Bystanders

I am sitting in a coffee shop in Brooklyn. It is Hillary’s pub date, and in her honor I am wearing my “I’m With Her” official logo shirt. I even put on earrings and some lipstick to make up for the leggings and clogs on my bottom half. It’s the closest I get to a pantsuit.

I wore the shirt with a bit of swagger today. Let some Bernie Bro stir some shit with me today. Fuck you and the crotchety old man, bialy-clutching, identity-politic-denying candidate you rode in on.

In case you haven’t checked lately, yes, I’m still pissed.

Last time I was in this café working, there was an incident. An agitated woman accused the baristas of stealing her artwork to hang on the walls, and then attempted to remove and steal a piece she said she’d drawn in high school. She exited and re-entered several times, becoming more physically threatening with each iteration. I stood up and moved closer to see if the staff – all women, younger than me, clearly freaked out – needed help. The thing was, the woman hadn’t immediately registered to me as “disturbed.” She was in her twenties, wearing what could have been a hippie/high fashion array of knotted garments, and pulling a grocery bag on wheels. Oh, and she was white. Once I got closer, I saw her clothes were filthy, and the rollie bag contained possessions rather than lentils from the Park Slope Food Coop.

Maybe this sort of initial confusion about her is why I was the only person in the shop who stood up, and, after the woman started throwing things, called 911. There were several clearly able-bodied young men typing away on their laptops, but they didn’t look up. When the police and EMS showed up, I gave a statement of what had happened, as well as a description, emphasizing that I was pretty sure she needed medical treatment, not arrest. A few minutes later, it was over. The staffers thanked me, and we all admitted to a feeling a bit adrenalized. I thought maybe they’d give me a cookie or something but that didn’t happen. The white guys just kept on typing.

That incident has stayed in the back of my mind for the last month. Today, back at the café — and after the last month of continuous Hillary-bashing and defending — I have questions.

Would the (presumably liberal) and mostly male customers of the café have been more or less likely to interfere or dial 911 if the disturbing person had been a black man? A white man? A black woman? Would I have been more or less likely to intervene? On my list of Crazy People Who Freak Me Out, a well-dressed actively psychotic white man is definitely at the top (FYI, he belongs there, statistically). These days, I know I am less likely to call the cops on a person of color and/or someone with an audible accent. Am I right in this? In Brooklyn? I don’t want to be a hero, but I do want to do right.

Why did none of the young men stand up? Did they think the café staffers were fine? Did they not want to create an “awkward” situation? And who the fuck is comfortable as a bystander these days?

Process is intent. Participation is intent.

Last week, in another stereotypically Brooklynian event, my husband, Danny, went to pick up our CSA share in the basement of the church in Bedford Stuyvesant. It was our daughter’s first day of a new school and I was stressed and I asked Danny last minute if he could stop by on his way home from teaching. It was going to be easy for him to grab the vegetables – and fruit and eggs! (Again with the overexcitement.) He didn’t have reusable grocery bags with him, there are extras in a bin.

This is our first year participating in a CSA, and I’ve been possibly a bit too excited about it. Fresh produce! Supporting a farmer! A small shred of community action! The CSA was an investment, but there was a lower income payment option, which meant a slight price break and the ability to pay in installments. Danny and I have been trying to eat healthier, which means more vegetables. Win win, right?

Bed Stuy was the setting for Do The Right Thing, but it’s changed a lot since then. It’s a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. That is, rich white young people and families have been buying property out from under POC renters, often with a nasty twist. We don’t live there (honestly, I’m not sure we could afford it at this point), but it borders our neighborhood where we’ve lived forever in the same rental apartment.

When Danny showed up to get our produce, the volunteer at the sign in counter informed us we owed them money. Due to end-of-summer-adjunct finances, August forgetfulness, and a family emergency, I had forgotten to pay our last installment of $194.54. Therefore, CSA dude informed my husband, he couldn’t take any food. Also, he should really be bringing his own reusable grocery bags.

At the moment when Danny called me to report that the CSA dude was not allowing him to take our food home, I was in the middle of my own small crisis involving our daughter, a play date, and Clara’s belief that a “cake” comprised of water and cocoa powder would solidify in our friends’ oven and also be delicious. After a long day at her new school, much cocoa powder sampling, and the previously mentioned family health emergency, Clara was having a proper meltdown. I could barely hear Danny over the screaming.

“Go back, tell him I’ll pay on PayPal tonight, and take our food,” I said.

Five minutes later, another call: “He wouldn’t let me take the food. And he was such an asshole about it, I lost my temper a little bit. Sorry.”

Okay, okay, I said. I’ll fix it. We don’t need this to be a Seinfeld episode.

I loaded Clara into a car, and got her home. I grabbed our checkbook, a bunch of tote bags, and headed back to the CSA. I wanted that food and also (I admit), I thought I might give this dude a piece of my mind.

