By Your Leave

Louis CK wants your permission. He wants you to make it okay that he whips out his penis in front of women who have expressed no desire to see it. He wants you to read his apology and decide that you can still like him, still stan for him, still want to see his comedy routines and his shows and his movies.

I mean, of course that’s what he wants. That’s his livelihood. So yes. That’s what he wants.

But he also wants your permission … to pretty much continue being exactly the same. He wants you to understand that his relationship with his penis is about using it to exert his privileged power over those he sees as his to dominate. He likes showing it to women, likes playing with it to their sometimes hysterical horror.

Some of us recoiled in anger and disgust when we heard Donald Trump say that, when you’re a famous man, you can do whatever you want to women. We may have recoiled, but that is exactly what Louis CK and Harvey Weinstein and every other man who’s being called out right now has banked on. They have been allowed to believe that, because of their fame or power or wealth or combination of the three, they can do whatever they want to women and to men they deem less famous, less powerful, less wealthy. Our allegiance to rape culture has allowed these men to believe in their right to behave as they wish. Our refusal to accept women’s autonomy has allowed these men to believe in their right to behave as they wish. Our refusal to believe women, our adherence to a strict code of victim-blaming, our knee-jerk slut shaming … all of these things have allowed these men to believe they can do whatever they want to women.

But Louis CK still wants your permission, still wants you to like him, to like his insistence on talking about his penis and the wacky hi-jinks he gets up to with it. He wants you to hear all the right words he has carefully crafted into his so-called apology … and ignore–or, better still, smirk at–the wrong ones he’s added for effect. And he wants you to see that he admits to the things his accusers claim: “These stories are true,” he says. And by saying that, he is expecting your instant forgiveness. He has admitted his guilt … even though he qualifies that admission, qualifies it so hard, the admission almost disappears. But he does own up to what he did. Now let’s welcome him and his penis back into the parlor with the polite company.

I will admit that it’s interesting to watch the different ways these famous men are choosing to respond when they are called out for what they’ve done. Louis CK is the first who response has so generously plumped itself up with both angry defiance and a begrudging, blame-y admission of guilt. It’s not a mix that’s completely unexpected, but it’s still unusual.

You can read his statement over at the NYTimes.

My first reaction when I read the statement was annoyance. That he had to talk about how he “never showed a woman my dick without asking first,” read like a slap in the face to every woman he abused. Here you are, performing apologetic remorse, and you need to talk about whipping it out … and you need to make the point that you only did that after asking permission first? Are you fucking kidding me?

The words in his apology statement–the ones after the repeated mention of his penis–fall into line in a way that seems right, that seems like saying sorry. They don’t totally get the job done, however. There’s far too much calling out of the fact that people admire and look up to him, of his fame and popularity.

There are other issues, too, but it’s that, “Hey! People like me!” shit that has my attention. This is why I said CK wants your permission. He wants to be able to start an “apology” for sexual aggression by talking in a sexually aggressive way, and then he wants you to nod with him when he tells you how important and well-liked he is–even by the women who are coming forward to accuse him. he can’t be truly bad if even his accusers look up to him and think he’s swell. Right? Right?

Obviously, his statement tells us, he’s not like these other men we’ve been hearing about. He asked first before assaulting anyone. Asked first! If these women could give him permission, surely you can, too.

The statement is almost a great apology. Almost. Almost. It mostly reads right, but it still goes wrong. Louis CK wants you to remember what you’ve come to know about him. You’ve loved his jokes about his desperate need to masturbate anywhere, any time. So how can you not feel for him now when you realize all of that was true?

For me, forgiveness–if there will be any offered–comes when there’s remorse, where full responsibility is taken, when the offending party apologizes to the person or people they offended. I don’t see that between the lines of Louis CK’s angry, petulant statement. And I most certainly have no desire to grant him an inch of permission.

None of the stories we’re hearing are surprising, are they? Men in positions of power have abused their power for the whole of recorded history, and surely for all the time before that as well. This isn’t news. Victims of abuse have tried to speak up … and have been slapped down, penalized, black-balled, criminalized. Silenced. By any means necessary. All in service of protecting powerful men. (Mostly we’re talking about powerful white men, yes, but let’s not kid ourselves that the buck stops with them. Despite the realities of racism–and because of the realities of racism–the system spends some of its energy protecting powerful Black men, too. Not as much, and usually not with the same level of dedication or success, but yes.)

The moment we are living in is interesting, this sea tide of accusations swamping our news feeds, this rush to believe the accusers. Not in every case, but that it’s true at all is new and different. I won’t pretend this signals the end of powerful men being given a pass no matter their crimes. I mean, hello, this country elected the poster child for white male privilege a year ago. We ain’t changed that fast, friends.

No. But something’s happening. Yes, part of this is about numbers. So many women–mostly women–have come forward that a) they are hard(er) to ignore and brush off and b) they are creating a space in which more people can come forward. Suddenly, we don’t have one woman we can call hysterical and dismiss by saying she made a mistake and is trying to make someone else pay for it.

But is it only about numbers? It feels like something else, something more. We are still fighting back against men who abuse power, but this is different, and I wonder where it will go–how far, how deep. I want to see it wend its scorched-earth way through the careers and reputations of every man who has thought his rights extended to another person’s body, safety, autonomy.

We have had hundreds of victims step forward and name their abusers. We have millions of victims share their #MeToo stories. What we’re seeing cannot be compared to anything that’s happened before. It feels like … well … like an actual opportunity for change.

I’m not as naive as that sounds, but I do think something different is happening now. We’ve had accusations in the past, but we’ve never had such a welling up of powerful, angry energy. There are too many people caught in this storm for this to be but a moment, something to casually quash and wave on its way as the accused move on to abuse again.

I assume there will be some hideous backlash. There always is. We already see men lamenting their inability to know how to interact with women, their apparently abject terror at being called out. There are already people (women!) comforting those men, telling them not to worry about their behavior, because they are so not the kind of men who would … Feh. We already have cable news talking heads fretting over innocent ment being swept up in the rush to accuse, to judge. There are already jokes about men we “know” won’t be accused, could never be accused.

