Birding in the Park with Karen
The Amy Cooper (a/k/a Central Park Karen) story won’t die. Evidently changing her tune back to unapologetic, she is suing her former boss for firing her. I remember at the time of the incident people’s surprise — bewilderment even — about her ferocious reaction to an African American man’s request that she leash her dog as per the rules. I wasn’t surprised, and not only because of the obvious racial issue. An offence trigger is deeply lodged in the human psyche, and the more privileged one is, the more deeply it lodges. We simply can’t stand to be corrected.
I’m not sure this is a universal failing. The Dutch, for instance, call each other out almost casually for violations of public etiquette like dogs off a leash. (No Dutch person would ever have to be scolded for not picking up dog poo. They’re just not that way.) The point is, such minor public corrections never result in international headlines. Some cultures simply tend to be concerned with the greater good. CPK types are the direct opposite, believing their honor is at stake by even the mildest of criticisms.
Because I am white, no rules-breaking stranger has ever called the cops on me for nudging them. I might not have been in physical danger, but I’ve certainly been rattled by the intensity of the reaction I unleashed. One such memory still stings, decades later. Lucky for me it’s only a sting, not the scar from a bullet wound, for example.
I was in my thirties, and I had decided to play hooky one afternoon and take in a movie at the local shopping mall. One more indulgence was popcorn and soda which I normally never by, for economic reasons. The matinee (remember them?) was about a third full, and I found a spot where I could spread out and enjoy relative solitude. Shortly before showtime, the theatre filled up a bit more, but not too tightly. Two women, mother and teenaged daughter I presumed, plopped down right behind me, even though there were plenty of other seats that were not quite so intimate. They were talky, and I started to scope out other possible seats just in case they were the types who had to narrate the movie for each other. But they shut right up with the opening scene and I forgot all about them. Until the mother began kneeing the back of my seat. You know what I mean. It wasn’t just an accidental kick as she shifted in her own chair, but a continual and unrelenting ride that I couldn’t ignore, not for a few minutes, never mind an entire movie. She got her feet involved too, with accompanying kicks in several quadrants of my seat back. I had been so happy just minutes before, cozied up with my fake-buttered popcorn and giant diet soda. I wanted that feeling back. So I turned and said, very politely, and with as genuine a smile as I could muster, “You’re giving me quite a pummeling there.” When the mother looked at me uncomprehendingly, I added, “The back of my seat.” That’s all I said, because she took over from there, as if I’d just served her with a subpoena, or a notice that a highway was being built through her backyard that afternoon.
Cinema Karen’s tirade began with how stupid I was to even mention that she was kicking the back of my seat. That was just the overture. Then she took another direction, centered on my appearance. My bald, shiny head was distracting her from the screen. Maybe if I stopped eating junk food I wouldn’t be wide enough to block her view. Like Central Park Karen, CK’s indignation and outrage fed on itself, growing in depth and breadth. Other people’s shushing didn’t stop her but seemed to add even more fuel to her rage fire.
Having never been battle-ready, I have only ever responded to surprise attacks with open-mouthed silence (though I can spend up to twenty years after an incident constructing a piercing monologue that could have been delivered). Wimpy as always, and with my afternoon of indulgence already collapsed under her cold-blooded fury, I got up to move. One of us had to, since our relationship was clearly not sustainable. This concession didn’t stop her, though. When I reached for my soda and popcorn even though they were the last things on earth I wanted at that point, she pounced again: “Oh, don’t forget your treats.”
Newly displaced in another section of the theater, I considered going to the lobby to summon an usher, or an Animal Control Officer. But I’d had enough humiliation for one afternoon. There was no way to represent that scenario to a third party without further indignity. I’d had the audacity to correct her, and she’d been obliged to avenge her pride.
I can only imagine the kind of performance Cinema Karen would have put on if, in addition to being overweight and balding, I’d had the temerity to be Black. It would have been a carnivorous Christmas morning for her, the malicious thrill of discovering there was no bottom to her pile of presents, no end to what weapons she could pull and throw from it.