Loitering Is Delightful

Ross Gay. Photo: Natasha Komoda.

I’m sitting at a café in Detroit where in the door window is the sign with the commands

NO SOLICITING

NO LOITERING

stacked like an anvil. I have a fiscal relationship with this establishment, which I developed by buying a coffee and which makes me a patron. And so even though I subtly dozed in the late afternoon sun pouring in under the awning, the two bucks spent protects me, at least temporarily, from the designation of loiterer, though the dozing, if done long enough, or ostentatiously enough, or with enough delight, might transgress me over.

Loitering, as you know, means fucking off, or doing jack shit, or jacking off, and given that two of those three terms have sexual connotations, it’s no great imaginative leap to know that it is a repressed and repressive (sexual and otherwise) culture, at least, that invented and criminalized the concept. Someone reading this might very well keel over considering loitering a concept and not a fact. Such are the gales of delight.

The Webster’s definition of loiter reads thus: “to stand or wait around idly without apparent purpose,” and “to travel indolently with frequent pauses.” Among the synonyms for this behavior are linger, loaf, laze, lounge, lollygag, dawdle, amble, saunter, meander, putter, dillydally, and mosey. Any one of these words, in the wrong frame of mind, might be considered a critique or, when nouned, an epithet (“Lollygagger!” or “Loafer!”). Indeed, lollygag was one of the words my mom would use to cajole us while jingling her keys when she was waiting on us, which, judging from the visceral response I had while writing that memory, must’ve been not quite infrequent. All of these words to me imply having a nice day. They imply having the best day. They also imply being unproductive. Which leads to being, even if only temporarily, nonconsumptive, and this is a crime in America, and more explicitly criminal depending upon any number of quickly apprehended visual cues. 

For instance, the darker your skin, the more likely you are to be “loitering.” Though a Patagonia jacket could do some work to disrupt that perception. A Patagonia jacket, colorful pants, Tretorn sneakers with short socks, an Ivy League ball cap, and a thick book that is not the Bible and you’re almost golden. Almost. (There is a Venn diagram someone might design, several of them, that will make visual our constant internal negotiation toward safety, and like the best comedy it will make us laugh hard before saying, “Lord.”)

It occurs to me that laughter and loitering are kissing cousins, as both bespeak an interruption of production and consumption. And it’s probably for this reason that I have been among groups of nonwhite people laughing hard who have been shushed—in a Qdoba in Bloomington, in a bar in Fishtown, in the Harvard Club at Harvard. The shushing, perhaps, reminds how threatening to the order our bodies are in nonproductive, nonconsumptive delight. The moment of laughter not only makes consumption impossible (you might choke), but if the laugh is hard enough, if the shit talk is just right, food or drink might fly from your mouth, if not—and this hurts—your nose. And if your body is supposed to be one of the consumables, if it has been, if it is, one of the consumables around which so many ideas of production and consumption have been structured in this country, well, there you go.

There is a Carrie Mae Weems photograph of a woman in what looks to be some kind of textile factory, with an angel embroidered to the left breast of her shirt, where her heart resides. The woman, like the angel, has her arms splayed wide almost in ecstasy, as though to embrace everything, so in the midst of her glee is she. Every time I see that photo, after I smile and have a genuine bodily opening on account of witnessing this delight, which is a moment of black delight, I look behind her for the boss. Uh-oh, I think. You’re in a moment of nonproductive delight. Heads up!

Which points to another of the synonyms for loitering, which I almost wrote as delight: taking one’s time. For while the previous list of synonyms allude to time, taking one’s time makes it kind of plain, for the crime of loitering, the idea of it, is about ownership of one’s own time, which must be, sometimes, wrested from the assumed owners of it, who are not you, back to the rightful, who is. And while having interpolated the policing of delight such that I am on the lookout for the overseer even in photos I have studied hundreds of times, on the lookout always for the policer of delight, my work is studying this kind of glee, being on the lookout for it, and aspiring to it, floating away from the factory, as she seems to be.

Ross Gay is the author of three books of poetry, including Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; Against Which; and Bringing the Shovel Down. He is a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a nonprofit, free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project. He teaches at Indiana University.

From The Book of Delights, by Ross Gay © 2019 by Ross Gay. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.

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