Sunday, August 14, 2011

The black gentlewoman in the marble dungeon

     This is part one of a two-part package on the difficult, 
often demeaning job of restroom attendant, then and now.

    (8/14/13) The candlelight, the rose bouquets, the champagne, the maroon brocade walls and the quiet lilt of chamber music in the air ensconced  me in a world I had only seen in the movies. My escort and I were having dinner in a lavish hotel restaurant shortly after I moved to New York City. The tuxedo-clad waiters moved about, carrying large silver trays aloft, as debonair as Astaire. Everything was muted, yet sparkly.
    As we finished our entrees, I told Mitchell, a Park Avenue lawyer, that I needed to use the restroom. "I'll order the chocolate souffles while you're gone," he said. Then he handed me a five-dollar bill.
    Ever since I had arrived in this crazy, beautiful city, men had been buying me things, taking me places, putting me into cabs and slipping me twenties. But getting paid to pee? Could things possibly get any better?

And this would be waiting for me when I returned. I can deal with that.
   The trek to the ladies room was interminable -- through the vast expanse of the dining room and across the cavernous lobby, which was filled with numerous seating areas, each consisting of velvet couches, Persian rugs and potted palms. I finally reached the discreet archway I was searching for, and saw that it opened onto a long, narrow, steep flight of stairs. The only thing down there was a door that said, "Powder Room." How do wealthy, old osteoporotic dowagers make it this far, I wondered, and if they can get down the steps, how do they get back up?

   Looking down, it was almost spooky, like a dungeon, and it seemed insulting to hide this little island of feminine comfort and vanity away, as if there were something illicit about it. (I bet the men's room was right outside the restaurant, probably with a big bowl of free Cuban cigars on the counter, and the finest little urinal cakes in the world. Sexism was alive and well in the '70s!)
   The moment I turned the dooknob, I inhaled an aroma that took me back with startling immediacy to the 1950s. It was "Evening in Paris." As a hostess gift, my mother had received a lovely container of the fragrant talcum powder, with the softest puff to apply it with, but it had remained unused in the linen closet throughout my youth. Whenever I opened the door to get a towel or clean set of sheets, I lifted the lid to enjoy the sophisticated scent.
Ah, gay Paris, with its croissants and berets!
    When I entered the restroom, I was dazzled by its rich marbled opulence and golden lighting. It seemed both fancier and more tasteful to me than the dining room did. A lovely, cleansing breeze wafted through it. It was so spotless, it looked as if it had never been used. 
    As I stood there taking it in, forgetting for a moment about my bladder, my date and my souffle, I felt a presence near me, just behind where I had opened the door. I turned and found myself face-to-face with a middle-aged black woman, who stood at attention, with her hands clasped formally at her waist. She said, "Good evening," in a way that conveyed neither warmth nor reproach.  
This lady's deep, patient, kind, exhausted, sad eyes remind me of that night.

    She had a beautiful, poignant face, and eyes that "contained multitudes" (as Walt Whitman might have put it). Her bearing was wonderfully dignified, and her hair was pulled back smoothly into a bun. Her crisp, charcoal-colored uniform looked like something a high-class domestic servant might have worn in the 1940s.   
    My heart sank. So this was what the five dollars was for: To tip a magnificent human being who had been relegated to standing at attention all day in a bathroom, and cleaning up after rich white people. I was appalled.
    I was also appalled -- which I have since learned is a nearly universal reaction -- at having to pay someone for assistance that I neither wanted nor needed. But my foremost feeling, of course, was compassion for her.

For me, the burnished beauty of the room was spoiled by remembrances of things past.
    A line from the new movie, "Lee Daniels' The Butler," came to mind. Cecil is instructed by his overseers, "The room should feel empty when you're in it." How cruel! And yet, I think both she and I would have felt better if she had been invisible.
    Before I realized what was happening, she had glided to a toilet stall, apparently made some final preparations for my arrival, flushed the toilet, spritzed the air with that "Evening in Paris," scent and then stepped outside, motioning me in with a graceful bow.
    I wasn't prepared for this. I was shocked, dismayed and embarrassed. I lacked the presence of mind to come up with a satisfactory way to confront this situation, in which I had been involuntarily cast in the role of a young, privileged Scarlett O'Hara, while a noble, older African-American lady was obliged to preside over my intimate bodily functions.
    I felt uneasy and ashamed in that goddamned bathroom, and I felt trapped. I had, without my knowledge or consent, been essentially tricked -- as far as I was concerned -- into an interaction that I found repugnant.
    She was trapped as well, of course, in a way that was far more profound than I was. She was required to do this job, or possibly one even more uncomfortable, to support her family.
    I thought about writing an article for the Village Voice titled something like "Outrage in the Powder Room." I guess it should say "outrage and grief."

