There’s strange old man that walks the streets of Edinburgh and has a secret. I’ve found out his secret. He’s a racist.
It all started a few years ago, I was happily walking down the cobbled streets of Edinburgh, Chamber street to be precise, feeling pretty free and comfortable in my new home and city. I moved to Edinburgh about 14 years ago, so I was very happy to call it my home after the fifth year or so. An old man was walking towards. He made definite eye contact, I remember that conscious move he made to look me right in the eye, while his face gave nothing away. But when he walked pass me, he purposefully walked into my path and shoved me with his shoulder – with a definite and practised move of someone with a steely resolve and plenty of experience. As his body met mine, a surprised exhalation of breath escaped my mouth and I turned to look at him expecting a ‘sorry’ – but he had his back to me, scurrying away into the crowd. I looked around beseeching some acknowledgement silently through my eyes, but the city was as anonymous as any other and I turned eyes back down to the path and kept walking.
This happened twice after and each time I thought as the air was pushed out of my lungs, ohhh, was that an accident? The fourth time happened just last week, and a flood of realisation followed, the clues were there, the same man, the same careful catching of my eye, and the same faceless unacknowledged exit after the act. He was doing this on purpose, and I was a target. So immediately I thought, why was I a target, was I standing in his way, was it because I was a woman, was I breaking some secret cultural rule that I was unaware of? The only answer is that I was born with significantly more melanin in my skin than he was. As soon as I fell on this answer I was full of anger and range, my cheeks grew hot, and my chest swelled with indignation and righteousness, and I thought, how many other was he doing this to? I pictured other women or men looking confused as he crashed into them, pulled out of their normal daily habits and reveries, and hijacked into his hateful world. So I closed my eyes and forced my mind to carefully capture details of his face, as if I had to re-create a police sketch, so that I would be prepared the next time. If I ever saw this face coming towards me again, I would be ready.
Ready to do what? Firstly I thought, maybe I should carry a secret pouch of dye that would explode into his face and I would dance aside and shout THAT MAN IS A RACIST. And he would be marked by his shameful behaviour – a scarlet letter of sorts. Then my mind went even more sinister, and I thought, maybe I should have needles hidden in my lapel, and these would pierce his skin if he were to shove me again.
I really enjoyed entertaining these thoughts for a while, but to be honest in the end, I was not that affected by this man’s actions, and the anger I felt melted away in a few minutes (well within the hour). There are so many people in the world that experience so much worse, and even I have experienced worse myself. I remember within my first year in Edinburgh, I walked past a man with around twenty facial piercings. I hadn’t seen anything like it before, so perhaps my eyes lingered on his face a little too long, and I was treated to a ‘what are you staring at you black bitch’. Another time in Edinburgh, I was working at the National Library and a lovely little old lady walked up to me and started to have a conversation about how steeped in history the building was. Just mild friendly chat, and then half way through the conversation she suddenly started vehemently telling me that I shouldn’t be allowed in such a building, and that I was taking away jobs from the British population.
My first ever experience of racism towards me, was when I was twelve and we’d moved to Australia. To compound moving away, starting a new school and having a new home, this ‘lovely’ thing happened: one day I was followed through the back yard short cuts home by a lanky pre-pubescent boy. I was a little thrilled when I realised he was following me, I was of the age where I was suddenly craving boyish attention, and not knowing exactly why. We were at the small playground just near my aunty’s house, where I would go to after school and wait for my mum to finish work and pick me up. Suddenly he was right in front of me, and he ran and jumped onto the monkey bars shouting ‘why don’t you go back to your monkey home’. The funny part was that he looked far more monkey like, hanging off the rusty bars of the jungle gym, compared to me, in my prim beige and orange chequered shift dress.
Anyway, back to my old man story, as this story has a real life happy ending. A couple of days ago I was waiting for the bus on Lauriston Place and what do I see walking towards me? Familiar features, sunken cheeks, hooded eyes, an old man with a small frame walking towards me. Was it him? I see his eyes catch mine and I could read him as clear as day, time slowed and crystallised in my head. As he walked towards me I braced myself. And as he was about to shove past, I neatly sidestepped out of his way, and gave him a pointed look – I’ve seen through you and I know your secret.
The result was better than I could imagine, realisation spread over his face that he’d been made. Someone broke his power of feigned innocence and the power of being incognito in a faceless city.
And that someone was me.
Image Copyright: David Martin