I used to beg to go to McDonald’s. I wanted my Happy Meal. My fries. I wanted lime-green pickles stuck to the bun. Little onion pieces poking through ketchup. The smell that made my mouth cry. The cardboard box. The toy.
Of course, the toy. It was the distraction, the reward, and most important. Mom was sure they were going to be worth a lot one day. So when everything was wrong, when I felt alone, or sad for some reason I didn’t know, I at least had it. Usually, the girl one was what I wanted: a mini-Barbie, a Catwoman, a pony. Other times not. But if it was, I geared myself up to say it. Despite the scary feeling, taught myself to say:
“Hey, Mr. Person?”
The man behind the counter would turn around. Four- or five- or six-year-old me, blue eyes with curly brown hair, looking up.
“Can I help you?” he’d ask.
“Um, can I have the other one?” I’d say, holding out a car, a Transformer, a rocket.
Then the worker, the adult, the Santa-for-now, after some thought, but not much, would reach under and swiftly come back up.
“You mean this?” he’d confirm. Or she. (A little cheer in the voice if she.)
And nodding my head, it was understood that indeed I did. I wanted this, and I’d give back the other in its plastic, knowing suddenly, with things right, that the day would be good.
School and other kids weren’t there. Home and fighting weren’t there. Confusion wasn’t there, and I could now sit down with my toy and my food and purely think to myself:
I’m a happy, normal boy.
It’s four in the morning and I want a goddamn burger.
I knew this would happen. I knew I should’ve eaten before, but I never learn, do I? Every time I go hunting for my one-night white knight, it’s the same sick story. Now, if I stop to eat, it’s going to take a million more excruciating seconds to get home, and I’ll fall asleep on the express bus, ending up at the ass-end of New York City, never to be seen again.
I’m starving, though, so there’s really no choice. Just like there was no choice in spending that much money at the bar. In circling it and three others round and round for the past eight hours. In going week after week, searching for some ridiculous validation, some salve for the years of suppression/oppression/depression from this dismissal, this doom they say is supposed to “get better,” but not all better, just not-as-bad statistic better, or law passed by the skin of its teeth better, or Brokeback Mountain in faintest rear-view, better.
But all right, that’s enough self-pity bullshit.
Where’s the fucking McDonald’s? I wonder.
Barely for a moment though, because of course the golden arches pop up almost immediately and I hurry inside. I don’t even mind the fluorescent blare because the lights tell me to wake up. To convey my order with words from my throat, and that if I do so, I will be served, like anybody else. Served, and grateful, and complete.
Should I order a Happy Meal? It’s really the cheapest way to get a burger, fries, and a drink—all my necessary items, plus maybe even get the cute—
“That’s not what I ordered!” a shout suddenly rings out.
I look at the counter where an old man is irate. The scene looks wrong as a green-skinned orange.
“Don’t you know the difference between chocolate and vanilla?” he continues, gesticulating madly. I want to cover my ears. I want to crouch down and shout, “Shhhh!”
“Here you go, sir,” the man behind the counter says, all ready with the replacement milkshake. I can’t help but be proud of his swiftness—a sense of déjà vu.
“Oh, there you go, finally!” the old man reacts. “Now, was that so hard?”
The worker is heavy-lidded, accentuated by the cornrows pulling slightly at his temples, but clearly alert. “No, it wasn’t, sir,” he says back. “Have a nice night.” This kind of thing must happen a lot at this hour, I realize.
I watch as the customer goes to the condiment counter for a straw, and glad the episode is over, I go back to looking at the menu. Sucking air into my cheeks, and still feeling the acid from the alcohol, I decide on a Number 2 meal. I bargain that it’s essentially a Happy Meal with an extra burger, and that maybe I can even—
“You’re not really a man, are ya?”
My throat clenches when I hear it. I feel chilled.
Am I standing with my hands on my hips again? I thought I took care of that habit. Or did someone, somehow, hear my voice? I look slowly to my left and see the old man again, fiddling with his straw.
“Look at you, stuck behind your counter. You’re not a man!” he shouts. “I can say anything to you and nothing will happen!”
At first, I’m relieved—that it’s not about me, that I can stay hidden. But the feeling dissipates quickly as I look back at the worker and see it: the unmistakeable pain and confusion in his eyes. The rest of him stays stoic, strong, and polite, hands holding the register. I know that move too well, though; I feel the break. The crush of having an idea that venom is coming your way, yet still be struck when it happens.
This is part of life. It may even be a part that makes you stronger. But this is not the place, I decide. And a young McDonald’s worker? A young, black McDonald’s worker? No… that is the wrong goddamn person.
I plan. There’s only a smattering of people sitting around behind—no one will catch the damage. All I need to do is dart over, take the milkshake, and pour it all over the old man’s head. “Nothing will happen to you, huh? Can say whatever you want, huh?” I’ll taunt while dodging his flailing arms. Then I’ll quickly bounce the cup off his decrepit face and run out the door.
