Tag: privilege

Notes on a Conversation, Paris, June 3, 2015

Today I sat beside my friend Assan, the Turkish sociologist, doing research in France on a grant of some kind. To his left, a Kurd, who speaks Kurdish and Turkish, while Assan only speaks Turkish, and of course French. This was one more moment where I knew how much I didn’t know, like, weren’t they in conflict with each other? It didn’t seem that way. But their obvious respect for each other just seems like it’s part of the complexity. They are both about late Thirties.

To the Kurd’s left, a Brazilian woman of about thirty-five, married to a Frenchman who was not present. She is looking for a job in the pharmaceutical world, I believe. Sometimes I don’t hear things because I am distracted by other details. The sixteen-year old in me was stupefied by the woman’s beauty, her olive skin, her languor, her moodiness, her privilege. As she talked, I saw her quick understanding of the philology we’re discussing, the Indian languages of Brazil, the origins of all the languages at the table. All my silly judgements and beautiful woman games fell away, perhaps too slowly.

I keep mentioning skin color because it says something about class and privilege, sometimes. Assan and the Kurd are dark-skinned, especially the Kurd. The other beauty at the table comments openly about it. She is white, tall, blond, a professor of English in Argentina, an Argentine and diligent about her French, taking notes. Later, I saw her at an open street market, taking notes on the vegetable labels. Again, all of the participants are people I would never have met without being in these two-hour sessions. Most of this class consisted of a discussion on the origin of languages and words. It seems like everyone was a philologist—a way I had always thought of myself. But I found my attention and energy begin to sink. I thrive on conversation, back and forth, questions and answers, cultural comparisons. It didn’t happen. That’s okay. I enjoyed the leader very much. Man in his seventies, a former professor of engineering, but whose first love seems to be words and languages, and comparisons between them. He was very sweet and dedicated, infinitely patient, but he didn’t seem to want to have a conversation. He talked about the origins of Turkish, a language related to Finnish, it seems. Assan explained the breadth of the Ottoman Empire that came up to and “knocked” on the gates of Vienna, covered most of North Africa, the western part of what is now Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Israel, Syria and Iraq, skirting the Black Sea and holding the Balkans and the Southeast European countries—for something like six hundred years.

We discussed how one of the Popes separated Spanish from Portuguese conquests by drawing the division along the 40th Meridian. We talked about Paris’s “bonne société,” the good society, and I wondered if the lovely Brazilian had married into that, leaving her own for its. Our leader, at my request, listed the topics one did not bring up in Good Society: sex, politics, religion, any sort of conflict, but food, cars, vacations, operas, plays, exhibitions were okay. I asked whether the very topic of the Good Society could be a topic. He didn’t seem to understand. I could answer the question myself: Of course not. But these are all stereotypes, but still fun to listen to him smile as he described them. A sweet man who found humor in everything.

Aaah, so many questions I don’t have answers for.

I was the last one out of the room. I saw our leader had left his notes behind—the ones he had made during the class, in order to show us things in writing—so I stole them.

Presumption of Innocence

You should never go back to see the person that has inspired one of your stories. If you do, you should never mention it to anyone at that place.

Five years ago, in a bustling Mexican city, a waitress served me tea, which I had ordered, and two fluffy orange-flavored muffins, which I had not. She had struck me somehow—a unique face, dark, perhaps Indian, a pronounced jaw, an air of sadness. Dignity. Like the other waitresses, she wore a black dress with white trims, a short white apron tied around her waist.

Now, five years later, I asked the cashier about her.

I added that I had written a story about her—an imprecise and disastrous choice of prepositions. About her.

The cashier knew exactly whom I was talking about. She described a person that was slim, dark-skinned, and raised her hand palm down to indicate a certain height.

I said that might be her, but that I hadn’t seen her that morning.

“She works in the afternoon,” she said.

I thanked her and sat down again with my love. Then something occurred to me. I got up and approached the cashier again.

