I was working at the fancy law firm in the city at the time, but I lived out in the suburbs and usually trained it to work.
My firm had a policy about working late. It was to encourage late nights or discourage leaving early or necessity or whatever, but if an attorney worked after a certain time, the firm would pick up the tab for a cab ride home. This wasn’t a big deal for the city folks, but the policy included picking up the tab for the suburban commuters as well. That tab could be quite substantial. Still, the policy wasn’t abused, people would rather get out of work early than work late just to cop a free cab ride. It seemed like a caring policy, the firm wanting to make sure its associates got home safely.
Rumor had it, though, that it was really a liability and public relations issue. The story was that there was a female attorney from another firm who was required to work late and as she went home she was brutally attacked while waiting for a train. She suffered head injuries so severe that she was unable to practice law ever again. She brought suit against the firm. After that, so we heard, all the large city firms started the free cab ride “benefit.”
I’d cabbed it a few times, not often. But this evening or should I say night or actually morning — I was working on a project that kept me in the office very late, going on 1:00 am. Since I’d taken the train to the city I needed a cab ride home. I was pregnant at the time, though not very far along. I am also a fair-skinned African-American woman who had recently had her hair permed. To those of you who don’t know, that means a “permanent relaxer” — the opposite of the curly perm. It makes our hair straighter (like with a flat-iron) and easier to manage. Having just had my “hair done” it was very, very straight.
My point is: It was night, I am light-skinned and my hair was long and straight. In poor lighting could be mistaken as white.
My firm always used the same taxi company, so I wasn’t hailing just any cab, merely arranging for pick up. The cab was waiting at the street and I hopped in, preparing to doze for the thirty minute ride. I was so very tired, having worked such a long day and being pregnant and all.
As the cabbie drove out of the city and out onto the highway he started to talk.
And oh boy did he talk! This man hated black people. He went on and on using the N-word, yelling, saying all black people are worthless and didn’t deserve to be alive. At least, I think he said we did not deserve to be alive. If he didn’t, he said something close. It was more than a rant, it was a hate-filled tirade.
Hostile, that’s it. This man was hostile, openly hostile.
Suddenly, I felt very afraid. I think it was the pregnancy making me feel vulnerable and alone (I did not have a cell phone at the time). I just wanted to get me and my unborn child home safely because this guy — seemed —- crazy. And he clearly hadn’t gotten a good look at me, because he was ranting in such a way that he thought I’d be a sympathetic ear.
I wanted out of that cab.
“What if this guy freaks out — on me? Should I just get out now? ” Not an option. I looked out the window I saw that we were on a bridge. Couldn’t very well ask him to pull over. Standing on the side of a bridge pregnant and alone wouldn’t be good either. I was starting to freak myself out a bit. This guy was scaring me and I don’t usually scare easily. “What’s up with this?” I wondered, “Why am I so scared?” I’ve never been afraid to go out alone or ride public transportation. I actually like walking around by myself, and would often scoff at the suburbanites who are fearful of the big city or of the dreaded subway. When male friends or colleagues suggest walking me to my car I would often respond, “Um, Why?” I thought I was Miss Independent, and all that. Now that I think about the risks I used to take, I’m thankful and lucky that I’ve never been a victim of random crime.
But this cab driver — he was scaring me.
So I sat in silence as he ranted . . . and I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that . . .
I kept my head down and let my limp, straight hair hang over my face.
I didn’t want him to see me, to discover who/what I really am. I was afraid that this would send him over the edge, having “one” in his cab, knowing I could get him in trouble. I even went so far as covering my hands with my jacket.
I had never tried “to pass” as white before — or since. I was scared of this man, though. And I didn’t like it.
It was a long ride.
When I failed to join him in his rant he eventually quieted down, which scared me more. I saw him glance at me through his mirror and he didn’t say another word, which scared me even more. I hoped he assumed I was asleep.
“Oh,” I thought. “I’m going to be left in a ditch somewhere and no one will know.” (My husband was home in bed.)
Did I say it was a long ride? It was.
We finally got close to home and I had the crazy cabbie drop me off at the train station where my car was. Perhaps I should have had him bring me straight home, except I didn’t want him to know where I lived. I wasn’t thinking very clearly. I just wanted out of that cab.
I had him pull up right next to my car; I had my keys ready and I hurried out.
When my hand was on safely on my unlocked car door I turned so he could see me and simply said, “I’m black” jumped in my car and sped off. It was somewhat dramatic yet anti-climatic, hardly confrontational. I lacked bravado alone in a parking lot at 1:30 AM. I left him there and drove the wrong way home to make sure I wasn’t followed. This guy really scared the crap out of me.
I was shaking, and mad — so angry that this man could make me feel so vulnerable when I want to be so strong. I started to question myself, wondering why I reacted so strongly. A lot of people say stupid things, most don’t act on them. Some do, however. Some do. I was a woman, a pregnant woman, alone late at night with a man who had the awful combination of hateful and chatty. Bottom line was that I’d do anything, including “pass” to keep me and my baby safe.
Overreacting? Yeah probably. I mean, what was he really going to do? But it’s a special kind of fear when you think, “If he knew, he’d hate me and he might hurt me.” — That fear of being “outed” in a hostile environment –not pleasant. Gays, Jews, Transgendered . . . I would guess have a similar historically based respect for this kind of fear.
Justified or not, it was a real fear, a discomfort to the bone. And my being pregnant made me the polar opposite of a bad-ass. Instead, I felt vulnerable, in need of protection.
Well, the next day I reported it to the partners. It was easy to track down the cabbie since the cab company was under contract, and he was promptly fired. (Yeah who’s the bad-ass now?“)
The cab company sent me a huge bouquet of flowers with written apologies, and the firm apologized on their behalf as well. Everyone wanted to make sure I was “okay.”
I viewed the world a bit differently. I realized it’s not just about my pride and independence anymore. I was going to be somebody’s mother and — I had to do what I had to do — even if it meant sitting quietly with my head lowered.
Just Me With . . . a cab ride . . . from Hell.
I threw the flowers out. I didn’t want my office decorated with mementos of that crazy ride. For a much more upbeat commuting story see Miracles Happen.
If you’ve read My High School Self, you know I had a very serious boyfriend in high school. We were still dating when I went away to college. My boyfriend lived at home and commuted to a local school in the city. I, like my sisters before me, went away to school, at a private, residential four-year university. This was in the dark ages, meaning before everyone had cell phones. I had two roommates and we shared a land line in our room.
To keep in touch, my boyfriend and I had set up a calling schedule while I was away. He called on Friday and Saturday nights at 11:00pm. Think about it. Weekends at 11pm. This was not good for my social life. Not at all. It suited him, though. He came home on Friday nights an had nothing to do and no one to do it with.
The weekend calls placed me in an awkward position. If I went out with people I’d have to come back alone by 11 for the call. If I waited until after the call, it would be too late, people were either already out and about or by the time I got off the phone they might be coming home.
I was having a hard time fitting in anyway. I didn’t drink. Most of the freshman nightlife had to do with drinking at Frat Parties and such. (Frat Parties were so important I still feel the need to capitalize it). But I just wasn’t the Frat Party type. And there was the dating scene, of which I was not a part because I already had a boyfriend. And, at this time in the dark ages and at this university, as a woman of color I was kind of invisible to the cute Frat boys. Plus, I felt I needed to show my boyfriend I was doing the right thing, or more accurately, not the wrong thing, while I was away. I didn’t want him to think I was drinking, cheating, changing in any way or even having a good time. He was lonely. Most of his friends (including his girlfriend) had gone away to school and he hadn’t. He had gone from big man at High School to being just another commuting student in college. I knew how miserable he was and I wanted to be there for him. I was also determined to beat the odds and show the world that I could fulfill my academic promise yet still keep my boyfriend and be faithful to the parameters of our relationship. Yes, co-dependency at its finest, ladies and gentlemen. Neither one of us was going to be happy if we clung to each other and our mutual miseries, limitations and fears.
My college had a homogeneous population (huge understatement). The university was not known for being diverse or popular among people of color, who were a very small minority there. And the majority of the majority were from suburban or rural areas, or prep schools and really had not been exposed to much diversity and did not choose this college in order to be exposed to different types of people. So many of them had the same backgrounds, ambitions and interests. For folks not in the mainstream, sometimes the culture shock was an insurmountable obstacle. Add to that the fact that the school is in the middle of nowhere. There was no town or city to which to escape from the suffocating sameness. Consequently, people of color, foreign students, and city kids regardless of socio-economic status would sometimes seek each other out for support. I, in addition to being African-American, was more of the creative type, and just, well . . . different. But being a suburban girl, I thought I’d be okay there; I didn’t expect a culture shock at all. What a silly girl I was, I did not fully appreciate the level of isolation and cultural homogeneity I had signed up for. This place made my vanilla suburb seem like the Rainbow Coalition. My sisters (who attended similar schools) assured me that once I found friends I’d be hanging out in dorms playing cards and listening to music. At my college, the only people I’d met so far just went out to the Frat houses and drank. I felt invisible yet at the same time exposed — like I stuck out like a sore thumb — not drinking, not dating, not looking like the other kids — it was a culture shock.
If that wasn’t enough, by the luck of the draw I had been assigned to the only female freshman dorm located “up hill” on campus. It was physically removed from the other dorms and the upper class houses which were all “down hill.” Frat houses and most of the lecture halls were “up hill.” I wasn’t really sure what was “down hill,” other than the cafeteria. But I was beginning to realize that unless I started to go out somewhere, I wasn’t going to meet people outside of my dorm floor. Yeah, I was having a hard time fitting in . . . again.
Then I got an invitation, right there in my mailbox.
It was an invitation to a party at, let’s call it, Walnut Street House, sponsored by the Black Students Association. The House, which was a restored Victorian home turned into a small dorm, was kind of like an International House, except it was inhabited by upper class African-American female students, mostly. But this invitation was for a dance party in the common room there. Cool. And it said to dress up!!! Yay! Now, I may not have been a drinker back then, but I did love to dance. And a chance to go somewhere in something other than a turtleneck, sweater and duck boots was enticing. My musical tastes were classical by day and classic R&B by night, and in a campus full of beer drinking rockers who didn’t dance – unless you count the drunken jumping up and down thing — this sounded like fun. Maybe I would go, I thought. Maybe I would go.
But the dance was —- yikes! — on a Saturday night. How would I be able to explain this to my boyfriend? I might miss his call! And I’d been complaining to him about how everything at the school was all about the drinking and the Frat parties and we were acting so superior to it all, blah, blah, blah. He never liked me going to any kind of parties. In fact, in high school he forbade me to go to parties. How could I just tell him I’d found somewhere to go? But I was so lonely. I needed to meet other people. My initial attempts at going out with the girls on my hall hadn’t been fun. Really, I just hadn’t found my niche yet and it was taking too damn long. I’d started skipping meals to avoid the cafeteria and studying more than probably necessary (I made the Dean’s list, though, . . . but I digress) . I was bored, I was starting to need more. My two roommates were okay, my Hall was okay, but I hadn’t made any good friends and spent too much time alone. Everyone else seemed to be having fun, and my College Self, in a new place, and separated from the boyfriend for the first time, thought life was passing me by.
I decided I would go to the party. Alone, of course. Going places alone is a skill I developed too early. Women are supposed to travel in packs, right? I hadn’t gotten that memo. But after all, I was invited, by name, so I could go — alone. And I was going to go, damnit.
There was only one other black freshman woman in my whole dorm (out of a couple of hundred girls). She was probably invited also, but she was not in my half of the dorm and we had never spoken. Even when I had passed her in the courtyard and said hello she had averted her eyes. No judgment, but clearly I would be walking “down hill” alone. I could only hope that once I got there it would be okay. It was a big chance.
My bigger concern, though, was my boyfriend. How to deal with my boyfriend? The one who didn’t drink, didn’t dance, didn’t go away to college, didn’t want me to do . . . any of those things. Hmm.
