For those of you not from the area, or too young to have been influenced by the older culture, you should know that old time NYC area people “bitch and moan” about nearly everything. (And if a current mayor can be blamed, so much the better!)
On my first trip to Denver in 1980, I was completely weirded out and annoyed by what the anthropologist Roy Wagner called “aggressive niceness.” People kept coming at me with tv-ready, toothy smiles, saying in high pitched voices, “Hi! Can I help you?” in what felt like an overly friendly, almost loud, “close talker” manner. I’m a friendly type, as North Jersey-NYC types go, and will make eye contact and nod, but this was too much for my fresh from NY sensibilities. It didn’t help that nobody wore black or grey, and it took me a few days to adjust and calibrate my responses away from annoyance or feeling threatened.
Now there were definitely stoics among us as kids: New Englanders for sure, and older African Americans would simply sigh or sometimes smile and say “No need of complaining,” a subtle way to still lodge complaints, imo.
But the older Jewish, Italian, Greeks, and a bit later, the Black, and AIM radicals of my youth took “complaining” to higher levels, some in the service against mass injustices, some for individual woes. But silent suffering? No way- there’d been enough of that for my friends’ families who’d survived the camps, Turkish invasions, and the general silencing of women, and for my own peoples, hundreds of years of colonialism, enslavement, genocide, ethnocide, segregation and institutionalized poverty and policing. Complaining was a freedom, even in the service of pettiness. It was a recently gained right and they were going to voice their complaints to anyone who was present. They made it into an art, and each group had their own spin and accompanying body language and voicing, sometimes even with costuming.
So I consider myself to be a proud carrier of that tradition, even though it’s been at odds with my family’s mostly stoic ways for decades. As a woman who is perpetually fighting against being silenced and labeled “Angry Black woman” as justification for being ignored, this is not just a way of releasing stress and noting genuine problems, it is a way of staying connected to my own feelings, of not self-alienating, as our society pushes us to do. It is a direct action that throws blame back at the feet of those who wrong us. By calling it “complaining” it’s too often reduced to only the realm of the petty and is frequently a term used to dismiss genuine suffering, by medical professionals and even ostensibly “enlightened” folk who relegate it to “negative thinking.”
However, it can also be a humorous outlet, said with a wink and in a dramatic fashion for the sheer joy of the thing. There’s a reason nearly everyone I grew up around knew at least a smattering of Italian, Jewish, and other ethnic complaint/curse words, from the sacred “Oy vey!”and “Marone!” to my non-cursing father’s muttered “Cripes” (so as not to “take the Lord’s name in vain.”) These are just a few examples, of course. The variety was dazzling and offered a multitude of ways to express and nuance one’s particular gripe.
For many older people, good fortune was downplayed, with “spitting three times against the evil eye,” making the sign of the cross, or simply a mild denial of serendipity or good fortune to ward off any form of punishment for hubris and to keep away envy or misfortune. Everyone knew that good fortune could be wiped away in the blink of an eye, and a classic exchange might go like this:
Frequent customer “Oh, Mr. Johnson, you’re doing so well, your business is thriving! You must be thrilled.”
Mr. Johnson: “Meh” (tooth sucking/eyes raised towards heaven /sad head shaking heaven, according to ethnic based preferences) “It’s just more headaches- the paperwork, you can’t find good help, the taxes…” A light hearted elder might simply say, “Things could be worse.”
I made a vow to myself when young, that I would always celebrate joy- mine or that of others- and I would try never to bottle up my feelings. I saw the damage that it did, on buses and trains, and in the streets, as people went about their lives, blankness covering whatever joys or sorrows had been pushed down or cupboarded for the sake of functionality and fitting in. Many adults looked grey to me as a kid- unanimated, beaten down, claiming no emotions except perhaps anger. I determined by eleven that I’d not be them, that I’d never stop feeling or deny what I felt. I had one motto that centered me: Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore.
So scroll on if you wish. I rarely complain about things that genuinely hurt my feelings, and it’s more likely that you’ll just be on my Madam DeFarge-like lists for another day. For now, I’ll simply shrug and think “ok” or maybe “schmuck” to myself with a touch of pity for your unknowing ignorance.
Or as my grandma would say, “ I ain’t studying you.”