In In Praise of Shadow, Junichiro Tanizaki…well, praises shadow. He likes how partial darkness creates ambiguity that lets his imagination romp off leash. Tanizaki even prefers his food dark. Eat yokan, or red bean paste, in a dark room from a dark lacquer dish, and “it is as if the very darkness of the room were melting on your tongue.”
Nom, nom. Tanizaki may be right that darkness is best friend to aesthetes, foodies, and heathens. But for neurotics with Christian consciences, it’s nothing but a headache. Making it through life without embarrassing ourselves requires a well-lighted path.
For a year back in the early oughts, I took a hiatus from mortgages to work as an enrollment counselor — read: hard-seller of education — for a well-known online university. Among my co-workers was a woman I’ll call Shirley. A divorced mother a few years older than the rest of us, she seemed to think her advanced age and extra life experience qualified her to play den mother for the sales team. Because she’d been born in what was then South Vietnam, because her ex-husband was African American and her son biracial, Shirley was forever on the lookout for discriminatory behavior.
Normally Shirley wore a fixed and glaring smile, which she called “professional.” But early one winter evening around quitting time, I looked up from my cubicle to see her pacing the floor in front of the printer, breathing hard as a pug. After shutting down Outlook and locking my computer, I asked her what was wrong.
She told me: “Ryan told a racist joke! I’m going to have to report him to HR!”
Ryan was the youngest member of the sales team, a blond, languid Mormon from Mesa whose ambition was to join the highway patrol. I asked what the joke was.
“He said, ‘Did you hear about the fireman who called his two sons Jose and Hose B?'”
“Don’t you get it? Jose’s Mexican.”
I forget what I said as the two of us gathered our things and wended through the cube labyrinth, but I pleaded Ryan’s cause — that I do remember. Ryan hadn’t a malicious bone in his body. If he’d belonged to some other religion, he’d have made an ideal drinking buddy. Besides, he’d completed his mission requirement in Cuernavaca, where, to win a bet, he’d eaten some raw habaneros and done permanent damage to his stomach lining. Now, in order to digest his food properly, he had to chase it with enormous quantities of milk. If he found something risible in the name “Jose,” I reasoned, his judgment came from hard-won experience.
Nothing I said shook Shirley’s resolve. “I love Ryan,” she kept repeating. “But he’s just going to have to learn his lesson.”
By the time we made it into the parking lot, the sun had already set but the electric lamps hadn’t yet flicked on. The only light came from the western sky, through a few lonely streaks of already-darkening ultramarine. Colors looked washed out; shapes, blurred. Abruptly, Shirley broke off the conversation. Waving at something in the distance, outside my own weak ocular powers, she shouted, “HEY, FREDDIE!”
A shape lumbered into view. I could tell it was a man — a black man. Its imposing height, its length of leg, its thinness, even the smoothness of its apparently shaven head, all looked characteristically African. The fact that this body spoke a guarded language — bending slightly at the waist, hunching a little in the shoulders — gave the impression its owner thought it impolitic to look too imposing.
The man was heading our way, Shirley apparently having caught his attention. When he came to within a few feet of us, I could make out his face, which looked puzzled. “Oh…sorry,” Shirley mumbled. “I thought you were a friend of mine.”
The man nodded, as though this happened regularly, and I could feel Shirley crumple with shame. It was plain she’d judged herself guilty of second-degree racism. I’m sorry to say I played on it, snickering, “They all look alike, huh?” until she agreed to let Ryan off the hook. I drove home feeling terrifically pleased with myself.
Last night, though, I learned just how badly poor light can warp my own judgment. One of my neighbors is a man on SSI. He weighs in at about 300 pounds — by his account, down from 400 pounds — sports a graying, greasy ponytail, and talks like he’s gargling with chalk and brick dust.
This person makes me nervous. Not that there’s anything menacing about him. On the contrary, he’s very friendly. One evening about a month ago, after a good run had put me in an expansive mood, I sat in the hot tub with him and listened as he told me his life story, or at any rate, the portion covering the past couple of years. Now, whenever I pass his perch at the picnic table outside the rental office, he hails me and waves me over to talk. I always wave back and hurry on my way.
I could try to rationalize my aversion by saying I’m afraid he’ll hit me up for something — money, cigarettes, the loan of a vacuum cleaner. But something much bigger and more basic is at stake. I’m afraid people might see us together and say, “Ah, there they are — the two losers!”
To my own eye, the differences between me and this other guy are numerous and manifest enough to make up one of those placemat puzzles with which Denny’s entertains children and drunks. But a new property management company is trying to gentrify the place by advertising among ASU students. I don’t trust the staff not to decide that all middle-aged rentors look alike. In some dark corner of my own mind, I wonder whether reaching middle age without signing a mortgage could really be as definitive a quality as, say, lacking a spine. It may flatter an octopus to suppose he has more in common with a shark than with a snail, but his self-conceit won’t deliver him from the phylum Mollusca.
Last night when I was enjoying my hourly half-cigarette in the smoking area by the laundry room, my weird neighbor appeared out of the glare from the overhead fluorescent light and asked if he could borrow a bicycle pump. I told him, truthfully, that I had none, and he trundled off. After stubbing out my butt at the halfway mark, I dropped it back into my pack for later and headed home. About 30 yards from my door, I stopped: on the unlit pavement a little in front of my unit was my neighbor, standing perfectly still and offering me his profile.
I froze, hoping to wait him out. Unless he knew where I lived, and had set his heart on borrowing a bicycle pump I didn’t have, he’d get on his way soon enough, I reassured myself. But instead of moving along, he kept right on standing in place, staring at something in the darkened grass. A minute went by; he shifted his weight and snapped, “Hurry up!”
It was not my neighbor’s voice. Out from the deep shadows on the lawn trotted a dachshund that was not my neighbor’s dachshund. The man turned into the light from my porch lamp, and I realized he wasn’t my neighbor but some other 300-pound guy. I ran inside, flipped on all the lights, said, “Damn the electric bill,” and lay down to sleep.
Talk up shadow and nuance all you like — when it comes to eating food prepared by someone you trust, it certainly adds atmosphere. But for distinguishing the man from the mass, for driving away Jungian shadows, you simply can’t top light and clarity. It’s that emphasis, implicit in faith and reason and explicit as Lumen Christi — Christ, Our Light — that keeps me a Christian, not to mention a morning person.