Saturday, April 25, 2020

Texas notes: Keep your distance

  
"Night in Bologne," by Pat Cadmus (Smithsonian)

     This is the third installment of a series of weekly reports that reader Caren Jeskey has been sending from Austin, Texas. You can find last week's installment here and the first post here. Her title is "Keep your distance," and I stuck "Texas Notes" before it because I thought, by always including "Texas" in the title, it'll signal the change in voice to readers. And besides, when she wants to gather them together, say after some big New York publisher wants to publish them in a book, having "Texas" in all the headlines will make that easier.

     On a sunny seventy degree day in early Spring of 2002 my coworker Kim and I decided to take a walk along the lakefront during our lunch break from our South Loop office building. 

     As we approached a grassy knoll we noticed a circle of bike cops surrounding two young men on the sidewalk nearby. Two sturdy bicycles were propped up on their kickstands in the grass, bags and boxes strewn around, and cops were apparently searching the contents. 
      One of the cops surrounding the men on the sidewalk was a red faced stocky woman with ruddy cheeks that were bright crimson and sweaty, reflecting the intensity of the moment. The first words that popped into my head were racial profiling. People had been suspicious of each other since the 9/11 attacks and it was clear that we were watching a reaction to that suspicion as it was unfolding. 
      My next thought was that the men looked like spiritual pilgrims. One was tall with dark black hair that hadn’t had a cut in ages, and a bushy unkempt beard. He was wearing loose fitting cotton Dickies style pants rolled up mid-calf, a wrinkled white button up shirt and simple gym shoes. He face was drawn and he looked tired and resigned. The other pilgrim was fair skinned with a touch of sunburn, long unkempt ginger colored hair and a full unruly beard. He also had long sideburns framing his worried, flushed, pinched face.
     As we passed I wanted to stop to see what was happening and my impulse was to try to help if I could. Kim sharply said “keep walking. Let’s go.” This snapped me out of my samaritan spirit and back into the reality that these were very tense and potentially dangerous times. A circle of angry faced bike cops searching two hapless young men was a scene best avoided. We kept walking, and processed our sadness about the state of the world as well as our helplessness to prevent harassment of innocent people.
     We walked up the paved sloping path towards the Shedd Aquarium and circled it, peering into the huge blue green windows of the Oceanarium filled with dolphins and whales. We looped our way back to the sidewalk moving north along the lakefront. As we made our way back towards the knoll the cops were gone. The ginger cyclist was sitting on the concrete curb, chin resting heavily in his hands, face heavy and sad. The dark haired young man was calmly placing his bags and boxes back onto the racks of his bicycle that was still propped up in the grass. I said to Ginger “are you ok?” He looked at me blankly for a moment, and then snapped “what?” in a loud and defensive tone. I said “I just wanted to know if you are ok. We saw the cops searching you.” He seemed to snap back to reality and said “oh, wow. Thanks. Yeah, that was really scary but we are ok.” I said “good,” and Kim and I continued our walk back towards the office.
     We were several hundred yards away when Ginger biked up to us calling “hey!” 
      I felt a little worried since we had to get back to work and I didn’t want to get overly involved with this disheveled young man and what looked like a complicated situation. Kim and I stopped and he quickly pressed out the words “I just wanted to say thank you so much for asking me how I was doing. We haven’t done anything wrong and got stopped and searched for no reason. It was really scary.” 
      I said “I am so glad we stopped and that you are ok. We have to get back to work now.” Kim was already walking away and I turned to join her. 
      “Wait!” he said. “Caren, I know you.” 
      This got our attention and Kim and I both turned back to him. My heart started racing, it felt so uncanny. “It’s me, Tim, from Second Street!” This was one of those moments of synchronicity that Carl Jung describes as “an ever present reality for those who have eyes to see.” This was Tim, the best friend of the bartender at the bar I worked at in Santa Monica about six years earlier. Back then I felt that I was much older than Tim and the bartender Anthony—after all I was 25 and they were only 21 or so. When Tim would invite me to join them on their camping trips to the desert or the ocean I’d laugh and say “thank you,” but never did take him up on these invitations. I always thought Tim was super sweet but way too young for me to consider hanging out with. In retrospect he would have been a lot more fun to hang out with than the bar’s karaoke-night MC I fell for, not knowing he was married and cheating on his wife with me.
     Tim, Anthony and their friends were fun and full of life. They were adventurous and warm. This adventurous spirit had led Tim to the Chicago lakefront on this day. He explained that he and his friend had biked to Chicago from California and were making their way to the Atlantic Ocean, a coast to coast bike trip. This trip had brought him to the lakefront spot at the same time Kim and I passed the same spot, and something inside prompted me to reach out to what seemed like a distressed person in need of solace and that person just happened to be Tim, several years and thousands of miles later. It made me feel a deep connection to life itself. We chatted a little bit more and said goodbye. The moment was rich enough itself that we did not feel the need to turn it into something else.
     In this coronavirus social distancing Spring of 2020 we once again feel a fear of the people around us. This time the danger seems even more imminent and real. Back in 2002, I had the distinct sense that I did not have to fear every dark haired stranger, and I did not have to fear men with beards even though many of my fellow Americans did. I knew that the bad guys were few and far between and did not think to avoid or run from people I passed on the street. Today is different. When the man biked past me sneezing and coughing tonight as I took an evening walk I wanted to run to the sidewalk and away from the potentially virus-ridden droplets heading in my direction. When a neighbor and I took a safely distanced walk I felt that there was an invisible 6’ yard stick between us and we negotiated this necessary distance as though we were magnets bouncing off of each other, as if we’d been doing this dance forever. When a man jogged right past me and nearly brushed my shoulder with his on the sidewalk the other day I ran into the front lawn of a house, and the man turned around and yelled “oh my God!” as though I had done something wrong by creating responsible space between us.
     I’d be mad at him if I didn’t also feel that this whole thing is incredibly sad, difficult and confusing at times. Even sadder is the knowledge that we have no idea how much longer we will have to beeline away from each other with this very real and not imagined threat to ourselves and those we love as this virus runs its course. It’s not beards and fezes, hijabs and such that we fear anymore, it’s everyone. In 1955 Carl Jung wrote this: I am no preacher of “splendid isolation” and have the greatest difficulty in shielding myself from the crushing demands of people and human relationships. This time in history calls for us to keep up with the demands of human relationships in the truest and deepest way possible, in fact to save each others’ lives.



