The most expensive T-shirt I own

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I didn’t buy this t-shirt nor did it come with a price tag affixed. But I know that it’s the most expensive piece of clothing I own.

I don’t treat it as such. I don’t handle it gingerly, afraid that it might tear at the seams or unravel at the edges. I don’t wash it irregularly so that its painted letters don’t quickly fade. In fact, I wear it often and with pride because, as I mentioned, it is the most valuable piece of clothing I own.

When I was a youth worker for the City of Boston, I served every day at a community center in a neighborhood I had never been to before, not even driven through once. I didn’t know anyone who lived there, in the patchwork of tidy triple-deckers and eateries that ranged from Salvadorean pupusa shops to Italian eateries to Chinese restaurants to Vietnamese pho houses. The neighborhood comprised effectively an island and most of the kids who grew up there knew one another. They confessed they didn’t bother skipping school because someone would see them on the corner and call their mother.

Most of the youth I worked with lived in a housing development complex. I had never visited a housing development, never walked through the block after block of unimaginatively designed structures and marveled at how there was no green space, how there were so many children living throughout the complex and yet there was no space for them to play that was not concrete.

So the kids came to the community center where I was based, where I did a job for which I received no training, in a place I wasn’t so much as even acquainted with, with a population of kids whose lives were unfathomably different than anything I had known. In my arrogance, I thought that I was the good thing that had come their way. A college graduate, a creative program person, a self-proclaimed lover of kids.

I did everything wrong. I presumed when I should have asked. I got angry when I should have laughed. I muscled through on my own when I should have sought help. Most of the programs I ran were a bust. The boys humored me, the girls came and asked me questions about sex. I thought I had what they needed, if I could just organize a better program of activities. If only they would come every day, I could meet their needs. My bosslady was so patient with me. She would say, “The only problem with you is that yaw not from heeyah.” I laughed and only sort of knew what she meant. I started asking a music shop if they would let me take their leftover sample CDs to give away as prizes. The kids started looking at me like a prize dispenser, popping them out like Pez. I made $22,000 a year before taxes. I still thought it was about me.

During an outdoor program I organized, there were a ton of water balloons which, since these were teenagers, became a ton of water buckets filled and thrown. I didn’t have a change of clothes. Someone handed me this Mayor’s Cup t-shirt, one from a stack that were just hanging around in the closet.

By the time I was a year into the job, I knew that I would be getting married, that I would be moving on. I took the LSAT with my co-worker Kamau. We knew we couldn’t stay making the money we were making. We wanted to do the most good.

After I got back from my honeymoon, I started interviewing for other jobs. I had deferred law school but I still wanted get home earlier in the day to spend time with my hew husband. I soon found 9-5 administrative job that I could walk to from our apartment.

On my last day working at the community center, I had not wanted to make a big deal about my departure. I wasn’t sad that I was leaving, but I was sad that I wouldn’t see how the kids would grow. I wouldn’t know who went to college and who had a growth spurt over the summer. I wouldn’t hear their voices change and watch their girlfriends change and offer to drive them home when they didn’t have enough change for the bus fare.

On my last day, only one kid came back to say good-bye. He had been by far one of the hardest kids to reach. He hated school and just wanted to play basketball. He seemed to break one girl’s heart on Monday and have found a new one to break by Tuesday. I didn’t understand his goals; I didn’t understand how I could help him.

But he came back to say good-bye. He sat with me in the office, his pristine baseball hat with the manufacturer’s silver sticker still on the underside of the wide brim. He looked up from under that wide brim and asked me about my plans. I told him I thought I’d probably go back to school so that I could eventually teach. He nodded and bounced a basketball under the table. We hugged it out and he went to go shoot hoops.

Whenever I wear my Mayor’s Cup t-shirt, I think of what it represents. I think how it was handed to me when I had nothing else to wear because I was a pilgrim. I remember how hard it was to earn respect as a pilgrim. I think how I’d never had to learn how to love kids who were hard to love before. I remember how after nearly two years, they returned that love to me. At least one did. He handed it to me like it was a free t-shirt. One that I would be so grateful to receive, one that still makes me feel so privileged and proud, not only because I got to love but was loved well in the end.

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In which I talk about the book

I have not talked much about the book, the book that I wrote, that an agent represents, for which a book deal has been drafted but not signed.

Nearly a year has passed since I have seen the draft of the book deal. Since that time, I’ve been waiting to sign something. I’m dying to John Hancock the heck out of a book deal. But after all these months of uncertainty, I don’t know if the book will ever be published because I don’t know the terms of the negotiations between publisher and agent.  I worked hard for a long time on the book and I hawked it at every conference and waited for a long time for Very Important Publishing People to notice my book sitting alone at the cafeteria and to invite it over to their table.

When I got the book offer, I finally felt like I had found my table in the cafeteria and that there would be outstanding conversations and mediocre Jell-o on trays for all times.

Then, the VIPPs at my table went over to other tables to have other conversations about the book. I wasn’t involved in those conversations which seemed to volley back and forth over weeks that turned into months.