So, slowly and inevitably, the status quo of our male-dominant society has begun pushing back. I still believe what’s happening now is and will continue to be stronger than that.

 

Do I feel for Louis CK and his fraternity of abusers, particularly for those who are or will suffer real consequences (finally) for their choices? No. Really not at all. Not at all. Not because I don’t believe people can change. I absolutely believe in our ability to transform ourselves.

These men, however. Yeah, not so much. They’ve hurt people, emotionally, physically, professionally. They’ve done it repeatedly. They’ve been made aware that what they did was problematic, was upsetting, was frightening, was damaging … and they didn’t opt to change their behavior, to make better, more decent, humane choices. No, they knew they were safe, knew they could deny successfully, knew they would be protected, so they continued to do exactly what they wanted to do. Louis CK even turned his abusive behavior into jokes, making his audiences complicit in his crimes.

No, I don’t feel even a tiny bit sorry for any of these men. I am full-on disgusted with each and every one of them. I am thrilled to see them called out and, at long last, held responsible for themselves.

Maybe they can change. Maybe–if they can get past their angry, I’m-the-real-victim-here bullshit–they will find ways to change. And I’ll be happy for them then … and happier still for all the women and men who will be safe in their presence.

 

Louis CK wants your permission. Refuse him. He wants your forgiveness and acceptance. Make him–make all of them–earn it.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Advertisements

Moving On

After ten too-short years of settling into my beautiful Brooklyn apartment and my equally beautiful Brooklyn neighborhood, I have to leave. My landlords are expanding into the full house, so it’s time for me to go. I’m sad about it. “Sad” doesn’t fully express the sense of loss I already feel, especially knowing that it’s unlikely I’ll get to stay in the neighborhood. Rents have outpaced me, rising considerably in the time I’ve been cozied up at home.

I wanted to call this piece “Paradise Lost” because that’s how I felt when I first got the news from my landlords.

It’s been a good ten years. I’ve done good work at both of my jobs. I became a bread baker. I became a better knitter. I became a vegetarian. I discovered and was embraced by the VONA writing community. I became a blogger, which has affected a sea change in my writing and my life–I’ve written hundreds of poems (poems! me), I’ve started working in comics, I’ve found a channel through which I can funnel my anger productively and satisfyingly. I’ve acquired a pair of new knees … and they aren’t perfect, but they’re better than they were.

A good ten years. I’ve been more happy than unhappy. And it’s true that not all of those things happened because I lived in my pretty Crown Heights apartment, but being comfortable at home didn’t hurt, feeling at ease and having a good relationship with my landlords and neighbors certainly didn’t hurt. Knowing I could take off for weeks at a time and my cats would be well taken care of didn’t hurt.

Okay, enough of that. It’s bringing me down. Not everything has been rosy about living here, right? There are the awkwardly steep steps down to my basement that have been scary and difficult for someone with mobility issues. There’s the occasional leak under my back door when the rain comes down heavily and at just the right angle (though, surprisingly, not a drop came in during the biggest, most aggressive rainfall I’ve seen while living here: Superstorm Sandy). There has been the cavalcade of bugs that have made themselves at home with me: grasshoppers, lightning bugs, ants, slugs, millipedes, and those black-red bugs with the pincer-like mandibles! (Having the yard out my back door has been a dream, but I never imagined how many uninvited guests would wander in from that pretty patch of “wilderness”!)

I have a little time before I need to be out, but I’ve started looking. And as I’ve started looking, I realize that I don’t have much experience with apartment hunting. And that’s a crazy thing to realize because I’ve lived in nine different apartments in the 30 years I’ve been in this city. I have always found apartments really quickly and easily–once, much too quickly, so quickly I didn’t look closely enough to notice all the awfulness until the lease was signed and I was in the middle of it. A few of the apartments I barely had to look for at all, friends were moving out or looking for a roommate, and there I was. The others, maybe I looked at a small handful of places, but I always found what I wanted in no time. I looked at two apartments before seeing and falling in love with my current one. Two.

Two is not going to be my magic number this time around, however. I’ve already seen fourteen places, already been disappointed by the unsuitableness of nearly all of them. I’ve sent “contact me!” messages to dozens of people through at least five different apartment-finding websites, and I’ve wandered neighborhoods I’ve never considered living in–or never considered returning to.

It shouldn’t be as complicated as it’s shaping up to be for me. But homeowners and brokers give me the fisheye on the regular. Because, as steady and stable as I generally am, I also look like an unacceptable risk. 

I have a good job. I have a history of longevity both as an employee and as a tenant. I make a pretty decent salary, a significantly larger salary than the brokers are hoping for when they tell me what I need to make in order to be eligible for apartments in my rent range. I don’t smoke. I have cats, not dogs. I have no children.

But

I have a ton–make that a TON–of thorny, hairy, ugly debt. All that money I borrowed and charged during the try-to-have-a-baby phase is still hanging over my head. Well, not all of it. I’ve paid a chunk back, but the rest is still sky high, blocking the sun with its mountainous bulk. It makes for a lousy credit report and score, makes me look like the last person you want renting in your building.

Add that debt to their surprise at discovering that I’m the woman they’ve been talking and texting with. A big, Black woman with kinky hair is not who they expect to meet. A big, Black woman with kinky hair and crappy credit? Yeah, I instantly become an even less attractive candidate. (No, I don’t think every broker or homeowner I’ve met so far is straight-up racist, but their reactions to me have been such that all of them have failed the test. One of the things I liked about my current landlords when we met was their flying-colors handling of the test. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen two people show less surprise at finding me on their doorstep.)
And all that debt repayment means I’ve saved nothing, so buying is out of the question.

