The smell of clothing reeks with stale smoke and urine/it wafts towards me on the breath of early morning liquor/it’s wearer plops down in the seat next to mine
We eye each other/both of us aware/I don’t belong/I am neatly dressed/no hints of foreign smells/on my feet are skele-toes/all the rage in Berkeley/but I am not in Berkeley/I’m deep in the heart of where my people live
They all eye my feet soon as they board/I look up/I smile/I am met with a scowl/a blank stare/almost saying/bitch watchya smiling at
My seat mates/come and go/similar smells/too much urine on one/too much liquor on the other/too much perfume/displacing the oxygen molecules/too much smoke that makes me/reach for my inhaler/and incur more scowls
They arrive at the fare box/sometimes barking questions/sometimes drawling their words/indecision about which bus to get on/which stop to ring the bell/they don’t want to walk far/when they arrive at their stop
A woman boards/jeans too tight/showing her neon-orange thong/later, straightening from her slumped posture/she boasts of 3 children/when an old lady asks her age/she proclaims 26/proud/I have an 11, 8, and 6 year old/I calculate/she became a mother at 15/I cringe/why is that something to be proud of/perhaps there isn’t much else
She glances my way/I smile a sad hesitant smile/blank stare back/she knows/I couldn’t/wouldn’t/understand/the generations of systemic muck that has bequeathed her 3 children at 26/I stare at my feet/not sure where else to focus
Skele-toes/today was the wrong day to wear these/they speak a language/all their own/they say privilege/they say access/I think/dude they were on sale at Ross/these silly shoes are the most comfortable things for my inherited bunions/honestly I have worn nothing else over the last two weeks/wanna try them
I stop staring at my feet/I refuse to let them intimidate me/I am clearly out of my element/this far down the 52 on AC Transit/I stash my inhaler/switch seats/await my stop with some anxiety/dreading the return trip/wishing cabs were not so expensive in the U.S./hoping the return trip will be less jarring on my bougie self/acknowledging/Black can never equate one experienceRead Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
The moments immediately following a violation of any sort are the most crucial. The survivor goes through a series of emotions rather rapidly. Time feels arrested. Shock and disbelief turn into re-winding and analyzing which lead to anger, which is then served to self and to anyone who dares present a lecture on ways to be safe. All these emotions come careening into a hangar called paranoia. Paranoia has the ability to seep into core places in the survivor’s life and set up shop for long-term operations; if not checked quickly, it has the potential to consume the whole fleet.
On Tuesday my phone was stolen. Swiped from right under my nose. A man pretending to have HIV claimed he needed money for his drugs and went round the bar asking for an endorsement on a very crumpled-looking piece of paper. When he arrived at our table, he repeated his spiel four times and by the time I had finished counting, he had a smirk on his face which quickly turned into a smile as he folded up the paper and said goodbye. Sadly, he used this piece of paper to cover up my Samsung touch-screen phone that happened to be lying next to my drink on the table. In the brief, barely four-minute encounter, he managed to chip away at my confidence. See, I was playing tour guide and had been talking my friend’s ear off regarding street smarts. Now here I was missing a relatively new and slightly-expensive smart phone. He had my confidence alright.
The minutes immediately following kept to the basic pattern. Rationally I knew they would, but I was not prepared for the physical reactions that came with it. As the realization of loss hit me over and over again, my hands balled up into fists, my throat seized up with anger, and I found myself unable to stay seated, choosing instead to pace between the bar and the patio. Although my exterior remained calm throughout, the emotional pattern occurring threatened to hold me captive if I didn’t do something differently. So I started muttering to myself: “breathe child, breathe,” and then mindfully I asked the universe to help me channel the energy somewhere else. Even as I searched for a cab to take me home a half hour later, I could feel the negative energy sitting lopsidedly on my head attempting to hold on. I had been stolen from; I couldn’t trust myself to pick a safe cab driver. I was paranoid that perhaps this was my night for bad things to happen and that the cab might carry me off to some greater harm. That perhaps the phone was a sign of worse things to come. It took me a good ten minutes to decide on a cab driver. Having done so, I felt uneasy that I was wrong as I had been about the poor HIV guy so I let this cab driver go. A total of four cab drivers and half an hour later, I had walked several blocks away from the scene and hopped on a Trotro (local bus) which would only take me half-way home. Once I boarded, I noticed I was one of two females in the 18-passenger van and I was seated in the middle surrounded on all sides. An active imagination coupled with paranoia’s new place in my life caused a mini panic attack. I finally made it home that night in a bit of a daze clutching my bag tightly and trying to stave off the ideas that were fast sprouting shoots in my mind. I dressed in darkness that night because somehow I felt the house was now more susceptible to burglars, like somehow the phone had put my location on the map. I decided to take hold of the situation by writing and getting it all out. Words helped halt the wheels of Paranoia.
