I’m going to tell this straight. It’s my goal in 2013 to not write about something I thought or did, and then back pedal and analyze, feel guilty, wondering aloud if the thing I thought or did was racist. I will not tippy-toe around in circles cleaning up my thoughts so as to appear perfectly, politically correct.
With that said, here is my story on how I caught myself doing some racial profiling last month at a local shoe store I frequent.
I consider myself savvy at intuiting potential muggers and pickpockets. Of course that only comes with experience, with encountering muggers and pickpockets. Here’s my list of encounters:
When I was twenty years-old, I was mugged in Boston, by two young black guys, as I was getting off the T late at night. That same year, and on the same block, I had my arm held onto by a young white guy with a gun (the police would later find out the guns were fake, but still), while I, the only customer in the pharmacy, stood at the register ready to check out. The other white guy with him used his gun to badger the elderly pharmacist into giving him drugs. Then they fled.
At twenty-four, and on vacation, I had a pair of red leather sandals snatched right from beside my bleach blanket, while kissing a young man on top of said blanket, eyes closed, on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.
I was pick pocketed twice within the first three months of moving to New York City when I was twenty-five. The first time was in a shoe store, one of the dozens that lined West 8th Street in the Village. I didn’t realize the theft until I went to pay for a slice at the pizza joint across the street, I then instantly flashed back to how I had been herded out of the store by a group of, what my friend called, “gypsy women.” There had been four or five of them in front of me, some with children in strollers, and several behind me. They spoke loudly in another language to one another, and I felt like I was stuck in the middle of a conga line as I was shuffled toward the door.
That incident helped me begin to recognize when things are out of step–you know that feeling when a theft, or a con of some sort occurs, and at the time you perhaps feel a sense of something surreal, like time moving in slow motion, but you can’t put your finger on it. But when the moment of truth arrives, all of a sudden you’re like Chaz Palminteri’s character in the film The Usual Suspects, after Kevin Spacey’s character, Verbal, spins his tale about Keyser Sosa. Chaz’s character looks around the room and sees that Verbal has used names of things he saw in the office to construct his house of lies saga. All of the puzzle pieces flash in front of his face, and then he knows exactly what went down. That’s how it feels to me anyway.
The second pickpocket incident occurred on the subway on the way to a Tears For Fears concert at the Beacon Theater. I don’t know what age, race, gender, or ethnicity the thief was, since they were so smooth I didn’t feel a thing when they lifted my wallet.
All of these experiences made me more alert to my surroundings, to the potential threat of thieves. I now carry my purse in front of me. I am sensitive to anyone leaning too close to me when I am traveling on a subway or trolley. I notice people’s behaviors that seem out-of-place, and try to have the aha! moment of realizing something is off, before falling prey to an incident of theft. I am most proud of heading off what I am certain would have been a mugging or, even an assault, when I was traveling in Italy.
It was a grey, drizzly morning when I arrived at the train station in Cinque Terra, a set of five tiny seaside towns tucked away in the craggy hills north of Genoa, Italy. I was traveling alone on vacation in celebration of finally graduating college at age thirty. Inside the small station, a tall, thin, white man dressed in all black chatted up the locals who worked at the espresso bar. He somehow caught wind that I was American and immediately his face lit up and he turned to chat me up. He had a British accent, a pock-marked face, a wide smile and even wider, light blue eyes that seemed to be lying. He had a sidekick, even taller than him, who barely spoke English, and looked like an Eastern European version of Fabio.
So, the Brit, who I guess was living in town for now, told me he’d lend me his umbrella to walk up the steep hill to my inn, if I promised to return it to the station before leaving Cinque Terre. I took the umbrella, and saw that all the fellow travelers, noting that the rain had lightened, were starting to head out of the station. I followed.
“Hey Wendy, I’ll walk you part of the way towards your inn,” the Brit called out from behind me, Fabio alongside him.
“Sure,” I replied. Meeting new people on the train, in cafe’s, at museums, was all part of the experience of traveling, so if they could help me find my inn, I didn’t mind the company. Though they seemed an oddball, slightly suspect pair, there were fifteen or so other people from the station walking along the road too, so I wasn’t worried.
As we walked up the steep hill, I started to feel bogged down with the overweight duffel bag I carried in one hand, and the borrowed umbrella in my other. Halfway up, the Brit turned to me and yelled out, “Wendy, follow me—this is a short cut.” He quickly disappeared into some tall grass that bordered the right side of the road.
The Brit ahead of me, and Fabio behind me, I took the detour and was met with a set of stone stairs. The stairs turned a corner every few steps, so that when you turned at the landing,you could not see the steps around the next corner, because of the grass. Immediately I felt something was off. My internal monologue spun quickly…wait, we’re apart from everyone on the road—are these guys okay—are they gonna get me up to some remote spot and steal my money, or worse even—sexually assault me?
I thought fast.
