Friday, February 5, 2010

The Back of the Red Crown Vic

How I Found The Apartment in RiverTown
My husband was meeting the people that would run his residency. I met a cab driver from a previous try in the city. Louis was the bomb. He had a bright red Crown Vic with yellow letters on the side, a ready smile great stories, and sensible advice.

He served in Europe during World War II. When it was his turn to do guard duty, he and his partner would go out, into the freezing mountain night, taking turns carrying the blanket. They'd sit out in the frozen mud, perfectly silent, waiting for Nazis or looters, back to back and swathed in blanket. When he got back home, he got a good job, got married, raised five kids. Every one of those kids became a professional.   When he retired, he bought the Crown Vic and the cab affiliation for a hobby and extra money.

Louis (that's Loo-EE, y'all) met me with an identical want-ads page and his own circled places. We had coffee and went over our two lists. His was more knowledgeable, because he was from the City. Then we drove all day, trying to hit houses by neigborhood. Eventually, we got to Dr. Anna's properties. Stanley Anna was a dentist, a dried-up old stick of a man who was glad to show the properties. We all sailed off, me and Dr. Anna in the back of the Red Crown Vic.

So, have I mentioned Louis was black? Or, let me be more accurate about causation: have I mentioned that Dr. Anna was a rude, complaining, dictatorial white supremacist? And he started being rude as soon as we were all in the Vic.

Louis picked up an old broom--dried out, bristles worn, handle peeling--out of the driveway of the first property. Dr. Anna said,

"I know you don't have one of these in your house" or some such thing. Louis replied smartly.
"I know you don't think I do. Just making sure you don't trip on the trash somebody left you."

It kept going like that. The two of them were enacting the entire civil rights movement right in front of me. Louis had it down--not giving an inch, in either the argument or the politeness.

"Louis got us here," I tried. "Can you unlock the front door?"

I was at once completely irrelevant and the cause of their meeting. I had trained myself to speak up and not allow this kind of stuff, but I couldn't get it together.

'Louis, we don't have to do this," I said.
Louis shook his head. "You need a place to live."
"Well, I don't think he's the landlord I want."
Dr. Anna called me. Maurice pointed down the hall. "He's got one more property," he said. "Look all you want at this one, we'll look at the next one, and then we'll take him back to his office."
"It's going to be a damn quick trip," I muttered.

At the second house, Dr. Anna called me outside to look at the storage shed. In it was a clean white toilet, surrounded by dirt and grime of the shed variety, along with hedge clippers and a lawn mower.

"Why is this toilet out here?" I asked. It was hooked up. I couldn't believe it. A working toilet in a shed. No partitions. The shed had only a garage-sized door and it only latched from the outside. How stupid was that?

'That's when people knew their proper place in society," Dr. Anna told me. Oh, wait a minute--
"That's where the maid had to use the bathroom," Louis told me. "After she cleaned the toilets inside."
"Okay, we're leaving now," I said. "I think I've seen everything I needed to see." I looked at Dr. Anna. "Do you want Louis to take you back?"
"Of course we're taking him back," Louis said.

I passed Louis out of the shed and went back through the house. "I'm not sitting in the back with him."

There was no reason I deserved to sit in the front. But Dr. Anna rode in lonely state in the back of a Red Crown Vic. They were still trading repartee when Dr. Anna got out.

"I'm sorry, Louis," I said. "I've never seen that before." I meant the toilet, kind of.
Two hours later we found the place in IrishTown. The park was across the street. The landlord was right next door, and he was nice to Louis. That was the place.

Now the apartment-hunting might be done, but the story isn't. It has two other endings.

Sweeping up Loose Dirt
After Louis picked up the broom, there was no place for it to go. Failing to complete the clean-up operation was not on Louis' list, so the broom went into the trunk of the Red Crown Vic until we could find a trash can. By the time Dr. Anna was safely back in his office, the broom was completely forgotten. Then  Louis remembered it.

"Damn it, I forgot I still have his broom. I have to go take it to him."
"It's just trash," I said.
"I won't have him thinking I kept that broom. I'm going to return it to him before I go home."

It was another kind of witness. Louis would make his point that he didn't need it, didn't steal, and had better manners. So you see, I was still slow.

There was no way for me to make up my poor response to Dr. Anna's insults. I should have spoken up sooner. I should never have "thought" I didn't want to rent from this ass. We should have done a quick U-turn and dropped Dr. Anna right back where he started at the first insulting phrase. My fault.

However, I did try to keep up with Louis. Years later, I learned he had a heart attack. I drove across town with homemade chicken soup. His wife couldn't believe it. Then I saw him a few months later. He'd lost weight and he looked great. But it was never the closer relationship I wanted.

The other thing I learned was that a certain generation of the civil rights movement had a certain kind of pride. In Louis' case, he would suffer, but he would teach.

The Lesson
Throughout, Louis was the one behind the wheel of the Red Crown Vic. He could guess my sentiments. He'd known a million Dr. Annas. RiverTown was a place where principles needed a kind of action I'd never seen before. He let Dr. Anna spin his string out because he wanted me to choose for real.

I have always been ashamed of my poor start and continued ambivalence. But Louis didn't need me to protect him; he'd been taking care of that shit for a lifetime. He wanted me to learn. I was never able to pay him back. I hope that I have paid it forward.

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