Over the past four days, I have been replaying the scene over and over in my head, mourning the loss of my pictures, new contacts, and music, and saying what most survivors probably say in hindsight: “had I known…” I must say though that the “why me?” hasn’t been as strong as the “how stupid could I have been?” and this makes the process of healing even more difficult. In any case, all survivors must move on because life does move on. I have returned to the use of an old phone from my last trip to Ghana and I’m in the process of blocking that sim and recovering that number which apparently should be “easy” though that’s not been the experience thus far. The rate at which I have had to move on has colored the event so that it feels like it happened a while ago. However, in my mind’s eye I relive it at least ten times a day. I can picture the perpetrator mesmerizing me, him walking away, me frantically searching for the phone and knowing it was gone forever, and me feeling I had not been a watchful tourist. I try to intercept the scenes as they are playing and replace them with better choices (like putting my phone in my purse immediately after finishing that call) but this is often a useless task.
When it happened, I questioned if I should be praying for the miraculous return of the phone (highly unlikely), for the perpetrator’s demise (only universe will know if this prayer works), or uttering incantations to ward off any other evils that were coming my way. In the meantime, I am exploring the existential idea that everything happens for a reason, and working channelling my paranoia into more positive places.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 5 so far )
Nana smiled as her aesthetician, Ranni, looked at her, eyes wide, eyebrows reaching for her hairline as if the act she was about to commit would ruin their friendship for good. Next to Nana’s Seminary friends and her therapist, this woman was the only other person who had known Nana the entire time she had been in the Bay. Ranni had been there for celebrations and successful conference presentations. She had been there for anniversaries and family gatherings. She had also been there when threading those eyebrows seemed to be the right dose of life she needed to get through yet another depressive bout.
So today as Nana lay on the table wincing with each snap of the white thread adeptly moving across her forehead, she told Ranni that she’d been pondering shaving all her hair off. She asked if Ranni could do it.
Ranni shook her head at Nana. “No! I can’t. I’ve never received training on how to style Black hair!”
“Well I can be your guinea pig today!” Nana announced to Ranni smiling. Ranni smiled back nervous but agreeing that there was no time like the present to try her hands at something new. When Ranni observed the determination in Nana’s eyes she said, “Sure, I’ll do it! Come.”
Eyebrows done and looking perfect as usual, Nana lifted her body off the reclining table and followed Ranni out to the hair area of the salon. Once seated in a chair Nana was seized by a momentary panic: what if she hated it? What if the shape of her head was hideous? That’s what wigs are for silly, she chuckled to herself.
Ranni wrapped the black cape around Nana tightly as if hugging her. She patted Nana on the shoulder and asked one last time, “Are you sure? All off?”
Nana nodded. “Yes, all off!”
Ranni nodded. Nana watched as the cutest pair of clippers, white, disentangled itself from the river of cords belonging to all the other clippers.
With the first buzz, Nana prayed she’d have an even head. Not one landscaped with dents and craters. The air rushed in as Ranni moved the clippers around her head. With the air came the questions. What if it didn’t grow back the same? How did one handle the spiky stage of growth? How should she take care of the hair? Scalp? Did she really want to have a shaved head for a while or was this a passing fancy, encouraged by her lover?
Ranni touched Nana’s shoulder gently to make sure she was ok. Nana smiled back at her, reassuringly. Ranni continued to buzz away until she raised a pancake of hair from Nana’s head and held it out. Ranni felt so proud of herself. Nana remarked about the effort it took for Ranni to keep all the hair on her head connected until the last bit was shaved. Ranni asked one of the salon hands to bring Nana a bag to store the pancake of curls.
