No Safe Harbor

A selection of crayons that show a spectrum of color, all called flesh.

When I was a much younger Doc, AM and BC (after marriage and before kids), I worked with Lynn.

Lynn was older than me–in the way that when you are young everyone seems older, but looking back she hardly was. She was the backbone of the organization. She suffered fools not at all, and everyone respected her. Frankly, most of us wanted to be her friend. She was the friend that would tell you TRUTH and the friend that would have your back. Okay, we wanted her to be our friend. I don’t know that most people knew how to be her friend.

She was the commensurate professional as the new guard took on a leadership role. Others were unsure and insecure. Lynn? She rolled with it. She knew she was good. She ran the member database like a boss, negotiated hotel and AV contracts like a shark and charmed the board like a bartender who makes everyone believe they are friends–but they really aren’t. They have a business relationship.

Over time, Lynn decided that I was okay. That I could be trusted. That she could talk to me. That we could share lunch. And it was one day over lunch she told me that she was relieved that her son could get his non-driver’s ID. He was thirteen.

I was like, “What’s that about? He’s not learning to drive, is he?” I knew her delightfully goofy, barely teen son. What was the point of an officially laminated card for a middle-schooler?

“Oh, Doc,” she said, “My son is only thirteen, but he is already 6’2″, so to the cops he is a black man. I want, that when they roll up to him because someone a few blocks away was robbed or the gas station was burgled or a drug bust went down, he can prove-by showing an official government document–that he is NOT a man. That he is a thirteen year old boy. So they can run his name to see he doesn’t have a record. And for them to know it wasn’t him.”

I am sure I looked at her like a confused puppy. With my head cocked to one side and the opposite brow raised in a question.

“Doc, let me tell you what I told him. If a police car pulls next to you, STOP. Do not move. Always show your hands. Never run. NEVER never run. Do not mouth off. Do not challenge. Keep your eyes down. If they tell you to get on the ground, do it. I’ve got on the floor to show him how. Because they are looking for someone, and it’s easy if it’s my son if he’s in front of them. And they would not hesitate before they shot him.”

I heard her. I didn’t know. My eyes were likely like saucers. I know that my mouth was dry. I had heard love in her voice when she spoke of her son. I had heard pride in her voice when she shared his successes. I had heard joy in her voice when she told of their exploits.

But this day? I felt fear in her voice. And she was never afraid. Of anything. She shared something with me that white people miss. That we are ignorant of. That is foreign to our existence. And I was afraid for her son. She spoke a truth that I didn’t know, but she taught me.

So, White People who don’t know, let me explain white privilege to you.

You who don’t worry about your children having an encounter with the police. You who had the cops call you when your kid got pulled over for drinking because boys will be boys. You whose kids have cursed out cops. You whose kids come home safe after cursing out said cops. You who tell your kids that if they’re in trouble to call the police.

You who haven’t had “that talk.” No, not that one.

The talk where you tell your kid to be polite, to defer, to acquiesce, to say “Sir” and “Ma’am,” to take the insults, to keep their hands out of their pockets, to not run, to swallow their anger at being falsely accused and harassed. Because when they have an encounter with the police they just might end up in the hospital or…or…or….

I can’t bring myself to type the next word. I can’t imagine telling my sons that they have to walk an arbitrary and capricious line, a line that may shift, a line that holds their life in the balance. Because of anything and, in this case, because of their skin color.

That, friends, is white privilege.

I have extra sons. Sons that are brothers with my sons but from different mothers. Sons who have brown skin. I tell these young men–young men who were scouts together, who ate my waffles, who walk my dog when I’m lazy, who call me mom–to put my number in his phone. And always, no matter what, call if he needs me. I hope he never needs me.

Fooled Again

Walking down the street.

I jaywalked right in front of a cop.

As I was stepping up to the light, I saw the Crown Vic from the corner of my right eye. The cruiser slowly pulled to the middle of the empty block. Very empty in that the restaurant that used to anchor that space and eight or ten houses around that block were cleared away four years ago. The holding-out-for-more-compensation owners of 5 row houses on the east side of the block have been dooming the planned mixed-use development. That’s a different story. I’ll write that another time. But there is a big empty space.

MPD rolled up next to the tall metal construction fence sprouting from cement blocks. The fence ringed the big empty space now taken back by vines and weeds pushing through old foundations, around the trunks of once mighty trees and snaking through what had been an alley. It could use a mowing.

I watched as he pulled to the curb and parked. I realized he was active. But as I stood there on the corner watching 23 seconds counting down to my permission to cross and with no cars coming over the hill from the West and zero traffic approaching from the East, I lost any patience or law-abiding self-restraint. (The Spouse would have heartily disapproved.)

A car passed, the street was clear. I looked both ways. I started to cross. I was feeling a little cheeky since Johnny Blue was just a glance from that intersection. When I was halfway across the street, he slowly moved from his perch. I kept my eyes straight ahead and likely stood a little taller. I didn’t pick up my pace, too much. I thought that he was going to screech his siren and censure me. If I made eye contact, he’d for sure bust me.

He wasn’t coming for me, though.  He had likely been sitting there to check a text before driving around the block to check out the local reform school.

I stepped on the curb, and the police drove by. I didn’t look back. I had purposely flaunted the law, in front of an enforcer of the law. Somehow, in that minute, it seemed stupider to stand and wait 23 seconds than to tick off a cop. I contemplate that as I walk the next block. Is it okay to break that pedestrian law? I already made an excuse for myself, but wanted some absolution.

