On Beauty

Strange, the way forces converge. One moment you are reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and the next moment you are inside the novel.

The mundane facts look like this. At 6 PM, having despaired of accomplishing anything else by way of book promotion…my current ‘job’…what was there to do but prop up my feet and bask in the fading light of day? I am a fading-light kind of guy, after all. Obsessed with the wearing out and running down of things, particularly time. So it is a bittersweet part of the day, regret everywhere, light less and less anywhere. Except just outside my office, that is to say, before the carport. The wall of my apartment building has a meter-high section of concrete brick, perhaps a touch that was once thought to be decorative. It is atop this cinderblock strip, on a small ledge, that I rest my foot. I rest my case also. There is no reliable sun elsewhere, and what is a person to do? But sit there and read and feel a bit of warmth on the back of the neck. And try to pretend that this isn’t what it looks like. A not very pleasant suburban expanse of concrete dedicated to automobiles. Which is why God invented books.

‘Hey, can you help me?’ This from a black man about 40 years old, briskly walking past me, plastic rubbish bag slung over one shoulder. ‘Is the shelter down here?’

No, and no, I told him. This is not a favorite fact about myself. I do not give money to homeless people. In fact, I do not even talk to them. I am wary of anyone on the street. Personal history has much to do with this, coupled with the personal present. Paralyzed and in a wheelchair and feeling vulnerable. ‘No’ being my automatic response to almost all such interactions.

As for the African-American guy, he was gone. He did not slow or miss a beat or vary at all in his appointed course. And as this fact sank in, so did worry. My door was open, after all. There is no way out at the end of the footpath, which meant that he had continued on…well, who could say?

At such moments, my anxieties being what they are, the difference between caution and paranoia blurs. Would this guy seriously have had the chutzpah to enter my apartment? Extremely unlikely. But then, getting shot in the spinal cord is also extremely unlikely, and I am living, paralyzed proof. So, with a mental groan, I set about activating forces that I could half predict, and already regretted.

Go inside? No, erring on the side of hyper-caution, instead I tried yelling up the stairs to my neighbor. No response. Dave is slightly deaf, after all. Phone my landlord in a nearby apartment? Yes, although this would require going inside my apartment where…who knew…an intruder might be lurking. Which was slightly mad, of course, this fear. So, what the hell. The cordless phone was just inside the door. I grabbed it, rolled back outside and left a message for landlord Tom.

Important, I said. Within a few minutes he was downstairs and hobbling toward me on his cane. Tom is, after all, in his early 80s. But compared to me, he is as spry as a member of the San Francisco Ballet. So here we were, and dealing with matters. Tom listened to my story, wandered into my apartment and poked around. The pantry, I reminded him. Closets. I forgot about under the beds, though this would occur to me later. Where the Wild Things Are.

Of course, there was no one anywhere. Tom asked for a description of the wanderer. For a moment he looked around the concrete expanse. ‘She has black people visiting,’ he said, pointing his stick in the general direction of one of our neighbors. Not homeless people visiting her, I told him. The story was over, as far as I was concerned. The two of us had jumped to various racial conclusions, the relevance, not to mention the fairness, of which were highly dubious. Now the neighbor arrived, pulling into her carport. I felt obliged to recount the story, for she lives in a rear apartment, close to where the interloper might have wandered. Call the police, she told me. No, I told her. No crime had been committed. The whole incident, if one could even call it that, had been over in a flash. The person involved had disappeared and was doubtless far away by now. Call the police, she repeated. I groaned, rolled inside, and looked up the non-emergency number for the Menlo Park Police.

They had a fire in progress across town, the police dispatcher explained. Already, I felt foolish. Too late. Now the cop asked for a description. I hesitated for an instant and he asked me to specify. White, brown, black? Black, I said. Height? Medium. Attire? I couldn’t recall, instead volunteering the detail about the black plastic rubbish bag slung over one shoulder. The policeman told me that no one could come by right then. Fine, I said. Don’t send anyone, for it’s not that big a deal…. We will send someone, he told me, but later. Whatever.

I was just rattled enough to lose myself in small busying tasks for the rest of the evening. It took me a long time to get back to Zadie Smith, where I had started. On Beauty is about appearances and their role in human lives. Her characters are, like Smith herself, of various racial mixtures, with origins British and American. She explores in a setting that, upon reflection, seems beautifully crafted to avoid the contemporaneousness of politics. The reader is slightly thrown off by the ultra-conservative black professor from the UK teaching in an American university. Not to mention the white professor from the UK married to an African-American and dealing with his own midlife crisis, along with the adolescence of his mixed-race kids. And there are the characters from the racially troubled neighborhoods of Boston who wander in and out of the story. One of the professor’s kids keeps trying to pass himself off as a hip black from Boston’s Roxbury, rather than his own Ivy League suburb. Everyone in On Beauty is trying to find a place in a world of racial stereotypes. It is Zadie Smith’s tale, and it is mine and it is everyone’s.

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