Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Invisible Man, Revisited (In Which Our Hero Becomes An Obstacle Unseen)

It's Tuesday night.  Melissa and I are scheduled to have dinner with a good friend; but, he has to cancel at the last minute.  We are disappointed, but then, we can still enjoy a sit-down dinner together.  Picking a place proves to be a more difficult endeavor than expected, as our first choice has a ridiculous wait, and our second choice closes in ten minutes.  Finally, I suggest Honor Bar, located in Emeryville.  The place comes to mind because it's where I last went to dinner with Jeff, who had to cancel on us on this particular evening.

We pass the "Please Seat Yourself" sign that stands just before the five-foot wide entryway, and begin to look for a table.  It's a little crowded; but the table right by the door appears to have just been left.  We're right next to the ATM, on the left side of the five-foot entrance; but, it's the only table left, and it's serviceable.  A waiter clears it for us, and says that he'll be back to wipe it down.

Minutes pass.  No waiter appears to take our order.  We wait a little longer.  The table eventually gets wiped down; but still, no one has come yet to ask us what we want.  All around, everyone else seems either to be ordering, or eating.  Is this just a simple oversight, or is something more sinister going on?  I certainly hope I'm not being ignored.  Maybe they think that I'm not going to be a very good tipper?  Am I going to have to assert myself?  How will that be received?  Oh… my anxiety's being triggered.  Breathe, John, breathe; you're probably just hungry. 

These thoughts occur, and are dismissed, in the span of a few breaths.  By now, I have become accustomed to talking myself down in this fashion.  The reality of being "other" in America is, you never know when micro-aggression will strike.  Like the Shaolin masters populating classic Kung Fu movies, one must be prepared for social assault at the drop of a hat.  The downside, of course, is the risk of tilting at windmills.  Like, for example, when you go to a restaurant like Honor Kitchen, which doesn't really have conventional waiters and sections; you just order at the bar, or you can flag down a waiter.  This, our waiter explains to us when he comes over a few moments later.  He takes our order with aplomb, providing all the useful information one wants a waiter to provide along the way.  All is well, after all.  We are content.

We sip our drinks, and wait for our food.  A curly-haired young man enters.  He is tall, and has a Ben Savage look about him.  He stands on the opposite side of the five-foot entryway, next to the host's stand, looking around.  Melissa and I continue our conversation, talking of this, of that, and of my personal favorite, the Other.  After some time, I look back towards the door.  The young man is still standing there.  Is he waiting to be seated?  Might he have missed the "Please Seat Yourself" sign?  Perhaps he, like I a few minutes ago, is not fully aware of how this place works.  I decide to take action.

I get to my feet and cross over to the door, where he stands, waiting.  "You just grab a seat where ever," I begin to explain.  "You can order at the bar, or from the waiters." 

"Thanks," he says, almost apologetically.  "I know; no, I'm actually looking for a place for two people two sit."  He is waiting for a friend, it seems.  As we begin to idly chat, I can feel that someone has begun to approach from the right.  My back is turned mostly away from them; I am facing Ben Savage, who, in turn, is standing at the host's stand, facing into the restaurant.  Soon, the new person draws near enough that I can see her out of the corner of my eye.

"Excuse me."  Now she is standing directly to my left.  I turn to face her.  I can see now that this is an elderly woman; grey hair, red blouse, white sweater, glasses.  She looks at me expectantly.  Perhaps she, too, has a question about the restaurant?

"Well?" she says.  "Can I leave?"  Her tone is not kind, or polite.  She places the emphasis on "leave,"  suggesting that, because of something that I am doing, she is currently not able to leave.  I am completely nonplused.  While I and Ben Savage were having a conversation, this woman has walked directly up to me,  in such a fashion as one might if one were about to ask a question.  Yet she now seems to be demanding that I get out of her way?  Why didn't she simply walk around?  Did I mention that this entryway is five feet wide?

