Wednesday, February 3, 2010

9th symphony

One Saturday night in August Josh and I flew out the door as soon as he arrived home from work to catch a train downtown. It was the last night of the summer classical series, and we knew it would be busy. We brought a beach towel rather than a blanket, simple food, bottle of blueberry iced tea. We did not know that it would be quite so full. We did not know that we would walk through yards and yards of people sitting on the sidewalk and the greens surrounding the music field just to find a teensy spot of concrete to lay out our towel and partake of our salad and bread. It was chaos. It was craziness. And the people just kept coming and coming.

Of course, Beethoven's 9th is enough to distract people from the cramped quarters and annoyance: if anything is enough, this piece of music is enough. As it progressed in its many variations and layers of drama and loveliness, the sky dimmed and darkened, the city lights began to glow, and the audience quieted down. When the singers began, I watched a small child sit upright, wide-eyed. She soon began that familiar game of contorted-faced, wide-mouthed opera mockery, much to her sisters' amusement. But soon the mockery morphed into more simple movement: she was conducting.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of another pair of waving arms and realized that a middle-aged woman, like a 50-year-advanced version of the little girl, was smiling across the way at her, conducting as well, wrapped up in the joy of the music and the joy of the little blonde child.

And then people began to stand. As the symphony moved towards its end, rising in that familiar climax, all around the massive green people who had been sprawled on blankets or lazing in camp chairs began to rise, pulled by a desire to see the singers, perhaps, or an innate respect for the soaring song. I watched from my sidewalk seat, my own back against a metal fence, as more and more people stood in silence and attention. It occurred to me that perhaps moments like these are the ones that make God not regret creating people after all, with all our wars and hatreds. I thought that maybe from just the right angle over the earth, one could see certain patches of goodness-beauty-truth, like these, shining valiantly amid a patchwork of violent darkness.


On the ride home, exhilarated and exhausted by the beauty (the beauty of the people even more than the beauty of the music, and the overwhelming muchness of it), we sat in the seats by the doors that face another set of seats across the aisle. These seats were occupied by a group of African American adolescents in 1980s clothes, suspenders and skinny jeans and oversized glasses. Several of them were blurring their gender, so that one spoke with an over-emphatic lisp, while another, slightly husky, sported a sports bra and white t-shirt and black nylon head-cover.

I have no trouble researching and writing academic papers on youth identity, racial identity, gender identity. I have a harder time feeling right about interpreting flesh-and-blood people the way I would interpret a character in literature. I know this makes little sense, not because I believe that literature simply mimics reality but because I think reality is shaped by conventions, and so research into the conventions should apply to lit and real life. In any case, let us simply say this: in our country and time, identity is a complicated thing. We wear it on our outsides, and have an unprecedented degree of control over it. Identity is particularly difficult, in light of history and stereotypes, for young, urban African American men and women.

These young people were acting out. They caught my eye, and one young man (his pupils dilated beyond recognition) began making explicit racial and sexual jokes, laughing, pole dancing. I caught his eye again, and I shook my head, holding his gaze. "What?" he asked.

"There are children on the train," I said.

He laughed, mimicked me, began an even more eyebrow-raising pole dance. Another of his friends gave me an apologetic shrug. At the next stop, one of the families with small children hurried out the doors to move to another car.

One of the young people started beat-boxing, wordsmithing, doing such astonishing things with language I couldn't help admiring the poetry of it. His friend kept up with the screaming of obscenities, things you wouldn't find printed in literature, things you could lose your job for saying about a person of color or another human's sexuality. Then he and the poet-musician began an elaborate and melodramatic fake fight: two young men, standing in the aisle, screaming and threatening.

More families left the train.

I knew they were joking. I knew they were giving us a performance of a stereotype, aping expectations. I knew that this was an incredibly complicated thing that was happening, and it involved artistry and agony as well as irony. I prayed in my seat that no one would take them seriously, that no one would see what they were expecting to see, have their fears confirmed, call authorities. I prayed that two more young men would not end up in trouble simply because roles exist, like a cast list, waiting for certain young men to get into trouble.

They finally arrived at their stop, several before ours, and as they left the quietest of them all made eye contact. "I'm so sorry," she mouthed silently, shaking her head, her smile mostly sad. I smiled back, shook my head back, whispered, "It's okay. Take care of yourself."

Take care of yourself.

And I began to cry. I was angry at myself, because the last thing I wanted was for other people on the train to think I was crying because I had been frightened and traumatized, that educated white girl who doesn't know how to deal with City Kids of a Certain Variety. I had not been frightened and traumatized. I had been heartbroken. They were beautiful, gifted, incredibly smart. They were clearly trying on modes of self-expression. They were ironizing social expectations, pushing boundaries. But if they kept acting out certain roles (and the drugs, too, if they kept up with the drugs), I feared they would find themselves in awful trouble, participants in a too-familiar story. And who is to delineate the boundary between aped and actual self-hatred?

The juxtaposition of that night, I couldn't shake a sense of it for weeks.

love song

I began to draft this post a few days later (in August), delighted by the third movement, the fact that the next morning in church we sang "Ode to Joy," our myriad voices all blended and rising, our pains and our broken selves mingling in a certain harmony, far from perfect. I was delighted in the way the congregation tried to sing it straight, while the musicians struggled to get us to come in earlier on those certain lines, leading with their voices.

But it wasn't a fitting ending. It was trite. It didn't answer the experience on the train, didn't attend to the parallels and contrasts. It was pretty, but it was not enough.

Six months later, I stumbled upon a video on a blog I happen to like (she makes lists. I love lists). I watched this video, and that face--those glasses! that jaw! that hat!--brought a vivid memory to mind of the train and the night. It is music. It is hip hop. It is joking, color, light, wit, and love.

Human race, this is for you. Little girl conducting, it's for you, and middle-aged woman, and Chicago residents standing before something bigger and more beautiful: for you. And young people on the train, especially: Do you even know who you are? I thought you were lovely and I hope you are well.

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