Several Saturdays ago, I took in a beautiful, breezy morning while sitting at a table outside a Starbucks, sipping hot coffee and reading the latest Tana French. A young man, Caucasian, probably early to mid-20s, sat two tables away from me, doing the same. He tore hungrily into a flaky pastry, hot and fresh from the paper bag, as he listened to whatever was playing in his earbuds. A walking cane leaned against his table within arm’s reach.
These details seem pertinent. Everything from his age, his “identity,” to what he was eating, what he was doing.
(And perhaps who I am, who I was, and what I was doing, too, in that moment.)
A voice broke the stillness of the morning out there, hard edged with venom, loud enough for anyone in the immediate vicinity to hear.
“Must be NICE!”
I looked up from my novel. Of course I had to see, had to know, if the speaker was addressing me.
A young man, African-American, probably early to mid-20s, rode a shiny, red bicycle right by the cafe. His dreadlocks had been looped atop his head. The tail of his grey windbreaker flapped behind him.
These details seem pertinent.
There was someone riding alongside of him, but I admit that I failed to pay attention to him or her. In retro, perhaps few of the details would’ve important anyhow if it wasn’t for the next words he shouted over his shoulder, his gaze shooting flames directly at the two of us sitting there.
I could feel the world judder to a halt. My stomach churned. My cheeks and forehead burned. When I am faced with hatred, such scathing words spoken by strangers, I freeze up. I’m paralyzed, unable to speak at all. I’m rational; I mean, I know it’s due to shock. I’m just aghast at that sort of blatant lack of civility. That vile bigotry being spouted. That anger, that utter animosity. That verbal savagery.
Of course, when I was finally able to think clearly and rationally, and I reclaimed my voice, the angry party had already long gone.
I glanced over at the young man two tables over. He was intently picking at the flaky pieces from his croissant, bit by buttery bit. Lost in his music or lost in his humiliation, I don’t know. I didn’t have it in me to ask if he’d heard what I’d heard.
When I got home, I turned my attention to something momentarily distracting: the uncomfortable situation involving my soon-to-be ex-roommate. At least there were no scarring insults being hurled about. Civility, he and I understand it well.
I texted him a message letting him know the bedroom he’d abandoned, and had apparently turned into a virtual dumpsite, was going to be spot cleaned whether he liked it or not. He was no longer renting it from me. Having lost his job, he’d not paid anything since early November. It was beyond unfortunate. I’ve offered to help, but he has his pride, and I get that.
These details. Pertinent.
His beautiful tuxedo cat had also been abandoned. Every day, the cat wandered the halls, slept in the empty bed, pined for a presence that just wasn’t there and should’ve been. The cat made demands of me, and I gave him as much love as I could offer considering the circumstances we’d found ourselves in. None of this was the cat’s fault. I knew, one day, my ex-roommate would gain some sense of responsibility, and the cat would be gone by the time I got home from work.
I didn’t care about the cat as much as I cared that my roommate could no longer stay. I’ve known him for a long time. He’s become a victim of what goes on here in this area of the country. The rich thrive; the poor suffer. The middle class continues on its downward spiral.
First world expectations; third world futures.
The neighborhood in which I live — once home to self-made wealthy types, including a Columbian drug baron — is a virtual microcosm, representing the decay that is happening all over. There are the middle class Stepford families who’ve taken up residence in the flashy lakeside mansions. I know the money they flaunt, the nice things, the pretty Stuff all shiny new, didn’t necessarily come from earned wealth and prosperity, at least not without help from close, friendly connections and/or a dose of routine nepotism common in this area. The family in the Colonial-style monstrosity on the lake just down the road, for instance — the family who had started the golf cart craze around here — they have old money friends in old money places.
Now though, I think their house is in foreclosure.
These details. Here and now. Pertinent.
Since that Saturday, I have since become much more cognizant of the little things, little luxuries I had evidently taken for granted. Simple treats like a caramel-sweetened coffee drink at Starbucks. They’re not just treats, little luxuries; they’re representative of a much larger issue, one of localized injustices involving apparent caste and privilege, rage and disparity. I don’t forgive the man on the bicycle for his bigotry, his hate-filled words, but I realize desperation breeds blind animosity. The paranoid conspiracy theorist in me wonders if it’s intentional to drive us all apart — the very idea of our town, our civility and citizenry, falling in ruins.
These details. They matter.