Happy Damn Halloween

I used to love Halloween. I love costumes and the excuse to wear them. I loved all the little princesses and spidermen, all the knights and ninjas. I still love them. But this year it almost wasn’t worth it. What is wrong with me? I got really mad. But maybe I get mad every year. It’s just starting to occur to me that I love the idea of Halloween. Not the reality. Or maybe I love suburban Halloween.

Let’s go over what I loved about tonight’s Halloween and see if it adds up to doing it next year or not, shall we?

My neighbor Terry will certainly not agree with me. I will say, “I’m sick of caravans of kids I don’t know getting driven to my house without costumes. I’m sick of their two bags (for my little brother, he’s in the car), their mom smoking and talking on her cell phone in the running car. I’m sick of teenagers and adults without any costumes, snapping their gum and holding out their bag like me giving them candy is the law.”

Terry would say, “Lisa, what’s the big deal. You’re giving them a 20 cent candy bar. Coming to your house and demanding candy on their own terms makes them feel like they have control in a world where they feel like they have no power. Couldn’t you just give them the candy and not be mad? You still have so much more than any kid whose parents feel compelled to bus him into your neighborhood. More than any group of teenagers.”

He’d be right, of course. I’d sigh and say, “Thanks Terry, for being the voice of kindness and bliss again. You’re right, I guess. It’s just a freaking candy bar. What do I feel like I gain by telling the costume-free teenagers to keep on moving if they don’t have either a costume or a really good story? What’s my problem?”

Then I’d ask what he gave out for halloween and he’d say, “We didn’t do trick-or-treats. We turned out the lights and watched a movie.” He frequently outsmarts me by taking both the high and the low road.

So I’m talking myself down from a ledge, here. I have no right to be upset at the Suburban idling for 30 minutes in front of my house while the dozen kids who piled out of it go trick-or-treating. I am trying not to pass judgment on the mom rolling down the window of her car, driving slowly down Holly Avenue, following her kid. When she says, “Latte! Don’t you cut through that grass. Use the stairs. Latte! You hear me?”

I’m only reporting what I saw and heard. Latte had a princess costume on. She was adorable.

But there’s one mom who sent her three kids up to my door while she sat in her car, driving from house to house. I have passed judgment her. Only one of her kids had a costume. Two girls and a boy, it was. The boy was gorgeous. Huge anime style brown eyes, milk chocolate skin and cherub cheeks. He was probably around 8 years old. I grabbed my candy and started to chat, as I do with all the hollow wieners. “Hey buddy, where’s your costume?What are you?” It was cold enough tonight, about half the kids opened up their parkas to display spiderman or ninja clad chests.

This kid tilted his head back like a baby bird and said, “Bweeeeeeeeh!” while looking me in the eye. I’m sure you’d handle this better than I when it happens to you. Quickly I thought about whether this kid was retarded, messing with me or giving me a clue to his identity. I was starting to see that he didn’t have a costume (but the younger kids get a pass from me, because it’s their parents’ job to make sure they have a costume). My answer to his weird response was, “Yeah… OK kid, but what are you?”

He kept right on looking at me, dead in the eye, not cracking a smile. But this time he clamped both hands over his ears. As he did this, his mom rolled down the car window, and yelled, “He can’t hear you, he’s totally deaf.” Ok, he’s deaf. I am so dumb. So totally cloddish and stupid. I looked at his sister who was maybe 12, “So what is he?”

She looked at me and said, “He ain’t anything, he deaf. He can’t hear you.” The middle girl, piped up, “I’m a kitty!”, and showed me her ears.

Maybe you all went to planet deaf child, but I was still fixated on planet Halloween. The boy had figured out what I wanted to know by his sister’s reaction. He started to tug his shirt out from under his jacket, still looking at me, but smiling now.

I should tell you right now, in the interest of full disclosure, I had three pieces of candy in my bowl. I gave one right up to the kitty while I checked out the boy’s shirt (which didn’t look like a costume to me, but I was feeling not up to the task of evaluating the situation). The older girl without the costume got nothing and I gave the deaf boy two pieces. I immediately decided that was the wrong thing to do. But it was too late.

My decision was reinforced by the reaction of the little boy. He grabbed the candy, held it up to his face and looked at his sister. He stuck his tongue out and did a little “ha ha” dance at his sister.

