“Thing is, we’re a community, and we got each other’s back. You’ll be there for me, and I’ll be there for you, and we’ll all be there for each other, the whole building. Nothing to be afraid of—we’ll get through this, all of us, together” (51).
As Smith prepares to leave New York to return to London, she offers some portraits of the people she’s gotten used to seeing in her community. I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.
Today we’ll cover the first five sections of the essay “Screengrabs” in Intimations by Zadie Smith.
Last week, we talked about the essays “Something to Do” and “Suffering Like Mel Gibson.” In “Something to Do,” Smith muses on the fact that our lives are all made up of arbitrary schedules and, without them, we’re left with the question of how to fill our time. The world was suddenly divided into two groups: those whose work was essential and those whose work was not. In “Suffering Like Mel Gibson,” Smith talks about suffering as an absolute. Suffering always feels real to the person experiencing it, no matter how much it might pale in comparison to the suffering of another person. We also talked about how Smith felt about her work as a writer during this time, and we discussed some statistics from 2020 on unemployment and mental health. Today’s essays center on the themes of race and privilege.
A MAN WITH STRONG HANDS
This first section of the essay focuses on Smith’s regular visits to a nail salon. She creates an image of class difference when she describes the upscale mothers who usually go there, as one group of people comes to the salon to be waited on, while the other group performs even the smallest of tasks for them. Smith doesn’t exclude herself from the first group. Although she doesn’t go there to get her nails done, she does go there for chair massages every other weekday. She notes that she puts the time to good use by reading student essays, editing her own writing, or reading fiction. She can never just be in the moment and enjoy the massage by itself. Her acknowledgment of this reminds us of her previous essay, in which she contemplated the societal need to create schedules to fill time and the fact that the quarantine suddenly made us realize how hard we were working to disguise the inherent emptiness of that time.
The masseur, whose name is Ben, always calls her “Hey, lady.” She describes Ben by saying that he looks optimistic and is always smiling. She assumes that he’s Chinese, although she’s never asked; Ben, on the other hand, asked her when she first started coming to the salon where her hair “comes from,” a question that I can personally confirm many mixed race people and people of African descent commonly receive. She tells him that her hair is from “Jamaica and England—via Africa.” Ben almost always mentions the fact that she’s constantly reading and she never takes a moment to relax.
There are two subjects that they consistently discuss: the weather and days off from public school. For them, the two are inherently connected, for heavy snowfall can and often does close the public schools. Similarly, the celebration of holidays also results in school closures, and they’re both left having to find someone to care for their children while they work. Although they have the same complaints, Smith acknowledges that their troubles aren’t equal. A school closing for her is only an inconvenience. Nothing drastic will happen if she can’t work for a day. For Ben, not being able to send his son to school is an emergency. If he can’t work a day in the salon, both he and his family suffer economically. Smith wonders how many treatments Ben and the women in the salon have to perform every day in order to pay for the building’s high rent. On the days when she walks past the salon without stopping in, she can see Ben looking anxiously out of a window, as if searching for clients and hoping for one to open the door. His life and those of his staff depend on it.
Reading this, we’re made to think about all of those professions that depend on in-person business. The way a day off of school affects her compared to Ben foreshadows the monumental impact the pandemic will have on all those like Ben. Smith is, again, acknowledging her privilege. Although her life would be altered by the later school closings, she could continue to write from home. Her livelihood was not at stake. The same wasn’t true for people like Ben who depend on going to a place of work every day to support their families.
A CHARACTER IN A WHEELCHAIR IN THE VESTIBULE
Smith and her family are preparing to leave Manhattan for another town in New York, after which they’ll return to London before flying is prohibited. As Smith goes out to get cash from an ATM, she sees the lobby of the building is filled with luggage, and cars are being packed outside. Many of those in the university where she teaches are fleeing the city, perhaps also returning to where they are originally from.
Smith muses that she’s never had what she would call a survival instinct. She says that the temptation of a cowardly suicide, where one simply lies down to die, would be too great for her, even within the first few hours of disaster. However, she does have a “homing instinct.” This is an instinct that many animals, like birds, have, and it refers to the ability to return home from great distances. It’s what draws her to return to London during this time, while she still can. She has no desire to be crowned “the last designated New Yorker.”
