Racism is alive in Staten Island

This weekend I watched The Help with my mother (excellent movie, highly recommended) and afterwards got in a discussion of what it must have felt like to live during a time when systematized discrimination against a specific race or group of people was not only tolerated, but actively enforced as the status quo. We agreed that the US really hasn’t come as far as we’d like to believe, and we talked quite a bit about the instances of overt and more pervasive, institutionalized, or subtler forms of racism we’ve both seen.

“I’m so glad I live in New York,” I said, “it feels like we’re always a few decades ahead of the rest of the country, in terms of respecting each other and understanding how people should get along.” Smugly I added, “it feels good to be on the right side of history.”

Now I am choking on the irony, as I must completely eat my words.

© Associated Press, Segregation of Buses in Atlanta, The Freedom Mosaic

I lugged a suitcase back from New Jersey with me today, so I decided to take the bus home from the ferry. Our ferry was slightly delayed by the high winds and reduced visibility of an impending thunderstorm. A number of passengers were rushing up the ramps to catch buses, and I saw the driver of the S42 close the doors, then reopen them to let two white women and then myself on board. The driver slammed the doors shut the moment my suitcase had cleared the bottom step, and she accelerated so suddenly away from the curb that I nearly fell over as I inserted my MetroCard. The driver then slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the bus that was departing in front of us.

I looked through the door to see a black man about my age, wearing a suit and a white collared shirt. He looked as mystified as I felt about why the driver had shut the doors in his face when he was right behind me in the bus queue.

We idled behind the bus that had departed in front of us, then waited for the traffic signal at the end of the ramp to change, behind several cars and another bus. As we were barely ten feet clear of the bus ramp, the man had walked up to the door and asked the driver to let him on. I didn’t hear exactly what he was saying, but I saw him pantomiming about the imminent rain, how he didn’t have an umbrella, and he didn’t want to ruin his suit.

Other passengers encouraged the driver to let him on, saying the sky was about to fall out and we weren’t even moving. The driver said he could take the next bus (which would be in 15 minutes) and that “that stupid fool” ought to get out of the road so he doesn’t get hit by a car.

The bus proceeded around a curving road and the next two stops, then turned back toward the road that extends out of the ferry terminal ramp. The man had evidently run uphill on one of the one-way side streets to meet our bus at the third stop on its route. He stepped aside to let passengers exit out of the front door of the bus, then the driver shut the doors rapidly on him again before he could get a foot onto the step. The other passengers on the bus burst out into an uproar, asking what the hell the driver was doing. One woman said, “Oh come on, after he ran up this big hill, you’re going to be that mean? That’s just hateful!”

The man again looked perplexed, and the passengers around me said she would never do that to a white man.

“He’s not some saggy pants-wearing street type, he’s a good working man, he’s wearing a suit! Don’t treat him like that!” another woman yelled.

The driver said that she had the right to deny service to anyone she wanted and that she “didn’t like the look of him.” She accelerated again so quickly that several passengers fell off their balance, and she had to swerve and slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a pedestrian and a car in front of us.

Amazingly, the man caught up to the bus again, and the driver let passengers off and closed the doors in his face a third time. By this point it was clear that everyone on the bus believed the driver’s denial of service was racially motivated. Several passengers told her they would be making complaints, and they took down her license number and information. They even tried bargaining with her, saying they wouldn’t complain if she would just let the man on the bus so he could get home already.

My stop was the next stop, and I took my time with my suitcase on the back steps, looking down the street to see if the man had been able to catch up to us again (I didn’t see him). As I was walking into the gates of my apartment complex, one of my neighbors who looked a few years younger than me leaned in confidentially to say, “I wouldn’t have let him on.”

“I’m sorry?” I said, not fully registering what she had said.

“You were on the 42 bus, weren’t you? That black guy?” she said.

“Oh yeah, that was nuts,” I said, worried where her tone was going.

“I’m just saying, with black guys like that, if they get angry? I wouldn’t have let him on either. Who knows what he’d do?”

