Rain and Trains/Jews/Father’s Day/Drinks

IMG_1184The night before the interview he cut my hair. I sat in front of the open window as he gave me a buzz. He gently turned my head from side to side, and I watched the tiny blond hairs fall into my lap. Outside the rain obscured our view of Manhattan.

We’d just had our first fight. It wasn’t exactly a fight. I’d done something thoughtless that upset him. He assured me repeatedly that he wasn’t mad at me, while I repeatedly apologized. Because we rent a room in someone else’s apartment, there were no other rooms for us to retreat to. So he cut my hair, and then we watched a movie.

The next day I had an interview in Plainview, NY. The commute from Brooklyn was two and a half hours, two subway lines, a train, a bus, and a very long walk. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but they were the only company (aside from some staffing agencies) to call me in for an interview. After my subway transfer, I caught the Long Island Rail Road to a town called Hicksville, NY. I sat on the empty train and watched the rain over the green, New York countryside. At the train station I caught a bus to the office.

The bus stopped over a mile from the building, so I walked in the rain. When the sidewalk ended, I walked in wet grass. A truck sped past me and splattered me with mud.

In the interview a small, rotund woman with a thick, Long Island accent asked me about the trip. “The last person we hired from the city quit because the commute was too much.” She said.

“It was fine.” I assured her, smiling too broadly, inwardly wondering if I really would be willing to travel that far every day for a job I knew I wouldn’t like.

On Friday I had a temporary assignment as a receptionist for a staffing agency. After working from home for the past two and a half years, it was very strange to put on nice clothes and go into an office. I walked through the Financial District in the early morning past a group of kids protesting at a corner church. They were curled up in sleeping bags on the sidewalk with signs about taxing religious institutions with anonymous masks and New Kids on the Block blankets. Down the street from them, a real homeless person was rummaging through a garbage bin for the remains of someone’s discarded water bottle.

For most of my work day I sat in front of a phone that didn’t ring. I doodled nine squares on a notepad, and with each passing hour I marked out a square. When people did call, it was mostly other job seekers wanting to talk to a recruiter. I marveled at how unprofessional they all sounded and wondered if they were going to get a job before I do.

***

“They could kill us, and no one would say anything.” Carlos said as we walked through Williamsburg. We’d walked across the Williamsburg Bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn. In Williamsburg we found ourselves surrounded by orthodox Jews in long, black coats with their glasses, ringlets, and large, round, furry hats. We walked for blocks and blocks without seeing any other people who weren’t thus bedecked. Even the parking signs were written in Hebrew. It felt as if we’d suddenly entered another country.

The surreal feeling didn’t end until some kids riding bikes past us said, “These people are crazy!”

***

On Father’s Day I dutifully called my dad for the second of our bi-annual conversations that occur on his birthday and on Father’s day. I didn’t want to call, but figured calling would be easier on me than dealing with the drama that would ensue from not calling.

My dad was at work near Laredo, TX, servicing construction equipment. He’s been working 90 hours a week in places like Louisiana and Laredo, despite the fact that they own their home, have no debt, and have enough in the bank to retire. Obviously I did not inherit his work ethic.

Like all of our conversations, this one was awkward, and I suspect, painful for both of us.

“Have you found a woman in New York, yet?” He asked.

“No.” I said, exasperated that he was at this again.

“Well, we want some grandkids.” He said.

“Don’t hold your breath.” I told him.

His consistent refusal to acknowledge that I’m gay is something that once upset me greatly, but is now merely another annoyance. I feel nothing for him, really. If my mother wasn’t alive, I probably wouldn’t bother continuing to talk to him at all.

We spoke briefly before he had to get back to work. He asked if I’d gotten mugged yet, and if I was ready to move again. I wished him happy Father’s day, and was relieved to have gotten out of the way so that Carlos and I could enjoy the rest of our day.

***

“See, we don’t need money.” Carlos said when we were walking home. “We just need friends with money.”

We’d spent the day with some friends of his who were visiting from San Francisco. They were a generation and a class removed from us, well dressed gay men who cattily referred to one another as “she,” who go to Patty Lupone concerts, and take vacations in Cambodia.  We spent the day going from bar to cafe to bar to bar to bar to restaurant. I don’t often drink alcohol, in fact, it had been more than a year since I’d had an alcoholic beverage, but they were buying, and a gin and tonic or four seemed in order.

I mostly sat by Ali who has his own fragrance and maintains apartments in San Francisco and New York. We all laughed and joked with one another. An event called Folsom East was going on, and I found myself in the midst of a throng of scantily clad, overweight, hirsute men in leather thongs. In a bar called The Eagle, we sat in a back corner watching a strange man dance on a platform with a bulky, black sweater, a red neck kerchief, a hiked up pink miniskirt, and black stockings. Beside him a large black man was getting head from a small white man, as people casually walked by with drinks.

