Tuesday, June 3, 2008

NO OFFENSE

(Yellow Hat, painted 1936 by Norman Lewis)

This is another short story I wrote several years ago. It, too, is almost literally true, about the beginning of a great friendship with a coworker who went on to become my business partner in San Francisco, and I became godmother to her eldest son. We insisted on communicating across boundaries, without being defensive, and it worked.

And yeah, there's an incident in this story that made its way, in an altered form, into Ginny Bates.


NO OFFENSE

One morning after Frankie had worked there three months, Phylecia looked over her keyboard and said, “Can I ask you something?” Frankie thought this might not be how to spell a word; she suspected it coincided with the absence of Evelyn, their boss, from the office. She nodded. Phylecia demanded, “Do you like men?”

I stopped being a separatist two years ago. But that isn’t what she’s asking. “Which men?”

“Don’t matter which, that’s not my point. Do you li-ike men?”

“Oh. Well, not in that way, no.”

“I could tell. And that scrawny-ass girl who come for lunch with you, she your girlfriend, right? No offense, about the scrawny-ass, I mean.”

Tyler’s ass is scrawny. “Yes, she is. How could you tell?”

“You look in each other eyes. And you don’t dress yourself in a way any man going to look at. You don’t use make-up, and you could use some, you know, with those dark patches around your eyes, no offense.”

I have severe asthma; they’re called allergic shiners.

“And your hair so short you could scrub out pots with it. And you don’t got on a bra, I can see your ta-tas floating around under there. Why you wear men’s undershirts?”

“They’re not undershirts, they’re T-shirts with things written on them.”

“Like what things? Show me what that one is you got on now.”

Oh, shit, was this the one that said Fuck The Police? “It’s just slogans, like bumperstickers.”

“So what you got against men?”

“I just prefer women.” Phylecia’s arms were crossed and her head tilted back. Frankie leaned forward, “I mean, you’re always telling me about the things you do with your friends Laquita, Pamehla, Marquita, and all your sisters and sisters-in-law, especially your favorite -- (Watch out, it’s pronounced like vagina) -- Regina. I mean, I know you’ve got at least a couple of boyfriends --”

“I got one boyfriend, K.C. That Jamal, he on the side.”

“Okay, but my point is, most of your free time you spend with women. You tell each other everything, you support each other when you’re down, you look after each other’s kids...you’re like a small town of women that the men just visit sometimes. And that’s how I live, except we don’t even have the men over sometimes.”

“I hope and pray you did not mean what you just said.”

“What?”

“Me and my girlfriends, my kin, we not like you and your bunch. We do not do what you all do.”

“Well, not exactly, no--”

“I’ve read that Farrakhan trash about how black women be too close to one another, how we drying up the balls on black men, how the fact that we keep each other alive to raise the next generation somehow keep our men from getting jobs, make them take crack. We too strong for a man, he say. Well, I’m not too strong for a real man, and I am NOT no dyke. And don’t you get any ideas that way. You don’t know what the hell you talking about!”

“So how I live does keep men away, but how you live doesn’t?”

“You don’t know what the hell you talking about. You never been to my house, you never met my friends.”

“So ask me over!”

“You think I can’t? All right, I’m throwing a baby shower for my niece Janine this Saturday afternoon. You invited. You don’t have to bring a present, but dress nice. And no Taylor.”

“Tyler.” Saturday was when her group was writing flyers for the Chiapas benefit. Well, they’d have to get along without her. “Where do you live?”

The next Monday when Frankie arrived at work, Phylecia looked up to grin at her. “I got to say, I didn’t think you’d show up Saturday.”

“Well, neither did I. But then I thought it’d be good for me to be the only white person in a room for a change.”

“I figured you come to make me eat crow.”

“Yeah, that too. I had a good time, everyone was really nice to me. But, tell me honestly, was I dressed all right? I mean, I didn’t have on gloves or a hat.”

“You okay. But I told you no present.”

“Why--didn’t Janine like the baby counting book?

“She from EMERYVILLE. They don’t speak Swahili there.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. Thanks for having me over.”

“You’re welcome.”