What kind of fucked up world do we live in? I’ll take responsibility for not immediately recognizing what must be a universal symbol for deaf. I’ll take responsibility and beg forgiveness for taking my anger at the mom on the girl. And I do feel bad about doing that. It won’t happen again. I’ll try harder.

But what kind of mom dumps her three kids off in a strange neighborhood on Halloween without costumes? Not so good of a mom, OK. But one of those kids is profoundly deaf and she’s sending him without a costume to go ask strangers for candy? While she sits in her car? What the hell is that? She can’t paint an eyeliner mustache on the kid? Give him a football helmet? She can’t park the car and walk with the kid from door to door? Jesus.

A group of teenagers I did not know smashed the pumpkins of the 3 and 5 year old next door. Those teenagers headed to my house for candy, although they knew I saw them. I hollered at them and warned the other side neighbors not to give them candy. When my neighbor boys came home, they cried. They couldn’t even begin to understand anything except that their pumpkin was smashed right on their own porch.

After that, I walked down and looked to see how much longer Halloween was going to last. My entire street was awash in head and tail lights crawling along with their kids. I’m watching a movie next year. Fer real.

Peggy the Painter

This is so typical of me. I try to be smarter and nicer than the next guy, and what do I get? Outsmarted by my own stupidity.

I got this flyer on my door. It said in broad, swooshing strokes, “Peggy the Painter!”. The text wasn’t totally centered and the copy was of crappy quality. Too many fonts, too many exclamation points and not enough class. On the bottom, sort of crooked and also off centered, was a gold foil stamp, obviously applied by hand. Some sort of Asian symbol, I think.

It boasts a “free color consultation with every job”. Nice.

Do I throw it away? No. I do not. I look at it and think to myself, “Poor Peggy, she’s probably trying to just get started. Spent her last money on printing these crappyflyers and delivered them by hand.” I set it aside and wait for my good sense to kick in. It never does. I have two painting jobs that need doing anyway, and why not slide this budding entrepreneur a job?

“This is what keeps America great”, I think. Grease the wheels of this economy. Give someone a chance so they can stay self-sufficient. Even if they’re not totally a class act. Am I? No I am not. Would I print something slightly off center? Yes, I might. And I would want to be given a chance. I think this might be where I went wrong.

I called Peggy and asked her to come and bid a couple of jobs for me. One is my living room (the parlor, actually), the other is the ceiling at my rental house. After talking to Peggy on the phone and in person, I decide it would be a good idea to have her work on the rental property (this is the voice of my inner intelligent person directing me) first. See how she does at painting a ceiling. At someone else’s place.

She is nothing like the chipper feminist with paint in her hair that I have imagined. She’s somewhere north of 50 with an immense cascade of thick blonde hair, skin that has spent way too much time in the sun, and blue eyeliner. Because her hair is the wrong color for her age and because of the eyeliner and the fact that she seems hyperactive, I have trouble gauging her age.

The fact that her hair and makeup is well coiffed but her pants are splattered with paint seems weird, but because she is generally very weird, it isn’t my biggest concern. When I tell her I am hoping for a warm color for my parlor because it faces north, she nods. She thinks for a minute, hand holding her chin. “I have it! You’re gonna think I ‘m crazy, but I know exactly what you need in here. This is so weird, but sometimes I have a feeling about things, and man! This is going to be so great.” She’s pretty excited.

“What you need in here is a pewter color, or a steel gray. And I think we should do some stencils, too. You know that one design, the one the french like, it’s on lots of stuff.”

“A fleur di lis?” I venture.

“Exactly. Pewter, with tone on tone stencils of fleur di lis. Oh I have to do this job, now. Once I get an idea about something like this, I won’t rest until I see it done. My last customer told me what she wanted, and I told her I had this good idea. I told her I’d re-do it if she didn’t like it, but I insisted on doing this really cool orange and black thing. She loved it.”

Hmm. Let’s get that ceiling done, shall we? We agree that she should meet me at the rental house on monday. She’ll have to scrape the ceiling off before she paints, but she lets me know she will need some money to buy paint before she can start the actual painting.

I brought her over a check for half the job. She was excited to see me so she could show me pictures on her phone of, “This table I painted, wait till you see it. You are gonna freak out! Here, look at this picture! Is that just the shit? Those colors, aren’t they wild? My boyfriend says I should sell it for a thousand dollars onEbay. Isn’t it just the shit?” It was, in fact, the shit. As near as I could tell by the cell phone photo.