When I wrote about my fear of homelessness, this is where it comes from. No, I’m not two steps away from the street. Hardly. But I’m many steps away from stable, and a lifetime away from comfortable. And all of that mattered before now, but it didn’t matter in the same way. I was paying down my debt and imagined myself having at least another five years or so before I’d have to start thinking about moving (right around the time I thought my landlords’ oldest daughter might be thinking she’d like her own apartment somewhere not too far from home …).

So. Looking. It really does suck. But there is one interesting thing about this process that is maybe good. I have to tell my credit score story over and over. People have a hard time understanding how I can have a good salary and a crap score all at the same time. I didn’t know that was a weirdness, but apparently it is. So I have to say over and over to one stranger and then another that I ran up a crazy pile of debt while trying to have a baby, and now I’m paying it back.

This is interesting to me because this isn’t something I’ve ever been able to say without getting teary. But here I am, looking men I don’t know in the face and telling them this intensely personal and painful thing, saying it as if it ain’t no thang.

I first thought about this Tuesday. I was saying it to the gruff Irishman who was showing me the first nice apartment I’ve seen. He asked the credit score question and I gave my answer. And I thought, “I am saying that so casually, as if it isn’t hard to say, as if saying it in the past hasn’t sunk me into tears. When did I get comfortable with this?”

But I didn’t have time to keep puzzling over that question because something else happened, too. I said my piece, and I saw him change. He hadn’t been in my court before that moment, was clearly ready to move on to whatever his next thing was, was practically tapping his foot as I looked into the closets (so many closets!) and checked out the view (no buildings obstructing any of the windows!). But when I explained my debt situation, he morphed into a different man. He began to counsel me on how to write my application for the apartment, on how to write the accompanying cover letter he thought I should write to help the owner see why they should take a chance on me. He started telling me more about the apartment owners and the kind of tenant they were looking for and urged me to talk up those aspects in my letter.

Because he felt for me, because there I was, childless–this fact already established before I’d come to meet him and see the place–and telling him I’d spent myself into a hole trying to have a kid. And it turned me into an actual human being for him, a person. I don’t know why he wasn’t interested in being helpful to me before that moment. I can speculate, but I really have no idea. But all of that melted away and he turned into the man he probably is most of the time.

I don’t tell this story about myself to turn myself into a human. It never occurred to me that that would be the result (or in any way necessary in this context). It’s the actual answer to the question about my credit, and telling it is easier than making up a story. But now I see that not only has it helped me get past the awfulness of saying it out loud, it also clearly impacts the person who’s listening to me. This shouldn’t surprise me, should it? I haven’t been meeting with brokers who are androids or robots and incapable of experiencing human emotion. Maybe every single one of them has felt differently about me after hearing my story, but this man was the first one who made his change of attitude so dramatically obvious.

That apartment I saw Tuesday was the first one I’ve seen that I really like. Thirteen duds to get to one place with the potential to be fabulous. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty and large and has great closets and great windows and a doorman (who, apparently, was an engineer in Georgia before he came to this country decades ago) and laundry on-site … It’s nice. I’ll have to jump through a series of hoops to apply for it, but the broker, let’s call him Patrick, has talked me through each of them.

It’s a relief to finally see an apartment I can imagine living in. True, I haven’t been looking long, but really everything in my price range has been totally unacceptable. All have been less than half the size of my current place, one had roaches in the medicine cabinet! (Always check the medicine cabinet!) I haven’t seen roaches in so long, I wasn’t prepared and did a terrible job of hiding my startle response. The broker looked over my shoulder to see what I was seeing and shook his head, “Should I just show you out now?” he asked. I nodded. I mean, there was no way I was ever going to be able to live in the tea-cup-sized house, but then to have to share it with roaches? No.

Tomorrow I’ll see a rent-stabilized place that looks even nicer than the one I saw yesterday. Big, eat-in kitchen, better transportation, across the street from a beautiful park. It’s a little more than I’d wanted to spend, but if it’s as nice as it looks online, it’ll be worth it. And there’s another on deck that has potential, too. I want to move before the end of the year. Seeing a lot of perfectly unsuitable apartments was beginning to make that seem like the height of Pollyanna-ish fantasy. Now I have some hope again.

There’s another thing I realize I’ll have to deal with if one of those three apartments becomes my new home. And I hadn’t thought about this until I stepped off the bus on Tuesday and started walking to the apartment. I was in a part of Brooklyn I haven’t spent much time in. The adult ed program I ran years ago offered English language classes in a senior housing building there–I passed the building on my way to meet Patrick–but it’s not a neighborhood where I’d normally find myself. To be as plain as possible: it’s a very (VERY) white neighborhood. Super white.

And you know, I like white folks well enough. Some. And yes, some of my best friends are white and everything.

But I haven’t had to live in a white neighborhood in ten years. Crown Heights is gentrifying at the speed of light, but it’s still full of Black folks. And I hadn’t thought about the fact that leaving the neighborhood might also mean leaving the pleasure of being surrounded by people who look like me. The pleasure of riding home at night on what I like to call the Black World bus.

I’ve lived in white neighborhoods before. I grew up in white towns. I’ve lived in Park Slope and Cobble Hill. This is a thing I know I can do. But the fact that I’ve already done it is always why I know it will be hard, especially after so many years in Crown Heights. Especially since we’ve entered the age of white folks putting Black folks’ lives in danger by calling the cops for nothing at all.

I lived in Cobble Hill before moving to Crown Heights. If you don’t know Brooklyn neighborhoods, just know that Cobble Hill is a ridiculously over-priced neighborhood full of chi-chi restaurants and tiny boutiques that have three items on display, each costing as much as your rent. (This is a mild exaggeration. Mild.) I lived there for seven years. And for the whole of that seven years, I got to watch my neighbors see me approaching or realize I was walking behind them … and clutch their bags more tightly or pull their children closer, or stare at me with suspicion and fear. It was, to say the least, fucking exhausting.

