the color of words

photos by rheagan e. martin ~ story by eric m. martin

When mixed, black and white make grey, most of the time.

In America’s language, black and white also make brown. In the Portuguese of Brazil and the Spanish of Argentina, the term is morena. But here, it’s bi-racial. Jenny was glad to note that bi-racial was eroding to brown. One day it would get there.


Jenny was a fill-a-notebook-in-a-month type of writer. She paid attention to words. The concepts that stood behind the words captivated her, sometimes against her will.

There were certain problems in the language that bothered anyone who thought about them, problems that pointed to a break between the words and what was actual; what was real; what the words failed to touch.

But you grow up believing in language, and you want to keep believing.


In New York, being brown was a kind of camouflage. At least, it was for Jenny who came from a small desert town on the flats between Los Angeles and Palm Springs, a place where color made her stand out.

There, color was not only what you saw in the spring when the wildflowers popped on the desert floor. Not just the sky. Not just the sand.

Color was in you. Color made you. Filled you up. Called out from inside you before your mouth form words. Color folded you into a box made just for you.

It could be overcome. It could be ignored. It could be looked past. But these facts only served as proof that color was the prima facie of personhood.

No amount of social enlightenment could reconcile black and white. There was the problem of language standing in the way.


Here the face of life was different. Here you could walk the streets and look for yourself and half-expect to find what you were looking for. You could find yourself in the park, standing over the boys playing chess and thinking about the question: what part of me is connected to that little boy? To his mind plotting the micro-future of his game; to the reality that breaks through his daydreams and whispers about the word money, about jobs and kids and a family of his own, about the idea that something is coming his way?

Jenny stood there and asked.

Asking was one of her first acts in New York. She felt that this was what you did in the City, what you do. You ask questions about the buildings all around you and wonder what you have in common with the people who erected this city, out of the damp soil, up and up, into this originary dream, the dream of a new reality.

Something must connect you. Some bit of humanity. Some capacity for believing – not in what was – believing in what could be.

Maybe you read too much and that is where this false phrase of belief comes from. Jenny chastened herself with this doubt, because she knew that, for her, belief did not come easy, and shouldn’t come from a book. Yet it might just be the books that were right.

It might be the books that draw the connection, rightly, between you and the people who built this city, the books that bridge the past and the present and that can change things.

Words transform the world. Don’t they?

They may just be marks on a page, but the page will never be the same.

And writing doesn’t just happen in books. It’s bigger than that.


If it weren’t for words, Jenny might still have been living the “old life”, as she called it, in her home town. If it weren’t for the impulse to change her name from Jenny to Jen.

One day she decided to try the change and see what happened. Superficial as the change might be, Jenny thought it was worth a try but found that she was locked into the letters of her name. Everyone already knew her as a five-letter entity. She was stuck.

Trapped in the letters of that name, Jenny struggled to see her way clear of what seemed like a silly crisis.

It was silly but it was real, because the name was real like the words black and white: you know there has to be a middle ground that is not grey, but the ground for that term is still being laid.

Yet you are here, now, without the endorsement of language.

But, really, a crisis of language? A crisis of the letters N and Y?

Trying to put the thought away, Jen became an ideal while Jenny veered toward speechlessness. Jenny began to talk less and less. People worried about her. She drove her car around the desert to avoid the need to make excuses for having nothing to say.

She was ashamed to admit how dramatically the inability to change her name affected her. Despite herself, Jenny found herself thinking of Jen as someone like a long lost sister who had written a letter begging Jenny to come…home.

The notion took on the form of a dream, which Jenny suffered through almost nightly, where she packs a bag to go meet Jen and goes down to the ancient train station of a nearby town. She walks for miles through a narrow, green valley and sees the station from a long way off.

Arriving there, Jenny finds the doors falling from the frames. A tall placard that once proclaimed the name of the town is worn clean of all but the last letter, which is a crooked Y.

She rushes up the path to the train tracks and drops her bag to the ground. The tracks are overgrown with disuse.

There is no train coming.


The first few weeks in New York, she tried out the three letter name, Jen, but dropped it soon. She hadn’t expected the switch to be as challenging as it turned out to be, or as pointless.

A larger sense of possibility replaced that effort, one that seemed closer to Jenny’s reason for coming to the city, though that reason was never completely clear. Writing as much as she did in her journal, Jenny knew all about the slipperiness of intention, the obscurity of motivation.

You can’t always write out what’s in your mind, because it changes as you write. It’s one thing at the beginning of a sentence and another at the end. So you can’t always write it out.

Sometimes you have read it after the fact.

Follow yourself around for a while and watch the things that you are driven to do. Then try to decipher the pattern behind the behavior. Track yourself. Chart the surprises. Map the routines.

Working as a receptionist for a day spa, Jenny did this, writing about the evenings of her first few months, her walks around the city. The story read like a quest for an object that was never named. Through the writing she began to piece together her reasons.


In a city as vast as this one, there is a sense that you can find people of all kinds on the streets, in the restaurants, the bodegas, the sandwich shops, the parks, the zoo, the museums. And if you can find every kind of people, you can find your kind of people.

You sense this, so you begin to look.

The most exciting discovery, however, comes when you happen upon the unexpected, the Unidentifiable. The pen takes a long pause and hovers over the journal in recalling it. The pen dances around the moment and seems to realize of itself that there is no way to put it into the book.

In this moment you realize that your experience thus far has not prepared you to recognize what you see in front of you. You can see the moment clearly, but there is no frame to fix the vision.

The long walk up to this point is recited in vivid detail: your work-heels find a soft spot on a newly blacktopped section of a cross-walk, where the sound of the shoes on the street ceases briefly before picking up again on solid, greyed pavement; the low hanging tree in the park brushes your shoulder as you pass under it, the leaves sharply green…

Everything gets written down in the book until the moment of departure, when you see it, the New, the Unidentifiable, which you seem to be a part of, implicated if not responsible, because this Thing is right in front of you, alive in a way that goes beyond the interplay of words, and it was never there before.


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