There’s a narrative structure that exists in video games that, at this point, is a little cliche, but has its place in storytelling. Essentially, a user plays as the main character with all of the powers and abilities capable of said character only for it to be taken away through some lame narrative element. This structure is usually found in sequels as an uninventive excuse for players to go through the same type of game play that made the original popular.
The hope is that a player will relive a presumed enjoyment and that the brief taste of absolute power will eventually serve as motivation after experiencing a systematic betrayal.
I know, I know - it is also welcomes new players to the most recent entry in the franchise without forcing an unappealing learning curve and yadda yadda … not the point.
The point is, this happened to me. Not in a metaphorical sense, not in the context of a video game. I’m talking a couple of years ago, when I lost all of my abilities… my powers. Or, at least, they changed for a brief time.
At 6:05 AM, Red rubbed my shoulder trying to gently wake me up. My 3rd alarm of the morning was going off and she was trying to get me up, not because she was worried about me getting up so much as she was still half asleep and wanted the noise turned off. Groaning in frustration at nothing else than the unfortunate call of duty that was daily employment, I forced myself to rotate my view 90 degrees.
Sitting on the edge of my fully Ikea bed, I noticed the frame of the classic style window frame shadowed on the wall in a perfect fashion. To make it worse, a titmouse landed on the window sill. “How fairytale…” I thought. I hate fairytales. And I have no idea what a titmouse looks like.
A few minutes later, fully dressed and ready to head to the warehouse, I go to find Red and kiss her goodbye. Red, now going through the same existential crisis I just suffered, looks to receive my exit smooch, but she pulls away unexpectedly.
“Are you ok?” she asks. Confused, I respond “Yeah, why?”
“I dunno, you seem distant or off or something.”
Red is sensitive. A little too sensitive if you ask me. I tell her not to worry, essentially asking water not to be wet, and head to the parking lot for my car. It’s a crisp morning so I pull my hoodie over my head and prepare for the crap shoot that is turning on my 2002 Nissan Sentra: potato color. The car takes what feels like an eternity to turn over and when it does I speed away; I’m running late, and if there is one thing I dislike more than people pronouncing it ‘bah-ghel,’ it’s tardiness. My racial insecurity makes it so that I always arrive on time. The stereotype of POC folx being late will not be enforced by my doing.
I hit Maryland Ave and I speed around the neighborhood squares in a manner I normally would shun. As I make my way to the final stretch, there’s a blur in my rear view mirror. My head whips around to see what is moving around me before stomping on the brake. The light had turned red and I was about to unknowingly blow it. In the corner of my eye, a white-ish vehicle creeps into sight, like it was falling into scene. It was Metro PD. Two cops had clearly been looking at me, and there was I was sitting in a black hoodie and a beat up sedan driving - objectively speaking - recklessly. For those of you who don’t get it, it’s like if they were a cartoon bull and I was Elmer Fudd’s ass painted red. They roll down the window and I thought for sure they were gonna give me shit. The next few moments are key; make just enough eye contact, speak confidently without seeming arrogant, no using any urban vernacular and they will hopefully see a brown man submitting.
The window rolls down and the officers, who all look alike with their mustaches and aviators, look up and down the car. They nod their head and open their mustache hidden mouths. “Looks like your tire is a little low.”
I respond, “[heh] Yeah ...”
I don’t know much about car repair, but I know that’s not something you ‘fix.’ In retrospect, the correct rhetoric for interactions like these is ‘been meaning to take ‘are of that.’
“Careful now. Looks like you’re living for the weekend,” the officer quips before pulling away. The fuck does that mean? What does it look like to live for the weekend? I try not to think about it too long and make my way to work. I got off lucky, let’s not get caught up in the why too long - they could after all come back and realize they forgot to harass me.
The warehouse is only occupied by 3 workers, including myself, so I often go most of the morning without ever saying a word to someone else. However, when one of us is late, it is noticeable and I fully expect a solid minute of unnecessary shade. Nick, the Hungarian floor supervisor, sees me walk in and I tuck my head into my chest. I look up and he gives me a simple wave before returning to whatever he was angrily scribbling.
Huh… good day so far...
After the major inventory work, the FedEx man shows up. Ronnie was new; we had just switched delivery services and rapport with the driver is important, especially should you ever need a favor. Being the only person of color at the warehouse, there is already a solidarity in being amicable. I go to say hello to him as the bay door opens and what I mean to say is ‘Ey man, what’s good?’
