An older man enters, maybe 50 or younger. Unshaven. Black man, skinny. Not visibly dirtier than anyone else in here (read: granola) but the faint smell of body soil sits in the air where he passes. He enters and yells something unintelligible. Loud. Everyone pauses. No one looks. Except me. And I look away quickly. It is clear that there is something not quite centered about him.
He spends the next few minutes lingering. He sits in at an empty table. Stands up, walks, sits at another empty table. He walks over to the bar and peers into an absent patron’s cup of tea. The tea drinker returns to his seat, sits down. He is also a skinny, nominally clean man. But he is white and he has a ponytail and a book and a cup of tea that he could afford to pay for and all three guard against any assumptions that he is a) with the new entrant or b) not supposed to be there. His ponytail is poetry after all. He could simply be an artist down on his luck, the audience (because it is now an audience) assumes. Not realizing, of course, that the first man was also a poet, that he too was down on his luck, that any habit he was nursing–whether it be drugs or alcohol or a penchant for yelling loudly in gentrified cafes or a full love for life itself–is no better and no worse than the Ritalin and Oxycotin hidden in the back pocket of the poet’s slacks.
The poet says a polite, “Excuse me.” Our wayward hero looks at him then looks away. He remains in the poet’s personal space. This poet has backbone or just feels heroic in the face of such a contrast, feels safe behind his $4 tea and his dog-eared novel. The poet stands and says it again in a harder voice. “Excuse. Me.” Our hero jumps a bit. He seems surprised to see the poet there. He steps back and resumes his quiet rambles.
No matter. Our hero has already cast his spell over the entire cafe. Everyone is quiet. Everyone is waiting. No one hears the Bob Dylan still playing on the speakers via the owner’s iPod. No one is typing and the conversation is no longer carefree, punctuated with Peace Corps interviews and community organizer budgets. When he leaves, no one will remember what they were reading; everyone will turn back the two pages they pretended to skim while he was there. They are waiting. And he? He came in to slay the dragon. He found a many-headed hydra.
Another yell was all it took. A server leans over the counter. “You know you aren’t supposed to be in here.” The man looks blank. The server, the only black woman working here, the only server speaking at all, says again. “You know you aren’t supposed to be in here.”
Our hero is stubborn. “Can I just say something?”
The server shakes her head. Her silver nose ring flashes. She repeats her self and adds: “Do we need to call the authorities?”
I don’t see what the man does. Because I am flushed and frustrated. I am trying not to listen and tuning in to every word. I am seeing Troy Davis’s face flash in my head. I’m re-reading an article I looked up earlier that week AFTER Michelle Alexander reminded me of former President Bill Clinton’s participation in the execution of a mentally impaired African American man named Ricky Ray Rector:
In another study, of 14 juveniles sentenced to death, the researchers found that all had suffered head trauma, most in car accidents but many by beatings as well. 12 had suffered brutal physical abuse, 5 of those sodomized by relatives.
No one suggests that abuse or brain damage makes a murderer, but Dr. Lewis says that while most damaged people do not turn into killers, almost every killer is a damaged person. She concludes that most murderers are shaped by the combination of damage to the brain, particularly to the frontal lobes, which control aggression and impulsiveness, and the even more complex damage visited by repeated, violent child abuse.
These findings, Dr. Lewis says, cast doubt on legal definitions of insanity. Many legal experts agree, while others say the law should be in no hurry to apply new theories in the debate, older than Western thought itself, between free will and determinism. Many psychiatrists and psychologists, too, see evil and con artistry where researchers like Dr. Lewis see disease.
And I’m angry again. At the article and its unwillingness to remark on the race of subjects studied despite the pathology it regurgitates, at President Obama’s unwillingness to speak on the death of Troy Davis, and at my own willful ambivalence and participation in the spectacle of privilege at the colonial outpost that is this northeast Washington, DC. café, filled with whiteness and wealth and the products of globalism/imperialism/slavery. A cafe with an audience held captive by its own fantasy of safety, on guard against any breaks in the myth, and guarded by a local police force known for violent tactics and a suffocating intolerance. An audience still waiting for the confrontation that will turn our hero into a martyr forever and that will offer an uncomfortable thanks when it comes.
It does and doesn’t happen. One more sharp yell and then I look up and the man is gone. The spell is broken. The café breathes again. But the man is gone.
And I write this post.