I’m still tipsy and brave, but my breathing gets heavy. My adrenaline begins to rise as I prepare. Meanwhile, I can faintly hear the old man laughing through the ringing in my ears, “Fifteen dollars an hour you think you should get? What a joke. What a joke you are. You and all you little fast food babies.” I look around and see I’m still the only one paying attention to the worker who’s staring into the middle distance. The old man then relishes in slurping his drink, practically daring me with it.
I exhale heavily out my mouth to activate my parasympathetic nervous system, like my therapist said to do when my anxiety is up. I do it again and again. Then I move my feet like they’re in mud up to my calf. I step steadily and with great purpose.
And soon enough, with a few more steps, my feet turn away and hit the cement out the door, leaving the situation totally behind. Leaving it having nothing, at all, to do with me.
It’s an eerily smooth bus ride back to my home where I still live with my mother, where I’m a comfortable grad student, able to quit my fast food job after one teenage summer. “You did the right thing,” my ex-boyfriend texts, when I tell him what happened. “It wasn’t worth the trouble.”
But I know for a fact it was worth the trouble. I know it would have simply been correct to have the old man’s reaction result in an equal and opposite reaction. Worth anything to have that employee, eternally dumped on, know he is appreciated for doing his job and for doing it well. That he’s definitely a man and should never, ever be made to feel ashamed. Sure, there’s the possible slips, injuries, and arrests that may have ensued from my retaliation—but I know deep down nothing would really happen to me. After all, don’t I know the difference between chocolate and vanilla?
Fine, maybe it was for the best. Perhaps the worker would be embarrassed, feel patronized. Maybe he just wanted the problem to go away, or it was all a projection; I can’t know completely what it’s like. Still, the sound of silence is a horrible one I can’t shake. Because now, not only was the young man behind the counter perhaps deprived of his special prize, of some sense of support in a vulnerable moment, but also I’m forced to open my drawer—the one full of McDonald’s toys—and know that despite what my mom thought, and despite how much good they’ve done for me once upon a time…
They’re worthless now.
MICHAEL NARKUNSKI is working on his MFA and book of essays at Stony Brook University. His writing has appeared in Out, Narratively, The Advocate, Hippocampus Magazine, and on stage in NYC. You can follow his constant existential crisis @lampshadenark
The teacher cleared her throat, aligning her sharp pencil nib to our printed names on the class register. “Isabelle Lee Shi Qi … Daniel Teo … Lim Jia Ying…” As I raised my hand, she paused and lingered over my name. I bit my lip. Was I about to be singled out on the very first day of class?
She pursed her lips. “There’re two of you named Lim Jia Ying in this class. What are we going to do?”
Another person with the exact same first and last name? My name wasn’t exactly the Asian equivalent of John Smith, and last names were usually the differentiator. I glanced around until I caught the gaze of the person whose face was attached to the torso that was attached to the other raised hand. There was a pregnant glance of equal parts solidarity and wariness.
This situation would not do. How would teachers refer to us in these two years with us in the same classes, how would we write our names on our homework assignments and report cards and parental consent slips? The conclusion was this: because I was eleventh on the class registration list, I was now christened as “Jia Ying 11”. Because the other Lim Jia Ying was twelfth on the list, and life is unfair, she would simply be “Jia Ying”.
When I told my parents after returning home, they indignantly demanded to know why I couldn’t be the one just called “Jia Ying.” I shrugged.
I didn’t mind. I’m still using the same “limjiaying11” email username now. It’s true that when I see her posts on Facebook, I sometimes wonder if that could have been me doing and writing those things. As if her name meant we possessed a common essence, that we were interchangeable. I wish I could report that our identical names forged a unique bond that endured and transcended all our differences and soldered us together forever. But it was just another thing that happened in the year I first had my period, the year a boy first shakily confessed a crush on me, the year I met a true friend who’d remain so for the next fourteen years.
I hadn’t even been that shocked that the name “Jia Ying” was also claimed by another. Chinese names basically meld two distinct words with prosperous or auspicious meanings. Many of my female friends were named after beauty, feminine gentleness, happiness, floral motifs. The chosen pair of words anchor and harbor and shelter the buds of outsized hopes and dreams and over-expectation of new, eager parents.
Apparently my name was chosen from options conjured by a wizened old man with a sharp chin who looked at my birth date and various other vaguely random factors like the weather. (Such superstitions are normal among my mother’s five sisters, who spoke mainly Mandarin and prepared feasts of fresh food and folded paper objects to pray to their ancestors.) In Mandarin, “Jia” 佳 means good (or excellent, beautiful, fine). “Ying” 颖 means clever (or gifted, intelligent, smart).
No name better encapsulates the chronic fear of losing (kiasu, a commonly professed national virtue) and drive for attainment of the Singaporean. At least three of my Facebook friends are also called “Jia Ying”. I used to constantly discover new “Jia Ying”s during role call in Chinese class, sneaky Jia Yings that usually went by their Western names instead. My mother likes to recount the time she signed me up for art classes, and the receptionist informed her that there were already ten other students named “Jia Ying”.
