Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chapter 21 - No Heat

The same year I had to go back to school and when I went it
seemed like it was nothing like when I had left before I had
the boys. Everyone seemed to be so immature. I had to get out
of there so Kaki and Kathryn took me to take the test to get
into Community College of Philadelphia and January of 1999
I started classes.

From “My Life as I Know It,” by Tahija Ellison

“At what temperature does your breath do this?” I asked Tahija, puffing out smoke as we climbed the stairs to her typing class. We’d been to a doctor’s appointment and I was dropping her off late at school.

“The temperature we’re at,” she said.

Copies of paintings by the European masters hung in the main hallway of Dobbins High School, but there was no heat. It was early December.

Tahija’s high school was a great disappointment. She went half days: gym, lunch, English and typing. Gym was jumping jacks then basketball, with most of the girls watching. Lunch she didn’t eat because of the pork threat. English was worksheets: grammar and punctuation — none of the fiction, poetry, and drama that would have developed her already good ear for language and broadened her perspective. And typing — we’d reached the classroom — appeared to be a study hall.

“That the one going to write ‘Leave me alone today?’ on the board?” I asked, looking in.

“That’s her. Counting the hours till retirement.”

“Well, try to learn something.”

“She gives me work I’ll do it.”

“I know you will,” I hugged her goodbye.

In junior high Tahija had won an essay contest. The prize was a weekend in Atlanta visiting Morehouse and Spelman colleges. Only to graduate to no heat, no challenge. TANF gave her an incentive to stay in school, and she was trying to make it work, but that effort was beginning to seem an empty exercise in compliance.

Driving home I mulled it over. What was my responsibility as her legal guardian? At the very least, I should know a lot more about the public schools. In Philly, they were effectively segregated, thanks to white flight to the suburbs and to the private schools that sprouted like mushrooms after court-ordered desegregation. And because the public schools were funded by local property taxes, and not, like everything else important, by state and federal revenues, they were also broke. There were magnet schools, and soon the state would sanction charter schools. But the first had long waiting lists and the second was yet to come. Tahija seemed stuck. No options — a good definition of dire poverty. But Kaki and I weren’t poor. What options did we have that we could extend to her?

There’s not much I can claim to have talked Tahija into over the years, but I did manage to get her to attend an open house at the Community College of Philadelphia. She liked it: the high-ceilinged library, the sunny hallways, the small, engaged classes, the diversity. Before long we found ourselves standing in line to register for spring term courses. In front of us three guys went on and on about their amazing and bizarre psychology professor, while two girls behind us quizzed each other for an anatomy test. Purposefulness was in the air, and that air was heated.
In January of 1999, two months into her sixteenth year, when the boys were almost a year old, Tahija enrolled full-time at the Community College of Philadelphia, which folks called just Community. Her math and English courses were pre-college level, but if she passed with a C or higher she’d advance on to the freshman curriculum.

It seemed a good move. Under welfare reform the first twenty-four months of a sixty-month lifetime entitlement could be used for education and job training. We’d already used ten months on the second half of tenth grade, the first half of eleventh, and the summer between. That left fourteen months — time enough, if she went four semesters straight, to earn an A.A. degree. With that, and maybe a work-study job under her belt, she’d enter the job market as something more than a nail head under the hammer of minimum wage.

Along with job readiness, I hoped college would give her a wider perspective on life. I knew her well enough by then to know she was hauling considerable baggage. When it came time to start opening those suitcases I wanted her to know that others had been through what she’d been through, and more, and had come through, and left a record.

It was a record she had a right to know about. It was her inheritance as a human being.

“So I think, ‘when is he gonna check the homework?’ Because sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t, right?”

We were in the shamrock room eating our favorite meal of grilled salmon, mashed potatoes, garlic bread and broccoli. Lamarr was upstairs watching TV with the boys.

“This is the one wears the same shirt every day?” Kaki asked.

“The English teacher, yeah. And I think, dang, here I stayed up till 3:00 A.M doing it and he’s not even going to check it. But just as everybody’s filing out, he comes up to my desk, and he says, ‘Le’ me see your homework.’ Like that, like some mafia guy.”

“He doesn’t ask anybody else?” I said.

“No, just me.”

“And you have it.”

“I have it. I flip open my notebook, and there it is. Done.”

“Ha!” Kaki said, dolloping mashed potatoes onto her plate. “He asked the wrong person.”
Or the right one, I thought, grateful, knowing how little he earned (two or three thousand a course and no benefits, if he was an adjunct).

