Some months ago—actually, it’s been over a year now—I moved from one part of Manhattan to another. The distance wasn’t tremendous, less than a mile, but the psychological shift was sizable; I was vacating a way station that had passed as a home, for a room of my own. Even though I’d lived in the apartment I was leaving for over twenty years, I’d shared it with a number of friends and too many ideas about what constituted generosity and receptivity. If you had a roof over your head, then it behooved you to share it with others, no matter the financial and spiritual cost—giving might make someone else, anyone else, better. That was my mother’s ethos; she raised me and my five siblings in Brooklyn.
But, in the last years leading up to leaving my first Manhattan apartment, I’d felt crowded in it, or, more accurately, crowded out of it. Even though I ostensibly lived alone surrounded by piles—books, records, photographs, magazines—my body had been afflicted by emotional piles for a long time before I left all that junk behind. You see, everything that I’d learned about hospitality from my mother had caved in on my soul; I could no longer sustain the platonic soup kitchen that I’d been raised to stock and preside over. I could no longer maintain my mother’s lessons of the heart. By the end of my stay in my first New York place, all those bodies that had crossed my threshold had impressed themselves on me. Those former friends were now a part of my body, and I could no longer bear their weight, or the weight of any of it.
Then Love called, rather unexpectedly. Love didn’t so much edge those bodies out as ask for a different place to house itself—a new home with less of everything that was not love. No treating time as though it were valuable to others, but not myself. Love taught me that my time was my own. Mine.
Our Ma supported us in part with “help” from public assistance—welfare. An image from those days: caseworkers going through her cabinets to make sure she didn’t have a crust of bread, or a man, or anything that would contribute to her well-being, let alone that of her children. If they found anything, no more government “help.” No more standing with my sister to get welfare food off a truck. No more social workers asking what your daily life is like as a way of finding out what your mother is up to personally, or whether she is mothering you at all. My father did not live with us. He was more or less supported by his mother, living in her large house, not too far away. He had a room in her house, at the very top, and it was sacrosanct; you didn’t enter it uninvited. I never questioned my parents’ arrangement. It was the way it was.
Love pushed against all that, and wanted something else, including the right to ask the questions that I had never thought of, such as, Why didn’t Pa, during all those years of lying and not lying about his absence, give his family any nourishment? Love pushed against all that, and this, too: the feeling that if I had my own place, and a lock, and a key, I would be no better than our Pa, wrapped up safe and soft in his cocoon of a room, nursing on the overly sweet milk of self-protection, a mother’s indulgence, and constant self-regard. Love assured me that having a space to work, one that wasn’t entirely at the mercy of other people I had known, that wasn’t a continuation of Ma’s legacy of giving unto death, didn’t have to be a thing. Love was the principal architect of my new place and the principal dismantler of my past.
The primary feature of my new apartment is light. It’s a floor-through, with windows on either end, in a part of town that’s notable for its proximity to the Hudson River and retains vestiges of bohemian New York—trees, a square, crooked old streets with Dutch names that few, if any, of us know the stories behind. History takes too much time. We are Manhattanites and preoccupied by our lives in Manhattan. Sometimes Love stays for the night, and other nights Love cooks meals. And in between these pleasures there’s the fear of Love removing its presence. How will it go? Must it go? What is it doing now? What is it doing without me? Have I done enough for it to stay? Love encourages me to get to the desk in the room where I work and even to shut the door from his love in order to get done whatever it is that I need to get done. Love can’t always stay. Love weighs on me, but not in the same way that those other bodies did in the days when I followed Ma’s ethos to a T. Love is not here sometimes—is out working, or making a meal, or sitting in a far-off room, on the other end of a joke. And, yet, there is Love’s presence in a disfiguring world.
