When I started my car back up at the gas station, the music was shut off. I wasn’t sure why, but I couldn’t sit around and figure it out. My son and I were on our way to go see Kara Walker’s 2017 show in lower Manhattan before the gallery closed for the day. I didn’t want to miss it. We just wouldn’t listen to music then.
There were some funny smells on the way to New York from Newark, which I figured was industrial. I smelled it again after we got out of the Lincoln Tunnel, but I pressed on. We were coming up West 21st Street about to hit 10th Ave when I saw smoke coming out of the hood of the car. Damn damn damn. I should have known that was my car.
I pulled over. Luckily no one was parked next to the nearest fire hydrant. Everybody walking by had to look. Their eyes were probably led by their noses.
Luckily, three guys who were crossing the street were also looking. They offered to help. I popped the hood. They started looking around. I knew that the oil was probably empty. One of them insisted that the engine was bad. Another one called their friend who was a mechanic and talked to him off and on the whole time they were there.
I called a tow truck company who wanted to charge $200 to take me back to Jersey. Then he asked if that was a good price. I said not really. He said how about 175. I said I’d call back.
It was too hot by that point to let my son stay in his seat any longer. He had already been asking who the guys were anyway. He stood on the sidewalk playing around, completely oblivious to what was going on. For him, that was what we came all this way for. I grabbed the two bottles of oil in my trunk, immediately regretting not just putting them in while I was getting gas.
I take my son to all the free art events I can manage and care about. Babysitters cost too much (hence the free art stuff). It’s also good for him to have meaningful arty experiences. It doesn’t hurt that my son is mostly well behaved, even when the car breaks down.
We did make it to the Kara Walker show that day. The car started up again after they put the oil in. It was almost five, and the place closed at six. We were just a couple blocks away. We rode past those three men standing on the corner. They were still staring and talking loudly to one another about my tires being low on air. I couldn’t take another minute of a man telling me about my car. Less than a minute later, we were at Sikkema Jenkins and Co. Somehow there was a parking spot right out front. The little crowd outside the gallery told me which one we needed to go to.
We walked in. My son was the only baby, as usual. We looked at everything as slowly as we could while I held him on my left hip. I wished that I had someone to talk to, like what so many other people had there. I heard people talking about the missing womb in Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something). It would have been nice to think about the mask shape of the hole. I saw two other women about my age staring at a different piece talking and felt jealous all over again. They would randomly whisper something to each other, but it also seemed like they were standing there longer than they really wanted to.
Then my son got my attention, saying “oo oo ah ah” like a monkey. He was pointing to a little boy sitting in a tree in the top right corner of U.S.A. Idioms. I wanted to scream and cry and hug him and stop him and shake his hand all at the same time. There I was thinking, damn alone again. But the first thing he says to me—between all of the contrasting imagery of human life—is that he sees an animal. I hadn’t even noticed the figure in the tree. He’s almost duller than all of the other figured in the tree, just looking on at the chaos around him with a straight face. He’s on the same longitude line with a confederate flag sticking out of a different tree, and the branch he sits on is wrapped up as if it had broken or is noticeably weak. If that didn’t re-break, another little kid, who looks white, was slicing that same branch down a little further with a saw in a way that would make them both fall.
There was so much in that one figure, much like all of the others around us that day. My immediate reaction was to say that he was right. The boy is in a tree, and he doesn’t have hair on his head. He could be a monkey. But then I also felt like I had to say that it might be a kid. He repeated kid back to me while we looked at the picture for another second. I didn’t feel like what I said was good enough. It might be a play on the animalization of black bodies in America, and it caught me, a white woman, off guard wanting to explain that to my son, a black boy. I finally said that it was supposed to be unclear to say something about the stereotypical perceptions of blackness, but he had already looked away at something else.
On our way out, we walked past the black circular pieces, entitled Storm Ryder (You Must Hate Black People as Much as You Hate Yourself) and Dante (free from the Burden of Gender or Race), and my son pointed and told me about the shapes. I read him the words in Storm Ryder, and then he counted the two of them for me. It was only at that point that I saw a single, older white man looking over at us with the jealous eyes.