Upended

You may know that I live in Brooklyn, that I live in south Brooklyn. My neighborhood has probably been in your news today because I live in Sunset Park, the neighborhood that was the site of the subway shooting during this morning’s rush hour.

I wasn’t there, and I’m totally fine. My train stop is one away from the stop that is captured in all the videos and photos. I am in that station all the time, of course, because it’s on my way to work, on my way home. Sometimes I transfer trains there.

This morning I went to work late. I often try to avoid the height of rush hour if I can. Too many people, and too many of them without masks these days. So I was behind the violence this morning, got stuck not being able to move forward and no idea why. Transit staff told us there was a “smoke condition” at 36th Street, which was true as far as it went. When I got back to the street, I contemplated the bus, but a brief chat with a woman at the bus stop told me that no trains were running at 36th Street, and the only buses in the opposite direction were out of service.

I stood in the rain a while, then decided my best option was to declare today a work-from-home day. And I fully acknowledged and appreciated that I have the privilege to do that when many many people do not.

So I walked home, and that’s when I found out what had caused the “smoke condition” that frustrated my commute.

*

I’m devastated by the shooting on the subway. How could I not be? Violence like this is always horrifying and devastating. And being trapped in a subway car with someone bent on killing you … I mean, it’s the worst iteration of a fish-in-a-barrel scenario.

I am heartened by the news that none of the injuries are life-threatening. I’m also heartened by the news that there is at least a “person of interest” in the case. But that comes along with the awful awareness that the shooter is still at large.

When I was washing dishes tonight, I realized something that this incident has to mean for me. I’ve written about disturbing and frightening encounters I’ve had with strangers. And each time I’ve thought not only about my own feelings, my own safety. I’ve tried to have empathy for the other person in the story.

So isn’t today the real test? Can I have empathy for the man who attacked the people on the N train today? I think I’m failing here … and I’m not feeling inclined to try not to fail. I can have empathy for people with untreated mental illness, but I’m not ready to paint today’s shooter with that brush. We don’t know anything about him. Yes, I can decide that anyone who would commit such a heinous act must be mentally ill … but I don’t actually believe that. I think mental illness gets a bad rap, gets blamed for all sorts of things for which it’s not responsible.

But this is still the test, isn’t it? Tonight, I re-watched the “Empathic Civilization” video that I first saw 10 years ago that got me thinking in a very intentional way about empathy. I can acknowledge that man’s humanity. I can acknowledge his anger, his pain. But empathize with him? Why would I want to?

The purpose of empathy is to help us understand how other people feel. Having that ability to understand others’ feelings is supposed to trigger generous or helping behavior in us … “generous” in the sense that we want to give of ourselves to other people. Empathy helps us build social connections.

So why have been telling myself all evening that I need to empathize with the man who carried out that attack? I’m not interested in working toward a world where we welcome in the people who want to kill indiscriminately, people who are comfortable striking at the peace of mind of millions of people, destabilizing a city’s equilibrium.

Maybe what I want is something else. It probably is good if people can understand the feelings of someone who would carry out an attack like the one in the subway (or any other mass shooting). If we understood the feelings of those people (I am struggling not to say “those killers,” but really, that’s what they are), maybe we could figure out how to help them so that they never reach the point of terrorism. So someone needs to be striving for empathy, but I’m not sure it’s me.

So where am I left? I don’t only want to have anger and horror as my responses to this man. My compassion is for his victims, and for everyone who has been traumatized (and re-traumatized) by his actions. I have anger. I have horror. I have disgust. I’m trying to find some room for something more, something more overtly constructive, something that lets me feel hopeful for change, let’s me feel hopeful, leaves me with hope.

Upended

Chilled, rainy morning. Nature fussing, showing now.
She twists your plans, could have it be snowing now.

But this isn’t about nature, it’s about anger,
about violence and the wind that’s blowing now.

