Tuesday, February 24, 1998

Invisible in surburbia, real people go sight unseen

By Jason L. Ables

The Pentagon must be secretly testing a new form of camouflage near my house because everywhere I go there seem to be invisible people. I see them just fine, we even have conversations and share jokes. But other people, well, they don't seem to notice these people at all. Maybe it is a race thing. Maybe it is a class or status thing.

Just the other day I was riding my road-bike in the hills of Los Altos. Winding my way down a semi-rural road, I was following a teenager who had pulled in front of me. This kid had to be one of the invisible people.

It was a nippy 50 degrees or so, yet he was wearing just a T-shirt and jeans and he had a bookbag on his back. His bicycle was an ancient ten-speed the likes of which haven't seen a showroom since Greenstamps.

In contrast I was wearing about $400 in cycling gear (tights, fancy windbreaker, heart-rate monitor) and my bike is a classic hand-built rig.

So this scruffy kid decides to beat ol' fancy-pants (me) down the hill and off he goes cranking a big gear. I was matching his pace but from about 30 yards behind him when up ahead I spot another fancy-pants, bike-gear wearing guy heading towards us from the opposite direction.

This is the part that got to me; the guy looks through the kid like he was air, like he was invisible, and then looks at me and tips his head in greeting.

I thought it was nice that he said hello and all, but on another level I thought, "What a jerk." Hello! In case you didn't notice, mister fancy-lycra-cycling-pants, I'm behind the kid. He is pulling the pace. See him up there on the Greenstamps bike?

Apparently, since the kid was not dolled up in fancy cycling duds, his existence didn't matter to this guy. Now to a White guy like me, the message was unmistakable; if you are not seen as being a member of the same group, then you are not seen.

It was not the first time I noticed invisible people near my home. This episode with the kid was just the latest example.

To see invisible people en masse, just take a trip to Palo Alto sometime. During a two-year stint living there I discovered an entire society of invisible people. Wherever I went it seemed the restaurants were full of mostly White people who were eagerly smoking their cigars and drinking their micro-brews. They were being greeted by mostly White maitre d's, served by mostly White hostesses, and basically following some kind of yuppie dream of self-absorption and conspicuous consumption.

Every once in a while the doors to the kitchen would accidentally be left open and I could see the cooks and the dishwashers, the slicers and the dicers who were keeping all the White people well fed on Thai chicken, stuffed eggplant and soup du jour. Usually, they were all Brown. Certainly many of them were Mexican-Americans. Some were probably just Mexicans, without a hyphen. I imagine there were a few Puerto Ricans and Cubans, as well as Salvadorans and perhaps even one or two Spanish from Spain.

Regardless of their national origin, they must have all been a part of the Pentagon experiment because almost without exception they were all invisible. I almost never saw any of the White people conversing with the Brown people. They would look right through them like they were not even there. No question about it, to the White people they were invisible.

You do not have to be a genius to figure out that something was acting as a dividing wall between these two groups of people who were sharing the same buildings. My bet is that it was race or class.

White people, apparently, consider eating sushi and drinking Corona beer as being equivalent to being multi-racial and ethnically aware. How pathetic and hardly a substitute for interaction with another human being.

In the midst of thinking about the consequences of all this invisibility, I was reminded that I was hardly the first one to do so. Thirty six years ago Ralph Ellison published his blistering account of America's blindness to Black existence, "Invisible Man." I'm sorry to say, that if he were still alive, Mr. Ellison could re-write his tome all over again, choosing as his setting one of the most affluent cities in the Bay Area. Maybe one of his antagonists would be a fancy-pants bike rider.

As for me, the next time I am riding my bike and some guy gives me the ol' nod of the head, I am going to shout back, "Hey! I'm with the kid!"

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