On the Friday night call I explained to him that I thought I’d go out Saturday, and asked if could he call me later than 11:00. (I know, not the best move on my part. But I felt I needed to reassure him of my faithfulness and commitment to misery.) He planned to call me at midnight. I’m not gonna lie, this was okay with me, it gave me an out in case the party was horrible or if I felt stupid going alone. And, I figured, the party started at ten — two hours would be enough, right?
Well, Saturday night came. I put on a skirt and sweater and nice shoes. Told my roommates I had somewhere to go — ha! I took my “Walk of Shame” “down hill” to the party alone, passing people walking “up hill” to the frat houses. They were dressed for drinking; I was dressed for dancing. I arrived “down hill” almost exactly at 10 o’clock. Now I ask you, have you ever known a college party to start when it’s supposed to? Is it ever cool to show up promptly when a party starts? No, no, no. Yet there I was, right on time. I walked in and the lights were off — in party mode, somebody was DJ-ing — and yay, it was R&B and Funk, something to dance to. . . but no one was there!
I wandered around in the foyer for a bit, occupied myself by pretending to read bulletin boards, contemplated leaving. Finally, people started to trickle in. Some dude came out from the back, saw me and left. I saw the “I can’t believe she showed up” look. Ha! But now I couldn’t leave, I’d been seen. Truly, I didn’t care. I was just happy to be out of my room, and somewhere that didn’t smell of cheap beer.
Once the party actually got started I got lots of attention and dances. And bonus, everybody was nice! I met some other freshmen and some upper classmen. People were wondering why they hadn’t met me before. Well, I was an “up hill” girl and these students, at least the girls, lived “down hill.” I had no idea. That night I planted the seeds of some friendships that last to this day. It was college, so I’m sure some of the people there were drinking, but the drinking was not the focus of the party, it was the music. I was actually having fun.
But, in horror . . . I looked at the clock, it was almost midnight!!!!
Crap! I wasn’t in any deep conversation with anyone, I was just starting to meet people. In short, I really had no one to say goodbye to. It’s not like there was a formal host or hostess.
So I just, well — left. As mysteriously as I’d arrived, I left—-
. . . at midnight.
Alone, I ran up the hill in heels to try to get back to my room in time for my scheduled Saturday night phone call from my boyfriend.
I’d missed it. But c’mon, folks, of course he called back.
It didn’t all change in one night. I remained separated and aloof and miserable for a while. But by my sophomore year of college, I’d found people with common interests, and made friends with some of the people I’d met at that dance party, one of whom became my sophomore roommate and a very good friend. I’d changed my major to my love — music, and met more of my creative brethren there. I learned to drink (hard liquor, not beer) and made my own stories in that regard. Still, I never became a Frat party regular, except for Reggae night. Reggae nights were fun, because of the dancing. I think the last time I went to a regular Frat party some dude pissed on the floor right in front of me, and I was done. He’s probably a Congressman now . . . but I digress . . . again.
Much later, one of guys I’d met at that first dance party told me that that was the night the boys started calling me . . . Cinderella.
Well, I had been the mysterious (and yeah, I’ll say it — pretty) girl who showed up alone at a party, danced her behind off, and ran out at midnight without saying goodbye.
There was no Prince Charming or anything like that. But there were two evil step sisters — my roommates. Alright, so they weren’t actually evil but since they were having an easier time making friends and fitting in while I sat in my room and watched — well, in my fairy tale that qualifies as evil.
What about a wicked step mother? Well, my boyfriend, of course. He seemed intent on keeping me in my place, in my own little corner in my own little chair— meaning, in my dorm room on the phone with him — on the weekend.
As an added postscript, shortly after the party a couple of the guys came knocking on my door to say hello. They weren’t looking to fit a lost glass slipper, but they were coming to find me . . . heh heh heh.
However, there was most certainly no Fairy Godmother. Still waiting for her ass to show up. Humph.
Just Me With . . . a Cinderella Story, well kind of . . .