So I’ve got to say, hands down, my twenties were the worst years of my life.
I spent most of my young adult life trying to escape southern Indiana, which is where I’m from. And the thing you have to know about southern Indiana is it’s highly prejudiced and terribly boring. So one of the things I was looking forward to was going to college.
And I picked – back then we called them Negro colleges, it was part of the Negro colleges consortium – I picked a black school down in Atlanta, Georgia, so I could be with my people because I was the only black kid in the middle- income world of Evansville, Indiana. I knew nothing about my people. We didn’t have Martin Luther King Day and all those wonderful things yet. I thought it would be great! I’m moving to Atlanta, I’m going to experience the culture of the African diaspora, and I’m going to change the world with my achievements.
The trouble started when I first got to school, and the president of the college decided to embezzle funds from the school. And the way he did that was he took loan checks and scholarship money from innocent kids in transition like myself. So that was the first thing that happened.
The second thing that happened was I had an opportunity to work on a film set. The producers of the movie said, “Yes, yes, since you’re part of the mass communication classes you can take this and get credit.” So I am working on this major motion picture, and about three and a half weeks into it the producers and the directors just up and left. They pulled out their trucks, and they took everything away, and they didn’t tell anybody. So, as a result, I lost my college credit for the class, which ruined my GPA. I am an overachiever, and you do not fuck with my GPA, OK? You can take anything from an overachiever, but you cannot fuck with the GPA.
The thing you have to know about southern Indiana is it’s highly prejudiced and terribly boring
So I lost my scholarships, and as a result, I lost my housing, and for two and a half weeks I became homeless. I found a job at a McDonald’s, and I slept on the stock room floor until I got my first paycheck, and then I bought a bus ticket and came back to the place that I’d run from, southern Indiana.
So I got home, and I knocked on the door, and my mother said, “Oh, you’re here! So sorry, but I’ve sold your bedroom set to your grandmother. And your bedroom is no longer here either: I’ve turned it into my sitting area.”
There was nowhere for me to stay, so in protest I went to go live out in the garage with the car. It was an unfinished garage, and I was sleeping on the outdoor furniture that Mom had left, and I was terribly, terribly depressed now. I was sleeping something like sixteen hours a day, and this went on for a couple of weeks.
I became clinically depressed, and the thing you have to realise is that when you are clinically depressed, you have absolutely no energy. It’s not just like, I’m sad. You don’t have energy to do anything. So I finally got up the nerve to open up a newspaper to look for a job in southern Indiana. I opened up the paper, and I got excited because this was the 1980s and the new thing was to have home health-care aides—people who would go in and sit with the elderly, help to feed them, give them their medicine and things like that. So when I opened up the page, I saw it, and it was like a hallelujah moment: Ahh! Sitter! What better job for a depressed person than to have a job just sitting? That’s all I had to do. I thought, Thank God! I can go do this job.
So I went to this place called Health Skills, and it was a temp agency. They gave me my first assignment, and one of the things that they did not tell me was that when you’re the new kid on the block you get all the worst assignments. So, as a sitter, for the first few assignments that I had, I would have only terminally ill patients – people that were dying.
For the first few assignments that I had, I would have only terminally ill patients – people that were dying
I take this job. On the first day, I walk up to this door. It’s a frame house on cinder blocks with a little front porch in a working-class, all-white neighbourhood. So I knock on the door, and the door has a window in it, and I see this woman peer out, and she’s this thin, skinny, Sissy Spacek–looking woman. And she looks at me and she says, “Go away!”
And so I say, “Hi, ma’am. I’m here from Health Skills. I’m here because you needed a sitter.” I think that will help, but she says, “Go away! I don’t want you here!” And so I try to explain this to her again, and she says, “Fine!” So what she does is she goes to the phone, and she calls the company. I’m standing outside. It’s hot. It’s July, and it’s kind of sticky, and I’m waiting on her to get through this phone call, and finally she just slams down the phone, comes to the door, and she opens it and lets me in.
So I am walking through this house, which is a lot like a railroad apartment in New York. You have to walk through the living room and kitchen to get to the bedroom, and the bathroom is off to the side, so you can see all the way through the house. We make our way to the back of the house, and I get to the bedroom, and I am hit with this horrible stench, and I had to immediately stop my own gag reflex.
The air is filled with the smell of bile, and I look on the bed, and there’s this man lying on a hospital bed in an otherwise normal-looking bedroom, and he has breathing tubes and IVs and that kind of stuff in him, and he’s completely unconscious. And the breathing machine is working, and it’s pumping up this brown mousse. It kind of looks like styling foam. It’s coming out of his mouth and nose.
This woman who let me in is very aggressive. She doesn’t say anything, but she’s not very kind to me
And what I discover is that this man is dying of cirrhosis of the liver, and in the final stages the liver and the bile are breaking down. It’s building up as fluid in the lungs, and the body is trying desperately to get rid of that so that he can breathe. So that’s what’s coming up out of his mouth and nose. And so every fifteen minutes this process goes through, and I have to stand there and clean it up. So me being an overachiever and wanting this job and wanting to do well, I throw myself into the job, and I’m helping. This woman who let me in is very aggressive. She doesn’t say anything, but she’s not very kind to me.
