THING I CONSUMED TODAY
I am really sitting with what it means to be a neighbor today. In fact, I feel like I have really been pushed today to find the humanity in those around me.
It all started off early this morning. The cafe I frequent was a bit busy, and the barista seemed a bit overwhelmed. And it was hot. Unusually hot for 6:45am. She asked me to open the front door on my way out. Seeing the beads on her forehead, I went immediately and opened the door. Then, I grabbed my coffee and headed out.
I was on my way to the Department of Motor Vehicles. About a month ago, I lost my wallet. It probably fell out of my pocket off of Van Ness Avenue and Market Streets. I needed to get a new Driver's License, and had been putting it off for a while. I knew getting there early was the only way to not have the DMV eat up my entire day. Still, it seems the DMV is occupying my mind as I am writing this some seven hours later.
The line was like any other government line: filled with my neighbors. All kinds of them. Including those for whom waiting in line is a humongous feat. And there was one such of those people at the front of the line.
I got to the DMV at 7:26am, and I was the twelfth person in line. I was all excited to be so close to the front while thinking the DMV opened at 8am. And the DMV does open at 8am every day of the week, except Wednesday. On Wednesdays, they open at 9am. And I was not the only one who thought they opened at 8am.
The man at the front of the line was agitated and annoyed. He was already pacing and mumbling obscenities under his breath. It was the kind of thing that happens in government lines, and no one was really paying attention. That is until it hit 8:04am and the DMV still hadn't opened.
The person at the front of the line lost it. His pacing became stomping, his mumbles became screams, and what once was directionless became focused on the only woman in the line. So she pulled out her phone and started recording him.
Immediately, the camera escalated the situation. He didn't want to be recorded, and he was having none of it. Scared, the woman said she wasn't recording him, but it was blatantly obvious she was. That didn't sit well with him. And the brewing conflict spilled further down the line.
His concerns about being recorded triggered deeper critiques of women, transforming itself into a misogynistic rant. His sexism clouded his original critique: not wanting to be recorded. It was then others in the line started getting involved.
"Hey, man, were all equal," said a gentleman behind me. "You can't be talking about women like that. Especially here, man."
This brought new rants, ones about the inequality of America, how there is no such thing as freedom or equality, of how he's just trying to keep it together to get his ID.
"If you don't like it here then leave the country," screamed the man in the black leather vest with the "Proud American Patriot" patch and long gray hair.
The woman took her phone back out. It was then I spoke up.
"Look, man, you're comment about leaving the country is overly simplistic. America's complicated, and we all have critiques. Let him have his," I said with a firm smile.
"And put your phone away. You know your camera is triggering this man, and yet you keep bringing it out. Just put it away."
As she put it in her purse, she responded, "But he's not attacking you. I'm the only woman in line."
I looked her in the eye and said, "We all see what is going on right now. There are about four of us trying to deal with the situation as best we can. And I give you my word that if he moves closer to you I will put my body between you and him."
"Thank you," she replied.
I looked at the man in the front of the line. "She put her phone away. We all good?"
And the man who was second physically obstructed his line of sight to the woman in line. He started talking to him, and about five minutes later he turned his back to everyone, started mumbling to himself again.
Twenty five minutes after that the doors to the DMV opened and everyone was let in, including the man at the front of the line.
I was out of the DMV less than 30 minutes later. It was probably the most efficient experience I have ever had at a government office. I walked out with a smile on my face and headed to the park for some meandering of feet and mind.
My feet took me to the Fuchsia Garden in Golden Gate Park. I sipped from the water fountain and felt the sun spill on my growing bald spot. It was a moment of respite, a moment of pause that seemed to stretch like taffy melting in the sun. My phone buzzed snapping back to the present.