I criss-crossed from one corner to the next, and a hybrid SUV revved up behind me. It speeded to the stop sign with the radio blasting. As it slowed and rolled through the intersection I recognized the strains of The Who.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

I recognized the ghost of my youth granting me amnesty and egging me on. Privilege checked.

Take Her, Not Me

Not too far on the heels of my adulthood, I started joking with my folks that they didn’t do so bad. I mean the cops never brought us home. Mom and Dad were never called by Officer Krupski to come down to the station to pick us up. Never booked or in a lineup. Maybe not a high bar, but certainly a marker of “not so bad.”

Yesterday, the cops came for my mother.

She has been suffering from depression and anxiety since my father died in June. She was sometimes unable to control her anger. It was loud. She was feeling like she couldn’t trust people. At the same time she didn’t feel that she could trust herself to make decisions–despite being perfectly capable. She wanted someone else to take control. She couldn’t stand being out of control. She fell and went into a nursing home for recovery.

The hospital provided an opportunity to address her mental health. Working class people don’t seek psychiatric care. Maybe, just maybe, we might see a priest. People who see therapists are weak or can’t control their families. And people would find out. There is a stigma. You can take medication for high-blood pressure, but not for debilitating sadness.

In the hospital, my mother started taking medication that made her feel safe to try. She went from saying “I can’t” to “I can,” from saying “me, me, me, me” to asking about other people, from blaming everyone else to helping other residents learn the ropes of the nursing home.

When she moved into her senior apartment, she was full of hope and potential. She was everyone’s favorite, including mine. Phone calls were balanced. When for years she hadn’t asked about me or my family, now every member of the family was addressed and caressed. She would talk lovingly about my father, remember to ask about the football game two days ago, and tell me that she felt so close to me when we spoke.

She fell in the grocery store. She was still a little wobbly, but was helping out one of her friends from the apartment by returning her bottles. She was off her meds for the two-plus days in the hospital. In that short time period, us Sibs saw a return of the anxious, self-oriented, suspicious mother. We knew then that the medication was critical to her self-reliance and success. To say nothing of our own selfish needs to have a mother that we liked.

Me: Is it wrong to want her on the medication?
Sib: Better living through chemicals is not a bad thing. Do you think she is happier when she acts unhappy??

About two weeks ago, phone calls became litanies of anger and distrust.

Me: Your mother said, complaint, complaint, complaint.
Sib: Well your mother said, mean thing, mean thing, mean thing.
Me: She was getting so upset.
Sib: She is so hard to talk to now.

Then the light bulb went off. She was going to crash again. And, again, we couldn’t do anything to stop it. Only her kids saw her paranoia and anxiety, and that it was getting worse. Monday her doctor did not see any reason to change her meds. She wasn’t complaining to him and didn’t show any increased agitation. So the train wreck that we were watching was set into motion.

And the cops came for my mother yesterday. And the paramedics. And the ambulance.

And I realized that my mother isn’t suffering from being old. She is suffering from mental illness. And I also realized that she has been suffering for decades.

Me: Remember that time when we were like ten, and mom was locked in the bathroom and we were begging her to come out because we were afraid that she might hurt herself?
Sib: And when we would come home from school and she would be screaming at Dad like he was messing around with her sister.
Me: And we were like ten and twelve and we called Auntie to see what really happened? Now that was a family rift.
Sib: And when you moved out, I would come home and she would scream the same scream at me. Like every day?
Me: And we thought she was a bitch. But not like she was sick. Do you think that Dad was masking her behavior? And when he left, there was no one left to shield her?
Sib: And Dad took the brunt of her anger. We saw that.
(Both a question and a statement) She has been very sick for a long time.

So when the cops came, my mother told them to take my sister, not her. Her daughter was the bad guy. But the professionals could see that there wasn’t a bad guy in the room. Just someone very sick. And someone watching her mother get strapped onto the stretcher who was very sad.

BeanTown Keystone

It’s not so scary. That lite-brite image with the raised middle finger under the overpass.

Wasn’t so scary in New York where 41 of them caused no stir. Philly removed 56 without fanfare. Not so scary for the past few weeks in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Austin, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, according to Cartoon Network. And Portland police said they are leaving them up as long as they aren’t on municipal property. No investigation either, since they don’t see a crime being committed.

But somebody on Wednesday saw the lite-brite from a bus in Boston and reported it as a “suspicious” object. Makes sense. They saw something ductaped to a bridge and were concerned. Then the Boston police came in. And made such a ruckus. Blew some of the signs up. Closed roads and the Charles River. All because nobody in the investigation watches Adult Swim on Cartoon Network. If there was a twenty-something cop, they might have recognized the Mooninites. Try Flickr for some images, even images of the actual signs like this one from San Francisco uploaded Jan. 13.

But rather than admit that they went spaz, Boston and Mass. authorities are now trying to blame the two hapless local guys that were hired by some marketing firm to place the lite-brite promos.

The 15-year-old was a bit disturbed.

“I don’t think that I like that they got so worked up.”

He’s right. It wasn’t a terror threat. It was a marketing ploy. And it wasn’t a problem except that someone didn’t put the breaks on the frenzy–or didn’t take a step back to investigate the image. Don’t blame the slacker-type guys making a buck for the Boston over-reaction. Let them go! My advice to Beantown, back down quick and as quiet as you can.

Here’s the funniest part. The locals want to charge Turner Broadcast–parent of Cartoon Network–for the investigation. Given all the free word-of-mouth advertising, I think it’s a much better value than a Super Bowl ad. Going rate for one of those? $2.6 million for 30 seconds. Cost of the Boston police frenzy, more like $500K.