Evelyn was out of the office much of the time now, drumming up business. One of her best sources was the concierge at the expensive hotel across the street, full of executives needing last minute reports and revisions. When Evelyn ran over there after lunch, Phylecia waited till they heard the elevator ding down the hall.

“You know, Frankie, I used to date this white guy, professor at the university. I went to a do at his house once, and they was this fairy there, no offense, another teacher from his school. So this white boy starts telling me how he is OPpressed just like me, how me and him are on the same side ‘cause people hate us just the same. I let him say his piece, and then I say there ain’t no way we the same. I say, he probably the only one in his family turn out that way, but all my folks is black like me. I say, maybe his kind mostly be florists or hairstylists, but that pay a whole lot better than hotel maid or cafeteria work. And I say, wherever I go, I stand out, but if he just quit waving his pink little hands around in the air so much or bobbing his head like he Katherine Hepburn, he could drive through Contra Costa County without worrying about where to stop for gas.”

“Did you really say the Katherine Hepburn thing?”

“Uh-hum.”

When Phylecia arrived at work the next Monday, she dropped her purse with a sigh. Frankie looked up from her desk.

“Did you have a good weekend?”

“No, ma’am, I did not. I suffered what you’d call a disappointment. I went out Saturday with Shareema to the club, K.C. being in Florida and all, and struck up with a fine-looking man. Buying me drinks, talking sweet, and when I got me a chance, I checked out his hands, and girl, that man had thumbs as big as corny dogs.” Phylecia paused significantly.

“So?”

“Girl, don’t you be telling me you don’t know what I’m talking about!”

“Honestly, I don’t.”

“THUMBS, Frankie. I mean, even you being the way you are, no offense, you surely heard you can tell the size of a man’s business by how big his thumbs are?”

“You have got to be kidding.”

“Never failed me yet. So, I took that man on home with me, and after preliminaries, I go put on my baby doll gown, come back, turn down the sheets, and what do I see?”

I don’t think I can ask.

“It wasn’t even as big as my pinkie, and that with it HARD! I got a two-year-old nephew with a bigger one. I said, uh-uh, this’ll never do. I got right back out of that bed and asked that man to move on.”

“You didn’t.”

“Sure did. I ain’t got the time to be wasting on midgets, not me. Who do he think he is, not telling a woman about his problem?”

“Oh, Phylecia, I mean, there’s a part of me that doesn’t care, you know, but you must have just about killed that guy.”

“HIM? I’m the one who got cheated here, remember. I told Shareema, that man must have had thumb augmentation surgery or something, only if he did, he had ‘em work on the wrong part.”

“I’d never have figured you for a size queen.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You won’t have sex with a man unless he’s got a large penis?”

Listen at you, saying ‘penis’ with your mouth all prissed up. I like to be FULL, girlfriend--technique don’t have nowhere to go if it ain’t snug.”

“Well, actually, we look at hands too, but it’s a more direct kind of measure.”

“Now you’re being nasty.”

On Friday Phylecia arrived in a peacock blue linen suit with a cigarette skirt and cropped blazer. Her high heels matched exactly. Frankie said, “Wow.”

“I spent way too much money on this, girl, but this my color. This blue and some kinds of dark green, they go best with my coloring what I got from my daddy, him mostly geechee. Or so LaShann say.”

“Who’s he?”

“La-SHANN is a she, and WE all don’t be confusing boy and girl names like you and Taylor do.”

“Tyler.”

“WHATever.”

Well, shit, LeVar is a male name but LeShann is female? And what exactly is Geechee? Maybe Tyler will know.

“You’re right, that color is stunning on you.”

Just before lunch, Frankie finished a job for a VIP staying at the hotel. Evelyn was out again, and Phylecia offered to run it over. Frankie thought she wanted to show off the new clothes, and couldn’t blame her. After Phylecia left, Frankie turned on the radio and was so engrossed in zydeco she didn’t notice Phylecia come back until she crumpled in a heap on the floor just inside the door.

“Oh, my god, Phylecia, what’s wrong?” She was crying; she’d never seen Phylecia cry.

“That COCKsucker!” Phylecia’s mascara-stained tears threatened to drip on her collar. Frankie grabbed a Kleenex and wiped her cheeks.

