Susan’s War Story: The trust dance

Ethnographer Susan Wilhite has a jangly impressionistic story about committing, body and soul, to her participant’s world.

Fieldwork in New York City, this time shadowing a Dominican guy in Queens. Tech-edgy and as proud of his gamer laptop as greasy dudes are about their hotrods. It was early July and I was there to get his story: the what, how, where, when and why – especially the why. The hacked, the black-marketed, the legacy and the shiny new, and all the numerous income streams. In New York, like everywhere, everyday life is all the drama you need.

First off, he had advised me to not stay in a crummy cockroach-infested hotel close to his place. No, I should stay in Manhattan and he would come get me, each and every day. And so he did. 9am, he is at my hotel lobby on the upper West Side to escort me on three subway lines and a bus. His place is his aunt’s and cousin’s house on a street Archie Bunker might have lived on. At 21 he is el hombre de la casa.

I see the situation right away – I need his cooperation if only to get back and forth every day and I can’t tell how long his reliability will last. He has not a clue what ethnography is. So I say to him: for the next three days you’re working for me. We’re pretending we’re making a documentary about you and your devices. We’ll talk and you show me stuff to illustrate your points. He buys it. We’re in business.

He makes a lanyard to wear my digital recorder around his neck, to better capture his comments over the loud air conditioner while he runs Lara Croft through a troublesome Tomb Raider level. We sit at the white wrought-iron patio table out back and discuss his take on every wireless access point in the neighborhood. He demonstrates how he invents ringtones in the front room to sell at one joint or another. He’s a boxer on the side – he knows people.

One morning he packs his virus-infested hotrod laptop and we head to Brooklyn. He’s talked his techie friend into occasionally wiping his hard drive. “Good as new”, he says. By this time I’m spending 7-something hours a day with him, and not every moment pertains to the research. In fact, it’s exhausting for us both to keep running in this acting out-demo mode. So it’s a relief to watch other parts of his life, which sometimes expose incidental intersections into the topic at hand. But on the way to Brooklyn he drops hints about how to walk and look at people to avoid unwanted attention.

His techie friend, it turns out, is less than thrilled about the risks of wiping a friend’s laptop hard drive. Maybe there’s even some unspoken debts and favors between them – I don’t know. I play along. The afternoon is getting long and the air is heavy – this is his mother’s house and the grand furniture and stuffed curio cabinet suggests it’s been in the family for a few generations.

Apparently the subject of our being there must be carefully broached. Veering into distracting topics gives the two parties a chance to modulate the tension. So they ask about me. They’re also looking for reasons to impart respect upon me and maybe be okay with my being female and older than them. I say more than is strictly professional but that was the point – they want to know I’m okay, I’m human, I’m not taking advantage of them. I can be trusted. A few revelations about my video game background convey cred that seems to lubricate the moment; I’m one of them, at least for now. Shortly thereafter it comes to light that while I am in no danger there’s something illegal about the hard drive wiping thing.

The trust dance subsides and now we huddle in a back room. A fluorescent bulb lights the scene and the New York Transit Authority roars outside the barred window now and again. What I witness is ripe stuff but being there, in that room, with these people, in that moment, is mildly warped. But this is the real deal, the reason we research. I avoid shooting the illegal parts even as I avoid endorsing their actions. I’m all objectivity on the inside and going partly native on the outside. Mission accomplished, the ‘high five’ is caught on camera, and my guy and I are outta there.

There are ethical lines in what ethnographers do. To be really committed it’s tough, though, to pull back, to play it safe. To be willing to seek humanity is to push boundaries.

I had meant to bring his gratuity with me on the last day and I just plain forgot. So his girlfriend comes along back to my hotel. As we ride I sense no distrust in my intentions but they are a little anxious. They watch as I sign the traveler’s checks at a grand old table off the lobby, and then they turn out toward a hot night in the vicinity of 89th and Amsterdam. Upstairs, after downloading the media, recharging batteries, and writing fieldnotes, it’s 10pm – time for dinner and a drink. It’s my birthday.


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