Sure, I could never find my name on those personalized souvenirs at gift shops, though that never stopped me from trying. I will probably never experience the thrill and instant affinity of encountering a fictional character that shares my name (or maybe that’s because I do not read and probably cannot understand Chinese books). I spell out my name habitually when ordering lattes or making a reservation. But there were Jiaqi’s and Jiaxuan’s and Jiawen’s and Jiaqing’s and Jiawei’s, and there were Yingying’s and Shiying’s and Peiying’s and Cuiying’s and Liying’s. So my name was no anomaly.
My name served as a pre-emptive hedge against the willful renouncement of my Chinese heritage. My parents had nothing but the deepest condescension for people who gave their children Western names, or as they called them, “Christian” names, especially as these names would come first before their last name and Chinese name. (Christianity was their synecdoche for the West, something I would also have to delicately navigate when I became a Christian: another story.)
When we were ten, appalled that my sister and I had named our dolls Elizabeth and Georgina and Louisa and other names lifted from the pages of Enid Blyton, my mother warned darkly, “Remember, you don’t want to become a ‘banana’ all right.”
My sister and I would roll our eyes with as much gusto as we could muster without injuring ourselves and mutter, “Yes, yes, we know. It’s just a game.”
(A banana may be pale white or snow white or stark white on the inside, but remains stubbornly, unchangeably, yellow on the outside.)
“Don’t be like X, who married an angmoh (Singaporean slang for red-haired man)! Don’t be like X who doesn’t even go to hawker centers anymore but only eats brunch. Don’t be like X who can’t even say hello to her grandparents because she simply forgot how to speak Chinese.” It seemed there were endlessly available examples of “bananas” to serve as cautionary warnings, as I refused to voluntarily speak Chinese and devoured unhealthy amounts of English books and movies and decided I wanted to study in America.
They warned ominously against my choosing a Western name for myself, as some of my friends had done. I once unwisely complained that my name was always forgotten. They were savage: “If you deserve to be remembered, you will be remembered.”
But “Jia Ying” was abruptly unpronounceable once I stepped foot in college in New York. I watched as my name was promptly forgotten during those orientation icebreakers and self-introductions. Some people wouldn’t bother ever speaking to me again (or maybe that was for other reasons—who knows). Some people would try to call me or get my attention without revealing that they had forgotten my name, out of that habitual American politeness. The more earnest and well-meaning would frown, stumble over it, ask me to repeat it, try to repeat it but end up saying it the exact same way, ask if that were better, and I would nod encouragingly with a forced smile.
What was the point of a name like that?
First I collapsed it into Jiaying, so people wouldn’t call me Jia, thinking that “Ying” was my middle name.
I’m not sure why I thought that would make a difference.
Then I caved. “I’m Jiaying—but you can call me JY. Like, the initials JY.” I would smile, slightly ironically. “It’s easier that way.”
Practically, renaming or naming yourself may be advantageous. We can legally change our first name, neglect or adopt a last name, or choose a new one altogether. Names are flimsy, insubstantial representations. The wrong name sabotages, closes doors, lowers pay, diminishes workplace opportunities. Professors cannot call on you if they do not remember your name. Networking contacts cannot provide a referral if they forget how to spell it, especially if a Henry or a Jack or a Jessica pop into mind as well. These are the more benign examples that exclude actual racism.
But why does it feel so disingenuous to choose a name for yourself? I considered choosing something other than “JY”, but balked.
A name is an identity that extends beyond temporary capitalist gain. It reveals, defines, categorizes. Just as we don’t choose our family, we usually don’t choose our first names. There’s a weight to the given name. Names don’t feel real until they are bestowed, whether by your parents or loved ones or through ceremonial rites of baptisms. Naming yourself is too radical and too literal an act of self-definition.
I suppose “JY” worked for a bit. The most common response was the approving observation that it sounds like a rapper’s name. I suppose it does. I just never quite evaluated the aesthetics of my name that earnestly: It was a utilitarian move, my way of secretly preserving my actual name (for those who knew what JY stood for) and truncating it to the point where it could fulfill the functions of a name: it could be pronounced, remembered, and used.
I’ve considered other names, sometimes as an idle fantasy, sometimes as stimulating dinner conversation fodder. My only condition was that I wanted a name with two syllables, because my cardinal rule was that it sounds better when the first name is a different number of syllables from the last name (Lim). That seemed to leave many two or three or even four-syllabled names for the picking. But, turns out everyone has an opinion of what a Joy or Catherine or Ruth should look like. Also turns out that there are many people I do not want to share a name with.
During my brief summer stint at a business newspaper, I was Sofia. Or at least, I became Sofia for the sake of my email address, because there was a full-time hire with the exact same first and last name (again!). Being the lowly intern, I was naturally instructed to somehow obtain another name. In the five-minute conversation with human resources, I chose Sofia. I liked that Sophia meant wisdom in Greek. And I didn’t want it to be spelled like the “Sophia”s I knew. And I had recently read a few novels on Eastern Europe and had always wanted to visit Bulgaria after reading about it.
But everyone who mattered, like my mentor and my fellow interns that I shared lazy afternoons and countless waffles and ice creams with, still called me Jia Ying. I would always take a few seconds to realize that the person calling the name Sofia was actually referring to me, Sofia!
