Our Honda died. She was euthanized, actually. No. She was towed away as an unmoving derelict. 72 hours, folks; keep your cars on the move or the City kidnaps. The punitive expense of buying our hobbled dear out of impound compelled us instead to sell to our friendly and honest longtime mechanic. He would make some repairs and give her the semi-active retirement she deserved. I last saw her parked in front of his garage on that side street in downtown Goleta. I was in that neighborhood running a work errand and glimpsed her as I passed that block. Her pursed little Honda mouth didn’t change expression but I felt her trying to move when she saw me. I got misty then stopped myself. Keep driving, dumbass. Her final symptoms; indecipherable and always burning Check Engine light, dangling side-view mirror wrapped in two pattens of duct tape, AirBag warning lamp an overfamiliiar Christmas-colored bauble on the instrument array, oil leaking everywhere and amazingly without cease, a sort of automotive Hanukkah. The car in its prime was a loudly spectacular totem of middling-class and middle age; the dreaded White Station Wagon. She had finally as many miles on her as the u-turning Apollo 13 Command Module, and was sometimes as smoke-filled. I was sad to see her go. We become attached to our cars, yeah. The grills become grimaces, the headlights eyes, malfunctioning seat belts the saddened, panicked grasp of a death-bed jalopy. I won’t miss waving to friends out the window of a long white station wagon, though. That I won’t miss. So we’re a sudden one car family. It’s taken some hasty getting used to. Now I take the bus, yet another window through which you won’t find me excitedly announcing myself on arrival. Being a bus rider, though, does make me more fully human. Oh, and more attractively urban.
This morning the ride rattles, lurches, bumps, hisses. What holds the bolts in place on these juggernauts over the years? I look deliberately down the length of the bus from my seat near the back; the Mike Nichols shot at the end of The Graduate as Hoffman and Ross’ smiles fade and they realize the dawning fucked present. As my ride chugs and grunts and turns through the mean streets of SB, the expressionless, staring whole of the passenger list dazedly sways like sea grasses with the stiffened twisting progress of the thing.
A large black man in a worn blue jumpsuit always sits in the same spot and is mildly affronted to have this new interlocutor, me, drop into the adjacent seat for the 4th day in a row. Calling him a ‘large black man’ raises internal alarms as I write, not sure why. That’s just the deal, I guess. If you know why it’s a little jarring to write large black man, let me know. If you are a large black man you may be particularly qualified to school me on this one. I can be taught.
He seems interested in the stupid little challenge of our personal spaces intersecting, a Venn Diagram to celebrate the 50th of the March on Washington. I plop down every morning with my laptop and girlish little lunch box, his draped arm dangles partially and deliberately into the space between us, bemusedly, it seems, though he remains stone-faced. He shifts his arm every morning, minutely and ceremonially, a centimeter closer to me, demonstrating both his situational awareness and his general ascendance over my blanched, white, culturally lightweight little ass. I infer all this from an arm. The man seems to have more specific gravity in the bags under his eyes than I do in the whole of my bantamweight being. This is a form of White Envy, though there is nothing historically to be envied. Is there? The Oppressor gets his comeuppance by being shown, finally, to have only a European dandy’s paper-thin Beau Brummel costume to show for his bloodied efforts, while his formerly defeated charge gathers an unstoppable strength and rises and rises on the column of righteous fire, and moves his arm at will on the number 11 line. My obeisance to his strength smacks lightly of yet more inescapable racism. How? Because he’s a sleepy hardworking guy in a jumpsuit and not a glowing totem of endurance born to accrue lavish heaps of my chickenshit praise. Right? I imagine if he knew what I was thinking he would be disgusted with my busy array of romantic presuppositions. My prejudices, I guess they’re called. Or he might find it flattering and ennobling. There. Another layer of shellac for you, sir. If you could wear my overwrought thinking you’d need another cane just to get you to the door of the bus. I wouldn’t daydream such majesty into a white guy in a blue jumpsuit on the bus. Why not?
I sometimes see a large group of African-Americans gathered laughingly, I would hesitatingly say ‘joyously’, before a church on the near East side, downtown. The sight of them milling about and laughing and leaning into each other on a sunny Sunday morning outside this handsome, demure little wooden church makes me envious and inexplicably excited and happy. Another species of racism, a gladdened broad-brush tone poem that finally insults through a refusal, or simple inability, to individuate.