When she turns onto the street where the ATM is located, she encounters a man whom she’s made a character in one of her stories. She calls him Myron, and although she doesn’t know much about him, she does know that he’s a conspiracy theory enthusiast. Instead of dismissing him for this trait, she partially agrees with his mode of thought, saying that it’s a “rational mode of processing contemporary American reality.” At the moment she sees him, he’s yelling a familiar speech about the behaviors of White Americans into his cell phone. He mocks their panic and their preparations for the end of the world, asking why they’re running from a cold that can be prevented by just washing one’s hands. He’s not scared of the flu; this is his city, and he’s staying right where he is. He’s survived much worse than this. Unlike Smith, he’s prepared to be the last person in New York.
WOMAN WITH A LITTLE DOG
This essay focuses on a woman named Barbara who is commonly seen in the neighborhood where Smith lives. She describes Barbara as likely near seventy years old, with a dog she claims is friendly. Barbara lives alone, smokes cigarettes abundantly, is thin, and seems weak. However, Smith says that Barbara hasn’t aged according to what society expects of women, which is to slowly disappear. Instead, Barbara has become bolder and louder. Smith seems to have a certain amount of respect for this. Instead of hiding herself, Barbara still goes on walking tours in the mountains and meets with radical women’s groups. She can hardly be described as fading away.
Smith explains that the ideal city dweller knows exactly how to manage social interactions in the street. They can participate in the neighborhood as a community without becoming overly emotional about it or even saying the word “community.” They always pick up after their dog, and they have the same breakfast at the place on the corner. It’s clear that Smith is talking about Barbara and those like her who are integral parts of the community, both because they’ve been part of it for so long and because they have a clear respect for it. Smith passes Barbara on the day before she is to leave the city and expects to hear some sort of commentary about the weather or writing or politics. Instead, Barbara provides the quote we heard at the beginning of the episode: “Thing is, we’re a community, and we got each other’s back. You’ll be there for me, and I’ll be there for you, and we’ll all be there for each other, the whole building. Nothing to be afraid of—we’ll get through this, all of us, together.” Clearly, the pandemic has changed even the hardest of people into something a little softer, into people who admit the necessity of others. It has brought us all together in one fight, one global community.
A HOVERING YOUNG MAN
Smith describes a young man named Cy, a self-proclaimed “IT Guy,” whom she sees on the university campus where she teaches. She says they look like they could be cousins, with his coily Afro much like her own hair, and that he’s very friendly and a little goofy. When she sees him, the phrase “Black Nerd” comes to mind. The last time she saw him, he was on a hoverboard, seeming to levitate beside her.
She writes that she always quotes the American writer, philosopher, and activist Susan Sontag to her students, saying, “A style is a means of insisting on something.” What she means is that the way we present ourselves through our clothes, makeup, dance moves, drink, and even phones tells the world something about us. She thinks of Cy’s style as insisting on something, even though his behavior and mannerisms, if evaluated by doctors, would likely place him on the autism spectrum. She recognizes the same behaviors in Cy as those in the kids who took apart early computer joysticks or who identified with Marty McFly and his hoverboard in the movie Back to the Future. Cy’s style connects him to others like him, and she finds it endearing.
Cy serves as a way for Smith to return to the subject of economic inequality and uncertainty. She says that if she and Cy are “cousins,” they’re several generations apart, for while she, as a professor, can receive tenure and know that her job is secure, Cy, as an IT Guy, cannot. This carefree, youthful style is no match for a global crisis. The truth she reveals is that the promise of higher education is false. Even before the pandemic, young people had little structural support, unsure futures, and mountains of debt. They cling to their styles as a way of insisting on their existence. Smith writes that she’s seen hoverboards, which were once dreams of science-fiction, come to reality, but that she’s also seen the social support that seemed unremarkable as a child in her home country of England become concepts thought of as revolutionary in the US. Here, she’s referring to universal healthcare, free higher education, and good public housing, all concepts that the US rejects as being, at best, part of the radical left and, at worst, socialist.
The essay ends on a somber note. What, for a man like Cy, should be a time of growth and excitement, even in the usual circumstances of uncertainty, has been rudely interrupted, as it has been for all young people just beginning their lives as adults.
AN ELDER AT THE 98 BUS STOP
Here, Smith recounts a time when she got off a bus in London and was approached by a woman who called her by her real name (which is Sadie, with an S). The woman says that she knew her and her mother when she was a baby. The woman is wearing a shirt whose neckline has been cut open with scissors to show more of her upper chest; her tight, dark jeans are decorated with rhinestones. The effect is that, despite her age, the woman seems both powerful and youthful.