“Yeah, umm, I don’t know,” I stammered, giving her a doubtful look and wondering if this was how all the other white passengers felt.

Did the other outraged passengers on the bus read my less vocal upset and expression of discomfort as some kind of support for the driver? Are white people actually super racist and I’ve just been deluding myself??

I was so furious at the driver and the way she made this man feel, intentionally or not, that I wrote every detail in a formal complaint letter to the MTA as soon as I got home. I have a hard time believing she pointedly denied him service three times for any reason other than his race.

I’ve regularly seen drivers wait for a passenger running down the street to catch a bus, I’ve seen them let people on at the end of the ramp at the ferry terminal, and I’ve seen them stop partway down a street when they realized someone was trying to catch a ride. I’ve seen drivers have so little regard for sticking to their schedule that they’ve made a queue of people wait an extra five or ten minutes in sub-zero temperatures so they could finish their cigarettes and have the full break they wanted. I’ve never seen a driver work so hard to outrun a passenger that she would endanger everyone else on her bus driving recklessly between stops, and I’ve never seen someone so utterly unconcerned with letting a whole bus believe she was denying service to a black man just because she could.

I don’t realistically imagine anything will come of my complaint letter, but I needed this man’s experience to be written down and to go on record somewhere. I needed the outrage that everyone on the bus felt at what seemed like flagrant racism to be expressed.

We may not have formal segregation anymore, but we still have a long, long way to go.

Mother Nature knows what she’s doing

A few years ago I was getting my hair cut, and the stylist asked if I’d ever colored my hair. Sheepishly, I recounted that time I thought I’d look better as a redhead, followed by that time in grad school where I lost my mind, dyed my hair Elmo red, then had to meet my boyfriend’s father for the first time and tried to cover it with some sort of burgundy, I don’t know.

“Probably for the best,” she said laughing, “you would only look natural as a blonde.” After a pause, she said, “Really, Mother Nature knows what she’s doing, you should trust her.”

Lately I’ve been having skin reactions to some combination of like sunscreen, benzoyl peroxide, makeup remover, or who knows what else. I have prescription lotion that’s supposed to soothe the reaction (in part because once upon a time my health insurance covered treatment but not diagnostics for allergic skin reactions), but now even the magical soothing lotion has been irritating my skin. Because of course it would.

It was clear that there was a combination of chemicals that was getting to me, and when I tried to start eliminating products, I was once again amazed by how many things come in contact with my face each day. I looked at my face scrub and saw 30-something ingredients, yeesh.

This morning I had a little Mother Nature spa session, attempting some detox and soothing with ingredients from my kitchen. I did a microdermabrasion scrub with baking soda paste (marvelous), followed by what sounded like a practical joke: smearing a banana peel all over my face to cover it in lutein and other antioxidants and fatty acids.

I also made a hair mask out of rosemary, coconut oil, banana, honey, and a bit of coconut milk (these are mostly green smoothie ingredients that I had in the fridge threatening to go bad). It’s maybe a bit sad that it took a hair mask to get me to use the immersion blender I’ve had for years. I also couldn’t help thinking (as I tasted a warm glop of it) that if it didn’t work as a hair treatment, this combination would make a truly delicious dessert.

I was happy to find that the baking soda + banana peel face treatment worked wonders. My skin was incredibly soft, smooth, and most importantly, not even remotely irritated anymore. It felt…new.

The hair treatment was a messy affair, and I was deeply skeptical as I was struggling to wash stubborn bits of rosemary out of the tangles. But once I finally got it clean, my hair came out fluffier, softer, and maybe even a bit shinier than before. It feels healthy and nourished, and it probably goes without saying it smells amazing.

So yeah, that Mother Nature really knows what she’s doing. Now I hope there is a more natural way to finish cleaning my bath tub.