“I don’t know her,” I said. “Perhaps it would be better if you didn’t mention me. I don’t want to cause her embarrassment.”

I left out that would come back that afternoon.

My companion and I walked to a hill a mile or so west of the city center. I wanted to see the spot where a European monarch and his two loyal Mexican generals absorbed the bullets of a Mexican anti-French firing squad. The sun was lovely, the jacarandas billowing. A Soviet-style 43-foot statue of Juárez the Avenger loomed over us. I could not feel the executed monarch’s spirit.

Afternoon came, and my companion went on an errand.

I walked back to the café.

The woman behind the cashier’s booth looked down a little too quickly when I walked in. The coffee counter was topped by clean cappuccino glasses, white cups, and drifts of paper napkins—and just above those, the heads and shoulders of three afternoon waitresses whose eyes glistened with suspicion.

One of them came close to fitting the description of the woman I was looking for, except that she wasn’t as slim and pretty as the woman in my story—and no longer as young. While I, on the other hand, had remained roughly the same age as the narrator in the story.

I ordered a cappuccino. The woman in question turned her back to me.

“Chico o grande?” asked another, younger waitress asked.

The situation was out of control, and I didn’t know how long I would be staying.

Still, I said, “Grande.”

I sat down and took out my La Jornada, Mexico’s national left wing newspaper. The Legislature, it reported, was blocking any discussion of widening ownership of the airwaves—radio and television—beyond the monopolists Emilio Azcárraga and Carlos Slim, men of privilege.

I abandoned La Jornada and took out my notebook instead—to show I was a writer, not a pervert. It was part of a current manuscript, about a National Rural Policeman in the 1890’s who discovers the Yaqui Indians are human and deserve the rights guaranteed in the Mexican Constitution of 1857—my protagonist rural, a man who admired Sherlock Holmes.

But I decided he wouldn’t have known any better than I how to extract himself from the situation I was in.

I wrote for about an hour. I never looked at her. God knows what they were thinking. Eventually, M—I think that’s what the cashier said her name was—came out from behind the coffee counter and began waiting on people.

The city was filled with wedding parties. Twice, while I was writing, groups of young women, in their twenties and thirties, dressed expensively and to the nines, in heels too high and grooming too perfect, perhaps still unmarried, came through the door, and filled the room with an air of privilege and desperation.

When I got home, I wrote a letter to M—in Spanish—and sent it to my friend, who said he would print it out and hand deliver it.

~ Estimada Señora M, I began.

Please forgive me for the considerable discomfort I believe I caused you last Saturday. I am the gringo that entered the café and asked after you.

Five years ago, I sat down in your café and could not help but observe some of the people chatting there, drinking coffee, and giving you little orders as if you were there to serve them in all ways—not just in things they would eat and drink. I did not think they were aware of the assumptions of privilege behind their behavior—which may have been obvious to a person who was waiting on them.

Someone like you—a person of dignity, kindness, and beauty—also, humor. When I paid for my tea and the two orange–flavored muffins I had not ordered, I said, “They were a awful temptation, so I ate them.”

And you had said, with a smile, and without missing a beat, something like, “Yes, but the storm has passed now and life can go on.”

Then I went home and wrote a story about a person similar to you—but not you.

It was a love story. The narrator recognizes a woman in the Zócolo in Veracruz who works in the café where he has had breakfast. She is wearing a simple, lovely dress, red hibiscus against black, and high heels. It is an evening of danzón, and the plaza is filled with spectators seated in metal chairs watching the dancers.

The woman seems to be waiting for someone, who finally arrives. They dance together with much pleasure in each other. The man is tall, attractive, his clothes are still dusty from work. Although the dance form is formal, one can nevertheless see they adore each other. Still, something seems to be separating them, perhaps an unhappy marriage on his part.

There is a sad parting, with few words. He leaves on old black bicycle.

After he has left, she feels the narrator’s eyes on her, recognizes him, gets up and comes over to him, indicating that he shall dance with her.

