I'll always wonder how it looks when it's a man who was not born in America
December 22, 2005
Sometimes out here where I live in San Francisco, a man can get so filled up with the clouds and the sky and the sun and the rows of houses going up and down over the hills to the ocean he knows is there, that he will see someone walking towards him, and he will think, I am going to say hello to this person. If nothing else, it is the person I am sharing this time and place with, and that counts for a lot. It counts for as much as the time and place itself.
And I'll do it. I'll say hello with the fullness of the clouds and the sky and everything else inside me, and when they smile and say hello, their smile is a smile and their greeting is a greeting, and it'll even have some of the clouds in it too, and along with all that, one thing I'll wonder if they are a white person, is whether or not the smile is to themself, between themself and their past, somehow confirming of that past, because of the clouds and sky and sun and rows of houses being America, and if a brown-skinned man from a faraway place has come to this place to walk along the street, there must be something right about the whole thing.
And I won't know. I won't know if the smile is at me or at what my own smile reassures in them, that theirs is the place to come to, for people from all over the world. The way things have gone, those two can look awfully alike. They can even get mixed up into one.
And I'll think back on greetings in the street in the past, most of all to when I was a kid and coming across an old white man on the street behind our house and saying hello to each other was like a secret, it was a secret that I was as much a part of the town, and maybe as much a part of the whole country, as anybody. I was making the greeting the way it was done in this country, after all. I thought that it had been a nice exchange between the youth and the age of the town. And it might have been that, but I'll look back and wonder if it was also a secret kept from me, a secret that a brown-skinned boy saying hello like that was a good thing to see, it was sign that something was working, and that something was as pure as the clouds and sky of those days.
It'll be sad to think of it like that, because I'll remember how bright the old man's smile was, how much he looked like a kid himself. I'll remember how he looked like he was smiling out of a gladness about the day, just like I was. And I'll still think that, it's just that he might have had a different understanding of what a day was, that a day that had a boy like me learning to operate in the ways of a man like him was a day of progress.
I'll wonder about it because everything that has happened between then and now is in me, and one thing I've learned is that a boy who is born in one place and grows up in another place is always thinking about the world, and as much as it may seem like that is what everybody is always thinking about, that may not be the case, not knowingly at least. It may be that an old white man seeing a brown boy thinks of America, not the world, thinks of it as a good place to come to, and the air outside and his own presence all get wrapped up in the goodness.
It had been good to feel like part of the town, but what I had thought we were really smiling about was the world, which was our world, which happened to be the streets of a town he knew in ways that I did not just now, but which could have been anywhere. It could have been anywhere including the place where I was coming from, but what I've wondered about since then is how much behind the smile lies the question: Well, what are you doing here then?
What are you doing here if you are not going to think of America as all the different things together, including the moment of greeting on the street and all that the moment encompasses? What are you doing here if you aren't going to look around and feel glad about where you live after a moment like that? What are you doing here if you are going to take the clouds and sky and sun and rows of houses for granted?
I'll wonder if they know that I am taking America to be all those things, but I am also taking everywhere to be all those things. The feeling is too big to stop with America, especially since the moment is a little answer to questions I always had about the world, questions I would have had wherever I was. The answers happened to come in America, in an American way, and it has been as good a way as any, but I'll always wonder how it looks when it's a man who was not born in America, if it looks as though the way of his own country was not good enough.
I'll wonder even though I'll keep answering in an American way, answering the question of what a man does with the things that fill him up with a smile and a greeting on the street, because it is the right answer. It is between those things and me, and I wouldn't want to lose them by answering wrongly. They may think that those things are America, but they would be seeing only the present if they did, they wouldn't be seeing the past I carry with my brown face, because even if the clouds of San Francisco are America, my love for them is more than America, it is my own country and it is the world, and I just figure I should make that clear because I think everybody would like to know, if somebody smiles and greets them on the street, where that smile is coming from. What they decide to do about that, and whether or not they try to learn that the greeting is too big to be one country, is up to them, but I just think they should know.