What’s on your Christmas list?

After nearly a year of working the Friday night shift at the SAM, my hours have changed — you can now find me at the Information Desk on Saturday mornings between 10am and 1:30pm, dispensing helpful responses to questions like, Where’s the bathroom? Where do I buy tickets? Do you know anything about the exhibit at the Pacific Science Center or how to get there?

Last Saturday was my first shift at the new time. As I settled in, I started looking up lunch spots around the Pike Place market in anticipation of queries. The museum stations a guard at the entrance, next to the Info Desk, and this guard was one I had not met before. He was a short black man with thick glasses, close-cropped grey wiry hair, clearly native African rather than African-American. I gave him a cheerful good morning, and continued on getting the desk ready for the day. He continued watching the door, his hands clasped in front of him.

A short while later, an older woman approached the desk and inquired about a grey wool hat that she’d left at the ticket desk a week previously. As I waved over the guard, I explained to her that Lost and Found were under the purview of security – he would investigate whether the hat had been turned in. Speaking in a thick accent, the guard asked if he could use the desk phone to call the central security office. Over the next few moments, there was some confusion over the precise descriptive details of the hat – it was grey and had peruvian-style braids – communication was hindered a bit by the guard’s accent. But, he was patient, communicated the salient details, and after a few more minutes, a second guard appeared at the far end of the forum carrying the grey hat.

The older woman beamed with pleasure at identifying the missing hat, for it belonged to her neice. She thanked me and the second guard profusely, and then went on her way, off to look at the new Edward Hopper exhibit. I watched the second guard leave us,  I looked down at the desk to shuffle papers around, and then looked at the guard who was still here, standing next to me, where he had been since he had hung up the phone a few minutes prior. He then turns to be and bursts forth with the rage of an educated man who has witnessed again and again the damage that cultural prejudice can inflict.

“Did you see that?! She thanked you, she thanked him, but she did not thank me.”

Oh, god. Ohhhh, up until that moment it had been as though I had lacked some critical fluency to see, to comprehend what I had witnessed. Oh, I was just as culpable – I hadn’t even seen it, I hadn’t even noticed this unthinkable oversight of common courtesy. He continued on,

“It is simple politeness! I was the one who telephoned to locate her item! In this country, foreigners are invisible! If she were to go to Africa, she would be in for a rude surprise.”

The next words out of my mouth were an apology for this woman’s behavior: if racism is about applying prejudices across whole classes of people, then here I was doing the same in reverse, acknowledging tacitly that I had made the same error, and hoping that my apology might be good enough for both her and I. The guard was also engaging in some double-speak, too; I think he is far too smart a man to suggest something as incendiary as racism was the cause for his ill-treatment. “Maltreatment of foreigners” is a convenient fallback and less inflammatory, but we both could read between the lines. Between his accent and the color of his skin, he was totally invisible to this woman. All the other dramatis personae here were white native-born Americans – insiders. Racism is not dead in America, not by a long shot.

I did what felt natural: I extended my hand, smiled, and introduced myself. “Hi, I’m Eleanor.”

“Eleanor,” he says, giving me a wistful expression from behind his thick glasses, “that name reminds of my life back at home.”

“Your wife?” I ask.

“No, no, my life. My name is James.”

I smile again. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, James. Where is home?”

James is from Liberia, and he has been in the States for a long time, worked for over 25 years in radio communications. Over the next two hours, I learn many things from James. I learn that he is an obsessive reader and student of history, easily as erudite as any of my university history professors. I learn about the political history of Liberia, initially formed 150 years ago by freed African-American slaves; the country has since kept a fairly close relationship with the US (recent history notwithstanding). At one point, I asked whether Liberia has faced any of the same issues that the Jewish diaspora has faced in the creation of the Israeli state, at which point James launched into a fantastic response which included the historical implications of the development of the Arab and Christian political states. James came to the United States when the Liberian government was taken over by rebels. At the time he had been working for his own government on a radio communications project in tandem with the US gov’t; the rebels were targeting all American sympathizers. He did not say that he would be assassinated if he stayed, but this is what he implied: the US granted him asylum, and he has been here since that time.