He says he doesn’t know how. She insists, and teaches him the basic steps. After two or three dances, she says it’s time for her to go.

“It was a temptation,” she says.

“You’re not talking about the muffins,” says the narrator.

“No,” she says.

“And not about me,” he says, with a smile.

“Tampoco,” she says. “No.”

Then she leans over and gives him a peck on the cheek and walks away in the opposite direction from that taken by the man with the black bicycle whom she obviously loves.

This story came solely out of my imagination, but also—in a way—honors you.

I wrote the story in English, but if you find a way to forgive me and want to read it, I will translate it and send it to you— by the same courier friend that is bringing you this letter now.

My behavior last Saturday was clumsy and inexcusable and put you in an impossible situation.

I asked the cashier not to tell you I was coming to catch a glimpse of you again. I suppose I was also coming to see someone I had created in my story. I told her I did not know you and did not want to bother you or cause you embarrassment.

She, on the other hand, felt a warranted obligation to warn you that a stranger was asking about you—perhaps some sort of stalker or crazy person, or worse, a chupa-almas—someone that sucks on people’s souls for their stories.

I did not include this last phrase.

I knew as soon as I entered the café that the cat was out of the bag, and that you knew about me and that I was a suspect—that I was the observed one, instead of you.

I did not know what to do, and for that reason I began writing in my notebook—not about you, but about the situation.

You must have thought I was out again to steal one more part of your privacy, your dignity or your soul.

After paying my bill, I turned around and you were standing ten feet from me, looking at me, full on, with a face that was striking in the sense of being stricken—a dark brow full of anger, outrage, confusion or perhaps disappointment that I was not decent enough to speak to you directly.

I do not know what you were feeling. And I could not step out of being a writer to being a person and simply ask you.

Please forgive me. It was not my intention to cause you such unhappiness.

Nor to become just one more of your clients that shows a presumption of privilege—in my case, that I should presume to spy on one of my inspirations as if they were some sort of trinket of literature and not a person with feelings and rights.

Please forgive me.


And then I wrote my signature and mailing address.

Object of Attention

Mexico City sits on ancient ruins, and the part that doesn’t, rests on a bog, lake bottoms, and mud. It is a monument to struggle and power, interlaced with leafy parks, fountains, and cafés.

On our second night in the city, in the Condesa neighborhood, we entered a café famous – at least to my love – for the satirist Astrid Hadad, who mocks sentimental Mexican ballad singers and outdoes them at the same time. She was not performing. Instead, we saw a female impersonator-political satirist of immense talent. I knew my white face – my love is dark-skinned – would attract La Roña’s sharp tongue. My turn came early in the program.

“Where are you from?” she asked, in a rasping petulant Spanish.

In an instant of calculation – wanting to deflect what I knew was coming, and although I was born in New Jersey, grew up around Boston, and had lived most of my adult life in California – I said, “Germany.”

With that, I became the reference for the next two hours of all that was exploitive, First World, and responsible for the horrors of the Nazi past. That seemed an acceptable choice compared with being a U.S. citizen in 2007.

After the show, I asked La Roña’s manager if they would like any critical response. I think I felt as if I deserved a word or two of my own. Plus, I wanted to get the brilliant young man, her, to stop using the PowerPoint part of her program.

First, I told him I was not a German.

“Ah,” he said, gently, “so you’re a liar as well.” In addition to all my other crimes, he might have thought.

Later, my love said she thought there had been comma after “liar,” and that La Roña had meant that he too was a liar, that only through the lie of impersonating a woman could one tell the truth.

It is hard for me to recognize his actual sex. Out of respect for his profession, I continue to call him her. I gave her my criticism, grasped her hand in both of mine and exclaimed several times what immense talent she was and my certainty she would be very successful in the future. I only briefly glanced at her flat, hairy vulnerable chest, as she continued to undress. I protested when she asked me shyly if I thought she had been too tendentious.

I lied, and said no.