But I became friends with a fellow freshman named Sofia (did I become good friends with her partially because we shared the same name? I will never know.) We met up regularly, lived together for a semester, laughed and cried through breakups and academic failures. It would be too weird to be a second Sofia. So now, I’m still just JY.
I doubt the rapper name JY is the best partner to plunge into the working world with. It seems unbefitting an actual adult, which I was pretending to be.
But what will I use on my Facebook account, if old college friends try to locate me or newfound ones try to add me? What will I use when I write? What will I get baptized with? What will I use at my wedding? I want continuity and I want pronounceable-ness and I want functionality and I want something that I like.
Now I’m flirting with simply “Jia.” It should function well for these few years of living and working away from Asia, away from home. It should be easy to remember. (Or easier. I’m not over-optimistic here). It’s the name my emails are already addressed to, since most companies assume “Ying” as my middle name. It’s one half of the nickname my boyfriend calls me. It’s minimalist and pretty slick and if people cannot pronounce that single word then they will just have to deal with it on their own.
“Jia” is a compromise. It’s my name, spliced brutally into half. It’s part of me. It’s not something entirely new and foreign: how could I possibly name this foreign, ill-defined, mysterious, and incomprehensible being?
But it’s also a whole new identity to be “Jia” instead of “Jia Ying,” as I begin working and living and eating and breathing in America, after the reassuring structures of college as “JY,” sans family and old familiar friends as “Jia Ying” or even “limjiaying11,” a twenty-hour flight and twelve-hour time difference away from home. I preserve a fraction of myself, I relinquish a modicum, and I gain something else in exchange.
Here’s something funny: Back when I was a kid, Porter Wagoner was one of biggest stars in country music. Hell, he was one of the biggest stars in American entertainment. Wagoner had his own TV show from 1960 to 1981. It became even more popular when he added the then unknown Dolly Parton as his duet partner.
If you don’t remember Wagoner right off, look up a picture of him on the internet. He was known for wearing Nudie suits, garish looking things with rhinestones and flashy colors. The suits were made by Nudie Cohn, a Ukrainian-born Jew who landed in Los Angeles and somehow became the tailor to country and western stars and others until his death in the 1980s. Wagoner was a big customer, but so was Elvis, Elton John, John Lennon, and even Ronald Reagan. While that is odd, that’s not the funny part.
Back in 1973, Wagoner released a self-penned tune call “George Leroy Chickasha.” It wasn’t one of his biggest hits, but it charted. The song was about a mixed-race man who was so anguished by his identify that within two minutes and forty-three seconds (the song’s running time) the title character is dead. “I have no race or creed, I pray to die,” Wagoner sings for his protagonist. The message is clear: a mixed-blood life is not worth living.
I teach at a mid-sized state university in rural Pennsylvania. Sometimes one of my departmental colleagues goes on about the woes of our students and the barriers to their success. Often I reply, “Tell them to suck it up. They got nothing. I was born a half-breed bastard in a coal-town orphanage.” I’m only half kidding.
It’s true. I’m the product of an affair between a married woman, who was the granddaughter of a Pennsylvania German farmer, and a Baltimore black man. Or that’s the best I can figure. All I have to go on are lore, half-truths, lies, and best guesses. I know that a woman named Charleen gave birth to me in March 1960 at a Catholic maternity hospital and orphanage in Dunmore, a northeastern Pennsylvania coal town next to Scranton.
Charleen signed papers that gave up her parental rights. Someone signed papers as the father, giving up his parental rights. I don’t believe that man was my biological father. I can almost state that as fact, but I have no evidence. I do have lore. Rose, the woman who adopted me, told me once that one of Charleen’s brothers signed those papers. All this must have been done with a wink and a nod on the part of the Church. Surely no one believed that farce, that an infant with obvious African ancestry was the natural child of two white people.
Some months later—five I’ve been told—Rose adopted me. Rose is the elder sister of Charleen. Rose and her husband Bill married at the end of the war. Rose had several miscarriages but still longed for a child. Five months. I’m not sure why there was a wait. I am even less sure why Rose thought adopting her sister’s half-breed baby was a good move. I was a constant reminder of something that should not have happened. Charleen remained married to her husband for several more years, despite the affair, despite me. In fact, they had a child, their first and only son together, less than a year after I was born. As we grew up, he and I grew as close as brothers.
Rose and Charleen were part of a large extended family. Their mother, Wilhelmina, had three sons and three daughters, one of each to three different husbands. Wilhelmina was the anchor of the family. She was married at least four times, the last time past child-bearing age to a man who helped raise her youngest daughter. The rumor I heard that she was married briefly one other time, as a teen girl, and had a stillborn child. As a consequence of all these husbands, there were lots of halves in Wilhelmina’s family: half-brothers and half-sisters. I was the only half-breed.
Here’s another funny thing: It was not until 1967, in response to the U.S. Supreme Court case of Virginia v. Loving, that Maryland repealed its anti-miscegenation laws, first enacted in 1692. For nearly three hundred years the law of the land was no race mixing. I am the product of an illegal act.