"Tighten it good, Prissy! And hurry up -- Rhett hates it when I'm late."
    I had been thrust into another era, an era I probably knew more about than the average powder-room patron. My parents are from the South. They grew up in the Twenties, and were witness to unspeakable racism, which had been passed down through the generations. Unlike many of their relatives, they were determined not to perpetuate it.
"I don't mean to speak out of turn, ma'am, but I didn't get paid last week."
    It's not an exaggeration to say that I was forcefully indoctrinated in the opposite of racism. In addition to teaching me about equality, from the time I was a toddler, and about the absolute irrelevance of skin color, my parents gave me books to read about the horrors of slavery and the indignities and mortal fear of the "Jim Crow" era. These books contained narratives and pictures that vividly portrayed the brutality of racism (a true reign of terror) -- the auctions (tearing families apart), lynchings, castrations, burnings, whippings, brandings. The stunning "Black Like Me" also left an indelible impact. Along with a Time-Life volume about the Holocaust, these volumes remained the centerpiece of my bedroom bookcase, until I left home at the age of 21.

The dynamic of the powder room incited a flood of images in my mind.

    They conveyed the spirit-killing subservience that black people were expected to display, even after my parents had become adults. As a teenager, I read works by black writers, from W.E.B. du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison to the unnerving but legitimate rants of Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X. 
    The unspeakable torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 made all of us -- including my father -- cry. It would be decades before I saw the picture of him in his open casket, and the stomach-churning shock of what those white savages did to his body has never left me.

    My mother, who grew up in rural North Carolina and is now nearly 95 years old, still cries with true anguish when she recalls watching as her grandfather systematically cheated his black sharecroppers, keeping them perpetually indebted to him. It was slavery all over again, except that they had to pay room and board, buying overpriced provisions from the "family store." My mother says the workers often pleaded with her grandfather, asking him to re-weigh the cotton and tobacco they had gathered that day, certain that their labors had been underestimated. 
White "boss man" weighs the day's haul of cotton. From the National Archives
     "He spat at them and told them to get out of the way," she recalls. In her mind, they were bona fide slaves. As a young girl, she sneaked pitchers of cold lemonade out to the sweltering barn, where the tobacco leaves were being strung up to cure.
    White guilt, for some reason, seems to get a bad rap in our culture. I don't care. I feel guilty, I am guilty, and I think we are all guilty of being advantaged by an economic and social system that has continued to disadvantage black people.

"I'm so bored, Maddie....go get me some cigarettes and a sloe gin fizz."

    Yes: I believe in reparations. Yes: I believe in affirmative action. All you have to do is look at the data on unemployment, wage disparities, infant mortality, life expectancy, prison sentences and pretty much every other metric of quality of life to know that the legacy of those slave ships is still with us. The physical and economic infrastructure that makes our current lives what they are was built on the backs of black people and immigrants.
    I love black people. I don't care if that sounds like a stupid generalization: I love them.
    I don't want anyone waiting on me. I am especially unsettled when a black person is forced to serve me, particularly when it is in a way that is so reminiscent our our nation's grotesquely racist past.
I felt as if I were in some sicko time machine.
    These were the thoughts that flooded my mind as I sat on the toilet, unable to pee, because I have a shy bladder, and there was someone standing just outside the stall waiting for me to do the deed. If I managed to squeeze any urine out at all, it wasn't much.
   When I emerged, and headed for the sink to wash my hands, the elegant gentlewoman wordlessly approached me with a lovely flowered  towel draped over her extended arm.
     There were stacks of paper towels that would have worked just fine but I accepted her offering. I thanked her, hoping to establish eye contact, but she sustained her downward gaze.
    As I was drying my hands and looking in the mirror to see what needed to be done to my face and hair, she walked briskly to the stall I had just exited. She scrubbed the bowl vigorously with a brush, flushed it, and then cleaned the seat with a lemony spray. It required some effort on my part not to feel insulted.
    I had noticed that on the gleaming marble vanity were several attractive trays filled with perfumes and cosmetics. She also had a side table laden with cigarettes, lotions, mouthwash, tampons and other items. The lady nodded toward them all, as in, "Help yourself."
    I wanted no part of it.

   What I wanted to do, besides get the hell out of there, was to embrace this woman with the straight spine and joyless but impeccable demeanor. I wanted to cry, and tell her I was sorry she had been obliged to wait on me. I wanted to offer to reciprocate on the spot. I wanted to ask about her family and her house and her favorite foods, and to inquire about other possible employment options.
    I did not want to give up that five dollars, though. Isn't that despicable? At that age, I loved free stuff -- a giddy greed that I gather today's younger generation shares.
    I LOVED free stuff. It was so petty. It made me feel victorious.
    Of course, I left the money in her tip jar. I touched her arm lightly as I said, "Thank you," and left.
Now that I've grown up (in some ways), I insist on paying for everything.
     This restroom-attendant scenario would play out several more times during my New York decade. My feelings of shame and discomfort never abated.
    Postscript: Some 25 years later, I learned that the gracious, long-suffering ladies who worked in the city's fanciest hotels and restaurants had been required to bid for the restroom "concession." Each had to pay "rent" to work there, and only then -- if there was any tip money left -- would she have any take-home pay. This was exploitation, and it should have been illegal.
    Some of the women posted signs, pleading for patrons' to "give a little," but most just stood silently by, completely at the mercy of we who had the great good fortune to experience such luxurious establishments. 

    Pity the poor ladies who had to clean up after men:

    NEXT: The restroom attendants of today are up against drunkenness, drug use, vomit, sex in the toilet stalls, feces in the urinals, and disdainful patrons, as they attempt to eke out a living in the nation's throbbing, rowdy hotspots.