The street leading to my apartment runs east to west, a trajectory that takes you from a once “bad” neighborhood to a very nice one. (In any case, it’s difficult to find a bad neighborhood in lower Manhattan by now. Everything has been bought and made better here in the land of the plenty, the horn of the good.) I spend several mornings a week on the east side of my block dealing with personal stuff, including learning how to physically and mentally defend myself against those who do not feel that my “I” should exist at all. That ill wind follows me down my street in the way that thoughts followed Virginia Woolf down the road in her essay “Street Haunting,” published in 1930:
How beautiful a street is in winter! It is at once revealed and
obscured. Here vaguely one can trace symmetrical straight avenues of
doors and windows; here under the lamps are floating islands of pale
light through which pass quickly bright men and women, who, for all
their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air
of triumph, as if they had given life the slip, so that life, deceived
of her prey, blunders on without them. But, after all, we are only
gliding smoothly on the surface. The eye is not a miner, not a diver,
not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a
stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks.
But I am not gliding down the surface of my thoughts as I make my way from the east side of my street down to the west, in part because I am not Virginia Woolf—which is to say, I do not go unobserved in the world of my street, free to observe in relative safety and peace.
In the world of my street, I’m observed for a variety of reasons, and this individual and collective surveillance shapes my thoughts and my writing in ways that I resent. Who wouldn’t want to spend an evening on a walk in search of a pencil and arrive back home, without incident, to think about it? The way that I’m observed means that my brain can’t sleep as I look; that’s a luxury I can’t afford as I try not to kill the world that means to kill me. From the time I moved into my new home—the windows let in as much nature as is possible in Manhattan—but, really, for several years before that, even, I felt something in Manhattan that even Love couldn’t protect me from, and what shall I call it? The May I see your I.D.? syndrome?
On my block, there’s a big store, part of a chain that sells electronic devices. I’ve been in the shop exactly three times: once to get a device fixed; once to buy a Christmas gift with my white, German goddaughter; and, once to replace a missing something to fix another device. Each time I’ve gone into the store, done my business, and am about to pay, I’ve been asked for my I.D. I am not asleep to the fact that none of the other customers—usually affluent Europeans, yuppie mothers, and the like—are not asked for anything other than their credit cards when they belly up to the electronic bar to make a purchase. For those of us who are not them, the exchange of capital for goods becomes a kind of sick room: May I see your I.D.? The sick room glows with blood, the blood that floods your face, your neck, and your back, as you hand over your I.D. instead of—what? A fuck-you? And why not a fuck-you? Because the worker who asks you for your I.D. is black or Hispanic, and male, too, and he needs to make a living, even if it’s at someone’s literal and figurative expense. He can’t look at you. (A side note: this is always the point in the story when you become a third-person figure; your body can’t bear it, and so becomes a different body, watching as things happen but trying not to feel, despite the rush of blood to the face, the neck, the back. In this situation and others like it, your “I” recedes, running further and further back into the hidden world housed in the body that the world hates.) He looked at you before, smiling, as you decided to purchase the shit you needed, but all of that changes when he asks, “May I see your I.D.?” His tone is the same as it was when he was showing you the junk you needed, friendly-like, but now there’s a threat. If you don’t have I.D., who are you, other than a thieving threat? There’s a bright lift to his voice—May I see your I.D.? Surely someone trained him to say that, just as my mother and father, respectively, showed me how important it was to despise racism and its various inevitable humiliations and, on the other hand, to empathize with workers who were “oppressed” by a corporate system that puts their heads in a yoke, just so that they know who’s boss.
“Who is the slayer, who is the victim? Speak!” So wrote Sophocles in “Antigone” and maybe that’s the start of the essay in my head that I can’t write because of the blood pounding in it, as the young man swipes my card and swipes my reason, several blocks away from my home, away from Love. The transaction closed, the thing I needed, now bagged, weighs heavy in my hand like evil, like shame. Why couldn’t I forego my mother’s ethos and read that young man to filth? Because by not looking at me—May I have your I.D.?—he was, perhaps, frightened to discover what he would find on the other end of his question/inquisition, at the end of his own street, rocky with the stones of compromise, smiling all the while, the better to survive.