She worked all day, scraping the ceiling and then patching where it was needed. The next day she called to say she’d be late. Imagine the smokiest hippie voice saying, “Ahh man, my friend Mike… He’s a great guy, but he broke his arm. He’s always been there for me, you know? Well he needs my help hanging some ceiling tiles. With the broken arm, you know?” I allowed as to how it would indeed be hard for mike to hang tiles with one arm.

“Great, Lisa. You’re my kind of person, you know? You have a kind spirit. Can I say that? Is it totally weird? I know. It is. But I feel like I can say it to you, you know. Anyway, this tile is really great, I’m kinda curious about how it hangs anyways. It might be great in that one room of yours. I’m still really excited about that. I’ll probably be over at the rental around noon or so.”

Noon rolls around, two rolls around. I get a call. “Yeah lisa, Hey, I’m glad I caught you. This ceiling thing is turning out to be… Well, lets just say it’s nothing like what I thought it would be. Mike’s a great friend, but… I’m gonna have to go over to the rental tomorrow. Mike’s got this broken arm, I can’t just leave him half-done, here.”

When can she make it to the rental to finish their ceiling so they can move their furniture out of the hallway? “Ahhh man, I can be there tomorrow morning. First thing. It shouldn’t take me more than a day, anyway. Tell them they’ll be watching the news tomorrow night in the living room. With a nice new ceiling.”

Tomorrow rolls around. The renters call me to ask when she’s coming back. “She didn’t come this morning? FFFFff… Ok. I’ll try to get ahold of her.”

No Peggy. The weekend goes by. No Peggy. I send an email. I call again. Finally my brother and I go over and sand and paint the damned ceiling. Cursing Peggy’s name the whole time, because we got left with sanding and painting above our heads.
We speculate about what happened to Peggy. Not the least of our curiosity is because all of her equipment is at my rental house. All in tubs labled either “Peggy’s painting” or “Peggy’s Cleaning” Hmmm. We put it all in the basement and start watching the obituaries.

Three weeks later the phone rings. It’s Peggy. Alive. And out of jail. It wasn’t her fault. It was a misunderstanding, but they have her truck, so she can’t do any work. She’s still excited about painting my living room. I’m trying to talk myself into slate gray for my parlor…

A Big Day part 2

We decided we needed lunch. Everest on Grand is a Tibetan restaurant here in St. Paul (hotmomo.com) . The food surprises me, which I really enjoy. And when I leave, I feel better than when I arrived. I think all the ginger, cardamom and little black seeds I can’t identify must be really good for me. But I should have turned around and left as soon as I figured out they were having a lunch buffet. I’ve been to buffets with my brother before.

I love my brother. He’s funny and smart. But he’s also a pig in more ways than one. He knows it. And for some reason, at this stage of his life, he’s revelling in his piggitude. We got the buffet. There was lentil soup, batter fried vegetables,spicy tandoori chicken, rice and various curries. I tried a little of everything and then returned for the things I liked. I liked the chicken and a curried veggie dish.

Patrick liked the chicken and the battered veggies. But mostly the chicken. He liked it a lot. After his 3rd return I looked at him and said, “You can’t go back again. You can’t.” He wiped his hands, sopped up the cucumber sauce with his pita-bread and said, “But I like this chicken. It’s pretty good.” His recent trips to the buffet line were mostly chicken with maybe a little sauce.

The waiter was starting to avert his gaze from our table and forget to collect my brother’s empty plates. It didn’t matter.

The reason I never should have come to a buffet with him is because he has more than once told me of his methods at the Chinese buffets in his neighborhood. “Oh god, Lisa. I’m to the point where when I walk in, I can see the manager start to sweat. They look like they’re gonna cry.”

His MO is to make repeated trips to the buffet counter and get crab legs and shrimp. He shells them and makes a pile of shelled meat. He returns for more, but doesn’t eat the shelled meat. When his plate is piled high enough, he digs into the pile. He watches the steam trays and goes back when they refill it. It’s some kind of sick control thing. His life isn’t that great, this makes him feel like he’s the guy in charge.

So I knew my saying that he was embarrassing me wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I just had to wait it out. Which I did. I sat and sipped my tea and looked at him. My only brother. Pigging out at a little neighborhood Tibetan restaurant. They didn’t have crab, so he settled for the chicken. He hadn’t even taken his baseball cap off at the table. He was plain old grossing me out.

