Grandiose Romanticism or Politics: Zombies Drinking Lattes
"You begin saving the world by saving one man at a time; all else is grandiose romanticism or politics."
— Charles Bukowski
It’s been a while since I’ve been taking the train into downtown. When I worked at Navy Pier, I drove (I had a parking spot and it was faster without standing nose-in-neck with a crunch of bodies careening along underground). These days, as I head to Millennium Park in the mornings, it makes no sense to drive, so the Blue Line it is.
The Blue Line is it’s own, strange universe. Because it is a direct line to downtown, the early morning and post-work rush is kind of ridiculous. Thousands of people content to jam themselves into metal trains so mashed together, so up in each other’s space, struggling to maintain distance via a smartphone or headphones, avoiding eye contact as much as humanly possible. Briefcases, hand bags, backpacks all slung like pieces of armor. Slogging into the grind in the least comfortable way imaginable (at least in a non-Medieval sense) only to spill out at various stops along the way with another pile of bodies vying to force themselves in to get to their destination.
When one is in such close proximity to humans, interaction, no matter how desperately one attempts to avoid it, is inevitable.
Wednesday, I had two very distinct interactions that illustrated for me some of the disconnect between what is read on that tiny screen and what we expect from each other in the universe of smelly reality. Remember, a SnapChat of a turd is conceptual; a real turd stinks.
Morning commute, and it was jammed. Somehow, getting on at Damen, I found a seat, plopped down, and breathed a sigh. At Division, as the bodies pressed in, I noticed a young woman with a heavy bag, so I got up and offered my seat to her. The look of strange indignation on her face was immediate and offended. I gestured for her to take the seat. She muttered “I don’t need your seat.” I was confused by the response just long enough for a Latino kid in jeans and a t-shirt to squeeze in and nab the perch without so much as a hint of irony. He promptly closed his eyes as if the fact that he could no longer see me meant I was no longer there.
I looked over to the young woman, a smile cracking on my face, and shrugged. She looked me in the eye (as I’ve mentioned, a rarity on the train) and said “I don’t need you looking at me, either, creep,” and she pushed through the sea of people to end up a whole five feet away from me.
Later the same day, on my way home, I managed another seat. This time I closed my eyes and played the same trick as the kid did that morning. We get to Clark and Lake and I felt a nudge on my knee. I opened my eyes and there was another young woman, staring at me. A sense of entitled anticipation. I closed my eyes again. A more urgent nudge and I heard her complain under her breath “I hate it when men don’t give up their seats.” The guy across from me got up and offered her his seat and then glanced at me as if I had violated some archaic law of polite decorum.
I draw no conclusions based upon these two separate occasions except to say that while we are living in times of big changes in how I’m supposed to relate to others, the lines are carved in chalk by a five-year old in the rain and are constantly being erased and re-drawn on a person-to-person basis. Like Spock, my fascination takes more room than my indignation, so I’m content to keep testing the boundaries. My wife calls this tendency my “amateur sociologist mode,” which is only funny when I remember walking down Belmont with her one night, talking about something that seemed terribly important, and she stopped in her tracks. “Fuck! I promised myself I’d never marry a sociologist and I MARRIED A SOCIOLOGIST!”
Starbucks is closing down their entire operation for a day to hold racial bias workshops with their employees. Have you ever been to one of those workshops? A litany of double-speak and psychological snake oil pretending to expose people who already know that the bias is there but have (in some cases) legitimate excuses for their bias. And likely don’t give a rat’s ass — we judge each by our appearance and we all know it.
A white kid with neck tats and a confederate flag t-shirt comes in to my place of business, I’m highly unlikely to trust that my gut instinct is perhaps off. Maybe he’s going to a costume party or it’s a YouTube prank, but what I see is a Neo-Nazi with no bearing on his personal choices or road to enlightenment. Does he have the God-given right to dress the way he wants to? You bet your stars and garters but that changes fuckall in the moment of image to eye to brain to judgment as to whether he might or might not be packing an AR-15 and just had some woman tell him no.
Thus, if a black man dressed like Omar from The Wire comes in and doesn’t order but sits down and glowers, most reasonable people will feel the short hairs on their junk prickle some. Is it fair? No. Is it reality? You betchyer ass it is.
Are workshops going to change this fact? The prejudgment of one another based upon how we appear? If you think so, you’re a bit dim.
Let me run one of those workshops and we won’t need a whole day of depriving soccer moms their Grande Soy Latte with Cinnamon and a Shot.
“Don’t call the police on black people unless there is an obvious and apparent threat presented,” I’d say to each employee.
“But what if…”
“DON’T CALL THE POLICE ON BLACK PEOPLE UNLESS THE APPEARANCE OF THREAT WOULD BE OBVIOUS TO A SIX-YEAR OLD. Otherwise, serve the black people like you’d serve your mother (unless you hate your mother because of her constant nagging about your cankles and a man will never want a chubby girl bullshit psychodrama.)
Calling the police on loiterers is the civilian equivalent to terrified police opening up an entire clip on a black man because he's black and walking around. It's terrifying bullshit and with no regard to your personal bigotry should be cause for immediate dismissal.
You can’t save the world with a memo. Or a workshop designed by an H.R. company hired by Starbucks for several hundred thousand employees. In fact, the relationship between the size of the audience and the genuine measure of changed minds is in reverse: the more broad the audience, the less changing of minds is going to happen.
I recently got re-hooked on watching The Walking Dead. The fact that in all zombie stories, we are the zombies seems to get lost in the tales of the survivors. We are the masses of unthinking, brain-eating undead creatures shambling about looking for the living. Next season, I hope they give the hordes of flesh connoisseurs access to a zombie Faceborg and the allegory will be updated.
Billions of zombies, all with smartphones and a giant chip on each shoulder, looking for brains to eat and people to infect with their shuffling path of destructive power.
Now, I don’t know her but I’d make a solid bet that that white manager of the Starbucks who caused all of this is not going to suddenly become woke. My money is sitting pat on the roulette number that tells me she’s probably doubling down on her bias even more right now. At the end of all of this, she will be more racist than she was and I’m pretty sure that isn’t the goal. Don’t make the mistake that I’m empathizing with her or dismissing the crippling anxiety of being black in a Starbucks. I’m just pointing out that the scorched Earth policy of extreme reaction is unlikely to change any minds.
Changing minds, adjusting perspectives, should be the goal. Yeah, yeah… I've heard the screed that educating racist white people is not the responsibility of black people (or those who at least are on the same side, allyship not withstanding).
It is not your responsibility to fill up a stranger’s gas tank, but when their car dies in front of you, blocking the road, it’s still your problem isn’t it? It is not your responsibility to negotiate peace treaties on behalf of your country, but when war breaks out and you’re drafted to fight in it? Guess whose problem it is? Yours. Life is like this. It has a way of dropping things into our lap — the consequences of an employee’s negligence, a spouse’s momentary lapse of judgement, a freak weather event — that were in no way our fault but by nature of being in our lap, our f*cking problem. So what are you going to do? Complain? Are you going to litigate this in social media or an argument with God? Or are you just going to get to work solving it the best you can? Life is defined by how you answer that question.
Change is a one on one proposition.
Everything else is just grandiose romanticism or politics. Or both.