“A writer? That’s dope! I love how you said that with confidence: I’m a writer. You do you, man; don’t let the white man keep you down.” The medium-set black man in the row in front of me is extending his fist, and I bump his fist with my own, accepting his assertion that – by virtue of my being a writer – I have made it.
Today, I find myself on a Greyhound bus for the first time in 6 years, and I’ve learned more about myself in a few hours than in some weeks. There’s something about the real world that’s gritty and harsh and forces split-second decisions that reveal our inner nature. By “the real world”, I don’t mean my life away from my computer. I mean my life away from the middle class.
Arguably, I’m not “middle class” per se – writers aren’t known for their salaries or their pensions, and even growing up, I was the poor kid at a rich kid school – but I am part of the thinking class: the class whose labor is intellectually valued and respected. Professors and academics and writers may not be paid well, but they are respected as creators and intellectuals, a privilege not extended to the equally skilled and probably more useful mechanic or plumber.
The Greyhound demographics are different from the ones I am used to: instead of a dash of chocolate in a sea of white and Jewish and Asian, today I find myself the lighter one in a sea of almost half-brown, the white travelers still less scarce than I find myself in my “normal” world. And somehow, despite myself, I find this puts me on edge.
The man who has just complimented me has done so after asking to use my computer, even offering me money to do so. I had declined:
out of practicality – my computer uses a nonstandard keyboard he would find impossible to use
out of germophobia – I hate letting people touch my things
out of (justified) selfishness – I myself would like to use my computer, to write about an experience I had while waiting for this same bus
out of (shameful) fear – he may accidentally break it, or run off with it, or even just casually claim it as his own with none the wiser, possession being nine-tenths the law.
This fear is not one I am unfamiliar with. It is the one George Zimmerman felt when he saw Trayvon Martin walking around late at night, and it is the one that led Officer Wilson to gun down an 18-year-old boy in Ferguson. It is one I have spent my whole life mitigating, and one my bus mate has not.
While he talks boldly and laughs confidently, I pitch my voice upwards to capture the harmless-sounding up-talk of Los Angeles. While he is dressed in a hoodie and a puffy coat that manages to (unfairly) typecast him as uncultured and portray him as larger and more threatening, I am dressed to the nines: a pocketwatch dangling from a vest under a slim-fit blazer and women’s jeans I wear as much as a concession to fashion as an attempt to minimize my perceived masculinity. And while he gregariously introduces himself to seemingly everybody on the bus, I keep to myself, even trying to shut down his polite conversation with shorter and shorter responses and averted eye contact.
To borrow from the world of comedy (see video for context), he has forgotten his *ahem* and his card; an admission to fear of black men I am never without.
This fear comes and goes, depending on my surroundings and my mood, and today, it is relatively low. I let him borrow my charger for his phone and we make simple – if pleasant – conversation. But this is not the fear I live with daily.
Just prior to getting on the bus, this same fear was used against another black man, while I stood by in silence. Two policeman walked up to a group of prospective passengers waiting for a bus, singling one out for his appearance. The man was disheveled, hair awry, clothing rumpled, cigarette perched crookedly and precariously from his lips.
“Is this man bothering you?” Police 1, from here on out to be referred to as Tweedle Dee, was a short, chubby, red-haired man with fiery eyebrows. Notably, he had one hand resting below his hip, his fingers casually brushing his gun. He wore a smirk casually, a look in his eyes that most black men will recognize immediately: what are you going to do about it?
“No, of course not” came the response from a self-selected spokeswoman for the group, a large black woman with a jovial smile but apprehensive recognition in her eyes. My *ahem* and my card draped about me, I echoed her words, as did a tall, gangly 17-year-old boy. The rest of the bystanders edged nervously, looking at the group.
“He wasn’t asking for money? I saw you give him money” Police 2, Tweedle Dum, stared accusingly at the woman who had spoken up.
“He didn’t ask for nothin’. I just did what I felt like. Is that a crime? Because I think-”
“Look, sir, you can either go to jail with us, or you can listen to our orders.” Tweedle Dee’s voice cut the woman off, his attention focused on the man the police had identified as a homeless beggar. The man stared back at the officers.
It was then that I realized that I had a choice to make, to get involved or not. I thought about the social status of my garb, but then I realized what had to hold me back. I didn’t belong here. I was a transient. If I got involved, I’d most likely miss my bus, and be stranded in Chicago. Worse, if I ended up in a jail cell, nobody would be around to bail me out. I’d miss my connections to all of my upcoming transfers, and who knows if I’d make it home? I tried not to imagine the worst-case scenario, but the headlines came unbidden to me.
Would they read Video Game Journalist Gunned down by Cops or Black Man Shot while Interfering with Arrest?
I said nothing. The man made eye contact with me and the woman, sadness in his eyes. I couldn’t read the thoughts behind his gaze. I wish I knew whether he was thinking “this is how they treat us” or “this is how we treat ourselves”. In my life, I have always been the guy with the privilege of speaking up, but today, I was the guy with privilege, backing down.
As the man walked away, the officers looked at us one more time and walked away. I glanced at the woman, then around to the others. One nervously chuckled. I doubt any of us were thinking the same thing, but one emotion none of us was struggling with was surprise, and one emotion all of us had been silenced by was fear.