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Belmont Club

The Corner of Walk and Don’t Walk

July 19th, 2013 - 6:49 pm

I remember the first time someone drove me around a low-income New York city neighborhood in the early 1980s.

“Well what do you think?”

“Think of what?”

“The slums.”

“Which slums?”

I was not being facetious. It was simply that  everything we had passed would have been considered middle or upper middle class housing in the Philippines. This old memory came to mind after reading CNN’s article on Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, the emotional hook of which is that he crosses the street to avoid making white women feel uncomfortable.

Cummings says he rarely speaks about race or what life is like as a black man, but says President Barack Obama’s heartfelt remarks Friday afternoon made him more comfortable to do so.

“I think it’s important that he speak out and he brings a very unique perspective, because is the president and he has been extremely fortunate compared to most African-Americans, and yet still he can speak to the prejudices that most of us still face,” Cummings told CNN in a telephone interview.

Cummings and Obama are no doubt sincere. One can never understand the peculiar inner life and experience of a black person without being one himself. But the statement is incomplete, simply because neither Obama nor Cummings can — by the same token — know what it is like to walk in another person’s shoes any more than they can walk in theirs. Everyone crosses the street in his own way without being aware that others do too.

People who come to America from the Third World are completely astonished by such things as lights that work, faucets with water and roads that are paved, having sometimes never actually seen these things before. They often can’t tell the difference between one “white” person and another, Greek, Lebanese, Anglo and Jew being all the same to them. In many cases they don’t even speak English. The streets they criss-cross in their minds are many and labyrinthine.

Some years ago a friend of mine met a foreign doctoral student bound for Cornell at the airport, and noticed he seemed unusually weak. Inquiring into it he found the man had not eaten since he boarded the airplane 32 hours before. “Didn’t they feed you on the plane,” my friend asked? The doctoral student replied in amazement, “don’t they charge extra if you eat the meals they serve?”

The classic story of the newly arrived Filipino is about receiving a call from someone who is supposed to meet him.

“Where are you?”

“I don’t know. But I am on a corner.”

“Good. Good. What the sign on the corner say?”

“‘Walk’ and ‘Don’t Walk’”.

But it isn’t just the rubes. I had a Jewish classmate at Harvard who told me a story about his dad, who was a doctor in Milwaukee but who had survived the Holocaust in Europe. One day his father took him aside and whispered, “son, let me show you where it is”.  What could it be, he thought to himself. Intrigued he followed his father to a closet in which were a packed suitcase, some stout shoes, an overcoat and a hat.

“If they come for you, take this and run.”

He wondered for a moment whether his father, a respected doctor, had lost his senses. Later he realized that somewhere deep down inside his dad there was a scar that would never heal. In some corner of his mind there persisted a trauma from his youth under the Third Reich, such that he was prepared to make a run for it, even deep in postwar America. In the Milwaukee doctor’s mind the problem was less how to cross the street to avoid white women then how to sneak across border wire and keep one step ahead of the whistles and the dogs.

We cross many streets in our minds sometimes without knowing that others are doing so themselves.

A stranger literally crossed the street to me one night as I left the home of Benigno Aquino in Newton in 1983. He was wizened old Eastern European, lost and asking for directions. On hearing my voice he took me for an American and clasped my hands, blubbering for no apparent reason, “God bless America, God bless America.” What walls had he scaled, I wondered, to get to Newton. What must this place seem like to him?

My own life was full of its own crossings, usually of a comic and ridiculous nature. I suffered early from what might be called a multiple cultural disorder, a kind of mixed up composite of classes, incompatible cultures and a mongrel racial background. One day in the mid-1990s I was asked to arrange an inspection trip for a black American US government official to some project in Central Luzon.

“We’ll have to walk,” I said. “But there might be a problem. There are occasionally some New People’s Army guerilla units in the area and if they find an American they may take him hostage.”

“So what do we do?”

“Well, let’s agree on this cover story. He’ll explain that he’s a negrito come back from America to visit his relatives.” The negritos were small, negroid aboriginal people about 4 feet tall.

Of course the New People’s Army guerrillas would have realized that the six foot, 280 pound black man was no way a negrito, but the suggestion was so ridiculous I figured they’d probably wave us through on the strength of the joke. Plus, they would in their own minds understand that the “negrito” identity trumped official nationality. You can’t hold a negrito hostage. That was too funny. As long as there was a chance they thought it was true he was safe. But afterward I wondered how I had computed that particular solution to start with. It was a calculation made from a wheel inside a wheel. In my mind I had crossed the cultural street multiple times, assessed things from various points of view and wound up the original place, which is nowhere in particular.

I guess it was then I realized that each person has his own unique identity. You may be Jewish, or African American, or African, or Chinese. But ultimately none of those stereotypes can adequately describe you. You are doomed to be yourself. And unless you realize this you will have missed the best part of life.

One of the great things about a multiple cultural disorder is you understand and sympathize with the irrationalities of different cultures. You understand why an upper class Filipino will stand frozen with shame at having to apply for a job. You can grasp the desperation of a white blue collar worker in Boston trying to convince you to rent a room in his apartment. “Please mister I need the money.” You can understand the unstated irritation of a Chinese person having to listen to a joke about So Dak and Kenneth Sy. You understand the desperate and wounded dignity of the illiterate poor. The thin and brittle pride of declining middle class. The shameful ignorance of someone Fresh Off the Boat and fears of someone who has never eaten a balut duck egg before in his life.

None of these denigrate or lessen the burdens of Cummings or Obama, just an observation that they are not unique. Nor are they alone. Above all I remembered the advice of an old, wizened thug as I made myself ready to mix with gang of acknowledged murderers back in my Tondo days. “Remember,” he said, “that they are only people like yourself. They are as afraid of you as you are of them. They have as many doubts as you. Remember that, boy, and you’ll do just fine.”

And then I crossed the street and did just fine.


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