Perhaps my iconic New York moment took place one day on Houston street, near Katz’s deli. I was walking down the sidewalk and after a few minutes, I noticed that every car on the street was honking its horn. The “after a few minutes” is the key to that moment. A crowded city street, cars backed up, probably all the way across Manhattan, every one of them blowing its horn. It was very, very loud. Yet I am so acclimatized to the noise that 500 cars honking their horn only intrudes on my consciousness after a few minutes, and then only because of how long it’s gone on. The noise itself is unremarkable.
I was reminded of that on the bus the other day. If you’re ever in New York and are the type of person who likes to get away from the tourist traps and see the “real” city, I recommend a ride on the B35. It starts in a warehouse district well-seeded with strip clubs and porn shops, makes its way through Sunset Park, a major Hispanic neighborhood, catches the edge of Brooklyn’s Chinatown, cuts through a corner of Borough Park, an orthodox Jewish neighborhood, then all the way down Church avenue through Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Polish, Mexican, Central American, Haitian, and West Indian neighborhoods all the way out to the mean streets of the East New York ghetto. Around the world in Brooklyn or It’s a Small World in Hell?
So my wife and I are on the B35 and after a few minutes I notice that people are screaming. In retrospect, I realize that the volume has been increasing for awhile. Then the F bomb explodes through the pop pop pop cadence of the Haitian Creole and the wild tonal swings of the English West Indian dialect and the Spanish (who knew that there were Spanish speaking Muslims in Brooklyn?) on the periphery and I realize that it’s gotten pretty damn loud in here.
The primary commotion is between two large black women, each with two kids. Apparently a woman from the English speaking West Indies sent her daughter up to pay the fare and leaned a stroller up against a seat to save it for her. Then, reportedly, the woman from Haiti came along, contemptuously pushed the stroller aside and sat down in the seat. A few insults were exchanged and the confrontation escalated quickly into a devastating war of words that left both sides badly shaken.
To get the full flavor, you have to imagine it in a West Indian accent.
Insults about speaking a foreign language.
Insults about English language accents.
Accusation that people like her are why white people look down on black people.
You are uneducated.
No, I have a bachelor’s degree. I am an artist.
No, you are uneducated, and you are no artist. You are too ugly to be an artist.
No, you are uneducated, I’ll show you my card, and I am an artist. And you are the ugly one.
No, you are the ugly one, and you are uneducated. I am enrolled at the university. You are so ugly.
No, you are so ugly, and you are uneducated, you are not enrolled at the university, show me your card. You are so ugly. And you are on welfare.
I’ll show you my card, and I don’t see your card. You don’t have no card. You are too ugly to be an artist. You are uneducated. And ugly.
No, You are ugly, and you are uneducated, and you are on welfare. You look link a monkey. Why aren’t you in the zoo, you ugly welfare monkey?
And so on.
In addition to being very, very sad on so many levels, the choice of words the women employed in this war were interesting for what they illustrated about their perspectives. Pretty much every insult concerned the ability to fit into the dominant American culture. What would white people think? The importance of having a college degree. The stigma of welfare. The implied stigma of being of recent African descent. The overall importance of appearances. Ugly was the weapon employed most often. Ugly was the word that cut the deepest. Both of these women were seriously overweight. Neither was what anyone would call good looking. From an American cultural perspective, they looked exactly the same. They were ugly.
So they smack each other in the face with this word, they whack each other on the head. But ugly is more than appearances. Ugly is the lack of education. Ugly is welfare. Ugly is Foreignness. Ugly is African. Ugly is un-American.
Of course I don’t believe these things. The ugly I see in this incident is the ugly of poverty in a land of obscene wealth, which is the root cause of all the other uglies.
The ugliest thing concerning the immediate human beings was the devastated look on the women’s faces. Neither won that battle. They both lost big time and were severely hurt.
But in long view, the ugliest thing was probably that the children were there to witness it. To hear their mother called ugly and uneducated in front of a bunch of strangers. And frankly, to watch their mothers act so ugly in such a public place. The look on the children’s faces was not ugly. They looked sheepish. They looked embarrassed. But the ramifications for their psyche? That’s got to be ugly.