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Entitled to What?

Part One: 2010

My thick, clunky cell phone read two a.m., the room so dark, without the cell, I couldn’t see a thing as I lay on the bed. I wasn’t home. This was a friend’s guest room. Usually, I felt comfortable here. Tonight I was restless—more than restless—I was incensed.

I sat up, one hand grabbing the mattress, the other reaching for the bedside lamp. Trying to calm myself, my breathing was still loud through clenched teeth. I couldn’t get her haughty tone and disdainful look out of my head.

“It didn’t used to be that way, you know. Not in my day.” Even as the lamp clicked on, I could see her eyebrows rise as she spoke.  They had been playing in my head for hours; her words, the tightness of her skin and the simmering self-righteous contempt bleeding down from her eyebrows across her cheeks and into her clenched jaw.

Earlier that evening, my friend and I were having dinner at her favorite Mexican restaurant. More than twenty years my senior, she was in her seventies and preparing for her retirement. We were talking about the sale of her house, the investments her husband had left for her, what her new budget would be. I was there to help where I could and be a sounding board as she worked through her fear of running out of money.

“It sounds like you have enough monthly income to take care of your rent and living expenses. What about health care? Are you sure you have that covered?”

She took another sip of her margarita and waved her hand: “Oh yes. I’ve got my insurance through the Navy. Everything is taken care of.”

I should have just congratulated her. That was all I needed to say. But she reminded me of my Grandmother in so many ways and my pride wanted to let her know I was closer to her than she thought. She was used to being wealthy and the superiority that she believed she had been rightfully bred into. Her manner was gracious most of the time, but always with an edge, a harsh tension under her kind demeanor and cheery disposition.

“That’s great,” I said. “You are blessed. My Grandmother didn’t buy health insurance. She just saved the money and lived on her investments. Then, when she had only a hundred thousand dollars left she died.”

That was when I saw my friend’s face grow hard and the edges of her mouth tighten. Immediately, I wished I hadn’t said it. “That’s how it used to be,” she said.

It was the tone of her voice in that moment that refused to let me sleep. “…now people feel entitled to health care. When I was young and you needed to go to the doctor you just paid them. If you couldn’t, well…”

She lifted her glass towards me, emphasizing her point. I wanted to ignore her and let it go, but the contempt and indignation in her voice was too sharp. Even in the din of this restaurant, it flew across the table cutting into me like a musket shot against a bow and arrow. I had failed to raise my defenses in time. Just as I had learned to do with my grandmother, I instinctively tried to keep any more honest thoughts from spilling out. A moment ago I had clenched my jaw tight. Now I couldn’t get it loose.

I stood and opened the window. Even in the mountains, it was humid. I looked at my phone again. Two-thirty and no closer to sleep.

Even in the din of this restaurant, it flew across the table cutting into me like a musket shot against a bow and arrow. I had failed to raise my defenses in time. Just as I had learned to do with my grandmother, I instinctively tried to keep any more honest thoughts from spilling out.

I couldn’t shake her word: entitled. It was an election year. As President Obama and John McCain duked it out, it was Sarah Palin who caught most of the press. When she spoke “entitlement” came up frequently.  It seemed that invariably her worst comments were continuously championed by a conservative pundits on Fox News, speaking contemptuously about Obamacare and virtually anything that had to do with under privileged people in need. Still, I wondered why so many people suddenly seemed so indignant about anything that might help those who weren’t well-heeled?

Of course my friend knew nothing about my own situation. My white grandmother had inherited a good sum of money, I had not. She had retired in her fifties and spent the next three decades traveling the world. My last twenty years involved working sixty to eighty stressful hours a week. Just before I had driven up the mountain for this visit, I discovered that my own health insurance costs had nearly doubled on my fiftieth birthday.  I was still stinging from the shock. How was I going to pay seven hundred and thirty-nine dollars a month for healthcare plus all the deductibles?

I didn’t resent that my older friend’s health care, along with most of her family, was government paid. What was the Navy, after all, but a government agency? Most of her kids worked for government agencies too. Nearly everyone in her family enjoyed government health care. That wasn’t what upset me. I’d much rather have my taxes pay for healthcare than a bank bailout or another war. But this conversation had been followed by another indignant outburst, fueled by a couple more margaritas.  Once she was on a roll, it all poured out.  Somehow, the conversation had moved from entitlement to reverse discrimination.

“Oh yes…” she said.  Her lips moving slightly slower as the tequila took effect.  “I’ve had discrimination too.”  Now her head nodded and the thick, hand-blown glass seemed to float back and forth as she held it more loosely and explained.

“One summer when I was young – I think I was nineteen or twenty – I worked at a theme park as a tour guide.  They assigned me to the African section and I had to tour visitors around and tell them about African history and geography, things like that.

