Homies, Vatos & White Trash
Yesterday, I met a man who was far too young to be as racially ignorant as he seemed to be. Or maybe he was just ignorant, I’m not sure which. We had a business appointment, and he was very comfortable with me, so much so that his mouth seemed to have a bad case of the runs. Though he had moved to California in High school, he professed to be a former New Yorker. He still wore his New York accent, and it was a thick as if he’d just left there last year.
As it often happens when I met a New York refugee, we quickly slipped into questioning mode. I pulled my own accent out of my bag and slipped into it as comfortably as I might my favorite pair of jeans. After the normal “where did you go to school” and “what part of town did you grown up in” questions, he started to ask the questions that, in other circumstances, gotten him a tongue lashing or a slap in the face. Instead of becoming violent or exposing him to my long vocabulary of swear words, I took another route. I tried to remember what I’d read in Baratunde Thurston’s How to be Black.
He asked me how I’d gotten to California. “Job-related” was my reply. Okay, easy enough. The hard ones were about to come.
“No, my husband’s”. That caused a momentary pause in his word deluge.
I needed to get something from my car. He watched me from the window. When I came back, he said, “Nice car.”
Our conversation continued. “How’d you get into writing?” This one was a normal one that I got all the time.
I told him the bored-while-writing-my dissertation story. The next question was normal enough too. “So, any of these books you write, have they been published?”
I paused. I’d done my homework on him, but he obviously hadn’t done his on me. “Just ten of them, or so.”
His turn to pause. “Or so?”
I nodded. “Yup.”
He recovered, and we continued. “And films, how did you get into that. Did you study film?”
I replied that I’d become interested in film while I was working on my MFA.
His mouth dropped open. “You have an MFA too! In writing?”
I smiled, but didn’t comment.
“I want to make a film. I can picture it in my head, and I have lots of friends with money that would invest in it. “
“Well, if you have friends that want to invest in film, you should use those connections. Lots of people have ideas and talent, but have no way to access the necessary capital. Have you written the screenplay yet?” I asked.
“No. But I can see it in my head.”
I was hearing crickets in my head. Classic story.
“And your films have won awards, right? One will be in theaters soon? I want to do that.”
“Then you should, especially since you have access to cash. But you’ll need a screenplay.”
He waved me off. “I have no time for that.”
Then he had no time to make a film.
“Is your husband black?”
I cocked my head to the side. What was this? An odd question, for sure. The possibilities raced through my brain. I was obviously of African descent and nothing about my obviously brown daughter, who was with me, suggested otherwise.
“He is a lucky man. You’re a busy women. You obviously have stuff on the ball.”
I cocked my head the other way. “I remind him of that every day.” Mild smile.
“Is your husband like you?”
“Yes, is he a professional? What does he do?”
Ah, there it was. I was used to this one. There are many times that people take a look, then assume that the black man in the nice shirt must certainly be an athlete. (Not that athletes are bad, its good if that’s your thing, but there are other ways that we make an honest living.)
We were on a bad road. I’d been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but there were only a few possibilities here and none of them were good. He was either trying to hit on me, implying that I couldn’t possibly be where I was and driving my nice car with a black husband, or that as a couple, we couldn’t possibly be as successful as we appeared to be. I decided to give him more rope—
“My husband works. He works an executive type job.”
“Why do you seem surprised?”
The mouth diarrhea was momentarily stopped. He was at a loss for words. “Um, well, I don’t meet many people like you.”
“Like me?” We were in Hollywood. There a lot of married black people with degrees in Hollywood.
”Black professional, types. There’s just not that many.”
Maybe his judgment had been clouded by our prior discussion of movies, including Tyler Perry and Steve Harvey.
“Maybe not in this room. Are you sure you’re from New York originally?” A New Yorker, for sure, would be used to such things.
“No, no, It’s just—“
I used some reality to dam his talking before he drowned in his own shit. “There are quite a few of us, whole communities, actually. I know this is Hollywood and you’re used to people making a living in the arts, but there are a lot of us who go to school and get degrees. We run companies and live as well as you do.” I took it back down to the level he could understand. “Madea isn’t real. Those men in the Steve Harvey movie, those were more realistic. Didn’t you ever watch the Cosby show?” I added a smile on top of that to make it easy to digest.
It got better. He asked me if both my children had the same father. He asked me if my ex-husband paid child support and I had to fight hard to hold back. He really tried everything to rationalize how I could be there and able to afford his services. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize that most of his rationalizing would play better as internal dialogue.
I just smiled at that and reminded him again how television wasn’t real. Not all Black men are deadbeat dads. Barack Obama did not happen in a vacuum. There actually are more white people than black on welfare in this country, statistically, it just has to be so. “You’re right, your’e right.” He agreed with me.
This was a professional appointment for my daughter. He did his job, then decided that we were worthy. “She has a really good look and a pretty smile. She should be in front of the camera.”
“If she wants to be. She’s really good in school, too, so I’m thinking she can work the business end and the front end of fashion if she chooses that. She’ll have options.”
I’m not sure he even heard my words.
“It’s good really, she’ll be able to do a lot of things. Colored girls are usually overweight by the time they are her age. They always need a token. I don’t meant to be crass, but she will be able to have her pick. I bet there are a lot of Mexican vatos who hit on her all the time.”
It was clear to me then. He was just going to insult everyone he could in the space of two hours. And had he said colored? Really?
“We don’t live around here, like you. There are no “vatos” where we live.” The coolness had left my voice.
He stopped then, realizing that I was not coming along. “No vatos?”
“None. No homies or white trash in our neighborhood either.” I bestowed an icy stare upon him. The one that conveyed mother-fucker as if I had spat it in his eye.
We finished our business and I did not have to utter one expletive. On the way out, he put his hand on mine to stop me and offered me his business card.
“I would love to work on one of your film projects. I really have a good eye.”
“It’s obvious you do.” My smile was back, but my New York accent, reserved for friends, was gone. I replaced it with my ‘strictly business’ voice. There was no need to be nice anymore. He’d served his purpose and it was obvious our business relationship would never expand. I was far too un-stereotypically black for him, and he was just too tiring and ignorant for me. “I tell you what. If you have your agent contact my people, we’ll see if there is something coming up where you fit. I don’t deal with all that small stuff.” I smiled and squeezed his hand to help cement that thought as I lifted it off mine. What was not so obvious was his common sense.