فصل 14

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Chapter fourteen

San Francisco

The house seemed smaller and quieter after the trip south, and San Francisco didn’t seem as exciting. I realized that I had given up some youth for knowledge, but my gain was more valuable than the loss.

Bailey was much older, too. Even years older than I had become. He had made new friends and his language had changed. He may have been glad to see me, but he didn’t act like it. When I tried to tell him of my adventures, he responded with a lack of interest which stopped my stories. His new companions drank alcohol secretly and told bad jokes. Although I had no regrets, I told myself sadly that growing up was not the painless process one expected it to be.

In one area my brother and I found ourselves closer. I had learned public dancing, and Mother allowed us to go to the big band dances in the city hall. In a few months handsome Bailey and his tall sister were famous.

Although I had risked my life (not intentionally) in her defense, Mother’s reputation, good name, and community image ceased being of interest to me. I didn’t care for her less, but I was less concerned about everything and everyone. I often thought how boring life was after one had seen all its surprises. In two months, I had become uninterested.

Mother and Bailey were having mother-son problems. Bailey was sixteen and hopelessly in love with Mother Dear. Her heroes and her friends were rich gamblers who wore expensive clothes. How could a sixteen-year-old boy hope to compete with such rivals? He did what he had to do. He acquired a white prostitute, a diamond ring on his finger, and an expensive jacket. He didn’t consciously think of the new possessions as a way to gain Mother Dear s acceptance. And she had no idea that her preferences led him to such excesses.

From another room I heard their arguments and listened hopelessly. I was left out of their power-love struggles.

One night he came home at one o’clock, two hours late.

“I guess you’re a man…” she said to him.

“I’m your son, Mother Dear,” he responded.

“Clidell is the only man in this house, and if you think you’re so much of a man…” Her voice was angry.

“I’m leaving now, Mother Dear,” he announced.

“Then get moving.” And Bailey went to his room.

Bailey was leaving home. At one o’clock in the morning my brother, who had always protected me, was leaving home. I went to his room and found him throwing his clothes into a pillowcase. His maturity embarrassed me. He didn’t look like my brother. Not knowing what to say, I asked if I could help, and he answered, “Leave me alone.”

I leaned on the door, giving him my physical presence, but said no more.

“She wants me out, does she?” he continued, talking to himself. “Well, I’ll get out of here fast. She won’t see me here again. I’ll be OK. I’ll always be OK.”

At some point he noticed me in the doorway. “Maya, if you want to leave now, come on. I’ll take care of you.”

He didn’t wait for an answer, but quickly returned to speaking to his soul. “She won’t miss me, and I won’t miss her. To hell with her and everybody else.”

He had finished pushing his shoes on top of his shirts and ties and socks in the pillowcase. He remembered me again.

“Maya, you can have my books,” he said. Then he grabbed the pillowcase, pushed past me, and headed for the stairs. I heard the front door shut loudly.

Mothers eyes were red the next morning, but she smiled. No one mentioned Bailey’s absence, as if things were as they should be and always were.

I believed I knew where he had gone the night before, and decided to try to find him and offer him my support. In the afternoon I went to the house. A woman answered the doorbell and said Bailey Johnson was at the top of the stairs. His eyes were as red as Mother’s had been, but his face was not as angry as it had been the night before. I was invited in.

He began to talk about everything except our unusual situation. Eventually he said, “Maya, you know, it’s better this way… I mean, I’m a man, and I have to be on my own…”

I was angry that he didn’t curse Mother or at least act upset.

“This morning Mother Dear came here. We had a very good discussion.” He chose his words carefully. “She understands completely. There’s a time in every man’s life when he must leave the safety of home and go out on his own. She’s arranging with a friend of hers to get me a job on the trains. I’ll learn the job and then get a better one. The future looks good.”

If I’d had any suggestions to make, he wouldn’t have heard them. And, most regrettable, I had no suggestion to make.

“I’m your sister, and I’ll do whatever I can,” I told him.

“Maya, don’t worry about me. That’s all I want you to do. Don’t worry. I’ll be OK.”

I left his room because, and only because, we had said all we could say. The unsaid words made us feel uncomfortable.

Back in my room, I felt depressed. It was going to be impossible for me to stay there. Running away from home wouldn’t be right, either. But I needed a change.

I would go to work. It would be easy to persuade Mother. I was a year ahead of my grade in school and Mother believed in taking care of oneself. After I had made that decision, I just needed to decide which kind of job I was most suited to. Because of the war, women had replaced men as conductors on the streetcars, and the thought of riding up and down the hills of San Francisco in a dark-blue uniform, with a money changer on my belt, was appealing. When Mother asked what I planned to do, I replied that I would get a job on the streetcars. She rejected the idea with: “They don’t accept colored people on the streetcars.” My first reaction was disappointment. I’d pictured myself dressed in a neat, blue suit, my money changer swinging at my waist, with a cheerful smile for the passengers which would make their own work day brighter. I told her again that I would go to work on the streetcars and wear a blue suit, and she gave me her support. “That’s what you want to do? Nothing beats trying except failure. Give it your best effort.”