I think of all the ways I’ve had to adapt to white neighborhoods, change my appearance or behavior on the street just so the people around me aren’t frightened by seeing me. I don’t walk with a scowl on, or with my head down. God forbid I should look angry or like someone trying to avoid eye contact so you can’t identify me after I mug you. And I don’t make eye contact because then I look defiant or angry or confrontational or like I’m sizing you up to decide if I’m going to mug you. I don’t walk closely behind people, I make myself give a half smile and a nod or say hi or something to show how open and personable I am. I make myself not have an explosive reaction when people assume I’m someone’s maid or nanny simply because that’s the only role they’re willing to ascribe to a Black woman walking around in their community.

Does all of this sound ridiculous to you? It should … except that it’s totally necessary in certain neighborhoods. After I moved to Crown Heights, I was back in my old neighborhood and saw one of my former neighbors. She was about a block away from me. I waved at her, and she looked distressed. I waved again. Her look stayed distressed. As I got closer to her, I spoke, greeting her by name. When she realized I knew her name, she allowed herself to see me–not to just look at the person approaching her but to see me–and realized that she recognized me. “I guess you didn’t see me waving,” I said. I mean, I figure she had definitely seen me, but I also knew there were times when I walked around so in my head I didn’t see the people right in front of me. Also, I was giving her an out because I didn’t feel like being bothered with anything more serious. But she didn’t take the out I’d offered. Instead, she told me the truth, her very odd and telling truth: “I saw you,” she said. “I didn’t know how to read that hand gesture.”

She. didn’t. know. how. to. read. my. hand. gesture. The mysterious and frightening wave. This is how annoying and wearing it can be to be a Black person on the street with white people. Do I really want to move back to that? Do I really want to have to deal with that nonsense morning, noon, and night?

Sigh.

 

(Yeah. This is what happens when I don’t censor or carefully edit, when I just say all the stuff, even when more than half of it belongs in another essay and some of it really just belongs in my head!)

What I want to say is that I’m scared. I have gotten so comfortable that this change looms so much larger than it should, and I’m scared. Whatever happens, it will be fine. I’ll go out tomorrow and see these two apartments. And I’ll find and hold onto my optimism and my belief that I really am a good risk despite my debt and my Black skin and my nappy hair. And I won’t be living in my so-comfortable-it-seems-made-for-me home anymore, but I’ll find a new so-comfortable home. I new place for my cats to explore, for my books to line up side by side, for my knitting stash to grow, for my friends to come for dinner and brunch and writers’ group and book club. Home. Again.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

A House Full of Grandpas

Not too long ago, a lot of people in my community were angry. The City was renovating a small building with plans to turn it into a 110-bed homeless shelter. People were angry because the City seems to think the nickname for this community is “home for the homeless.” We have a disproportionate number of shelters here. This is especially glaring when viewed in comparison with the number of shelters being added in our Mayor’s home nabe: ZERO.

I understood my neighbors’ concern and—because the new shelter was being set up less than a block from my house—I understood the heightened concern of my most immediate neighbors. And to a degree, I shared their worries.

Almost 30 years ago, I worked at a homeless shelter. By interesting coincidence, it was in this neighborhood—Crown Heights, Brooklyn—not too far from where I now live. It was a large facility and was what is called a Tier 2 shelter, which meant it was for families and provided apartments rather than barracks- or dorm-style accommodations. I was there to teach a GED class.

The shelter wasn’t a great place. The building was well-kept, but the care and services provided were distracted and impersonal at best, disjointed and uncaring bordering on counterproductive and detrimental at worst.

The shelter was in a part of the neighborhood that was more than a little run down and not particularly inviting. My students were mostly women in their twenties and thirties with one or two or four small children. Most were made homeless when their relationships with men soured. Frances had lost her home to a fire. Carolyn had learned after her parents’ deaths that there was a massive lien against her family home and she had to vacate so it could be sold to pay that debt. Tiffany’s father had kicked her out when she could no longer hide her pregnancy, and Yohaira’s mother had put her in the street when she’d refused to put her baby up for adoption. Tonya was rumored to have a drinking problem—I will admit that I loved that the women who mentioned this to me actually said, “drinking problem,” so old-fashioned and prim. She was also rumored to have a man in the building next door. Tonya was as dramatic as we got in our group.

The renters and homeowners in the neighborhood seemed not to give the ladies and their kids a second thought—at least not in ways that I was likely to notice. And, too, I was only on site a few hours a day. Every once in a while, however, ugliness would bubble to the surface … or walk right up and smack me in the face.

As I walked to the train after class one day, a woman stopped me and expressed surprise at seeing me coming from the shelter: “You live here?” she asked.

I explained that I was teaching a GED class for the residents. More surprise.

“Whores need diploma nowadays?”

And then the surprise was mine.

It turned out that a lot of people in the community thought the shelter was a brothel of sorts. My students told me about daily harassment when they were on the street—interest from men, anger from women. “Even when I’m with my babies,” Florence said. “These people have no shame.”

Now, yes: there were those rumors about Tonya and the man from next door. And yes: it was certainly true that then (like now, to be honest) I could be entirely oblivious to things going on around me, I was pretty sure there was no truth behind that idea. But the residents of the neighborhood were faced with a building full of people they’d rather not have to welcome into the community. It is, unfortunately, somewhat natural, predictable, that anyone who disapproved of the shelter would imagine whatever they could imagine as the least desirable truth about the place. And that they’d work to spread that story to ensure the universal dislike of the shelter and its inhabitants. What easier conclusion to leap to when looking at a building full of young women? The brothel story shouldn’t have surprised me at all.

I heard a lot of stories about the shelter being built down the street from my house, too. It would be a shelter for young men, for young men with mental health problems, for young men in drug treatment, for men returning from prison, for young men with mental health problems who were returning from prison and dealing with addiction. You get the idea.

I get why the mix of descriptions would concern people. Young men, ex-offenders, the mentally ill, people dealing with addiction … they all come with any number of negative things we’ve been taught to believe and fear and distrust about them.