“It looks like a wig, well…more like judge’s wig,” Nana said smiling at the curious faces of the salon hands who had gathered around her head.
“You look stunning!” Ranni declared.
Nana rose slowly from the chair to look at herself in the 360 mirror. Ranni was right. She smiled at Ranni in appreciation. Her step was lighter as she spun around. The breeze that embraced her was energizing. A sudden burst of confidence rode in on the breeze as it was gently kissing her scalp. She stepped out of the salon with purpose. She was ready to show off her new do. She was not ready for what the world saw when they looked at her.
Her first gawkers, two young boys, stared for more than the “approved” polite time. Next to the corner Starbucks, three women averted their eyes as they took in her shaved head. Later one older woman smiled and asked how her day was, redeeming Nana’s faith in humanity. The few Black men who saw her instantly looked above her refusing to acknowledge her as though her shaved head was a challenge to them.
Outside a grocery store, a young boy, probably no more than 12, was selling candy bars. Here we go again Nana thought expecting another stare-down.
“Not today,” she said as he asked if she could support his school campaign.
“Ok. Have a good day, beautiful!” the young’un replied.
Nana did a double-take. When she recovered from her shock she replied, “You do the same, hon,” making sure to stress the last word. He grinned at her.
He grinned broader still when ten minutes later she emerged from the grocery store with her purchase.
She smiled at him as she walked by, still aware of his attention.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” He asked boldly as he threw all caution to the wind.
Nana laughed heartily. What was the world coming to? Well, at least this one wasn’t just staring.
“Aren’t you just a little too young to be asking this question?”
She chuckled as he said, “Age aint nothing but a number!’
“Have a great weekend, hon!” She turned and smiled at him not wanting to deflate his self-confidence.
“You do the same beautiful!”
Nana shook her head as she walked away marveling at his boldness.
A few feet away, a woman held her son’s hands closer as he stared at Nana’s head doe-eyed. The woman averted her eyes and tried to chastise her son.
Nana wondered what sort of statement her shaved head was making as she strutted around enjoying the kisses of the breeze. People were certainly reading her Black body differently. Perhaps people were confused about her health or her sexuality. Nana wondered if the place she occupied in the world had changed. Perhaps a woman with a shaved head occupied a different place in society. Perhaps she was performing gender from a far more non-conforming place and that shifted her place in society. It troubled her that even though she saw bald men everywhere, no one paused to stare at them. People’s reactions mostly centered around avoidance, blatant staring, or a confused smile. Those who stopped her to tell her she was stunning were mostly non-Black women. What did that say about who valued what in this society?
The other troubling factor was that some of her African friends and family (not all) had a negative reaction to her shaved head. One wrote, “What happened?” Another, “Yikes! What did you do to your hair?” Another, “tsk, tsk…grow your hair back pretty.” Yet another, “You crazy Kuuk, but I love your ummm…”
This was troubling to Nana because it said a lot about the standards of beauty as well as what her people valued. The ironic fact was that, women in some cultures on the continent wore their heads shaved and adorned and they looked amazing. Nana wished there was time in the day to school people on their history lessons, but alas, she had a new do to take care of. All she needed to communicate in the meantime was that she was healthy. It wasn’t a drastic-spur-of-the-moment act. It certainly marked a transition in her life but it was nothing to write home about. A transition to commit to trying new ways of being herself in this world. It definitely helped that she had a cheerleader in her corner.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
“Dinner was great, huh ladies?” Ranni asked the next morning as we walked to class.
“I like the new student!” I declared emphatically.
“Correction, prospective student! And of course you would!” Chinukwe retorted.
“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked searching their faces as they both pretended to find another subject of concern at that very moment.
“See you later!” I split off and headed towards the cafeteria still perplexed.
Later, as I checked my email and drew my time table for the week, I wondered if the girls knew. I almost fell over when I saw an email from Amakka:
“My father’s driver will not be picking me up until Tuesday. Do you think you could suggest some things to do around here? Are you free Monday?”
