I walk these city streets repeating self-preserving mantras to myself: one foot after another. right foot; left -- kill the world. Sometimes, under the gaze of a righteous fellow, it’s girlfriend. uninterested…The latest came suddenly in a subway car: it was privilege…I repeat these as necessary to keep one foot in front of the other, to stop myself from physically folding under the strain of certain eyes: gorgeous persons, suited-up, scarlet-cheeked cops, disdainful Germans, equivocating locals and men… A physiological torture of mortification.
This strategy doesn’t always work. Developed as a manner of preserving instinct under the societal pressures of a few culturally bankrupt buy-ins, the end result is a still and prevailing stoicism.
That blank-faced approach has been favored by the Harlem persona — our collective wounds are too deep, our histories too convoluted, our dramas — past, present and future — so entrenched as to evince in our countenances a fixed, cool, imperturbable gaze. This posture will be understood as “neutral,” unconcerned or natural — it is neither. This is a gaze from which the twinkle of curiosity and of adventure has been stamped out: a gaze behind, which rages an infernal witches’ brew of disappointments, collecting and coursing through the blood like the ages; an unquenchable thirst for self-determination; an inextinguishable hope, the striving of the human spirit — a burning, churning mix wrought of life and living in the slippery world of post-Harlem.
I adopt the stance. My height precludes a crucial and debilitating confrontation with the steadily roving eyes… An old man strides by in confident, healthy form — this man moves on without a glance — and it crystallizes: the great breadth of all the experiences he’s ever had that I’ll never know — the stories of Detroit, or South Carolina, or old Harlem… the American story of a town that died once and died again as I grew into sexual maturity: witnessing the demise of my neighborhood as I did my own childhood...and the man taking forever with him…
A single white man enters the subway car, as countless do daily, with the kind of supreme confidence that originates from a certainty of self and status. He spreads his legs to form a V over the seats. He regards no one, and starts in on his phone with an air of utmost purpose. The level of confidence lessens by degrees as we move down along the pecking line…white male…white female…male “of color”…female “of color”…people who work with their hands…housewives…mothers… As we settle down into our seats, the appraisals begin. (The only party that doesn’t really give a fuck is kids under 12.) We want to know as much as we can about you by looking: but all we can see is the clothes, so we judge them instead…and this is how shoes became the most important immediate indicator of a person’s worth. This is all tiresome. One word comes to mind, a word I resolve to recall in future, when made to bear the psychological toll of a subway ride with New York’s most socioeconomically secure: privilege…
It helps bear the toll. The stranger’s initial evaluation entails first a quick scan of my height and color; next, my age and the shape and curvature of my face: the shade of my skin is acknowledged and my cultural origins debated, accounting for the look of my eyes, nose and my lips. The style and quality of my glasses — the look of my hair…finally the quality of my clothes, and to an extent, the stylistic flourishes with which I have arranged the clothing on my body; and my jewelry…the principal identifying factor sought during these interactions is expensiveness -- conspicuous expensiveness. A woman enters the cab, with fabulous coat and tall leather riding boots, eyes fluttering upward — a woman dawdles on the frigid sidewalk in floor-skimming fur, noticing nothing -- everywhere, the thing is conspicuous expensiveness…the initial scan inconclusive, a swift check of my footwear is authorized (a noticeable deed, as the space spans six feet) — this is the determining factor, the final answer. The quality and nature of my footwear will settle the central question — that much more vital, to the moment: “Can she afford…?”…The answer will decide: “Is she worth anything at all?”
This is the true, wicked, evil, shallow disposition of this city, perpetuated to varying degrees in many quarters by stinky-faced bitches and others comparing everyone to everyone else to themselves, in a kind of pathetic, ever-useless metropolitan fashion show/cotillion, made all the more absurd for its ritualistic self-imposition... The state of the city as such became apparent to me only in adulthood, at which time I realized my lot as an unwilling participant in the debutante ball.
It’s gross, but I play along. I spend my last cent on clothes I don’t need — spinning within a fantasy construed by others in order to fit myself squarely into a paradigm I claim to disdain. And that, my friends, is hypocrisy.
Text by Janyl Ramirez