When did we get here, this disregard for others?
But it’s not new. Our disdain is flowing now.

On days like today, that flow breaches the levees,
knocks us back from the line we should be toeing now.

I, Stacie, watch my neighbors wander – cold, confused.
what we thought we knew, understood, all going now.

National Poetry Month 2022: the Ghazal

As I’ve done for more than ten years (what?!), I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April … and I’m saying that boldly, knowing that I’ve already failed. I couldn’t find my way through to a poem on Day One, but I’m determined to continue.

The “Ghazal” is the form I’ve chosen for this year. Here is the structure and a little backstory (thank you Poetry Foundation):

“Originally an Arabic verse form dealing with loss and romantic love, medieval Persian poets embraced the ghazal, eventually making it their own. Consisting of syntactically and grammatically complete couplets, the form also has an intricate rhyme scheme. Each couplet ends on the same word or phrase (the radif), and is preceded by the couplet’s rhyming word (the qafia, which appears twice in the first couplet). The last couplet includes a proper name, often of the poet’s. In the Persian tradition, each couplet was of the same meter and length, and the subject matter included both erotic longing and religious belief or mysticism.”

Should be interesting!

I want the drugs. I need the drugs. Give me the drugs.

I am vaxxed and boosted. I am, in fact, hoping that a second booster for oldsters like me will be approved before my trip in May. I want to be loaded up with all the protection I can get.

My doctor — because she is a sensible and responsible professional and not an alarmist hypochondriac, terrified of getting Covid — has been telling me each time I email her about a second booster that I need to wait, that a second boost hasn’t been approved yet, hasn’t been shown to be helpful/necessary. And, each time we talk, I nod and agree that it’s best to wait … while inside I am screaming: GET THE DRUGS INTO MY BODY!!!

It’s still interesting to me how pro-vaccine I am. Or, to be more precise, how pro this vaccine I am. When vaccine talk first started in 2020, I was pretty certain I would wait a good long while before getting a shot. I wanted to wait until a lot of people had been vaxxed before I offered up my own precious self for some drug that would have been tested for about twelve seconds before being touted as the answer to our prayers. Did I want a vaccine? Yes. Did I trust Big Pharma or Caligula’s administration? Not hardly. I already have a strong, evidence-based distrust of the medical profession. There was no way I was going to raise my hand for experimental drugs.

Ha.

Fast forward to the moment it became possible to get a shot. When I say I would have elbowed kittens, Mr. Rogers, and the Dalai Lama out of my way to get my first shot, believe me. I didn’t think twice about signing up.

Same with the booster. The moment I was eligible, I was online booking a shot for the next morning. I got to the pop-up vax spot before the staff, sitting outside closed, empty trailers ready to roll up my sleeve and get my dose.

My trust of the medical profession hasn’t grown by leaps and bounds. It hasn’t grown at all. My recently canceled surgery and the lack of care that has come in the wake of that mess have shown me that I can be assured that the medical profession still doesn’t care a whit for me.

Clearly, however, my fear of Covid is stronger than my distrust of doctors and drug companies. I am acutely aware of how likely I am to have a terrible time with Covid, how much more likely I am to die from it. That fear is what makes it easy for me to stay masked, easy for me to follow all the protocols (and wish other people would, too). That fear is what sent me hurtling toward my first Moderna shot, and what has me desperate for a second booster.

I just saw an article saying the Biden administration is pushing for second booster for people over 50, and I am so here for it! It hasn’t been approved yet, and there are good-sounding reasons to maybe wait … but none of those reasons are stronger than my fear, none of those reasons can drown out the drumbeat of GET THE DRUGS INTO MY BODY!!

Fingers crossed.


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Spidey Senses

Warning: Although I cuss on this blog all the time, there are a couple of words in this post that were unpleasant to write, and I feel warrant mentioning. You’ve been warned. Also note that I am fine. Obviously, I’m right here, writing this post.

