[an error occurred while processing this directive]
By BILL MAXWELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001
NEW YORK -- I took the subway on W 23rd Street to go to the United Nations complex, where I am participating in a program on international race relations. (The program is unrelated to my work at the St. Petersburg Times.)
At the fourth stop, eight African-American teenagers got on. These girls and boys were average urban kids -- designer baggy rags, organized hair, appropriate jewelry and teethware, fancy tattoos, effortless banter, cool pose of the New York kind.
They were loud. Suddenly I noticed that their clothes were more than baggy. They were out-sized -- impractical and too big for the narrow space of the subway car. To some riders, these kids were scary.
Their behavior was controlled mayhem -- intended to impress and intimidate. The tallest boy, dark and heavily muscled, came through the door doing a monologue about "dat nigga" who had done something to him. He was loud. "Dat nigga don't know nut'ing," he said.
His companions laughed, knowingly, slapped palms and uttered synchronous profanities. The rest of us, older people and others, looked away and pretended not to have heard anything or seen anything. I stared straight ahead, looking through the window as the gray concrete wall of the subway tunnel zipped by.
We, the other passengers, were a movable audience -- paying spectators to an improv that we did not choose to see, that was forced upon us because we must reach our destinations. These kids were on stage.
The girl in the denim jacket -- how beautiful she was -- used curse words that even I dare not use in public. How, I wondered, could such ugly words come out of such a beautiful mouth? Cursing does not bother me, but the four-letter F-word did not belong in that mouth. My mouth, yes, but not that mouth. As she performed, gesturing with her hands and swiveling her head, her companions bent over in laughter.
The rest of us sat silently, staring warily and wearily at one another, at the floor, at the ceiling, out the windows. Others read the tabloids. None of us let on that we were uncomfortable. The profane girl, standing akimbo, dared another girl to "hit on" a boy at school the next day.
"That one fine nigga," she said. "He won't give you the time of day, girl."
Challenged, the other girl raised her hand and accepted the wager. "I ain't worried 'bout it," she said. "He mine."
And so it went.
I thought back to my own childhood, three years of it spent with my friends in Harlem, on this same subway line. Were we different from these kids? Yes, but only by degrees.
We roamed the city and acted out in public. Our parents used to warn us about "showing your color around them white folks," about "bringing shame on the family," about "staying out of trouble with the law."
We wore bell-bottoms and platform kicks. Our tidy, shiny Afros were big and fluffy enough to block out the sun. We wore enough cologne, Canoe or English Leather or Old Spice, to bring down a swarm of mosquitoes. We were peacocks, proud black ones, strutting our stuff in the city.
Indeed, we boys swaggered, especially when a desirable sister came into view. We talked trash. Spike Lee did not invent it. We did not use profanity around grown-ups, but we cussed like sailors among ourselves. We signified, toasted and snapped. We played the dozens and laughed until our stomachs ached.
And like the black kids today, the subway was our stage.
It was a way of life, a way of taking your ego -- your identity -- on the road, a way of affirming your significance in a world that rejected you.
A subway car is a limited space, a moving capsule that imprisons. It will not stop if you suddenly change your mind. It stops on cue and leaves on cue. You go where it takes you. It is a place of order, where people with purpose sit or stand for a few minutes.
The black kids in my car knew all of this. They knew that their behavior brought chaos to an otherwise peaceful environment. They knew that they were noticed, that they were in control, that they were significant.
At West 43rd, they got off. But not before giving the rest of us the grand finale: The tall muscular boy went into a profanity-laced rant about "dat nigga up in Sugar Hill" he was going to put in his place the next day. The girls laughed, and the other boys slapped hands.
I got off behind them and walked toward the United Nations.
Out of the subway and in the full light of day, these kids looked like kids, innocent children out on the town having fun. In them, I saw myself and my friends as children, unsure, trying to define ourselves in a hostile society.
I glanced at them a final time. They were heading toward Broadway. Were they going to a movie? A rap concert? Wherever they were going, they were just kids being kids. They were not scary.
For a moment, I almost envied them.