The first time I experienced the May I see your I.D.? syndrome outside of my Pa and trying to enter his room—Whose child are you?—I was fourteen or so and wearing white ballet slippers. I was a student at the High School of the Performing Arts, which was then on West Forty-sixth Street. There, I majored in theatre. To get to the school from my home, in Brooklyn, I took the I.R.T. express—the 2 or 3 train—and got off at Times Square. I always wore ballet slippers then, and, frequently, tights. Sometimes I carried a bag—a kind of pouch—my mother had made me. A queer costume for her queer child. One day, as I hurried through the filthy labyrinth that was and is the I.R.T. subway system at Times Square, a cop stopped me. Give me your I.D. I showed him my train pass; I didn’t have any other I.D. The blood was pounding behind my eyes. Something—instinct—told me not to show my real face, the face of my fear and hatred. I was no longer myself. I knew what it was like to be almost annihilated, or have some part of your natural trust annihilated, by men. Become “nothing” and maybe they won’t kill you. When I was a kid, my boy cousins used to try to suffocate me with plastic bags. They wanted this faggot to die. Maybe that long-ago cop wanted this faggot to die. With no provocation at all, he walked me down some more filthy corridors and we ended up in his headquarters where I was booked as a truant. I said, once, that I was not a truant, that I was on my way to school, but that wasn’t the story that he wanted to hear or that his buddies wanted to hear, and something in me went silent. How could I contradict his idea of my body? With what? My ballet slippers? My mind? My love of art, and theatre, and movie lovers in anguish? And let me just say that what I felt then is not so very different from what I feel as I walk toward my new home, where Love waits. I’m adrift in a stop-and-frisk universe that has always been a stop-and-frisk universe. My silence is a form of protection: Do I want them to cut my tongue out, too? This feeling goes back for centuries, no doubt, and it is in my DNA and has saved my life in the past, all the way back to the ships and the lash. But it has also stomped on my heart and given Love quite a job. Call it what you will—white backlash, Obama-era payback, or whatever—but I find our present condition difficult to write about.
Even before I moved out of my old apartment, with all those bodies, one could feel the need for blood to be spilled in the streets—an extension of all those shot bodies in North Carolina, or the mowed-down bodies in Lexington, Kentucky, not to mention other parts of the world, now and forever, somewhere, always. As I’ve said, some folks call our present condition white backlash, but I call this wave of violence the tedium of having to give a shit. All those years in college reading “Beloved,” all those seminars on women’s bodies and reproductive rights, and Dad, down at the office, having to deal with having to hear about equal pay, even if he never forked it over. All those years of talk of immigrant care, and elder health care, and Social Security this, and fair that. Even entertainment wasn’t safe. Tender movie and TV shit about lesbians, and gays and trans people—and will it never end? So says the guy sitting in that classroom or in that movie theatre, emboldened by the vile sliming that comes over the airwaves night after night; so says this guy as he watches the TV, reflecting the rich and his constantly, rightly exasperated-by-all-this-difference President. “Lock those immigrants up,” this guy says, following his Commander-in-Chief’s example. Sterilize them; separate them from their children, like in the slave days; and, let me get mine, my stuff.
Once, in my old neighborhood, a guy with a BMW was looking lovingly at the stuff stored in the trunk of his shiny car, as his little son, a toddler, walked out into the street and was minding its own unsupervised-baby business when the world stopped but reality didn’t: as the baby toddled, a taxi suddenly rounded the corner near where the baby was and I screamed, the car stopped, and the man stopped looking at his stored stuff, for a moment, to pick up his living stuff. Then, holding his neglected child, this Pa followed me home as if to make sure that I wasn’t going to report him to the police. I should have, but Ma’s ethos interfered. Perhaps the man had learned something, I heard Ma say, in my heart. But my body said, If I went to the police, who would believe us? Would I be the dude who pushed his baby into the road? While caring, rich fathers looked on helplessly? Looking at his BMW stuff, that father—a version of my father?—was, perhaps, tired of giving a shit, even when it came to his own child and its baby needs. Maybe he was tired of all those other baby needs over the past eight years or so, when he had to deal with imagining how someone else might feel. Maybe he was tired of living through some version of the civil-rights era again, all those Obamas; it was exhausting to be made of the world’s concerns, all the moral bullshit of the underprivileged and whatnot, including those guys in ballet slippers who scream when a baby may be harmed. Who the fuck wants to deal? Now it’s my turn, the same guy may think—my time, mine. And what I want to know is how long it will be before even the most enlightened person starts calling me a nigger?