*

I haven’t always trusted the warning signals my body and situational awareness give me. Those messages almost always run counter to the Good Girl training that is knitted into every cell and hair follicle of my being. That training, and my unconscious but slavish adherence to it, is what has put me in dangerous situations again and again. Had I always trusted my fear, I would have recognized and removed myself from all but the tiniest few of those moments.

Today I had a museum date with a dear friend who is one of my favorite people to visit museums with. As I walked up the hill to the subway, I saw a Black man outside the entrance. He drew my attention because he was pacing in a hard, agitated way that seemed off. He stopped pacing when he saw me, spat and went into the station. My mind tagged me immediately: look for him when you get inside, don’t look at him, just be aware of where he is, which platform he’s on. 

I didn’t question it for a second. Now that I’ve learned to listen to my internal sensors, I’ve seen how consistently correct those frissons of intuition are. I always listen.

In 1997, Gavin de Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear, was published. Subtitle? Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence. Yes, exactly. I will admit that I never read de Becker’s book, but it remains on my TBR list. By the time it came out, I had already learned to trust my gut instincts. There are still moments when Good Girl training pushes me to ignore what my body knows, but those moments are few and quite far between. When my brain went on high alert and told me to watch out for that man, I took that to heart.

As I approached the station, the man burst out and walked quickly past me, sneering, “Ugly slut,” as he passed. I felt it vibrate in my body. There wasn’t a question but that he meant it for me — not only because I was the only person around, but because he shot it, like a wad of spit, directly at my ear. 

I went inside and down to the platform, relieved that he wasn’t in the station and I wouldn’t have to keep an eye out for him on my ride. I sat on the end of a bench, watching the curve around which my train would come, wondering if I’d write about that moment.

People — men — don’t often say hateful things to me. Don’t misunderstand. Men say any number of disgusting, harassing things to me. Men are often the reason I avoid certain routes. Street harassment is real and awful and sometimes terrifying and dangerous. Too many women have been beaten and killed by men they didn’t smile at or whose lewd advances didn’t inspire loving responses. Those men are all about power and control, all about letting me know I don’t exist as a human, only as body parts they can use as they wish. I take those men seriously — hence the avoidance when possible. 

This man wasn’t a street harasser. This man didn’t muddy his intentions with slimy come-ons. He was focused on violence. And he wanted me to know that violence was focused on me. He wasn’t interested in exerting power over my right to be a woman on my own. He wanted my fear, wanted me to know he had seen me and that he could harm me.

About a minute before the train arrived, I heard him coming down the stairs to the platform, shouting, “Bitch tried to steal my ENERGY. Where’s she at?” 

The white couple beside me tensed, the man whispered, “Oh no.” I didn’t turn around. To give him that attention was to invite him in. And, too, my read on him was that he would want to attack me head on. He’d want to be in my face so he could see my reaction.

He walked past us a little further down the platform, talking loudly about people thinking they can steal his energy when they look at him, about tearing women’s heads off. He kept punching one fist hard into his palm, so hard the woman in the couple whispered, “So much rage! What can we do?”

What indeed. 

As the train finally made it to the curve, he turned back toward us and began to approach slowly and forcefully. (It was alarming but also interesting. I’ve never seen anyone move like that. I hope to never again see anyone move toward me like that.) At the same moment. An Asian woman stepped into the sightline between him and me. I’m pretty sure she didn’t do that on purpose, but I was grateful all the same. Not being in his direct line of sight felt necessary. She made her body a shield, whether she knew it or not.

The white couple was poised for flight, still seated but on the barest edge of the bench, ready to launch themselves to safety should anything happen. The Asian woman took a step back — because maybe she finally noticed the man approaching? I stayed where I was. 

As the train pulled in, the man passed us, fast, still punching his fist, still cursing about how easy it would be to “snap a bitch’s neck,” about needing to teach people never to look at him. 