So we clean up this man, and there’s nothing for me to do but to just wait. So I say, “Maybe I should just sit down.” And I look at this woman, and she’s staring at me with hate pouring from her eyes. I don’t know what the hell I’ve done. I’ve just done my job, and I’ve done it pretty well. So I look at her, and I say, “Look, I can get this, I’m fine now.”
She just turns around, doesn’t say a word to me, and walks right back down that hallway and goes and sits on the couch. And even though she’s sitting across from the TV, she’s sitting in profile so she can see down the hallway, and she’s staring at me—she’s got her eye on me. I try to take all this in.
I sit down, and I’m looking around the room, and it’s filled with this nice Shaker furniture, and it’s got a floor-to-ceiling Confederate flag behind the man’s bed.
And the thing that I have to tell you is that when you are depressed, it takes a little while for the gears to kick in, and that’s what happened to me at this moment. So I’m taking in the furniture – there’s a lovely armoire, and I’m so Martha Stewart, I’m into decorating and everything – so I’m actually kind of impressed because it’s very sparse, but very nice.
I’m looking around the room, and it’s got a floor-to-ceiling Confederate flag behind the man’s bed
And they have a little coat tree, and I notice that on the coat tree there’s this beautiful robe. Kind of like a church robe except it’s white, and it has a round circle with a white cross on it and a hood. But I’m still not grasping what’s happening because I am totally amazed by this hood and the buttonhole stitching that is going around the eyes of the hood. So I’m not paying attention. I was like, You know, maybe I should take up sewing...
And then I looked down the hallway, and the woman is still looking at me. And the way we deal with things socially in Indiana is that we try to normalise things. So that’s what I did, I thought, OK. I’m just going to sit here. And oh! There’s a table and there’s a book on it. Hooray! I have something to do now.
So I pick up this book, I’m flipping through the book, and it looks like a Bible because it’s got gilt lettering on the outside, and I thought, Oh great! It’s a Bible! I know that! You know, Genesis, Corinthians, Ephesians; Proverbs for wisdom, Psalms if you’re sad. So I open up the book, and I’m trying to look for some-thing peaceful and happy to read, and instead I come across this horrible-looking manifesto that talks about the superiority of the white race and how we need to annihilate everyone but them for their own safety. And I shut the book.
And it finally hits me that I am in the home of an honest-to-god Klansman, and I am a black woman.
And I look down the hallway at this woman, and she’s looking back at me like, Do you get this now? And I’m like, Oh shit!
And then right at this moment, the mousse starts coming up out of this man’s mouth and nose again, and I think, Thank God, thank God! I’ve got something to do, I’ve got something to do!
So I run over to this man, and my brain is racing because I’m wigging out. And I’m cleaning him up, and the stench is awful, and I’m looking at this man, I’m looking very calm and professional – cleaning, cleaning!
But inside my mind, I’m like, Oh my God! I hope he doesn’t wake up. Holy shit! I’m so glad he’s not conscious, I am helping to clean him up and he probably hates me and, you know, I don’t hate him personally, but my people hate him. And I’m feeling all of this anxiety, and then I think, Dude, you cannot do this right now because you need a job, OK? Because you have got to get out of the garage, and you are so depressed you can’t do anything else. You do not have time for a Rosa Parks moment. You have to get through with this. OK?
It finally hits me that I am in the home of an honest-to-god Klansman, and I am a black woman
I think to myself, You know, I’m an overachiever. I can totally do this. I am not going to let a little racism stand in my way. I am going to get this done, I am going to do it well, I am going to get an A+, I am going to get a check, and I am going to get the fuck up out of here, OK?!
And that is exactly what I did. I did that every fifteen minutes for four hours that day. For four hours. And I sat there, and I watched him, and after a while the woman went to go get something to eat, and she did get distracted by the TV, and I came back the next day.
I came back, and she opened the door, and we went through the ritual again, and she wasn’t quite as unfriendly. I guess she recognised that I was not going to kill the man. So we kept on with this routine, and she did take a little bit of rest. And I came back again a third day, and the third day she was even more tired, and I realised that this woman was not getting any rest unless I was there to take care of him; that nobody would come to save her, or to help her, which I thought was really sad.
And by the fourth day, she just came to the door and immediately lay down, and I did the job, and I had to wake her up at the end of that four hours.
And then on the fifth day, the temp agency called me, and they said, “Steph, we don’t need you anymore.” The man had passed away. But the lady had called to leave me a message.
I’d like to think that I changed the way that she thought about people of colour
She wanted me to know that I’d given him the best care that he’d had since he left the hospital, and the most peace and rest that she got was when I was there, and she wanted to thank me personally.
And I thought, Man, that is amazing. And she left me a tip, which the temp agency would not let me keep.
But a few months later, I realised I really did get a tip and it was this: the knowledge that we had come together, she and I, these two incredibly desperate people in a highly charged, highly provocative situation. And it could have been a train wreck; it could have been a mess. But instead, we came together, and our lives touched, and in that touching we changed the trajectory of our lives just a little bit.
I’d like to think that I changed the way that she thought about people of colour—that we weren’t whatever it was that those people were teaching her, and that she might reconsider the prejudices that she had. And for myself, I got a job that gave me something to do every day, which I desperately needed. I had left Indiana to change the world. And I didn’t; I couldn’t. But I realised that even if I couldn’t change the world, I could change a little piece of the world that I was in, and that was enough for me.
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