I surrendered my expectations and there was freedom in that.

But then I sort of stopped caring about the book deal and the Jell-o. People stopped dropping by my table in the proverbial cafeteria to ask about the book. I stopped asking about the book. I picked up my backpack and went back to class.

In recent days, I started to feel very convicted about my surrender which had turned into apathy. Langston Hughes was all up in my head with notions of a dream deferred. Would my plump li’l grape of a manuscript start drying out like a raisin in the sun? Why read all this Brene Brown if I’m not going to Dare Greatly or Rise Strong but instead reject vulnerability in favor of taking a nap on this book project, indefinitely.

So much of the joy in writing had been processing of my experiences in marrying cross-culturally. I was filled with hope that the accounts would somehow help other couples walking a similar path. I fought for my marriage and I am still fighting the temptation that is ever-present in marriage to kick back into cruise control. Why was I not fighting for this book?

While writing this post, my agent e-mailed me to let me know that the publisher will be going over the legal beagle notes and other things about which I have no authority or expertise. I shall be too busy slurping Jell-O and dreaming of one day signing a book deal, like for reals, y’all.

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A little talisman from one of my favorite authors Amber C. Haines whose inscription on her book Wild in the Hollow is much cherished and encourages my heart whenever I happen upon it.

Amber HainesAmber Haines

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Racism and a lack of imagination

The last summer of college I spent at home, I hostessed at a chain restaurant that is known in Ohio for serving breakfast all day.  Until that summer, I didn’t know that there were people on earth who ate more than one meal a day at the same restaurant. As it turns out, the usuals at this restaurant often took 2-3 meals a day there. They considered the waitstaff family, their usual tables were just extensions of their homes.

During one of my first shifts, the wait staff alerted me to one of the usuals. Val was pegged as “difficult.” I quickly learned what qualified Val as difficult. She came in every evening with her two children. She rarely ordered a meal for herself. She ordered kids’ meals and ate their leftovers. She sent food back that wasn’t to her satisfaction.

I learned that these were high crimes in restaurantville. There is an unwritten code of conduct for being a usual. It requires that one runs up a decent tab and doesn’t complain.

I also learned that the penalties for those who broke the code of conduct are just a little bit more severe if your waitstaff is all white and you’re aren’t white. And Val and her two children? Were black.

I was intimidated by Val. The first time I sat her, I learned my lesson. I started to lead her and her children, with kids’ menu packets in tow, toward the back of the restaurant. “Noooope nope no! Not sitting back there. Not sitting in the back of the bus.”

Got it. So I was not to sit Val in the back. But if you’ve ever made your living by playing Tetris with tables, you know that sometimes you can’t honor every request. You don’t want to slam certain waitstaffers with a fresh crop of tables all at once or there will be hell to pay. I began to perceive Val as a mosquito in the summer. She was always there, but if I protected myself, she wouldn’t bite.

The waitstaff groaned about Val in the breakroom. How the manager coddled her. How she tipped poorly. How she sent food back.

Val came in most nights with her children. I don’t know if she was married or divorced. Here is what I do remember about my personal encounters with her besides the mistake of seating her in the back: She was polite and quiet. She was always dressed in professional attire as though she was coming from work. She always had a paperback book with her and occasionally would sit reading it at her table while her children ate their meals.

One of the middle-aged hostesses once remarked, “Val is very well-educated.”

I remember wondering why Val was the only customer that whole summer I ever heard consistent complaints about, or about the fact that she was “very well-educated.”

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Fifteen years later, I am sitting in my work clothes at a chain restaurant. I am sitting across from my two children, happily occupied by their kiddie menu crossword puzzles. I take the chance for the first time all day to open up a book for pleasure. My husband is not with us as he works most evenings. I am relieved to not have to cook and am reluctant to buy my children their own separate meals when I know I will be finishing their leftovers.

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Fifteen years later and I am Val. Except I am not a usual and no one comments on my education level when I bust out my book at a restaurant. When I misplace my gift card, no one questions my intent or ability to pay. When I have to run and get my wallet in the car (long day), our waitress offers to watch my children. I am Val except I am white and therefore I can only fathom how Val felt.

Fifteen years will not absolve me, though. Why did it take me half of my life to understand a faithful patron who wanted what she paid for and who wanted to model for her children the service they should expect in a restaurant?

In other words, why did I lack imagination 15 years ago? Why did I have to wait fifteen years to experience a taste of what Val faced (and chose to face) each day?

The problem we have in dissolving the -isms that poison our lives is that we are lazy imaginaries. Because we are carnivores, we can’t imagine what might be difficult for vegetarians at barbecues. Because we never struggle to find shoes in our size, surely those who do are crybabies.  Inconvenience sparks us to change. Make my life difficult and I will modify my systems.

The difficulty in having a lack of difficulty is perhaps the definition of white privilege.

I pray for difficulties. I desire a better imagination. But most of all, I strive for a world where I don’t have to fathom any of this, because neither does Val.

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