I half ruined my favourite green sandals today, walking to church in the rain. The joggers on the bike path in their waterproof anoraks, hair lightly misted with rain laughed as they passed me. I suppose I looked as if I belonged among the slightly insane that often hang about on the banks of the Wingra—grizzled “homeless”-looking men (is that a stereotype?) with long greasy hair, and cigarette packs bulging out of front pockets, beer cans hidden in styrophome cups, perpetually fishing.
I was, I suppose, an unexpected sight on a rainy bike bath. Even on sunny mornings I get startled looks, dressed as I am in my Sunday skirts and shoes. Today I wore a boat-necked green sweater with a long bright pink silk skirt that billows and flutters when I walk. Put together they make me feel like an upside down flower. I covered them up with an all-weather white coat from the 60s or 70s that I found in a thrift shop in Florida. To complete the ensemble, I covered my head with a large white Shopko © bag slit down the middle to provide that avante garde Andy Warhol look. “The irony is what we are going for,” says the designer. “The delicate floral silk is in continuous conflict with the plastic imprint of the commercial logo. The mysterious transluscent white hood is slashed with the symbol of mundane suburbia. It is a commentary on the illusiveness of romantic escape in the commercial age.”
In plain English, I am chronicly umbrellaless. However, the Shopko © bag was much more successful than the brown paper Copps © bags I used to cover myself on a walk to Van Hise last year. Linda Hunter tut-tutted when she saw a me emerging drenched from the elevators holding soggy brown paper. She offered me several Orange Tree Import plastic bags, and told me Jane would have tape. Magdelena Hauner one-upped her and found an extra umbrella for me to borrow for a trip across campus.
My umbrellaless state is quite sad, because I actually do have an umbrella that lives in Georgia. My dear Aunt Joy gave me an enormous black umbrella for Christmas last year that would have protected me and all passersby from the rain. It was a very resourceful voluminous sort of umbrella with the singular frivolous feature of having a large engraved silver knob at the base. The silver gave it a Victorian air of gravity and distinction and also added about ten pounds to its weight. Alas, the umbrella was too long to fit into my large suitcase, and I was fearful that I would be arrested for attempting to sneak a weapon on the plane if I took it as hand luggage. The silver knob would have proved a quite useful bludgeon for conking out a pilot or flight attendant had any terroristic urges seized me during the course of my flight back to Chicago. So, the umbrella currently holds state in one of my grandmother’s back closets, while I wander Madison covered in large white Shopko © bags.
Halfway to church, I see a grizzled man with dull yellow hair clad in a red anorak. He is seated in a wheelchair beside the creek. The rain had gotten a little heavier and I peered out at him from underneath my improvised hood.
“Hello, Miss,” he said, and I paused, smiling, the two of us joined for a moment in our mutual oddity. “Good morning,” I said. “Are you out here by yourself in this rain?”
“Yeah, well, I had a friend who left his cooler here an hour ago.” He said, indicating a cooler on the bank of the creek, “I said I’d watch it for him. I don’t want it to get taken.”
“Do you have a car?” I asked.
“No, but he has a truck. He went somewhere.” He said.
“And he’s left you here in the rain?”
“Yeah, but its Ok, because I know if I left, in about three months I’d be wishing I was out here in this warm weather.”
“Feels cold to me in this rain,” I said.
“Oh, but in December, this isn’t nothing.”
I laughed. “Yeah, I guess this is hot compared to that.” I said “So, you’re OK?”
“Yeah, I like it out here,” he said. “This rain isn’t nothing.”
“Well, have a good day,” I said.
“You too, Miss.”
I continued on, silk getting soggier, hair poking out from Shopko © bag frosting over with rain drops. Before I reached the intersection of the bike path with Fish Hatchery road, I saw the bus go by—meaning I was now about 45 or 50 minutes late to church, meaning it had taken much longer than usual to walk, perhaps because of the rain-stretched fabric of my shoes, meaning I could have left the house later, walked the 7-10 minutes to the bus stop and arrived at church relatively dry. But the lateness doesn’t matter so much at my church. We went for another two hours. The new fellow from Swaziland in my department came. I was so glad to see him.
Coming back, no longer in need of the Shopko © bag, I walked along misty banks thinking that I should have helped that man carry the cooler to a shelter somewhere. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Maybe up to St. Mary’s hospital, where he could have sat out of the rain and maybe called his friend. As I neared the bridge, I saw him still there, in his red anorak and wheelchair.
“Hey, you’re still here,” I said. “Did your friend ever come back.”
“Nope,” he said.
“Where’s the cooler” I asked.
“Some black guys came and said there was a guy up there who needed it, but they’d bring it right back. And I trusted them.” he said.
“Oh,” I said.
“But they never came back. They took off with the cooler. Then the guy came back and we was like ‘Where’s my cooler.’ But what else do you expect in this area. You know this area.’ Those black guys, that’s all they want.”
“What do you mean?” I said, trying to figure out how to respond. Trying to remember what I’ve said in other situations like this.
“Those black guys, all they want to do is drink and steal…”
He sat in his wheelchair looking peevish, yellow hair greased down over his ears.
“That’s a pretty big stereotype to make,” I said evenly, turning.
“But it’s true,” he called as I walked away. I didn’t look back.
As I walked home through the zoo, I thought of all the cutting things I should have said, and that cracked open feeling I have when I am spoken to as a specifically white person, that air of assumed mutual understanding. As if I have some common secret superiority—with grizzled fishermen on the banks of the Wingra, with drunken Jules Berger construction workers from Ireland in Sokoto. “What the hell do you think I have in common with you,” I scream in my head. “Ni ban irin ka ba ne.” Once at my church there was this puzzling call for a “white people” meeting, I suppose as a well-intentioned attempt to address “white people’s” insecurities and culture shock at being in the minority for once. I felt rebellious and annoyed and didn’t go. Why exactly is it assumed that all people of similar shades of skin colour are going to have similar cultural hang-ups and outlooks?
At the zoo, it was cold and grey. There were very few people out. I stopped at the otter pool where a family stood staring at an otter that had its nose pressed against the glass—smashing his nose in all different directions, his tongue licking the window, his paws/flippers wiping back and forth. The children laughed and put their hands and faces against the glass. “He’s so cute—so cute. Look mommy.” It looked like he was waving at them, playing like a five year old doing a blow fish on the window. I had never seen such a thing, except perhaps in a Disney cartoon. The parents laughed alongside the children. “Yes, he’s cute,” they said. “Look, he’s waving,” and then exchanged looks above the children’s heads, ironic half-laughing, half-worried looks muttering something about “hydrophobia.” I watched the otter for a while, his desperate tongue flailing against the glass, his paws grasping at the smooth surface. I turned as the little girl gave the glass one last pat. I walked away, one step ahead of the family, past the birthday party under the covered picnic areas, past the pelicans with shoulders hunched, past the lion lying head on paws staring out at beyond glass walls. Some college students were shooting a film. It was cold and gray, and it had started raining again.