The Autumn Effect
In a recent conversation with the Girl, I remarked on all the errands I’d been able to run over the first half-week of my time in Paris. Insurance details, getting a working mobile phone, grocery shopping, prepping for school, meeting friends who’d been waiting for me here, buying some clothes, figuring out metro stuff, etc. And we both looked at the list, once enumerated, with wonder. I realized then that it’d have been impossible for me to do this all in New York, especially within this compressed timeframe. Her eyebrows rose even further at the realization that all of this was done in a foreign language.
And I agreed with her. Vociferously. Noting, all the while, how strange it would be that in a city that was much easier to navigate and whose language I spoke fluently, this would all be impossible, though it should not be or have been. That other city across the Pond is pregnant with its own administrative hassles (I’m lucky I’ve not yet had to figure out an insurance situation outside of the law school’s auspices and that I’ve had only one brief descent into the hell-and-chaos of apartment hunting there.), but this experience of Paris is notable for one salient aspect: a newly noticed mystic, transmundane levity.
New York bears too many bad memories and is a place I’ve come close to loathing recently, in part due to the place’s psychic contours and the fact that you can feel the sociopathy in the pavement at your feet, leeching through bootheels into each pedestrian and worker and resident. The rudeness, the self-centeredness, the delusion, the whole If-You-Complain-It’s-‘Cause-You’re-Not-Tough-Enough, the City’s ruthless trading in on that outdated myth that it is the Capital of Self-Betterment. Self-Aggrandizement more closely fits the bill, and though Paris is not without its fair share of cold shoulders and big heads, people here, far as I’ve seen, wait till you’ve stepped out of the subway car before entering.
In conversations with friends and in watching the city work its magic (read: sorcery) on friends and acquaintances, contorting them into homunculi of their former selves, the psychic burden in New York is palpable. OK, yes, in much of this harping, New York more often than not means Manhattan. Disclaimer out of the way, I feel…freer here in this little apartment on rue Vieille du Temple. And not simply because this is a city I look upon with no small measure of delight in my dreams.
I know this place. Understanding its biorhythms is less a process of discovery than reacquaintance. I’m not sure whether some of Paris’s magic is lessened for the fact of increased familiarity. I do know that what infects me now is of the same genre as the relief that douses me every time I flee New York for Connecticut. There’s solace to be found in smaller, kinder cities. And though Paris is far from small by objective standards, it has treated me with kindness and, it would seem, has been nothing but swift in welcoming me back. In small-town Connecticut, the modest public library is within walking distance of three community banks, the post office, a Carvel, a bike shop and the town Starbucks. Geographic space is compressed, as it might be in someone’s dream of an autumnal New England Eden. Good things happen to me in Paris. Good things happen to me in Newington, Connecticut. Maybe that’s not New York’s fault. Maybe it is.
Ferguson, Missouri began burning not long before I left. When I made my way through JFK, the TV screens alternated between CNN footage of James Foley’s death and CNN footage of demonstrations in Ferguson, replete with armored personnel carriers and riot-gear’d police officers and billowing clouds of tear gas, all while my News Feed carried surreal tweet compilations of Palestinian Arabs tagging #Ferguson in their tweets on how to effectively combat the effects of tear gas during protests. Tumblr brimmed with short videos of Turkish protestors tossing active tear gas canisters into fires or into Poland Spring water jugs, standing on the openings and extinguishing the things. Articles and think pieces overflowing in number and handsome in profundity–on race and how much the killing of Michael Brown and Oscar Grant and Sean Bell and others like them resembled lynchings, how Michael Brown’s body baking on the pavement for hours was analogous to a burnt corpse hanging from its noose for days on end–filled my digital real estate.
And now my contact with it all is purely virtual. I am an ocean away from the madness. The Girl sent me photos of a rally she participated in while at home in LA. Amateur journalists flocked to Ferguson to send out tweets, video recordings, and their own news broadcasts aiming to counter the prevailing narratives in the mainstream media and to remind Americans that all of this was happening because a white police officer was being kept from facing the consequences of having fired six shots into an unarmed black boy. Two in his head.
I don’t have to fear for my life here the way that I do in America.
The NYPD terrify me. Categorically. Whenever I walk by an outpost or that crane they operate on 125th St. by Amsterdam Ave., I check for pedestrians and passers-by and pray to God that they have camera phones to record whatever may happen.
Eric Garner was choked to death by an NYPD officer just before I left.
All of these reminders that a black life is worth only a carton of cigarettes or the two energy drinks 25-year-old Kajieme Powell stole before he was gunned down by St. Louis police, they are easier to bear being a continent away, being out from beneath that umbrella. But by a margin slim as the cutting edge of a knife.
Echo-chambers remake themselves to fill a void. Without the physical presence of my like-minded classmates at school, those public-servants-in-the-making fighting constantly against the apathy and hostility endemic in the idea that none of these things matter, I am left with a Facebook assembly that has grown louder. I can only judge the rage or the despair or the resilience or the fatigue or the hope in the typescript, the Caps Lock, the exclamation points, the ellipses, without the aid of their voices.
I had lunch with an old flame a few days back, and the subject of racism came up. I told her about America. She had no idea of what had happened in Ferguson. How to explain to her the tweeted photo of a woman with her hands raised in the iconic “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” pose, flanked by pillars of tear gas? How the caption of “My Tiananmen Square” chilled the marrow? How to explain to her the combination of incensed resignation and detached fury with which I watched the cell phone video of Kajieme Powell being gunned down, full-length, on my News Feed? How to explain that perhaps what separates me from every other black man shot by a white officer is nothing but luck? How to explain to her the fact that the rate of police killings more or less resembles the rate at which black men were lynched at the turn of the 20th century? How to explain to her the pride that expands my heart whenever I log onto Facebook and see the massive activism and raising of awareness taking place there?
I couldn’t, so we resumed our meal and caught up, talked about what had happened in the years since we’d last seen each other. And I let her practice her English on me.
Running errands here, grocery shopping or spending the afternoon in a bistro, doing any number of very Parisian things, I sometimes forget that what is happening in Ferguson is happening. I sometimes forget Eric Garner. I sometimes forget their last words.
This hypnagogic, spiritually regenerative tarriance in Paris won’t last forever. Indeed, the year will have passed before I know it. And I will likely have to spend much of the foreseeable future in that oppressive city lionized in so many songs. And every time I walk by a police officer, I’ll have to be reminded of the ever-changing value of my life. I see a Parisian wearing a Brooklyn Nets t-shirt and can’t figure out how to feel.
A metro ride north to the suburbs will break this Parisian reverie, and being alcoholic and homeless in Paris is arduous and unforgiving as it is everywhere else. But at least, while I’m here, I will have that bubble, as though I’ve been handed a bucket of ice water to dump over my head.
Seeing it all, the conflagration of Ferguson, MO, through a computer screen, hearing it in a phone call, reading about it on blogs, I can hang up or close the browser. And I can walk out into the night, head to that ice cream shop across the street and forget.
But my country is never far from me, even when it’s 3,000 miles away.
Previously published in The Morningside Muckraker, Issue VI