11 December 2005

Why must you torture me so?

I was having a pretty good day. I'd been to church, where the sermon had been given by a lesbian priest who is married to a black woman with whom she's adopted two children. She talked about her "downward mobility" and how it was a good thing for her. She'd grown up in an affluent white Protestant suburb, where who wore what and where you went on vacation were the paramount concerns. Now she rented a third-floor walk-up and worried about paying for her children's orthodontia, but she was relieved to be out of the endless cycle of materialism that so many of us are in. It gave her the room for more important concerns: relationships, a good work life, a sense of community.

I couldn't relate directly. I didn't grow up in an affluent white Protestant suburb, and I still struggle to maintain all my current relationships, let alone form a strong romantic one, but I like any opportunity that comes my way to feel that not being married with children, a dog and a mini-van out in Montclair doesn't mean my life is wasted. I have room for more in my life, and I still have time to figure out how to make it work for me.

Plus, the music was good and I'm starting to know the people who sit in the pews around me, so I left with a positive outlook on the rest of the day. I decided to detour down Bleecker Street before going home. I have Christmas presents to buy.

"You should smile," he said, "It might make you feel better."

It was the man whom I'd spent the last five minutes next to looking at the used books on the sidewalk table outside of Hudson Books.

Do not. Tell me. To smile.

"It might make you feel better," was my response.

That was obviously too subtle a putdown, because he continued.

"Whatever it is, it can't be that bad. It'll get better soon."

Now, forget the fact that I wasn't, in fact, feeling bad. I was looking at used books; I already had four in my hand. If that's not happiness, I don't know what is. But if my face, you know, the one I was born with, the one I can't do anything about, doesn't look happy, why would you tell me to smile? What if I were just diagnosed with cancer of the puppy? Would that be bad enough to justify looking the way I do?

Here's a better idea, if you're so concerned about my well being. Say something, anything, else.

"Looks like you got some great books there."

"I love this store. Don't you just love this store."

"Hey, you like Graham Greene? I like Graham Greene, too."

Not that I wanted this man to say any of those things to me. His hair was dyed in that orangey-purplely way that people with bad eyesight and without barbers who care can sometimes have. And the way he was waiting next to me to look at the books I was looking at was pushy. I'll move on when I move on, okay?

There's a reason, of course, that this line bothers me so much. I get it a fair amount, and there's part of me, not a small part, that thinks: he's right. I am miserable, and it shows. I shouldn't be miserable. At least, I shouldn't look miserable. No wonder I don't have a boyfriend. Why should anyone want to be with such a miserable (or miserable looking) person?


Blogger Stuntmother said...

I think that this is a peculiarly common comment in NYC. I used to get it all the time when I wasn't actually dancing down the pavement singing. Which wasn't that often. I think that it might spring partly from this same intimacy you wrote about a while ago, all those people in such close proximity, pretending not to see each other and yet pressed up against each other.

Also, however, it comes from people's desire not to make us happy but for us to make THEM feel better. If you're smiling and looking cheerful, that makes the other person feel good. It spreads. That might be a good argument for smiling a lot but it also means that "Hey, smile. It can't be that bad." becomes coersion. Exactly what your response was meant to communciate, but that purple-haired idiot was too dense to understand.

It's such an idiotic thing to say, I can hardly bear coming up with insults to match it, but I feel those people deserve no mercy. You could conscience free respond with "My husband was killed in Iraq yesterday, my mother was just diagnosed with a brain tumor and I'm being evicted. But for you, I'll try to look cheerful so YOU feel okay." Or similar. Or you could smile so big and laugh like this "AH HA HA HA HA HA AHA HA AHAHHA!" and then ask if the person feels better.

Of course, Ed thinks I'm beginning to go off the deep end with my increasing willingness to take on the idiots. It embarasses him and it does make me all shaky inside. But it's worth it.

You do not look miserable. You look like you. I love you.

9:44 AM  

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