Thursday, May 2, 2013

Geekdom Pt 3A: The Urban Geek

The 5 train station just outside of Co-op City.
One of my original folk-tales, "The turtle, The Snake and The Drum" is rooted in a couple of experiences I had as a high school student. It was the 1980's and I went to Music & Art High School (now LaGuardia High School of the Arts), which was first in Harlem and moved downtown to Lincoln Center when I was a junior. I lived in Co-op City, which is way up in the Northeast Bronx, so the trip to school was a two hour commute by bus and subway.

No subway came into Co-op, so we had two choices: ride the BX 26, 28 or 30 across the Bronx to the D train at 205th or Bedford Park or try your luck with the Baychester Ave foot-bridge and catch the 5 train at Baychester Ave station. It really was a matter of trying your luck as this bridge, which crossed I-95, was notorious for muggings. As I mentioned before, this was the 1980's when muggings and robberies were a rather common occurrence, and deciding to be one who would not be handicapped by fear, I often tempted
fate and on only two occasions, fell victim to muggers. Of course, being a Geek, I treated such experiences as learning experiences; thus the next several times I faced robberies, I was prepared and escaped unscathed.
The infamous Baychester Ave foot-bridge

In those days, as I may have mentioned before, I carried a viola on my shoulder. I wore glasses and used to alternate between wearing a black beret and a Kangol grouser contorted into the shape of a pork-pie hat. Neither was the fashion of the time, so I was a bit of a target for the less enlightened. One such afternoon, I opted to take the 5 train home instead of the D, since I was coming home late from a rehearsal and was by myself anyway, I figured it should be cool. I got to the bridge, and a guy appeared from behind the pillar. He had a knife and told me,"run yo' shit..." I started to take the viola off of my shoulder, and in a single motion smashed the would-be mugger in the forehead with it rapidly and repeatedly until he dropped the knife. When he was down, bleeding I un-sportingly kicked him in the kidney, the back of his head and ran around to the other side to kick him in his chest and mouth, then I ran like my tail was on fire. I never saw him again, and doubted that there'd ever be retribution. I mean, who is going to tell their boys they got beaten down with a viola case by some geek?

Beautiful sound... deadly case.
It is unfortunate that Hollywood has perpetuated the image of the Geek/ Nerd as the easily conquered weakling and victim.  Even worse, as most teen movies take place in the suburbs or boonies, where even the cool kids are pretty corny. One thing that I've earned to be true for folks of my generation, heralding from New York, Philly, Chicago, Detroit and parts of Los Angeles; regardless of socio-economic background, all city kids are street kids by default. The ability to navigate the streets of your city and all of it's pit-falls was once a part of everybody's existence.Yes, I frequented libraries, but I had to use the streets to get to them.

Even more unfortunate, the average person buys into the media image of the geek and like any true beta or cool kid, they tend to deal with their assumptions over realities. For example, the guy who tried to rob me was about four inches shorter then I was and weighed in at about 20 or 30 lbs less then me and had even let a couple of folks ahead of me pass; but his assumption was that I would be an easy mark. I also doubt that most viola players think of their case as a weapon, but there were a couple of occasions where it served as a wonderful defensive tool, especially when trying to get on the subway.

The urban geek has a street smarts that sometimes can go beyond street smarts, into straight diabolical and sadistic. Not merely for the pleasure of undoing and humiliating your attacker (although let's face it: a cruel laugh is a plus), but in the pure Machiavellian sense of setting an example. of what can happen to a person if they mess with the wrong person. I think of early 90's subway gunman, Bernard Goetz who while being mugged, shot his four attackers.

Another factor in geekdom, especially American geekdom, is the issue of ethnicity. While geeks come in all ethno-cultural groups, the socio-political dynamics of race often play into how geeks develop. As I mentioned before, America is a society and culture that has embraced mediocrity and locked it into the consciousness of many as the aspiration of the average American. Add the marginalizing effects of American racism to the equation and you end up with ethno- cultural groups that internalize oppression and with it, embrace mediocrity as the pinnacle. In the consciousness of the internally oppressed the cookie cutter images of achievement create a limited and rather unimaginative set of aspirations for the urban middle or lower middle-class Black or Latino geek that their white counter-parts don't deal with. These factors lead to one of several outcomes, which will be addressed in Part 3B "Geeks In The Hood"

3 comments:

Alice Y. said...

Great blog post Mwalim. I came here via the link in Quakers Talk About Racism group. I grew up in the countryside but now raising a child in the city, so I am listening hard.

Looking forward to hearing more in the next post.

monifade said...

Mwalim..you have done it again! Great story telling mixed with socio-economic analysis. Through your storiees, I learn so so much about you. How we see ourselves and how we reveal ourselves can be powerful yet so different than how others many perceive us.

monifade said...

Mwalim..you have done it again! Great story telling mixed with socio-economic analysis. Through your storiees, I learn so so much about you. How we see ourselves and how we reveal ourselves can be powerful yet so different than how others many perceive us.