What are you?
Those three words instantly made me regret making eye contact with this man as he entered Starbucks. I was sitting at a table and waiting for my usual grande hazelnut latte. There was plenty of seating available, but, naturally, he sat in the chair across from mine.
There was no need for me to be mean about it, of course. It was only a matter of time before a barista shouted some variation of my name—Jackie? Janie? Jay-Z? I’d get my order and be out. I smiled, said hello, made casual small talk and went back to scrolling on Twitter.
I smiled, said hello, made casual small talk and went back to scrolling on Twitter.
I’d say he was in his 50s based on the faint wrinkles on his face. The salt and pepper scruff on his chin matched the hair on his head, and he had a homeless chic look going with the sweatshirt and utility jacket combo. I didn’t get “stranger danger” vibes from him, but I was still getting used to the idea of New York City at the time. I always had my resting bitch face on lock and my guard up.
I thought I was in the clear after minutes of silence. Then, came the question—the one that I rarely get, but always hate.
What are you?
As a black woman in America, I’ve come to learn that the “What are you?” question is reserved for individuals who are ethnically or racially ambiguous or for black people who have physical features that don’t fall in line with what some deem as “black.” I’m in none of those categories. So I was genuinely baffled.
I beg your pardon?
He explained that my features reminded him of the women in either Ethiopia or Kenya. He’d spent a significant amount of time in Africa, and he went into a story about his time there. Meanwhile, I’d stopped listening because I had realized that when he stopped telling this rather long story, my answer to his question would be that I’m from Monroe, Louisiana, and I don’t know much about my ancestry. Maybe I should…
Oop, that was my latte. My beverage was long overdue and so was my departure. That should have been how things went, anyway, but something told me to stay awhile. I got my drink and returned to our table.
I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name.
Izzy was his name. He was of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent. He’d almost died five times, and he loved music and his mother very much. He was an animated storyteller. His eyes lit up as he told me stories from his childhood, the successes of his multifaceted artistic career and of the times when he was weak but came out strong.
We bonded over our mutual love for Bruno Mars and Lauryn Hill. We shared our stories of loss to cancer—his story of a music student he had mentored and mine of my mother.
Izzy talked a lot. Like, I barely got a word in. As time went on, I grew more comfortable with just listening. I think he just wanted to be heard. At the time, I really needed to hear his words.
As time went on, I grew more comfortable with just listening.
I was in a transitional season of life, a rollercoaster of emotions ranging from, “This is fine!” to “WTF am I doing with my life?!” with moments of clarity and self-love sprinkled in every other full moon. Some days, I felt like a boss, and some days, I felt insecure.
I had dreams that I wanted to pursue, but I also had imposter syndrome. I had moves that I wanted to make, but I also had people, including myself, holding me back. When you’re working on a higher level, you have to rise to the occasion, but your heart has to want it.
I spent more than two hours in that Upper East Side Starbucks chatting with Izzy and walked away with more than my usual latte. I’ll probably never see him again, but his words will never leave me. He reminded me of the beauty of storytelling, the importance of simply listening and of humanity.
Thank you, Izzy, for your lessons.