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The Loss of Civility

There’s a new coffee shop by the train station that opened over the summer.  In a world of Starbucks and Walmarts, it is a welcome relief to the monotony of grande cups and jazzy backgrounds.  It is in a tiny space, which previously belonged to a failed news stand and, before that, a coffee stand that only served cold bagels.

Sometimes I think that I have been in this town too long, now that I can remember the history of spaces.

But I like this shop.  It’s taken the craft approach, offering everything that you’d find at Starbucks at higher quality.  The pumpkin latte leaves a smudge of actual squash in the bottom of your cup.  The baked goods are kosher yogurt muffins where you can sink your teeth into the actual fruit.  I’ve been determined to help it thrive, which is helped by the fact that I’ve been horrible at getting out of bed lately, and often arrive at the train station needing breakfast.

The baristas take their jobs as coffee artists so seriously that I imagine that they’re all part owners. It might be so.  Every morning that I forget my breakfast, I go and choose between the big muffin and the small muffin, and I make such a stink out of it that the big blonde fellow grins every time I go for the big one.

One morning, a new customer came in behind me.  Most of America would know the type.  He was dressed for work, in an outfit that tells you that this is a man who worked with his hands.  Perhaps a mechanic, perhaps in the trades.  His jacket was the tough rough leather of a welder’s jacket and he wore jeans made for work.  When he ordered, he asked for a small coffee with sugar and a corn muffin.  He pointed at the glass display.

“I’m sorry, sir, but that’s a lime coconut yogurt muffin,” my favorite Viking told him.

“What?” He looked closer at the muffins, where a sign declared the new world order in a bubbly script.  “Don’t you have corn muffins?”

“No, sir.  Just what’s there, sir.”

The man looked over the selection, then shook his head.  “Forget it.  Just the coffee.”

When he left, he was shaking his head.  And, because I am in Trump country, I thought, Is he a Trump voter?  Is this the demographic?  The man just wanted a corn muffin and a coffee, like he’s probably been ordering at his favorite deli for 30 years, but now he can’t have it.  He could have lime coconut or apple yogurt or pumpkin spice loaf, but the classics have disappeared from our offerings.

I watched him walk away without his breakfast, embarrassed for the coffee shop, although it is just a symbol of its time.  Why should they carry a product that isn’t exciting and new?  They have to compete with the green mermaid machine, like everyone else.

Before Hurricane Sandy, there was a real New York deli right there that would have blown this coffee shop out of business in a matter of weeks.  But their store was destroyed by the storm, so they packed up and found a new location two towns away, much too far for the commuters at my station.  We have had to shift without our classic bagels and eggs and plain coffees with milk and sugar.  And the world that rebuilt never filled those needs again.  My new little coffee shop is the closest, but it doesn’t suit everyone.

And watching this man, I understood a little better about all the people who have been left behind by our shifting economics.

The man just wanted a corn muffin.  What’s so bad about that?

 


 

Living through this Presidential election season has been hard for me.  I have been joking-not-joking that 2016 is the year that White America discovered that racism is still a thing, as Trump’s candidacy grew ever more blunt about its willingness to incite anti-immigrant fervor. As the wife of an immigrant and the mother of a child with dual citizenship, this has been terrifying.  Even though I know that no one is thinking of the big Irish guy when they’re spouting off about “the Mexicans” or “the terrorists,” it’s hard to watch the violence and the ugliness of the rhetoric.  And it has been surprising to me, even though I live in a neighborhood that is deeply religious, to find out how many people have been willing to give a pass to the nastier things that he’s been saying because of how much they hate Hilary Clinton.

As the election progressed, Trump signs sprouted like daffodils on the lawns of my neighbors.  Every time I passed one, it felt like a slap in the face, as people that I’d liked shouted their support.  And I am trying to be better than this, but it’s difficult for me to look past a willingness to ignore such dangerous rhetoric.

Except.

Except there is a part of me that must be honest enough to myself to admit that there have been times where I have reacted to the injustices suffered by Black Americans with gratitude that that sort of thing was not my problem.  Until not so long ago, it happened every time an unarmed Black man was shot by the police under suspicious circumstances.  It happened when Rodney King was beaten in the early 90s.  I would shake my head and be enraged by the injustice of it, by how unstoppable the system seemed.  And then I would think, “Thank God that won’t happen to me,” and go on with my day.

I don’t feel that way any more.

Thanks to Trump, I have discovered just how many of the people in my life are okay with the way things are.  That is white privilege in a nutshell.  The Trump supporters that I know are not evil people.  But they are people who have made peace with a man who says vile things, who are content to let the problems of other people be their problems.  And they have made me feel afraid, in a way that has opened my eyes to the feelings of many dark skinned Americans.

And that was before his tape with Billy Bush leaked.

 


 

It is good that we are having big national conversations about sexual assault.   One of the best parts of the way that our culture is changing is that we’re starting to talk about rape culture, which was a phrase I’d never even heard until I was in my 20s.  I remember the epiphany, as a young woman, that we should be asking men to talk to men about rape, rather than spending our lives trying to protect ourselves from it.  It was a radical notion, this thought that men could be responsible for fixing this problem that predominantly affects women.

