Noble rode the trust train back to West Hollywood, staring out the window, noting the huge distances between buildings, the lack of people walking on the streets.
When the train went underground again, she counted out each individual minute and by the time she arrived in Hollywood the count had made it all the way to twenty-seven.
Like two different planets, she thought, walking out onto the street, realising she was nowhere near West Hollywood, igniting her rocket boots and stealthing between buildings and alleyways until she was back at the gallery.
‘Good walk?’ asked the Philosophy Student, smoking something green.
Later that evening, Noble waited for the others to go outside then told the Philosophy Student about what had happened in Compton.
‘That’s good,’ she said, stubbing out another cigarette. ‘A bit snobby, but good.’
‘They said what they needed next was enough cash to invest in film equipment so the kids could make films.’
‘Maybe we could help with that?’
‘I don’t know. Donate some money to them.’
‘Hmm. And then what?’
‘Then they’d be able to buy the film equipment.’
‘Okay, but then what, Nobes?’
The Philosophy Student reached forward, put a hand on Noble’s forearm, lit up another cigarette with her other. ‘Sorry, but you’re missing the sad reality here. They can make their films and do their art but there’s still a ceiling waiting for them. You see? Say one of them makes a good short film, then what? They take it to the next level, but it gets rejected cos minorities get rejected at the first gate, that’s the reality. That’s the system. Maybe one or two get through, but not a mass of them, and only with shit that’s compromised. Come on, Nobes, you know it’s true, in your gut. There’s only so many places they allow for people like us. The invisible quota. Sì, I know it sounds harsh but the system is racist and sexist and that’s the way it is. All the way through, at all levels.’
‘I understand that, but-…’
‘Not done yet, Nobes. See, the reality is this system is not ready for the poor yet, not on their own, it needs to be changed by us. Trust me, I learnt this the hard way, in the trenches. We need to get well-connected people of colour like Debit and the gay Chinese guy in, get them in at boss level then we all move up. Expand the quota, create more spaces. You do see that, don’t you?’
‘What does well-connected mean?’
‘Come on, Nobes, don’t be dense. It’s blatant. You can’t go around swatting individual mosquitoes, you’ve gotta burn the nest, the queen mosquito. Hit them at the very top and the rest will follow.’
‘I don’t know if that-…I’m not sure if that would work.’
‘That’s your privilege, but you’re wrong. I’ve been doing this my whole life, I tried to help the poor bit by bit, at the source, poorer places than Compton, way more crime too, but it’s always the same thing, it doesn’t get you anywhere. Nothing changes, nothing at all. Best you can do is get the talented ones out and promote like hell, but even that takes a lot of resources, which is the one thing we don’t have. They have it, the gatekeepers, those fuckers above, but not us. That’s the level we’ve got to stab at, up there. That’s who we’ve got to bring down. Jesus, this is turning into a lecture and I hate doing lectures, that’s not who I am. God. Fuck you for making me lecture you, Nobes. I don’t wanna do this. This isn’t who I am at all. You’re morphing me into one of them, the fucking patriarchy.’
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean-…’
‘Don’t apologise, it’s annoying.’
Noble closed her mouth tight, her circuits stuck in a paradox. Beyond apologies, what else was there to say?
‘I’m joking. You can still speak. I’m not a tyrant.’
‘I’m just a little frustrated. Felt like we were doing laps around something meaningless.’
‘Though my point still stands.’
The Philosophy Student blew out green smoke. ‘Fuck’s sake, not again. The thing I just said, change from the top, bottom will follow. The Mandela effect.’
‘Inspirational black leader, brought a whole country together, even those who’d oppressed him, who didn’t deserve to be brought anywhere.’
‘Sorry, I don’t know much about South Africa.’
‘People said he was unique, tried to canonize him as something unrepeatable, but that’s bullshit, he wasn’t unique at all, he just wasn’t white, didn’t have that white entitlement…that’s the key.’
‘White carries bias, even the best of them. They can support, if they’re woke, but no more leading. That time’s done. It is. There’s thousands of us now, millions even, all with the same amount of heart and oppression trauma, the same goodness. We just need to wedge ourselves in.’
‘I don’t know…’
‘You don’t have to know anything, Nobes, I’m telling you directly, from experience.’