The next twenty minutes are a bit of a blur. No, that’s not true. They are vivid. I walked into the church basement, signed in to the CSA, and told the dude I’d brought a check. When I looked up at him and made eye contact, he said, “Oh yes, your husband was already here.” Then he smirked. “I told him everyone was – supposed to have paid in full at the beginning of the season.”

I broke. I. Broke. Did I mention I am from Philly?

“WE ARE ON A LOWER INCOME PAYMENT PLAN!” I screamed, louder than Patti LaBelle when she hits that “more, more mooooore” in “Lady Marmalade” (she’s from Philly too). “THERE ARE PEOPLE HERE OF DIFFERENT INCOMES MY HUSBAND HAS THREE ADJUNCT JOBS AND A DOCTORATE AND I AM OUT OF WORK THERE ARE PEOPLE HERE ON FOOD STAMPS!”

It felt good while I was yelling this, kind of. Clean, or at least cleansing.

Then the guy smirked, again. Later, Danny suggested that the smirk is the white boy equivalent of Resting Bitch Face and that maybe he could not help it, but I was in no mood to parse. Because the dude’s next words really put me over the edge: “Well, food stamps is something completely different.”

There I was, a super educated middle class by birth and privileged in the extreme white woman, standing in the basement of a Haitian church in Bed Stuy. But it just so happens that Danny, Clara, and I are currently on the New York State of Health “Essential Plan” aka Medicaid aka the thing that certain people in our government keep trying to take away. I have been collecting $242 a week in unemployment benefits since April, which is still no one’s idea of a wage. It also just so happens that Danny’s jobs don’t pay until the end of September and it was the beginning of September.  It just so happens that I wanted my fucking kohlrabi, peaches, and eggs. And that possibly I was sick of white men telling me shit.

“YOU HAVE NO. RIGHT. TO. ASSUME. ANYTHING ABOUT ANYONE,” I hollered, even louder than before (somewhere Ms. Patti is shaking her head and warning me about blowing out my pipes).

Throwing my check on the table, I stalked over to the fruit area, where, shaking and sobbing, I began to put food in my tote. The CSA is set up as a sort of DIY assembly line, with each kind of produce in a separate box or sack. This included, in this week, scooping up loose string beans and tiny new potatoes with a wiggly cardboard bowl. Volunteers stood behind each box, all watching me drop potatoes and string beans as I hyperventilated. At no point, at not one point, did a single one of these people offer to help me, an obviously fucked up woman older than them, put the food in my reusable freaking bags.

I had gone from helping the crazy lady to being the crazy lady.

As I left the room, I couldn’t resist one last confrontation with my nemesis. “I REALLY WONDER WHAT YOUR JOB IS BECAUSE I REALLY HOPE IT DOES NOT INVOLVE TALKING TO PEOPLE OR ATTEMPTING TO HELP. ANYONE. EVER!”

SMIRK. “I don’t really think my profession has anything to do with this.”

My laden walk home was a mile but I had the strength of several Fiddler On the Roof daughters when they carry the eggs and milk on the farm in Anatevka.

“I really freaked out.” I told Danny. I called him as soon as I left, and was giggly now, with post-adrenaline regrets.

“You backed me up,” Danny said. “I’m actually really flattered.”

“I think… I have to write to the farmer and tell him what happened.”

“That you flipped out on a volunteer Bernie Bro?” my husband asked.

“Yeah, but… Let me make some more calls.

“Sounds like that shithead deserved it!” My friend Swati said. Of course, she had recently chastised the parents of a seven-year-old boy who’d hit both of our daughters on the playground. The boy denied it, and then his mom and dad backed him up. My friend accused them of perpetuating “rape culture” by denying their son’s violent behavior. “Stupid Bernie Bro.”

And there we have it, right? The elephant (or venerable Senator from Vermont) in the room. Or should I say, in the CSA, and in the coffee shop, and on the internet.

What it is about the so-called bystander behavior made me – and not just me — say “Bernie Bro”?

If I’d been a woman or man of color, freaking out in that CSA church basement, would the dude have treated me with such condescension? Would he have yelled back? Would he have called the police? I didn’t threaten him, but that doesn’t stop people from getting scared. I was scary, pouring all of my worry and fear and anxiety into this stupid CSA situation. For crying out loud, I’m the only person I know who even likes kohlrabi.


Elizabeth Isadora Gold’s writing about motherhood, books, music, and feminism has appeared in The New York Times, The Believer, Tin House, The Rumpus, Time Out New York, and many other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and daughter. Her nonfiction book, The Mommy Group: Freaking Out, Finding Friends, and Surviving the Happiest Times of Out Lives was published by Atria Books in 2016.

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