No Direction Home: an Accidental Trip Through Privilege

I knew I had left my car in metered parking, but I was late for a tennis lesson. So I dismissed the likely cost of a parking ticket, which just results in a quick grimace and an empty private promise not to reoffend.

But I didn’t notice that the city of Cambridge planned to clean the street during my lesson on the MIT courts. And so it will not surprise you (though it did me) that in one bakingly hot hour last summer the city removed both the dirt and my car, yielding more than a quick grimace, since my wallet and cell phone were safely locked inside.

I needed to get to the distant towing company, for which I needed a lift, for which I needed a Lyft. For which I needed a phone.

So I did what made sense for a suddenly disoriented 77 year old in 90 degree heat. I cocked my head and stared straight ahead. For a good, long time.

My retirement afforded me the luxury of time and money to take tennis lessons and ignore parking tickets, but I had always been ambivalent about my social position. From an early age on New York subways, I was uncomfortable with the distinction between those who occupied their seats like miners on their glum way to work, and the boisterous few of us who were just passing through; not tied down, not beaten down. I also knew that tennis was associated with privilege, so I was doubly embarrassed when I carried my racquet. Embarrassed, yes, but quietly reassured by the undeserved specialness bestowed on those whose parents bought them private lessons.

These feelings accompanied me as I planned my next step.

Eventually I spotted a young woman in an isolated alcove, hoping she would ignore the baggage of my gender and see the racquet as a mark of respectability, not an unorthodox weapon. “Hi,” I smiled, “My car was towed with my wallet and phone in it and I need to call my wife.” I could only imagine what all this sounded like. Hell, I didn’t believe a word of it.

Still, she let me borrow her phone. But what should have been a couple of quick calls to coordinate an unorthodox pickup from Lyft devolved into a multi hour “game” of phone tag without a phone.

Against an unrelenting background of absurd miscommunications, I approached over a dozen strangers. I oscillated between two roles. To some, I may have seemed the literal embodiment of threat — after all, women from all groups and Asian men have been assaulted in broad daylight by people who look like me. To others, I presented as a harmless, hapless soul temporarily out of his comfort zone.

By the second hour, the world shrank, and I became unmoored, even in familiar surroundings. I had all the status of a white man in shorts with a tennis racquet, but no get out of jail free card. It felt as though everyone else had a phone and that everyone who wanted a car had a car. Nobody else was pacing back and forth, plotting how to approach strangers without appearing too desperate or threatening.

I finally gave up on Lyft and made the hot walk to Central Square (Cambridge’s homage to pre-gentrified New York) so I could find a subway or cab.

As I passed the entrance to the subway I realized that I’d have to jump the turnstile to get in. My only hope was a cab.

I jumped in the first one and soon realized that I wasn’t just cold, I was freezing. The air conditioner blasted my exposed legs and arms and froze the sweat on my body. I started to ask the driver to turn the fan down, but I hate it when people flex their privilege to tweak the work environment of those who drive them around for a living. The cab is their office of necessity eight to twelve hours a day, and short of medical need, people lucky enough to find themselves in the back seat should just buckle up and tip well. So he drove and I froze throughout the 15 minute ride to a tiny shack in the deep recesses of Fresh Pond Mall.

My privilege followed me into the dimly lit office that two women shared with an ATM machine. As the owner handed me the surprising bill for $210, I noticed one of the women checking out my response. I was retrieving a modest seven year old Subaru Impreza, but the tennis racquet in the middle of a workweek told a tale of leisure she didn’t share. So to avoid being the jerk who arrogantly shrugged off a fine that would slam her, I questioned why I was being charged twice the posted fee for being towed less than 5 miles. The smiling owner explained, “It’s double because we had to drive to MIT and back. That makes it a round trip!”

I was neutralized by his “logic” and felt the powerlessness of a supplicant in a pawn shop. And in that moment of vulnerability, at least, I lost the embarrassment of privilege.

My punishment was a lot more expensive and time consuming than a meter violation, but no supervisor would threaten me for missed work. There was nothing I would have to do without; no critical purchase postponed or foregone.

I had slipped into a jagged journey through powerlessness and privilege, but in the final analysis the real impact on folks like me was the same as an expensive meter ticket: a grimace and yet another empty promise to pay more attention to the world’s rules and restrictions; the violation of which land with such unequal force.

I was embarrassed, to be sure. But as I left, tipping the cabbie excessively and thinking about the rest of the day for him and the women in their isolated office, I was—like that privileged kid on the subway—quietly reassured.

Bill Fried is the co-Author of The Uses of the American Prison. He is retired from the staff of Law Enforcement Action Partnership and is on the Somerville Task Force regarding Supervised Consumption Sites. His op-eds have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun and elsewhere.