I wrote out the check early, but just before I gave it to the waiter, I added in the memo space,”Thank you so much. My brother is homeless.” He’s not, but it made me feel better.

The stupidest thing is that on the way to the car, he said lunch was just “OK.” He didn’t even like it that much. He said he was just eating more to try to be satisfied. OK, I have been there. Eaten more because the food was bad. It’s insanity, but I understand it. But that whole gluttony at the buffet thing, it’s something else. That’s a sickness.

The poor woman at the monument store probably had an endocrine disorder or something. But if there were a God, and if he were really into divine retribution, my brother would have had to be as big as her for at least a day.

A big day, part 1

I went out to lunch with my only brother last week. I needed to go downtown and so did he. I offered to take him. Afterwards I took the wrong exit to get him back home, so we decided to make the best of it and get lunch and stop at the headstone store. My mom still doesn’t have a marker on her grave.

 

I can only accept responsibility for this inasmuch as I did try to give the job to someone else early on. You know what they say about if you want a job done right? Totally true. We’re getting way past the 1 year mark, and I feel bad when I think about it. So when I realized you could just go to the headstone store, I wasn’t just curious. I was in the market.

 

It isn’t actually called the Headstone Store. It’s something more dignified, like St. Paul Monuments or something. But you don’t have to get too far into the place to figure out what they sell. They sell beautiful markers for all your grave-marking needs. Mostly in shades of gray and black, but also some shades of pink, which look like headcheese, with bits of char sprinkled in.

 

The woman who works there knew exactly what church we were referring to, knew the history of that particular graveyard and knew who to ask for to double check what she thought she knew about the requirements. She was polite, patient and professional. She was amazing. I looked on-line and at lots of pamphlets, and buying a gravemarker is ridiculously confusing. She made it seem simple.

 

She was also the largest, fattest (can I say that?), most obese person I have ever had a conversation with. She was so heavy that the weight of her eyebrows caused cleavage between her forhead and the bridge of her nose. She was big enough that her face was just a tiny part of her head, surrounded by flesh. She was astounding.

 

We heard her from an office when we came in. She just hollered out, “I’ll be with you folks in just a little bit.” We told her not to worry, we wanted to look around. And we did. Very few people are good at shopping for this kind of thing, mercifully. I hope I never get good at it.

 

We were ooh-ing and ahh-ing the photos of markers and snickering about why some of them were still sitting in the store instead of marking a grave. We saw fantastic celtic crosses, obelisks, angels and the standard lik-m-ade stick kind. We paid no attention to the employee helping the old man and young woman in the office. We did notice them, and feel sad for them, whatever their story was, how good could it be?

 

We had walked all the way to the back of the store, and by the time she was done, she came out of an office behind my brother and me. “Whenever you folks need help, I’m here. Anything in particular you’re looking for?” I didn’t even turn around when I said, “We’re just checking out your beautiful pictures here.” Patrick turned around, and said we’d be right over.

 

I noticed out of the corner of my eye that when he turned around he was sort of stiff, like he moved his whole body around instead of just his head. And his mouth was open. I turned around, saw her, and said something like, “Give us 2 minutes, here.” I turned around just like he did. We flipped some pages of the display photos. I hope from the back we looked normal, because we both had our mouths wide open and our eyes slid towards each other.

 

We’re so crass and inappropriate. We couldn’t just not notice, couldn’t not notice that we noticed and couldn’t hide our astonishment. Watching her walk was no less surprising than if the whole store had sprouted enormous legs and crossed the street. It was puzzling, disconcerting and fascinating. But she sat down after a few short steps. I think we were all relieved.

 

It must be hard to be that kind of big. Exhausting just to brush your hair or walk to the bathroom. I had this distracting buzz in my head while talking to her. And it was distracting, because she had lots of good information and I wanted to listen to her. I swear I did.

 

“Assumption in Richfield has two sections…” Fat, Fat, Fat, huge, you are so big. How do you find a hat. They don’t make shirts that size do they? Do you have to learn to sew if you get that big? “One of the oldest in the Cities…” Would it be OK to ask her to recommend a good place for lunch? Or would she think it was just because…. Doesn’t matter, because Patrick would die if I asked. “April is the busiest…”

We took one brochure with easy to read notes and left her with hearty thanks and a promise to come back soon. She gave us a business card.

 

When we got to the car we both closed the door and took a deep breath. “HO—–ly…” We leaned back in our seats and laughed and bemoaned the fact that my mom couldn’t be there with us, because other than ourselves, our mom is one of the few people who would have appreciated meeting this woman as much as we had.