But then he changed his mind. He had positioned himself to enter the train car that was slowing down in front of us, but then very intentionally jogged up a bit as the doors opened and boarded the next car up. Passing between cars isn’t possible on this particular train, which meant we were all closed off from him. Yes, the people in that next car were subjected to him, but we had been released. Yes, I watched the doors at every stop to be aware if he entered, but I had been released.

All of that was scary, of course. I mean, of course. And also sad. I’m sure if, given the choice, that man would rather not have been decompensating on the train platform in front of all of us. I may be wrong, of course, but I really can’t fathom a scenario in which someone would prefer what I witnessed today over equilibrium and the ability to live more easily in the world.

Why are we so able to not care about people who need help? We won’t be okay if he hurts someone, so why can’t we figure out how to help him now so that he doesn’t get to the point where he hurts someone?

That point could have been today. Could absolutely have been me. If I had made the mistake of looking into his face, he would for sure have harmed me. If I had responded to anything he did, he would have harmed me. If that Asian woman hadn’t unknowingly stepped between us, he might have walked up to me instead of walking past the bench where the woman, the couple, and I were seated. And then there would have been a story on the news (if my injuries were serious enough) decrying the horror of having dangerous, violent, mentally ill people on the street. And then the story would have faded — displaced by some other horror — and we would have gone right back to ignoring the people on the street who need help.

I certainly don’t have any answers. I can’t imagine the difficulty of reaching out to that man (and the many other people like him) and helping him access supports. But isn’t that exactly what we should be trying to do, isn’t that part of the point of making lives together in a city?

I’m glad nothing more serious happened to me today, glad to have another indicator of how finely-tuned my spidey senses are. But where’s the radioactive spider bite that turns on the social safety net spidey senses for my city? For all the cities? Why is it easier for us to let that man reach critical mass than to help him find care, find peace?


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CROWN in the House

A national CROWN Act passed the House this week, passed on Friday. Its name has changed slightly, acknowledging that discrimination against kinky hair and Black hairstyles isn’t limited to the workplace. The new CROWN is an acronym for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.”

I like the edit. It’s good to be clear about the fact that this discrimination doesn’t only happen at work. It was never only happening at work. All those stories about children being bullied and abused by their teachers, coaches, and schools make that clear. Bosses shouldn’t be able to discriminate against Black people’s hair, but neither should wrestling coaches, school principals, TSA agents …

And I need to correct my error from my last post about CROWN. I said the CROWN Act had passed in seven states and that a similar law had passed in an 8th state. That was mostly true. Illinois passed the Jett Hawkins Law, which banned discrimination against kinky hair in schools. But since the passing of Jett Hawkins, Illinois has gone on to pass the CROWN Act. In addition, I neglected to give the nod to four other states, states that added CROWN provisions to their existing anti-discrimination laws (or — in the case of Maryland — CROWN became law when Governor Hogan decided that any bill he hadn’t vetoed could just become law, and CROWN fell into that bucket with more than a dozen other bills). Twelve states. Twelve only. That’s better than seven or eight, but still a pretty small number. And this is exactly why we need a national law.

So CROWN has taken an important step forward. Obviously, passing the House doesn’t make a bill a law. We’ve all watched Schoolhouse Rock … and the process of our annoying af legislative branch. But it’s still great that CROWN passed the House.

It didn’t pass unanimously, which should surprise no one. Nearly 200 Representatives couldn’t see their way clear to saying that it isn’t okay to discriminate against people based on the kind of hair that grows naturally from their heads. Couldn’t see how it was a good idea to vote for a bill protecting people from being discriminated against for growing their hair naturally. One hundred eighty-nine of our elected Representatives care little enough about the rights and lives of Black people in this country that they were entirely comfortable making their disregard of Black people undeniably plain by not supporting this bill. That’s some serious comfort in their prejudice, comfort in their ability to flaunt their bias and not worry that they’ll face any consequences for it.