“I’m getting slow with my heavy bag, you can go ahead of me,” I said to Fabio once the Brit was out of sight. I gestured with my hand for him to pass, because I didn’t know if he understood my English. Fabio look confused, but obliged. As soon as he turned the corner, I ran down the steps the other way.
I can’t remember if the Brit called my name a minute or so later. If he did, I didn’t care. And, even though the rest of the walk up that long, steep hill was difficult with my cumbersome bag, I was safe. They didn’t get my money, or me. I never bumped into them again. I never returned the umbrella either.
Finally, now that we are all armed with some theft deterrent strategies—the reason, you are reading this story in the first place, I think: my tale of racial profiling:
It was an unseasonably warm day just a month ago in December. I was in one of my favorite shoe stores on Thayer street in Providence, the local college hangout area, filled with a variety of quirky gift shops, hookah lounges, and a slew of places for cheap eats. I needed a pair of dressy sandals for my cousin’s wedding a week away in Costa Rica.
In the long, narrow shoe shop tucked below street level, I wove my way around the display tables looking for the right shoe at the right price. In walked two young, black men, I couldn’t help but notice because they were chatting very loudly with one another, and they moved quickly from display tables to wall racks, back to display tables. I looked at them, because now that I am older, and don’t care as much what people think about my behavior, I’ve become a shameless voyeur.
I’ve always loved to people watch—got that from my Dad, and now I feel it’s part of my artistic duty and right to look. To observe, to absorb,and to relish the visual details of a person’s dress, or to eavesdrop on their conversations. I’m a writer, an artist, and I like fashion. I keep a little notebook in my purse for overheard gems in public places, like…in shoe stores, for example.
So, I took in the way these young men were dressed, their style. They were cute, very slim, and somewhat effeminate. They both wore these funky, Afrocentric beaded and leather necklaces, while the rest of their look was minimalist—fitted jeans, striped tee and nerd glasses on one man, and crisp white sleeveless tank and dark blue jeans on the other. I couldn’t help but notice that every time the young man in the white tee bent over to look at a pair of shoes, his tee pulled up and exposed a real lot of his red plaid boxers, but every time he stood up he was covered.
There weren’t that many customers in the small shop, and so their loud conversation and quick movements kept my attention, distracted me. My theft radar was up because it always is when I am trying on shoes. Why? Because when you try on shoes, you tend to put your pocketbook down on a bench unattended, and then you walk around the store to look in the mirror, see how the shoes look and feel. I either still carry my purse with me when I’m walking around, or I always keep my eyes on it if I leave it on a bench. (If you’re in New York City and reading this, I know you’re saying, “I ALWAYS carry my purse with me at all times while I try on shoes!)
That day on Thayer Street, I left my purse on a bench by a window, surrounded by a sale rack on the left wall and a Van’s sneaker display on the right.
I pulled up on the bottom of my jeans and turned in the mirror to admire the gold, strappy 40’s style heels I had just tried on. I looked up and saw the two men walk right up to the bench where my purse was. They completely blocked my view of my purse. I started to have that surreal, deja vu feeling I had in the shoe store way back on Eighth Street in NYC. It seemed like they were hovering in slow motion, looking, but not looking, at the displays. And, still, I couldn’t see my bag.
I snapped out of slow motion mode. I walked right up to the bench, and surprised myself by loudly and firmly saying, “Excuse me.” They moved out of the way. I sat down and took my shoes off. I felt busted and safe all at once. I bet those men thought I was the scared, accusing white woman suspicious of two young, black men hovering by her purse, but I also felt safe, thinking perhaps I did avert an attempted theft in a store and street known to have its share of such activity.
The man with the white tee picked up a boot and asked to try it on. My thoughts ping ponged from, well, maybe all their loud talking and moving around is just their natural energy, to..maybe they’re just trying on shoes to cover up for my being overtly suspicious of their behavior.
It’s here I remember that I used to be a shoplifter. Between the ages of ten and twelve, I stole candy from the local 7-11 and the little neighborhood Jewish delicatessen, which I felt guilty about, since I was Jewish, and I felt like I was stealing from my own people. I graduated to stealing clothing and make-up from local department stores when I was thirteen and fourteen. I finally stopped when I got caught stealing blush from Bradlee’s department store at fourteen. My mother was called. I got in trouble. I finally “got” the message that it was wrong, and I was scared that if I continued I’d be a “bad girl” in trouble with the law.
I didn’t stay long enough to see if the men bought any shoes. I am telling you all this to show you that even though my parents called me “the perfect child” when I was younger—that is, until my sisters ratted me out for my sneakiness once I got to high school—alas, Wendy Jane is not perfect.
I might be savvy about would-be muggers and pickpockets, and I might be a soul-searching white woman who genuinely tries her hardest to understand all the sensitivities around race and racism, and who genuinely strives to make true, real connections with people who are different from me, but still, on that day in December I have to admit that I racially profiled those two young, black men of wanting to steal from me. And there you have it. No back pedaling, no trying to justify. This is what happened. This is something I did.