“Well I didn’t know any of that stuff.”  She explained with a conspiratorial laugh, “So I just made it up!”  Now a big laugh, as if this was a hilarious joke.  Not because she was ignorant, but because it was such a silly thing to do.  Or perhaps because she felt it was too far beneath her to learn about the subject matter.  “And you know what they did?  They fired me and hired a black person to replace me!  Now that’s reverse discrimination.”

As the night stretched into morning, I couldn’t shake the self-righteous way she had explained away her action. My mind continued to spin.  As if watching a movie, I thought of other dinners I’d had with people who to my understanding, believed they were more progressive…

 

Part Two: 1988

“Well, Kim, I’ve decided you are right” my mother announced. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was sitting in my sunny living room. Still February, the sun wasn’t yet high in the sky. Even in Los Angeles, a winter sky has a different light. Mom had been out to see me just a few weeks before.  I had just landed my first good paying job and moved into a Spanish style flat with a big arched window facing the street.  I had arrived.  We celebrated Christmas together and had a great time decorating my new apartment, first with furniture, then with lights and ornaments on a big tree.

My mother still lived in Minnesota and hated the cold. I had spent much of that visit trying to convince her she should move to California where both of her daughters now lived.  When she called with this announcement, I assumed she was about to tell me she was moving to Los Angeles. I was wrong.

“Great!” I replied with delight.

“Yes, I’m going to move… to Istanbul.”

“What? Istanbul?”

“Yes! I’m moving to Istanbul. I should move to a warmer climate. I loved Turkey when I was traveling and I want to move there.”

A year later, I visited Turkey for the first time. I hadn’t expected to travel the world, certainly not in my twenties. Following my mother’s lead, however, I had to take advantage of the opportunity. I opened up a CD savings account and deducted money from every check. Before I knew it, I was on a flight for a whirlwind tour. In truth, Turkey didn’t really interest me when I was planning the trip. I was much more excited about seeing England, France and Italy – places that sounded so much more magical to me. So I started in London and bought a rail pass that took me to a few other countries before Turkey. It required a special visa to get through countries behind the ‘Iron Curtain’… but that’s another story.

Once I arrived, I realized how wrong I had been.  Istanbul taught me how little I knew about the world. So much of world history has passed over its soil – the Ottomans, Muslims, Christians, early pagans. I learned that the first Christian church in the world was in Turkey, as was the ancient temple to Artemis. I was stunned as I listened to tour guides describe the remnants of the Ottoman Empire that lay along the banks and hills of the Bosporus Sea. Here was a center of so much important European history – where east meets west — and I knew nothing about it. Apparently, it wasn’t important in my high school education.

One night, my Mother had company. She had been working for a magazine advertising firm and one of their clients was coming for dinner. Ed was a British businessman. His close shave and broad shoulders provided the perfect foundation for a charming smile. Like many white businessmen I’ve known, he was so comfortable with his power he thought nothing of it. As we chatted over dinner, he told us about his family in England. He spoke proudly about his wife and two children, each of whom was nearing their teens. He was also intrigued with his time in Turkey.

“Say, I was near the bazaar today,” he explained, “and I am so impressed with all the children out there selling on the street. Excellent, just excellent to see.”

His sincerity was evident. He looked to my mother and me for agreement. We looked hard at our plates.

“They were all there, working so hard. I was quite impressed. This is so much better than if they were just running the streets. These Turks are quite industrious. Don’t you agree?”

I was too stunned to respond. I knew exactly who he was talking about. My mother had taken me to the market just a couple of days earlier. The bazaar was a cacophony of textiles, leather, carpets and trinkets of all varieties in an outdoor market with walls lined with shops. It was even more vibrant with color and the sound of hawkers than the city’s other popular areas. This is where tourists came to spend money. It’s entry was like the mouth of a cloth covered beast, its walls the color of adobe and ancient poles jutting out from the roof beckoned you inside. So did the merchants.

Gathered along the street, close to the market entries, were the children. Children were everywhere that tourists went in Istanbul. Nearly all of them were boys between the ages of about six and twelve. Despite a continuous layer of street dust, their black hair shone on the hotter days. Some made a small display from a scarf and laid their plastic travel size Kleenex packets out on top of it to sell. Younger boys simply held out their hands with the two-toned packets of blue or green.

Sometimes they murmured in Turkish or broken English. Sometimes, they just tried to catch my eye. When they did, with faces as dark or darker than mine, they implored me not to ignore them. It was so painful to see that after giving what I could I tried to ignore them. Like so many other tourists, I stopped making eye contact to avoid the resignation in their young eyes.