This teacher of the limited wardrobe challenged and inspired Tahija. One day years later, when she holds cut-off notices from the water department and the gas company both, when college is a dream deferred, she’ll meet him on the Avenue. She won’t recognize him at first, but he’ll recognize her.

“I can see it in your eyes,” he’ll say. “You’re not making anything of your life.” Then he’ll remind her what he used to tell her back when she was the youngest student in his class, probably in the whole college: “I know you have something wonderful to contribute to this world.”

She felt good all the rest of the day, she told me. “Like somebody gave me money.”

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A passage I decided to cut

I cut this because it seemed too long a sidebar. But maybe at some level I didn't want to expose myself to the kind of scrutinty the passage talks about. This would have been late in the book, when Tahija and I start to have serious conflict.

Usually Jamarr and Tahayyah had nothing good to say, in my hearing, about black people, family not excluded, family particularly included; it seemed an ugly little general rule operative in my own family dynamic: if you hate and feel ashamed of yourself you will hate and feel ashamed of those like you, the more so the more they are like you. This is especially true if folks from the dominant group are hanging around, judging or not, it hardly matters: their existence in and as the dominant group is the judgment. It's simple, and sad — divide and conquer at its most psychologically damaging; and it lasts longer than the conquerors' need for it, longer even, sometimes, than the conquerors themselves.

I remember my mother's fierce shushing us on the train, though we were a fairly quiet five kids, and good (on the train). Poor white trash had big loud families, especially the Popish Mics. Still to this day I make nervous jokes about the rhythm method, Irish drunks, rusting appliances in the yard. Still I grow tired around middle and upper class people. It wears me out: repressing the shame, letting it come up, trying to let it go, accepting when I can't, envying, trying not to envy, or judge, trying to keep up with people who don't have to exert energy on all this and have had all their lives far more material resources, trying to forgive them, to see whatever crosses they may bear, and with what grace, trying to discern when in any one relationship all this is too much for me, and to walk away, self esteem not too dented. Just recently a friend was telling me how when a friend of hers had nasal surgery her two eyes turned black, and everyone stared, made jokes. I laughed and told her how once when my mother had an abscessed tooth my father took her to the emergency room, and everyone stared at him that way.

She looked at me blankly. "They figured he'd beat her up, see? Her face was all swollen."

"Oh," my friend said, seeming to back away from me. Because I had a father anyone could even suspect of that? (Had I told her he drank, betraying him, a complicated, sensitive, suffering man, to stereotype, as I have risked doing here?) I wanted to ask—well would they not have suspected it of your father in a similar situation? Then I realized her father and mother would never have been in a similar situation because she came from the land of preventive medical care, even dental insurance. I'd read of that place. No abscessed teeth in it, no breaded aspirin packed into a throbbing tooth, no dishcloths of ice on the cheek, no swished whiskey, no mother sitting up all night rubbing your cheek because there isn't money for a dentist and the clinic is on the other side of State Road 7, where white people don't go. We hadn't fallen that low.

And we didn't fall that "low", public assistance low, until my father died suddenly and left us, a widow and five kids aged two to seventeen, with nothing but his car, one week's pay and the promise, a year or so down the line, of social security survivor's benefits (thank God for those). But I sure wasn't telling my middle class friend all that. The look on her face when I said abscessed tooth shut me--as my mother used to say--right the hell up.

Monday, December 15, 2008 of the last good days

This was is one of my favorite scenes. I love re-reading it, and remembering that sunny day. I wrote it fairly early in the four years or so of working on the book. I finally cut it because it seemed to slow the pace of that chapter, where a faster pace was needed. But because it had been in the book so long, the shadow of it remained. In the published book, I have myself remembering it in a scene as I go downstairs for “the house meeting from hell.” I'll include that published scene after this cut one.

One of the last good days . . . we are in the backyard on a warm summer day. A rug of artificial grass covers the uneven pavement stones and a gold-colored curtain draped over the clothesline’s three ropes makes a beamy enclave of shade beneath. The triplets play on the plastic jungle-gym their mom struggled down the stairs with from the nursery. They crawl in turn through its paired yellow circles, slide down the short slide, craw back up it. Tahija and I sit about six feet apart, reaching often to steady or catch one as he falls.

