Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Other Side of the Plexiglass

I am Dorothy trying to find my way back to Kansas, only Kansas isn’t Kansas anymore. I have been thrust into the world of Plexiglass, and it ain’t nothing nice.
Plexiglass, the brand name for acrylic plastic, was first used in this country during World War II as a bullet-resistant glazing in war planes in our fight against the enemy. Today, the enemy is me.

Like the Jeffersons, we moved up—from the segregated west side of Chicago to the integrated (sort of) South side of the city known as Roseland. We had a shopping area two blocks from home. My niece, Rhonda, and I did not understand the significance of two little brown girls eating lunch at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. We just liked hopping up on the red swivel stools and enjoying our delicious, All-American lunch of cheeseburgers, fries and Coke. This was during the time when money actually changed hands. Roseland changed, too--but I wasn’t paying attention.

For a while I lived in Hyde Park, a multicultural Mecca and the answer (in theory anyway) to Rodney King’s “Can’t we all just get along?” Even in its congestion, it was still easy to breathe. When I moved back to Roseland, the first thing I noticed was the air. It is thick with misery--tight and wheezy, like an asthmatic.
I knew the yellow brick road had led me astray when I heard Roseland proudly referred to on the radio station as the Wild Hun’eds, and we do try to live up to our name sometimes. One day I am driving and I see a Do Not Enter sign with “fucking” in black magic marker wedged between not and enter. A couple of blocks away the arrow points in both directions on the One Way sign. Today I am a foreigner in a strange land. I am in it but not of it (I think) which makes daily life a surreal experience.

Not that I haven’t encountered plexiglass before, but lately I am perpetually perplexed by this proliferation of plastic. The friendly green and yellow BP sign is misleading. I am standing in line behind a woman awaiting my turn. The man of Middle Eastern descent pushes her change through the slit beneath the window and places her merchandise in the revolving door. She removes her things and asks, “Can I get a bag?”

“Put it in your pocket,” he replies.

“Man, give me a bag,” she says more forcefully.

He refuses, telling her again to put the stuff in her pocket.

She curses him and leaves.

I don’t know why I don’t leave, but I have not returned since that day. Scenarios like these are common.

Always on my way somewhere, I often eat on the run. One evening, I pull into a KFC drive-thru, place my order and pull up to pay for it, only to be greeted by a contraption entirely made of plexiglass. I think this is some kind of fluke until I stop at a Subway on a different night. The sandwich and their fixings are surrounded by this plastic shield that I have to shout through to place my order. Adding insult to injury, the employee tells me I have to pay 50 cents extra for banana peppers. They must be a delicacy in the ‘hood. I pass on the peppers, but not the sandwich.
When I stop at Wingz it Iz I know I am in for a plastic experience—the z’s instead of s’s are a dead give-away. Unlike Mr. BP, this man of Middle Eastern descent is nice, despite the double barrier buffer between us: plastic glass and a language barrier.

I stop at Walgreen’s to buy some Caress Body Wash and find it is locked behind plexiglass. This is done to prevent “shrink rate,” a Walgreen’s manager tells me when I inquire as to why some of the products are under lock and key. The “shrink rate” items vary from store to store. Even something as simple as buying stamps is done through a plastic portal at the U.S. post office.
Those behind the plexiglass believe they’re protected from those of us on the other side. My brain splits: I am not them, and they are not me, but strangely, we are one. I have come full circle, leaving segregation only to return to it in this city of plastic. I wonder what will happen if I close my eyes and click my heels together three times?


  1. I run into Plexiglass quite often; it seems to be the divider between many Black folks brains and their common sense.


  2. I love this commentary, Steph.

    Eloquent analogy. Remember me when you become famous.;-)

    Jennifer, Go-to-guru

  3. Stephanie,if you click your heels three times you should end up in Winnetka, and not see any more plexiglass.

  4. Great story Stephanie. You have brought back memories of when I used to live in Roseland. It wasn't called the "Wild Hun'eds" then, it was just Roseland. Even some people now refer to it as "da Ville," the fight between them and Altgeld Gardens that ended up with a 16 yr old honor student from Fenger dead. I clicked my combat boots almost 30 years ago and moved to South Shore which I found was a drug haven.
    Then I moved to Rogers park which was a nice change of pace.
    Even with positivity in your soul, hidden somewhere on the other side of the plexiglass with you is a corrupt government that help separate you and the people you love so dearly. Clarence Hall

  5. I would buy your book when it comes out. You write quite eloquently.