‘That Detroit is the next Nelson Mandela?’
More green smoke, this time right in the eyes. ‘Don’t be glib. I’m talking generally.’
‘Don’t say sorry.’
Noble paused then said a faint, ‘okay.’
‘Look, I don’t wanna be harsh. I know you’re trying.’
‘I am, but-…’
‘It’s tough, I know. I had some of the same struggles, when I started. And it’s not perfect, what we’re doing, there is the risk of power capture, our people turning white face when they get up there…that has happened before. But I do believe this is the best way forward. Truly.’
‘Okay. I understand.’
‘Look…come out here a minute, Nobes. Let me show you something.’
The Philosophy Student stubbed out the cigarette, took Noble by the arm and dragged her outside the gallery where all the others were standing around not doing much of anything.
‘Detroit, go get a cab.’
Detroit snorted and went to the side of the pavement. He held out his hand, pretty loosely, and watched as three cabs drove by without even slowing down.
Finally, a fourth one stopped and Detroit turned with a grin, saying, ‘and that’s every day, brother.’
‘You see, Nobes…it’s happening to all of us, at all levels. We are united by our oppression.’
‘I understand that part of it, but-…’
‘The more of us we can get in there, the better things can be. It’s inarguable.’
‘Damn fucking right,’ confirmed Detroit, holding open the taxi door.
Noble paused, remembered the lecture attack a few minutes earlier, then folded her arms and mumbled, ‘okay.’
After cruising over to Echo Park and back again, the whole crew – Noble, the Philosophy Student, Detroit & co, Debit the grey square artist – ended up at a Korean BBQ restaurant. The place was full, but they managed to get a table in the corner next to four white people and a token Korean woman.
They talked a little, mostly about the upcoming exhibit, but each of them couldn’t help leaning slightly towards the other table, scrunching their faces in disgust [or intense itchiness].
‘Dude, I love Korean food, but there’s like a mountain of cheese on this thing.’
‘It’s our style,’ said the Korean woman.
‘Wah, does everyone have a heart attack at 30 in your country? Just asking.’
The Korean woman laughed, while everyone at Noble’s table [except Noble] scrunched tighter.
When the white table plus token Korean had left, they huddled together and complained about how white they were and how the poor Korean woman had to bend to their will.
‘You get four Korean guys here, I bet they wouldn’t say a word.’
‘They did say Korean guys were very strong,’ said Noble, trying to detach some melting cheese from her steak.
‘Typical white guy strategy,’ said Angela, spooning out rice from Farrokh’s bowl, ‘pretend to be cultured, get in her pants.’
‘What they really wanted to say was Korean guys have small dicks.’
‘I heard guys saying that all the time when I lived in Korea. White guys, obviously.’
‘I’ve heard way worse than that.’
‘Fuck. They’re like a disease. I actually felt like vomiting when they were sitting there.’
‘I wish there was like a separate part of the restaurant where you could put them all.’
‘How about the car park?’
‘Seriously though, segregation of the white bro race. It could work.’
Noble succeeded in eating her piece of steak and started straight away on the other. After finishing the whole plate, she had no choice but to interact again.
‘I went to Compton before…’
‘Seriously?’ asked Detroit, eyes ballooning.
‘Did you see anything?’
‘Yeah, I met a few people. They were quite friendly. I tried to tempt them to the gallery, but…’
‘Did you tell them about Debit?’ Detroit pointed at the Somalian artist, who’d been very quiet most of the night.
‘I told them there were Somalian and Chinese artists, but they seemed reluctant to come to West Hollywood.’
‘They didn’t want to come. They said it wasn’t their kind of place.’
‘Who the hell were you asking?’ asked Detroit, stabbing a big slab of melted cheese.
‘Fucking racists,’ added Angela, stealing more rice from Farrokh.
‘Nah, they probably just don’t know where Somalia is.’
‘I mean racist against Chinese.’
‘Were they religious?’
‘Did they have gold chains on?’
Noble took some of her Korean beer and then explained that they had their own community centre, and didn’t really feel comfortable going into West Hollywood.
‘They’ve been brainwashed against their own side. That’s the mark of whitey right there.’