What comes out is entirely different. ‘Hey friendo, good Taylor Swift to you!’
Ronnie stops and stares at me. I panic and try to talk about all the packages we have for him, but we never recover.
I don’t understand what happened. What the fuck compelled me to say that nonsensical line? I’m red with embarrassment, and considering how tan I am, getting to say it literally is a rarity.
I can’t shake it, but the bewilderment doesn’t last long. Kyle the assistant manager makes his way from the other end of the warehouse. He pops a squat on a few cases that are stacked next to me. He sips newly made coffee from an old Dunkin Donuts cup. He starts to tell me about a Keith Urban concert he went to this past weekend, “just thought you’d be interested.” He proceeds to invite me to his family’s lake house for a “lil quail huntin’.” I don’t want to. Also, this is the first time Kyle has ever asked me to do anything other than speak spanish to the drivers or drink. What brought him to think I wanted to hear about a Keith Urban concert, I don’t know. I mean, I enjoy the occasional Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings, but Keith Urban was a little much for me, or so I thought.
As lunch rolls around, I decide to head to H Street so I can perhaps get away a little bit.
I walk into the only joint that has food options for a vegetarian: Whole Foods. For years I had been in staunch opposition of this corporate food purveyor, they’re arrival signaling to me the coming gentrification of a particular neighborhood. In some cases, their arrival meant it was already too late. However, considering the food desert we were, it was the only place I could eat where the meal didn’t come with a side of guilt and physical pain.
I walk into the store and a sea of whiteness hits me - yoga mats on every shoulder, Starbucks in every hand, a general sense of safety. I look like a hispanic laborer with big boots and dirty jeans...wait, wait, that’s what I am. Walking quickly to avoid too many stares, I make my way to the buffet. In my haste, I pass by a tall bearded man wearing a bandana; I know that look and it is odd to see it out here. He looks like some of the homies I knew back in the day; to recognize our mutual fish-out-of-water-ness, I give him the ol’ minority head nod.
It’s a time honored tradition to salute your fellow brown person when in situations like these. With a simple, quick uptick of the chin one can establish a community with a mission statement - as if to say ‘if anything goes down, I got yo back.’ But after making the appropriate eye contact and giving the nod, he jerks back. His face curls in confusion and disgust. This has never happened before and I am not sure what to do. It’s like… it’s like….
Something is wrong.
Something is definitely wrong.
With a new purpose, I run out of the grocery store and into the street where I begin to hyperventilate. I look for bystanders walking by who might be able to quell anxiety, but I can’t even bring myself to make that eye contact and begin the exchange.
The cop. The mistranslated vernacular. The beer guzzling co-worker’s recent personal interest. And now, something that had so much certainty attached to it, quickly ripped away.
I have to make sure this is happening and I’m not just letting the leaky ship on my shoulders mislead me. That’s what they do in the movies, so if I can’t declare a consistency then it’s all just coincidence.
Across the street there’s a department store; hoodie up, I walk in circles at a brisk pace and check behind to see if anyone is following. Nothing.
I call my agent to see what recent acting opportunities have popped up. “There’s some great well rounded roles that have no particular stereotypes attached to them and totally appreciate your talents.” She tells me.
Shit. That’s not what I usually hear.
I see a different cop and ask to try on his hat. He even takes a picture of me in it… this is bad.
In a cobblestone alley, there’s a man taking out the trash from a restaurant. He’s a relatively short man with a little goatee wearing a hat that has an Italian soccer league club logo. I interrupt the jolly melody he is whistling.
“Hola” I say in the shittiest accent.
...it won’t come out. I know what I want to say IN ENGLISH, but I can’t find the words in Spanish. The man stares at me and points to the street, presumably instructing me on where to go.
With no other recourse but to end the interaction with “Gracee-ass” - I slink away.
First I couldn’t code switch and now I’ve lost an entire language. That was it. That was the confirmation I needed: I lost my brown.
Like a heroin addict going through withdrawal in a Danny Boyle movie, I sweat and begin to lose control of my bodily functions. I sit on the stoop of a nearby boutique where I fully hope to get accused of loitering. Instead the owner comes out and gives me what is an objectively lovely cup of tea and even offers to call a loved one on my behalf.
Time to get past the denial and start working on solutions, but it’s not like I can go to just go to anyone with the problem and sound like a sane person. Any human interaction feels dangerous at this point. My wokeness came from being brown and developed over several years. It’s a distinct possibility that if I talk to someone trusted, I could destroy that relationship with a sudden uncontrollable insensitive verbiage. It’s like ignorance tourettes.
