I wore a Broad Street Run T-shirt to the corner store last night. While I was waiting for my egg foo young, another Black dude, about my height and build stood at the door, staring at me. I was focused on winning a match in this cheatin’ ass Yugioh Duel Links game on my phone, but I could feel his eyes on me the whole time. After I finished bustin’ that ass I looked up at the dude, and he didn’t turn away.
“Yo, you really ran that?” he asked.
“What?” I said. Here, I stood up, cause you never know with these kinds of things, better safe than sorry. The part of me willing to actually consider what he asked, or why I suddenly felt the need to be cautious was buried under years torment by other Black boys who were clearly not him, but also, somehow might be him if I let my guard down. I mean, I didn’t exactly think he was gonna sneak me while I sat, snatch my phone and run out of the store calling me a faggot; I’m too big for that now is what I often tell myself. Still, it makes me sick to my stomach that the thought could even cross my mind.
“The shirt,” he said, sensing my confusion.
Duh, dumbass, I thought.
Turns out he was a runner. We ended up bullshitting about the near death experience that was the Broad Street Run two years ago, in the cold and the rain, the ankle sprains and tight calves, soaking wet socks and the glory of finally making it out on the other end for free pretzels. We reveled in a soft, yet shared trauma that we both chose, and left it at that.
The other day this dude I went to middle school with checked into my job, as dudes I went to middle school with often do. Nothing emergent, probably an STD or something; I mustered the strength not to investigate. He didn’t recognize me, but I sure as hell recognized him. I had this really visceral reaction to seeing him though, like I needed to crush his trachea in my palm and then stomp his face into the concrete out front until I passed out from fatigue. After being smacked and antagonized to oblivion in the schoolyard, I used to sit and stare at him in class, imagining how much force it would take to crush all fourteen of his facial bones. I was really into bones back then. I also realize this isn’t a normal reaction. Especially not fifteen years after fact. I think it’s funny though how I never worry about writing negatively in regards to such people, because I’m not entirely sure they can read. I worry that I derive too much satisfaction from this assumed illiteracy. I worry about how often such illiteracy, and worse, is ascribed to me.
I have only found the kind of trusting, emotionally intelligent relationship I desire–the kind that at least some women have offered–with one man in twenty-eight years. And I’m unsure if it would have occurred had we not deployed to Iraq together. And hated most everything together. That isn’t to demand the forging of bonds through collective loathing, or trauma, but I continue to have difficulty loving people who lack the grit, I imagine, that comes with making it out on the other end.
Emergency departments are dumping grounds for intoxicated and/or mentally ill patients. Wet is poppin’ right now. And I can’t remember a time where North Philly lacked either substances or the need to use them. A few years ago, when a patient attacked another employee, I physically restrained said patient an he had a seizure in my arms. It was disgusting both physically and emotionally. Because I hesitated to stop him from harming another employee in the first place. Because of the fear that I’d hurt him. Because I wasn’t sure who or what I was doing it for.
We carried him to a room and strapped into a bed so he could be worked up, after which security came. Before said event, this patient, a Black man about the same age as me, sat “within arms reach” of me yelling and spitting and threatening me for several hours. He called me a bitch, a pussy, several faggots, my boyfriend a bitch ass faggot, my mom and her mom nasty sluts, chopped up my dicked work sneakers (which was kinda funny, I’m not gonna lie), berated my kids for being pussies if my faggot ass had any, etc. Nothing new. Not the worst or most unusual experience.
In those regularly occurring situations, I do try to let it go. I think about the things they’d say to the women instead, albeit often less aggressively, when they think there’s a chance of fucking. I think, this nigga probably can’t even read, to my own dismay–both because of how white people assume intellectual superiority over me and my needing to do so in order to feel good in that situation. I think that people think he and I are alike. I think that people at work don’t think he and I are alike, so they say not-so-coded racist shit around me, thinking it’s safe. I want people to think we’re alike, because we are. It’s not safe.
But sometimes I want it to be. I want people (some) to feel at ease around me and it takes great effort. Whether it’s because of what’s been fed to me and internalized about Black men–the conditioning of my own conditioning–or dumb people and stereotypes, or the legitimate fear that a women might have of any two-hundred pound, six-foot-six man. No matter how many methods I’ve developed for social shrinkage, the hypervisibility always bubbles up. I know that white women diving into grass when they see me jogging, or people following me around stores isn’t me, it’s them, but still.
Sometimes I’m also conflicted about being the proxy defense against other men, specifically Black ones. It feels more complicated than the bouts in Black Boy / Invisible Man though. With increasing regularity I am tasked with providing a buffer between, most often, a White woman and Black man. There are times I question it, and times I don’t. With friends it’s automatic, almost instinctual, with strangers, less so. Sometimes said man is a rapey White guy on a college campus, as was the case when I was asked to guard the writing center because he was prowling and had sexually harassed one of the tutors. Sometimes it’s the likelihood of male violence, like in Antigua, when the women at The Snug would have me stay after closing to ward off aggression. I never felt dumb, or used in Antigua–I’d already made friends with them and was gonna stay whether they asked or not, but the workplace stuff (because it happens at the hospital all the time too) is a bit more complicated.
There’s no precedent for, or guarantee that campus security can or would do better–who, not coincidentally, questioned my belonging at SJU in the first place, always acting threatened until I gave them my I.D., then questioning me afterwards in disbelief. Still, it is a task they are trained, paid and legally protected to perform. I also have to think, who the fuck am I? The Terminator? Do I appear ready for battle? And what happens when I am forced to respond physically? Is everyone going to be absent at my arraignment for these assault charges? As they were as I sweat it out with a lawyer because of the hospital incident?
Sometimes I don’t know what it is, and sometimes I ponder whether I even have the right to feel conflicted about it at all. Considering the whole grand scheme of things. And as helpless and angry as I felt watching my mother, and especially my grandmother routinely beaten by men when I was a kid, it warms me to be trusted as a protector in that way, until of course, I consider the circumstances that make it absolutely necessary. Until I think of the sheer joy at chipping this kid Kevin’s tooth after he slapped my sister. Until he went home crying. Until Earl was so proud of me for the only time I can remember.
But when a random White woman at a bar volunteers me to her defense, against what she perceives as a threat, but is really just another Black man, minding his own business, it’s…problematic. And then I’m tasked with triple checking against my own biases and hers.
Sometimes, at the hospital, a nurse will demand that I, and not security, become the buffer for a potentially violent patient and absorb all the complications that come along with it. Sometimes they’re not violent, just Black. Sometimes they’re both. And every time I can’t help wondering all of what’s implied about both me and them. About how much I might actually want to hurt the aggressor and how triflin’ I’d feel afterwards.
Which is to say I’ve never said no, never turned down a request, until today when I passed the buck to another man in the department, after suggesting that we enlist the security guards for that purpose. Even then I think of how excited security appears to hurt someone and I feel nasty, seeing a little too much of myself in both them and the mentally ill/high as fuck patient.
Perhaps I’m trying to capture things that I’ll never be able to. Either way, I’m way past 2,000 words today!