I was minding my own business standing in line at the local Rite-Aid, picking up some allergy medicine and treating myself to a new lipstick (no, my lips aren’t stained with the blood of innocents – why do people keep asking me that?). I normally go the Walgreen’s on the corner, but the morning crew has gotten real chummy with me lately and I loathe the familiarity.
There was an elderly couple in front of me in line and as it goes when you’ve just popped in for something and you want to pop right back out, the cashier has done something and the world must come to a standstill. She was waiting on a manager to materialize and wave some magic wand over her drawer so she could give the man his proper change. I never get cashiers who can properly count change. Just Friday, chickie at the Thai place gave me a dollar over what I should have received. When I handed it back to her, she smiled and stuck it into her tip jar. *shrug*
So the elderly couple was waiting patiently for his change and the women turned back to look at me. Now it has to be said, I don’t wear my ears on the weekdays – work doesn’t want me to and I like my job, so I find more conventional things to put in my hair, like ribbons or head bands. I’m dressed professionally (figure it out) and I’m minding my own business. I smile when she looks at me because it’s how I was taught: you acknowledge when acknowledged. She then taps her equally husband on the shoulder, leans in and says in a stage whisper they probably heard in the stockroom, “Never seen one like her before.” He turns in a shuffle, and his feel drag dirt across the floor in a circle to face me. He then shuffles back to the cashier and says, “Nope.” Because the cashier cares.
The woman then says to me, “never seen one like you before,” because I couldn’t have possibly heard her the first time, or at least had enough good breeding to pretend to not hear. Old manners and polite society still hold true, and the dance they perpetrate can be awkward, but it prevents social embarrassment. I just play along.
This is Royal Oak, once billed as a Cool City by Governor Barbie, and it is primarily made up of old people about to die. Despite the new condos, restaurants, and crazy amount of rental properties, permanent residents continue to live in the older sections of town while their bones and foundations turn to dust. The “hipper” oldsters live in the happening communities like America’s House or Barton Towers Senior Complex. They are confused by the influx of people who don’t look or sound like them. They congregate at the Sign Of The Beefcarver for the Early Bird Special where everything is boiled to a thin tasteless gruel.
“You should get out more,” I say in a soft tone because I don’t want to further startle her more than I already have by a) speaking and b) speaking English. “There are lots of people like me.” This I know is a lie as I am unique and special. My mom told me so, however for this woman’s sake, I will cross my fingers against my forked tongue.
“Oh,” she says, “I don’t drive.” This doesn’t surprise me. D’s mom didn’t drive either and she’d been widowed since 1979. This is an old town with family-owned hardware stores and barbershops run by guys named Bernie. Of course women her age don’t drive. It wasn’t their place, not while their menfolk could keep the Chevy between the lines.
Royal Oak is also 95% White – with the other 5% divided up with the Asians and Blacks. We’re an Inner Ring City (as in the cities that ring Detroit), and only barely because we’re buffered by Ferndale and Oak Park. We’re the city the Whites fled to when Detroit became too Black. D remembers when north of 13 Mile Road was still farmland. As recently as twenty years ago when I attended Shrine, there weren’t many Blacks matriculating. The city is insulated and while Woodward (M-1) runs right through the heart of it, those traveling north are racing to Pontiac, or Birmingham, or even the I-75 Business Loop to head to the really pale places of Traverse City, Muskegon, and the UP.
It’s unsurpising that she’d “never seen one of” me before. What was surprising was how tactless she was about it. I steeled myself for the question I never got and there’s a small blessing in that because after all of these years, I still don’t have a polite answer for it. I’m not “mixed with” anything, though chances are I’d tell someone Ghoul with a hint of Chimera, and the humor would be lost on them. I hate wasting a joke.
D tells me to not be bothered by it, because one day all of the ignorant people will be dead. However, there’s a problem you see: they keep breeding and passing along the ignorance like a defective gene in a badly-coded strand of DNA, the recessive variety that when combined with other defective genes produces extra eyelids and multiple sets of conversational, yet functionally useless genitalia.
I give her credit for trying to be chatty. Once my mother and I were at some function and a woman told us how beautiful we were and one day everyone would look like we did. I’m sure she meant it as a compliment and not to imply that we were some rare species of animal recently discovered in the wilds of Madagascar. Often older women try to talk to me and the husbands (theirs, not mine) give them a gentle but deterrent smack on the arm with a simple, “Hush, Mildred.” I think he might also add, “she might give you zebra babies,” which was D’s mother’s mortal fear had we decided to actually have children.
Perhaps that’s what this woman thought I was – a zebra baby, only like a black panther, you can’t see my spots against the background of my skin. She’d never seen one like me before because in her world, all Black women looked Black, not fair with reddish brown hair and blonde highlights. We were a shock to each other because she didn’t know people like me existed and I’d thought people like her were extinct.
The manager eventually rolled up and pushed the magic keys and the cashier was able to return the proper change. The couple left and as they shambled towards the door in that gait that looks painful but deliberate, she kept stealing glances at me, glances which were a lot like her stage whispers – obvious. I gave her my lopsided grin. It was all I could do.
It would have seemed gauche to tell her that there were more of me out there in places she least suspected, but I was brought up better.