Damear, still the most sure-footed (with Lamarr catching up fast and soon to pass him) negotiates the uneven slope between us. He starts with his mother and walks to me, losing his balance and falling forward into my lap. I laugh and hug him, then set him up facing his mother. Off he goes, falling toward her with as much trust, and joy. He goes back and forth this way for awhile, as if to tell us, teach us: I need both this face that mirrors my own, as familiar as the beating of my heart, and this one that unconditional love has come from from earliest memory.

I thought of the boy I’d babysat years before, how once when his mother was in her last year of residency, working the longest hours she would ever work in her life, he held her picture over my face, tried to move it with my head. He needed her to be what I was: Present.

No one fell that day, bonked his head or scraped his knee. No one got chastised or punished. No one was asked to do more than they could do. No one felt hurt, anger or guilt. There was only sunlight pocked through the cloth like stylized stars, and three healthy toddlers stacking minutes into a tower on an afternoon I will always remember.

And here is the remnant of that scene as it appeared in the published book:

I went to the window, from which I could see the nursery’s side windows — where Damear’s crib was. I couldn’t see it though through them; what I could see was the back yard, or part of it, and through the window of my mind a day not so long before, a day in June, bright, when Tahija and I had made a sort of hut by hanging an old gold-colored drape over the clothesline’s ropes. We played there with the triplets in a cove of filtered light. Damear made a game of running back and forth between us, falling in turn into each of our laps. Trying to teach us something.

Did I, going down the stairs that day, actually remember the earlier sparkly day in the back yard? Probably not. I may have, but my memory is not so good that I can remember what I was remembering at a certain time years ago. The scene, the moment, the memory, the harmony Tahija and I felt that day wanted, needed to be in Chapter 24. In a sense, the light of that moment was always there, as the backyard was always there — to be looked out on at any time, from any window — , and so I feel I have not unduly fictionalized by putting it in where I did. But I do miss the longer, present-tense scene. Tahija and I have had other times like that since — where we’re together with the boys, sharing the care of them. For me, and for them too, I sense, and for Tahija — our joint care has a rightness to it. Perhaps we all will always remember that day.

PCB's in the river sediment

Tahija’s voice and touch seemed rough to me. The boys cried too much, I thought, especially during the bath. Any suggestions — like, maybe the water’s too hot, or, if you went slower — made things suddenly uncomfortable, and I held my tongue. It was better, I would find, simply to be gentle with them (and her), and let the results be seen. If she wanted those results she could try those methods. I might use the very same words she did — “hold still” or “you don’t want to smell funky, do you?” — but more gently. Sometimes I’d hear her try on my tone for size, and I’d try hers — “Why you gotta do that?”

I noticed the kids in the neighborhood heard me better when I used the tone I learned from Tahija.

Harsh words directed at hair, lips (especially Damear’s bigger lower one), complexion, head size, and supposed body odor or bad breath, however, I did not repeat, in any tone. How could a child spoken to that way grow up to feel good about himself, and wasn’t it the main job of a parent or care giver, after protection and care of the body, to build healthy self image and strong self esteem?

Well where did I get that idea? It certainly hadn’t been the way in my family, where our parents seemed ashamed of our very existence. So of course it bothered me, pushed my buttons, to hear that language used now on these boys still so tiny and vulnerable, but it disturbed me still more because so much of the harshness seemed racial. Was this internalized racism; self-hate and self-loathing springing all ugly and slimy from the parents’ chests, ala Alien?

I wanted to deny it. I felt (irrationally) angry at Tahija and Lamarr for bearing this evidence of society’s racism. But there seemed also to be a conscious, practical purpose to this ugly inheritance as well: to toughen the boys up, to hurt them before the world hurt them and in the same way, so the world’s hurt would hurt less, or, at least, not be fatal.

Can an insult be literally fatal? Yes, if in reaction to it you snap, or say the wrong thing to the wrong person. Lamarr and Tahija knew that, in their bones, and if they were more harsh than they needed to be, who was I to say they should risk being less harsh?

This is more of the tragedy of racism: that even as it may decrease in some white people and some institutions, the reaction to it, the distortions caused by it, continue to be passed on: DDT in the breast milk, PCP’s in the drinking water, HIV through the umbilical cord.

I saw it go into them. I saw Damear, at three, begin to bight down on his lower lip, sucking it in, hiding it, like Morrison’s Nel in The Bluest Eye made to wear a clothespin on her nose in the hopes of squashing it into a more European-looking nose. I saw Mahad pull at his hair so much it began to fall out. I saw Lamarr grow vain over his green eyes, and I saw the fear in all their eyes — that they bore in their very bodies an irreversible stigma of inferiority.

