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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

O.M.G.I.A.L.W.G.N.O.D. Syndrome: Not deadly, but it can make you look like a jerk


Back when I worked at the grocery store, I often had to be out at the bus stop before 6AM in order to get to work on time. I worked there through the winter, when it was dark at 6AM.

One Sunday morning, at 5:55AM, I was out at my bus stop as usual, on the corner of North Florissant and Saint Louis, in the dark, alone, when a truck drove up. Two white people were inside. They looked at each other with caution and hesitation, but then one of them rolled down their window and asked me for directions. I forget where they were going exactly, but I want to say they were looking for Natural Bridge and North Grand. Wherever it was, they were heading in the opposite direction of where they needed to be going.

I gave them flawless directions, replete with landmarks and with "If you pass blahblahblah, you'll know you've gone too far."

They thanked me. They were silent. They looked at each other again, and after what seemed like at least 30 seconds of silence, they asked me "Do you know where you are? Do you need a ride?"

The question seemed entirely genuine, and trust me, at 5something in the morning when I am out by myself on a deserted street corner, I assume everyone is out to get me. But they seemed to really be concerned.

These people had a textbook case of "OMG IT'S A LITTLE WHITE GIRL NORTH OF DELMAR!" Syndrome.

I assured them that I knew where I was, and that I live here, and that the bus would be there shortly. They drove away, still looking somewhat worried. I wonder how they thought I gave them those great directions if I didn't know where I was, hmm?


A couple of months later, I was waiting for the bus at the corner and about the same hour, and I saw a white camera man from FOX 2 filming. I went up to him and asked him what had happened, since it's good to keep tabs on the events of one's own neighborhood. He told me what the story was about, and I thanked him. I walked off to the bus stop at the end of the 14th Street Mall, realizing at that point that I'd missed the #74 Florissant and I'd have to wait for the #30 Soulard.

Before the Soulard bus showed up, the camera man drove up in his SUV and stopped at the end of the Mall. He asked me, "What are you doing around HERE, anyway?"

Responding to the man's tone, I snarked back indignantly, "I LIVE HERE! I own a historic house one block away from here!"

I forget what he said, but I do remember that he acted weirded out. He drove away, exhibiting a classic example of the cat-suddenly-gotcher-tongue symptom that commonly afflicts OMGIALWGNOD sufferers.


When I worked at the grocery store, we got free coffee if we brought our own mug to work. I often brought my Crown Candy mug, since it provided a nice little opportunity to mention Old North when people commented on it.

One day, a white woman came through my check-out line dressed head to toe in real fur. She told me something about how it was her twice yearly trip "into the city," and how she was totally surprised that Downtown was experiencing revitalization (Musta been a couple of years since the last twice yearly trip, huh?).

She noticed my mug, and made some little comment about it. I gave her the standard, "Why yes I love Crown's it's great I LIVE RIGHT BY THERE and I eat there all the time still. I thought I would have gotten sick of it since I LIVE IN THAT NEIGHBORHOOD!" cutesy spiel.

She looked taken aback.

She said, "I was going to ask how the neighborhood is, but I guess if YOU live there it's fine."

I was tempted to say a lot of things right then, but I knew if I opened my mouth I'd probably say something that would get me fired, so I just remained silent and let her walk out of the store. She was deeply, deeply in the throes of OMGIALWGNOD, anyway, and it probably would have taken considerable rehabilitative therapy to bring her back to a healthy state.


This past Saturday, I took a nice, long walk through ONSL, St. Louis Place, and Jeff Vander Lou. The course of my walk took me past the back of Vashon High School, where five or so black men were sitting on the dock and chatting.

When I walked by, one of the men shouted across the street to me in a sing-song manner, "DO YOU NEED A MAN OF MY COMPLEXION TO WALK WITH YOU FOR YOUR PROTECTION?"

I laughed. I looked over to the dock, and saw the man smiling in a non-threatening way. I shook my head no, but offered him a cheesy salute to show there were no hard feelings. He cracked up, and I was glad to return the laugh.