The woman tells Smith that she’s headed to the doctor’s office to deal with her menopause. While Smith assumes that the woman is having trouble coping with menopause, the opposite is actually true: she wants the doctor to induce menopause. She says, at 58, she doesn’t see the point of suffering any longer or worrying that she’s going to be a woman who miraculously gives birth at this age. Just like Smith, she refuses to be governed by her own biological rhythms.
The woman stays on Smith’s mind, and she thinks about Jamaica and asks herself how all that was there fits here, in England. She describes looking at her mother as a child and trying to imagine her life in her home country. She says that while the lockdown is terrible for everyone, it must be even more frustrating for those whose memories include places that are now completely out of reach.
This leads her to the subject of videoconferencing with her mother. She finds that there are always a few stories that people consistently return to during this bizarre time of maintaining social contact. For her mother, those stories are the availability of personal protective equipment at her workplace, updates on the other members of her family, and the growth of her garden. It’s not until Smith asks about her younger brother that her mother begins a long story about people who are loosely connected that starts out mundane and somehow ends up with an apartment on fire. Both of the conversations with the older women may seem absurd, but they are a symptom of the absurd times in which we were living, in which seeing loved ones through a rectangular screen was the best many of us could hope for.
IN THE AUTHOR’S WORDS
In an interview with NPR, Smith was asked what drew her to the characters she wrote about in “Screengrabs.”1 She said, “I was thinking a lot about various conversations and debates and energy around social justice, and I thought, above and beyond actions and rhetorical strategies and arguments, surely the end subject of all these social justice arguments are human beings. And if you don’t have a clear and rounded and compassionate view of human beings, all your arguments for social justice will be hampered. They’re not abstract arguments. They’re not for ‘the people.’ ‘The people’ involve many people, individual people, of many races, many classes, many creeds….Remembering that those people are not just symbols, statistics, arguments, rap sheets, whatever, that they are people, that’s my work.”
Beyond that, she missed seeing people, missed running into strangers, and so she decided to write about individuals who she didn’t know deeply but who had had an effect on her. She says that that’s “the most extraordinary thing about living in a city, not knowing your neighbor but knowing that they mean something to you and, hopefully, that you mean something to them.”
An article in the Wall Street Journal reports that 200,000 more businesses above the normal yearly rate permanently closed during the first year of the pandemic.2 Those companies that provide personal services, such as barbershops and nail salons, were the hardest hit, making up more than 100,000 of the extra closures. While the closures aren’t as high as some economists originally predicted, the final results of the pandemic are still unknown. Some businesses that struggled through the pandemic may eventually collapse when they try to pay back rent, loans, and other expenses.
The effects of the pandemic could also have lasting and devastating effects for recent college graduates. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost for students not living at home and attending a four-year institution for the academic year of 2019-2020 ranged from $25,000 at a public university to $53,000 for a private non-profit university.3 The cost for the same year at a 2-year institution ranged from $15,000 for public schools to $34,000 for private, non-profit schools. An article in The Atlantic reports that the effects of graduating in a recession, which include higher rates of unemployment for high school graduates and lower wages for everyone, can endure for 10 or 15 years.4 With hiring decreasing in every major industry, the prospects for recent graduates are not bright.
That’s all for today’s discussion of Intimations. Join me next week when we’ll discuss the last two sections of “Screengrabs” and the final essay “Intimations.” Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode, subscribe and leave a rating and review in your favorite podcast app. I would really appreciate it, and it helps other book-loving English learners find the podcast. How has the pandemic affected people in your community? How has it changed the businesses and employment prospects? Leave a comment at theenglishchronicles.com, where you can also find a transcript of each episode, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Instagram @theenglishchronicles. Until then, keep reading.
- Zadie Smith, “Big Tech ‘Comes’ to Washington + A Conversation with Zadie Smith,” interview by Jenn White, 1A, NPR, July 30, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/07/30/897190683/big-tech-comes-to-washington-a-conversation-with-zadie-smith.
- Ruth Simon, “Covid-19’s Toll on U.S. Business? 200,000 Extra Closures in Pandemic’s First Year,” The Wall Street Journal, April 21, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/covid-19s-toll-on-u-s-business-200-000-extra-closures-in-pandemics-first-year-11618580619.
- “Price of Attending an Undergraduate Institution,” National Center for Education Statistics, last modified May, 2021, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cua.
- Joe Pinsker, “The Misfortune of Graduating in 2020,” The Atlantic, May 22, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/05/class-of-2020-graduate-jobs/611917/.