Sunday, June 7, 2020

Standing Up Instead of Standing By

(Note:  Names have been changed.)

Circa 1973-74
I’m driving home to my duplex apartment just outside Tampa after my yoga class at the University of South Florida, where I’m studying anthropology and Asian religions. Yoga leaves me somewhere between fully energized and completely relaxed; it’s a pleasant space for both brain and body and I’m looking forward to some quiet time to do homework as I pull into a parking space, shift my black VW Beetle into neutral, and switch off the ignition.

I’m almost to the door of my apartment when I notice that the door to the apartment opposite mine is wide open—not characteristic behavior for Jerry and Fred, the two black men who are renting there. While I exchange friendly hellos with them, we don’t socialize too much; however, I have learned from them to appreciate the soulful voice of Barry White, whose records seem to be in continuous rotation on their turntable.

Concerned about the open door, I knock on the doorjamb and peer inside. Furniture has been upended and is in considerable disarray. No one answers my knock. Almost without thinking, I enter, walk through the apartment and go out the back door, which is also wide open.

There on the ground, Jerry is struggling while being forcibly held down by a couple of white men. Another white man, our landlord, is holding a large grey concrete block right over Jerry’s head, obviously getting ready to bash it in.

Adrenaline kicks in and I start screaming as loud as I can. “Robby!! Stop it!! Stop it right now!! What are you DOING???”

Robby stops and looks at me blankly, as do his two friends. “He hasn’t paid his rent!” Robby explains, as if this is justification for assault or worse.

“You can’t do this! That’s not a reason!” I keep up the high-pitched screeching and now other neighbors are coming out of their apartments to see what is going on. With an audience gathering, Robby and his two friends back off and Jerry jumps up.

“I’m calling the police and this needs to stop,” I declare, and retreat to my apartment. I leave my front door open in haste as I head to the phone to dial 9-1-1. One of Robby’s accomplices appears at the door and says to me, “You don’t need to call the police, it’s just that he didn’t pay his rent.”

I give the guy a cold stare while I’m waiting to talk to the police dispatcher. “That doesn’t matter,” I say. “That’s not a reason to hurt or kill someone.”

There is a flicker of surprise on the guy’s face. Evidently that is a new thought for him.

I finish the call and head back to the scene of the crime just in time to see Jerry break a large Coke bottle against the side of the duplex and point the shards straight at Robby and his two friends.

“Jerry!” I scream again. “You can’t do this! I’ve called the police and they are on the way! Put that bottle down right now! The police are coming!!” I keep screeching and more neighbors appear.

Jerry puts the bottle down and backs off. When the policeman arrives, I tell him that I need to talk to him before he leaves, point him to my apartment, and make my retreat.

The questioning goes on for a while and thankfully, the policeman remembers to come talk to me. I tell him everything I witnessed, in sequence. I am fairly sure there will be an assault charge for Robby and his friends.

The policeman tells me that the assault will be written up as a “landlord-tenant dispute.”

Jerry and Fred move out of their apartment shortly after this incident.

Circa 1996-97

The public relations office of the college where I write press releases and newsletter articles is going through a transition. Our graphic design coordinator has left to take a teaching position, and we are getting complaints from employees in other departments that their graphics jobs are not being completed in a timely fashion. Those complaints are starting to pile up.

Our boss, Layton, calls a staff meeting to clarify who can accept work and how jobs are to be prioritized. He announces that instead of routing all work requests through the graphic design coordinator, each designer is now able to accept those requests from other offices at the college.

We begin discussing the progress of several jobs that have landed on the complaint list. When our one black employee, Teresa, reports that she has accepted a job from a black employee who works in the library, the conversation takes a surprising turn.

Layton and Patty, the new graphic design coordinator, don’t think that Teresa should have accepted that job from the librarian. They begin to light into Teresa and as their criticism escalates, Teresa bursts into tears. Layton agrees that she should take a few minutes to collect herself. Teresa leaves the room.

When Teresa comes back to the conference room table with her Kleenex box and sits down, I think, “Good, now this will stop.”

But it doesn’t stop. Layton and Patty light into Teresa again, and again Teresa starts to cry.

“Hold on just a minute,” I say, as calmly as I can, holding up an outward-facing palm. “What is the problem here? You have just told us that anyone in graphics can accept jobs from other offices, and now you are telling Teresa that she can’t? Please stop and think about what you are saying, because you’re talking out of two sides of your mouth.”

Layton begins to seethe. I have openly challenged his authority. The meeting breaks up.

As time goes on and Layton avoids speaking to me, it becomes obvious that I’m in trouble—and finally, word comes down from the college’s human resources department that my contract is not going to be renewed for the next academic year.

The college president, for whom I sometimes draft speeches, calls me to ask what has gone on. I tell him. “Who else knows about this?” he asks me. “No one,” I tell him, “because I haven’t discussed it with anyone outside this office.”

There is a pause and my intuition tells me that the president may be getting ready to intervene on my behalf, or may be wondering if there’s something else he can do. “I will say one other thing,” I offer. “It’s okay with me if I am let go. Why would I want to work for someone who doesn’t want to work with me?”

Later, it dawns on me that this was a racist incident—that if Teresa had been a white employee, she would not have faced chastisement in front of everyone in the department, but would have instead been called into a closed-door meeting with only Layton and Patty in attendance. I communicate that insight to the president of the college and to the head of human resources, with whom I also have a long conversation about exactly what happened.

The end of the academic year approaches and with it, the end of my job. Teresa visits me in my office one day. “Do you think that what you did in that meeting has something to do with why your contract isn’t being renewed?” she asks.

“Yes,” I answer, “it has everything to do with it. And I’ll tell you something else. I’d do the same thing again in a heartbeat, because it wasn’t right and it should never have happened.”

After my job ends, I apply for unemployment. I realize that I probably won’t receive it, since I had been a contract employee serving at the pleasure of the college’s administrators. Getting unemployment in that circumstance is unheard of.

I get called to a meeting with a woman in Florida’s unemployment office. I briefly describe what happened and she checks her computer; she’s obviously reading something and I see her blink and sit up a bit straighter in her chair. She looks a bit shocked.

My unemployment claim is approved and I receive money from the state for the next six months while I look for another job. I’m fairly certain that the college’s human resources officer supported my request.

I use part of my newfound free time to do something completely different. I travel on Friday nights to Cassadaga, Florida, where I take classes in psychic development with Eloise Page, a well-known Spiritualist medium and inspirational speaker.

You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.

No comments:

Post a Comment