I was fascinated by my conversation with James. Over the course of our two hours, we spoke of nation-building, patriotism (“country and government are not the same,” he remarked to me, with heartbreaking sadness in his eyes), American media, current US politics. What is a man like this doing working as guard at the SAM? I had so many questions for him. I have so many questions for him. As much as I am held back from prying (note that I did not ask about his family) by my own ideas of privacy, I want to peer behind the SAM uniforms and outward personas that people wear, to glimpse their private selves and their interior dramas.

Though James is one of many guards that I have had the opportunity to speak with at the SAM, his story makes this tension between internal and external identities so apparent. While on duty at the Museum, he – and his private life – remain nearly invisible until a patron interacts directly with him or with an art object. He is astonishingly complex, and the more I spoke with him last Saturday, the more absurd the episode of racism and prejudice that I witnessed at the beginning of my day seemed. Visual and aural cues are an easy shorthand, but there are many out there who, by these measures might remain invisible but who are equally complex. James is not the only guard with a story to tell; many of the SAM guards are artists, some are retired, one has fantastic stories of running a two-person theater troupe with his wife in the ’70s, hitchhiking up and down the West Coast.

I am becoming more aware of other “invisible” people elsewhere: three nights ago, I went into an Am/Pm to pay for my gas, and the counter was staffed by two foreign, dark skinned men who were chatting amiably. They continued to talk as I waited for my debit card to process; the language sounded unlike anything I had ever heard. I would have expected Arabic or Hindi, but this was much more gutteral – none of the singing quality of Hindi, or the purring of Urdu. After the cashier gave me my receipt, I looked at him and said, “what language are you speaking?”

He looked surprised that I was taking an interest. “Tigrinya.”

“Taginia?” I tried to get my mouth around the word and the accent all at once – both were wholly foreign.

“Yeah. Tigrinya. From Eritrea.” The cashier looked at his friend with an expression of bemused disbelief. Strange girl.

“Huh. Cool. Thanks.” I smiled at him and his friend, “Have a good night!” Eritrea. Made me think of the Bible. Isn’t that near Ethiopia? Huh. Suddenly both these men had become three-dimensional people, each with families and a place to go after they left the Am/Pm and rent to pay and a story about how they both came to America.

There are so many stories to tell, so many lives to explore. It seems to me that by asking simple questions and inviting others to share their interior lives, I can provide an opportunity to chip away at prejudice just a little bit. We all wear two faces – rare is the person who is wholly integrated in every setting. Thus, for Christmas this year, I’m asking my family to pitch in to help me purchase a high-fidelity digital voice recorder of the sort that radio journalists use, along with a microphone. I would like to start conducting interviews with people about their double-lives – from SAM security guard-slash-political refugee to paralegal-slash-part-time adult film star to a physicist who attends church on Sundays to everything in between. I’ll edit up and podcast my results, learn a few new tricks, and, if all goes well, produce some interesting content.

*If you’re in the publishing/recording industry and have some tips, let me know!

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~ by ecp on November 29, 2008.

One Response to “What’s on your Christmas list?”

  1. Very cool story. The capital of Liberia is Monrovia, named for President Monroe, who had a bit to do with the country’s founding as a place for freed slaves to go to return to Africa. Unfortunately, the reality didn’t live up to the dream, and Liberia has encountered many, many difficulties – largely economic, much like the rest of Africa, including Eritrea. Eritrea was part of Ethiopia from the early sixties until the early ninties, and the war for Eritrea’s independence devastated the economies of both countries.

    It is sad that so many of us ignore the opportunity we have to learn so much about the rest of the world from the people who come to our country to work. So many of them are around us every day, because regardless of what they did in their home country, they are often forced to work low-paying labor jobs here. When I was a teen and worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken (yuchhh) there was an Egyptian gentleman working there for awhile who was an architect and had come to the US to study American architecture. He worked at KFC to pay his way while we studied. I loved talking to him. It was always interesting, even with his tenuous grasp of English.

    I’ve been thinking about taking my video camera out and interviewing random strangers, because I firmly believe anyone over 25 has some interesting stories. Maybe we should team up on some interviews?

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