The next evening, my love wanted to return, this time to hear a trumpet player and the band he played with. This seemed reasonable since my partner took up the trumpet a year ago when she turned – well – much older than when most trumpet players begin. More like when they end.

We sat at a little table eight feet from the stage. The trumpet player came first, old, overweight, slow, and blind. A waiter helped him up onto the stage. Then came the guitar player, also of many years, bent over, hunched, if not hunchbacked. A man of much dignity and wisdom. A man who saw everything. He too had to be helped up onto the small stage. Then came the piano player, equally old – late sixties, mid seventies. Eighties, said my love. Also helped up onto the stage. The drum player got up by himself. And of course, the lovely young Indian-looking woman, in middle class dress, who was introduced as the hunched guitar player’s granddaughter, she hopped onto the stage. She played the quijada, the lower jaws of a burro, whose teeth rattled to great effect when stroked by a wand.

The drummer handed the trumpet player his trumpet. He attached the mouthpiece without guiding it with his other hand, perhaps as a matter of pride, perhaps out of habit. After some fumbling, he succeeded. They began playing – slowly, the way old men might begin slowly in the first ten minutes of the day. But then I could see no difference between them and the famous Buena Vista Social Club band. These men were also Cubans, long-term residents of Mexico City. Their music moved me deeply, in a way a way I had not anticipated.

At the table next to us, there were three couples that paid us no attention, and therefore were clearly people of privilege, especially one man who spoke and acted without the reservation one would expect in a public place. A fifty-something boy in blue jeans, sandy curly hair, a soft middle, and a tumescent lower lip. The band seemed to play for him, but without fawning. When the band rested and was helped off the stage, a different guitar player – not part of the group – rushed over to the important table, not to entertain but to accompany one of the women who needed to sing her favorite old songs and ballads. When she tired of singing, a group of three other guitar players appeared, as if on cue, to replaced the first guitar player. The third player in the group strummed a lovely base guitar from Paracho, the guitar making capital of the world, some say. Its rich notes gave cadence to the whole evening. No money exchanged hands. The man of privilege – who commented on everything continuously, as if no one else were present – danced with his companion, who was at least twenty years younger than him. She was tall and blond and contained. She reflected black, making no demands. When he passed his lips over hers at one point, I saw that she kept hers closed, in fact ever so slightly pressed together. Otherwise, she met every caress – his leaning over her, touching her – with the same neutral smile, indulging him, serving as his partner.

The two other men at his table, professionals in some way, did not speak to him. They sat with their backs to a wall without windows. They watched, their eyes on patrol. He did not speak to them. His partner, tall and perfect, did not speak to them. The ballad singer did not talk to them. Nor did any of them send us a nod, not even when the wise hunched guitar player recognized us and welcomed us publicly, through the microphone – “Our friends from Guanajuato.”

I got up and went to find the bathroom, where I lingered, thinking about things, perhaps relishing a moment of solitude.

When I returned, my love said, “When you were gone, he danced with me.”

That was interesting, I thought. The man of privilege had allowed himself one more privilege – and everyone, except the trumpet player, had witnessed it. Even now, afterward, there were no glimpses, no looks from him. No nods, nor smiles. His lady continued to meet his solicitations with her cool giving.

“He danced with you when I wasn’t here? What is that about?” I asked. “Did he speak to you?”

“Not really, she said. “I was busy trying to keep up with him. Everyone was looking. Once he turned to the band and said isn’t she pretty.”

I thought of getting up and asking his lady to dance, but thought better of it. Later, a little petulant, I though of getting up and asking him to dance. But instead I ate my tender moist, almost pink breast of duck, cutting it up into pieces much smaller than is ever my style. Studying the matter, I took small slow forkfuls of the white rice with its delicious mango-ginger sauce. The band played. The other woman at his table – perhaps his sister – sang more of her ballads. Quite well, I thought. And my love’s boyfriend, as we now referred to him, continued to spread his air of privilege throughout the room, with his back to us, hanging as if drunk – though he was not – over his much younger companion, as if nothing at all had happened.