Look, if my talking about her and being wowed by her has offended you, take comfort in a few things. First, while I was amazed, I wasn’t disgusted. I never thought, “What a slobberous pig, why doesn’t she have a fucking salad once in a while?” I didn’t assume she was stupid or lazy. I didn’t dislike her or avoid her.

 

Second, I can’t change this about myself. People are so interesting. And so different. But some are more interesting and different than others. She definitely fell into the “more than most” category.

Third, there are some people who make my day just by crossing my path. Superficial, trashy, base and mean, maybe. But I try hard not to stare, not to be mean and not to make commentary until I’m far away. These include, but are not limited to the morbidly obese, little people (oh how I love little people), the very tall, identical twins, Ubangis, the blind (but it’s OK to stare at them, right?) and anyone wearing either formal-wear or a full muslim veil.

And lastly, as usual, God (mr. Deity) wrought his revenge on me during lunch, so you can just be glad for that if you think I’m too mean. But that’s another story.

Vietnamese Food

What is on my mind today? Our meal yesterday at the Hoa Bien restaurant on University Avenue. They were pretty full up, but not totally, and it was lunchtime. All the white folks in the restaurant should have clued me into the fact that it wasn’t going to be stellar.

And it wasn’t. I wouldn’t go again if I had my druthers. Things like the fraying fake flowers on the tables could have been completely be redeemed by a good meal that left me feeling grateful I had branched out from my usual stomping grounds (as if I have stomping grounds). Instead I left feeling grateful I hadn’t brought some suburbanite into the city to show them real ethnic food. Because it was precisely and completely blah.

Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t actively bad. I’ve had meals that made me feel violated and sick. This wasn’t one of those. It didn’t even really make me feel yucky. It was just food. And it seems to be something they strive for, this middle of the road, two steps above chung king and one above Leanne chin.

The help was young and cute. Well groomed young Asian kids (OK probably young adults). Their English was without noticeable accent, not even the second generation citified accent that is the norm for city kids. Probably my even noticing it is just a sign of my racist tendencies. But there it is, I noticed. Beautiful young people without accent.

We had the spring rolls with “mixed pork” for starters. They were really the only interesting part of the meal. And they were interesting. Let me confess that as much as I love a great spring roll, it, like many other things, is really about the sauce for me. And when they brought our two spring rolls out with two tablespoons of dipping sauce, I felt cheated.

But my first bite was enough to distract me from my sauce greed. Soft, tacky and chewy rice paper stuff? Check. Rice noodles inside, check. Bits of cilantro, basil AND some anise flavored stuff? Check. And this tickled me, because it was a surprise, and the taste evolved as I chewed and swallowed.

By my second bite, I looked up at Andy to see if he noticed that some of the stuff in the spring rolls was very mysterious. Too mysterious. His eyes slid up to mine mid-bite. “Something weird with these noodles, don’t you think?” Yep. I did. It brought to mind the fact that one of the pho noodle soup options was beef broth with noodles and tendons. These noodles were really tough and stretchy and their edges were kind of ragged instead of smooth like normal glass noodles or rice noodles. We really had to give our incisors a work-out to break them off .

I’m pretty adventurous about food, so I kept chewing and stretching. But all the interesting spices could not save the “mixed pork” situation. Even if the tendons hadn’t been there, I would have had big trouble with the powdery stuff. How can I describe it?

Think to yourself that you’re eating a pretty good, if chewy, spring roll. The herbs are a little sparkly and interesting, but your tongue, cheeks and roof of your mouth are getting coated with some powdery, mealy and disturbing meatish stuff. And it isn’t just one bite. It’s like someone took overcooked and dry pork, chewed it up really well and put it in the spring rolls. Oh I know! It reminded me of meat baby food, but drier.

So that was a deal killer on the spring-rolls. Nope. That’s a lie. I ate them. Because I bought them and they were there. And I liked the sauce. And I was afraid Andy would get more sauce if I didn’t eat my spring roll. I am so sick.

The tea (jasmine) was oversteeped, bitter and the color of urine. Vietnamese place. Can’t make tea.

Then came Andy’s chicken with pea pods and my pho soup (tendon free). An uninspired but generally safe choice. The meat was all white breast meat. In Andy’s and mine. And it was dry. Mine was in broth and his was in a pretty slimy but innocuous sauce and the meat was dry, dry dry. That all-white-meat deal? It’s for the American palate. I heard the two (not Asian) ladies behind me both request that the meat be all white meat in their lunch.

