1. Berlin, 2003. It is winter and very cold. Friday night. I’m walking from cafe to cafe with a close friend, a middle class Canadian with radically-Left-leaning views and a conservative Jewish background. I’m wearing a dark blue watchman cap; lots of the (probably German) men we see that night wear similar caps. “You look like a thug in that cap,” observes my friend. “Does he look like a thug?” I ask, gesturing at a nearby guy, shiveringly waiting for the light to change, in an identical cap.
“Well, no…” says my friend.
2. A month later this friend mentions that his father, an elderly and prosperous lawyer, who I’d met, briefly, when my friend had taken us around to his visiting father’s hotel room one night, had been very nervous, bordering on fearful, meeting me. “Why?” I ask. “Oh, he’s just really racist,” says my friend, who has, that year, a partner in his various grant-funded Art Projects who happens to be from Cameroon. Let’s call that Cameroonian partner “X”. “But what about X?” I ask. “You told me your father likes X.”
Friend thinks about it.
“But that’s different,” he says. “Africans are different.”
3. Minneapolis, 1983. I am undressing, for the first time, to have sex, for the first time, with a brand new girlfriend. A girl with a very German last name. I step out of my underwear and stand before her. Her eyes widen.
“My God, you really are Black,” she says.
4. San Diego, 1998. My first wife and I are on the verge of splitting up. She is beautiful and was once pretty funny (in a mordant way) but her exposure to the wealthy, as a Maître D’ at a fine-dining restaurant (where she has seated J. M. Coetzee and Dr. Seuss’ widow, among other semi-celebrities)… where a bottle of wine can cost upwards of $60,000… has ruined her. Well-meaning friends of mine… a Lesbian couple (one opera singer and one writer)… try matchmaking and give my phone number to Amy D., a dancer of roughly my age. I Google Amy and see impressive images of a very pretty, dark-haired woman in various colors of leotard.
Amy calls while my wife is at work. I tell her I’m a house painter who also writes and plays an instrument. Amy tells me she’s a dancer who’s also a waitress. We have a great chat for nearly three hours. Half-way into the chat, I can hear that she’s enchanted and I’m feeling pretty enchanted, too: my first wife and I share very few cultural interests. Amy and I like lots of the same books, records, movies, paintings, photographs and zeitgeisty magazines. We are politically similar. Amy laughs at my jokes and I at hers. We decide to set a time and place for a Real Life meeting, naming a new cafe, not far from my flat, we’ve both been curious about. We arrange the meeting for two days hence.
So how will I recognize you? asks Amy, with a nip of tease in her voice.
“I’ll be the dark guy in the silk shirt with vintage cameras printed all over it.”
She says, “Dark like Italian dark?”
Then it hits me: my Kathy-Acker-reading, avant-Liberal Lesbian friends never bothered to tell Amy that I’m black. Too delicate to? Or just so, so virtuously post racial? Either way ridiculous. And fucking awkward.
“Amy, so Paula never mentioned that I’m black?”
5. Chicago, 1970. I’m walking down the sidewalk, maybe five blocks from school, in the fairly rough, Southside neighborhood I spent almost ten years of my childhood in. I’m walking with my best friend Peter C. Someone shouts down at us, from an upper window in a dark brick building we’re passing, with a mixture of hostility and amusement, “Hey, white boy!”
I look at Peter: “He’s talking to you!”
Peter looks at me. “No, he’s talking to you.”
6. Stockholm, 2000. The Passport control window at the Airport. The lady at the window doesn’t want to let me into the country. “This can not be a valid passport. This can not be your age.” She peers through the glass at me again. “You can not be that old. It is impossible!” Luckily, I don’t especially care.
Seeing that I don’t especially care, she relents and lets me in the country.
It really was me and I really was that age.
7. London, 1990. Oxford Circus. Fresh in London. A gentleman approaches, gesturing at a piece of paper in his hand, speaking in what sounds like Hindi. I shrug and make “cannot comprehend” gestures. He is insistent. I am unnerved.