It was the most positive encouragement I could have hoped for.

In the offices of the Market Street Railway Company, the receptionist seemed surprised to see me there. I explained that I had come to ask about a job. She asked if I was sent by an agency, and when I replied that I was not, she told me that they were only accepting applicants from agencies.

“I’m applying for the job listed in this mornings Chronicle and I’d like to be presented to your personnel manager.”

“He’s out for the day. You could come back tomorrow and if he’s in, I’m sure you can see him.” Then she turned her chair around and I was supposed to be dismissed.

“May I ask his name?”

She half turned, acting surprised to find me still there.

“His name? Whose name?”

“The personnel manager.”

“The personnel manager? Oh, he’s Mr. Cooper, but I’m not sure you’ll find him here tomorrow. He’s… but you can try.” “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

And I was out of the room and out of the building. I thought about our conversation. It wasn’t personal. The incident was a repeating dream, made up years before by stupid whites, and it always returned. I accepted the receptionist as another victim of the rules of society.

On the streetcar, I put my fare into the box and the conductor looked at me with the usual hard eyes of white contempt. “Move into the car, please move on in the car.” She patted her money changer.

Her Southern accent interrupted my thoughts. All lies, all comfortable lies. The receptionist was not innocent and neither was I. The whole situation in that waiting room was directly about me, Black, and her, white.

I wouldn’t move into the streetcar but stood on the platform. My mind shouted.

I WOULD HAVE THE JOB. I WOULD BE A CONDUCTOR AND HANG A MONEY CHANGER FROM MY BELT. I WOULD.

I was determined. During the next three weeks the Negro organizations to whom I appealed for support sent me from one to another. Why did I insist on that particular job? There were opportunities that paid almost twice the money. They thought I was crazy. Possibly I was.

During this period of strain, Mother and I began our first steps on the long path toward shared adult admiration. She never asked for reports and I didn’t offer any details. But every morning she made breakfast, and gave me carfare and lunch money, as if I were going to work. She understood that I had to try every possibility before giving up.

On my way out of the house one morning she said, “Life is going to give you what you put in it. Put your whole heart in everything you do, and pray, then you can wait.” Another time she reminded me that “God helps those who help themselves.” Strangely, as bored as I was with these sayings, her way of saying them gave them something new, and started me thinking-for a little while at least. Later, when she asked how I got my job, I was never able to say exactly. I only knew that one day I sat in the railway office, pretending to be waiting to be interviewed. The receptionist called me to her desk and pushed a bundle of papers to me. They were the application forms. I had little time to wonder if I had won or not, because the standard questions reminded me of the necessity for lying. How old was I? List my previous jobs. How much money did I earn, and why did I leave the position? Give two references (not relatives).

Sitting at a side table, I made a story of near-truths and total lies. I kept my face without expression and wrote quickly the story of Marguerite Johnson, age nineteen, former companion and driver for Mrs. Annie Henderson (a white lady) in Stamps, Arkansas.

I was given a number of tests. Then on one happy day I was hired as the first Negro on the San Francisco streetcars.

Mother gave me the money to have my blue suit made, and I learned to fill out work cards and operate the money changer. Soon I was standing on the back of the streetcar, smiling sweetly and persuading my passengers to “step forward in the car, please.”

For one whole semester the streetcars and I went up and down the hills of San Francisco. My work shifts were split so much that it was easy to believe my superiors had chosen them with bad intentions. When I mentioned my suspicions to Mother, she said, “Don’t worry about it. You ask for what you want, and you pay for what you get.”

She stayed awake to drive me out to the streetcar garage at four-thirty in the mornings, or to pick me up when I was finished just before dawn. She knew that I was safe on the public transportation, but she wouldn’t trust a taxi driver with her baby.

When spring classes began, I returned to my commitment to formal education. I was much wiser and older, much more independent, with a bank account and clothes that I had bought for myself. I was sure that I had learned and earned what was necessary to be a part of the life of my classmates.

Within weeks, however, I realized that my schoolmates and I were on opposite paths. They were concerned and excited over football games, but I had recently raced a car down a dark and foreign Mexican mountain. They concentrated their interest on who would be the school president, and when the metal bands would be removed from their teeth, while I remembered sleeping for a month in an abandoned car and working in a streetcar in the early hours of the morning. I realized that the things I still had to learn wouldn’t be taught to me at George Washington High School.

I began missing classes, walking in Golden Gate Park, or wandering in the department store. When Mother discovered that I wasn’t going to school, she told me that if I didn’t want to go to school one day, I should tell her, and I could stay home. She said that she didn’t want a white woman calling her to tell her something about her child that she didn’t know. She didn’t want to have to lie to a white woman because I wasn’t woman enough to talk to her. That ended my days of not going to school, but nothing changed to make it a better place for me to be.

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