I do not move.  I turn on the spot, so that I can simultaneously look at the woman and at the remaining three feet of space, which neither I nor Ben Savage am occupying, through which she may make her means of egress.  "Excuse me, ma'am," I say; "but it seems that there is plenty of room for you to walk around me."  By the time I get to "me," I am already watching her walk away; after all, true to my word, she had about three feet of space to work with.  "Have a nice night, ma'am,"  I tell her, knowing that she is not thinking anything nearly so nice about me.

Ben Savage and I look at each other for a moment.  I can't remember who speaks first.  I know that all I can manage is "Was that?"  And then I just stop.  Because I don't know what I'm going to say next.  Ben Savage, luckily, intuits my meaning.  "Oh, no," Ben Savage says, "that wasn't you.  I don't know what her problem was."  Ben Savage goes on to explain that he's actually the type of person that, in that type of scenario, would give a little nudge with his elbow as he passes by, to let someone know that they're being a little inconsiderate.  "But no," Ben Savage finishes, "you didn't do anything wrong."  I already suspect this, of course; but there is something gratifying about hearing it come out of Ben Savage's mouth; a complete stranger whom I have never met.  I cannot recall being more grateful for the presence of a stranger.  It's a small thing, and yet everything, when someone honors your experience.

I sit back down with my wife, now deep in thought.  Truly, here was a person who seemed to find objectionable my very occupation of space!  This person felt empowered to walk directly up to me, in order to demand to occupy (momentarily!) the space that I was occupying.  Indeed, not only did she make this demand; at the time, there was no need for it!  The fact that she ended up walking around me, without my having to move from the spot, proved that.  I found myself staring at the doorway, over and over, asking myself whether it were possible that there might be some illusion at work, and that the doorway was only two feet wide.  At one point, my wife caught me staring at the entryway, instead of listening to whatever she was trying to tell me.  I even think I measured at one point.

I simply could not understand it.  I found it baffling.  What was going on in this woman's head, causing her to see an obstacle that wasn't there?  What was it, truly, that she was seeing?  And suddenly, I remembered this passage from Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's seminal work on the 20th-century experience of the then-called Negro:

One night I accidentally bumped into a man, and perhaps because of
the near darkness he saw me and called me an insulting name. I sprang at
him, seized his coat lapels and demanded that he apologize. He was a tall
blond man, and as my face came close to his he looked insolently out of his
blue eyes and cursed me, his breath hot in my face as he struggled. I pulled
his chin down sharp upon the crown of my head, butting him as I had seen
the West Indians do, and I felt his flesh tear and the blood gush out, and I
yelled, "Apologize! Apologize!" But he continued to curse and struggle, and I
butted him again and again until he went down heavily, on his knees,
profusely bleeding. I kicked him repeatedly, in a frenzy because he still
uttered insults though his lips were frothy with blood. Oh yes, I kicked him!
And in my outrage I got out my knife and prepared to slit his throat, right
there beneath the lamplight in the deserted street, holding him by the collar
with one hand, and opening the knife with my teeth -- when it occurred to
me that the man had not seen me, actually; that he, as far as he knew, was
in the midst of a walking nightmare! And I stopped the blade, slicing the air
as I pushed him away, letting him fall back to the street. I stared at him
hard as the lights of a car stabbed through the darkness. He lay there,
moaning on the asphalt; a man almost killed by a phantom. It unnerved me.
I was both disgusted and ashamed. I was like a drunken man myself,
wavering about on weakened legs. Then I was amused. Something in this
man's thick head had sprung out and beaten him within an inch of his life. I
began to laugh at this crazy discovery. Would he have awakened at the point
of death? Would Death himself have freed him for wakeful living? But I
didn't linger. I ran away into the dark, laughing so hard I feared I might
rupture myself. The next day I saw his picture in the Daily News, beneath a
caption stating that he had been "mugged." Poor fool, poor blind fool, I
thought with sincere compassion, mugged by an invisible man!

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