8:27 am on a tuesday in december, cold rain and 40 degrees outside according to the car, which is where i am sitting to write because i felt a surge of inspiration at the dreary intersection of 200th and 99 after dropping Ryan off at school just now. I was listening to Amy Goodman explain that Richard Holbrook was dead and the last thing he said to his doctor before he died was something about how we’ve “got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”
I was waiting for the light to change, thinking about that, and watching two men in pseudo-cop gear waiting to cross the street. One was heavyset and the other ordinary, I guess, both Caucasian, both looking pretty certain of their uniformed authority. I strained my eyes to read the white lettering on the back of their jackets but couldn’t. Decided they were probably Metro rent-a-cops, based on their resemblance to Ryan’s description of ones he’s seen on the buses in that area. I wondered if they were escorting the middle-aged Latina woman who was waiting to cross the street next to them. She was wearing a warm coat and carrying her purse and I wondered if they had decided to apprehend her because they felt like enforcing law and order on the buses and her transfer was too crumpled and maybe now she would be late to work or worse discovered not to have the Right Sort of “Papers” and thus deported and I seethed at the possibility, even tho I knew it was unlikely that was what was happening in front of me. I knew beyond a doubt that something like that was happening somewhere though. That sort of thing happens every day.
The light changed and I drove thru the intersection and down the hill past the federal prison, and I glanced at the woman and man on the landing by the entrance. In the split-second I had to observe them as I drove past I noticed he looked like a guard and she was wearing heels and a skirt, and I decided she was not someone waiting to visit her boyfriend but probably a lawyer and i realized that if she hadn’t been white and dressed the way she was i would have maybe concluded differently.
But this is what we do…. move thru the world every day making generalizations and assumptions about anonymous passerby based on our prejudices and our prior knowledge and our opinions about the power structures of the society we inhabit.
Ask me and I’ll tell you the judgmental heavily prejudiced assumptive story I composed about the white women at Starbucks this morning that i told my husband to hurry up and get in line in front of when i saw them getting out of their newish SUV… because women like that almost certainly order complicated drinks and they are clearly more privileged than us based on their car and their comportment and after all I am on my way to drop my husband off to teach children growing up in poverty and that is manifestly more important than whatever those women are planning on doing today with their designer handbags and their heavy makeup.
I’ve got another story about “Paul the Plumber” whose van I saw pulled up at the “sexy espresso” stand near the airport that we passed a few minutes later. Paul is a nice enough guy who thinks there’s nothing wrong with getting his coffee from an eighteen-year-old girl in a negligee who’s the same age as the daughter who he’s trying to put through college but that’s different and its no one’s business but his and he tipped her a dollar after all and he’s got a long day of dirty unpleasant work to do and he’s entitled to this small pleasure, right?
I’ve also concocted a story about the girl working in the espresso stand who i can’t even see from my car who’s probably also hoping to get through college and who surely doesn’t understand the larger gender-class-power structures that invisibly enshroud her as she shivers in a negligee in a drive-thru coffeestand steaming milk for the 1.99$ mochas of the working class folks who drive this road or maybe she feels empowered and liberated by making this kind of money and she’s majoring in feminist lit, who knows, I sure don’t but I pretend to myself I do, and it only takes me milliseconds to spin out my narrative about these anonymous people as I pass by.
It occurs to me, (sitting here in a parking lot a little while later, writing in my journal with the engine running because the baby is asleep and i don’t want to wake him before i’m done writing) that i make up these kinds of stories a hundred times a day, based on my assumptions and my prior knowledge and my prejudices, and that I am no better or worse than anyone else.
But I’m going to try and pay closer attention. Catch myself in the act.