This was maybe the first time I ran into an OMGIALWGNOD sufferer on the street who was actually smiling. This man's case of OMGIALWGNOD was also unusual because he was perfectly blunt about the race-based reasons for his surprise at seeing me there, which most people seem to try to skirt around (i.e. it's "that neighborhood" or "safety," when it's obvious what people are really getting at.).


Even though my neighborhood is pretty integrated, I have a feeling I will be running into people stricken with sudden fits of OMGIALWGNOD Syndrome for years to come.


DeBaliviere said...

In 1994, when I was a college student, I had a similar incident while walking through the Benton Park neighborhood one night. A police officer approached me and asked me what I was doing in the neighborhood and recommended that I leave immediately. Just shows you how times have changed!

Anonymous said...

Sounds not much different than how fellow gays will question someone not living in a major city, "you live where?!"

Darren said...

That was hysterical :)

btw, miss seeing you at the grocer...

www.tobyweiss.com said...

"This man's case of OMGIALWGNOD was also unusual because he was perfectly blunt about the race-based reasons for his surprise at seeing me there..."

I've had many a same situation; blacks are always way more upfront about STL prejudice than the whites. Maybe because they have to deal with the fuzzy end of that lollipop.

It was a (rare) treat reading one of your posts. Wish you did it more often.

Anonymous said...

I've also seen fellow blacks accuse another of being uppity or crazy if they live in St. Charles County. No matter what the demographic (race, age, religion, sexuality, marital status), the majority of Americans still live next to similar households. Even a diversity-appreciating couple like Michael and Claire live near other "urban pioneers."

Claire Nowak-Boyd said...

Hi everyone. Sorry this took me so long. I don't have a lot of spare time or energy these days.

debalivere, funny stuff, and oh yes I have been there.

anony#1, it's quite similar, yes. I want to ask these folks--so, how do you think the place where you live got to be or stayed so safe for people like you? It didn't do that on its own.

whythankyou, darren. I miss seeing you as well. Customers were the only highlight of that job!

Toby, I'm sure that him being black had to do with his honesty, as my experience has overall been similar. I will say that on the whole, though, only white people seem to feel compelled to offer to ferry me out of this place, even suddenly pulling over at times--it seems to be this weird idea that I somehow require rescue. At least if it's kind of creepy and racially charged (and I wonder would they offer that if I was a man), it is nice to see people extending ANY helping hand to strangers these days, even if it's somewhat misguided.

Also, I think the fact that this particular guy works at VHS and therefore in Jeff Vander Lou probably had something to do with it, too.

And I want to post more, but as my response time on this shows, I just haven't been able to keep up with this lately.

anony #2, good points on the whole, although uh, there are definitely not as many "urban pioneers" up here in ONSL as you might think. The group of neighborhood activists is a pretty good mix of ages and a mix of races (though I'd like to see a bit more diversity). It's also a big mix of how long people have been here--there are some folks who've been here for decades, some folks who never left (and have been here for generations) and yeah, there are new people.

We've tried other neighborhoods where there are no or virtually no other activists, and you really need to have a lot of time or a lot of money (preferably both) to be able to pull that off in most places. I have neither the money to put plumbing back into a building 3X over when it keeps walking out, nor the time to sit in my house 24-7 and guard over the plumbing. We TRIED to rehab in a rougher, further north neighborhood, and in addition to being wholly unable to get even state insurance on the house we were trying to buy, let alone a loan, we were more or less run off by the very tough gangs on the block, who implied to us and blatantly told our sellers on multiple occasions that they believed it was Their house. This was after the break-in up there. In the year that has passed since then, there has already been one major fire on that block, and another building literally blew down into the street.

So yeah, we live near other activists, never mind that activists are still the minority up here, nevermind the scads of vacant property (I'd rather have a yuppie neighbor than continue watching the vacant 1860s building across the street fall in on itself!), never mind that I had to stop typing this response to call the cops on my neighbors for the second time in 36 hours.

More on the term 'urban pioneering' will be forthcoming, whenever I can find the time to flesh out the essay that's been stewing in my brain for a while now.