8. Berlin, summer of 2001. Two gentlemen approach me on the sidewalk near my flat in Charlottenburg. One of them comes whisper-near, like a man who wants to sell me a stolen watch or a girl.
“Arab?” he asks.
When I tell him no, he explains, in a very different, comedically “innocent,” voice: “Ah. We were just looking for a hotel.”
9. Berlin, a week later. A gentleman stares, then approaches from across the street. Again: speaking discreetly, he asks, “Arab?”
10. Berlin, that same week, I’m on the U-Bahn platform at the station at Hohenzollernplatz. Picking me out of several dozen people of various skin-tones, from black to pink, a man winds his way through the crowd and asks me directions to the Mosque.
“I think there’s one near Berliner Strasse,” I say. It’s the best I can do.
11. Berlin, soon after. I’m waiting with a date in the queue in front of the Tacheles. The bouncer hails me, jovially, from a distance, in a language I not only don’t speak but can’t recognize; he looks to me Polynesian. I can’t remember which nationality he finally explains he mistook me for.
12. Berlin 2016. Four times in a row in a three- week period: “Arab?”
I am with a singer, who I am working with, at the time, each time it happens that year.
“That was weird…” she says, more than once. “That was really weird.”
13. Berlin 2016. I am with the same singer, on the way home from a rehearsal, waiting for the underground train at Hermannplatz. An older man, rather stooped, walks up to me with an imploringly friendly expression. “Arab?”
I tell him “No,” and he glowers at me in response.
We all get on the train, the older gentlemen sitting to my left, on an opposite bank of seats, glowering at me for the remainder of the ride.
“He thinks I lied to him,” I whisper to the singer.
“Did you?” she jokes.
14. Philadelphia, 1976. School cafeteria. I indicate to one of the lunch ladies, on the other side of the counter, that I’d like this or that dish, please.
“Are you British?” she asks, admiringly.
15. Las Vegas, 1974. I’m crossing the patch of undeveloped, tumbleweed-and-cactus decorated desert between my junior high school and our apartment complex on North Arlene Way, out on the Tonopah Highway. It’s a roughly forty minute walk that I prefer to riding the school bus home. A kid comes galloping up on horseback; a nasty, red-headed, pug-nosed Irish-American bully named Gallagher. I’ve told this story so many times, for so many years, that all I can really see, any more, is that freckled pug nose and the hate-wrinkles across the bridge of it.
Gallagher circles me, cinematically, on the horse. “Are you a nigger or a white boy?” he demands to know, more than once. Maybe half a dozen times.
I ignore him, staring straight ahead as I walk.
He rides off.
16. Chicago, 1968. My brother and I are with my radical father, visiting his Bohemian friends (all African Diasporist Militants) near his apartment in Hyde Park. The friends have daughters roughly our age. The mother of these daughters makes an embarrassing fuss about my brother and me, calling us “These cute little (Puerto) ‘Ricans…”
She won’t stop touching our hair.
Next year, a white student teacher will make a similar fuss over me, in front of other teachers, in the hall outside the principal’s office.
“Doesn’t he look like Harry Belafonte?”
17. Berlin, 1991. I’m working in the then-coolest nightclub in the city. Bowie was an habitué, fifteen years before, of the Cha Cha and the Dschungel, right around the corner. A chesty, languid girl in a blue silk dress, with long black hair, holding court at a packed table near the coat check, waves and then gestures for me to please empty the ash trays on her table. As I begin to do so she asks me “What are you?”
“No, I mean, what are you?”
I laugh: “Black, obviously.”
“No, you’re not.”
18. Philadelphia, 1980. Anne C, a friend of the family, a professional Artist, is chatting with me in her foyer. I have been living among Minnesotans for several years; the college I attended was in Saint Paul. I’m back in Philly for a few weeks. For reasons that make sense given the context of our conversation, there in Ann’s foyer, I refer to myself, casually, as “dark-skinned”. Anne looks astonished.
“You? You’re not dark!”
She puts her arm beside mine for comparison.