‘We’re doing all this for them, ungrateful little-…’
‘Giving them a clear fucking model to follow…’
‘Keeping themselves down and they can’t even see it…’
‘…better model than all that misogynist rap shit. Seriously, you ever seen those lyrics written down, it’s awful, like third grade poetry.’
‘Clowns don’t even know what art is.’
‘Hey,’ interrupted the Philosophy Student, doing one single tap on the lip of her beer.
‘They’re doing their own thing. Nothing wrong with that.’
‘I agree,’ said Debit, with nods from both Farrokh and Katya. ‘I think it would be quite rad to go down there, maybe have a look at their centre.’
‘Fuck, we didn’t say it was bad,’ said Detroit, reeling a little.
‘Sorry, but it sounded a bit like you did.’
‘Nah, what, I didn’t say that.’
‘I didn’t say it either,’ added Angela, trying to stir the rice in her bowl.
‘What I was saying was, yeah, do your own thing, fine, but no need to come out bitching about us though.’
‘We’re trying to help the poor fuckers.’
Noble shrugged. ‘Maybe you should go and talk to them. Try and get to know each other, read some of their zines.’
‘That’s a good idea,’ said Debit, giving the faintest of touches to Noble’s elbow, making her flinch.
‘Fuck off, I do that shit already. Not them…back in Detroit, those guys.’
‘Yeah, I’m doing outreach all the time back in Harlem,’ added Angela, giving up on the rice.
‘Fucking patronising little shit,’ continued Detroit, using Noble as a stand in for Compton. ‘Get to know them, read their zines? I fucking wrestle for these fools every day I’m breathing. Books for prisoners? Me. 72 day consecutive looped screening of Within the Gates at the Micheaux Centre, bang in the middle of Hamtramck? Me. And that’s just the last four years. I’ve helped thousands, I elevate my people, what the fuck do they do? Selfish fucks.’
‘Well, they have the community centre, you could maybe go and-…’ started Noble, but far too quietly to win ground.
‘Sure, I could go to them, or maybe, when they see someone doing good shit elsewhere, they should drop the fucking primary school attitude, get off their lazy asses and come and fucking see. That’s what Detroit kids did.’
‘That’s what Harlem kids did,’ added Angela, now stabbing the rice.
‘We’ve got the set-up, all the infrastructure, we can educate them, get them out into the real world.’
‘Won’t fucking come though, will they?’
‘Not with that fucking teen emo goth attitude they got.’
‘You can lead a horse to water…’
‘…but you can’t make it read Ellison. Fucking bleak house depression, brother, but some people just don’t wanna be pulled up. All they wanna do is stay angry. That’s the truth of it.’
‘Sister…’ muttered Noble, glancing over at the Philosophy Student, who seemed to be telepathically interrogating the salt shaker.
‘Maybe we should change topic?’ said Debit, moving her hand onto Noble’s knee.
‘Wah, more white bros,’ said Angela, gesturing with one chopstick at the entrance.
Detroit looked up, mimicked a vomiting action.
‘Pass me the fucking cattle gun.’
After the meal, the group of dissidents waited in the car park for a cab to turn up. In an attempt to inject some optimism into the night, Noble mentioned a book she’d read while living in Hong Kong: Wise Blood // Flannery O Connor.
‘Wah, that’s one of my favourite books,’ said Debit, face lighting up. ‘The bit where the guy dresses up in the bear suit, for no reason whatsoever. It’s genius.’
‘I was just about to say that too.’
Noble nodded, accidentally intercepting Debit’s roaming hand with her own.
They both reeled back a little, then smiled.
Muttering fucking [something] under their breath, Detroit and Angela edged closer and told them both to stop talking so positive about O Connor, the Jim Crow witch was blacklisted.
‘But…she’s a good writer. Isn’t she?’
‘What? Which part?’
‘The black character on the train at the start. Textbook racism.’
‘Menial job, bullied by main white character, patronising speech patterns.’
‘Pullman Porters,’ said Angela, shaking her head. ‘Problematic to say the least.’
‘Breadcrumb capitalism. Gives a job that pays shit, has a white boss i.e. master, then hail progress. 1900, maybe, 1950, fuck off. Racism from inception. It’s undeniable.’
