moments on frivolous crap?

Yeah.

So here’s the thing. I do spend quite a bit of time raging about injustice. That really is something I do. Sure. But does that mean I can never experience joy or love or the appreciation of a cute baby dancing or a puppy falling into his food bowl? I mean, what the hell? Also, I don’t actually exist to perform my pain for other people’s edification or enjoyment. At least not all the time. And more also? What the fuck?

I talk a lot about my anger and often reference that moment in the first Avengers movie when Bruce Banner says he’s always angry. That remains true. I really am always angry. Even when I’m not actively or visibly raging, there is an ever-molten core of rage roiling in and through me. All. The. Time. Even when I cry over sappy commercials or laugh out loud at funny stories or enjoy the mess out of a clever and charming rom-com.

My friend, I almost don’t want to say, is a white woman. She is a white woman full of righteous, indignant anger and outrage at the state of the world. She also regularly posts pictures and stories about her beautiful child, pictures and stories of her enjoying vacations in sunny climes, pictures and stories of delicious meals she is about to consume. While she does click “like” on many of my rage-y posts, I have never actually seen her post anything rage-y, have never seen her post about the things she feels righteous indignation about … not even in the simplest form of sharing my or other folks’ righteously indignant posts.

All of this says to me that, in this woman’s worldview, she has the right to be casual in her activism but I don’t. She has the right to have pleasures in her life but I don’t. She can move through her world smiling but I can’t. I exist to keep my oppression and rage on display for her because her reading my words and clicking “like” is the farthest she is willing to go in acknowledging ugliness in the world. And if I step back from the precipice even for one evening, she somehow loses something … possibly her ability to think of herself as a good white lady.

I have no time for this and said as much when we talked. It was a prickly conversation, as you might imagine. She insisted she wasn’t saying I didn’t have the right to enjoy myself, she just worried because it seemed to her I was losing sight of “the goal.” I asked her what she thought the goal was, and she said, “your liberation.”

For real. My liberation. Which will obviously never be realized if I manage to experience any pleasure in my life. Of course. Ugh.

I asked her why it was okay for her to never post about the same things I post about, and she had no ready answer, seemed surprised by my question. I hope that the response in her head didn’t begin with, “But I’m not Black…” but I will admit that I have some strong suspicions about this.

I am not her only friend of color. I met her through a friend of color, and she seems pretty solid and comfortable in that woman’s close circle, which is almost all WOC. I wonder if she behaves this way with those women. I have to imagine she doesn’t. A few of those women would surely have come for her long before now. So why do it with me? Or maybe one of them has given her a sound reading, and her takeaway from that was to not say these things to them but to me? Well, I am definitely not the one … and, if she didn’t know, now she knows.

Sigh. I hope our friendship survives this, but I really don’t know. I hope our friendship survives, but I need her to acknowledge that she understands what was wrong with her perception of me and the way she’s been comfortable using me. And I need her to at least be on the up-slope of figuring that out before we talk again. Maybe that sounds harsh, but I can’t have that kind of toxicity so close to me.

I enthusiastically recommend watching Always Be My Maybe, even if you’re not a diehard romance lover. There’s just so much to appreciate there. It might just win you over. ❤


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.