Alisse Waterston

To cite this article: Alisse Waterston (2020) Interiors, Anthropology Now, 12:3, 100-105, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2020.1857200

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There is a sickness out there and it terrifies her. She has become a recluse, afraid to step out of the building much less venture onto the street. Her thoughts zigzag like a brain suffering from nystagmus. Who’s there? Are they dangerous? Will they infect me? Will they think I’m diseased?

She wonders whether she’s delusional. Some people think so. Hannah from across the way thinks she’s just a paranoid old lady. “Don’t be ridiculous, Ada,” Hannah admonishes. “The whole thing is overblown. Trust me. Nothing is going to happen to you. You’re safe here. The numbers are very low.” Maybe she’s right. Hannah, with her stolid disposition and belief in the Christian god, has a faith Ada cannot fathom. Ada reads the papers and listens to the radio. She thinks this sickness is like no other she’s witnessed in her lifetime. Doubt immediately enters her thoughts. She shrugs and exhales, the short puff out her nostrils a concentration of un- certainty and self-contempt. Of course I’m wrong, she tells herself. It can’t happen here. We know too much. We have experience with such things. Besides, we are good people with no intention to harm anyone so why would this befall us?

The old woman peers through her prized Plauen lace curtains to the quiet street three floors below that was once lively with merchants and shoppers, children in groups of four to five or little ones with their mothers. It wasn’t so long ago she’d see that old couple on their daily stroll, arm in arm moving slowly and taking up too much room on the sidewalk. She misses them now, and wonders if they’ve survived. She misses those loud boys, too, the ones who always moved in a pack, their voices a hubbub, punctuated here and there with a blast of laughter. An in- side joke, no doubt. Was it innocent or not so much, Ada wonders. She can’t decide: Were these boys charming adolescents or were their amusements a threat?

Now the street is mostly silent, though she can hear a rumble of voices far in the distance. Another Rally, she guesses. With the sickness abounding, too many in her beautiful city are succumbing. Many tried to over- come it, but they failed.

Thousands and thousands have already perished. More and more are simply giving in, placing their bets on a miracle. Their faith is so strong, they don’t fear being in a crowd, unshielded, and so they join with others to seek salvation. That’s them in the distance, she guesses. The sound of their faith.

“I am a paranoid old lady,” Ada mutters, frustrated with herself and her own thoughts. She gets up from the table, holding her balance by grasping either edge with hands now rigid from arthritis. The thin legs of the table shiver slightly as Ada stands. She surveys the kitchen that’s been her own for 55 years. Over there are the sturdy pots and pans, on the open shelf lay the Blue Onion porcelain dishes that she simply adores, chips and all, and lining the sill over the sink are the knick- knacks she’s gathered over a lifetime. The afternoon light in a shaft through the curtains gives her momentary pleasure. In the next instant, the lace pattern flickering on the table wrenches her with the pang of loss. She’s nostalgic for the light that has already passed. Ada checks the time. The delivery boy should be coming up soon with her groceries. She’ll have a few minutes to fix herself up. What for? She laughs at herself. She barely opens the door for him. He never really sees her. And even if he did? She talks to herself: Have you forgotten you were born in the mid-’50s, last century! Why in the world does it enter your head to fix yourself up for the delivery boy, who can’t be older than 19?

Figure 1. Window. ©Alisse Waterston.

Still, she can’t help herself. There’s a mirror in the entranceway. She’ll have to take a look. Now she’s eager and walks fast to the spot. She steadies her gaze, looking for flaws. They’re easy to find. She steps back and gets a picture of the whole face. Not too bad, especially if she holds her head up high, creating a line between the neck and jaw. She steps closer and studies the jagged creases that cut deep into the smooth flesh of her dark skin. She smiles. The wrinkles shift direction. Her eyes stay the same, revealing the haunting sadness that’s been with her since the sickness arrived.

Ada glances at the door, anticipating the boy’s arrival. She stands in the quiet of the small vestibule that is her sanctum especially now, given the noise of the Rally. The clamor cannot penetrate this space, which has no windows and is graced only with the mirror, a small desk and chair and an unusual Ardabil carpet (unusual because of its small size) that Ada heard is favored by the “autocrat,” as she calls her country’s head of state.

She’s restless now with waiting. Patience was never her virtue and reading always her diversion. She’ll bring the newspaper into the foyer, she decides, and take a look, though these days it’s with great dread.

