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Dancing at Diwali: Safety and New York

Yesterday some friends and I wandered out to Jackson Heights and found ourselves in the middle of a Diwali festival, with bright-colored strings of imitation marigolds swaying among bobbing yellow Western Union balloons. Women in beautiful saris everywhere, buying parathas and handing out literature at the Citibank booth. Had no idea it was Diwali — I just wanted to grab some music for the dry spell I’m about to face — but lucky me, there were singers and an area in front where a small knot of men and one woman were dancing. I pushed my way in, even though the vibe was really weird. It was very macho, nothing at all like the energetic but definitely queer-friendly environment of Basement Bhangra. A man with a big beard and a turban monopolized me immediately. He was pretty respectful of my space, but I soon got yanked around some, hauled by my belt loop into the center of the fray by a guy who I think was actually Puerto Rican or Dominican. We freaked for a while, and he embraced me tightly at the end, telling me I was a killer dancer. Then I was firmly grabbed by a drunkish-looking guy who kept demanding one more song.

I eventually bailed out. The DJ couldn’t seem to stick to a song for more than a few measures. The younger guys on the floor — I think a number of them weren’t Indian, actually; my suspicion is that while I’ve had the radio off bhangra has made inroads into rap — were roiling into an arm-waving mosh pit, and the one young woman there, though confident enough to stick out a number of songs, was looking around her a little anxiously.

As I left the dance floor, a friend remarked that it had looked like the guys were hugging me — were they really? Yeah. It’s social dancing. Despite the jarringly unfamiliar vibe and the posessiveness, nothing pressed my Inappropriate! button the way some of the old lechers at Irving Plaza have. (That usually takes some sort of groinage.)

A woman maybe in her sixties, slight and shorter than me but still carrying a familiar brazen authority, approached to tell me I was a very good dancer. But you must be careful, you know, she said. Those men are drunken, it isn’t safe.

I told her I wanted to show them that strong women had a place on the dance floor too. Because I did — though I had been worried about making my way onto the floor with a bunch of men slamming into each other, especially when there was a cultural rift and I didn’t know what the slamming or my presence in it would mean, I had to dance.

I thanked her for her concern, and we smiled as we passed each other.

For all my big talk about my adventures in multiculturalism I haven’t really gotten out enough in New York. Only been out to Jackson Heights a handful of times, can’t really show anyone a good time in the Bronx, where I worked for a year. I was just petrified my first year or so. September 11th, while it made things worse, eventually convinced me I had to get over my fears or succumb to lethal psychosomatica. It only just occurred to me in the last month that the route I have always taken getting back from the subway was chosen to some extent for how well-lit and populated it was. Lately I’ve taken to a route with more trees.

I saw Michael Moore’s new movie, Bowling for Columbine, this past weekend. He spends a lot of time talking about how the media work so hard to scare us (“escalators — watch out, they could maim you FOR LIFE!”), and how we have fallen for it, buying up security products and services even as crime rates drop. He spends some time talking to Canadians, most of whom say they never lock their doors; then he does door-to-door in Canada, barging into people’s houses, and proves they’re not just bumpin’ their gums.

I don’t know if anyone my age has Mike’s kind of perspective on what an unusual development our fear is. My father taught me the quotation “That which does not kill me makes me stronger; my mother taught me the Russian phrase da smerty ne umryosh: until death one does not die; but I remember getting panicked lectures about going across the street without telling anyone where I was going because what if someone kidnapped or killed me? Most people I know grew up with fear, with our parents nervous about sexual abuse at our pre-schools, locking our car doors going through black neighborhoods. It’s magical thinking, but we still turn the locks without questioning ourselves.

When I suggest taking the G train to get to Brooklyn I invariably get comments about how G is for Ghetto and all the sketchy things people claim to have seen on that train. I’ve taken it at night, I’ve never had a problem. I don’t know what everyone’s so scared of.

New York has taught me that I can walk home from a late night of dancing at four in the morning half asleep and not fear for my life. Even if people are grabbing my ass and calling me mami chula on the subway. Being flirted with and having your ass grabbed on the subway are not the same as dying. Da smerty ne umryosh.

Granted, it helps that the streets are never empty; people come home from work and play at all hours. But I hope I don’t lose this freedom when I move. Vermont is already spooking me… doesn’t help that the managing editor was briefing me on all the grisly murders they’ve had in town. But there we’re back to what Mike was saying about the news… this is their thing. (It’ll be my thing too. If there’s a murder, I might have to go to the crime scene. This is not something I planned for myself; not something I was looking forward to.)


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