Discerning the pain of strangers

Early this morning in Los Angeles, when the sky was amazing indigo blue and the clouds puffy and white as snow, the tenacious winds made the air fresh and clear and crisp. I sat in a coffee bar reading about a French-Swiss chef, Benoit Violier, having committed suicide over the weekend when suddenly I was kicked off the Internet because Wi-Fi was “unavailable.”

I was finishing what was left of my coffee when an elevated male voice said something about “smoking.” I merely glanced in the direction of the increasingly aggressive pitch of the man’s voice. Primarily because the coffee bar, while it was crowded, is small, so I wanted to see who was talking in such a high-pitched tone. I didn’t make out the voice in the tightly situated room and turned back to the screen of my laptop to see if Wi-Fi was up and working again. Then the voice I had caught moments before heightened, but was now impatient and angry.

“You are lying!” the person yelled. “You are f’ing lying!” he insisted, much louder than he had previously.

Several of the baristas began to try to talk to him, attempting to calm him down, and presumably so that he would not make a scene (and make the customers in the coffee bar uncomfortable). But the man continued to yell, the pitch of his voice increasingly vexed, as he began calling the female barista, whom he was having the confrontation with, the B word repeatedly. “You are lying, you are f’ing lying!” he said confrontationally. “What the F, you bitch!” he yelled. And this went on for what felt like forever before someone told the man he had to leave and that they were “calling the cops!” He yelled back at them to “do it,” and as if to test them, added, “go ahead!”

The entire room was intensely silent. More than half the people in the coffee bar were using their cells in lieu of their laptops because they were unable to get connected to the coffee bar’s Wi-Fi. Yet every single person in the room stopped what they were doing–coffee cups held in stationary hands; cells which had the attention of most moments before were now being ignored; the customers standing on line were so confused that they stood stock-still as if the irate man had a gun pointed at the their temple.

The confrontation grew ever intense. The more the baristas told him he had to leave, and that they were calling the police, the louder and irate he became. He said things like, “I’ve been coming here for years and you’re going to treat me like that!,” and “You f’ing bitch, I’ll kick your ass!” His threats got more heated, aggressive. Finally, he walked away from her and the other baristas when they warned him that someone had called the cops and he should leave! He headed for the door yelling, “You racist bitch!” a few times over his shoulder. He pushed the door open with a great deal of strength, and despite the forceful wind, the door flung open all the way, knocking against a set of chairs and a table where people were sitting outdoors, along the sidewalk. A large cup of coffee tumbled onto the ground, it’s mocha coloring splattered over the table and dripping between the cracks of the concrete.

With good instincts, the people at the table jumped up out of their seats, clearly unsure as to what had just occurred indoors. The incensed man picked up a nearby chair and threw it where it landed on two empty tables. The baristas were in the doorway, perhaps petrified and perhaps confused and perhaps disoriented, while the man yelled at them, using profanity, and his anger was especially visceral. They were saying things to him: “We’re calling the police,” and “We’re not racists!” as they tried to reassure the customers who popped up out of their seats like jacks-in-the-box when the man flung open the glass door, only scarcely missing a woman seated closest to it. The irate man, pressing his fists into his jacket pockets, continued to yell as he crossed the wind-swept street.

He then disappeared from my sight.

There was a collective sigh. No one in the coffee bar said a word. The place was remarkably hushed. Each person was making eye contact with someone else, hoping the eyes they came in contact with would reveal clarity. Those seated inside the coffee bar were understandably confused, and his abusive language toward the female barista was unpleasant. Even I, who discerned his angry outcry as purely superficial, was a bit uncomfortable watching this all unfold.

The man was black. That shouldn’t matter–his race. Yet it does. In his mind–and it doesn’t matter what “the truth” might be–he felt attacked because he was black. Not physically, but psychologically. I trust this to my core. There were three of us–blacks, in the coffee bar when this all went down. I was so caught up in this man’s public display of anger that I hadn’t noticed the other blacks until the baristas said to those seated and standing in the coffee bar, “Everything’s okay. It’s over now,” that there were two other blacks in the coffee bar. There was one young woman, who had been standing on line to place her order. I could not see her face, but her body language–arms folded stiffly over her chest, and her legs wiggling anxiously–led me to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that she believed he had been treated unfairly (even when she, like the rest of us, didn’t know the intricate details). And for any number of blacks, had they witnessed the awkward confrontation that had just played out, would in some way relate to the angry man’s mind-set. The other black person was a man seated at a table near me. His back was to me so I could not see his expression, and I didn’t have a handle on his body language, unlike I did with the young woman standing on line to place an order.

It isn’t necessarily because the man was black that I understood that he was in pain. Any person who created that kind of scene, and for what seemed to be about something as trivial as being accused of smoking and he believed that the barista lied about it, would be someone I would consider in pain. Pain is often irrespective of color. You don’t shout and scream and throw things in a public place solely because you are having a bad day. You might snap, say a few unpleasant words, and move on. Public display on this level has something to do with feeling insignificant, not believing you matter, and no one understands you. Perhaps life has trapped you. At some point you’ve merely taken one blow too many. When it comes to being a minority–and more specifically black in America–the idea of always feeling judged more by skin color before one can know your character, is something that is almost always lurking at the edges of the psyche. No matter how hard one attempts to push it away, it’s a default mechanism that naturally comes with being treated a certain way throughout your life based primarily on race. You make every attempt to let it roll off you like water on a duck’s back a good percentage of the time. Yet when the color of your skin keeps reminding you of a painful truth, even if your color has nothing to do with what is happening in that moment, a breakingpoint has the potential to manifest.

The man’s display of anger is not to be pooh-poohed. However, what I believe to be true: those in the coffee bar didn’t recognize his behavior as pain, but instead what they witnessed was a black man who was angry and accused white people of being racist. That’s an intellectual assessment. It doesn’t mean that he wasn’t angry, because he was in fact very angry. It doesn’t mean that his behavior wasn’t completely inappropriate, because his behavior was absolutely inappropriate. What is often the thing we fail to consider is that anger is pain–a kind of emotional helter skelter–turned inside out. A barista isn’t trained to recognize a stranger’s personal conflict; it’s not her/his job anyway. And because we all have our own crosses to bear, we ourselves rarely have the emotional capital to accurately decode it or to deal with it.

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