On Thursday I asked our pizza delivery man his name. While we’ve had multiple delivery people and don’t order pizza that often, this particular fellow has been delivering goodness to our house two to five times a year for over two decades. We had a name for him (he looks like Penn Teller, so we’ve called him—always with love but never to his face—Penn) and are polite, but it was finally starting to bother me that I didn’t know his name. What on earth does this have to do with books, you wonder, and were there any leftovers (yes, but I can’t share them as they’ll be gone by this afternoon). I’ve been thinking a lot about community since my son was born (and especially since the beginning of the pandemic) and two books that I read recently really helped me deepen those thoughts: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison and Ripe by Sarah Rose Etter. Plus they’re both fantastic books, so let’s get into the book part of our chat…
The Worlds that Divide Us in Song of Solomon
Let’s be real, I was having a really hard time with this book for the first hundred pages or so. I was exhausted at night and only reading a few pages at a time, morning readings were slightly longer but always interrupted. I was not able to enter the very rich world of Milkman’s citified Michigan and I will definitely have to return to the beginning someday when I have the luxury of hours (and maybe a hot bath). One sentence, though, made me realize how deeply layered the whole book was and what I’d been missing by being a poor reader.
“I really do thank you,” Milkman opened the door. “What do I owe you? For the Coke and all?”
The man was smiling, but his face changed now. “My name’s Garnett, Fred Garnett. I ain’t got much, but I can afford a Coke and a lift now and then.” – Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
I ain’t got much, but I can afford a Coke and a lift now and then. Said by a stranger who was helping Milkman out when he found himself in a jam, having left the city to trace his roots in search of (literal) treasure. Wearing a suit and city shoes he’d tromped through a stream and found himself muddied, torn, and in need of a lift. Garnett knows from the way Milkman carries himself and the way that he’s been talking that he holds himself above all the people there. But it’s the final insult of not being considered big enough to be generous himself that makes Garnett speak out in defense of his own dignity. Milkman can’t really hear Garnett in that moment but I sure did. That one sentence defined the world Milkman had entered but couldn’t see. A community rich with people who looked out for one another, friend or stranger. The kind of care Milkman needed so much in his life but could never see to let in.
I read this sentence the morning after I’d asked Craig his name and it hit me so acutely that this was part of the world I’ve been aching for all this time. A world where we see each other as humans who all want similar things: love and a life that isn’t harder than it needs to be for us and the people we care about. It’s the common humanity that we miss when we don’t make eye contact with people on the street, when we argue about red or blue without seeing who’s really winning when we fight each other, when we talk about wars without considering the civilians whose lives are destroyed in the process. It’s the common humanity I don’t contribute to when I don’t mention that I’m struggling while my mom’s been in the hospital these past weeks. She’s doing better now and I did actually reach out to a couple of people, which is progress to me, but we don’t have to be alone with all this stuff because we’re surrounded by other people who maybe would help us out for free if we gave them the chance—people we could help, too, by seeing their humanity.
Morrison goes deeper into this same divide later when Milkman reaches Virginia. I won’t quote the full passage here because the entire uncomfortable interaction spans several pages, but Milkman enters Solomon’s store and is trying to get information about where he’s going from Solomon and the men hanging out there. His car has broken down out front and he needs help either fixing it or buying another. He needs a woman and a place to stay. And while everyone’s really polite about it, “Milkman sensed that he’d struck a wrong note” and a coolness grows between Milkman and the men. Morrison lets us sit with that misunderstanding for a bit, feeling the exquisite discomfort that’s exacerbated by not understanding the why.
Milkman knew he had said something else wrong, although he didn’t know what. He only knew that they behaved as if they had been insulted.
In fact they had been. They looked with hatred at the city Negro who could buy a car as if it were a bottle of whiskey because the one he had was broken. And what’s more, who had said so in front of them. He hadn’t bothered to say his name, nor ask theirs, had called them “them,” and would certainly despise their days… – Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
The paragraph goes on to beautifully describe the lives of these men and the insult they took from Milkman’s ways, but it’s that crux of “He hadn’t bothered to say his name, nor ask theirs” that showed how little they mattered in his day except to fill his own needs. I grew up in the north but with Southern parents and while I sometimes felt a wash of teenaged embarrassment when my dad chatted up every sales clerk we ever encountered, it’s something I’m learning to appreciate. We talk sometimes now about dynamics of power and how no one owes you their story, but what we forgot along the way is the small (consensual) intimacies that can enrich all our days and make the world feel a lot smaller in the best of ways.
Read this book, but do it when you have time to really sit with it. If one sentence can open up my whole worldview, imagine what it can do for you. And Icess, if you’re reading this, know that I thought of you in the end when the body count was high 🙂
The Decay of a Tech-driven Society in Ripe
What scares me most these days is those who seem to have forgotten the similar things in whose quest we were once bound. Who have traveled so far toward some imagined future that they’ve left all the best things behind. Ripe by Sarah Rose Etter encapsulates all of this in such a visceral way that I’ve kept the book beside me in the month since I read it as I try to sort out my own complicity in the system and responsibility for changing it.
Cassie works at a Silicon Valley startup and is new enough to that world to see it for the ways it goes against the world she came from, but she’s also been there long enough to be perpetuating it. She’s at work at all hours in response to a capricious and abusive boss but she’s also passing along that culture as she seeks to hire someone in Pakistan, a worker so eager to be part of the system that he’s willing to give up his family to move across the country because of a misunderstanding Cassie had with her boss. And Cassie is the main inspiration for a series of insidious plans to take down their rival company. The way Etter places her at this exact moment in time increases the intensity of the story and drives the action hard. Because we feel badly for Cassie and also because we’re appalled by her, the story feels richer than it would have with a more passive protagonist.
The city around Cassie is also exceedingly well rendered. From the man living below her window to increasingly unaffordable rents, to the luxuries Cassie and her friends allow themselves to salve their feelings about the lives they are living, it was all too familiar and also architected to make the reader feel uncomfortable enough about these tech Meccas we’re making to actually think about the worlds we’re building for a moment. Enough that when my husband mentioned Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run” when catching the sunrise glinting off the Seattle skyline the other morning I shuddered at thinking of what we’re worshipping in our new Jerusalem. It isn’t our shared humanity, but it isn’t too late, I hope, to find that again.
I strongly recommend you read Ripe as well. It’s the most insightful book I’ve read about where our cities (and the tech workers in them) are now, and it’s extraordinarily well crafted at the sentence level, too.
Well I’m off to re-watch Working Girl (did that to myself) and spend the next couple of weeks looking deeply into the eyes of the people I love most (and anyone else who will make eye contact). If you need a slightly more reassuring nudge towards pulling back to make the kind of world you want to live in, Begin Again by Oliver Jeffers brought me a lot of comfort in a hellish week at work. It’s a book for kids and anyone who wants to play a part, no matter how small, in making this planet a better place to be. My pledge to myself over the holiday break is to learn the name of at least one counter person at our new bakery, no matter how many pastries I have to eat to get up the courage to do that. If you have a similar pledge, leave it in the comments (along with your name) and I will happily be your accountability partner. I wish you, your loved ones, and your perfect strangers peace and much love for now, for always.