empowered & misunderstood

After living in Philly for 10 years, I moved to the Jersey side - aka "the other side" aka "the dark side" according to my Philly people. For the last 4 years, I've been completely submerged in white suburbia. It's a state of mind that I deal with at work and in my neighborhood. Now, I grew up in the suburbs of Maryland, but you deal with it differently as an adult.

It can be harmless - like when co-workers express curiosity and inquire beyond their "world". Beyond that, I don't encounter blatant in your face racism that often. But its fairly easy to read racial profiling and stereotypical assumptions. When I first moved to this area, I was followed once by a cop car for 10-15 miles from his checkpoint until I reached my neighborhood. You'll notice some store clerks giving you the silent treatment or being curt after being chatty with regulars. Or they might eye you as you browse the store. I'm not saying I live in Klan-sville, U.S.A. There's plenty of nice people here, but there are occasions when you become acutely aware of your minority status. None of this is new. You learn at an early age that ignorance and fear go hand in hand in race issues. And it can be humorous when you can flip it.

Recently, I was rushing through a slew of errands - speedwalking through a parking lot with shopping bags flailing like unnecessary appendages. I jump in my car and lower the windows all the way down to release the heat. The engine fires up and the music starts right where it left off - at full blast. I think it was on "Yolanda's House" by Ghostface.

Apparently when I yanked my car door open to get in, I unintentionally hit the car next to me. Not hard enough to make any damage but enough to make a decent sound. Apparently that car's owner was on the other side of the car loading bags with his wife/girlfriend. I hear him exclaim "What the Fuck?!" right before "Yolanda's House" starts exploding at high decibels. My peripheral vision catches him - a white man in his 40's sporting dockers and a tucked in short-sleeve button down. He storms from his side and goes around the back of the car towards the narrow space between us. Undoubtedly he wanted to see if there was any dent and confront the perpetrator.

I prepare myself to apologize and point out that there is no damage. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him halt his approach and retreat cowardly back behind the opposite side of his car. I then realized that he got intimidated by me and Yolanda. I don't think I look particularly thuggish but considering the setting, all things are relative. I shrug to myself and begin pulling out of my space. I thought about apologizing while driving away, but he was crouching behind his door - avoiding eye contact and pretending to mess with his bags. I looked at him for a few seconds to see if he would look my way. But no luck. He was scared. His stereotypical assumptions caused him to cower from his initial urge to confront me. So, I just zoomed off with a chuckle. There is a feeling of power when you can control somebody's actions but it's not completely satisfying when you're being misunderstood. If I was an asshole, I would jump on his fear and be up in his face. But I'm the total nice guy type that would have gladly assessed the whole situation with him from the start. Oh well, his loss. I simply moved on with a funny story.

That situation reminded me of my current neighbor at my condo. He's a big white guy. 6ft tall, 250+ lbs (albeit mostly blubber) – and scared of me. I'm probably 5 inches shorter and a 100lbs lighter than him. It all started when we first moved in next door. He's the type of guy that blasts his music and TV at all hours of the night. I patiently gave him a few days. But after a week, we realized it was going to be nightly thing. He wasn't the partying neighbor type but he just sat there alone being loud all by himself every night.

So one loud early morning - around 2 AM - I sleepily stand outside his door in a wifebeater with my eardrums pulsating with his cacophony. I pound on his door. I'm way too sleep-deprived to be cordial. So when he finally opens his door - I give him a curt greeting and immediately lodge my complaint. I tell him that his music is going through our walls and point out what time it is. I try to be somewhat diplomatic and tell him that I don't customarily like to tell people what to do with their business, but I'd appreciate some peace and quiet after 11pm. He doesn't say much, but he sheepishly mumbles "Its nice to meet you" and closes the door.

For the next few weeks, he occasionally plays his music loud but cuts it off around 11pm. Then for a couple nights, he reverts to his old ways and blasts his music past midnight. I look at my watch and give him a few minutes. My wife becomes irritable and suggests that we call the police and complain about the noise. Again, I look at my watch. Finally, I go to his door and pound on it. No response. I pound it with more determination. Nothing. I ring his doorbell continuously and pound on his door furiously. No response. I glare at his window to see if I can catch him peeking out. I normally don't confront people in this manner but when frustrating situations escalate, the philly part of me comes out. Again, I was too sleep deprived and angry to consider that I might be scaring him. Finally I give up. I write a stern note with a red sharpie marker and tape it to his door. I return to my house and slammed the door with all my might. 5 seconds later he turns off his music. I curse him until I fall asleep.

I cross paths with my neighbor a couple days later. He says that his girlfriend was alone in the house that night and was scared. I told him I was sorry about that (even though I knew he was lying - I've never seen a girl around him - and I knew he was just sitting in there scared). More importantly, I reminded him of our previous discussion about the noise level late at night.

Since that day, the guy avoids me at all costs. If we arrive at our condos at the same time, he sits in his car and waits for me to go in my place before getting out of his car. I've tested his tactics a few times. One time, I took my time exiting my car, wandered around the lawn to the mailbox and read some of my mail outside. This dude would not leave his car and go to his house! There's some empowerment in intimidating a guy but again its not completely satisfying when you're being misunderstood. I am not going to shoot you - I just had to make my point! I guess we're never going to be chatty or neighborly, but at least he's quiet now.


kiita said...

it's an ugly situation to be so feared, even when it functions as a buffer against overt racism. you never know what people are really thinking because they won't admit it to your face. it's like the panopticon. i don't like the east coast for the reasons you describe -- it'll be the last bastion of whiteness when the nation becomes majority-minority.

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