I remembered a late afternoon sometime in the mid 1980s, when I lived in Manhattan. Day was melting into a warm summer evening, the late sunlight stretching its long arms down the canyons of the east/west streets, the air beginning to cool, the moisture your skin had carried all day now settling on it, a thin, cool layer under your clothes. My partner JC and I were walking with a friend in SoHo. The neighborhood was only newly named. The transformation had just begun. Abandoned industrial spaces were being appropriated by poor artists, whom real-estate moguls and reporters referred to disparagingly as “squatters”. These squatters were making livable endless blocks of commercial lofts, and by doing so they, in turn, created fortunes for those real-estate moguls.
The three of us were talking about the phenomenon of lines, chuckling at the silliness of so many New Yorkers in their frenzy to be au courant. They had to be among the first to have experienced the newest club or bar or restaurant -- or to see a show or attend a gallery opening or a book signing or whatever. One would, from time to time, see a line of people standing on the sidewalks, often stretching for many blocks. We joked that people would get into a line even when they had no idea what it was for. The fact that people had lined up must mean that something new and exciting was taking place. People would join a line just so that they could brag to their friends, nonchalantly, of course, that they had already seen/been to/eaten it.
We -- there were a half dozen or more of us -- formed a line outside a meaningless doorway and watched as people got into the line. They chatted about trivialities for quite a while before they ventured to ask what everyone was waiting in line for.
We were delighted with the success of our sociological experiment.
I remembered all that as I passed the line. But I had no need to ask what this line was for: I knew that this line was for a hot meal at Glide Memorial Baptist Church.
My friend MP is a poet. MP’s art is one of closely observed and simply described details that illuminate human relationships, personal and social. He recently shared this short prose piece with me:
I walked by another homeless man who was securing things to his bicycle; I think they were all of his worldly possessions. He complained, talking to the air surrounding him, about being harassed every morning by another man who stood in an alley across the street.
I watched people hurry along the sidewalk. I saw some of them descend below the street to the BART station where they will board a train that will take them to their place of work. Hurrying to the train out of fear of becoming one of those who hold up a cardboard sign on the sidewalk, gazing into the eyes of those who pass by, hoping for salvation. Hurrying out of fear of becoming one of those they avoid; one of those they wished did not exist.
When I read it I was struck by the accuracy with which he describes something I remember quite clearly: the way I used to feel when I had to pass close enough to a street-dweller to risk having to interact with him or her.
There were many reasons to love my Aunt Lee. Like both of my parents, she was born and raised in Oakland and graduated from U.C. Berkeley. To me, however, she seemed unlike anyone I had ever known. From my early childhood through my mid-40s, when she died, Aunt Lee brought me glimpses of a very different world than the one in which I was raised, a world of adults, sophisticated, witty, imaginative, and wise.
After college she had worked as a secretary to the President of a shipping line in San Francisco and then married a man much older than she, who had been born in Britain but lived in Canada, where he was Chief of Protocol for British Columbia. She lived in the company of officers, politicians, and dignitaries. (I have a photograph of her entertaining a group including the Lord High Mayor of London at tea in her garden.) She met royals. And she had no children.
So when she spoke to me, even when I was quite young, it was as an equal, expressing interest in my ideas and curiosity about my life, and never judging or seeking to discipline me in any way. She told stories about parties that she and her husband attended with a special group of close friends, men who had been in the R.A.F. with her husband during the war and their wives. I loved hearing about the things that grown-ups did that had no reference to children and family, per se, because family was the sole organizing principle of social life in the suburban America of my youth. Furthermore, Aunt Lee never became overly emotional or sentimental. She never reproached me with making her “worry”. And Aunt Lee knew -- and taught me -- wonderfully funny and quite bawdy music-hall songs.
Once when we all went out to dinner during one of her visits, I was a bit scandalized, and therefore completely delighted, by a remark she made as we opened our menus. The waitress had just brought them to the table, told us that her name was “Sarah” (or whatever it was), and that she would be our server.
“Why on earth would she think I would want to know her name?” Lee said under her breath, as she opened her menu.
I tried to hide my glee, lowering my smiling face into my menu.
You can find all the incest porn you want on the Internet, and the most (erstwhile) shameless deeds are confessed aloud, even shouted, by their perpetrators on almost every show on television. Abuse, adultery, lying, cheating, and manipulative spouses and parents and children have no shame any more. Racists and demagogues of every sort proclaim their prejudices and hatreds on radio and television, not to mention the Internet.
Yet one taboo remains. No one talks about the American class system, and its power is made enormous by the hush that surrounds it.
I always knew it existed. I tried to be aware of it. But its terms, their definitions, and their interrelations, kept shifting, defying clear analysis. But now I know it. It is clearly outlined, hard, and sharp. I feel it. I can tell you how it defines who you and I and everyone around us is; how it dictates our behavior to one another; and how it leads everyone, from the highest of the high to the lowest of the low to do evil every day.
I can, and I will.