On the J train headed home to Brooklyn on Saturday night, I was sitting next to an older and tired man reading a paper on an arcane subject. The words “deleveraging” and “Japan” caught my eye and I could see graphs and lines and figures. His age was not immediately discernable, but the xeroxed copy of his economic paper was. Also, he was a Black man who was heading home from what seemed like a long day. It showed in his pock-marked face. Naturally curious and eminently sociable, even when I probably should not be, and without reading his body language — after the fact, it seemed he did not want to be bothered by anyone — I asked a very simple question: “Hey, are you an economist?”
He folded the paper and set it down on his chest, as if guarding a secret. He suddenly looked pissed off, or at the very least hurt somehow. Then he said the following right back: “What’s the question?”
I was completely mystified by his reaction, and kind of stung: what had I done to upset a stranger who seemed to share a similar interest in global economics and scholarly things? “What is the question?” he repeated after I had asked again, thinking he did not hear me the first time. Then I went on to stammer about what he was reading: “Oh, well, I saw that it’s about Japan and debt and…” and so on. His eyes looked cold, but I could not figure out what was the matter. Eventually, I copped an answer, that is, I had the Question: “Do you think the yen will survive given Japan’s aging population?” After a brief silence, he simply said, “No.” Whether he said that to end the conversation or if he really believed it, I will never know.
After a few moments, it dawned on me that his apparent hostility may have had something to do with the fact that a Black man reading a paper about an economic issue was asked by a younger white guy if he was in fact an economist. Then, I started to feel bad, but had no way of possibly going back a few train stops to apologize and explain myself, and therefore know more about what happened. His defensiveness could have stemmed from a number of other things: what was going on in his life or in his line of work, or any infinitude of possibilities that I will never know.
The only remaining piece is that I appeared to offend him by simply asking what I thought was an innocent and curious question that would have passed my lips had he been the Asian guy across the aisle reading an economic report. To me, it does not matter who is reading what. This man’s question, “What is the question?” raised a number of questions about how we had seemed to misunderstand each other. Why did we fail to communicate as people? I can’t ask him that question.