Stepping on toes


A skyway connecting two office buildings in Lowertown, St. Paul

Recently I was sitting alone at a skyway-level Caribou in Lowertown St. Paul, drinking a holiday concoction that I never would have ordered if I’d been paying, this drink on the house to encourage my frequent buying habits. I was staring out the window at the glass skyway connecting two office towers, watching white-collar workers drift across the street suspended in air, coatless in their controlled environment. And watching this steady stream of largely undifferentiated, white, middle-aged workers crossing the skyway, I was reminded of standing in a science museum in rural Vermont on a previous sabbatical with my children, observing ants work their way through humid plastic tunnels, oblivious to the humans on the other side of the tube. So it was here too, lightly dressed workers plying the halls of the office towers, oblivious to the winter weather, carrying styrofoam cups of soup with plastic lids and takeout coffee and brown bags of subs and chips, making small talk with their co-workers, always moving, never stopping.

Those on the street below were bundled against the biting cold in their bulky coats, knit hats, and thick gloves. I noticed yet again the class and racial divide happening here—mostly white, business-casual staffers in the habitrail; mostly people of color on the sidewalks below, braving the cold, often accompanied by a child in a stroller. The buses that bring people downtown disgorge and pick up their passengers on the street level, and riders cluster by the stops. I am among them for the morning and afternoon commutes these days, my bike now parked in the garage until spring.

My recent bus and train rides have seen me reading James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” on my phone, surrounded largely by brown faces, and it is not lost on me that in some fundamental ways, little has changed since he published his essay in 1955. How different is the racial tension he describes and the 1950s riots on the streets of Harlem, really, from the anger that boiled over recently in Ferguson or the tension still rippling between NY police and civilians, when he writes:

Perhaps the most revealing news item, out of the steady parade of reports of muggings, stabbings, shootings, assaults, gang wars, and accusations of police brutality, is the item concerning six Negro girls who set upon a white girl in the subway because, as they all too accurately put it, she was stepping on their toes. Indeed she was, all over the nation.

It’s the complacency Baldwin rails against, and I see it in myself—I am among those plying the skyways, daily padding my way through the lobby of my own Lowertown office building where a black father, waiting to pick up his children from preschool, was asked to move along by the overzealous security guards I greet most mornings and afternoons on my way to and from work. When he did not move along, the security guards called the police, who first tasered and then arrested him. His stated crime was being a non-employee sitting in a designated employee area, tensions heightened when he refused to give his name. But in effect his crime was in permeating the street/skyway divide (while black, some might say), and for sitting in an empty seat instead of moving along with the flow like the rest of us ants. (All charges against him have since been dropped).

There was a morning not long after the taser incident was publicized when I passed through the lobby on my way from the bus stop below to my office above and I heard one of the white security guards telling a seated black woman that this skyway lobby was for employees only. I slowed to eavesdrop, wondering if I could find a way to interrupt this humiliation. Skyway lobbies are like malls, posing as public space, but there’s always a private owner in the shadows making the rules. Finding no easy foothold I slunk past en route to the elevator, shame creeping up the back of my neck. I wonder if a day will come when I have the nerve to assert to management that we employees do not need to have the lobby seating defended on our behalf.

Still the steady stream persists, my fellow Lowertown office workers drifting through the skyway as I sit and drink today’s free but tomorrow’s too expensive coffee, as if nothing is wrong—nothing is wrong at all.

6 thoughts on “Stepping on toes

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