Noble looked at Debit, who did a weird kind of half frown then moved over to Katya and Farrokh, who were still days-deep in their human lamppost impressions.
Undeterred, Noble countered. ‘I thought the train guy was just a normal train guy, doing his job. And the main character was a psychotic mess, so I’m not sure how that fits into your criticism.’
‘Good Man Is Hard To Find. Constant ‘N’ words. You wanna try and defend that too, Nobes?’
‘Don’t do it, brother,’ said Angela.
‘Sister,’ corrected Noble, foregoing the usual mitigation cough. ‘And I’m not, I don’t know that novel. I’m just giving a different view on the train guy from a-…’
‘It’s fucking racist, okay. Whatever you think you’re saying, know that you’re defending a racist by saying it, so…’
‘But the train guy is just doing his job, I don’t understand why he’s so offensive to-…’
‘N words, fuck face. Why you still yapping about the train guy? O Connor’s fucking racist, end of.’
‘Hiding behind the in dialogue, it’s natural, that’s how they speak excuse,’ added Angela, stretching out her Ganja & Hess t-shirt.
‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Glory, Wise Blood, Toy Story, all the same fucking package.’
‘Star Trek DS9.’
‘Ya, DS9. Fucking only Trek where the lead’s not a captain. You probably like that too, don’t you?’
‘Err…I didn’t-…’ Noble paused and looked at her closest opponent. It wasn’t good. Detroit’s eyes were masque red and his arm was glowing yellow. Either a birth defect, cheap electronics or he was a robot. Probably a robot. Designed by the Philosophy Student? Most likely. Which meant he was a newer model. A stronger model. Fuck. How had she failed to notice it, all this time? Were the others bots too? Did it matter? He was stronger than her. A fight would not end well. Noble counted back her thinking time since saying I didn’t [only 1.7 seconds, acceptable] and then said in a soft tone, ‘never mind.’
‘Never mind? After a two minute fucking pause?’
‘It wasn’t that-…’
‘You think all that shit’s okay? Wise Blood, DS9, absentee dad Sisko…’
Detroit’s eyes went a shade brighter, his arm shaking a little as he mimicked Noble’s voice. ‘Never mind. Let’s move on. I went to Compton today, everybody. Trying to act like I didn’t just say anything. Never mind. Never fucking mind. Try’na tell me how to feel about the representation of my own fucking people.’
‘No, I’m just…’
‘Shut the fuck up, creampuff.’
‘Shut up, shut up, shut up. You’re fucking insulting me right now, every word coming out of your mouth is an insult, shut the fuck up.’
Noble said, ‘okay, sorry,’ as calmly as she could without looking blank, then tried to walk over to the Philosophy Student, who was busy getting into the front seat of the taxi that had just turned up.
Noble called her name, but she blanked her, so she walked over and knocked on the window. The Philosophy Student looked through the glass and pointed to the back seats.
Noble readjusted and went for the rear door, but everyone had already piled in and Detroit was mouthing something through the window, something probably not good.
The taxi drove off, leaving Noble solo in the car park.
‘You need a lift?’ said a voice behind her.
Noble turned, gun arm on standby. There was a large man, and an almost as tall, green jacket woman standing by a parked car, both gesturing for her to get in.
‘It’s okay, I’ll walk.’
‘Where you going?’ asked the man, who looked a little like Yaphet Kotto but spoke in a heavy Liverpool accent. Was everyone in LA from the UK?
‘I don’t know,’ answered Noble, slowly.
‘Were they your friends?’ asked the woman, pointing at the car park exit, her face not that much like Maggie Cheung’s but close enough for Noble’s face recognition scanner, with its very limited reference points.
‘I thought they were.’
‘Yeah, didn’t mean to, but we overheard what they were saying to you. Sorry, but your friends are twats.’
The man shook his head. ‘They said that shit to me and I would’ve slapped them back to West Hollywood.’
‘Wah, how does everyone know they live there?’
‘It was either there or Echo Park,’ added the woman. ‘Maybe Venice.’
‘It’s getting cold, man, you need a lift or not?’
Noble looked at the road just beyond the car park and the lack of taxis, then turned back to the couple and said, ‘okay.’