This woman is a pitbull terrier. That’s the most fitting description I can think of. I’ve been feeling uneasy since the moment she stormed into the middle school’s auditorium. Her name’s Mindy – black but not quite, at the end of her forties or fifties and lacking every form of subtlety or tenderness. Bursting out of her beige piece suit, she scans the room with a disconcerting quick-tempered look in the eyes.
“Oh, I see there’s someone hea from Pakistan”, she says, the list in her hands.
“Yes, that’s me”, a girl with black long eyelashes, a sharp nose and beautiful long hair stands up from the first row.
“Where from in Pakistan?”
“I’d love to go. I’ve heard it’s a beautiful country – but I’d be too afraid to run into some of them Talibaan.”
“Well, where I live it’s quite peaceful.”
“I know sweetheart, them only pretending to be islamic. But I know what real islam is all about.”
“The Taliban isn’t the only problem we’re facing. It’s the political situation altogeth…”
“Oh-my-god”, an overexcited voice fills the auditorium – coming from behind my back. All eyes turn to Dolly, the organizer of this cultural exchange. “Yesterday I went to this Pakistani restaurant with friends – down at Park Slope in Brooklyn. It was out-of-this-world and not too expensive!”
“How much?”, Mindy asks.
“Under fifteen dollars! Can you believe that? Huh?” Dolly is from Ohio. She works for the office that takes care of us, scholars and students. Mindy, on the other hand, is the local mother – or grandmother – who went out of her way asking families – parents of pupils at the middle school – to host each of us for the night, to show us what real American life is all about. This is a school for the gifted living under the poverty line.
It is two thirty and silent. We – the Pakistani girl, two most endearing Chinese boys, one Kirgiz girl and I – wait for our host families to come and pick us up. “So, Mindy, could you tell us some more about the host families?”, Dolly tries to start a new conversation.
“Well, I have to say it’s not been easy to find people.”
I speak for the first time. “Why?”
Mindy starts. “Well…people are afraid, you know. With all that talk about child molesters and terrorists in the news.”
“The younger the students, the easier to find host families. Most of them also wanted girls. But I did a great job! There’s only one I didn’t find a family for – because he’s a man and too old. People don’t trust men that age. Where is he? Da…?”
“Daan?”, I ask.
“Yeah. Is that you?”
“You’re comin with me!”, barks the pitbull, “To Bed-Stuy. That’s where I live. Now people tellin all kinda ugly stories about Bed-Stuy. But I tell ya’ honey, ain nothin wrong ‘bout Bed-Stuy.” I know Bed-Stuy. It’s the only place people have warned me not to go. Because of the frequent shootings. In December, two police officers were executed while waiting in their car by a 28-year old gunman. One month later a shop owner was shot dead during a robbery. Just a few weeks ago, a man was shot in an elevator and last week the police retrieved the corpse of a young woman inside a suit case. “Nothing wrong with Bed-Stuy”, Dolly repeats with a smile.
A small and radiant Afro-American grandmother with dreadlocks comes wobbling into the auditorium and sits down one row behind me. She’s close to retirement and cool as dope. We wind up having a conversation on the splendors of cruises in Florida and Alaska. In the meantime parents start trickling in and leave with their student. I go with the organizer so I wait it out till the end. At four thirty, Mindy’s little Kadeisha – eleven, long braids and much blacker than her mother or is it her grandmother – runs in and the three of us leave.
“God damn! Damn! Would you look at that?”, Mindy curses on the sidewalk.
“Uhm, what exactly?”
“It’s snowing again! I hate this place. I hate New York. This is not a good place to live. I was diagnosed with pneumonia last week!”
“Last weekend I was sick as well”, I try to introduce some familiarity.
“Did you go to the hospital?”
“Better stay away from my kids then”, and she hails a taxi. I try little Kadeisha, excelling in ignoring me.
This is a railroad apartment. It’s cramped and hot. White sofa with blue balloon prints and heart-shaped pink pillows. I am put down on a chair at the table behind the sofa with a glass of chemical orange juice that devours my teeth. Mindy wastes no time. The flatscreen television – a monstrous device taking up most of the room – is turned on and put on a volume I can hardly hear myself think. “Damn, I hate this place!”, Mindy curses, “can you believe it started snowing again?”
Fox News interviews the neighbors of a young white cop that was shot by a young black man. “What’s wrong with these people? This country is fucked up!”, Mindy shouts. Images of traffic mayhem all around the city caused by the snow. “Ah! I hate this place!” Fox reconstructs the murder of a young black woman, shot through the head from close distance in the driver’s seat while stuck in a traffic jam. Mug shot and family pictures of the suspect follow. Neighbors say they’d rather have the young man’s family move out after what happened.
“So tell me something about your culture. Does it snow there as well?”
“Not that much. As the matter of fact, the North Sea…”
I stop. Three first words suffice. Mindy has turned her head to the television screen. This situation is tense, for me at least. I scan the room for a subject that will keep her going for a bit. The coffee table is filled to the rim with portraits of black kids. Dozens. “Are those your children?”, I ask.
“Oh no. Those are my grandchildren. Only boys.”
Mindy does start talking now, but the conversation takes a wrong turn.
“Them not my children. Oh no. Them not listening enough to their mommy. My children listen to their mommy cause I beat the shit outta them.”
“I beat the shit outta my children. I still do.”
“But your children are grown-ups now.”
“Not all of them. Kadeisha’s still here. I’ll prove it.”
“Kadeisha!”, she shouts, “Kadeisha, get your ass out here!”
“No, please…”, I protest.
To be continued…