gall and gumption

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


L. and I were on the phone yesterday evening (it was evening my time, she still had lots of daylight left), while she was driving to her happy place. She and I are part of a small, little-known fellowship of people who love the city of Oakland. L. and I are also part of an even smaller and more secret contingent of lovers of 18th-century novels. She’s reading Fanny Burney’s Cecilia, and so when I told her about what happened Friday she said “How impertinent!”

“Impertinent” is our new word.

Earlier on Friday, before the incident, I talked about this situation with another friend, (not an intimate old friend like L., who goes back with me so far) who doesn’t share my peculiar tastes. Nevertheless this other newer friend is a woman of good judgment and she said, “How inappropriate!”

The problem is an office neighbor (male) who seems to have entirely missed any training in personal boundaries. Friday, after several provocations of this type, I determined, at the urging of the extremely prudent M., that I needed to speak to this neighbor about his practice of materializing in my cubicle, practically pressed up against the back of my chair, to peer at my computer screen or the copy I am editing and comment on them, or to make some personal comment about my lunch or my clothes. I had first taken this intrusiveness as friendliness but now it’s like what happens if you start feeding raccoons. So I was mustering up the courage to say something, because as long as I feel some ambivalence about the justice of my grievance in these situations I hesitate; I’d rather put up with a minor annoyance than be unkind.

Well that’s where I was Friday afternoon when for the second time this neighbor came into my cube, practically leaning on my chair, looked at my computer screen and started cracking wise about “liberal blogs.” The tension of apprehending this sort of intrusion, the irritation of this presence breathing down my neck, the taking personal liberties on no basis whatsoever, it was like it all flashed on me at once and then all ambivalence ended. I was in fighting mode. I’m mostly fun, you know, but if you poke me with a stick? Make sure it is a long stick.

Why do you think it’s all right to walk into someone else’s cubicle and look over their shoulder at their computer screen and comment on what they’re reading?” I asked him, loudly. He purported to be shocked that anyone could find anything wrong with it. It must be because I am a little weird, he suggested. I do not recommend this strategy in any argument with the undersigned. Whose judgment is this, and what have they done for me lately?

Anyway he kept insisting he had never heard of objections such as I made, and I just kept after him, insistent, until he was out of the cube. “You should have been able to figure it out,” I said at last. “My brother and I figured it out when we were about four years old. And you know it now, you’ve been warned. After this you’re on your own.”

“Impertinent” is what it is, I said to M.

The difference is important to me. “Inappropriate” is a word you never hear me use as a criticism of anybody’s conduct, in that general sense. Inappropriate to or for what? Oh, just… inappropriate. Well, I don’t have kids, but I can imagine with sympathy some parent running out of reasons to keep a four-year-old from acting up and falling desperately back on “That’s inappropriate,” though I can’t imagine it is of any use. But it’s not a word I ever heard used in this way when I grew up in Jamaica. The word “inappropriate” without an object invokes for me some sort of generalized public disapproval. I have a sort of reflexive dislike of these imaginary people and I certainly do not need to recruit them into fighting my battles for me.

And you know what? I don’t care whether you (not you, oh small and select readers, but the generic you) offended a bunch of fantasy people. It’s enough, really, that your impertinence has offended me. Yeah, I do presume to take that much upon myself. Now, one of the things I love and miss about the Caribbean, and Caribbean culture, is that Caribbean people are not afraid to put a conflict in exactly these terms.

You could be party to an act of gigantic public inappropriateness and I can forgive and love you. My friend Jamie was an international pariah in public opinion on five continents when I met him. Made not a bit of difference to me, and when he died last year I wrote a profile of him that got so long I couldn’t post it here. But if you set terms for the relationship that make it impossible for me to maintain my self-respect in your company we are going to have to part ways. I had to learn this. The lesson holds. In the 18th century “impertinence” meant just that sort of intrusion on one's relationship with oneself.

I don’t break with people willingly. And yet it seems to me that all my breaks have been over that at last, without my even being conscious of it at the time. I think sometimes I’m inappropriate, because I feel like such a misfit. But who can make me more of a misfit than I’ve made myself? This is the great, great thing about walking away. Nobody can take away from you what you have already been ready to live without. And for the little bit of mental and physical space I call my own, nobody has offered me a decent price. I'm sure I have a price, but I don't know what it is. It is not the approval of selfish and inconsiderate and ignorant people, anyhow.

"I ain't going lie to you about no onions, baby," said my neighbor Mrs. G. See? She understands that some things may be worth risking hell for, but lying for the sake of withholding the odd onion from the annoying D. is definitely not one of them. You don't go to hell for onions.

But if someone offered me one of these I'd feel the whole structure, the whole painfully built edifice of my principles, shaking on its foundations. I think I'd be numbering the pieces of my scruples and loading them into crates for shipment to the buyer if he offered me one. I believe that I get a little more corrupted every time I look at a picture of one.


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