16 comments:

  1. That was great. But I would like to know why these two men were stopped by the police

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    1. It was soon after 9/11 and they were bearded. That was enough for the police sometimes: beard = Osama bin Laden. It's not like it's a free country.

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    2. Yup... suspicion of BWW...Biking While Weird...will get you stopped even now, especially by Chicago's Finest. And that was as true in 2002 as it was in 1968, which was the year I hitch-hiked eight thousand miles across the U.S. and Canada, at 21. There are plenty of memorable cop stories from that grand and glorious adventure, but those are other tales, for other times.

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    3. Sanford, looks like BadRussianPoet answered your question. Looked like a case of a random stop due to racial profiling in the post 9-11 months of fear. Grizz, I am sure you have some interesting stories from your travels. Be well readers. See you soon-

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  2. just being 'different' could and can get you more 'police protection' than you might imagine.

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  3. Yes, Sanford, now that you mention it, I would too!

    What a killer story! Love it when the message is so targeted that you cannot miss it!

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    1. BadRussian Poet and I explained more above- please read our responses to Sanford. Cheers!

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  4. I really look forward to Caren's weekly installments - and the eventual book of collected essays! I have lived in both Chicago and Austin as well, and walking, traversing and marking the psychogeography of these cities, recovery, and organizing my thoughts in essay form are intricately bound for me as well. So Caren's work here really resonates for me.

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    1. Thanks for coming along on this journey Mr. Ride.

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    1. Good to hear you liked it DH- see you here again soon.

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  6. It certainly is "incredibly sad, difficult and confusing at times" but by sharing your experiences, both old and new, we feel the solidarity of our common challenges and forge ahead. Long distance or six feet away, I hear you loud and clear.

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  7. Isn't it amazing that you were in that exact place and time to have crossed paths once again, with that young man. So crazy... Enjoying reading your essays Caren.

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    1. It was! I get the goosebumps just thinking of that moment. Thank you-

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