It was asking too much for the person I elbowed to be a meek librarian or a rambunctious brat or an elderly tourist from Iowa. I should have considered my odds before foolishly stretching my arms on Venice Beach, home of the largest conglomeration of weirdoes, miscreants, and thugs in Southern California. When I stretched on the crowded boardwalk, I simply had to whap some colorful local character who was likely to bludgeon me.
My elbow struck the hard, sinewy back of a muscular Latino. He was bald and short, and the tattoos covering his torso proved that this was a joven who wore a shirt only if forced to. This was not one of those times, and he turned slowly to face me, his pics and biceps already flexing. The guy was pissed.
I knew he didn’t give two shits about our shared heritage, so I calmly looked at him, raised one hand in casual appeasement, and said, “Lo siento.” I added a nod and maintained eye contact. He glared at me for another second or two, then scowled and nodded back. He slowly turned his back on me, content that I was neither a threat nor a worthy challenge to his SoCal cred.
I resolved to never again move my elbows more than two inches from my ribcage in public.
I had defused the situation in the only way possible. I made clear to the vato that I meant no disrespect. It was an accident.
But neither could I display any fear. To do so was to risk being perceived as weak. Worse, I may have come across as judgmental, which is the worst thing one can do, because the object of your scorn will inevitably turn homicidal out of annoyance that you’ve stereotyped him as, well, dangerous. It’s either a self-fulfilling prophecy or murderous irony.
In any case, I handled the situation with my intimidating compadre well, and I was vaguely pleased with myself. Then I mentioned it to an Anglo friend, who cut off my anecdote and said, “You apologized but didn’t show fear, right?”
“Yeah,” I said.
I mentioned the incident to one other person, a black friend who also interrupted me to say, “And you let him know it was your fault, but you didn’t look scared either, right?”
“Right,” I said.
Suddenly, my quick-thinking settlement of a potentially violent conflict just looked like fucking universal knowledge. Most of us, it seems, come equipped with a high degree of so-called street smarts. For the most part, it’s just common sense mixed with a tough façade, and to my horror, it is not a special privilege of people with darkened hues.
For decades, Hispanics have been told that, “Yes, you are economically and politically disadvantaged, and you may very well be a cultural afterthought with no real pull for the entirety of U.S. history. But damn it, you’ve got street smarts! And those rich white people will never have that.” This message was even the subject of a “Chico and the Man” episode, for damn sakes. Would Chico lie to me?
Refraining from panic when you bump into a thuggish minority is hardly the essence of urban cool. In fact, it is arguably racist to assume that a tough-looking Hispanic guy will kick your ass for flinching at him. Would I have acted the same way if I bumped into Marge Henderson from Nebraska? (I don’t know if Marge exists, but she works here as an effective archetype). It’s doubtful, and in any case, I would probably scare Marge into apologizing to me first.
So maybe I am not so wise in the ways of the hood, or perhaps mass media and well-established social cues have ingrained a level of awareness in all of us, and pulling off a barrio vibe is just matter of watching the right movies and keeping your cool.
Still, if you ever bump into a tat-heavy, muscle-bound freak who looks like he means business, take my advice and apologize with a calm smile. Then go about your business, content that you are secretly the baddest motherfucker on the planet.