19. Minneapolis, 1978. I’m at the home of my house-painting partner, Greg W. It’s early-ish on a Saturday morning and we’re about to head out to a job. Greg’s parents’ house is a nice house in a nice neighborhood near the lake; Greg’s dad works for a major newspaper; the parents are upper middleclass liberals. Greg’s little sister, Sarah, who is sixteen, very pretty, has a crush on me. Always nervous and giggly and red-faced in my presence.
Sarah is in the kitchen, with a few of her high school girlfriends, and I can hear her whisper something conspiratorially, starting with “You guys…”, in a flurry of giggles; I can hear the whispering through the kitchen door but can’t make out the words… in reply to which one of her friends erupts, in shock, quite audibly,
“But he’s black!”
20. Minneapolis, 1981. Two second-generation Hippie Chicks and I are walking around downtown, in the dead of an upper- Midwestern winter, for reasons that now escape me. A cop car with flashing lights pulls up in a screech of tires. The cop says, “Excuse me, Sir, can we have a word with you?” He then cuffs and searches me, yanking my dark blue watchman cap out of my parka-pocket. He holds it aloft for the other cops, in nearby cars, to see and I assume, absurdly, for a moment, that they suspect that I’ve shoplifted the cap.
In fact, I am suspected of having just then robbed a nearby bank.
The Hippie Chicks are freaking out but I am preternaturally calm (for no good reason). I am sitting in the back of the squad car as a description of the dark-blue-watchman-cap-wearing perp comes over the radio. The cops eye me in the back seat as we all listen to a comically-accurate description of me. I have to admit that the similarities are striking: “Looks bad!” I quip. I can tell the cops are slightly baffled. (Years later, so am I; from where is all this confidence coming? Stupidity? Naïveté? A combination of the two?)
The cops drive me to the bank I have allegedly robbed and I am paraded between the two, up the escalator, down the muted, carpeted “Skyway” passageways I walked, not long ago, when I worked shit jobs in this very complex. I am instructed to approach the teller and say exactly this: “Give me all that money you got there!” I do as instructed with a semi-circle of bystanders gawking. The teller who was robbed is Hispanic; she isn’t super-white; she can tell, therefore, one non-white from another.
“It wasn’t heeem,” she says.
I am free to go.
21. Berlin 1994. There is a Health Food Store (a “bioladen”) on Knesebeckstrasse, near the S-Bahn tracks, owned and run by an American and his German wife. The American’s name is Eric. I’m in the shop a couple of times a week and soon we become friendly in a very Berlin Expat kind of way: based almost entirely on the English language and a handful of broad cultural references. One afternoon we hatch a scheme to meet the following Friday evening, at 11pm (Berlin nightlife doesn’t, or didn’t, really start until 1am), at the Deutsche Oper U-Bahn station.
Friday at 11 I’m there. No one (but ostentatious businessmen) really has a cell phone yet. Eric is ten, twenty minutes late. I’m walking up the stairs, on the way to leaving the station, when Eric’s train comes in and he dashes up the stairs behind and past me. He runs right by, sees me peripherally, yells “Hey!”, over his shoulder, then turns around and jogs back down a few stairs and “high fives” me.
“Hey!” he says. “What’s going on?”
“Not much,” I smirk.
“What are you doing here?”
Thinking he’s joking I answer, “What are you doing here?”
“I’m supposed to meet this guy but I’m late. It looks like he’s already left.”
I stare at him. If he’s joking his deadpan is a work of Art; it’s genius. I say, “Who were you supposed to meet?”
He says my name and asks if I know “him” (the guy of that name). He is still perfectly serious. Not a hint of mirth. Still playing along I ask,
“What were you going to do with this guy?”
“We were going to hit a couple of clubs and shit like that.”
From there he goes on to tell me about “this guy” who, apparently, has all kinds of projects on the go. Deals in the works. Some involving real estate. Quite ambitious. This guy (fill in the blank with my name) is a good contact to make. It’s a good idea to hang out with him. Eric hopes he hasn’t fucked things up by being late…
I feel that I must be dreaming the whole thing. Real estate?
I say, “Eric, that’s me. That name you mentioned is my name. You were supposed to meet me here tonight at 11pm.”