I understand the urge to avoid the unidentifiable, bits of cartilage, tendon and veins. I do. But Suck It Up, sisters, it’s all part of an animal even when you don’t see the parts. Now we’re all left with powdery white nastiness.

My pho soup was almost clear with droplets of grease floating on the top. Which, if it had been flavorful and delicious, I would have assumed gave it its richness. But it wasn’t. The broth was sweet and weak, and the meat in it was dry. The 5 little bits of french-fried onions were a strange touch.

So there you go, that’s Hoa Bien. Can they sue me for writing about their lackluster food? I think not. I wouldn’t go again.

Current Dilemma

This is a little exercise I am doing in seeing the other side of a story. And forgive me if it seems political. Two things about that. First, it’s personal, not political. Second, politics is really about people. Real people, real money, real struggles.

You run a school. A public charter school. You’ve got high standards and you deliver great results. Your hallways are happy, but controlled. The children on your buses are well behaved and courteous. They wear uniforms to school; staff has a dress code as well. Families are expected to sign a covenant that they will volunteer at least 50 hours per school year.

New children to the school often go through a tough period of adjustment while they get used to the stricter behavior guidelines and the heavy workload. They settle in and most of them rise to the challenge and become better students and better people. Mind you, some of them don’t. They can’t handle the expectations and you ask the families to think hard about if this is the right school for their child. It isn’t for every family. But it’s worth the work for those who stay.

On the state Basic Standards Test, your school blows the other district schools out of the water. Blows the district average and the state average out of the water. Your scores look like the wealthy suburban schools’ scores. You’ve got quantifiable results to show for all that sweat. 97 percent of your kids are reading at grade level and 89 percent are on track in math. All this, in an inner-city, public school.

Your statistics belie some of the reason.

District You
Free and reduced lunch 69 % 17%
Special Ed. 17 % 6 %
Black or African American kids 29 % 11 %
Latino 12% 6%
Boys 51.5% 46%

So you’re doing everything all the diehards say you should do. Hours of homework, dress and behavior codes. Parental involvement, young, enthusiastic staff. What is it that’s working for you? All that work? Or good demographics? And why aren’t you getting the Special Ed kids and the Black kids? Or do you get them and they can’t hack it so they leave? And whose fault is that?

Oh, you’ve heard it all before. But what you’re doing works. You walk through the halls and you can feel the difference here. Kids are respectful to each other, not just to the staff. They’re working hard, but it’s good for them and they know it. They’re proud. You get parents from time to time complaining about kids having too much homework, needing time for this or that extra-curricular activity. Needing time to just be kids. If they can’t commit to the school, no hard feelings. There are other schools out there, happy to take those kids.

Some of them come in with Special Education contracts (IEPs) that get them classroom and homework accommodations. Whatever accommodations they came in with, you like to start fresh. Those were the special exceptions they needed at other schools. Schools where there the support was lacking and the standards were low. Many of those special ed kids really rise to the challenge in your environment. Some don’t. And although your staff has a motto, “no child who works in this class will fail”, some of those Special ed kids are either unable or unwilling to stay and work it out.

If you had a nickel for every time you had an IEP conference with a family who was pushing for special treatment for their kids… You point out to them that what they’re asking you to do is have a different standard for one child than for the rest of the kids. How fair is that? What about all the kids here who are busting their butts, turning homework in on time, doing the full written work, taking their own notes? What are you supposed to tell them?

Look, it might look like what you’re doing is driving out the kids and families who are underprivileged. But your doors are open. Families come and go as they please. How can people say with a straight face that you should make the environment more open to families and kids who aren’t willing to work?

And OK, let’s say that you admit that you really aren’t the best place for kids who can’t pull their own weight, that you even encourage them to consider other options. What’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t there be places in the public school system where families and kids who are serious about school can go to be challenged and supported? Without being dragged down by students who are intellectually, academically or behaviorally troubled? Well?

Race part 4

Step 9

Made direct ammends to such people whenever possible except when to do so would be harmful to them or others.