As we continued to study the contours of our plates, our silence wasn’t lost on Ed. We tried to let it go, but he pressed on apparently needing affirmation. Clearly, he felt magnanimous in his support of ‘the industriousness of the Turks.’ All I could see was the look in the children’s eyes and the dust on their bare feet.

Clearly, he felt magnanimous in his support of ‘the industriousness of the Turks.’ All I could see was the look in the children’s eyes and the dust on their bare feet.

I felt a familiar squeezing in my chest. This was a moment to choose. Do I say something honest or eat the bile building in my throat? This was a working dinner for my mother, after all. But I was too outraged to let it pass.

“How old are your daughters?” I asked with as calm a voice as I could.

Ed looked at me, a bit surprised. “Anna is eleven and Marguerite is thirteen.”

“Where do they go to school?”

He seemed to sense were I was heading, but answered my question anyway. “Our girls attend the Oxford Academy, a private school just outside of London.”

“How would you feel if your children were out on the street hawking Kleenex?”

Now he was uncomfortable, but I saw a glimmer of respect in his eye. “Well, I wouldn’t.”

“So why it is okay for these Turkish children? Don’t they have a right to go to school too?”

The table was silent. He didn’t respond, nor did my mother.

“How can you say that any child of ten or twelve selling on the street is good thing? Why should any of them have to be on the street in the middle of the day? Shouldn’t they be in school like your kids?”

 

Part Three: 2007

I was excited when I arrived. It was my friend’s birthday and we were celebrating at a favorite restaurant in Oakland, California.  It was a cavernous place with high ceilings, dozens of round tables and a shiny bar. Near the front door stood a wooden horse, its mane flowing in a frozen breeze.

I sat at a table of ten greeting Tammy and Jane, two of my closest friends. More guests arrived, mostly couples fresh from the shower and their blow driers. We kissed our hostesses and congratulated our beloved friend with flowers, cards and small packages. Just to my right sat Susan, a woman I’d known for several years. She arrived with her partner Heather and their new baby. We all cooed at the little girl wrapped in her bassinet and congratulated our friends. As new mothers, they still glowed from the magic of bringing new life into the world.

Together they had planned carefully and prepared the nest for the next generation of their family tree. They saved money from every pay check so that Susan could stay home with their newborn for several months. They had enough to remodel the kitchen as well and joyously described their new cabinets and counters. Then Susan described the challenges of midnight feedings and her fogginess from lack of sleep.

“Heather is gone at work all day, so I’m alone with her,” she explained. “I know everyone tells you that you will be tired, but really, I can’t believe how exhausted I am.” We listened intently to Susan’s tale and nodded emphatically. Even those of us without children could empathize. We were all women.

Susan continued, gathering sympathy. “I’m totally fried by the time she gets home.” She reached down to get a cloth from her new baby tote bag and handed it to Heather. Heather dutifully wiped some drool off the baby’s cheek.

“I really don’t know how I could do it without her, you know?  Seriously, no one should be allowed to. There should be a law.”

Somehow her tone had transitioned from excitement and feigned complaining to contempt. “Now that I have a baby, I really can’t see how they let those poor girls do it. No one should let an unwed seventeen year old girl have a kid. There were all these girls at Kaiser when I went in for prenatal care —  I saw all these Latina girls at the hospital all by themselves. They’ve got no money and no one to help.”

I froze.

“What is going to happen to their kids? It’s ridiculous. No one should be allowed…”

I felt the blood drain from my face, pounding so loudly I could barely hear her. As I sat silently, a familiar feeling overtook me. My jaw clenched and my mind raced.  It was my dear friend’s birthday party and I didn’t want to ruin it, but as the sound of Susan’s contempt floated around the circle, I couldn’t sit still.

I got up and left the table.

I couldn’t hide my outrage, but I kept my mouth shut. I headed through the restaurant, overflowing with laughing dinner guests. I hit the door of the women’s room and nearly fell into the wall. When outrage is held in my throat, it’s like being gripped by a vice. I stood there trying to bring myself down off the edge of the precipice. Thoughts and feelings battled for the primary seat. Everything inside me wanted to scream. What do I do? Should I say something or let it go? The more I wanted to scream, the tighter my chest got until I thought I might never be able to pull myself back. Then the door opened and Jane came in with a concerned look on her face.

“Are you O.K.?”

“No.” I couldn’t cry, but I couldn’t calm myself down either.

“What’s going on?” She asked, offering me her ear and a therapist’s empathetic attention.

“I just can’t believe what she is saying out there. How privileged is she? Does she even realize what she is saying?” Jane just listened.

We both knew that Susan and Heather had been together just a couple of years when they got pregnant. They lived in a house in the Berkeley Hills that Susan had inherited from her parents. It was her childhood home and it was paid for. With no mortgage, Susan put the money she earned at a government job into repairing the house and spending time with her baby.  Clearly, the irony was lost on her, but not on me.

