SF Lit Crawl '18

SF Lit Crawl '18

Me and my new friend Walter Rosenthal

Hello, friends

Am I Dreaming?

November 12, 2016

This is the creepiest period I've endured in my 57 years as an American, creepier by far than 9-11, which was exacerbating, and scary, and also inspiring and strengthening, seeing the great national spirit arise out of the ashes. I speak of the unity, not the hate experienced by too many Muslims and Indians wearing turbans, etc. I concentrate on the positive and look away from the negative deliberately, for now. It made one proud to fly the flag, yes, the flag, in so far as the flag represented a wholesome national unity that showed the world we weren't bowing or caving but facing the killers bravely and unbroken. We were Americans at our best, saying, "Fuck this! We aren't going down!" We argued here, fulminated about causes and responsibility, and some of it got nasty and ugly, but overall, the prevailing spirit of survival, the determination to have our space to argue and fight and not gloss over our own culpability, as some strongly believed honesty demanded, reigned. Our will to be free without handwringing guilt and apology in liberal quarters, and our will to be free more maturely than ever in conservative quarters, engendered a transcendent spirit that marked a civility among Americans rarely seen. We liked each other as never before, with our deep privileges in mind. We appreciated each other as fellow citizens for our daily, evident ability to uphold the best of our traditions while allowing dissent among the sharpest critics of the U.S.A., who are always necessary. We celebrated all we are in myriad gestures of reciprocal kindness and respect that proved the backward bastards who bombed us (planed us?) wrong. The motherfuckers fucked with the wrong people. I will board a plane to Boston or San Francisco or New York without fearing hateful religionists determined to extinguish me. I will fight for the right to go to the conference critiquing American foreign policy or discussing gay rights or analyzing my bizarre obsession with spotted hamsters in little frilly garters with every ounce of ingenuity in my being. This largely meant going on with our lives, as one. You could feel it. You could live it. You could draw from it and spread it and help the nation survive by it. You could count on a future where we might come up with some solutions to our intractable dilemma of seeking power to retain the comfort that allows the luxury of mind and being to be helpful at home and abroad, and relinquishing the role of greedy money manager the world over to a position more honestly in line with our professed ideals. You could see the flag without shuddering, I think, if you were a liberal used to an ingrained cynicism at the sight of the fluttering stars and stripes, and you could see the flag with the weight of gravity forced upon it by 9/11, with the hint of tragedy that this country has always lacked--that sense that the darkness out there in the world is also ours, ours to suffer and claim some responsibility for--could see it with a touch of pathos if you were a conservative used to schmaltzy patriotism. Deep down inside, our enlightened citizenry of whatever political persuasion sensed that we were not totally innocent (nobody ever is), but we took that dark knowledge and turned it into a bright trial, our enduring spirit a beacon, yes, a fucking beacon to the world. We were for a few days or weeks worthy of leading the world. Finally, we were more than just talkers of how great we were. We acted it, our inherent nobility. I think every people have it in them, but we found ours in the crashing planes.

And now we have lost it. It has become something else, something horrible. Those Indian-Americans who got their turbans knocked off stupidly, and those Muslims who lived in fear for the real violence around them were our canaries in the mine shafts of dark America, our hateful side. I apologize to them because I bear a bit of xenophobia myself, yes, I do. I do not pretend to always welcome the sight of Muslim dress on our streets or Hindu temples in our suburbs or even, goddamn it, that loathsome Mexican banda music blaring from the car next to me at the red light. America has changed greatly in my lifetime, and I am not immune to ruing it. My America is gone. I am terribly, terribly human (I think) in my occasional thin-skinned reaction to the literal transformation of my homeland. I can be pissy inside. I can stand superior and take comfort in my own native place in real, authentic America. I can feel very safe being a non-immigrant American of Mexican descent whose Mexican heritage often enough disappears in the eyes of whites, blacks, Latinos, etc., because, I guess, I don't wear a sombrero. I'm dark enough, but apparently more than skin color denotes Latino, let alone Mexican. I glide through life largely respected. "Thank you, sir," comes at me with embarrassing frequency, from people of all ages, all races, all backgrounds, and with pronounced solicitude. I don't particularly relish it because I never wanted status in society, only to fit into the flow of life at the most basic level because I have my personal issues of freakishness and difference separate from race. Still, it is good to belong and to feel a part of your surroundings. It is wonderful to feel accepted and safe.

