East Hampton is a funny place. My family has been coming here for many years, renting a lovely place not too far from the beach. But I find myself as often as not drawn into the village on any given day. I am happier ambling aimlessly and flaneur-like on a sidewalk bustling with people, cafes and shops, rather than lying in the blistering sun and getting sand in my sandwich. East Hampton, of course, is not Paris, but it has its charms. You never know what or who is lurking around the corner. One day Christie Brinkley stopped and admired our family dog while my wife and kids hunted for bargains in LF. For a brief moment, I identified with Chevy Chase in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” movie. Another time the same dog jumped on Bill and Hillary Clinton, as they tried graciously to laugh it off. I was grateful that the dog was not Tasered by the Secret Service agents watching closely nearby. And last week my daughter, who works in one of the high end ladies’ boutiques, called to tell me that Diane Keaton, still dressed in 2014 just like Annie Hall, was in front of the shop taking pictures of the display window. What could Annie Hall find of interest in fashionably expensive women’s clothing? This is the kind of idle question that has no real answer and passes for thinking when one’s mind is not otherwise occupied by work.
But none of my previous celebrity encounters prepared me for this recent one. Incongruously enough, I stopped Cornel West on Main Street in East Hampton the other day. The celebrated African-American scholar was far from his customary Princeton University campus haunts. Looking more like a businessman than a post-colonial Marxist, he was dressed elegantly from head to toe in a black suit, with his famous afro, now salt-and-pepper, crackling electrically in the sunlight and crowning his elegant getup. He was strolling with a tall white woman with long black hair who looked a bit like Morticia Addams. They were in deep conversation, his lanky frame doubled over hers and his face two inches from her ear, declaiming something of great urgency that had come to him suddenly on a sunny street in a beach town on a lazy, late June day.
Stepping fearlessly into their private space, I arrested the couple: “Dr. West?”
“Yes,” he answered, extending his hand and seemingly grateful for the recognition. We chatted up for a bit, and he informed me that he was just here for the day taking in the sights, no special occasion. I told him that I teach the poetry of Langston Hughes at my school, and often show my students a video in which West speaks of “the normative white gaze that forever haunts the black man.” I told him it had occurred to me as I saw them strolling together that nowhere is a person more subject to that gaze than on the very spot we were standing — the zip code with perhaps the highest concentration of white masters-of-the-universe in the country! He laughed and readily agreed. He asked if I was presently teaching, and I replied that I avoid summer school like the plague. He said, “Of course — a man’s got to LIVE after all, doesn’t he?” What I did not get into with him, of course, was that although I look mostly white, I have had the good fortune of a lifetime in which to perfect my imitation of the “ruling class.” I can move silently thorough America without the pressure of that “normative gaze” upon me. I swear if you saw me on the street – and perhaps you already have – in my khakis, Docksiders, and Ralph Lauren polo shirt, you would never guess that I am the son of Puerto Rican immigrants. I was also lucky enough to be born here in Nueva York – hence no noticeable Latino accent.
These and other considerations floated through my mind as I said goodbye to my new fleeting acquaintances. In this odd spectrum we call America, the possibilities inherent in every encounter – the permutations and re-combinations of class and color – are infinitely variable in gradation and totally unpredictable in cultural meaning. There simply are no givens.
I turned to look back after we parted, and wished I had a camera or a cellphone to capture what surely constitutes one of the oddest tableaux that will be seen on Main Street in East Hampton this season. And I wondered if in the end, we don’t all want the same thing. Karl Marx, RIP.