As my train pulled away from the platform this morning, I kept thinking about pepper. Not cayenne, scotch bonnet or any other variety to season foods, the sort to go on a grocery list. I wanted the kind delivered from a hand-held canister to stop menacing, belligerent men from harassing me and setting my morning commute on the wrong foot.
If I had brought some pepper spray with me this morning, I might have put a swift end to an argument that a hostile older man had picked with me. Maybe he would have understood that he had, indeed, crossed the line of decency. I would have let at least one badly brought up guy know that just because we are both black, it doesn’t give him the license to accost me, and then when I rebuff him, act like a pig.
After I had stamped my ticket in the validator, I stood on the platform, adjusting my tote bag and handbag, awaiting the train. The older guy who would offended me minutes later came up to me, leaned far in and started gesturing, asking me to operate the ticket machine for him and buy his ticket. He didn’t say good morning, he didn’t take off the baseball hat pulled low over his brow, and he didn’t remove his dark glasses. Typical of a lot of black men with less education and polish, regardless of their age, he was pushy and acted like he was entitled to my time and goodwill. He asked a second time, and I shrugged, saying the machine was easy to use.
He got offended and walked off. I walked away, too, only half expecting him to drop it. He had more success with a young girl, who bought his ticket for him. Just like I figured he would, he emphatically thanked the young girl, his gratitude little more than a showy rebuke of my refusal to pay him any mind. But yahoos like him are easily set off, and don’t know how to stop the verbal incontinence after it starts, even after they get what they want and even after they sound foolish. He set on me again, berating me for not helping him and calling me names. Gentle readers, I don’t put up with that garbage from anyone. So after a short rant, I told him to stop raising his voice at me.
A gaggle of teenage boys who were crowded on a bench, themselves with very little home training, obviously, guffawed at all of this. Who knows what they were thinking, but in an instant I pitied my younger sister and daughter, who will probably face the same public harassment from a generation of inadequately raised ‘men’ like them, some of whom will stand by without a clue as to what to do except laugh.
The exchange went back and forth briefly until he started acting like a baboon, with the chest beating: “I’m 51 years old!”
“Then act like it. Grow up, stop talking and leave me alone.”
“B*tch!” At that point, everyone on the platform, even the little pups on the bench, fell quiet.
“My name is not B*tch,” I said loudly, and looked him square in his ridiculous sunshades.
Taking a dig at my regular glasses, he said, “well, blind then.” Oh, we’re in the 5th grade now, are we? That’s a different story altogether.
“Stupid-assed, 51-year-old loser. That’s you!”
That seemed to take the wind out of him a bit. Shut him up long enough for everyone to notice that the train had come. As everyone boarded the train, I didn’t flinch. I went straight to the spot where I usually like to sit, without trying to scurry out of his way or anything. Why should I? He didn’t go out of his way to approach me in any halfway decent way. For a guy born in 1959, he should have had the upbringing to know that when you approach a woman standing by herself anywhere, you make yourself pleasant before you ask her to do something for you. That might have induced me to help him. The young girl who did help him was probably in her late teens and is still naive enough to believe that everyone who asks a favor should be indulged, even coarse, pushy men who run up on you in public. I used to buy into the thinking that says always give every wanderer some change or a helping hand, because they might be an angel in disguise.
But time and common sense have taught me that simple-looking black men sometimes will lash out the hardest at black women in public and in demonic ways. I think I’ve said it before on this blog, that I doubt if any of the yahoos who have behaved toward me the way that they have would have done the same to a white woman. There is a deeply ingrained sense, and I don’t know where it comes from, that says they need to be treated differently. Perhaps black men think the weight and power of society is more on their side than ours. Maybe a white woman is resourceful and connected enough, either by way of a boyfriend, husband or father, to marshal forces to ‘whup’ his @ass and make his life miserable if he gets out of line with her.
But black women, apparently, can be abused with impunity. This sort of thing happened to a cousin of mine, but the ending was different, and I think there is a lesson to be learned. She was on her way to work in Manhattan. An unbalanced guy accosted her and let loose with a stream of profanities. A passerby, a white man, came to her aid. He stood sentry between my cousin and this fool, telling him to leave her alone, and the attacker quickly simmered down and went about his foolish way. After it was safe, my cousin thanked the Samaritan and kept making her way to her office. How interesting, that the abuser lost his marbles just long enough to pester someone he thought was defenseless, but when he was confronted with the force of a man, he backed down.
It’s too bad that morons like the guy on the train platform this morning and the one who rushed up on my cousin don’t read blogs. Otherwise, I’d let them know that black women in this country have been undergoing an awakening for quite some time. For years, our mothers, aunts, decent stepfathers, uncles and brothers have been telling us, training us, not to accept being treated like trash. We’ve been told to push back, speak up and stick up for ourselves. Tragically, it is because everyday heroic black men—men period—are scarce. But I’m noticing that when guys are on hand to speak up and not let a black woman be treated poorly, they are white. I’m not going to pander to a brother’s sensibilities and get into all of the soci-economic reasons for this, the subtleties on account of geography or any other circumstance, and the stories about hot-tempered white actors like Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe.
We need to confront the serious problem that there are two lost generations of black men in this country. They are represented by the leathery old fool on the platform, and the pups on the bench. My public humiliation, and the other macro ways in which black men let black women down, should not be a ritual for one, and entertainment for the other.
Black women are noticing that on an everyday level, there are not enough brothers treating them with basic decency and respect. As much as I love and regard the solid, upstanding, accomplished black men that I know, there are not enough of them to go around. There are others outside our race who value us as people, and think we deserve better than what our ‘own kind’ has to offer all too often. It’s only a matter of time before black women let go of the dream of the Ideal Black Man and think of themselves as valuable women who deserve equally good men.