I want to tell you about how this white skin feels. How walking I am both haloed and cowed, how it’s stuck to me, peels back to muscle, how the bone too, and brain, is infected. How an empire is built on parade.
I’m thinking about how you once said, “I realize change, if it comes, is going to have to be very slow, because the magic of being kids is all tied into this culture.”
Laura, I want to tell you that fear furrows in deep, that even the most loving of families fuck up. I want to tell you how the streets shine with dog shit. How there is no hope because when it’s supposed to be snowing it’s raining now, but no one believes in climate change anyway.
There’s no chance for humans anymore. Our weapons are too big, our smokestacks too toxic. The cow’s milk is plastic-packaged, and there’s fighting between flocks. When I graze the trash bags, people are sparring over thrown-out yogurts and frozen spinach. Best friends and lovers battle and break-up badly.
I fold an envelope and think of you. Your St. Louis is a forgotten city. Its brick bones rest. In New York, my adopted island, a constant black char of grit dusts everything. At night I bury myself under little feathers until it’s so hot I have nightmares. I share the pollution of the world—its jet fire and car sounds, constant unrest—cities garbling under molded petroleum. I’m not in your adopted city. Still, its story is similar: long line of skin and bone waiting to address the causes. I feel the entombment; we all do.
When I was a kid, me and my brothers used to fill our bowls with snow. Then we’d pour on woodstove-warmed maple syrup, and the snow would melt in amazing lacy patterns. Even the walls of my childhood home were edible, dripping a sap I could snap off and chew. There was a trap door leading from between the upstairs to a kid-sized loft in the living room. When I was supposed to be sleeping I liked to look through the cracks in the floorboards in my bedroom, and watch the adults below acting silly, making my Cabbage Patch doll and my brother’s brown bear do sexual things with each other.
I’m at a McDonald’s in Brooklyn. In this McDonald’s, the customers and workers are almost exclusively black. There’s a framed photo of Mrs. Jackie Robinson meeting President Bush the Second. The people who work here make minimum wage; they can’t actually live on it. It should be a crime that in a country this rich twenty-five percent of children live in poverty. I’m thinking about the amount of money that goes into locking up small-time drug dealers, petty thieves, addicts, while prescription drug companies make billions sanctioning addictions. And why has there been no social restitution for slavery, lynching, systematic Native annihilation, and all the other institutionalized racisms/sexisms/genocides?
On Facebook, some of my so-called friends share viral memes about welfare cheats: “If you can afford palm tree manicures, a heroin addiction, gold grills, a butterfly tattoo, and grocery store birthday cakes, you don’t need food stamps.” I’m sick of people busy hating each other over who gets food stamps and who gets Medicaid, instead of seeing the big picture patterns. My friend Stinger pointed out that these same people don’t complain about their “commie taxes” going towards killing in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, or the inevitable veteran suicides.
You once said, “I hope Hillary wins because that would mean the end to a certain kind of feminism.” I think you meant it would help expose the lie that if only women were in power, things would be so much better. As if a leader having a uterus, or brown skin, would be enough to heal the wounds of history. As if women, as if people who’ve been oppressed, are “naturally” more moral, more compassionate.
Feminism has spent much effort critiquing the myth of the independent man alone on the mountain. Yet, you’re right, nowadays much of what gets passed off as feminism has melted down to the glass ceiling fight, the victory. Anything more revolutionary, like maybe orienting our customs around menstruation, or ending war, ending capitalism, are less commodifiable by the corporate landscape.
I want a shared existence, a shared knowledge of a shared planet. Now we’ve got a president from a historically oppressed group, but what has fundamentally transformed? Bombs are still bloodying. Prisons are bursting. Lately, immigrant’s-rights advocates call him the Deporter-in-Chief.
Laura, in the past you argued for the worst-case scenario in the hopes that maybe it would ultimately lead to a leftist revolution, and I always disagreed. I don’t wish any extra suffering on anyone, and there’s no way to predict outcomes. Sometimes harsh conditions lead to people fighting back, but sometimes they just lead to harsher conditions.
Laura, I’ve fought for a long time—linked my arms in the street with strangers against corporate globalization, my throat sore from screaming at cops and delegates and the tear gas, later marching over to the jail where it turned out you were being held, just for protesting; I’ve yelled back at every frat boy street harasser—remember when we walked up to their drunken porches and interviewed them about rape culture? I’ve written long letters to racists, leaving my righteous scrawls on their windshields; I’ve sought out collectives, ecovillages and riot grrrl shows, activist-artist schools and political-scenes, and got disillusioned with most of them. Ultimately there is no hope. I can’t stand rain instead of snow. I can’t stand melted down ineffective politicking. I can’t stand swastika tattoos on upper backs, perched there because of the belief that violence makes the most difference, but people keep getting them, looking for some sort of radicalism, as if being a Nazi is really all that transgressive when you look at the history and ongoing white supremacy in the US, the way the dolls in the drug store are still ninety-percent white. Laura, I don’t know what to do.