Noise Canceling

One of the better investments in my peace of mind was a $7 pair of in-ear headphones. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the old Whitehall Street subway station was reopened and cobbled back into service. The trains make painfully loud high-pitched metal screeching sounds for a minute or longer as they come around the curve. I realized as my ears would ring all day that it isn’t just annoying; it’s physically damaging to one’s hearing.

I have never been able to wear standard Apple earbuds comfortably, and I found that I had to turn my iPod way louder than was sensible to try to drown out the sound, which was probably as bad as the sound itself. I researched how noise canceling headphones work and read that the ones that provide a physical barrier to sound, like earplugs, are often the most effective. These little green Panasonic ones, which may be a child’s size for all I know, worn with the smallest size pads, actually fit in my ears comfortably and cancel out the screeching trains and any other unpleasant sounds.

(Bear with me – there is an extended metaphor at work here.)

Some people add pleasant noise to life. It may be a tinkling crystalline melody at joyful news and exciting events in their lives or the deep bass line of a rich sense of humor and shared experiences of absurdity.

Occasionally people make discordant, screechingly unpleasant noise in my life. In years gone by, I tried to hum over it or pretend it didn’t bother me so much, but I see that this approach is just as ineffective as humming over the trains every morning. The noise isn’t just annoying; it’s damaging to my health and happiness.

Metaphorically, I ask these people to make a little gentler noise, or to maybe quiet some of the harsher tones. If they respond by making even louder, uglier noise, I realize now that I need to remove them from my life. I need to cancel the noise to protect myself.

It’s not pleasant to end relationships or cut ties with people. I used to always second guess my decisions and let the noise back into my life. But when I wake up and the ringing in my ears is replaced with clarity and peace, all I feel is immense, beautiful relief.

The Big Egg Hunt

As a child I used to hate Easter egg hunts. I’m not sure exactly why, but I think it was something to do with running around muddy grass in a new pastel dress and white shoes, spending more time worrying about ruining my clothes than finding plastic eggs (yeah, I’ve always been this way) while other kids pushed and shoved me for something that really seemed like a poor man’s Halloween. I mean, to get more candy than I knew what to do with in October I just put on a costume and pranced around the neighborhood, but for a little basketful on Easter our Lord and Savior had to die?! I never got on board with that.

Then again, I didn’t know about Cadbury Mini Eggs as a child and Starburst jelly beans hadn’t been developed yet.

This year, Fabergé and a bunch of partners produced The Big Egg Hunt to benefit Studio in a School and Elephant Family, hiding hundreds of giant eggs decorated by famous artists, design studios, and even some student artists all over the city. Before the eggs were sold by charitable auction, they were gathered and displayed in Rockefeller Center.

Even though I work a block away, I didn’t get a chance to stop by to check them all out until they were packing them up yesterday. Whoops. I missed some, but the ones I saw were fantastically interesting and charming, with all kinds of clever takes on the form and decoration of an egg.

I kept cracking up (pun only slightly intended) at the individuality and personality shown by familiar artists and designers, like how much Naeem Khan’s egg resembled one of my favorite dresses of his:

Some eggs addressed the charitable concerns directly, like Anna Corrina’s beautiful beaded elephant.

Others like Dustin Yeller’s dinosaur or Marsha Meredith’s wink at the Brooklyn subway were just plain fun.

Then there were some so spectacularly beautifully painted, like April Gornik’s koi pond, that I felt giddy at strolling through a brand new, curiously oblong art museum.

I made a Flickr set of some of my favorites, and you can see all of the eggs here.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s Big Egg Hunt — I’ll even pay attention this time and try to spot some of the eggs out in the “wild” of NYC.

Changing it up again

After years of disliking the format and customizability of my Movable Type blog, I switched back to WordPress. I actually managed to import all the entries in one try (woohoo!) but I lost the tags and categorization that I had. It will probably be a while before they return on the old entries, but I think that a vastly simpler interface will increase posting quality and frequency.

I hope you’ll bear with me as I sort out the colors, fonts, layout etc. and get it freshened up and pretty over here.