Here’s some of the stuff that they are surprised you don’t want to listen to—as you listen because of Ma’s ethos, the ethos of a woman whose body took it all because she considered it her job. At a memorial service where I eulogized a white woman, one of the bereaved came up to me and said, “I’ve been reading you for years. I didn’t know you were black. And so big.” Then, at a party, out of nowhere: “I really like ‘Dear White People,’ ” as if you were in the cast. At a business meeting with a potential producer: “Don’t you miss that comedy troupe that used to say, ‘I’m black and I suck dick’?” At a small theatre, a small, black female performer is in a solo work; retiring to the men’s room after the show, a gentleman in the opposite stall says, “You were so great in the show.” Then there is the usual—someone mistakes me for another writer of color, and when I say, “No, I’m the other one,” a cockeyed look. “Was I sure?” There’s the guy you go out on a date with, before you find Love, who tells you that his relatives owned a plantation in Haiti years ago, and the people who worked it looked like you. Sometimes you try to convince others that you are yourself—Where’s my I.D.?—especially, hideously, if they are your friends. Remember the moment when the dying woman, whom you were trying to help, said, “You see that black guy crossing the street, my grandfather would have called him a mook”? Remember the former friend who loved to tell the story of how her father, when he thought someone was unattractive, would say, “They’re uglier than a bag of nigger rectums”?
This casual and not-so-casual hatred and aggression, even in presumed love, is as old as America—a country that is, in part, defined by people defining who they are least not. While America is happening to my mind and body, I try to make sense of it as I walk toward home and Love, but my mind can’t make writing of it. Because how can you tell a story about that which all the metaphors in the world can’t enhance or make into art? Love wants so many things—wants your story without metaphors, if it comes to that. Love says, “Tell it baby, tell about that walk from east to west, marred and marked by others, that which makes for a different kind of reflection.” Tell it, because Love is interested.
All a writer has is his epoch and how it shapes him. In her very interesting introduction to the first volume of “The Best American Essays” series, Elizabeth Hardwick wrote that the essay was a “slithery form, wearisomely vague and as chancy as trying to catch a fish in the open hand.” In short, the essay—like love, like life—is indefinable, but you know an essay when you see it. And you know a great one when you feel it, because it’s concentrated life, whole and in bits. Indeed, the essays that I’m attracted to are essays that have something unfinished about them, a circle that cannot be closed, filled with dread—even, or especially, when humorous—anxious that certain national politics, say, are generated by nothing more and nothing less than certain revenge fantasies, vis a vis identity politics, say, all those bodies rising up out of the dust and grief of racism and sexism to say “I.”
In “Why I Write,” a talk she gave in 1976 about her early years as a writer, Joan Didion said that she borrowed the title of her essay from another—George Orwell’s “Why I Write”—because, first off, she liked the sound of the words: Why I Write.
There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:
In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions … but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.
And in her introduction, Hardwick wrote, “The aggressiveness of the essay is the assumption of the authority to speak in one’s own voice.”