And I’m not saying I’m all saintly and above falling for that. I was concerned about who would be moving in. In my heart of hearts, I wanted the building to go back to being a daycare center, which it had been when I moved to the neighborhood ten years ago. Maybe some fun after school programs could be run from there. Maybe there’d be a nice indoor home for the adorable pre-adolescent drum corps and color guard who practiced on the roof next door. (Also, I don’t lock my front door, and having a building full of ex-offenders down the street made me worry that I’d have to start.)

As much as I love my homey, family-full neighborhood just as it is, as much as I think other communities should share the responsibility of housing the City’s homeless population, it was hard for me to be full-on anti shelter.

New York has an enormous homeless population. Our Mayor has promised to deal with it somehow and deal with it better than mayors past. But we’re talking about housing more than 60,000 people. That’s an entire town’s worth of people—it’s roughly the total population of Delray Beach or Utica, Palo Alto or Des Plaines. Finding housing for a whole city’s worth of people is a herculean task. And there aren’t, as far as I know, any neighborhoods anywhere in the city opening their arms wide and looking to embrace homeless New Yorkers. And we don’t have near enough affordable housing stock … and even if we did, people don’t usually go directly from homelessness to fully-independent apartment living. There are steps to stability that need to happen. And placement in a residential shelter is an important step (although I’ll admit that I am very much enamored of the Housing First model that has had a dramatic impact in places like Salt Lake City and Milwaukee).

I’m not mad at my neighbors for their concerns, which—unfairly—are very NIMBY-sounding. How could I be angry with my neighbors? I totally understand where they’re coming from. But I’m also thinking about the possibility—the likelihood?—of my eventual homelessness. Yes, I’m sure that’s some over-dramatic catastrophizing. Brought on, no doubt, by the stress of learning that I have to leave my beautiful and beloved apartment and seeing how slim and distasteful the pickings are out there in Apartment Hunting Land.

Still. I think about how old I am and how I haven’t managed to accumulate really any wealth at all. I think about the fact that I will surely not have a pleasant retirement because I won’t have a retirement at all because I will be working until the day I die.

And then I think what neighborhood will welcome my tired, aging, broke ass when that time comes? How far away from the world will I be forced to live because no one wants destitute poor folks bedding down near their beautiful, expensive homes?

Yes, obviously that is crazy talk. I have a number of options before homelessness. Many options. But this is where my brain goes. It’s hard to down-talk the homeless when you think you’re going to join their ranks eventually.

Back in the real world, there were town hall meetings and protests. And when those were finished, the City moved right along with its original plan. The shelter opened a few months ago.

I don’t know if our new neighbors, the shelter residents, are dealing with drug addiction or if they have histories of mental illness or incarceration. What I do know is that they are all older men. Some are quite old. It’s early days, sure, but so far I’d say the net effect of the shelter’s opening has been to increase the population of grandfather-y men in the neighborhood. Most of them (like me) walk with or carry canes. I see them as I walk to the bus stop or the bakery, making their sometimes slow, sometimes shuffling way up the block.

Other neighborhoods should definitely take on more of the responsibility of providing housing for homeless people—Park Slope, for example, or maybe Cobble Hill and Kips Bay, Forest Hills and Yorkville …—but I also think my neighborhood has gotten lucky in this current arrangement. For me, anyway, it’s hard to stay mad at a house full of grandpas.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Fat Talk: The Cage, Part II

In the first part of this essay, I said that I’m pretty comfortable with myself, and that’s mostly true. That comfort didn’t happen magically, and it certainly didn’t happen because I’m regularly met with loud and enthusiastic praise for being fat. As if.

And yet, I am pretty comfortable with myself, and I know that that’s both generally unexpected and, in many folks’ opinions, extremely unacceptable. After reading that first essay, a friend said she isn’t used to seeing fat narratives that aren’t about getting thin, that don’t have body transformation at the root. Body transformation is most definitely not my goal, and I know how alien that is for many people who might read these essays. But there it is. Good to establish that right up front.

***

My comfort with myself is relatively new. I certainly wasn’t comfortable being fat when I was younger. The terrible romper I had to wear in high school gym class could have created that discomfort all by itself.¹ So would the mandatory gymnastics routines we had to perform each year to pass gym: choreographed, in teams, in skimpy costumes … and in which I was always the largest, least-gainly, and least able to fit the costume member.

My ease with myself began to develop when I stopped dieting, when I decided that I would never again subject myself to the cruel, predictable roller coaster of dieting.

From fifteen to thirty-eight, I was a dieter. Even when I wasn’t actively dieting, I was a dieter. I lost so much weight on diets. Once, I lost enough weight that a man who had never been interested in me romantically or sexually was inspired to make a violent pass at me. Score! Once, I lost enough weight that a man was kind enough to let me know I’d reached the outer rim of “acceptable,” of fat women who weren’t so fat that he wouldn’t fuck them once. Just once, mind you. Talk about a bonus!

Seriously, though, I did lose a lot of weight on diets. Over and over and over. In that way, I was an excellent dieter, always able to lose, and lose, and lose.

But there’s this thing that happens when I diet. I get smaller. Every time. It’s a problem.

When I lose weight, I get more — and more aggressive — street harassment. When I lose weight, people — friends and strangers — comment on my body. When I lose weight, the fear of weakness resurfaces. Thinness equals vulnerability. Still.

And all of this is why I said it feels safer in the cage than out of it.

Years ago, after I gave up dieting, when I was working on developing a healthier relationship to food, a relationship that didn’t (always) involve eating my feelings, I did a visualization exercise. The idea was to imagine myself in my regular day to day, but to imagine myself thin. This is a pretty easy exercise on its face. I won’t speak for other fat people, but I used to spend a lot of time imagining myself thin.

For the second part of the exercise, I was to pay attention to any feelings that came up as thin me was doing my job and running my errands.

Oh. Well, that was different. I immediately noticed how uncomfortable I felt, nervous, on display, hunted. Hunted? Yes, like I had morphed into prey.

