Boy oh boy, today was a day full of contact with black people. That’s life in the city. And I’d love to hear credible, sincere advice from white or black people who have found a comfortable way to deal with these dicey issues. If you want to convince me that it isn’t race that’s the issue, that it’s class or something else, don’t think I haven’t investigated that possibility and decided that race is the salient issue in this part of the world. Not because I say it is. On the contrary, it is all the more the issue because we don’t talk about it.
First, I had to go show my rental house, which is 5 blocks North and 5 blocks West of my own home. But it’s a completely different ‘hood, which is somethingI can’t decide if I like about St. Paul or not. The color gradient darkens decidedly when you get North of Summit Avenue. It’s quite segregated, which many black people seem to take great pride in. It’s hard for me to argue against black people having a sense of their own community, on the one hand. On the other, I do think neighborhoods like mine (right on the twilight area where there is still somewhat of a mix) is healthier and better for everybody.
I’ve taken to placing ads on craig’s list, because it’s free and the people who surf the internet tend not to leave poop on the walls, broken windows and big ruts in the back yard when they go.
And while that has the effect of whitening my group of potential tenants (not completely), I believe that qualitative difference to be a matter of class, not race. All my previous tenants were on Section 8 housing assistance, and they were all black. People who use the internet and don’t rely on Section 8 seem much more invested in their home.
So I had Heather and Amber and Ashley and Micah and Abbie and Lakesha and Annie and Megan and Laura and Shanequa walk through the house. I got there a little early. Annie and Megan were already there. I was early, hoping to turn on the lights and make sure the toilets were flushed and stuff.
Oh… And also to make sure the apartment parking lot next door wasn’t awash with boom-boom cars, wads of cash, Newports and Colt 45s (the malt liquor, I mean). The partiers were all various shades of black. When we’ve called the cops or the management company, things calm down for weeks, but it’s hard to get renters to care that much.
So the girls walk in, looking a little uncomfy about the boom-boom conversion van and lawn chairs in the parking lot across the alley from their new potential pad. It isn’t looking good to them, or for me. I excused myself and leaned over the fence and hollered across the alley, “Could you-all turn the music down just a little? I’m going to be showing the house from 7 to 8, and it just doesn’t market well with loud music next door.”
The music went down, one guy elbowed another whose back was to me and nodded him in my direction. Every person gathered around the open van, malt liquor in hand, sat up straight and nodded. Most of them smiled and said, “Sure!” “No problem. Thanks for asking. We really appreciate your saying something.” I was a little befuddled but I got goose-bumps, and asked, “Better than calling the cops, huh?” “Waaay better. Thanks.”
The music died immediately and the crowd began to disperse. While I was talking about the washer and dryer, the doorbell rang. I was expecting quite a few potential renters, so this wasn’t a surprise. But it was one of the boom-boom guys,young, tall and dark, sideways baseball hat, gold tooth, saggy shorts and all. “Y’all showin’ the place. I might as well walk through!I be rentin this place any day.” He pimp-walked in and started talking smack. The kind of jaw flapping that doesn’t come naturally to people who are free of drugs or alcohol.
He was making me uncomfortable, and my potential renters, too. I stopped him in the living room and said, “You know what, get out of my house. Come back when you’re sober.” He was insulted. “I am sober. Woman, whatchyou…”
“You’re acting goofy and fucked up. I don’t like it. I ‘ve got a lot of people wanting to look at this place, and you’re not making it look good. Come back later. ” He was trying to be indignant, but he was too fucked up to really pull it off. I directed him bodily to the door while he sputtered about being able to pay the rent, pulling rolls of 20 dollar bills out of his pockets.
I was in it now. I didn’t think I could really back down. I put my hand on his chest and pushed him gently out the door and onto the porch, saying, “I don’t even want to hear about your cash, get outta here. I’m serious. Go.” My tone was a little conspiratorial, like it was him and me sort of having a little spat and keeping it down for the white girls in the other room.
He left in full form, shaking his head and jabbing his arms around. But when I looked out the window 3 minurtes later, all the cars and all the partyers including my gold-toothed friend were gone. Gone, gone gone.
Now this incident has many angles to it that are troubling to me. Not the least of which is my tendency to assume if I approach people (even black people, even young black men who make their money selling drugs) honestly, they will respect me and I won’t get shot. It isn’t always a safe assumption, and I don’t seem to be able to stop doing it. People do get shot doing this kind of thing. But I think more often, they reach a sort of truce.
I think the reports of some uppity neighborhood woman getting her comeuppance are exceptionally rare, but they scare us into not treating black people (or young people, or Latinos or some combination thereof) like people. We treat them like hand grenades or something else we’re really afraid of. And they notice. It isn’t good for black people and it isn’t good for white people.
It is what causes black kids and black women with kids on their hips to walk out into the middle of traffic, against the light, and dare you to honk your horn, or even make eye-contact. And it spirals right into badness.
Don’t think it escapes my notice that by me asking them to turn the music down while I have renters walking through, I am asking them to (temporarily) eliminate the ghetto appearance. Like when they sweep out the beggars before the pope comes in. The thing about that is, that the renters could do the same thing after they move in. It seems so much more healthy to have people move in and deal with the reality then, than to have them blanch and decide they’d really rather live in the suburbs or Highland Park.
I’m glad I spoke to the group of people playing the boom-boom music. Glad I pushed the tall black guy out of my rental house. But I wish I could shake the feeling that speaking to people who misbehave directly will maybe get me shot. That’s the racism I fight. I try to behave like I don’t care, like I haven’t heard the stories. But I have. What to do?
I did my showing and came back home. Before bedtime I decided to do a little DDR (Dance Dance Revolution, the only video game I have ever loved). At 10pm the doorbell rings. As I went to the door, I said to myself, “If it’s someone I don’t know, I’m, not answering it.” But it was. And I did. It was a black guy my age (maybe 35 or so). Clean shaven, roundfaced and attractive. And drunk.
He had a story about getting my name from the neighbors (thanks a lot neighbors) and that he needed 9 dollars. His daughter had a reaction to her insulin and she was down at regions. She had a bad kidney and he was just coming back from his job at the Toro plant in (I don’t know where) putting together snow-blowers and lawn-mowers. He showed me his slippers as evidence of I don’t know what.
I can honestly say that i didn’t have 9 dollars. “Maybe your husband…” he motioned to Andy who was lurking, like a good guardian, in the dark behind me. As Andy searched his pockets and came up with 8 dollars and 12 cents I asked the guy what good 9 dollars was going to do him for his daughter. He wasn’t going anywhere until he got the 9 bucks, by the way, so Andy went to gather change.
“Well I got to pay the co-pay. It’s nine dollars. Actually, it cost 148 dollars, but I just got to pay the 9. She got all sorts a problems, my daughter does. I come back tomorrow morning before 10 and I get you your nine dollars back.” I told him to just stick it in the mailbox. Why I said that I don’t know, because I’d bet nine dollars that he won’t be coming back with the cash.
He got a little huffy at the idea that I didn’t want him to ring the doorbell and hand me the cash directly. But when he got the rest of the 9 dollars he was profuse with his thanks. “Oh thanks, mister and miss, thank you. My son thanks you.”
Wait a minute. Did you notice that?
Dude never came back. I hope his hermaphrodite child made it through the night.