Sitting on a green wooden bench under the shade of a fuchsia tree not yet in bloom, I chatted with Kate Fowler at Appalachian Media Institute in Whitesburg, Kentucky. I am lucky. I get to practice that which I believe: creating WITH / ALONGSIDE (not for) communities across geographies, identities, and histories. We were talking about a special HatchLab from The Alliance for Media Arts and Culture I have the fortune of co-producing. And we chatted about shared values, sitting on swings, creating media and stories rooted in personal narrative and community identity. In essence, we talked about what it means to be a neighbor.
The phone call ended, and I continued my meandering, finding flowers in bloom all over the park. The ones that danced between the shadow and the light beckoned me. I snapped picture after picture after picture hoping to capture the light just so. Each photo that popped up didn't quite capture the feeling I was having: one of otherworldly depth, of the possibility of neighborliness, of that which is in front of me reflecting that which is beyond me. So I sat down and layered image over image hoping to discover the reality I was experiencing, which cannot be captured by camera alone.
Satisfied with an image, I moved again. Dirt paths guided me to a gardener's building, and I saw my friend Mark. We chatted, shared stories, do what neighbors do when they see each other on the street.
A hug and a, "I should get back to work," later my feet continued down that dirt path until I came to the Conservatory of Flowers. A new sculpture, one that reminded me of atoms or DNA or the celestial orbits, on the front law drew me. Its gold dazzled in the noontime sun. Entranced, I just stood there. Another moment stretching like taffy in the sun.
There was no buzzing this time to call me to move. There was an impulse to capture that moment. Again, I snapped photos. And again, they did not capture in totality my experience. I sat down on a log in the shade, and layered and layered and layered until that which was created mirrored that which I experienced.
And then, I kept moving, meandering to the upper Haight to meet my husband for lunch, which we spent on a different green bench in the shade.
I said good bye and hopped on the 7 to grab art supplies downtown. It was an afterthought hopping on that bus, like most times one hops on a bus. Most times, the bus, a space of transition, is meant to be zoned out on. And I was about to be in that space. I was ready to not pay attention.
The man across from me with his Safeway name tag on that read, "Louis", kept dozing in and out of sleep. Placed loosely on this lap was a newspaper opened up to the crossword puzzle and a pen. As he dozed, his body slumped causing the paper and pen to fall to the floor. Each time he didn't notice. Each time I picked them up and placed them back on his lap. A total of four times the newspaper and pen dropped until finally the bus came to a complete halt.
There was a shooting downtown, and I didn't know it. It was just a stopped bus and quite possibly just traffic. Bored by the game of picking up the newspaper, I hopped off the bus knowing I could walk to Blick faster.
I stepped on the curb and there was a blood boiling scream. A woman was hunched over, a pool of urine beside her. She was in pain and it cause her skin to glisten and her throat to crack. I didn't know what to do, looked at others looking down and just passing by. A friendly gentleman with the Virgin on one bicep and a Mayan god on the other yelled, "someone call 911!" I pulled out my phone and dialed.
The man with the Virgin and Mayan god sat with her calming her through breath. And I talked with the dispatcher trying to tell her as much as I could. Two others stopped and called too. And too many just passed on by with their heads down or their eyes glued to their phone.
The ambulance arrived, and I waited until she was on the gurney and heading to the back of the ambulance before I left. Shortly before I left, the man with the Virgin and Mayan god left, and I thanked him for his care. He looked at me and said, "What else can we do?"
And that is what is sitting with me now.
I look back at my day, and I wonder, "what else can I do?" This is both a somewhat reflective question and a comment of dismissiveness. It is that which one could just shrug at. "What else can I do?"
But I am reminded of all that WE did do. And not just me. It was WE that intervened in the line. It was WE that planned civic storytelling with the HatchLab. It was WE that chatted as neighbors off the dirt path. It was WE that all sprung to action to get the woman into that ambulance. It was WE, not me. Or more precisely, not JUST me.
And that, to me, is the core of being a good neighbor.
On January 20, 2017, I started #100Days to cultivate a daily art practice, to learn more about political issues, and to name values, beliefs, and dreams. It was a focused practice that resulted in neon pop art portraits.