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Cell Phones, Race and Rudeness

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“But we have poisoned everything
And oblivious to it all
The cell phone zombies babble

Through the shopping mall..”
Joni Mitchell

I got into a verbal fight with a cell phone zombie on the bus last night. Almost got my ass kicked. “Ooh,” I told her when she threatened to slap me silly, “I’m shivering.” Buried my face in my magazine. Truth be told, I really was shivering, remembering the day Fat Fran punched me in the face when I sassed her at Lake Wyandanch, aka Polio Pit, back in 1959.

I started it. She was doing the performance thing on her cell phone, planning a trip to the East Coast with her daughter. Public cell phone users are becoming more and more insufferable, and I’m hoping they’re eventually banned in places like buses, and become as unacceptable as public smoking. Here I was, trying to read a riveting memoir by a Liberian woman, going over the same sentence six times, retaining details of the zombie’s itinerary rather than those of the military coup from which the writer and her family fled long ago. I sizzled, getting more and more annoyed, until I was bursting.

“Can you talk a little louder?” I shouted across the aisle. “I’m missing some of your plans, and I really want to hear them.”

She cut me a deadly look, raised her head and said, “What’s your problem lady?”

“I really want to hear your plans, talk a little louder.”

“That’s what you have to put up with when you ride the bus!”

I considered this remark, recalling Fran Liebowitz’s line in defense of smoking–unlike anti-smoking crusaders, says Fran, she expects to be annoyed by all kinds of rude behavior out in public, and tolerates it.

“Hm,” I said, “Maybe I should light up a cigarette.”

“Humph!” snorted Zombie, her tongue dripping venom. “White liberals!”

Furious at being pigeonholed, I came back with, “Who says I’m a liberal? I’m a right wing racist!” I glanced down and saw the yellow “Grandmas Against the War” button on my shirt: I’d just come from Walnut Creek, where I handed out leaflets on the cost of the war. Busted!

Just to fuck with her head, I added, “And who says I’m white?” After all, I am Jewish, and right-wingers love to put me and African Americans in the same camp.

“What do you think you look like?” Zombie was incredulous.

I guess she was Hispanic. She wasn’ t Asian or African-American. The group in question, though, was loud cell phone users. To which she returned, at the same volume as before.

I ride the bus because I can no longer afford to drive a car, but I also ride it because I believe in public transportation. Half the time I even prefer it. After all, I come from New York, where everyone rides the bus. Here in Oakland, though, I’m frequently the only white person on it. Just a few weeks ago, when I rang the Request Stop bell too soon, the (black) bus driver got pissed off, and a (black) woman joined in his tirade against me. Did I mention that I live in Oakland?

Lately I’ve been reading the blog Stuff White People Like. I heard it got a $300K book advance and I wanted to find out why. It’s pretty obvious why: these guys are generating hundreds of comments a day with their fairly short, gently amusing observations, not so much of white people as of a certain type of hip middle-class thirty-or forty-something urbanite. White people like home renovations, having black friends, Barack Obama, writing workshops…the list is almost at a hundred, and growing every day. They claim the book will contain mostly new content; apparently it’s the concept that sold.

The comments are almost more interesting than the posts. Wait, I take that back: you have to wade through the usual terrible grammar and spelling, near-illiterate syntax, and comments like “I pooped my pants”—not to mention filth by a few White Power lunatics—to find the comments that are genuinely interesting. Once in awhile someone tells a good joke, but mainly the readers take this thing dead serious. They debate as to whether or not some phenom really is the purview of whites; they talk about their own experiences with each item; and they veer off into new topics with one another the way sitcom characters develop spin-offs. Most of all, white people defend themselves. I kid you not: many white readers of SWPL take the blog personally, and earnestly or angrily make a case for their various likes and dislikes.

Up until now I’ve taken the blog in the spirit in which I believe it is intended. I assume the bloggers are white, male, and trying to be funny. Their dominant tone is nothing if not gentle. Now, after my run-in with the cell phone zombie, SWPL looks different to me. It looks like the same old stupid hateful story.

When Zombie hung up the phone, she turned to me again. “You wouldn’t talk to a guy that way,” she said. “You’d be too scared. Well, bitch, you should be scared of me! I’m gonna slap your face when we get off this bus.”

“Ooh, I’m shivering.”

A few stops later she got off. I couldn’t help myself: as the bus rolled away I looked out the window and gave her the finger.

“Bitch!” she shouted.

I made it home safely. This time.

Note: Bob Herbert  has an insightful op-ed in today’s Times about the  “Bitter” flap: he says what Obama really meant to say  was that  a lot of working-class people won’t  vote for a black candidate.


One response »

  1. I don’t know what to make of SWPL. People who liked that stuff used to be called ‘Yuppies’. Sounds like someone who would be doing “the performance thing on her cell phone, planning a trip to the East Coast with her daughter” would be a ‘yuppie’ issue. So, would you have if it was a guy?

    I definitely would have said the same thing to a guy initially, but if he became as threatening as she did, I probably would have moved to the front of the bus. Which is totally sensible, IMO.–MS

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