“I went to the concierge’s desk, but she wasn’t there. I stood there a minute waiting on her--I wasn’t sure if she’s supposed to pay right away.” Phylecia was crying so hard the words were coming out in bursts. “These businessmen come out of the elevator and pass by the desk. One of them stops and don’t even look at me, he just say ‘I need a cab’, and he reach out a hand with a five in it. He just let go of it, not even looking at me, sure I’ll snatch at his fucking money. It flutter to the carpet, and that catch his eye. He stare at me like I’m DIRT. He would never have done that to you, no matter how you dress.”

Frankie’s brain went slick with anger. She squatted down by Phylecia and said, “You’re right, and he’ll never do it again. I’ll be back.” She started for the door.

“Wait, what you doing?” Phylecia pulled herself up. “I’m going with you.”

In the hall they met Evelyn. Before she could ask what was up, Phylecia began shouting, “That HOTEL of yours full of cocksuckers, we’re gonna kick some Armani ass.” The elevator closed on Evelyn’s protests.

At the hotel, Frankie demanded, “You see him in here?” Phylecia looked carefully and shook her head. The concierge was still absent. Frankie went to the front desk and said, “A group of men just left here in a cab. I’d like their names, please. This woman can describe one of them for you.”

“We don’t give out the names of guests.”

“You’ll either give it to me or to the police.” Frankie deliberately upped the volume another notch.

“Let me get the manager.”

“And the concierge while you’re at it.” She heard a muffled snort from Phylecia.

The manager tried to wave her into the back, but she stood her ground. “A man, a guest here, just verbally assaulted my friend. We want his name so she can file charges against him.”

“Which room are you in?”

“We work across the street, ask the concierge, we do jobs for your guests that she arranges. We are, for all intents and purposes, in your employ, and we do not have to tolerate racist attacks from your clients!”

Racist?

“Yes, racist. I understand that you are in a business where you frequently have to eat out of people’s butts, and I don’t disrespect you for that, we all choose our battles. But as a white woman, I will not tolerate racism in my presence. I will not patronize an establishment that allows hate to be spewed in its public spaces. I want that man’s name, and I want him to be told he cannot behave that way here.”

The concierge arrived, pale and bewildered. “Frankie?” But before Frankie could go on, the manager said, “I don’t know who you are talking about. We can’t give you his name because we don’t know who he is.”

“Phylecia here can describe him to your desk clerk; she’ll be able to put a name to him.”

“No, she won’t, she doesn’t know who you’re talking about either. Now, I must ask you to lower your voice--”

“Why?--So the other guests won’t hear you trying to cover up for some bastard of industry who thinks he can pay for the right to treat people of color like shit, as long as he’s in your hotel?” She had the attention of everyone in the lobby now, even the suits at the payphones across the entryway. Behind her, Phylecia murmured, “Uh-oh, rent-a-cops here.”

Frankie wound it up. “What’s the difference between him behaving like he did and you protecting him from confrontation? Is this the official policy of your chain? What’s your name?--I want to spell it right in the letter we’ll be sending.” She took a step toward the manager, who flinched back before he realized she was reading his nametag. With a flourish, she wheeled, linked arms with Phylecia, and they exited out the side door a few steps ahead of the security guards.

They made it as far as the bus stop before collapsing into laughter.

“My lord, Frankie, that man will be making his maids check everybody’s luggage for Klan robes! You act like butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth most of the time, but girl, I just wish I’d had a camera on you!”

“Come on, Phylecia. Let’s go to North Beach and have some cannoli, I’ll buy.”

“What about Evelyn?”

“FUCK Evelyn.”

“Be my guest.” Still giggling, they started down the street.

“So, what you and Taylor got on for this weekend?”

“Well, our group has an action planned for Sunday--”

Listen at you, saying ‘action’ like most of the time you sit around real still, discussing how you finally gonna move. You make it sound like my Aunt Alva talking about her bowels.”

“Well, actually...”


© 2008 Maggie Jochild

1 comment:

letsdance said...

Great story, Maggie.... Sounds true to life to me.