To his credit, Charleen’s husband treated me well. He always acted like a friendly uncle despite my sordid history that was unknown to me at the time, but certainly not unknown to him. I can’t imagine those holiday dinners where young Chuck, Charleen’s other son, and I would play amidst the other cousins, listen to older kids’ 45 records, run up and down the hallways even though we were told not to, and generally act like the wild boys we were. What the hell was on Charleen’s mind then? Or Rose’s? Who thought it was a good idea to bring me into the fold? Of course, I was not completely in it. I always also told I was adopted, but not the whole circumstance, not until much later. I grew up thinking my half-brother and sisters were my adoptive cousins, that I had no blood kin within that family.
This even I find funny: Everybody wants me, at least everybody of a certain type. This semester I have three Dominican girls in a first-year seminar. They insist that I am Dominican. I joke with them in busted-up Spanish, handing back a graded essay, shaking my head and saying muy mal. Once I wore a sports coat and ball cap during a fall day. These girls spotted me walking across the quad and later in class said this outfit proved I was Dominican because that’s how all the election officials in the DR dress. When I dress in all black with a white t-shirt showing at my throat, I joke with them that once I was to be a priest, a Dominican priest. Their eyes light up like I am letting them in on a secret that the “American” kids don’t understand.
I lived on the South Shore of Massachusetts for several years in the 1980s and 90s. There’s a large Cape Verdean population in the region, brought in decades before, to work the whaling boats and later the cranberry bogs. On some Saturday mornings I would rise early and go the Laundromat at Scituate Harbor. Someone would always start speaking Portuguese to me.
Once, only a week or two after I moved there, a woman speaking in a mix of Portuguese and English came over to me, cursing me out for my actions at a party the previous evening, threatening to slap me. I was so perplexed, I could not muster a reply. She grew frustrated with me and stomped out the glass front doors and into the foggy morning. I had never seen the woman before that moment and had spent the previous evening alone in a rented beach house watching TV. I was stationed at a nearby Navy base and, because I’d only recently moved there, I knew not a single soul in the town. Best I could figure, my doppelgänger had caused some damage at a house party the night before. A few years later, after I left the Navy, I was a newspaper reporter in the same area, often covering crime stories. Cops are often hardnosed, but even Louie Lopes, a serious-minded police captain of Cape Verdean descent, joked that he could be my father.
A woman of Middle Eastern descent, a psychologist at the college I taught at just after graduate school, insisted that I was of North African ancestry. A devout and modest Muslim woman, she talked to me about Islam and got me to order materials from the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., not so much to convert me, but for me to learn about my heritage. A Spanish professor at the university where I now teach once told one of my English department colleagues how proud she was of me, how I had learned English so well that I had become a professor of English. Again, it was another Dominican claim.
I have passed this legacy of ethnic ambiguity on to my own children. My son, now in his early twenties, tells me white kids are often unsure, but black kids always know that he is partially black. My daughter, a college student in Pittsburgh, told me of how after a long interview for a campus job her middle-aged white male interviewer said he had only one more question: “What nationality are you?” She didn’t think that was funny.
Rose followed in her mother’s footsteps, but only partially. She had only two divorces. She and Bill split after I finished first grade. Later she married a man named Ronald, and part-way through fourth grade, we moved to southwest Florida. We moved just before Christmas, which I always thought of as odd timing. Rose got the timing of the year a bit better. It was only that fall that the Lee County Public Schools desegregated. We obviously lived in a white neighborhood. Black kids were bused north across the Caloosahatchee River from the Dunbar neighborhood of Fort Myers proper to suburban Tropic Isles Elementary School nestled in between planned developments and a shopping district off Pondella Road. Of course, not everything was desegregated. The local barber refused to cut my hair. I was nine. It didn’t matter to him. “I ain’t never cut no colored’s hair and I ain’t fixing to start,” he said. His shop was within sight of my elementary school.
Bill is the man I have always considered my father, despite losing him after divorce. I lost him because those days were different. Both Bill and Rose remarried others soon after the divorce. Bill and I were close. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of the two of us riding in his truck on Saturday mornings, heading into the small town of Danville to make the rounds. We lived a few miles outside of town in a small house built on a corner of my great-grandfather’s farmstead. Bill and I would go to Jack Leighhow’s barbershop where one or both of us would get a haircut while Jack talked about his luck at the horse track that week and smoked an ever-present cigar. We would also stop at the Washies, which is what everyone called the Washington Volunteer Fire Company. A peculiar Pennsylvania institution, many small towns have several volunteer fire companies that have full bars and short-order grills, social halls that are rented out for wedding receptions and illegal gambling in the form of punch boards and poker machines. Dad would often stop in the Washies, and sometimes the East End Fire Company, to drink a quick draft with guys he knew. I liked stopping at these places because someone would always buy me a soda and a bag of chips. Sometimes I would get a quarter and go shoot pool by myself. I developed into a decent pool player at a young age.
After they separated, Bill took me for a ride one Saturday morning. He had already introduced me to his new girlfriend and her daughter. He said he was going move in with them in a big brick house in Danville and that he wanted me to live with him and them. In the end, I chose to live with my mother. And even if I had wanted to live with Bill, he probably would not have gained custody given the customs of the day. It would have been rare for a father to have been given custody of a child except under the most extraordinary of circumstances.