I could cry a little spout tonight even under the influence of chalky blue pills. My family has had more than it can take this year. The suicide of my cousin. Cancer of my step-grandfather. We tried so hard to keep them alive. To bring them comfort, peace. Laura, it turns out, love is not enough.
Laura, I fell in love for the first time since I was young. He didn’t see in me someone to explore intimacy with longer than a few turns in bed. Now I’m bereft. But I’ll put my heart back in place. Maybe I should move to St. Louis with you. I miss collective living, its silliness and grumpiness.
Sometimes I still hate myself. I fear I’ve squandered my earthen time, kept all my secrets to myself, was too afraid to show my starry self, my creativity. I didn’t transform the world. I cowered, while watching others easily share their light. Tonight my loneliness is infinite and I could eat dinner or dance with my limbs wild because there is no gravity keeping me grounded. I’m making fake smiles and trying to pretend I’m a sociable person.
When I was growing up, my local McDonald’s had a special carousel for kids to ride. You could have your birthday party there. I never did. My dad worked all the time but on break he’d take us there, driving up the hill from the shipyard. It was great. I always got a Happy Meal with a small Sprite, hamburger, and fries. We got toys in our Happy Meal boxes—Transformer cars and plastic Hamburglars.
Now I sometimes eat their food because it’s everywhere, predictable, and they have a $1 Menu. Once in a while, I crave their McNuggets with sweet ’n sour sauce. But the food makes me feel unsatisfied, gross, gives me weird smelly gas. I know it’s fucked up, and a lot of people with better ethics than me just boycott McD’s. I know why they hate McDonald’s, and they’re totally right, but you know, there’s also something about having my ear to the street. I feel comforted here, anonymous, in the background, and it reminds me of being a kid. Like you said, the magic is tied up in this culture. I like that it’s so cheap. I like that people drag their sweatpants asses in here, don’t feel like they have to dress fancy, act polite and middle-class. I like that I can just sit and write all day and most of the time no one will bother me to leave.
Laura, is revolutionary change possible? Can you imagine a better system? We’ve been talking about this for years. In some Socialism-based countries people still rely on the poor in other countries to make their sneakers. Sometimes wealthier people want to give up these luxuries while the poorer people still want them. Are dialogues taking place between class, race, gender lines? Why is time and rest a luxury? Why is “hard work” so esteemed in our culture? Why are people still so into morals, as if it’s about hard work or personal ethics that lead to a good life versus laziness and a lack of internal goodness or positive thinking that leads to poverty and misery? Why do people draw the line at McDonald’s but get a new iPhone every two years—how do we decide our personal ethics? Do we really think our own specific consumer actions uphold the whole capitalist system, as if when we choose to compost we’re taking a step towards global transformative liberation? How do we legitimize our own existence to ourselves when we know we’re part of such unequal horrors, and that no amount of activism will ever be enough?
How can I learn if I talk only to my own demographic? How do we build our way to collective healing?
Forgive me. I can’t help but be ignorant, not see the complexities. But I won’t say McDonald’s is itself the problem. I can claim capitalism’s to blame, but how do you fight something so intangible, something that hides behind these underpaid overworked people at the McDonald’s counter, serving billions and billions?
I’ve fought to be here. I’ve fought myself mostly, I guess. I’ve had a bad case of that old middle-class angst, that specific-only-to-me self-hatred, and self-implication within a fucked-up world. I couldn’t find the revolution. My old fights feel rusty, the cops are constant at any protest, my skin is a privilege, my dollar is folded.
We got older and people fit themselves into worlds, carved out corners, had kids, found jobs, whatever—Allen Ginsberg said we were destroyed. I think maybe we just got real quiet. Our anger at injustice kept breaking our hearts. The problems are so enormous. For me, it’s not really complacency or that I needed more comfort. But maybe I’ve withdrawn from activism because the despair and confusion have been debilitating.
You’re in St. Louis. I want to talk to you, fellow white person who thinks about race and money. I want to share love over weird wires in the air. The food’s heavy and strange in my tummy. For now, most of these dreams live in our heads. Nothing is green there either.
Rumpus original art by Max Winter.