Analysis, Criticism, Narrative, People

People over Money

I already had my Rx. As I walked from CVS to my car (Lana; I decided on a name yesterday), a thin, black gentleman with a cigarillo between his fingers said “excuse me,” and started explaining why he needed $7. Somewhere in there, we established that I wasn’t from Grand Rapids, and he had a new job, and he’d pay me back if I needed, and whatever the details were — most of us have had this encounter.

I often think about implicit bias. ‘Often’ is when to think about it, because then we second-guess our instinct and engage with a conscious mind. I’m not saying I have unconscious biases against black people, or smokers, or people not wearing masks in the pandemic. Knowing that I could have sublimated bias is enough to get me to slow down and wonder what is right rather than comfortable.

Humans are better at lying than detecting lies and suspicion is a volatile substance in our character. We can’t know who the other person is in an encounter like that: I had to remember who I am. I’m a giving person. I have enough to eat, now. I remember the struggles of unemployment and the blows to pride that come from seeking help. I identified with him, not in contrast to him.

I only had $4 so I gave him that. He suggested I go in and get cash-back. I stalled a little, saying, “shit, I wish I’d just had the $7.” When I checked my guts, I realized that it wasn’t the money holding me up, nor the person… it was just my expectations. Go to the pharmacy, have a transaction, and leave without encountering any uncertainty. I said, “well, I can get just $10 cash-back and then you’ll be set.”

He apologized profusely. As we reached the door, I said, “people are more important than money, you know?”

The day before, I walked South on the beach of Lake Michigan. The Lake had torn-away the signage marking the end of park property. There was a young black family there; one of them was climbing the face of the destabilizing dune. A voice came from the ruins of a boardwalk, forty feet or more over our heads. “Get off the dune! This is private property!” I’m not going to bother to describe the complainer because my class biases are not sublimated– I disliked him as soon as I saw him because I all I could see was privilege. Resentment boiled inside of me…

I calmed myself. The complainer probably loves money more than people, I realized, and he invested what matters most to him in a Lake front property (capital-L). The black family isn’t destabilizing the dune by playing on it– the capital-L Lake pounds the shore without compassion. The complainer’s property will continue to depreciate for the rest of his life; even if he builds a giant sea-wall to stop the erosion, it will cost more precious money and its aesthetics will shatter the romance of the lakefront so completely that his house could hardly be sold. In frustration, he yells at some black people and feels like he’s in control.

I laughed as soon as I was out of ear-shot. Aside from active volcanoes, no topography is less “ownable” than a dune. The only thing that has a prayer of slowing it or changing its direction is a stand of huge, old, hardwood trees. The dune must be completely run-through with interlacing, strong roots to be frozen. The poshest house cannot grow roots, cannot tame the sand.

This is the largest part of why the logging-town of Singapore Michigan is gone– it’s less than an old-west ghost-town because you don’t need a back-hoe to access old silver-rush towns. The dunes rolled over Singapore and I like to think the descendants of felled trees will settle the whole matter. I digress.

Here is another digression. A new critique of the book “Lord of the Flies” states that it demonstrates the nature of empire: white, male adolescents attending a private school are loosed upon an island and act-out the structural problems of their culture*. In school they taught us that “human nature” drove those boys to violence, a personal and not structural problem (as if Western culture ‘corrected’ the problem rather than creating it). I find the new critique much more compelling. Who decided that young, British males from an all-boys school were the essence of humanity? Men who attended such schools and lack the self-awareness to wonder “–what kind of person am I and how will that influence how I treat strangers?”

A version of this story might be familiar: a white anthropologist points to a huge basket of fruit under a shady tree and says to a group of African boys, “whomever gets there fastest can have all the fruit.” The boys link hands and jog together to the tree, arriving all at once and digging into the fruit with relish. Perhaps they thought he was silly; what kind of person would rather carry away a huge basket of fruit alone when he/she could hang-out under a shady tree with friends, eating plenty of fruit and talking? Another good digression, indeed.

I gave the gentleman an extra $10. We exchanged names, greetings, and blessings. His name is Will… $14 dollars well spent.

*I wish this was my critique or that I had at saved a citation. Alas, it isn’t and I did not.

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