Next problem, the double bind of making ammends. If you go to a seminar on racial sensitivity, they make it clear to you what a great disadvantage people of color are, and it isn’t hard to demonstrate. Look at arrest and conviction rates of whites versus blacks, with identical records. The black guy is 15 times more likely to be arrested for a low level offense as a white guy. It’s true. Line people up on a continuum from pale to dark and ask now many people have been pulled over by a cop in the last 6 months. Black people are at a huge disadvantage in all sorts of ways. If you deny that, you’re ignorant or you’re lying.

So they tell you, what you all need to do, white and black, is invite someone of another race or ethnicity to some of your gatherings. Invite them to coffee. Get to know each other. It will make things better.

That’s a double bind, isn’t it? Do you invite someone down the street to coffee just because they’re black? Seems kinda like a race-based behavior to me. But chalk it up to affirmative action. OK. Let’s say you invite them. Do you tell them honestly why you invited them? Because if you don’t, you’ve already erected a barrier between yourself and them, but if you do…how good of a start is that to your new salt-and-pepper friendship? Think it will go over well?

Here are two different situations I found myself and my forever spinning mind engaged in. Two different responses.

First, about a year after we moved into this neighborhood, a boy started hanging out in our yard, at the park, and sort of generally lurking around. He was more than a couple years older than my boy, so I watched a little more carefully than I otherwise might have.

He was (and is ) a heavy-set, sweaty white child with rosey cheeks and a sweet but not all there smile. A smile that said he thought he was pulling one over on you, but be couldn’t possibly really do that because his smile gave him away. His intellect was obviously below the normal range. But close enough that younger kids (like mine) would play with him. I’m not ashamed to say I found him a little creepy, but in a way he couldn’t help. So I was nice to him.

Little did I know just how creepy he could get when he started sprouting acne, a mustache and erections.

I kept hearing him talk about “Black People”. It’s usually a red flag for me. And when I heard him over the course of a few days talk about seeing a “black guy” in the park or the alley or the street with either a gun, some drugs or the intent to steal something from my back yard. I started to think maybe someone had been feeding him a diet of not-so-nice ideas about black folks. And he was feeding it to my son, who was dutifully feeding it back to me.

Our neighborhood is mixed enough, and I was crabby enough, and crazy enough that I got an idea one day. He came up to me talking about seeing a black guy trying to sell drugs in the park (I must add that there were no drug deals going down, just services letting out from the majority black church up the street). I had had it. I brought him and my son over to a group of black people standing around an open car at the curb, chatting over a beer and cigarette after church. Here is what I said:

“I’m sorry to bother you folks after church and all. But I have this problem and I don’t know what to do about it. I thought you might be able to help me. You see, one of these boys is pathologically afraid of black people. I wanted him to be able to meet some real people and maybe see that they aren’t so scary.”

What the hell was I thinking?

The woman closest to me was very nice and she laughed. Then she got serious and said, “Hey boys. We just here talkin’. Ain’t nothing scary goin on here. And that girl over there? She mixed, she black and white, and we hangin’ wit’ her. We cool. You don’t hafta be ascared. Come here honey, I shake yo hand. It ain’t nothin. You go play and don’t be scared. Black folks just folks.” A couple guys pulled up their shirts and showed, “See, no guns.”

I swear to god, it happened. I was terrified, but I did it. And it was OK in the end, I think. But god only knows what they said about that crazy white lady who came over after church.

Secondly, over the 4th of july holiday this year I had a different experience. I was trying to do what all the multicultural sensitivity training classes tell you to do. I invited myneigbor, Darnell (who is black, not incidentally) to come to our get-together barbecue. He’s the black neighbor I chat with the most. I had various white neighborhood friends over as well.

Darnell was, shall we say, well lubricated. He was drunk. He always introduces himself as an alcoholic, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. But then he drank lots of my beer, too. And monopolized the conversation and sang patriotic songs. The were all obnoxious and embarrassing. And I’m here to tell you, no matter what people say, they can’t all sing.

So did I do a good thing? I invited him at least half because he was black. And I don’t think I did much for fostering intercultural bonding. All my white neighbors were uncomfortable.

Most people really are just struggling racists. But if we don’t take the shame out of being a person struggling with race, we relegate them to either closet racist status (pretending they don’t actually notice race) or public bigot status (the stagnated, obnoxious racist). Neither of those is a good option in the long run. The bigot for obvious reasons, and the closet racist because it’s so easy to catch them in a lie. Catching them in a lie is a bad thing because it takes away credibility and confuses well intentioned people into making bad decisions.

So what do you do with this info? do you stop or start identifying people by race? do you invite or not invite?