I stopped the exercise. That was the first time I’d articulated equating thinness with being unsafe, being unable to protect myself, the first time I drew the connecting line between being molested and getting fat.

I didn’t know what to do with that, with the fact that the thing I was supposed to want above all things — thinness — was also the thing I perceived as putting me at risk. And it wasn’t just my perception. Men had shown me each time I lost weight — and I never had to lose very much weight for them to make this clear — that they couldn’t be trusted, that I couldn’t feel safe with them.

I’ve done that exercise a number of times since that first, revealing, time. The idea of thinness still calls up weakness and vulnerability, though not as strongly as happened that first time. Which is probably progress.

I know, without repeating that exercise, that I still have work to do here. When I lose weight now, I’m fine with the loss … until someone calls it out, until I’m forced to buy clothes at a smaller size. When that happens, all I want is to start eating, to go back into binge mode to cover myself again, hide myself back behind a newly-fortified wall. And that’s always what I do. I can lose weight fairly easily. Overcoming my fear of being smaller is another thing all together.

***

I don’t think of my body as a cage. My size does make some things true for me that aren’t true for thin people. And my size makes me behave in ways thin people have likely never had to imagine behaving. But this is my body. It’s not a cage. It’s me.

Yes, there is the idea of my body as a protective wall between me and anyone who might harm me. But I also understand the false security of believing in that wall. Both the attempted rape and the rape happened to fat me, not slender me. Rapists and abusers don’t care what your body looks like. Their violence has nothing to do with societal beauty norms.

But if I know that, if I know my body isn’t safety, why maintain this size? If I don’t think of my body as a cage, why did I describe myself as trapped?

Yeah.

What I know for sure is that I won’t diet again. Ever. The mind required for dieting is damaging to me, feeds doubt and self-hate. I am currently in a fight with my cardiologist who wants to enroll me in a managed, monitored weight loss program. Guess again. The wonky heartbeat that mysteriously developed last summer has been fixed, and while going on a diet might fulfill his fantasy that I will begin to look like my mother — something he calls out as a goal for me every time we meet — dieting will do nothing for me but mess up my head, slam truck-sized holes into all the progress I’ve made toward liking and trusting myself. I am not interested.

Giving up dieting sounds like abandon, sounds wanton, almost criminal. As a fat person, I am supposed to crave thinness, supposed to want and need to lose weight. Really, even if you’ve never had this thought about me or said some of these words to me, trust me: plenty of other folks have. Plenty.

But I’ve turned away from the path our fatphobic society thinks I should guide myself down. I have become a Bad Fatty.

***

Which means that I remain fat, yes. And it also means I am somewhat belligerently so. I don’t have patience for people’s fat-shaming and fat phobia — good God, don’t I wish that had been true from the beginning of my fatness! Once, before I became a vegetarian, I was ordering a sandwich at a deli. The person taking my order disapproved when I added bacon. She paused before noting what I’d asked for, sighed, looked at me, and asked, “Are you sure you want that?” Because heaven forbid I should have bacon on my turkey sandwich. Imagine the eventual destruction-of-the-world should I have bacon on my turkey sandwich. I looked at her, surprised. “You’re so right,” I said, smiling. “I meant to say double bacon! Thanks for catching that!”

I don’t have time for people’s mess. This is my body. Mine. All mine. And if folks don’t like looking at it, they can look elsewhere. And if folks want to tell me what I should and shouldn’t be eating, I am happy to tell them that, since they aren’t paying for my food, since I didn’t take my food off their plate, they are welcome to shut the fuck up. I will feed myself what I want when I want it. I will dress myself how I like when I choose. I will have the audacity to take up all the space I take up.

When I lose weight now, it’s a sign that I’m feeling myself – feeling stronger, feeling safer. It means I’m trusting myself, committing to my creative self. It means I’m living more mindfully. And I’m glad for all of those things. And sad when I feel the fear creep in, when I start to gain back whatever I’ve lost.

***

I am comfortable with myself.

I am comfortable with myself, and there is still work to do. I still don’t believe the world is safe for me to be smaller. I still don’t want to invite the added attention that comes when I’m smaller.

So yes, work to do. Not so that I can lose weight and keep it off, but because living in fear isn’t a way I want to live, because overcoming those fears will move me — finally — past the object those men and that boy wanted to make of me, the object other men have tried to make of me.  Overcoming those fears will leave me stronger, more whole, more myself.

__________

¹ Have you read Eleanor and Park? That’s exactly the romper I wore throughout high school. I mean, Oh. My. God. For real.  (Also? Just read that book because it’s good.)



One in a series of essays inspired by reading Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger.
If you haven’t read my ground rules, please take a look before commenting. Thank you.

I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.

Three Years On

Three years ago, a boy was killed. For no good reason, but for a lot of bad ones. He was murdered and left to bake in the August sun. And after his murder, a lot of people worked hard — and are still working hard — to convince anyone who’d listen that his death was his own fault. After all, they said, he wasn’t a good person anyway. And, they said, the man who murdered him — despite that man’s training, despite his holding all the power in that encounter — should be both lauded and pitied for making it through the ordeal of killing the boy. We should, they said, understand how afraid he must have been as he stood armed with a deadly weapon facing a child.

Three years ago, that boy’s murder was the next in a long line of murders, a long line of dead folks we were instructed to blame for their deaths at the hands of more powerful, deadly people. Dead folks like the seven-year-old girl who had the audacity to be sound asleep when she was shot to death. Dead folks like the the 22-year-old man who thought he had the right to shop for toys in a department store. Dead folks like the 22-year-old woman who seemed unaware that hanging out with friends in a local park was a capital offense. The boy murdered three years ago today was one more in a long, long line. Just one more.

But not just one more. A tipping point. Somehow that boy, that murder, that moment. Changed everything.

Changed everything. Not just for me, but definitely for me. I had spent years being sad and sadder and sadder still. Years waiting for an end to the killing of Black folks by police and their surrogates. Years waiting for killers to be held accountable, to be punished. Years, being sad and sadder and sadder still. Years feasting on disgust, disappointment, despair.