Across the bus aisle two peeps are asleep, one in a ‘hoodie’ (freighted), the other a small attractive brown woman the beautiful color of a polished walnut (dare I), maybe middle aged, in an inevitable-seeming brightly colored shawl, her lustrous hair pulled back, the skin of her face smooth and beautiful, her blue jeans threadbare where visible. Her ears are predictably and disappointingly plugged with ear buds while she sleeps, the white wires trailing. Apart from that she could be straight out of a Diego Rivera painting, expressionless and indomitable, doubled over in her colorful shawl, a huge undefined hump of nourishing Marxist encumbrance strapped plainly to her bent back. But she’s not expressionless here on the bus. She’s beautiful. The properly tuned academic will see my gazing for the subjugating Colonial-Think it can’t help but be, a rattling of chains. Does a small brown woman in a colorful shawl have to be a symbol of third world struggle? Are small brown peoples always bent under bushels of grain? No. Many of them are surely CEOs, Corporate Raiders, Divorce Attorneys, Thieving Hedge Fund managers and such, and some of these well-to-do will have found a way up and out of the sometimes grinding penury that defines their fellows. They will have grabbed the brass ring, entered the First World orbit at that laudable remove from the poverty-stricken natural order. Better to live in comfort than in wholeness. Everyone wants comfort and the argument that the disenfranchised may be aspiring to something that is actually beneath them; it’s a specious, racist point of view. People just want to be comfortable. It’s a fact.
Then at one of the stops a young handsome Latino guy gets off the bus in his dangerous-looking baggy clothes, ‘shorts’ down to here, voluminous white t-shirt, knee socks like Bruce Jenner wore in the 70s; the loose-fitting uniform of a brawler, I imagine, the flying fists and jabbing knives unrestricted by the tailoring that, in another reality, would make this handsome guy an Armani model. I guess he doesn’t want to be an Armani model. As he passes my seat I can see a longish line of blue script on the back of his bobbing head, above the occipital ridge, can just barely make out the blue tat script through the translucent scrim of shaved hair. He passes and the tattoo is lurking on the back of his receding head like a warning, a finger waggling a threat to the staring masses as he pushes daily through an ongoing little clot of cowards. At least that’s how it seems to my silly awed witness. He exits the bus with a fitful hop and sees a friend. With big beautiful smiles they hoist their hands in that long drifting preamble to the Handshake, hang their hands at chest level for 5 or so seconds, palms down, as if to say “Hey, my little cousin Carl is only about this tall!”. Then the hands fall together in a sudden, fluid and complicated series of twists and bumps and sliding, then a brief, spartan full-body embrace. I realize I’m staring through the bus window at all this and feel even more diminished. Compared to that Knights Templar handshake, street-esprit de corps and manifest commonality of purpose, what do I have? A tight t-shirt and bald spot. Then, hoisting their backpacks, the guys hustle down an oleander-choked passageway alongside a nearby building, and are gone. Florists, model airplane enthusiasts, aerospace engineers. Butchers, bakers, candlestick makers. I don’t know shit. In the absence of knowing I presuppose something like this; danger, pain, a warrior spirit. Through no personal experience of same. At all.
One night over dinner Stella queries us about a sweeping new definition of racism she picked up on the playground. At first recess that day one of her friends solemnly informed Stel that her parents had laid it all out for her the night before and the essence was this; simply noticing that someone is black is itself racist. Try hard not to notice. Built into that idiot proclamation is the inference that ‘black’ is a pejorative, and that being put on high alert not to notice something actually works. The poor child is being raised by sprinting cowards. One could get a nice tan from stupidity this radiant. We loudly shout to Stella that her friend’s guardians are dim-bulbs. While our cultural quarterbacks try to move the ball in the direction of a character-driven, colorblind society, the little girl’s folks and many many many of her desperate, race-horrified ilk are rooting for actual blindness. That may be the end game; a gouging out of the senses. Kind of a reverse burqa. You can’t judge what you can’t see.
With eyes closed we’re all the same curious stumbling ahistorical dimwits, but living with eyes closed is screwed. Our kinda-cute if-not so-death-and-misery-dealing melanin obsessions continue to maim the world, and artillery rains down on the hapless, and chinless frightened little men sneak out in the evenings with the wife’s ironing and by firelight call themselves Grand Wizards and so on. We’re a riot. And we’re all clods. Agreed? Sorry about that kidnapping and murder thing, and sorry we continue to fuck up. You do, too. But I guess we’re still owed that. It’ll take some time for the imbalance to redress. How long?