The news has become predictable. The autocrat’s followers are at it again, chanting hate, carrying arms, wearing that hat and those clothes that give her the shivers. They look the same, they think the same and they are gathering momentum.

She’s at it again, driving herself crazy not knowing what’s true and real, and what isn’t. Isn’t it all so obvious? He lies, he’s grotesque. He turns everything on its head. He’s a brilliant propagandist, taking an element of truth and distorting it to such proportions that it leaves people enraged and on his side, or enraged, exhausted and confused.

Ada knows it’s his game to accuse others of what he himself is guilty. If it’s obvious to her, why isn’t it obvious to everyone else? This is what she doesn’t understand. How does he get away with it all? If the great political leaders of the world can’t manage to see where this is going, what hope does she have to convince anybody that the danger is not looming. It has arrived.

In her head, Ada debates with Hannah, who insists it’s not as bad as all that. Maybe so. It’s impossible to know. People see the rallies. Actually, they don’t. Fewer see the rallies now that they’re holed up, afraid to go out in case they encounter one of them and are put in danger. When was the last time Hannah witnessed the Rally? Ada had gone to a handful as a spectator, standing at a safe distance considering her age and her instinct to self-protect.

Ada doesn’t see them, but she can’t help but hear them. The shouting. The bluster. The followers, whatever their numbers, have pledged allegiance to the insanity. They feel it’s their righteous duty to shoot dead the op- position, especially those branded as worthless and dispensable by the constant barrage of insults. The autocrat, his collaborators and his minions name the discontents “enemies of the state.” He and his followers create havoc and then call out the troops to bring calm, order, law.

Deep in her heart, Ada knows there is no calm or order or rule of law. It’s all been coopted. Hannah has faith in her god. Up to now, Ada placed hers in humanity, though her confidence in people is waning.

She steps out of the foyer to the table where she’s left the newspaper folded neatly, the same spot it’s been for a week. She opens it slowly. The Daily News, it’s called, though these days it comes only sporadically. It used to be one of thousands of newspapers across the country; now there are not so many. Ada considers this one of the few papers she can trust to find reliable information, if you know how to read it between the lines.

Ada returns to sit by the door and await the boy. The headlines are not encouraging.  A three-paragraph item catches her attention. Patriots are ridding the country of rapists, rioters, criminals, terrorists and traitors, it reports, accompanied by a photograph of  a haphazard group of men, women and children gathered en masse, while a short line of youth are standing apart, leaning against a wall, watching the crowd. The article seems to praise the young men who, readers are told, cleverly slip into enemy strongholds protecting the great nation from the vermin. The hyperbolic description is Ada’s cue there is a deeper message. It’s cryptic until she deciphers the reporter’s true intent: a warning that paramilitaries are surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting and disrupting the resistance.

Ada startles. The bell has rung, and buzzes again. She checks the peephole to be sure it’s the boy. There’s kinship in his large eyes, deep and dark like hers. She’ll be right there, she promises, takes a small purse from the desk drawer and then opens the door a bit more than a crack to greet him. They complete the transaction: She gets the parcel and he the few coins she can spare.

Raphael gently closes his hand around the coins and nods. Ada wants to know if he managed to get her another newspaper. The boy nods again, then abruptly jerks his head to one side to flip away strands of long black hair that have fallen across his eyes. He feels sorry for her, all alone, and so anxious and fragile. He knows she feels sorry for him, too, having to take risks, doing deliveries, being exposed to the dangers of the street. He assumes she knows his status as a foreigner from the south, the wrong pedigree in this place, at this time. They have that in common, feeling sorry for each other.

Ada shuts the door and Raphael retreats, thinking about his next stop. He’s grateful for the work, his meager pay and the tips he sometimes gets from customers like Ada, the old lady who gives him what she can, coins of copper, zinc or nickel, these days barely worth their weight. Except for that special commemorative coin she slipped into his palm one day, closing her hand around his to note its significance. Made of real silver, the words “Unity and Justice and Freedom” etched around the edges. Worth saving this one, he had thought.

Raphael moves quickly, making his way down the three flights of stairs and out to the street, where his bicycle is parked.  Ada’s is an old building. It’s sturdy and built alongside the river. Dampness settles on the stairway walls, pitted by neglect and maybe things more sinister. Whatever it is, these walls never fail to leave Raphael short of breath. He has no time or money to see a doctor who might explain why it’s sometimes nearly impossible for him to inhale. He just needs to get out of this building and the others like it that line the waterway, the ones on his delivery route.

