“As if hands were enough/ To hold an avalanche off.” Thom Gunn
There is a photo that sits on my mantle, next to the succulents I bought from a flower shop on 96th street. It is to the right of the champagne saber that a friend gifted me when I left my last job--wishing me many reasons to celebrate in the near future. It is in front of a candle made by a woman here in Harlem and named for the Savoy--the first integrated ballroom in New York City, where, as early as 1926, patrons were judged solely by how well they could dance, never by the color of their skin. I am two in the photo. My parents, both in bathing suits, are seated in lawn chairs, by the pool. My father’s right arm is blurry with movement. There are two massive bubbles just in front of me, and my mother is laughing, ducking to escape them. I am smiling, looking up, my arms open wide.
Two weeks ago I found myself in the coffeeshop just one block south of where I live. I don’t often go there because there’s another one on 116th that I love; but I was coming from the grocery store and was in a rush, so I popped in. It was 6pm on a Sunday and I was confident I’d missed the crowds. I ordered an iced latte and as the barista made it (she was the only one working), a young couple walked in behind me, followed moments later by an older woman. There was something in the quality of how this woman seemed to move the air around her that made me uneasy, but she smiled at me, and then she smiled at the girl behind the counter, and I breathed out a slow, small breath, assuming she was a regular--an odd and eccentric New Yorker who moves with greater confidence when they are in a place they always go. But the next thing I knew she asked that young couple waiting in line for money, and when they said shook their heads no, she plunged her hand into the tip jar and turned on her heel, dollar bills clutched between her hands and her chest.
No--no, no, I quickly said, and the young woman behind the counter came running around, asking for the money back. The situation escalated quickly enough that I dialed 911. I’ve called before. Once just after I found myself two feet from a gun in a young man’s hand, and once when I woke at three in the morning to the screams of a young girl asking for help. Over and over again she cried out, and while I couldn’t see her out the window, I dialed and did my best to tell the operator what little I knew. I’ve learned, in New York, to err on the side of making the call.
As the young woman who worked in the coffee shop held the door closed, the older woman explained she’d dropped in a twenty and was simply pulling out change. The young couple fished out a piece of paper with some approximation of a bill, but no bill itself. I don’t know when it happened--that the second couple began arguing. They must have slipped in after the woman because I didn’t notice them until we were in the middle of it all. Do something, the woman pressed the man with her--quietly, but with great urgency. I don’t have time for this, he replied, loudly. I don’t want to deal with this; this is not my problem. You could tell she was deeply embarrassed--a little horrified, even. Somehow, after a bit of arguing, their aggression muted but clear, they managed to slip out the door, him first, demanding she follow. It was around this time that the older woman began to raise her cane in a manner so as to threaten the young woman working. I approached her to set the cane on the floor, but as she was quite strong, I turned to ask for help. It was the young woman by the cash register who came to assist, her boyfriend--or husband--not even shifting the weight on his feet.
When all was said and done, the woman left, the police arrived moments later, and I walked out with an iced coffee between my shaking hands.
In the two weeks since, I have thought of those five minutes often. I have thought of how every woman in that shop galvanized to action, and how not one man offered to help. They didn’t want to intervene, physically--because it was a woman--many have offered. But I’m pretty sure there were a hundred ways to help that had nothing to do with touching her. I am not naive enough to think that if this situation was replicated, with a different set of people, the result--or level of action--would be the same. But on this occasion, it was certainly a stark divide.
It’s the man and woman who left halfway through that I’ve thought of most often. His actions, his words, revealing a brand of entitlement that I’ve rarely seen so close. It was below his pay grade--that was the sense of it. And so he didn’t want to deal with it. But none of us did. Not one person who walked into that coffee shop late on their Sunday could have anticipated, or expected, what was going to happen--and certainly, not one of us wished for it. And the thing about him leaving was this: it didn’t end the situation--didn’t ameliorate the conflict. He left the rest of us in there--in that small storefront, grappling with the situation and our conflicted feelings. He walked away, leaving the rest of us in the shit. And he knew it.
