Farewell To The Weirdest Year
I had the strangest encounter on the sidewalk today.
I was walking Max to the liquor store for some wine, by which I mean I had to go to the liquor store and Max was along for the journey, not that my dog had to pick up some Pinot Noir and asked me to join him and hold his leash. It starts off uneventfully enough: Max pees; Max sees another dog 150 yards up the sidewalk and goes into Sentry Mode like he caught the dog trying to break into our apartment; Max poops; I play a little FreeCell on my phone.
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I put my phone away and look up as we pass this oldish black lady. The events that transpired next probably only took three or four seconds to unfold, but as I replay the event in my mind, each fraction of a moment feels like it was five minutes long. The human brain, man: what a marvel.
The old black lady is staring right at me, which is weird but whatever, some people just stare sometimes. It tends to happen most often when I’m walking Max: he’s big and I typically seem like I’m not paying attention when I’m walking him, which is probably not the most reassuring combination for someone who’s uncomfortable with dogs. I assume she’s staring at me because of Max, so I sort of pull my focus from her face and size her up in toto, which sounds more aggressive than it really is. The staring usually means they’re nervous, and it’s just a matter of identifying what it is so I can perform some empty gesture to signal that A) I’m aware of and sympathetic to their discomfort, and B) they have nothing to worry about.
I give her the old optical pat-down; as I do, I see that her middle finger is extended. It was so jarring that it didn’t really register at first; instead, my brain took the scenic route:
1. Ah, that must be it. Something’s wrong with her finger.
2. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was giving me the finger!
3. Good thing I know better!
4. [CTRL] + [ALT] + [DEL]
5. …Wait, is this lady giving me the finger?
6. I think this lady is giving me the finger.
Just as it began to dawn on me, she spoke. “Get the message?”
7. HEY THIS LADY IS GIVING ME THE FUCKING FINGER
I’m more prone to arguing with random people on the street than is probably wise. For example, one time Max sniffed a guy’s suitcase as we walked by and the guy got bizarrely mad about it. Most people would simply apologize and move on, but I marshalled a fervid defense of my dog, the main thrust of which was dogs should be allowed to do dog things, e.g., sniffing; this prompted an equally passionate counterargument from the guy (no they shouldn’t), to which I offered a rebuttal (the “yap-yap-yap” hand motion over my shoulder) that got the guy so riled up he followed us almost all the way home. Point being, when some old bag flips me the bird for no apparent reason, you better believe I’m not letting that shit slide. I’m sort of like Michael Rapaport in that regard.
Our conversation went something like this:
Me: Pardon me?
Old Black Lady: Do you get the message?
Me: What are you talking about?
OBL: What are you talking about?
Me: Why are you flipping me off?
OBL: You know why.
Me: No, I don’t, what the hell is your problem?
OBL: What’s your problem?
Me [exasperated]: Take your old ass to bed, lady. Happy New Year.
OBL: Mm-hmm, you too.
At that point, I walked away. I’d like to say I did so because the optics of a 36-year-old man holding a large dog and yelling at a small elderly black woman in a puffy coat are, ahh…probably not great, but that’s not the truth. I would have welcomed someone butting in so I could tell them what she did (and, in the process, get confirmation that this was all actually happening). I walked away because the confrontation wasn’t going anywhere, but I wasn’t happy that it wasn’t going anywhere or relieved to be out of that situation; frankly, I was pissed that I had to walk away.
I’m not a psychiatrist, so I can’t say for sure that this woman was completely sane; certainly one could argue that anyone who goes around giving strangers the old one-gun salute is probably a card or two short of a full deck. But i’ve had plenty of run-ins with mentally ill people before, and based on past experience, this woman didn’t appear to be mentally ill: she seemed to be fully aware of what she was doing and why she was doing it. Which gives me a pretty good idea as to what prompted the bird-flipping.
This old broad saw me walking my dog on the corner of Putnam Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard in Bed-Stuy. I’ve never seen her before, which probably means she’s never seen me before, which also probably means that her problem wasn’t something I’d done, but with me. Specifically, the sight of me.
I’ve lived in Bed-Stuy for about 10 years. With the exception of the house where I grew up, I’ve spent more time in this apartment than I have anywhere else in my life. My grandmother grew up in Bed-Stuy, a fifteen-minute walk from where I live now. I know the people on my block and on the routes where I usually walk Max. I know the guys at the barbershop well enough that when I was walking by one night a few weeks ago, they asked me to weigh in on their debate about whether Jalen Brunson is a better point guard than Trae Young.1
But the people who don’t know me don’t know any of that. They see me and assume, based on the way I look, that I’m just another one of the many doofy white people who have invaded Bed-Stuy in recent years, skewing rent prices ever upward while they attempt to remake the neighborhood in their image. And when they inevitably leave (because even with rent prices in Bed-Stuy where they are, these people also make enough money to save for a house), they get to tell their neighbors in whatever sleepy exurb they invariably wind up in that they lived in the real New York City, home of Biggie Smalls. And with every new arrival, the people who have been here all along get squeezed just a little bit more.
That old woman saw me and concluded that I’m not from here or even of here, and therefore I should not be here. Her middle finger was her making her feelings explicitly clear: I represent everything that’s wrong with Bed-Stuy, and I am not welcome in Bed-Stuy. What pissed me off so much about our little tête-à-tête isn’t that she gave me the finger, it’s that she didn’t have the balls to just come right out and say why she did it. If she did, I would have been able to experience one of life’s rarest treats: being able to absolutely unload on someone in an argument, knowing they can’t say a damn thing about it because they’re 100% in the wrong.
I had a chance to reach Arguer’s Nirvana, and that old bag of bones stole it away from me. That’s the biggest middle finger of all.
Happy New Year.
He isn’t, for the record. Brunson’s a better point guard for the Knicks than Young would be, but if you were starting a team you’d be crazy to take Brunson over Young.