I was the only woman of color at the table. Until Jane came into the bathroom, I was the only one who reacted to what Susan had said. “Jesus, Jane. She’s talking about me out there. I’m the baby she was referring to.”

“What do you mean?” Jane asked.

“My mother was seventeen when she got pregnant with me. So what is she saying? I should not have been born?  She’s out there talking like ‘those kids are never going to amount to anything’ without even realizing that I am one of those kids. When my parents brought me home from the hospital, they put me in their dresser drawer until they could afford a cradle. So should I not have been born because my Mom and Dad were poor? I put myself through school and I’ve been a professional for a long time. But to hear her talk, I should never have amounted to anything.  Just end up a grimy little criminal.”

I leaned against the double sink and turned on the water.  Then I cupped my hand under the tap and splashed the warm water on my face.  Still no better.  Maybe I should have tried cold water.

“God, I feel sick to my stomach. How can she sit there acting so self-righteous when she lives in a house in the hills she inherited free and clear?”

I knew I should stop, but I couldn’t help continuing my rant: “Does she even realize that to most of the world she’s a single mother too? Conservatives don’t care that she’s got a partner. She’s a lesbian. As far as most people are concerned she is a single mother. Here she is with an inheritance that allows her to work as an ambulance tech and still live in the hills. She can decide to have a kid and manufactures one, then has the nerve to talk about my Mother like she’s trash.”

“I don’t think she means you.” Jane was trying to be reassuring.

“Yes, she does. That’s the problem.”

Jane left a few moments later. I stood in the dim light of the bathroom with my back against the dark tile wall. I looked into the large mirror over the sinks on the other side.

Being light skinned and having soft curly hair, I was mistaken for a Latina frequently. Everywhere I went in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, there were people who looked just like me. Sometimes they spoke to me in Spanish, sometimes they did not. It was one of my favorite things about living in California.  Unlike the constant questions I grew up with in a very white Minnesota, no one here asked me what I was.  At least it wasn’t usually their first question.

I turned on the tap and washed my hands.  As a few delinquent drops splashed on my shiny jacket, I thought back to a day years earlier, when I had just arrived in San Francisco. I stopped to help an old man who had fallen in a drunken stupor and cut his head open. The streets were bustling with tourists and people rushing to and from lunch. Everyone looked at him lying on the street, and then kept going. Once I knelt down to help, they stopped seeing me too.

Finally, a man stopped to help and then ran off to call an ambulance. He came back and gave me a handkerchief. I held it to the fallen man’s head while we waited for help to arrive. As we knelt together, he asked me if I was Samoan. I explained to him that I was half black and half white. He was apologetic and told me that he thought I might be Samoan because Samoans were fat people like me. I wasn’t offended. His tone was one of simple curiosity. He didn’t need to put me in my place.

After an entire childhood of stranger’s stares practically everywhere I went, it was a joy to have someone recognize that I was a woman of color without contempt. Even if he got it wrong, he didn’t ask me ‘what’ I was. He didn’t look at me as if I were an alien. Instead, as we waited, he casually described all the possible countries my people could have come from. It was a moment I never forgot. It felt so good to simply be seen.

As the memory faded, I pulled a paper towel from a dispenser and dried my hands. Then I ran them down my face and tried to pull a smile back on. I returned to the table to find the conversation had moved on. Susan had stopped talking, but I could have cut the tension with a knife. The rest of the women were working hard to act as if nothing was wrong.

I had decided not to “ruin” my friend’s party, but I couldn’t pull it off completely. Just by leaving the table I had made a scene.  I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t bleeding, and they couldn’t bear to look me in the face. A Pandora’s Box had been ripped open.

I didn’t say another word to Susan, but I couldn’t hide my hurt completely. So the other women did what came naturally. The party went on around me. They spoke to each other and sometimes to me but no one said anything about what was really happening. Like the man I found injured on the street in San Francisco, they saw the blood but offered no handkerchief. One by one, they averted their eyes and looked past me. Then they ordered more appetizers.

Like the man I found injured on the street in San Francisco, they saw the blood but offered no handkerchief.

***

I felt another mountain breeze on my shoulder. It brought me back into the bedroom. I looked at the clock again, which read four a.m. I had a full day of work soon. I needed to try to get some sleep. I turned off the light, pulled up the sheets and lay back down.

“This is what ‘entitlement’ looks like.” I thought. “This is exactly what it looks like.”

Some people feel entitled to have babies because they are not afraid of being poor. Some people feel entitled to send their children to private schools while other kids beg in the streets. Some feel entitled to a nice, quiet dinner… and more spring rolls.

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