On the rooftop bar of a hotel in Chelsea, we took in the view of the Empire State building. I asked some lesbians if they were from Scotland, and they were incensed and insisted they were from England.

Before going to a charity event, the guys bought us gluten free pizza at a semi-fancy Italian place in Hell’s Kitchen. Slightly inebriated we took the subway back to Brooklyn. Our knees touched. Carlos made faces at me while I giggled. We walked back up to our room and took our clothes off, lying in front of a fan on a warm night, in front of an open window with all of Manhattan spread out before us.

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The Help

“I’m not your nigger-nanny,” my mom used to say when I was growing up. This was her stock response to me asking her to get me or do something for me that I was perfectly capable of getting or doing myself.

My mother was raised in a time and a place where she saw first-hand black women raising the children of affluent white families. Like me, she was born in a small, southern town where dropping the n-bomb was part of the everyday vocabulary. My father had a friend who he often went ‘coon hunting with called “Nigger Bobby.” This was the name he used to the man’s face.

Even as a child their way of speaking made me cringe. I grew up watching Sesame Street and the Electric Company. The world I came of age in was a politically correct one where everyone was equal, and where people went out of their way to not offend other people. Not that racism didn’t still exist. At home, my family still liberally used the n-word, and at school all the black kids were put in special-ed classes, and my aunt would lock the car doors as we drove through certain neighborhoods.

When I pointed out to my family as a teenager how racist they were, they were genuinely offended. My dad said in his defense, “I’m not racist. There are a lot of niggers that I like!”

Thankfully times have changed. Not only is the president of the United States a black man, but my racist, redneck family actually voted for him. They no longer use the “N” word. My mom, now a pre-school teacher, has adopted the term African-American when she feels that such distinctions need be made. My dad still has a lot of room for progress.

On my last visit home, my mom had me watch the movie, The Help, with her. If you’re somehow unfamiliar with the film, or the book that it was based on, it’s about a young, white protagonist who sees the injustice in how the black servants raising the spoiled children of wealthy, white families are treated, and swoops in to rescue the poor, beleaguered colored folk who couldn’t possibly save themselves, thus ending institutionalized racism once and for all. Aside for the performances of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, the film wasn’t much to write home about. My mom and I were both disappointed in it for different reasons.

I flew back to New York City, relieved to leave the South behind me. The small town where I grew up where people still hang confederate flags in their windows, where my cousin proudly brags that he’s a member of the KKK, where I know first-hand what it’s like to be discriminated against.

NYC is a haven of diversity just like Sesame Street promised, where people of every color walk down the busy streets in suits with briefcases, getting in and out of taxis. I feel more comfortable riding the A train where I’m often the only white rider than I do in the small town where I’m from that’s comprised almost entirely of white people. In New York it’s easy to pretend that the divide between white and black is a thing of the past.

When Carlos got a job in TriBeCa, I found myself spending a lot of time in this affluent neighborhood near the World Trade Center. It is full of children and women with strollers, so much so, that we’ve nick-named it Stroller-Town. Walking around Battery Park, I began to notice a strange phenomenon. I kept seeing black women pushing strollers with white babies. My first thought was that white babies must be the Must Have Accessory for rich, black women this season.  There were so many of them, walking down the streets, sitting in the parks, coming in and out of the expensive apartment buildings I could only dream of living in. Then it dawned on me. The women were not the parents, they were just taking care of the white babies of other people. As I watched more closely, I heard the women with Jamaican accents chasing down white toddlers with blond curls, being ordered around by petulant youngsters, demanding to be given ice cream. My stomach sank.

The Help made me believe that the world had changed since the early 60s, but the reality is that even in a diverse, progressive city like New York, certain institutions remain intact. I wonder about these children with their black nannies. Do they grow up to be more tolerant, more blind of something as ridiculous as skin color, or do they just get the idea reinforced that they are the ones who’ll grow up to be the movers and shakers, and black people will forever be their servants?

Last week in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, where everyone is poor, and therefore equal by default, I saw a little black girl walking down the street with her mom, wearing a Wonder Woman outfit, and was hopeful. I hope this little girl grows up knowing that she can be the super hero without needing some great white hope to swoop in and save her. I hope that she grows up never knowing what it’s like to be discriminated against for her color, or her sex, or her sexual preference (whatever that might turn out to be.) I hope that she grows up believing in herself and teaches the rest of her generation to do the same.