For a while after he moved to Danville, Bill would come get me every few weeks on a Saturday, but I was now living in Sunbury with my mother and we no longer made the rounds. Sometimes I would sleep over in the new house he and his new wife built outside of town. Those get-togethers became less frequent and then halted altogether after we moved to Florida. In those days, working-class people didn’t make long distance phone calls. Raised during the Depression, people of my parents’ generation considered long distance prohibitively expensive. Bill also never wrote me a letter during the years I lived in Florida. Rose said he didn’t write that well, since he never graduated high school in order to join the army during the war. I saw Bill a few times when we would travel back to Pennsylvania during summer vacation, but as I approached my teenage years, those visits stopped. When Rose and I returned to Pennsylvania after her second divorce when I was sixteen, I never bothered to contact Bill. He never bothered to contact me either, though surely he heard though the grapevine that I had returned. He came to my high school graduation and gave me a card and a check for fifty bucks, which was a decent amount for the time. We only talked for a minute or so. I was eager to go out and celebrate with friends. After, I thought that I should have talked longer. Or promised to call him and set up a time to visit, and followed through. I didn’t.
Within a year after I had gotten my current teaching job at a university only five miles from my childhood home, I read Bill’s obituary in the local paper. I was listed with my given name (Arthur) and it stated I was living in Massachusetts, which I hadn’t been for nearly four years.
I went unannounced to his funeral at the Wesleyan church a few blocks from the university. His second wife greeted me warmly and insisted I stand beside her in the family line to greet the funeral goers. She sometimes, though not always, introduced me as Bill’s adopted son. She told me how fond Bill was of his grandson, his stepdaughter’s child. I thought of how close Bill and I had been and how that was lost. Bill never met my two children, a boy and a girl, both of whom I love dearly. My son was the age I was when Bill and Rose divorced, my daughter a few years younger. I sat with the family during the service. The wife invited me to accompany them in the funeral car to the gravesite burial and then the reception after. I declined and went home to my children.
Leona Jones was Rose’s closest friend since they were girls. Leona lived up the hill from our house out in Cooper Township in Montour County, the smallest county in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Leona and her husband, Don, were my godparents. I often stayed over at their house on Saturday nights and went to church with them and their teenage daughter, Donna Rose—named after her father and my mother.
I loved going to the Jones’s house on Saturday. In the warmer months we would go to May’s, a local drive-in, for pizza. Afterward we would head about a quarter-mile down the road to the Hi Ho. The Hi Ho stayed in business until only a few years ago. Though another drive-in, the Hi Ho was known for its specialty, the Hi Ho itself, a sort of thick shake with bits of chopped ice disbursed throughout. It was perfect for a hot, muggy summer evening in river valley towns in a time when most folks did not have air conditioning.
Sometimes we didn’t go out to eat, but we went to the Selinsgrove Speedway. The dirt track oval featured midget racers and stock cars, and French fries. They had great fresh-cut fries served in a paper cone and sprinkled with vinegar.
The restrooms at the race track were in concrete buildings under the grandstands. The restroom attendants were older black men. They were likely the first black people I ever saw in person. Perhaps I had seen some black people on television, but given the times, that isn’t a certainty. There was something I recognized in them. When I would go to the restroom, these men would give me a silent nod, acknowledging our connection. Though I could not have articulated my feelings at the time, the exchange made me feel uncomfortable. Just from observing the people around me, my family and others, I knew that “coloreds” were not like us and somehow inferior.
Here are two other funny things: 1) Don had a couple of hunting dogs he kept in a pen at the back of his property and Leona had a couple of cats. Her name for one of the cats, the all-black one, was “Niggy,” her variant of nigger. 2) Once, when Bill and I were outside playing catch, he caught me picking my nose. He said, “You’re just like Abraham Lincoln, freeing the boogies.”
At the time, these things made me feel odd, unsettled. It’s obvious that they bothered me to remain clear memories all these years later. How could two people who loved me, whose job it was to protect me from the abuses of the world, use such slurs in front of me?
Sometimes black people claim me. That would seem obvious, given the variety of skin tones and body shapes within the African-American community. However, it is not obvious. I have few markers of black culture. I have never lived amongst black people and have had only a handful of black friends throughout my life. It took me years to learn to give the silent, almost imperceptible nod to a black person gives to another when passing on the street in a predominantly white area.
Here are two other funny things: 1) Rose once told me a story about how some of her friends in high school tried to get her to go out with the only black boy in the school. She told me she refused because she did not feel that dating a “colored guy” was right. 2) Rose used the term “colored” up until she died in 1993. This was even after we finally had a difficult talk when I was twenty. She acknowledged that Charleen had given birth to me, though this was something I had already known for years, and that a man who sounded like a “colored guy” had called on the phone for her a few times after Charleen returned from Baltimore pregnant. The talk was precipitated by me coming home half drunk and pissed off because someone in the bar I was in made racist comments about me. I’m not certain how we got on the topic—probably Rose was upset about my drinking, which was often frequent and heavy back then. When I told her what the guy said, Rose said I must be “awfully sensitive.”