It’s 2022. It’s 2022, and it’s still not “just hair” when it comes to Black folks’ hair. And 189 nay votes for CROWN on Friday tells me how far we are from it ever being “just hair.”


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It’s “just hair” … unless it’s Black hair.

Hair is a forever-big-deal for Black women, whether we like it or not, whether we spend time focusing on it or not. When I made the decision to cut my hair off in 1988, hardly anyone I spoke to about my plan was in favor of it. People were super comfortable telling me what a mistake it would be, how terrible I would look. “You’ll look like a man,” I was told. “You don’t have the face for it.” “You won’t be able to comb your hair.” “What will people think of you?” “Everyone will think you’re a lesbian.” “Everyone will think you’re angry.” “Men don’t like short hair.”

Ugh. Just a full-on mess. These responses weren’t just to short hair but very specifically to short, nappy hair. I was choosing to cut off my relaxed hair and be kinky-headed on purpose, out in the world. And kinky hair was not popular. Certainly not society’s hair of choice for Black women.

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. When I went carried out my plan and cut my hair, people followed through on their ugliness. The older Black woman who worked reception at my night job stopped speaking to me. She literally never said a word to me for the rest of the time I worked there. A cab driver told me that, maybe if I got “fucked right,” I’d feel like a woman and start looking like one.

Yes, my short hair told that driver things he didn’t want to hear. Short hair told him I wasn’t interested in his gaze, in his male approval. And so he needed to threaten me with corrective rape to help me understand how unacceptable it was that I wasn’t presenting myself for his approval and consumption.

Because I had a short afro.

Whenever conversations come up about Black women’s hair, someone inevitably says, “But it’s just hair!”

It’s never been “just hair” for us. It if was “just hair,” enslaved women wouldn’t have been forced to hide their hair. It if was “just hair,” the US military wouldn’t have created (in twenty-fucking-fourteen) a set of guidelines for women’s hair that very explicitly outlawed hairstyles that were particular to Black women. It if was “just hair,” Black children wouldn’t have their hair hacked off by teachers, wouldn’t be expelled from school because of their hair growing in its natural form.

It if was “just hair,” we wouldn’t need the CROWN Act, the Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act. A whole fucking law to tell employers they can’t discriminate against Black people — and, very specifically Black women — because of their hair. Starting in California, CROWN has become law in seven states between 2018 and 2020. And the Jett Hawkins Law in Illinois is very like CROWN.

In my state, CROWN exists as law. If it had been a law a few jobs ago, I might have had some recourse when my boss told me I didn’t seem like the right candidate for a leadership role at our agency because my hair was “too street.”

Notice I mentioned seven states and an adjacent law in Illinois. The CROWN Act isn’t national. In September of 2020 and then in March of 2021, the CROWN Act was introduced in the House and Senate. It has yet to pass.

And lest we imagine this hate-fueled crap is focused solely on women, don’t forget Nivea’s disgustingly racist ad for men’s skincare products.

There is no “just” when it comes to Black people’s hair.

There is a seriously robust natural hair movement that’s at least ten years strong. It hasn’t spelled the end of prejudice against kinky hair, but it’s connected to the passing of the CROWN Act, connected to the army’s decision to change its offensive hairstyle ban. It’s also why I wasn’t worried about cutting my hair yesterday. I knew I didn’t have to worry about how people at my job would react, wouldn’t have to worry about not finding hair care products and tools for my little afro. There will still be some negative reactions, but many fewer than there were 34 years ago. So that’s a whole lot of steps in the right direction.

I’m focused on my own reaction to my newly-minted afro more than I am to anyone else’s. And that’s exactly as it should be. So, how am I reacting? With pleasure. I got up this morning and washed my hair — needed to get the mystery products from the barbershop out and use the products I know and love. And then I dove in with a twist so I could start reacquainting myself with how to care for and style my short hair. I took out the twist before a Zoom tonight, and I’m happy with the result.


It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot