Monday, January 06, 2014

Going through old file drawers in the hope of parting with more old records ...

... and there beneath the clutter lay a silver half-dollar.  It looked strange -- as if from some other nation and some other time, but as I held it in the palm of my hand... unexpected tears welled up and memories came flooding back to what the next hour would recognize as the very first political act of an impressionable young Betty on her first job.

I'd just graduated from Castlemont High in Oakland, and about to be launched out into the working world of domestics.  Marjorie, my elder sister (by 4 years) had been out there with her husband working as half a team of a live-in chauffer and housekeeper for a Piedmont family for some time now.  They worked for the first 5 years of their marriage in order to save up enough for a down payment on their first home on Ocean Avenue in North Oakland.   Her young husband would later become a successful insurance agent for a black firm as they started their family and Marge became a stay-at-home Mom.  It was the way of our world in those times.

A friend of my mother's had passed along a job referral for a (white) family who were moving into a home just off Seminary Avenue in the shadow of Mills College, and wanted to hire a "girl" for the weekend to help in that process.  This would be my first job, and I was ready, though I had no idea what it meant -- except that this was the very first step into my future (until I could marry, of course).

I appeared on the job early on Friday morning with the understanding that I would spend the next two days working with this mother as she prepared the house for occupancy.  It meant scouring the two bathrooms on my hands and knees with scrub brush, sponge, and bucket, as well as the kitchen; washing shelves and lining them with paper in preparation for unpacking endless cardboard cartons of dishes, pots and pans, glasses, etc., throughout Friday and all of Saturday.

At the end of the day I helped to prepare dinner for the woman and her husband plus 3 children before the parents took off for a movie.  I was expected to manage the kids and get them bathed and into bed by 8:30 before falling onto a cot in one of the children's rooms, exhausted, until morning.

On Sunday morning I helped with breakfast and washed and dried the dishes before helping to get the children dressed for church.  I then went back to the shared bedroom to listen to a radio until the family was scheduled to return at around noontime.

I heard the car drive into the garage and waited anxiously for my time to end and I could return home with my first earnings in hand.  There had been no agreement as to just what that might consist of, but I knew that my mother had mentioned something about, "50 cents an hour," and I'd envisioned this windfall and spent it on many things as I washed and dried dishes, wiped kid's noses, and anticipated wildly.

My employer came to me as I sat at the kitchen table, coat over my arm -- ready to leave.  Into my outstretched palm she slipped a half-dollar with the words, "I wish it could be more, dear, but you know you are really not an experienced helper ...", her voice trailed off as I remember, but maybe I'm just remembering my own inability to comprehend what this meant."

I said nothing.  Gathered up my things and left this house to catch the bus at the corner store -- all the while struggling to understand what had happened.  I held the silver coin in my palm tightly as the bus meandered its way through the familiar neighborhood.  When I rose to pull the cord that signaled my stop,

I left the half dollar on the seat, got off the bus and walked the half block to our home streaming tears of crushing disappointment!

Now the tears!

This was my only experience as a domestic.

I cannot recall whether or not my mother inquired about my experience; but if she did her words are long forgotten.

Something was already in place that  inspired my act of defiance and contempt, and it must have been accumulated over time from many people and places -- but it was there to be called out when needed.  The act did not create it; of that I'm certain.  It occurred somewhere in that childhood that others might have seen as impoverished.  That girl would show up on many occasions later in life, but the coin would be forgotten until now -- as maybe it should have been.

Within a year or so I'd taken the third choice open to young women of color --  (1) working in agriculture; (2) being a domestic servant, or,  (3) marrying well.

What's a dreamer to do? 

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