Because I knew being black was bad, I used to avoid listening to black music and had a fevered hate of disco during its heyday. I liked Dylan, Neil Young, and, most of all, Bruce Springsteen, the hero of working-class white boys who, when they had fathers, did not get along with them, and who longed to move from their small towns to a place where they could make a better life. Although Springsteen often included black people in his band, especially his longtime sax player Clarence Clemons, his audience was, and remains, primarily white. Like disco, I ignored Motown and soul music, and traditional songs. When I got invited to a few mainly black gatherings as a new college professor, I faked my way through “Lift Every Voice and Sing” written by brothers James Weldon Johnson (words) and James Rosamond Johnson (music), a song that is a staple in black churches and was once known as the “Negro National Anthem.” I had no clue.
Still there were times when black people claimed me, like during a ninth grade driver’s education class in Florida. On days when the driving instructor took a trio of students out for longer road drives, the remainder of the students had to sit in the cafeteria. I usually sat by myself, close to no one else, and read. One day, the only black kid in the class came over. I’d known him since middle school. We’d never talked before except for one other time outside of school. My Boy Scout troop, sponsored by a Catholic church, volunteered to hand out school clothes to needy families at a St. Vincent DePaul Society building over near Dunbar, the black neighborhood. I was going into ninth grade then and this same kid came through the line. He asked me if I got free clothes for helping. I probably mumbled something about the Scouts, even though I was in uniform.
In the high school cafeteria, he came over and asked about my test score for the written portion of the class. We talked for a while, and he returned each day to sit with me the rest of the term. I don’t remember what we talked about. I must have been a puzzlement for him. I lived in the wrong part of town, had only white friends in all my other classes, and even came from the North. Virtually all the black kids at that high school were native Floridians. After the term ended, I don’t remember ever talking with that kid again.
Years later, when I had my first abortive attempt at college, I made friends with an outgoing guy who had lived in Harlem all his life. The school was small, and most people knew everyone else. Derrick was particularly outgoing, but he and I struck up a genuine friendship. I am sure I was a puzzlement to Derrick as well. He knew I was from a small town in Pennsylvania, and probably assigned some of what he perceived as my quirkiness—such as my profound fondness of Springsteen and my lack of knowledge of Afro Sheen—to that. “You’re a funny nigger,” he once said to me while we were hanging out. Later I invited him to come to my hometown for the weekend. He did. He met Rose. He met some of my other relatives and a few of my hometown friends. While he was there, he never saw one other black person, and virtually everyone he met told him a story about the one other time they had met a black person. Derrick never called me a funny nigger again.
Here’s something funny that’s not really funny at all. George Banks killed his children. I’ll tell you about George Banks in a moment, but first let me tell you this. After two years of college, I dropped out. I came back to small-town Pennsylvania and floundered. After a few months, I landed a job up near Wilkes-Barre, perhaps a bit over an hour’s drive from Sunbury. Not wanting to commute, and more to break the bad habit of hitting the bars every night in Sunbury, I looked for a small apartment or room to rent. Time after time I would go check out a place only to find it had just been rented, or that the owner would let me know later, only I never got that call. This kid Gary, a coal region kid with long hair and a penchant for death metal bands, also worked in the office that I did. He clued me in. He asked for three or four numbers I had recently called and been told the place was rented. He called. Each one was available.
A couple of years ago I ran into Tony, a guy I knew from a few years earlier when I used to attend church in a different town. Tony runs a bed and breakfast out in Vicksburg, a post-stamp sized town in central Pennsylvania. Big into social justice, Tony related a conversation he had with man when he was on a business trip in Wilkes-Barre. Tony remarked to the man that for its size, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area had an exceedingly small black population. “We didn’t need niggers,” the man said. “We had Polacks.”
I kept the job in the Wilkes-Barre area for a while, but grew tired of it. Not wanting return to Sunbury full time, and not knowing what else to do, one day I walked into the Navy recruiter’s office and asked, “How soon can I leave?” About a month later I was gone.
That fall in Wilkes Barre, on September 25, 1982, George Emil Banks killed thirteen people including seven children, four past and present girlfriends, and two other adults. Now George Banks was and is as crazy as anyone can be and what he did was horrific.
Banks’ father was black and his mother was white. He was a mixed-race person, a half-breed. At the trial, the defense argued that the constant racism Banks faced throughout his life in Wilkes-Barre as a mixed-race boy and then as a man drove him insane. Banks, the defense said, wanted to spare his own children, ones he fathered with the girlfriends, from the painful experience of racism. In the end, Banks was convicted. Banks has sat in solitary for decades, judged too mentally deranged to be executed.
A few weeks ago I drove past Rockview, a large state prison near Bellefonte in the center of the state. I was picking my daughter up from college. As we drove along in the interstate, the low-slung prison buildings spread out in the pink-yellow light cast by dozens and dozens of streetlamps illuminating the complex. I thought about George Banks sitting in his cell on a lonely, late winter night. I thought about how perhaps racism could drive a person crazy, make him do the unthinkable. I could almost understand. There is nothing funny about that.
