Not long ago I was waiting in line at the Clinton Hill post office to mail a package. The line was long. Probably about 30 minutes. Everyone in line seemed to be in a similar state: I’d call it impatient acceptance.
The line was made up mostly of people of color. The women working behind the counter seemed to be African American. We were all fidgeting and dawdling with our phones, biding the time. I’d made it about halfway through the line when an older, roundish Caucasian man came in with a short stack of mail in his fist.
He walked around the line and paused by the end of the counter, watching the windows for an opening. I wondered if he was a manager or something, taking care of some quick business.
As a young woman at one of the windows was reaching to raise the little bulletproof door to place her package on the scale, he slid over and lifted it for her, as if he were being a “gentleman.” Confused but going along with it, she said “thank you,” He then closed it for her and hovered close by.
I still didn’t know his angle, but witnessing his false chivalry was causing a great wad of rage to flare up inside of me. That woman deserved her postal privacy.
When the woman finished her transaction he slid in front of the postal worker at the window and presented the mail he needed certified or something. The postal worker was wearing a thick cloth headband and he pointed to it and said “that looks nice, that, uh, thing you’re wearing on your head.” She gave him a passive thanks.
The flaming wad of rage lit my entire chest on fire. As the worker allowed him to slip in and started tending to his mail I said loudly, “why do you get to cut the line?”
He turned, narrowed his eyes at me, and replied as though he were explaining something to a child, “because…I spend a lot of money here…”
“Oh yeah?” I said.
This time he announced to the whole line, “I’m here all the time. And I spend a lot of money here. LOTS of money!”
“Huh,” was all I could think to say.
Then he turned back to finish his transaction. I looked to the postal worker who was wearing the headband to see if she would show some sign of agreement with him, but she just finished the transaction with the same submissive look on her face.
Because my frontal lobe was so clouded with smoke from my flaming ball of rage, I didn’t have my wits about me enough to find a logical response to this guy’s explanation of why he got to cut the line… until about two hours later.
Two hours later I wished I had said: So if we were in line at the bodega that I go to every day, does that mean I should be able to cut in front of you in that line? Or: Does that mean that because you’re spending a lot of money here, you think that your time is more valuable than these peoples’? Or; Aren’t you embarrassed to display your entitlement to cut in front of these people? Or; What makes you think you are spending more money here than any of these people? Do you know them? Do you know their business?
Blah blah blah. After I burned through all my comeback ideas, I knew it was time to do the real work of asking myself what this guy represented that was making me so angry.
Partly what sucked so much about him was the slimy way he slid up to the window, acting falsely helpful to hoodwink those around into acquiescing to his behavior. Oh yes, I have met this masculine archetype before before. And I have been the woman with the headband before, accepting the lame compliment and giving him what he wants. I too have submitted. And it’s a terrible feeling.
Also what sucked so much about him, that I was uncomfortable to recognize in myself, was that entitlement to cut lines. When I used to go to clubs in my early 20’s I had a rule that I’d never wait in line. I’d go straight to the front and behave with so much entitlement that I’d be let in ahead of others waiting their turn. Sure, that’s how clubs in big cities work, and it’s kind of a game, but it’s still a lame game. And my need to “not wait” was shitty. It belied a need to be more important than the other human beings in line. Weak Kiley ~ very weak.
Finally, the deeply sucky aspect of this was the racial aspect. The whole incident was an un-ignorable example of implied hierarchies to do with economics and race. This guy was broadcasting to everyone there that he felt he had more value because of his spending. And I may be extrapolating here, but the fact that he was the only white guy in there, and he felt entitled to cut a line made up of mostly people of color, was kind of hard to ignore.
On a different day, in that same post office an upright, dignified African American man about the same age as this guy had said, “when I see a police officer it’s just, head down, yes sir, no sir. We gotta keep quiet or we might wind up dead.” It was just after another controversial police shooting of an African American man. I couldn’t help but note the two different behaviors of men in the same generation, and the same location, with different shades of skin.
Now. I will admit that I am one of those white people that is fairly nervous to talk about race. I am uncomfortable writing this out. I am afraid to say the wrong thing and to offend people of color. I would like to spiritually bypass the whole race thing and jump straight to we are all one.
But the healing of our society is not going to come from denial of the reality of racial inequality that is perpetuated in little moments every single day, consciously and unconsciously, by all of us. So instead I’m going to keep sitting with the question: How is the white guy at the post office an expression of me? How might I, in less glaringly obvious ways, “cut the line” in life while silently devaluing others? And what am I going to do about it – today?