But now I'm scared. Now I'm wearing a turban on my head because I am Mexican-American, brown-skinned, and skinny, relatively, not big or muscled--yes, size matters--and not dangerous enough in my mien and stance to ward off bullies, to keep potentially violent men at bay, to defuse critically angry blockheads with a glance, with an L.A. street fighter's palpable locura, for instance, which I've witnessed and don't possess. (Usually they don't give an opponent a chance to get started; one sour look, and it's on, terribly.) I can't keep the domestic white terrorists off me if they want me, I say bluntly, embracing straight speech and eschewing political correctness, as the right asks. The threat of violence for Indians like me (ha!) is real, it is happening in our schools and on our streets, and it is in the air. I do not want to downplay the legitimate fears of my white brothers and sisters who feel about as freaked out as me, but I think it blows just slightly harder for wetbacks like myself. Oh, here it comes! Self-doubt as to my place here that I thought I got over years ago. It's back. The day after the election, sitting in the courtyard at school between classes (I teach at the local state u in case you don't know me), a colleague of mine goes by rolling her backpack thingie on the way to class, a good pal, a sweet woman, a righteous exponent of mad graphic novels and the spirit of creative resistance we swear by, and sees me looking glum, though I'm trying not to. And I catch her angst that's like a bad flu on campus, and we try not to talk about it. She really doesn't want to. But it comes out. How is it not going to?

After a plaintive recognition of it, she groans: "It's over. Let's leave it behind." And I pop out with, "No, it's just starting." And her shoulders slump, though I didn't mean to bum her. But as she's squeaking away on the paved path, hauling her backpack thingie behind her, essentially unfazed by my comment, it strikes me that the dormant Mexican in me has spoken out. The hyphenated Mexican-American has announced himself. "I'm back, and I don't got my papers, even though I don't need any fucking papers." You can hide if you wish, pretend it's all a dream, I think, you're white and blonde besides (no knock there, just a fact), but I can't. This is not a dream but a horrible awakening for me, maybe. The nightmare has just begun and my eyes are open.

I hate minority aggrandizement of pain and victimhood because I think we are all limping casualties of experience and our own inborn contradictions. I'm especially tired of any attempts to make well-meaning whites feel guilty for every perceived racial slight, however innocuous or unintended or ignorant. How are we going to learn if we don't abide our missteps and grant our allies forbearance and love, mostly love? I know I need a hell of a lot of growing up to do still. I also appreciate the great work Claudia Rankine has done in legitimizing the story of my American life, which has been a series of micro-aggressions so constant and severe at an influential age that I'm forever fucked. But we all are, one way or another, forever fucked. What I want to say plainly is that I have a lot of white friends, and I have black friends, and I even count a few of those Mexican deviants (at least their twisted offspring) and other Others (Jews! How can I leave out my Jewish friends!) and queerly preferenced people among my exclusive, beautiful, multi-colored coterie of damaged accomplices. And I don't ever want to hear "white people" or "black people" or "Latinos" this and that if it can at all be helped. I'd rather take help from wherever it comes than spend energy breaking down shortcomings in its quality. Nope, not something I want to do. I know we're all struggling. And it's an honor to be in the struggle with you, everybody of goodwill and strong heart in my circle, which includes whoever reads this.

When I said, "No, it's just starting," to my white friend, I realized I'm pretty shaken up by Trump's election, more than I thought, which was a lot, believe me, a lot, to parody the president-elect himself. Tonight my wife mentioned that apparently Trump wants to continue with rallies of his supporters after he is inaugurated, great festivals to keep the victorious spirit alive, and my blood ran cold, to use the only language available to me. Cold. Already the Klan is planning to march in North Carolina in December in celebration of Trump's election. We know Trump needs to be adulated. What happens when the need to be worshipped is best met by countenancing the horrid demands of the enrapt audience who usually wear hoods, but are emboldened not to wear any coverings now, and whose leaders are so sly as to pretend innocence in their advice to him, saying, "We're only suggesting what he wants to carry out"? What future unfolds?

