Doin’ the Berkeley Border Flatlands Dance

From Susan Parker
Tuesday May 25, 2004

It was two in the afternoon and I was unloading groceries from my car. On the second trip out the front door I saw her rounding the corner and coming toward me: a small, waif-like woman dressed in flannel pajama bottoms and a bubble jacket. I knew what was coming. I was going to get nailed. 

She’d asked me for money before but I always had an excuse. I’d be pulling weeds in the front yard. “No, I don’t have any money,” I’d say indignantly. “Can’t you see I’m gardening?” Other times she’d come to the front door and it was fairly easy to say no and shut it without further discussion. But this time it would be difficult to come up with an excuse. I had bags of groceries in my arms. I obviously had money. 

“Suzy,” she said softly, standing far enough away from me so that I could barely hear her. “Durnell’s daddy got shot and he’s in the hospital in San Francisco. I gotta go see him. I haven’t told Durnell ‘bout his daddy. I need $8 for BART.” 

She knew that she was going to get me. Using Durnell’s name was all it took. He was her son, an adorable fourth grader who often came over to my house to see what I was doing. I’d taken him swimming a few times and once bought him a belt in the futile hope that it would assist him in keeping his jeans from falling down around his ankles. 

But there could be a grain of truth in her tale. Certainly the sum of $8 was about right. A little high perhaps, but if she were heading for San Francisco General and back, and catching a bus in addition to BART, then it might take about that amount. And Durnell’s daddy having been shot was not out of the question. I read the newspaper. I knew the homicide rate for young black men. Still, I couldn’t help myself. My middle class values always took over in these situations. I couldn’t give without making a point. “Why don’t I just give you a ride to San Francisco,” I suggested.  

She didn’t miss a beat. “Well,” she said. “You see, I got this job interview, too, so I gotta go a couple of places. Not just to see Durnell’s daddy.” 

“You’re going to a job interview dressed like that?” I asked. 

“No,” she laughed. “I gotta get dressed.” 

“Okay,” I said. “After you’re dressed come back and I’ll give you the money. I’m doing this for Durnell,” I added. I hated myself for being such a halfway do-gooder, someone who demanded a performance before making a payment. But Durnell’s momma didn’t seem to care.  

“I’ll be right back,” she said. “Thank you,” she added as she tuned away, letting me know that she could play the game too. 

I had barely unloaded the groceries before she returned. She wasn’t going for an interview to work at the deli section of Safeway, that was for sure. She must have had an application in at O’Farrell’s or the Condor. She smiled at me. 

“Here,” I said, handing her eight crumbled one dollar bills. “Where’s Durnell? Do you want me to watch him while you’re gone?” 

“Oh no,” she said. “He’s at school. I’ll be back before he gets out.” 

I looked at my watch. There was no way that she could go to San Francisco and visit Durnell’s daddy and have a job interview before Durnell was out of class, unless, of course, Durnell was also attending night school. 

“I’ll pay you back on Saturday,” she said as she bounced down the steps. “And thank you again,” she added as her high heels clicked along the sidewalk. Our transaction was over. Our dance was done, until the next time. I made a mental note that in the future I would unload groceries at the far end of the driveway, away from the street.