Here I am now with Miss Yvonne. She has a perfect oval face with a fuzz of hair across an elegant brown-skin skull. Her eyes are her best feature, kohl rimmed and always mischievously alive. When I see her in the hallway with her yellow cart full of mops and brooms, I stop and embrace her. Her head tucks comfortably under my chin as we squeeze one another tight. I ask right away how she is: she is well over seventy and has her aches. On top of that, she has lived through bad times, especially an abusive husband she ran away from on the island where she grew up. We don’t talk about trouble though. Or pain—that’s what Aleve is for, she says. Besides, now she lives with a family who treats her like a queen. She has a job she likes with people who love her. We laugh instead about handsome men and the food we cook. We hoot in hysterics over our ridiculous bosses. It is well past the time I should be at my desk when I begin to walk away from her. When I do, Miss Yvonne kisses the air.
“I love you, darling.”
“I love you, too,” I reply. We both walk away from one another filling the hallway with loud and merry sass.
One morning, I come into my office and ask a co-worker if we call Miss Yvonne “Miss” because that is how Pee Wee Herman addressed his girlfriend on the old Pee Wee Herman show.
“In the African-American community, we address our elders as Mister and Miss as a sign of respect. We care for our elders and, after all they went through, they deserve to be revered.”
His voice is hard and his explanation goes on for many more seconds than I can stand. I can’t begin to explain why I said what I did. The Pee Wee thing just popped up in my head, as many absurd things are apt to do through the course of my day. No way is Miss Yvonne Miss Yvonne except that she is loving and keeps us all together. That I would be so cavalier about my Miss Yvonne horrifies me. When I look into my co-worker’s eyes I see what he is thinking: I am an ignorant white person: I’ll never understand. When he finishes saying all he wants to say he turns back to his computer. I sit down at my desk. Miles and miles separate us.
I am a racist.
Here is a story from when I was twelve: I was home alone one Friday night. My dad went to pick up my mom after work. I don’t remember where my sister and brother were.
The phone rang. I picked it up. “You tell your nigger-loving dad I know where he is and I know you’re alone now. You tell him that.”
Our house was three stories tall with a stone basement full of shadows. I was sitting on my parents’ bed surrounded by empty rooms. All the windows and doors were open to catch the early spring breeze. I scrammed down the steps, bolted out the door and ran for two blocks to my friend’s house. Her mother sat me at the kitchen table and got the story out of me through my clenched fear.
It was the year my dad, a community organizer in a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia, was helping an African-American couple buy a house in an all white sub-division. African-Americans had lived in our neighborhood for almost two centuries. They had worked alongside all the other ethnic groups that eventually arrived to work in the old mills along the river. Everyone joined my dad to find ways to stop the neighborhood from crumpling after the mills closed. If the young couple wanted to move to the next neighborhood where they found a house with a yard for their children, why would anyone stop them? Civil rights was new back then and no one was naïve but still, we were cosseted by a neighborhood full of immigrants who shared hard times. How could such a common desire deserved threats?
The man’s words didn’t make any sense to me. I overheard my parents’ anger and a police car stayed in front of our house for weeks but still the words remained unexplained. People in the neighborhood heard about what happened and knew a line had been crossed. Suspicion took up residence in places it had never been. Sides—which one were you on—materialized.
I am not twelve anymore. I understand words and meanings, how anything at all can be put in a way that hurt and frighten. Some months past before my co-worker and I established some balance. What remains though is a new wariness from him and new shame for me. We share career ambitions, economic stability, political beliefs and tastes in books. None of this forgives my senseless remark or cools the moral anger that runs just beneath the surface of our relationship. I crossed a line; suspicion has taken up residence between us. We both consider I may be the worst possible racist, the kind that think she’s not, but will never understand how menacing even the simplest action may be.
This makes Miss Yvonne more of a blessed salve each day. When she and I meet in the hallway, it feels as if we are just two women trying to get through our days with laughter and embraces. She accepts me as I am and I consider her a queen as much as her adopted family does. For a little while, the only line we cross is the cheerful impertinence of women with an eye for men and irreverence for their superiors.
“Hello my darling,” Miss Yvonne says today. “How are you?”
“I’m okay, Miss Yvonne.”
“I don’t know what I would do without the people I love.”
“Me neither,” I agree.