Sometimes it is easy to forget how far we have come, in a relatively short period of time.  It was only a hundred years ago that we even gained the vote, much less the right to sue for sexual harassment or spousal rape.

Since the tape leaked, I have been thinking of the times when a man has forced a kiss on me, in the way that Trump described.  I spent about a week vividely reliving those moments — the fear and the anger that came with it.  When a coworker made a joke about locker room talk, I know I was supposed to laugh, but I could only shudder.  I’ve been fortunate in my life and have only suffered the garden variety level of sexual harassment.  I don’t consider myself traumatized in any way by these experiences, though I am nervous when I encounter strange men.  The events that I’ve been thinking about were both strangers, who pushed themselves onto me in public places.  In the first, I was a sixteen year old girl sitting at a bus stop.  The man had been bothering me for several days, so I asked him to just leave me alone and to go away.  There were others there, and I remember their faces distinctly because after he kissed me,  I jumped up and screamed at him while they stared at me like I was the problem.

And not one of them got up to help me, because it was not their problem.  It was not happening to them.

The second incident happened one night on the subway here in New York.  It was about ten o’clock at night on a week night and I was coming home from a dinner out with friends.  Sitting in a nearly empty train car, I was studying for work.  The man approached me and asked for money, over and over again.  He wouldn’t go away, so I finally gave him some change to make him leave me alone.  When I did, he decided to kiss me.  Years later, I can still feel the wet imprint of his lips on my forearm, which I threw up above my head to deflect him and defend myself.  I remember the faces of the two women who got on the train at the next stop, who I asked to switch cars for their own safety.

Garden variety harassment, as I mentioned.  I do not know a single woman who has not had multiple experiences like these.

No real harm done, except…except that I have a certain distrust of men that I do not know, because of all the times that men have behaved this way around me.  When I first heard “The Story,” a song by The Great Ani, I thought, “Oh.  Oh yes, this.  This is exactly it.”  The lyrics are a bit of poetry:

Ani DifrancoI would have returned your greeting
if it weren’t for the way you were looking at me
this street is not a market
and I am not a commodity
don’t you find it sad that we can’t even say hello
’cause you’re a man
and I’m a woman
and the sun is getting low
there are some places that I can’t go
as a woman I can’t go there
and as a person I don’t care
I don’t go for the hey baby what’s your name
and I’d alone thank you
just the same

 

Since the tape leaked, the Trump signs in my neighborhood have come down.  I am filled with gratitude for that, as it lets me stop thinking of the men that have objectified and attacked me and all the people that look like me.

Maybe that is a start.  Maybe it’s a move towards the empathy that we need to create a kinder world where your problems are my problems. I can only hope that at the end of all this ugliness, we’ll all have learned something about ourselves and the country and culture we want to create.

As the Great Ani sings:

we’re all citizens of the womb
before we subdivide
into sexes and shades
this side
that side
and I don’t need to tell you
what this is about
Undressing for the fan
Like it was a man
Wondering about all the things
That I’ll never understand
there are some things that you can’t know
unless you’ve been there
but oh how far we could go
if we started to share
I don’t need to tell you
what it is about
you just start on the inside
you just start on the inside
and work your way out
“Work Your Way Out,” Ani DiFranco

5 Comments

  1. Excellent post and well written. No there’s nothing wrong with wanting a corn muffin with coffee, and it’s sad that that customer thought he could get one from that coffee shop. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault really. But I do agree that when our society has a mindset that “new is better,” we all lose because the old was just fine. And yes, it is good that there’s a discussion about sexual assault, but we also need to keep it going. It seems to be waning now. And wow, wouldn’t it be great for men to stand up for women in this rape culture rather than not responding because “it’s not their problem”?

    • Mae McDonnell Mae McDonnell

      It’s interesting that we want both — we want change, but without losing what was good. It’s inevitable that we lose some things we want as we move towards other things we need.

      Still, I have hope that we are headed in the right direction! This next generation is going to be fascinating to watch, with their expectations of artisanal muffins and instant knowledge. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Star Trek Federation’s manifests, honestly! – as we work closer and closer to that world.

  2. Joy Oliver Joy Oliver

    OMG you speak for all women. I’m 72 years old and I’ve endured sexual misconduct from men starting when I was 12. No, not rape but unwanted advances. My mother taught me that responsibility for keeping safe belonged to me. So I’ve been cautious all my life. So thanks for speaking up for all of us. Yes why can’t men take some responsibility for practicing some healthy boundaries

  3. Excellent post. I connect to your thoughts on most of the topics. I am so eager for the election to be done.
    I tell ya, a plain cuppa coffee and a corn muffin sounds like an actual breakfast to me, but I’m no ______ supporter.

    • Mae McDonnell Mae McDonnell

      Concur! Corn muffins, nicely toasted with butter….deeeelish!

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