Sunday, April 10, 2011

Springtime in NYC

One of the reasons I love cold weather is that it keeps a lot of people indoors, leaving me with most of the outside to myself. Once it gets warmer, they all start coming out and staying out. Case in point: the elderly white man who sits on a park bench and always tells me how much he loves black people.

The third or fourth time I passed him, he called me over to give me his 5-page typewritten autobiography and a local obituary about his late wife. I read everything that night, while on hold with customer service, and found his background intriguing in that he and I graduated from the same law school, his brother was a big shot in the industry in which I now work, and both he and his wife have worked on behalf of the same types of public interest causes that I have. The next time I saw him, I made the mistake of thanking him for his materials and revealing that we have lots in common. That’s how we got to where we are today.

I’m hardly ever able to pass him without being lured into an epic monologue about how impressively color blind and well raised he is - the kind of monologues that are impossible to politely cut off. After about 20 minutes, I usually interrupt to tell him that I have to go to the bathroom or that I’m about to pass out from dehydration, starvation, or heat exhaustion.

When I’m walking toward him and see him on the bench from afar, I’ve learned how to speed walk by as if I’m tragically late for something, as I turn around to wave hello. But I sometimes only first notice him when he’s beamingly strolling straight toward me - when he’s mobile, he’s in more of a position to manipulate the terms of the interaction.

He ambushed me on foot like this one night last week, this time to ask for my advice. He “feels [he] should be recognized for all the things [he] did during the civil rights movement” - getting King out of jail, introducing Thurgood Marshall at “the Convention,” going to high school with the founder of Essence magazine, and unsuccessfully trying to get a soccer coach to stop favoring white players. He wants someone to “cover” and then publish a glowing tribute to him.

I know and know of many progressive figures who have done great things – and none have ever actively lobbied for any official celebration of those courageously excellent acts. If anything, they tend to err on the side of deflecting attention away from themselves. Good people usually do good just for the sake of doing the right thing, and people who take their work seriously are very different from people who take themselves seriously.

The next time I’m cornered, I’ll tell him to write a memoir or take his tales to StoryCorps. This will invite another 15-minute explanation about why he won’t go that route. If his contributions really were as pivotal as he suggests, by now you’d think at least one person would have given him props. But no one has. In fact, based on some of what’s slipped out during his self-shout outs, it sounds like he annoyed the civil rights activists the same way he’s been annoying me in the park this past year.

Seven more months until winter-coat season.

1 comment:

  1. I think almost everyone has picked up a "burr" from time to time--or even a lot of times--in a lifetime. This man, unfortunately, is the classic burr. He sticks to you and there is no shaking him off. It's hard to know what to do about him because you don't want to be cruel. I'm hoping, for your sake, that the tactic of walking quickly with a cellphone attached to your ear will give him the point over time. But how long will it take? Some people never get the point. For a few years I lived across the hall from a very lonely woman with whom I had nothing in common. She felt free to knock on my door anytime, morning, noon, or night "to talk." Often she came bearing food, sweets, or presents that I really did not want and usually wound up thrusting back at her. I really thought I would lose my mind. Sometimes I hid quietly in the apartment, knowing what that knock on the door was going to be--but even then, somehow she knew I was there. Perhaps she saw me walk in. Then, after a somewhat brief illness, she died--and of course, I felt "guilty" because of the relief I was experiencing at no longer being a prisoner in my own apartment. The woman was a decent sort, just nuts. I'm not suggesting I think this will happen with the man in the park (dying, that is), but I sure hope for your sake that one day he is wise enough to figure out that you want your space. Believe me, I empathized with every word you wrote.