To which Eric replies, in convincing and utter reality-dawning-on-him seriousness: “Oh, yeah. Okay. Really? Wow.”
21. San Diego, 1998. The voice on the other end of the phone call asks me if I would be kind enough to answer a few questions for some kind of poll. Sure, I say. It takes about fifteen or twenty minutes and when it’s done the voice, wrapping things up, says, as though it’s just a formality, “So, I’ll just check the box, on the form, for ‘Caucasian’ …”
To which I reply: nope.
“Ooops, sorry. My apologies. Asian?”
The voice becomes somewhat flustered.
22. Chicago, 1967. I’m upstairs in my mother’s bedroom watching My Favorite Martian. It’s a weekday evening. The phone rings: there’s a phone downstairs and one in my mother’s bedroom and since the calls for me only come on the weekend (from my father) I don’t bother answering. I’m eight years old. After my mother answers the phone (she’s downstairs, washing dishes) she calls up the stairs, “Stevie, it’s for you!”
The voice on the other end is unlike any voice with which I am personally familiar. It sounds like a chipper young white girl; a voice from the segregated Television on which the only “colored” faces I ever see are Lt. Uhura (Star Trek) or the secretary for the private eye on the “hip” show called Mannix. Or Rochester on the vaguely-frightening Jack Benny Show. The Mod Squad is still a year from happening. The voice on the phone is going a mile a minute, talking about something that has happened in school, today, her school; nothing like that happened in my school.
She mentions, with reverence, the fourth graders (a class above ours) indicating that we are, indeed, in the same grade. But my school is in the middle of a “bad” neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. There are rats and dumpster fires and one of my friends since kindergarten, Jesse H., has no front teeth at all because they’ve been knocked out by a brick during a gang fight. Her school must be in a suburb. She sounds like she’s calling from the set of The Brady Bunch. Her accent is like nothing I know from everyday life but totally familiar from the whites we all see on TV. On the the cusp between the pre-Mass Media Age and the thing that came after, regional and racial dialects are very strong and strongly differentiated.
The odds against this very-highly-probably-white girl, of my apparent age, dialing a wrong number and reaching the wrong boy (black) of the right age, with the same name as the boy she meant to call, in segregated Civil Rights Era Chicago, are so beyond astronomical that the figures become mystical. At some point I begin giggling with awestruck nervousness.
“Stevie, why are you laughing?”
“I don’t think I know you?” I manage to say.
“Oh, beg your pardon,” she says and hangs up.
23. San Diego, 1998, April 14. Walking with my first wife, from the bus stop near Mission Beach to my favorite cafe, it is unseasonably chilly and overcast; I’m wearing a short sleeved shirt and my hands are in my pockets and I’m freezing. We’re sort of fast-walking in a freezing panic toward the cafe door when I trip on a tree root and hit the concrete, on my left side, without being able to break the fall. Initially numb, the arm becomes swollen and profoundly painful (I will learn later that A) the hospital at the end of my street, a five-minute walk from my front door, doesn’t do broken arms and B) I have broken my elbow). The pain is so great that it’s nauseating. My wife calls a taxi from a nearby payphone (again: cell phones are not yet common or inexpensive) and because there is a massive convention in town, we have to wait an hour for the taxi.
By the time the taxi comes I am on the verge of passing out. To make a long story short (the taxi had a flat when it arrived and that driver had to radio for a second taxi), we are finally on the long ride back from the beaches to Uptown/ Hillcrest. The driver, a Sikh with a standard splendid beard and stylish turban, is very blatantly eyeing me and my wife (a tall, pretty blonde with a stern expression), in the rear view mirror. He eyes us with intense curiosity or suspicion: I in my baseball cap and my wife in her tetchy beauty. We drive on, no one speaking, for nearly twenty minutes, before the driver clears his throat and meets my pain-glazed gaze in the mirror. Having worked up the courage to, the driver finally asks,
“Excuse me, Sir, but I am wondering… are you the Tiger Woods?”
*[All of these recollections are true and are described with as much fidelity as I can muster]