I don't want to write this post, but the incident was so perfect in its way that I have to.
I'm an adjunct professor of expository writing. Because half my students are New York City natives and the other half are non-Americans, I've had to find common ground for discussion and writing topics. After some experimentation and a lot of casting about, I've settled on lookism as the theme of my course. What do we assume about people from the way they look, dress, talk? How do individuals take up space in the world, either filling their own or taking up too much space?
I am always excited for that class. The gloves are off and we are able to discuss race, gender, religion, the one percent versus the ninety-nine, and differing national philosophies in an open environment. I learn at least from them and they learn as much each other as from me.
Tired and hungry after an 8 a.m. class, last week I committed a felony against thin people: I bought pastry from one of the redoubtable coffee carts that line the side streets of midtown Manhattan and I proceeded to eat it on my way to the subway. That's right, folks: I ate fattening food under the clear cold blue sky of a weekday morning rush hour.
A fat person can "pass" in the world as long as s/he abides by one law. Be invisible.
The rub is that invisibility is a conflation of many rules. One of them is that fat people don't associate themselves with fat stuff. If a fat person doesn't eat fattening stuff in public, we can all pretend that fat person is on a diet.
Eating a doughnut the size of a small pizza on 41st Street sort of blows that.
I was, however, eating as I ambled along in the correct pedestrian lane at a good enough clip to keep the westward traffic flowing. I was pulling off one chunk of a bowtie at a time, shaking the crumbs into the paper bag and popping the pastry in my mouth. It was delicious. I was savoring it.
I was involved in it.
So involved that I didn't notice the fluffy-white-haired man weaving in and out of the foot traffic, from the right, east-bound side of the wide sidewalk and into the westbound lane, and I was so involved that I didn't hear him say, as he stepped off the curb to circumvent all of us mortals, "Keep eating. That's why you take up too much space."
It hit me about three beats too late to say anything or, preferably, stick my foot out to trip him. Then I began to laugh, because it mirrored what was going on in class. We've talked about how irritated we are by men who sit on the subway with their knees a mile apart, women who step into elevators after having showered in perfume, about people who need so much personal space that they shout their conversations to each other. We've talked about ads that catch our attention and won't let it go, about our jealousies of perfectly dressed people when we're slobbing around on a Saturday morning.
About the ways, in short, that everybody takes up more than their share of space at some time or another, unwittingly, sometimes even looking down on someone else for a perceived wrong.
I knew it would make a perfect anecdote in class and that I'd get some mileage out of it online, so my anger didn't outlast the moments in which I wished I'd sent him plunging onto the asphalt. I did, however, begin to look around more keenly at New Yorkers' use of limited space.
Did anyone make a rude comment to the mother with the Winnebago-sized baby carriage on the Seventh Avenue Express train? That night there was some kind of training cadre out jogging in my neighborhood, barking words like, "Check!" at the tops of their voices as they passed corners. They were big guys - maybe police - and their voices pocked the night like explosions as they stampeded down the sidewalks. My neighborhood has at least two parks where they could have pounded their beefy voices out - why did they have to do it on our narrow residential sidewalks?
Being walked into by a texter takes up space. The guy heaving along to whatever is on his iPod takes up too much space. Fashion magazine ideals take up too much space. My dog definitely takes up too much space.
The guy who was rushing through the pedestrians, interrupting the flow of both lanes, took up too much space. Thin people flinging a one-dress-size solution at fat people takes up space.
I'm surprised that I don't feel as humiliated as I might. The incident made me think more about how easy it is to blame our own problems on fat people when we don't play the Thin Game - or on anyone who hasn't corseted themselves for the convenience or taste of others. It may be the first time I've been able to achieve something of a balance between the insult, the rules I was breaking, and the fact that, on a fairly regular basis, this thing about myself that I know and fear is true of everyone who is alive.
And that, my friends, is as profound and self-accepting as I am capable of being.