And then Michael Brown was murdered. And my despair turn to rage. And I embraced that rage, and gorged on that rage, and nurtured and listened to and learned from that rage. And I have never been the same.

And I am not alone. Brown’s murder didn’t only spark me. It birthed the Movement for Black Lives, our new Civil Rights Movement. A movement that has grown and continues to grow. A movement that has forced and sustained a focus on this country’s forever-inability to honestly face, acknowledge and dismantle racism.

***

Michael Brown should be prepping for his senior year in college. Should be finishing up the last days or weeks of that summer internship or study-abroad program he was so happy to get into. Should be texting with his mom about whether she’ll have time to run him by the back-to-school sale at Target so he can stock up on notebooks and his favorite Pilot gel pens. Should be thinking about the fact that his favorite professor will be back on campus after a year’s sabbatical. Should be hoping his course load and schedule will leave room for him to work part time at the campus library.

Instead, he is dead.

Instead, he is dead.

Instead, he is dead.

***

But we are not dead. Not yet.

We are still here, and we are still angry, and we are still committed to this fight. These three years have not been kind to us. But we are still here. And we aren’t going anywhere. We aren’t sitting down. We aren’t shutting up.

Today is a sad anniversary, but it is also a thank you. To one boy whose loss helped so many of us find our voices, find our way, find one another.

Rest in Power, Michael. We carry on.



I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.

V is for: Vain, Vainglorious, Vanity

I mean, of course. I am outrageously vain, after all. Nothing if not vain. I talk about this all the time: how vain I am about my hair, my hands, my knitting, my … everything! Truly, the list goes on and on. I’ve embraced my vanity in recent years, make a point of telling folks just how vain I am.

But

I’m realizing tonight that my vanity is a bit of a sham.

Tonight I am working on a letter of recommendation … for myself. I am drafting a letter that I’ll send to the person who is doing the recommending, and she’ll tweak it to make it her own.

I’m doing this because I’m working on an application for a writing residency. I’m doing this because I refuse to let the deadline for this residency pass me by as I have done with several deadlines in the last few months. I’m doing this because I have to push myself in this way, force myself to apply for things. I’m doing this because I want this residency, because I want this gift of time.

But oh, how I also want to push this away.

I’ve known about this application and its soon-coming deadline for more than a month. Proceeded to ignore it for weeks. And when I did think about it, I decided that I couldn’t possibly get it, so therefore I shouldn’t apply. And when I thought about it again, I reminded myself how busy I am at work and how much I don’t have time to work on the application because I’m just too tired. And when I thought about some more, I realized the really what I needed to do was encourage all my eligible writer friends to apply because obviously this was perfect for them.

Yeah. All of that. Me, body-slamming myself again and again into the wall of Impostor Syndrome.

This is why I say my vanity is a sham. I walk around thinking I’m so in love with myself, but clearly that love is only on the surface, only for surface things. Because I also walk around running myself down, holding myself back from things I should be racing toward.

Sitting here tonight, trying to find a way to type out nice words about myself as a writer is crushing me. And the truth of that is breaking my heart. I shouldn’t be this difficult to say that I’m passionate about writing, that the project I’m proposing is a good and worthy one. Shouldn’t be. But is.

I know I have a lot of work to do with this. I guess what I’m realizing is that the work is that kind of every-minute-of-every-day work, that I have to pay closer-than-close attention so that I can see when I’m holding myself back, giving in to the inner critic. I have to be hyper vigilant … and make that my V word for today and every day.

Not an Impostor

How to see myself
to look uncritically,
to see all my flaws
not as flaws, just who I am.
To see my talents —
acknowledge that they exist,
that I do have skills,
that I have earned the things I have,
my jobs, my awards,
that I haven’t just been good
at fooling people.
How to see myself,
take my first real, honest look
silence my critic,
the one who uses my voice,
who knows all the ways
to bully, cut myself down.
This is behavior
so old, so painfully known.
This is who I am
to myself. I need to change,
find the vanity I claim.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.



Stacie doesn’t live there anymore.

Determined to write more than two sentences tonight, I went back through the daily writing prompts that Lisa (aka Satsumaart) sent me a couple of years ago to see what would catch my eye. The first prompt I saw had me composing my post even before I clicked onto this page: Moving

I’ve moved a lot. I moved once a year for the first six years that I lived in New York. I once moved after only nine months.  I hate moving house, and yet nothing seemed strange about the fact that I was changing apartments so often.

The place a moved to from my mother’s house was an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, on the edge of Chinatown. An apartment I shared with a friend and a guy I didn’t know who was eventually swapped out for a woman I didn’t know. It was a great place — an almost 1600sf loft with lots of sunlight and a roof we could hang out on. I loved living down there, but I left so I could look for a place my sister, Fox, and I could share. I found a big, cheap, two-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights: $50 less rent than I’d been paying for my one room on Ludlow Street! That was when we started calling ourselves The Poverty Twins. We had so much nothing. One chair, futons on the floor, my old stereo, and the cast iron skillet we found in the apartment. We were a little pathetic, but we had a good time living there, a good time living together. We left when we learned that we were living above drug dealers who didn’t hesitate to murder one neighbor as an object lesson for the rest of us. That was a lesson we learned quickly. We moved to Brooklyn.

That first Brooklyn apartment remains, to this day, the biggest, most extraordinarily beautiful place I’ve lived.  It was the bottom 2/3 of a house. The house was bigger than a brownstone, maybe half again as wide, and Fox and I had the parlor floor, the ground floor, the basement and the back yard (complete with grape vines!). We had more room than our furniture-less selves knew what to do with: two bedrooms, living room, formal dining room, sun porch, and mud room. We had ceiling fans, built in book shelves and desks in the bedrooms, decorative and working fireplaces and a fabulously-appointed kitchen with an extra large fridge, tons of cabinet space, windows onto the back yard and counter space for miles (seriously, about fifteen feet of counter, plus an extra little 2-foot side counter and a counter top in the pass-through to the dining room that was bigger than the entire cook space in Jill Santopietro’s kitchen 4b cooking videos). We also had what a friend of mine called a “love-making tub” … a big, jacuzzi-like thing in a room with dark wood and slate-tiled walls and little sconces with soft-glowing bulbs that were great for ambiance (but crap for putting on make up).