"Put 'em behind barbed wire! Those Mexican so-called Americans we don't know enough about yet. Build those fences and compounds near the wall, just for security purposes until we got it all figured out, Mr. President. We'll separate the bad ones from the good ones for you when it comes time, when we got the wall up and we can look carefully into this question of who is really a citizen, not by birth, but by racial prerogative. Heil Trump! Just kidding there, Mr. President. We got it all under control. It's a beautiful thing what we got going here in the Arizona desert."

I am a little paranoid tonight hearing this news of post-election rallies. Remember they all start off as clowns, don't they? Hitler, anyway. Nobody can take them seriously at first. It's absurd to think such a thing can happen here. That's for sure, not in America. He won't even be elected president! Er, I mean, he's kind of elected but he's all right after all. He must be. He's our leader! But nothing bad will happen with him in charge, nothing bad. Believe me. Relax and go on with your life, hombre. We good Americans got your back.

Well, I hope that is true and this is just an anxious period in our history. But, man, does this anxiety exceed any anxiety known to me before in political America, and anxiety can portend the hidden signs around us, the worst of them. I hope that I am all wrong and the nation reassembles itself in operable fashion after the scare has passed. I hope for civility and kindness and understanding among us all.

And a great national vitality that brings out the best in us.

Coda: Rereading my piece before attempting to post it or share it any way I can, I must say that I am not just out to save my own ass here. At the risk of offending many Latinos, immigration advocates of all kinds, long-standing friends and readers who barely know me, I state unequivocally that I am against illegal immigration and regret its blurring with legal immigration. I cannot take part in this burgeoning movement to save our country without acknowledging that. I also can put this strictly political consideration aside in the greater battle for human dignity. I can and do now ditch this position publicly in the holy stand we're called to make against brutality and humiliation in any form, and embrace the secular fight for all that is right. In that spirit alone, I will stand by my undocumented brothers and sisters to the end. I will stand with all the terrorized in complete solidarity.

Comments

  1. November 13, 2016 10:21 AM EST
    Love you, Steve. And we're terrified too.
    - Sara
  2. November 13, 2016 11:12 AM EST
    I wish I had something cogent and witty to say in response to the election, but even after a week and a lot of alcohol all I can muster is either a gag reflex or an inarticulate splutter of outrage. A friend of twenty-odd years, an elderly woman who has been a Republican all her life and who voted for Trump, tells me his victory is an indication that a lot of people are unhappy with the way things are going in this country. I love her, but I wanted to scream at her. I wanted to demand--how dare you say that Trump is better than what we have now? What is WRONG with you? She's not a racist or a homophobe or a member of any other hateful group, but she's glad he won and I swear to God I DONT UNDERSTAND.
    - Charla
  3. November 14, 2016 12:23 PM EST
    I was trying to think up a worthy response to such an important subject and such a meaningful reckoning you've written, but I have been in a fog of panic, paranoia, despair and then total shutdown since Tuesday. My initial reaction was to flee the US as fast as I could, but as I listen to the shared worry of my sisters and brothers like you, I think, I cannot abandon the ship. I have found a little comfort in the instinct to protect the less safe, less white. There aren't a lot of bright sides to this, but, like you said, solidarity is one. I have never felt closer to so many people. Also, there have been so many white people completely oblivious to racism here. Though I wish they had awakened by some other means, at last, there is no more room for denial. This is a wake-up call for me to step up my game, to think more of who I can help, rather than who I am inclined to fear or hate. Most of all I will pray and meditate and remember no matter what, we are in this together.
    - Page
  4. November 14, 2016 12:35 PM EST
    Thank you for this. Nothing like holding my 9 year old daughter who is inconsolable because she will be a woman some day and the men in the whitehouse don't like women or treat them well
    - Monica Michelle
  5. November 15, 2016 7:01 PM EST
    Bravo, Steve, for your bravery and honesty. A still small voice is all each one of us has got, but together we create a multitude, and a loud one at that.
    - Sharon Dolin