It’s 6:45 a.m. and Clyiesha’s grandmother has just gotten off work and dropped by to pick her up and prepare her for first grade at Santa Fe Elementary School. She leaves half asleep, clad in her Snoopy Dog pajamas, clutching a Safeway bag filled with dirty clothes in one hand, and a Cowboy Bob doll in the other. Upstairs, LaKisha and baby Kemora are still sleeping.
In the next room I hear Willie’s television blaring, and in the front room Andrea, Clyiesha and LaKisha’s auntie, snores.
Downstairs Ralph’s oxygen tank rumbles and percolates. Outside my window, one block south, a BART train bound for Fremont rumbles by. A block north, up 54th Street, the Concord/Bay Point line blows its horn, and clickity clacks along the tracks, carrying tired and bright eyed commuters through fog-shrouded sun and dark tunnels into downtown Oakland and San Francisco.
I’ve just finished reading another letter to the editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet accusing me of racism and insensitivity. In the past, editors and mentoring columnists have advised me to ignore negative criticism and focus only on the positive. But it’s difficult to do so, and during these early morning hours, when the house is quiet and everyone is sleeping, I begin to question my motives and values, my reason for being, my ability to juggle the responsibilities of taking care of my husband, Ralph.
I think of all the reasons I can give to defend myself against my critics. I‘ll make a list, I tell myself, of every nice thing I’ve ever done for a person of color, starting with taking Mrs. Scott to doctors’ appointments, nursing Leroy while he suffered from terminal lung cancer; the loans I’ve made, the trips to the county jail I’ve taken, the babysitting I’ve done, the parking tickets I’ve paid, the restraining orders I’ve helped obtain. I’ll list the number of times I’ve had to call the police because of threats to someone who lives with me, and I’ll record the broken windows and furniture I’ve had repaired, and the court appearances I’ve had to make, to prove that my identity was stolen and the crimes committed in my name were done by someone else, not me.
But I know these excuses won’t satisfy my critics. I’m white and middle class and therefore privileged. Even though I share bedrooms, appliances, food, and bathrooms with the people who help me take care of Ralph, and their extended families, I’m always going to offend someone when I write honestly and openly about our living situation.
I watch the news on TV in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I read the newspaper reports of death, destruction, and anarchy. I see the anger and fear in the faces of the victims. I cannot know their pain. But I do know that when the Big One splits the East Bay in two, when people are frantic to flee the fires and flooding, Andrea, Willie and whoever else is here, will help me gather up Ralph, place him in his chair, and wheel him out to our van. Then we’ll all pile in together, picking up neighbors on the way, and it won’t matter what color we are or what class we come from. We’ll be a vanload of people who trust and know each other well, doing what we always do, helping one another survive.