I was hugely spoiled by living in that house.  I love where I live now, but I still think longingly of all the space I had there, of the craziness of our grapevines taking over the yard, of having our first Christmas tree (a tall, half-spindly thing that we made all the decorations for, including popcorn garlands), of how at home I felt immediately. Of how comfortable we were living there with all that space we didn’t need (we had two large rooms we never even used, that’s how much too much space we had).

We didn’t want to leave that place, but any thought of putting down roots were quashed almost immediately when our new landlords told us they wanted to sell. When we left, Fox moved to Eastern Parkway, and I moved across the street to my first on-my-own apartment. That apartment was a hot mess: fleas, collapsing walls, corroded plumbing, strangers with keys (a scary, early morning discovery!) and some creeping brown sludge that bubbled up from the baseboards and ruined my futon. That was the nine-months place … and only my complete lack of money made my occupancy last so long. I couldn’t afford to move.

When I finally left, I moved to a place on Lafayette that I really liked. That was the first apartment in which I had the thought of actually settling. I had good landlords — kind, considerate, attentive to problems — and the place got lots and lots of wonderful light. There wasn’t even half enough closet space for a near-hoarder like me, the floors slanted, and the bathroom was small and awkward and shower-only. Still. I loved it there. I had good neighbors, had both north and south-facing windows, including a room-wide picture window with a nice sitting ledge that the cats and I enjoyed equally. I probably could have lived there happily for years. It looked like this:

Two closets? And not even big closets? As if that would ever have worked for me. So that little room on the side, instead of being my bedroom, which would have made all the sense in the world, became my storage room. The room at the top was my giant I-could-cook-for-an-army-in-here kitchen, and the picture window room was my everything else room. I kept thinking of things I would do to make the place more like home: build an island for the kitchen, get bookshelves, paint, get carpeting, unpack the little room and set it up as my writing/craft space … so many plans that came to nothing. I unpacked hardly anything, and then it was time to move. A friend got me interested in the idea of sharing an apartment, and I liked the thought of paying less rent, so I left my pretty, sunny little place behind.

Next, it was on to Eastern Parkway (Fox had already left for Park Slope). My friend and I found a place right across from the Botanic Garden. I enlisted my brother and sister-in-law’s help, hired a man with a van (a funny Russian guy I got along with so well my brother thought he was a friend, not a hired hand) and schlepped my life over to a big duplex apartment with two bathrooms and a garden. The entrance was into the upper floor. My room mate took the bedroom on that level, a space she shared with the kitchen, bathroom and our living/dining room. Downstairs was a huge open space with a smaller, shower-only bathroom and the door leading to the garden. I took that space for my room. We had some wacky notion that we would eventually set things up so that we had a living room area downstairs, too, but in my heart I knew that was never going to happen. That would have meant I was living in public, and I wouldn’t have liked that. Basically we shared the upper floor, and I kept the downstairs to myself. A very uneven distribution of territory. I also got the garden, but that was mostly because I was the only one interested in working it.

After 18 months of swanky duplex living, an out of town friend came to visit and when I brought her down to my space, she gave me a funny look, asked how long I’d been living there. When I told her, she shook her head. This is kind of how our conversation went:

“Why haven’t you unpacked?”

“What are you talking about?  Of course I’ve unpacked.”

“Stacie.  Look around.  This space is full of boxes.”

“Oh that.  I just haven’t gotten to that yet.”

“In all the years I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you unpacked.  What do you think that’s about?”

In that moment, I thought it was about her being nuts. Of course I’d unpacked in every placed I’d lived … except then I thought about it and realized how very much that wasn’t true. Not only was I moving like I had the law on me, I was keeping my life in boxes so I’d be ready for the next move. So I freed my possessions. That was the first apartment into which I fully moved … and then I only stayed there another year and a half before moving to Park Slope. Fox had moved to DC, and I moved into her old apartment, with her old room mate.

I almost let myself believe that I’d learned my lesson about unpacking, that I should stay in boxes because obviously I was going to keep moving. Instead, I forced myself to unpack, to set up my bookshelves and find places on them for all my stuff. And I stayed there for about five years, so it was good to be unpacked, to walk into my rooms at night and see all my stuff.

After that it was a move downtown to a too-small apartment into which I should never have moved. I entered that place under a cloud: one of my cats had just been euthanized, my decision to move had put a strain on one of my best friendships, I’d just broken up with my crazy Russian boyfriend, my awful mover couldn’t get the job done until after midnight — which meant that, even before I was in the apartment, I’d had a fight with one of my new neighbors. I closed the door at the end of the move-in and sat down and cried.

I was never able to unpack in there. It was too small to hold all my things — I’d exiled almost all of my furniture to a storage unit in Vinegar Hill, and there wasn’t enough space to unpack the things I kept with me. I did the best I could, but still felt like I was living out of boxes. I hated that place, and yet I was there the longest I’d lived anywhere since leaving my family. Years of living in a place I hated simply because I couldn’t bear the thought of another move.

And now I’m here. While it’s true that I wouldn’t have found this  apartment if I’d left the last one any sooner, finding a place as nice as this one makes me that much more sad to have stayed in the last one as long as I did. But now I’ve lived here longer than any place since leaving home, and that feels just right.

Have I settled in here? Let’s see: I rescued all my furniture from storage (full disclosure: I opened that storage unit door and almost cried to see my things after seven years away from them!), I’ve bought book shelves, arm chairs and … a sleeper sofa! In my mind, that last is a real indicator of making the place you live into a home, having a sofa and having the ability to comfortably host sleepover guests must mean you have a real home, yes?



It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!