Thursday, May 19, 2016

Chapter 8, Bad Novel

Breakfasts were hell: I would sit in front of the scrambled eggs every day, and if the smell of them had made me gag when not pregnant, they really affected me now. Yet the “Blessed Mother” was insistent: I would eat them, or I would be on bathroom duty before school.

I’ve never scrubbed so many toilets in my life….

The days wore on: the monotony of the orphanage was part of the regime.

“I hate this place,” I whispered to the girl sitting next to me in class.

“Me, too,” she said, “but it’s better than home…”

“What?” I asked. “How’s that?”

“Well, at least you get enough to eat. We were just scraping by back home. I got really tired of macaroni and cheese….”

We never got macaroni and cheese—my father believed in meat at every dinner. Anything less was, well, low class.

It was just a part of our lives: the latest cars, the biggest televisions, and the credit cards that seemingly paid themselves. When we went to Connecticut, I saw the reason why. The limousine would be waiting for us at the airport, and James, who seemed to have known father forever, would be struggling to put our luggage in the trunk. We’d try to help, but he insisted; when it became clear that it was a matter of pride for him, we finally gave up.

If there are any bad parts of Greenwich, Connecticut, well, I never saw them. We would fly in to New York, usually, and then be shuttled up to my grandmother’s house. But I was curious—what was New York City like? And why did we never stay there; why did we flee the city the moment we landed at the airport.

“Who the hell would want to go there? The place is a dump.  Filled with trash, niggers, burnt out buildings, crime. The place is just a wreck,” so said my father. My mother nodded.

“Broadway, Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Museum,” I said.

“Don’t you have a record player in your room?” said my father.

“It’s not the same,” I said. “And even if the city is a wreck, I still want to see it.”

“Well, she has a point, Jim,” said my mother. “Those are things that she should experience. I’d love to see a Broadway show myself….”

“Whatever,” my father said. “If you want to go, go. Just don’t expect me to go with you.”

And so it was settled—we would leave a week after school finished, spend five days in the city, and then go up to Connecticut with my father. My mother, completely characteristically, called the Ritz.

“It’s just off Central Park,” said my mother, “so we can take a carriage ride through the park.”

A carriage ride? I wanted to see the city, I wanted to walk the streets; my mother wanted me safely inside a carriage, being pulled through a dump.

That’s what it was then—there was trash all over the place, the benches had been vandalized, or had drunks sleeping on them. The grass had been trampled to death, and the building were there seemingly for graffiti, nothing else. It was like taking a ride through a war-zone.

“Bitch, take you fuckin’ cunt daughter outta the park,” called one black man.

My mother raised her gloved hand to her mouth.

“Driver,” she said loudly, “did you hear that man! The rudeness! I never! He must be reported at once!”

“Dint hear nothin’, lady,” the driver said.

“But that’s impossible,” said my mother. “He shouted at us! He insulted us! Where are the police?”

Wherever the police were, they weren’t in the park. Abruptly, my mother ordered the carriage driver to return to the Ritz. Then, she demanded a partial refund; we had paid for an hour, but only used 15 minutes or so.

“Can’t refund no money, Lady. You pay me for your time, I give you my time.”

They went around and around about it. As my mother insisted harder, the scene grew nastier. We were just across the street from the Ritz, but still in the park. That’s when I realized: we were the only white people in the park. And the passerby made it pretty clear whose side they were on.

“Ugly white bitch,” one person hissed.

“Outta take all her money,” another added. “She got plenty mo…”

“Come on, Mom, let’s get out of here,” I told her.

“I most certainly will not,” said my mother, “not until this man refunds our money.”

A small crowd grew around us, and the comments were not favorable.

“Bitch thinks she own everything….”

“Outta stay out in the suburbs and leave us alone….”

At last, the doorman from the Ritz left his post, approached my mother, addressed her as “Ma’am” and asked if she wasn’t a guest at the hotel.

“Why, I most certainly am,” said my mother, “we have a suite on the 12th floor, overlooking the park.”

“Oh, she got a suite in the Ritz! Bitch truly got money!”

“Madam, allow me to escort you back to the hotel. And of course, if you’d like to enjoy a drink at the bar, or a cup of tea, on the house, the hotel would be honored.

My mother knew that she was down for a defeat; she also knew that a drink at the bar—there was no question of tea—was a good way to save face.

And so the doorman shepherded us to the hotel, my mother protesting all the way.

“I had no idea the city had so changed,” she told the doorman, “it’s been years since I’ve been in the city.”

It was true. Madison, Wisconsin, was lily white. Yes, there were a few black families on the city’s south side, but who went there? More importantly, they knew enough to stay there. And since they were dumped into the east side school district, people on the west side (the toney part of town) were well insulated.

I was sixteen, I was idealistic, and it was clear. My mother and I were completely out of our depths.