JERRY WEMPLE is the author of three poetry collections: You Can See It from Here, which won the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, The Civil War in Baltimore, and The Artemas Poems. He is co-editor of Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania. His poems and journals appear in numerous journals and anthologies. He teaches at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
On Saturday night, October 10, around 11:45 PM, I almost became Trayvon Martin.
After a pleasant evening enjoying decadent cheesecake in Midtown Sacramento with my friend Nicole, she drove me back to Woodlake, where I have stayed with friends for over three years. She parked her bright yellow car across the street from the house.
I have lived in this middle class, predominantly Caucasian neighborhood since April 2012, staying with Caucasian friends while I looked for permanent employment. As we sat in Nicole’s car, I told her about the apartment that I had looked at in another part of town. I mentioned that I had never felt comfortable in Woodlake and had always felt like an unwelcome outsider. We talked and listened to music, prolonging our nice evening. A Mustang drove by and pulled into a nearby driveway. We continued to talk while the young male driver got out of the car and walked into the house.
While we continued to talk, the young man came out of the house and stared in our direction. “I wonder what he’s looking at,” Nicole commented. A calico cat sat on the sidewalk near him.
I wondered if he was watching something that the cat had caught. Sometimes, the friend I stayed with walked around the neighborhood at night, looking for grubs for her turtles. We watched as the man went back into the house.
A minute later, he came out of the house again, this time with a large baseball bat. He started coming toward the car. “What are you doing here in my neighborhood?” he shouted at us, holding the bat aloft menacingly. Nicole quickly rolled up the windows and locked the doors. We were getting scared.
“I live here!” I shouted through the closed door, but he continued to come toward us, holding the bat as if he planned to break windows of the car—and maybe continue with our heads.
“I’ve never seen you,” he responded. Hate dripped from his voice like sweat. An older man came out of the house and stood in the yard watching. Was he going to hurt us too?
Nicole called the police on her cell phone. “Someone is threatening me and my friend with a baseball bat. We are sitting in my car on Fairfield Street. We are terrified. My friend lives here, but she is afraid to get out of the car.”
I called the friend that I stayed with and told her what was happening. She had lived in the neighborhood for over twenty years and knew everyone. She could vouch for my right to be there. She came out of the house a few minutes later and walked down the sidewalk to talk to the older man.
Nicole and I watched as they had a heated discussion and the young man was convinced to move away from the car. Finally, I felt safe enough to get out. My friend brought the older man over to us. He said that his son thought that someone was threatening the neighborhood, as several cars had been vandalized recently. I told him that I had lived there since 2012 and he said that he had seen me but had never met me. “Do you have to meet every one who lives on this street?” I asked.
He admitted that he did not. He said that his son had anger issues and that they were “working on it.” He said that he would have stopped his son before he “went too far.”
Too far? What would have been “too far”? Breaking the windows? Bludgeoning us to death? I thought of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Like Zimmerman, this was a young Hispanic man claiming that the term “Neighborhood Watch” gave him the right to take action against any unfamiliar face, especially if the face was black.
But we were not Trayvon Martin. Instead of a lone teenage boy, we were two adult women. Nicole was the supervisor of a nearby branch of the Sacramento Public Library. In September, she was featured in a full-page profile in Sacramento Magazine. She was very active in the community and had made presentations to the Woodlake Neighborhood Association. I’m a social worker for Sacramento County, working with victims of domestic violence and assisting people in danger of becoming homeless. I am also a freelance writer. Last year, Nicole and I were commended in the Woodlake neighborhood newsletter for a tour of the Del Paso Boulevard murals that she had organized. I assisted her by giving a dramatic reading of the poems incorporated into each mural.
We were two well-educated, professional women enjoying a Saturday night. But all that the youthful vigilante saw was a black face in a car. A black face can only mean one thing—a dangerous perpetrator, a foreign, dangerous presence. Perhaps an escapee from the “other” side of Arden Way. Like George Zimmerman, he only thought of violence. He did not see two harmless women—one black, one white—who could have been his librarian or his social worker. He only saw a black face, reason enough to take lethal action.
Once I entered the house, my friend tried to say that the incident wasn’t racially motivated. But Nicole and I knew better. If it had been a lone white woman in a car, I doubt if the young man would have come outside brandishing a weapon. Fear caused adrenaline to course through my body for several hours. Neither of us could sleep and we texted back and forth for an hour. We realized that if the young man had picked up a gun instead of a baseball bat, we would have been killed. We would have been like Trayvon, additions to a long time of victims killed because of their color or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It only takes an instant to end a life, even in Sacramento. Even in Woodlake.
I sure hope that I get that apartment.
BEATRICE M. HOGG is a writer and social worker in Sacramento, California. A coal miner’s daughter from Western Pennsylvania, she has a MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and a BA in social work from the University of Pittsburgh. Her novel, Three Chords One Song, was published as an eBook by Genesis Press in 2012. She writes a monthly column, “Financial Graffiti,” for the online publication The Billfold. Her blog, “Marvellaland,” can be found at www.marvellaland.wordpress.com. She is currently working on an essay collection about her experiences with long-term unemployment and homelessness. She got the apartment.