SEE. THAT RIGHT THERE. THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT.
Putting this on anyone seems wrong said my immigrant sensibilities. Luckily hadn’t lost those.. I think.
What is the catalyst? I ask myself, thinking that if I trace the cause of the problem I can perhaps concoct a panacea.
To be honest, I never did find out the root cause of the problem. To this day, I can only speculate how these unfortunate circumstances came to be.
Maybe there is just what happens when you live in DC too long? I tried kale for the first time recently and it leaves you as bad as it tastes? The water! The water is contaminated! Can’t start down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole….nope too late. THE WATER HAS A CHEMICAL THAT MAKES POC FOLX DOCILE AND COMPLIANT! Who is responsible for this? Mitt Romney, obviously. Or, perhaps, there is a God and He or She or They is upset with me because I am comfortable; damn you Catholicism.
How did I get Brown to begin with? A pivotal question in the mostly nonsensical panic. You may be born with some of the attributes - systematic oppression, inherited traumas, non-anglo features - but the rest is something I learned over time, even the language.
What if I just have to relearn everything?
After I realized the boutique whose stoop I was occupying specialized in handmade cat hats, I decided to make moves. Night had fallen and the H street regulars were out and about. Freed from my prolonged petrification, the long walk home across Northeast sector began. It turns out there wasn’t really a really a solution other than walking.
The walk lasted a year and half.
If had I not been in a proper city, it would have taken longer. The entire time was spent re-doing the first 20-something years of life and retracing the steps taken to reach Chicano-Nirvana: my childhood on the southside, my years as the big fish, prep school culture shock, that time I came out to my friends as Hispanic, militant student in college who just took his first sociology class phase, the faux nihilist aka my early 20’s, and “responsible” adult Jorge.
By the time the walk ended, I was back in Chicago.
“How phantasmagoric,” I thought.
The journey helped me to reacquaint myself with the idea that the Latinx communities are made up of several identities. Queer identities, Afro-Latin identities, indigenous identities; progressive identities, not so progressive identities, families, individuals - a shared experience of colonialism.
I relearned to say ‘aks’ instead of ‘ask.’ That one was bullied out of me I think.
I learned to cry. The antiquated machismo-based culture didn’t allow that before. Still doesn’t really.
The breads smell sweeter. The hugs are longer. Even the language is richer; my American accent has mutated into an acceptable amalgam of regional Spanishes that force the question ‘Yo, where you from?’
I was browner than ever, but new and improved - like Danny Trejo when he went mainstream.
There was certainly a time where walking into a barbershop, surrounded by homies, produced a certain anxiety of not being brown enough to be in that space. That trepidation had dissipated, replaced by an appreciation for the mutual interest that can only happens over a fade and a shave.
My Brown is still imperfect, but Latinidad in general is imperfect. I’m reminded of that every time I’m referred to as ‘George’ by other Latinx folx. It is a piece of the centuries old conditioning that made assimilation a goal; a conditioning that changed so many Josés into Josephs, so many Marias into Marys.
Red looks at me now knowing something is different; that the man who she went to bed with a little over a year and a half ago never returned doesn’t seem to bother her. Perfectly content, she keeps watch, wondering what happens next.
I was on edge for a while, wondering if this new Jorge would last or if it all could drop out at some point. That I can’t explain what happened in DC causes me to believe that it could happen again at any point unexpectedly. That anxiety has quelled and settled into a calm preparedness. If it happens again, I’ll know that the other end will produce something greater.
It should be noted that the days since have also had had a certain flavor of desperation, but it comes with the territory. It has even manifested into a type of pride; it gives meaning when I mention ‘the struggle.’ ‘La lucha.’
About the artist...
Jorge Silva is a humorist specializing in devised works and solo performance. In addition to S&B, the native Chicagoan has had the privilege of presenting his work with The LIVINGroom, Pivot Arts, Salonathon, Junior Varsity, and is a contributor to the Neo-Futurists' experimental essay show, THE ARROW. Jorge also is a part of the Artistic Staff of the Goodman and an Affinity Group Leader for the Daniel Murphy Scholarship Fund. Learn more about Jorge at www.silvartist.com.
Want to see more of Jorge's work?
Check out his piece, Oblivious, from Issue II: Messy!