I wonder if the woman with him knew in that moment she’d seen a thing from which there would be no coming back.
We are all in the shit now. Things are overwhelmingly terrifying. And in the face of that, how does one move forward? I think of that little girl I was in that photo and wonder if any of her is still in me--her joy, her willingness to chase the transitory, to pursue what may be lost, to love something without fear of losing it. And then I wonder if the world she inherited is the same as the one we are in now.
A man on the C train plays a scratch off ticket and my heart breaks for the hope in that small action. Occasionally I feel ill equipped for the grace of humanity--for the utter humility it requires.
When this all began--which, when did it, do we even know? I suppose some would say just over a year ago when Trump announced his campaign, and others might say ten years before that when the Republican party moved away from its core base, trading on base impulses for immediate satisfaction. Still others might say it was in the 80’s when American manufacturing was sent overseas. And then there are those who will debate globalization versus the rise of technology. It’s an incredibly nuanced and difficult tangle of conflicting issues and wants and facts, and it’s all so much larger than a single story. And racism is is such a large part of our cultural backstory.
Everything about what is happening is nuanced and overwhelming and rooted in systemic problems that will require a cultural shift that politicians can only point to. The only simple thing--the only simple thing in all that is happening is that racism, misogyny, xenophobia, bigotry are not to be tolerated. Political beliefs aside, these things are absolutely not okay. And what is also not okay is an unwillingness to stand up and say as much--to stand blithely by, to walk out of the coffee shop, to opt out of an endorsement, to equivocate. To put party pride before human decency. Some things--so many things, actually--are bigger than politics. And anything other than a total repudiation of hatred is simply not enough.
I think what we all want--what we are all absolutely, startlingly desperate for--is agency--the sense that we have some ability to affect change. And I’m starting to realize that the most revolutionary thing that any of us can do, and also--maybe--the hardest, is also the simplest: to treat others with kindness. To offer our seat on the subway, to smile--even when we don’t want to, to speak kindly to the person at the cash register, or on the other side of the table. To give someone else the benefit of the doubt. To sit with our own discomfort, to sit with another’s. Because if fear and hatred are contagious (and they absolutely are), so too, is a culture of generosity, predicated on the backs of actions both large and small. To say, Scared as I am, much as I don’t understand a thing, hatred will not be my default. To say, I will not assume the worst of a person because of the aberrant actions of an increasingly radicalized and fringe faction. Because actually, hatred, needs no allegiance, cleaving, as it does, to what is most convenient.
My hands cannot hold off an avalanche, and yet if they are all I have, I will use them. To reach for the hand of the person next to me, to reach in the direction of something better, to hold on, if only by my fingernails.
I remember where I was when I first learned of the massacre in Sandy Hook. I remember all of the articles I read in its aftermath--they remain some of the finest pieces of journalism I have ever read. Most were about shame--our threshold for it, our complicitness in a culture that exalts guns at the expense of all else (it has always seemed to me that using the Second Amendment to justify a country in which mass shootings can--and do--occur is as erroneous and self-serving as ISIS claiming their actions are rooted in the holy Islamic teachings). I remember chatting with a friend in a bar a month after those twenty children were killed, What’s to be done? I asked. Forgiveness, he answered, simply, quietly. I barely heard him through my anger, which seemed a far more useful emotion in the face of such horror. And yet, in the years since I have come to understand that fear, and anger, and outrage do not have a monopoly on motivation--in fact, they aren’t terribly helpful, at all. Forgiveness is not the same thing as acceptance, and it is not the same thing as indifference. Forgiveness is not a throwing up of one’s hands, it does not preclude action. It is the necessary and. It is outrage and hurt. It is confusion and hope. It is the holy ground where we must all one day meet. It is the greatest story ever told--and the truest one, too. It is the making of space for things we don’t understand, it is the shift in the body that unclenches and allows for discourse instead of vitriol. It is the far, far more complicated, nuanced and intelligent response. It is painful and also incredibly rewarding. It is ego-less. And it may be all we have.