I never read "Bonfore of the Vanities", but I did see the film. I remember thinking that the portrayal of New York politics as being entirely based on race sounded a tad overdone. But having been here for a total of three days, it's time for the journalist in me to do the expected "Soul of the Nation" article, and as my main experience of New York has been riding the subway, I really ought to use that as a metaphor. It's that or quote taxi drivers, which is the other standard technique.
Of course there was the experience of getting my lip split open by an actor while participating in an improvisational comedy sketch, but perhaps the less said about that the better.
Riding the subway in New York is an interesting and educational experience. Despite what people may have told you, it is not neccessarily an automatic death sentence if you ride it after sunset. But you do have a sort of built-in "threat meter" at all times. And race is a key factor in determining the threat level. It has to be said, because it's true, and no amount of obfuscatory platitudes are enough to hide this.
A white guy getting on does not trip the threat meter the way a black guy does. Oh sure, there are lots of other considerations - young, well built white guy comes in at about a three, while black women generally don't set it off at all unless they're teenagers and in a pack. One of those rates about a 3.5. White males in a pack might rate a 4, unless they're drunk, in which case it goes up to 6.
Elderly of all races get a free pass to a zero threat rating, as do identifiably Jewish passengers. Hispanics tend to rate slightly higher than whites, but it's black males, especially younger, fitter black males that tend to make a white person's internal threat meter start rising past 8. If there's a bunch of them, drunk, and boisterous, and you're the only white person in the compartment, you're into "mayday, mayday, we're going down" territory.
This is, I have to stress, merely the way some people feel. It is not an indication of the actual level of threat. I haven't seen a single violent incident on the subway yet, and the statistics are actually very encouraging. The person I'm staying with has never once been mugged, and she's lived here all her life. But a sense of insecurity has nothing to do with reality, and everything to with perception. And white people tend to percieve black people as posing more of a potential threat than any other group.
I've seen an interesting phenomenon on the subway, in which some black males rather obviously splay themselves out in such a way as to impinge on a white person's space, often a woman. I have yet to see a white person do the same. And it's done in such a way that it's clearly not accidental or coincidental. It's actually rather aggressive, and everyone in the compartment seems (to my eye at any rate) to be very aware of it. I don't know what the perception of potential threat is from a black person's perspective, and I'd be interested to hear about that.
Some of the beggars, almost invariably black, are very aware of the way they are seem as potentially threatening, and go to great lengths to appear perfectly harmless. Last night, on the way back from the improv comedy debacle, there was one guy who tried humour as a way of defusing the tension.
He stood up on the seats in the middle of the platform at the 42nd St station and shouted, "Excuse me ladies and Gentlemen! Here is a public service announcement! Give! Me! Money!" And then he went into not a bad standup routine about being a homless beggar on the streets of New York. And blow me down if he actually wasn't too bad. The only line I can remember was "I'm so poor, I can't even pay attention!" When the number 1 Uptown train to the Bronx arrived at the platform, we all got on, and so did he. He gave me a quarter and told me to "play along" and so when he did his schtick in the compartment and put his hat out, I put the quarter in.
"See! Jews know how to reward good comedy! Now why don't you all do the same?" Sure, he was a black male who was begging, but he did it in such a disarming way that no-one felt in the slightest bit concerned. Which perhaps supports my contention about the percieved threat. Would he have had to go to such lengths if white people and black people felt completely comfortable with each other? Perhaps not.
Tomorrow - why Puerto Rican girls are hot! Hot! HOT!