On the street, Raphael grips the bike handles and glances side to side, checking for  the regular police and special Security Service enforcers; both could arrest and send him to a detention camp. Seeing none, he rides to the shop a few blocks away to get the next delivery load.

It’s his favorite moment of the day, these short jaunts on the bike, especially on days the sun is out and the air is dry, not humid. His mind empties of the worries that keep him awake in the dead of night.

He arrives at the store, one of the few that have survived the financial and political disasters of recent days. He has heard rumors about how the owner, who treats Raphael with fairness and generosity, made changes to the storefront according to social pressure and new ordinances. Before, the store beckoned customers with bright notices and images posted on the exterior wall, windows and doorway. The owner, fined for “unsightly” advertisements, had with reluctance replaced the multitude of signs with a lined series of minimal, unremarkable notices. These are posted on only one window so as to convey that his is a clean, orderly establishment. The store, once lively with merchandise and neighbors, looks as downcast as the meager vegetables and packaged goods that now line the shelves.

Raphael arrived in the city soon after the changes were made. It was a rough journey, but he made his way across several borders until he settled here, as welcoming a new place as he could hope for under the circumstances. Things were worse back home, where the wars of the world had made their way to destroy the little that his itinerant extended family could call their own. For generations, they had moved from place to place, a band of sorts. Raphael warms at the memory of those times when moving around was a way of life that saw hardship but also joy. There were times he dreamed of settling down in one place because moving could be exhausting. But moving meant sustenance— the family would be together (regardless of spats), provisions were shared, strength in numbers guaranteed protection against those who would do them harm in any one place, and celebrations were frequent and exhilarating, most often held out of doors near rivers and forests.

Lost in daydream, Raphael thinks he’d die for one more night with his parents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins playing music, dancing, eating, drinking, talking and arguing. Wake up, he reprimands himself, the dark memories returning like a squall. Remember why you left. The earth scorched, no matter where we traveled. No animals. No milk, meat, beans, berries or roots. The festivities had also gone.

“I had to leave,” he mutters, loud enough that the owner overhears, yet misinterprets. You have two more deliveries before you can go home, he tells the boy, apology in his tone. You must be hungry, he adds, offering Raphael a plate of two boiled eggs and a chunk of sausage with bread. Raphael’s eyes swell with tears, and his stomach grumbles. He nods appreciation, feeling deeply shamed by his enormous hunger and the weakness his body betrays. He tries to eat slowly so to savor the flavors and mask his real desperation.

Actually, Raphael doesn’t want to leave the store. It’s warm here, the owner is kind and there’s food. His home in this city is a squalid place, five men to a room, a little over 35 square meters. They sleep on cots and share a hot plate; the single toilet and shower are down the hall. Raphael works days and sleeps nights. A couple of the guys do the opposite. Rarely are all men in the space at the same time, which makes it somewhat bearable. They scrape by.

It’s time for him to go. The last two deliveries will be easy. They are small parcels and the houses are near each other. Riding along, Raphael hears the clamor of yet another Rally that seems to be coming his way. The chanting loud and clear: “One People, No Parasites!” and “Blood and Soil!”

If they see him, he’s finished. Raphael knows it and has to make a split decision: ride fast and get inside the first apartment building, or hide now. He goes with hide and turns the bike down the next alleyway, safe for the time being. He rests the bike against the north wall and stands inside a doorway on the south side where he can keep an eye on the marchers. They are loud, intimidating. All of them boys or men. Mostly young. Uniform in their anger and hate.

Ada hears them, too. They’ll be passing by soon. She positions herself to the side of the window, moving the curtains enough to get a view. Here they come. Loud, intimidating. And then they’re gone, for now.

She sighs and wonders if sighing is all that’s left to offer. I should look at the paper, Ada tells herself, it’s the least I can do. She unfolds the newspaper the boy had left for her this morning. She’s curious if the edition is old, the news in it out of date. Ah. Only a few days, she sees: 10 March 1933.


Alisse Waterston is presidential scholar and professor of anthropology at City University of New York, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and past president of the American Anthropological Association. Her most recent book, Light in Dark Times: The Human Search for Meaning, illustrated by Charlotte Corden, is a graphic novel (ethnoGRAPHIC series, University of Toronto Press 2020). Her article “Intimate Ethnography and the Anthropological Imagination,” published open access in American Ethnologist (2019), considers personal stories situated in history in her award-winning book, My Father’s Wars: Migration, Memory and the Violence of a Century (Routledge, 2014).

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