Sunday, December 13, 2009

Race Relations in America

So, anyway, my sensationally spotty employment history. Before we get into what a perfectly rotten – mouthy, defiant, passive-aggressive — employee I’ve traditionally been, we’ll look at race relations in America as I’ve observed them during a couple periods of rare non-unemployedness.

A few months after our daughter’s birth, I persuaded her mom to move with me to the northern California wine country. After 37 years there, I’d come to loathe LA, with its phlegm-colored air and police helicopters and leering hotshots in expensive sports cars they’d leased with their recent development deals. My Kinks book had been published a couple of months before, but showed every sign of generating no royalties, so I did the responsible thing and got myself a job as a word processor at San Francisco’s biggest law firm, which was mostly in the business of defending a big oil company against environmental and other plaintiffs.

Aside from my brief friendships with the extremely tall attorney son of the implacably iconoclastic former attorney general Ramsey Clark, and with former Janis Joplin guitarist Sam Andrew (how heartbreaking to see one of his former stature reduced to proofreading legalese!), I can honestly say I hated nearly every second there. Boredom made me rotten at the job, which comprised such exhilarating tasks as transcribing the taped mumblings and dronings of attorneys and, worse, legal assistants, and trying to decipher the sub-infantile handwriting of newly ordained junior associate attorneys, few of whom were capable of writing a coherent English sentence, and nearly all of whom were hugely self-infatuated. As one of three straight word processors in the firm, I was the target of much subtle heterophobia.

My inattentiveness and increasingly open disdain for those I was ostensibly there to serve resulted in my being banished from a succession of assignments. At one of them, I objected to one of my co-workers, a Ms. Jan Broadnax, regularly taking 45-minute 15-minute breaks. “I’m prepared,” I affirmed in a memo, “to do 100 percent of my fair share of the work, but not 50 percent of Jan’s fair share too.” I was essentially told to shut up, the reasons being that Ms. Jan Broadnax was (a) black, and (b) a woman. The same forces — primarily, fear of an embarrassing lawsuit — that kept them from firing me even after I began deliberately to try to provoke them with my dangling earring (‘twas 1986, you see), eyeliner, and garish clothing kept them from firing a black woman.

La Broadnax had her revenge for my memo. My daughter had begun going to preschool, and there had learned a children’s song called Three Little Monkeys, about a young primate who, against doctor’s orders, jumps up and down on the bed and suffers a presumably painful head injury. I’d amused my daughter, who of course didn’t know him from Cookie Monster, but who thought my imitations of feedback and so on were pretty zany, by trying to imagine the Jimi Hendrix version of Three Little Monkeys. After I regaled La Broadnax and two fellow takers of very, very long cigarette breaks with this, they reported me to Personnel, accusing me of calling them monkeys.

Then there was Destiny Telecomm in Oakland in 1996 and 1997, the first place to hire me as a graphic designer. The company, the brainchild of a vaguely Elvis-ish evangelical, turned out to be an elaborate pyramid scheme; it didn’t actually sell telecommunications services, but rather the idea of selling others on the idea of selling whatever the company might have on offer at any given moment. When I was hired, they were mostly selling phone cards. By the time I was given the old heave-ho, it was salad dressing and skin lotion; many of us believed it to be the same product in different bottles. My boss was a roly-poly hyperneurotic who framed the otherworldly landscapes he created in a briefly fashionable software program called Bryce (take it from me — inconceivably uncool), and ingested enough Valium to pacify a small Third World country, and who hired another designer every 48 hours or so, seemingly so he could give them pretentious titles like Studio Manager, but I became big pals with several of my fellow employees.

There was Paddy, an evangelical who looked exactly like Homer Simpson, except with smaller eyes, who didn’t mind being teased mercilessly about being an evangelical, and who fervently signed onto every zany prank I, the eternal brat, conceived to exasperate the Valium-gobbler and others higher up the food chain. There was Alison, a female bass player with blindingly bright blonde hair and the weight of the world on her shoulders, but much, much healthy disdain for the Valium-gobbler and others higher up the food chain. There was Vinod Abeygunawardena, s Sri Lankan techie/troubleshooter in whose name I loved answering the office telephone. “Mr. Abeygunawardena’s office,” I would purr. “How may I help you?” There were Thorn, an unreconstruct, self-renamed hippie who was bubblingly positive about everything and everybody, and impossible not to like, and a salt-of-the-earth type racer of motorbikes, and the Taiwanese Jesse Wong, whose excellent work in Illustrator inspired me to up my own game.

Unfortunately, there was also Dre, a, uh, brother from the ‘hood who had no perceptible talent as a designer, but who was absolutely brilliant at…playing Those Higher on the Food Chain, winning their patronage by pretending to have detected their inner blackness. He’d call them dawg or homeboy and they’d nearly burst into tears of joy. He wouldn’t sneer if they asked him, “Yo, wassup?” or shook his hand ghetto-style. One of the design department’s chief antagonists, a female vice president who’d been promoted out of all proportion to her competence, and who could be counted on to hate anything any of us designed, would come down to upbraid us, and he’d fire up Illustrator so she could show him just what she wanted. While the rest of us bit our lips to keep from guffawing, she’d draw a straight line, and he’d rhapsodize as though she’d just recreated the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “Yo,” he would marvel, shaking his head in wonderment, “you’ve got some serious talent, girl.” They adored him, and it made me sick.

As you’ve noticed, I don’t do “African American.” I think it’s PCspeak at its silliest, and would feel, using it, as though jumping through a hoop. I don’t refer to the Greek neighborhood as the Greek-American, or to the Italian as the Italian-American. Most of my black neighbors’ families have been in this country for seven or eight generations, and thus could be said to be very much less African than I am Russian, German, and Latvian, my grandparents and great-grandparents having come over probably 150 years after the Africans from whom my black neighbors are descended. Would not a white immigrant from Johannesburg be more an African American than a person whose antecedents came here in the eighteenth century?

Anyone who infers that my reluctance springs from racism is exactly as accurate as La Broadnax when she ascribed to racism my unwillingness to pick up the slack resulting from her 45-minute 15-minute breaks. Let’s deal with one another as genuine equals.

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at]

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