Re-reading Didion and Hardwick, I wonder if, indirectly, these authors were telling us something about their experiences as women, and that their descriptions of aggression are the result of having been aggressed upon, told what to do, claimed, of putting their “I” aside on more than one occasion to make a difficult situation work, to pacify a husband, to not be a target. Just as queer writers of yore and writers of color—who had to smile and twirl in between bitter descriptions of life in America in order to be read at all—often told the reader more about who they were in between the lines, saying “I,” if you are a different kind of person, can feel like a dangerous proposition, let alone a reality. Being a target hurts. And since writing is the author’s deepest self, writing about one’s “I,” standing up for it, can feel like an aggressive act, I suppose, given how those of us who are targets are programmed not to. I wonder how many heteronormative men (or even queer ones) worry, when asking for your I.D., or when saying, in so many words, “Stay out of my room.” How many worry about how aggressive their language is after they put a plastic bag over your head, trying to smother your faggot voice and concerns? How did we get here? That’s the subject of many of the essays that we read and remember. How did we get here, and are we stuck here, as men, and women, and Other?
Living, as we do, in a broken world, writing—essays—are bound to become more broken, fractured as power becomes insistent on showing its power further by breaking more backs, jailing the innocent, cracking love in the knees. The majority of us are not whole individuals, because there is no such thing as a whole society. Sometimes on my walk home, in the short space between the rest of the world and my front door, sometimes I will have a moment to dream and to reflect, and to speculate on what the essays to come will look like, read like. Of course, they’ll be made up of many things, including questions, and images, and gestures, because we live in a world of too many things and half-understood selves.
But these essays of the future will or should start with questions, generally political in nature, and if you don’t think so, think again.
Here’s one essay born out of these times: the comedian Richard Pryor asking once why targets on shooting and archery ranges are always black? Add to that the sound of the woman crying, “Why are they shooting?,” as she filmed Antwon Rose being gunned down, in East Pittsburgh. Another essay: looking at Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1983 painting “Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart),” which the artist produced after Michael Stewart, another graffiti artist, was beaten to death by policemen in the subway. I remember Michael Stewart; he was the guy that my female friend went home with on the night I told her that we could not be lovers. We were in our early twenties, players in a club on lower Broadway, in Manhattan. After we parted for the night, my complicated companion didn’t waste any time finding herself a guy, a thin man of color with dreads, who seemed to be drowning in his overcoat. Basquiat, on hearing of Stewart’s death: “It could have been me. It could have been me.” I didn’t have the presence of mind to say, “But it is.”
Another essay: the music video for “This Is America,” starring the performer Donald Glover, under the name Childish Gambino. The video is directed by Hiro Murai, who oversees many of the episodes of “Atlanta,” a history-making series about race, relationships, and place, also starring Glover. The look of the video is both airy and claustrophobic. Folks record acts of violence on their cell phones; a hooded figure rides in on a horse. Glover plays both sides of the racial coin. As a “white” man, he blows away a chorus of black singers in a church, impersonating Dylann Roof murdering nine black people in a church in South Carolina. As himself, Glover critiques how blackness can become a pose, commodified, and how that commodification repeats itself, for bigger and bigger bags of cash. At one point, he stands on top of a car—just as Michael Jackson did in his 1991 “Black or White” video, and just as Beyoncé did in her “Formation” video. This is black anger as entertainment. But is Glover doing the same thing by putting out a video at all? At the end, Glover, black and naked with fear, is chased down a seemingly endless corridor by white people. The terror in his eyes and open mouth, gasping for breath, is familiar to me and, now, to Love, who holds my body, not seeing it as the wrong one but as “the one.”
And that’s the thought that gets me down the stairs on most days, when I leave my house to walk east to west. I have a little ritual when I close my apartment door and face my day, after checking to see if I have my I.D., checking to see if I’m ready to make the journey once more. (Joan Didion said, “Every day is all there is.”) I look across the street at the colored lobby guy sitting at his station. He’s an essay unto himself. Every day I go out, he’s at work in his glassed-off world; we wave to each other, quietly happy and satisfied to find that we’re still here, each in the other’s world.
This essay was adapted from the introduction to “Best American Essays 2018.”