I couldn’t get my fingers to type fast enough. I have just the thing! I would invite her to come hang out with Chinukwe and I at our usual power lunch and lab. Chinukwe and I subscribed to the idea that powering through four days of thesis research and then taking three whole days off was more efficient than doing a bit each day and taking a few hours off each day. I wrote back. She wrote back. Fifteen minutes later, it was settled. I kept my fingers crossed that Chinukwe would not be upset with me.
“Hi! It’s good to see you again.” I said approaching her. Unfortunately, Chinukwe bailed on me this morning.”
“It’s not because of me, is it?” Amakka asked.
“Don’t be silly!” She bails sometimes. She said she had to run an errand for her part time job.
“I hope you didn’t eat already.” I said searching her face.
“No, I could eat.” She responded meeting my eyes.
We got our plates of avocado sandwiches and Fanta and walked to my favorite spot in the canteen. Come to think of it, I was glad Chinukwe didn’t come after all.
As we ate we talked a little bit. It seemed we had quite a bit in common. Cancer in our family, divorced parents, half siblings…. I loved her sense of humor when delivering even the most depressing of stories. I explained to her what we usually did on our lunch and lab. Even though she was not a student at our school, I could get her into our lab with Chinukwe’s ID number.
Two hours later, we had donned lab coats and were busy titrating and calibrating test tubes and flasks. We decided to work individually on one of my own most recent experiments, break in two hours and share results.
“All done!” she yelled out from the front of the lab right before the timer began buzzing.
“Yeah right!” I retorted looking for an excuse to keep working.
“Yeah really. Come see for yourself.”
I went over, and to my surprise she had solved the problem I had been having trouble with for a week.
“Seriously, you must explain how you came by this equation!”
As she spoke, I struggled to keep my eyes on the flask and buret.
“What do you and Chinukwe usually do after this?” she asked.
It depends on what we each have going on.
“What do you have going on today?” she asked.
“Nothing. This is it.” I said.
“Do you want to see a movie or something?” she asked shyly.
“That would be nice. I don’t get to do that very often.” I responded.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
I am irritated. Someone butchered my name. I am trying to decide if I’d rather they try to, and fail or ask me for help first. Perhaps my irritation lies in the energy with which he committed this crime. He’s another fellow immigrant, I deduce this detail from his accent; I think I should cut him some slack. Then I think to myself…No! He of all people should know better. Sure, that’s a gross assumption.
But seriously, his butchering of all my names resounded in the waiting room, and while it lasted, I had flashbacks of snickering, pointing children. Would I have preferred that he spell out my name instead? Calling for a K-u-u-k-u-a. Perhaps my irritation continued because he was so cocky about it too. As if to say: I am an immigrant, I betcha I can say this one!
I was so irritated I didn’t have the usual grace to explain to him that the double ‘u’ in the first half of the name was not stressed necessarily or that the ‘k’ in my last name was silent because Westerners often couldn’t muster the nasal sound that was required for anything close to an accurate pronunciation. To top it off, he tried saying it multiple times before giving my irritated self a chance to come to his aid. Arrgh!
“Next time you come, I’ll get it right!” he proclaimed emphatically as he repeated the name once again in its entirety, determined to get it right.
Maybe it boils down to just plain attitude. Maybe if he hadn’t been cocky about his mispronunciation, I wouldn’t have been upset and gotten so irked.
Funnily enough, I don’t feel any of the general irritation of wanting to change my name to the non-African-sounding Lyall or Elliott or LeMaire or Riby-Williams that make up my family tree; this used to be my auto response in the past.
Looking back on the moment now a month later, I can have some perspective and empathy. I have also had moments when I’ve felt so sure about the pronunciation of an African last name only to have been proven wrong when I finally met the owner of the name. Maybe that was what happened to the guy.
So which is better? Trying to say it and then totally messing it up, or asking how to say it and attempting to repeat it as correctly as possible? Nothing irks me more than those who after asking for help (more than once) in saying it then proceed to laugh loudly and nervously, throw their hands up in the air helplessly and inform me that they wouldn’t try it even if they had Rosetta Stone sounding it out phonetically for them. The sadder issue for me is that this latter crowd is often comprised of my non-immigrant Black brothers and sisters. Almost as if getting it right would reveal some residual knowledge of Africa. It leaves me speechless. If this is the case, why did you bother asking me to say it so many times for you to begin with? SMH.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 5 so far )