As I sat on the end of a bench waiting for my subway to work yesterday, I heard someone coming down the platform coughing loudly and wetly (yes, that sound is definitely on my “least favorite” list, especially since the coming of Covid). I glanced back and saw an unmasked man (of course unmasked) pushing a shopping cart full of trash. He was white and a little rough looking – disheveled, hair all over, mumbling to himself.
He stopped beside the bench, almost parallel to me, and turned to look at me. After a few seconds, he resumed his walk down the platform with his cart. As he passed me, he muttered, “Nasty dreads. Need to cut ’em off, burn them, burn them all off.”
Folks who read my woefully-occasional posts may remember a troubling one from last year about an angry and disturbed Black man at my station who took an instant, enraged dislike to me. He, too, spat out some hate as he walked past me. In that case, it was very obviously directed at me. In the case of this morning’s ugliness, it’s certainly possible the man on the platform yesterday was simply opining in a general way, continuing aloud a conversation he’d been running in his head about the merits or not of locs. I mean, it’s possible, but fairly unlikely. And, as I was the only person near him and the only Black person with kinky hair done in twists and the person he had so pointedly turned to look at, it was pretty clear his comment was a response to me, was meant for me to hear.
Let’s set aside the sad fact that I’ve never gotten my act far enough together to grow locs. I accept that many people don’t really know what locs are and can’t see that my two-strand twists are definitely only two-strand twists and not locs. Let’s also move past the fact that no one should be saying “dreadlocks.” In this man’s case, given his obvious distaste, he’d be exactly a person who’d say dreads instead of loss.
So, setting all that aside … what the actual fuck? Hating a hairstyle is one thing. Wishing to see hair cut off is admittedly a lot and pretty disgusting. Wanting to burn off someone’s hair? That’s about 78 levels beyond.
In that post about the other Stacie-hating man on the train platform, I talked about my Spidey senses, about how I’ve learned to trust my fear, trust my sense of danger. I didn’t have as much fear of the man I saw yesterday as I did of the man in the first situation, but I had enough fear, enough that I knew not to pretend I was safe near him, knew to keep close watch on where he moved on the platform. Which is why I noticed that he came off the train at the same transfer point I did, why I made sure to position myself away from the platform edge in case he felt inspired to push me to the tracks.
In 2014 I was in San Francisco. It wasn’t my first trip, but it was the first time I was pushed to be aware of the outsize number of angry, unwell people who seemed at all times to walk a tightrope between keeping things together and exploding with violent rage. I’ve lived most of my life in New York City, often in neighborhoods that are considered sketchy, and I’ve never felt as constantly close to danger as I did on that trip.
And no, I don’t feel constantly close to danger in my city today, but the fact that I ever feel close to danger here is new and entirely unacceptable. The fact that, since midway through the second phase of the pandemic, I have had that feeling again and again is new and entirely, unsettlingly unacceptable.
Nothing happened yesterday. The man wheeled his cart past me and on toward the elevator. My connecting train came immediately and drove me away from him. Done and done. But I am still unsettled.
Still unsettled, feeling as though something has been stolen from me, that my city isn’t as much mine as it has been all these years.
After work, I stopped at the grocery store on my way home. I opted for a person rather than the self-checkout, and the cashier was a young-young man. When I handed him my customer card, our fingers touched and we got a shock. We both flinched back from it. I apologized and we laughed … and the checker from the next aisle said when she was a kid, girls believed that getting a shock from a boy meant he would be your husband one day. (Was that ever a thing when you were a kid? Definitely wasn’t for me. What a wacky portent to attach to static!)
My cashier looked aghast (the first time I’ve wanted to use that word to describe someone’s expression). I told him not to worry, that I was old enough to be his grandmother, so not at all interested in marrying him. The woman cashier laughed, and I added: “If you need a granny to knit you a sweater, though, I’m the one.”
The look on my cashier’s face! His eyes widened and softened and he looked about ten years old, looked like a boy who needed and really wanted a granny who would knit him sweaters. My heart melted. It was all I could do not to actually offer to knit for him. I smiled, paid for my yogurt and veggies and took my mushy-hearted self home. A much better random encounter to end my day than the one that started it.
When I wrote the first part of this essay, I was going to title it, “Burn Them All Off.” But then I had that little shock at Foodtown, that reminder that the city is still mine most of the time, that there is danger but there is also light and sweet-faced young people who want to be cherished by their elders. It doesn’t erase the morning’s unpleasantness, doesn’t erase the reality that my world has changed and I need to be more wary than I’ve ever needed to be in my life. But I welcome the spoonful of sugar.
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.