This made me mad, and still does. But there’s no point being mad at the river for having PCB’s in its sediment. Be mad at GE for dumping them there, gallon after gallon decade after decade. Know who to send the dredging bill too. Meanwhile, keep the kids out of the river, if you can.

I cut this because it seemed too harsh a characterization of Tahija’s way with her children. I think now that cutting it may have been a mistake. It gives evidence to the legacy of slavery as it was passed down to the triplets. This reality was one of the hardest for me to face, but I could not deny it. Perhaps in cutting the passage I have tried to deny it.

Deleted from Part One

Tahija and I were at the front window. It was night, late, and Jessie Dell was in the park losing it. We knew it was her in the dark behind the police van because she kept shouting it, “I’m Jessie Dell! I’m Jessie Dell,” like if she didn’t her very identity would escape into the night along the wild wires of her hair.

Jessie Dell was schizophrenic. On her meds and otherwise stable she was peaceful and functional, but a month before Barbara’s addicted sister had moved in with her, renting a room, but no rent had been paid and as we learned later she’d stolen Jess’s SSI checks. The landlord had her put them both and changed the locks.

“Tony did it! Tony’s the one!”

“Who’s Tony?” Tahija whispered.

“Someone call the police!" Jess yelled. "Won’t no one call the police?”

I got dressed and went out. Usually Kaki was the one to get dressed and go out for things like this. I’d thought she was crazy, a busybody. But here I was doing the same, because —

“Don’t get too close,” Tahija warned, “you know how she gets.”

Because I did know her. She was my neighbor. I approached the two officers with cautious familiarity. They were white, one young, one fiftyish, with bluish bags beneath his eyes like little jelly fish. They came from a precinct the neighbors had organized to complain about, because we felt they were ignoring us, descending only for the occasional, frighteningly violent drug raid. These were not always unwelcome, given the violence that went with drug dealing, but seemed extreme, like shooting someone’s head off to cure a migraine.

So it was good they were there, and probably Miss Jesssie would have to be brought back into the metal health system through this rough door, but I didn’t want them to hurt her.

“Her name’s Jessie Dell,” I began. “But I guess you can hear that.” I laughed, no laugh back. “She lives on our block. She’s mentally ill. Maybe I can talk to her?” Jess was screaming about Tony swinging her big purse in wide arcs. Even from ten feet I could smell her. She must have been sleeping outdoors since the eviction. We’d assumed, hoped (pretended to ourselves?) that she’d gone to the aunt she sometimes stayed with.

“We’re going to have to 302 her,” said the older policeman wearily. “She pulled a knife on us.”

I tried talking to her, but she was in another place, a hellish unsafe place where you needed a knife and best not give it up. All I could do was keep watch as two more policemen came and the four closed in on her. When she saw it was hopeless, she let herself be walked into the police van.

“I’m Jessie Dell,” she said, running down, “Jessie Dell.”

“We know you Jess,” I said, “everybody on Howard Street knows you. Come on back here, okay?”

And she did, not to live; just to visit and remind us she’d been our neighbor, and always would be.

I cut this passage because it seemed to invade the privacy of Jessie Dell (pseudonym), who lives with her aunt now but visits the block often. She has the most beautiful, angelic smile, and I am always glad to see her.

I also worried that the scene seemed to be trying to put me in too bright a light — the savior. But the fact is I’m proud of having intervened on Jessie’s behalf that night, and glad Tahija watched me do it. In a sense, I was intervening for Tahija too, in her traumatic childhood. Jessie was my neighbor and the police had a reputation for brutality. I wanted them to see her as I did: a human being with full human rights.

There were other times when I used my white privilege to protect innocent and vulnerable neighbors from the police. In one case, I witnessed a man being hurled from the front steps of the rooming house next door by an armed drug sqaud. They demanded that he unlock the rooming house door. I knew that a) he didn’t speak English, b) he was drunk, and c) the rooming house was never locked. His panicked confusion looked to them like resistance. He was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer—a very serious offense. I knew, had seen, that he’d been the one assaulted. I went to his arraignment and spoke with his court-appointed lawyer (who never met him and knew no Spanish). The charges were dropped and he received only a few hundred dollars fine. This fine was very hard for him to pay. He had to sell his beloved bicycle.