If you are lucky enough to have the day off–and shelter of your own–this is a cold but cozy Sunday in St. Louis. At this moment yellow candle flames offset the blue-chill light coming from my windows. Coffee brews. The dog is happy-grunting next to the space heater and I am wearing this wonderful fleece hoodie that has extra long sleeves with thumbholes to keep fingers warm and limber as I type. And yet…
The air smells like snow and worry. A few weeks ago, it was possible to dismiss the doomspeakers as id-driven hysterics who were enjoying the opportunity to revel in nihilistic racism. To some extent it still is. An article in Saturday’s Post-Dispatch featured comments from a white woman who said that she was sleeping with a can of wasp spray next her suburban bed. It was so ridiculous that I giggled until tears ran down my cheeks. Try as I might, I simply could not envision a scenario where gangs of enraged black people would single this gal out in her Ladue McMansion. (Best I could come up with? She’s a regular Fox viewer who also watched both installments of The Purge.) But still…
Over the last hundred days, residents of St. Louis County and City have been subjected to such a steady ratcheting up of tension that my mind pictures some guy in steampunk goggles tightening up an elaborate set of gears with a giant wrench. These have been one hundred days of wild rumor and demented speculation. One hundred days of statements by public officials ostensibly designed to promote calm but that, in reality, always–always–come with a “don’t fuck with us” subtext. Of a quiet(ish) military-style buildup that is so menacing that it was noted with concern by one of the most rational individuals I know. Of justifiable anger and frustration that has been allowed to simmer for far too long. One hundred days of an unabashed outpouring of some of the most ugly anti-black statements that I have heard/read in my nearly sixty years on this planet–comments so vile that I find myself eyeing other white people in public places, wondering if they have authored any of the filth that I’ve seen in the discussion threads of Facebook or the newspaper.
Yesterday I made my weekly grocery run to a neighborhood supermarket where everyone, from customers to checkout clerks, is usually a tad surly Maybe it was just my news-hyped imagination, but what chilled me as I roamed through the aisles was how nice everyone was being. It seemed as if whites, blacks, Mexicans, Middle-Easterners, Bosnians, and Africans were falling all over themselves to be polite to one another and, I swear, it just didn’t feel right. I’m not saying that the usual routine involves race- or ethnic-driven standoffs at the deli counter. What I’m talking about is the absence of a sensibility that I sometimes think of as South City Grit. The errand-running standard in this part of town is for everyone to ignore everyone else so that we can get our shit done and make it back home without being rear-ended by some bumper-riding fool who reads STOP signs as “roll on through.” The grit wasn’t there yesterday. Instead it felt like I had been transported into the supermarket at the end of The Stepford Wives. That is actually kind of the vibe over at the Dierberg’s in Brentwood, but it isn’t how we negotiate life here on the Southside.
Now, the reader might be tempted to think that I’m crazy for worrying that the Saturday afternoon crowd at Schnuck’s was too polite. Then again, perhaps the reader hasn’t been trying to ride out what has been happening in this city for the last three-plus months. To me, there was something about the abnormal courtesy that summed up the toll that the Long Wait is taking on us, and my uneasy feeling was underscored by the way that just about every person in the store stopped what they were doing whenever a price-check call went out over the PA.
I am old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. In those tense days, even my tiny Southern Illinois town watched for a scary unknown through a mist of anxiety. Schoolkids drilled for nuclear attack. Supper conversations stopped cold and heads cocked if an emergency vehicle blew down the highway. If the t.v. happened to fuzz out–which happened all the time back in the antenna years–folks held their breath and hoped that the Civil Defense message wasn’t coming next.
In truth, it was as unlikely that a supermarket manager would announce the Grand Jury verdict over the store’s P.A. system as it was for the Reds to choose Crossville, Illinois as their first target, but the alligator brain isn’t rational like that. The alligator brain only knows that it needs to pay attention because it might either have to attack or run. In the meantime, it watches and waits and keeps its teeth hidden behind a mouth that, when resting, looks something like a smile. And so…
Today we continue to wait and the air smells like winter and apprehension. None of us knows what is coming because we have been given so many worry/don’t worry signals that even level-headed people aren’t exhaling as often as they should. Every siren sounds a little sinister. Every chopper that buzzes overhead makes us wonder, “is this it?” and then again, “what will “it” mean?” It is almost impossible not to catch a touch of hysteria when that’s the virus going around.
For the record, I’m not sleeping with a can of Raid by my bed (although I might if I lived anywhere near that goofy housewife from the newspaper). I do believe that there might be violence in the wake of an exoneration, but I’m more concerned about police escalation–um, protection–than the flatly absurd notion that my black neighbors will suddenly turn on me. That does not mean that I won’t be taking the same precautions that any attentive St. Louisan would take. The scenario of serious unrest is plausible and so I’ll be leaving early for work on my public transit days to assure that I have a safe place to park at the station. And if the verdict drops when I’m coming home late, I probably won’t drive the down Grand (although even that decision would have less to do with fear than with the fact that I will be too tired to be patient with delays).
Ideally, the Grand Jury will deliver a verdict that acknowledges that a crime did, in fact, take place when Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown. The second-best outcome would be that all who gather to protest the decision do so in a way that leaves the “warrior cops” standing with their dicks (and tear-gas grenades) in their hands, all dressed up and no place to go.
There was a popular slogan back in the Vietnam era: “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” That sounded a little corny when I was a teenager but now it is exactly what I am hoping for. Most of the Ferguson organizers are competent and admirably restrained. They are gearing up for peaceful dissent and I believe that protesters will do their best to follow through with the actions that they have practiced.
Meanwhile, we wait.