Friday, May 13, 2011

Parking While Black in Orinda, California

You know the rant. I've written about our exile in the wonder-bread-white suburban enclave of Orinda before. We didn't want to move here. We hate the suburbs, we don't play golf, we're not the country club type and we just don't fit in. We moved here out of desperation to get our wayward son away from the disaster that is Berkeley High, a school that makes it absurdly simple for a troubled teen to add another helping of trouble to his plate. Orinda was easy - just over the hill, and with some of the state's highest-rated schools. Suffice to say that the school thing didn't work out. The young ball-and-chain lasted three days before ending up in an alternative school and we were stuck with a two-year lease on a too-big house in Stepford.

It's a quiet neighborhood. Sepulchrally quiet. There are elderly people across the street with caregivers who come and go. Our neighbors on one side are a wholesome looking young couple with two children. The kids are blonde and around 6 and 8 years old. As for the parents, they are so elusive that I wouldn't be able to identify them in a police lineup, not that that would ever happen. The house on the other side is a dump that's taken two years to sell. Lately I hear signs of life from behind the fence so I am guessing someone moved in while we were in Hawaii. Across the street one door down is a constipated bitch whose gated yard is always locked. When we first moved in, some neighbors left us a plate of cupcakes while we were out. I had no idea where to return the plate, so I put a little note in all the mailboxes closest to our house. The bee-yatch was no doubt peering out the window, and saw me violating her mail box. She stepped outside her front door (walking across the yard to introduce herself and acknowledge my humanity was out of the question) and asked what I was doing. I explained. Was she the nice neighbor who had left the cupcakes...? She gave me a curt no and went back inside without another word.

The fact is, Orinda is a great place to be a cop. As far as I can tell, all they do is sit outside the local Starbucks, chugging lattes and ogling high school girls. That and hide along Camino Pablo, where there's no traffic and the speed limit randomly goes from 45 to 35 to 30, so they can hand out speeding tickets (2) to nice middle aged ladies.

Anyway, our daughter was about to come out for the summer, having just finished her first year of law school and snagged an internship with the San Francisco ACLU, and the house needed a good cleaning. Usually, my husband does it. We're both self-employed, and that's our division of labor. I shop and cook, he cleans. Both my better half and I were raised by meticulous cleaning freaks. He learned from his mother, I rebelled against mine. So he's in charge of the vacuum and I handle food, and since he breaks out in hives if he has to spend more that five minutes at the Safeway, it works out for both of us. But this time, we needed a really deep end-of-Spring cleaning and we decided to splurge and get a cleaning crew.

The cleaning people, a sixtyish African American gentleman and his sister, showed up on the dot. The guy called to notify us that they were parked out front, and we let them in. They gave us a quick estimate and went back to their old van to get their supplies. The brother was a talkative fellow with a rich baritone voice that would have served him well in radio. The sister was a reserved, big-boned lady who looked like she might have acromegaly and was likely never diagnosed for lack of insurance. ( I know these things - my dad's an endocrinologist and my aunt actually developed the condition due to a pituitary tumor).They commenced cleaning and my husband went back to his office to work. I jumped in the shower to get ready for a business meeting.

Meanwhile, someone on the block noticed an old, beat-up car with two black people inside parked in front of our house and called the police. (In case you haven't picked up on my subtle hints above, my prime suspect is the bitch with the locked gate). Three squad cars pulled up in front of the house and parked so as to close off the street, just in case the cleaning crew decided to make a run for it. When the poor cleaner went back to his car, they moved in on him. Who are you, what are you doing here, can we see some ID. So the cleaner knocked at our door (again) and my husband came out. Of course, he told the police we had hired these folks to clean our house, but that was not enough. The officer slowly stared my husband up and down. Between the old black guy holding a mop, the old black lady with the bucket and the old, bald white guy in shorts and a Lands End T shirt, it was hard to determine who looked more suspicious. "Are you sure you live here?" the cop asked my husband. At least he didn't ask to see a copy of the lease.

Despite our assurances that we had hired the cleaning crew, Orinda's Finest proceeded to stage fifteen minutes of outdoor theater. This gave my husband an opportunity to finally see some of our neighbors, as three housewives came out of their homes to gawk. The cops ran checks on both the cleaners' IDs. Then, they found out the brother's registration had expired and threatened to impound his car. They kept the street blocked off the entire time. It was all a big show to demonstrate to the neighborhood that our police force is on the job. The fact that two nice innocent people were publicly humiliated in front of our home was besides the point. After all, none of this would have happened had they had the sense to bleach their faces and drive a beamer.

I came out of the bathroom, ready to leave and oblivious to what had just occurred. The cops were gone, but my husband filled me in. The cleaners were justifiably upset. The sister kept saying how embarrassed she was. I told her it was the neighbor who had called the police, and of course the cops themselves, who should be embarrassed, but I was embarrassed too. I apologized to her and her husband and left for my meeting. Two women were still out on the street, watching our house. They scowled as I drove past.

The brother got increasingly riled up after I left. "I beat Sugar Ray Leonard in an exhibition match before he went to the Olympics," he told my husband. "I'm sixty years old and I have to clean houses for a living. I don't deserve this." No argument here. None what-so-fucking-ever. The fellow did a slow burn over the next hour. Every time he took out some trash or went to his car for some supplies, he felt like he was being observed. He was sweating heavily and his movements became increasingly abrupt as he grew more distraught. The sister was visibly devastated. My husband could plainly see that both were experiencing profound emotional pain, and a powerful case of deja vu.

You don't get to be a sixty year old working class African American without having experienced racism. Repeatedly. And, black man in the White House notwithstanding, it was happening again. Finally, they got so mad, they just had to leave.
"I'm sorry, but we have to go. It's obvious we're not wanted here."
They hadn't quite finished cleaning, but my husband understood.
"Nice neighbors you have," the man added. "Bet you don't like them any more than we do."
"No," my husband replied, "We don't. We're moving back to Berkeley when our lease is up in July."
"If you need cleaning, we'll come work for you there," the cleaner promised, "But we're never coming back to Orinda."

2 comments:

LCS249 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LCS249 said...

Oh. my. god. What a tragedy. One of the reasons we loved living in New Rochelle was how extraordinarily integrated it was.

Some years ago I lived in Scarsdale, where we'd moved for the same reason as your experiment in Orinda: the schools. That turned out badly for a number of reasons, not least of which was how competitive the parents were when it came to sports. The little league teams (8 years old) always ended up in tears because of the stressed out parents.

At one point, my next-door neighbor suggested we have a homeless shelter in town. Everyone at the meeting looked like they wanted to lynch him.

But, you're right, in this day and age, in California, not even South Carolina. The cops should have behaved better. The nosy neighbors should have stayed home. What an embarrassment for us all.

(P.S. the bitch neighbor has a relative here who calls the cops when we (a group of us) let our dogs off-leash in the park.)