At Work Watching White Kids
“It occurred to me that maybe they didn’t see me at all.”
For four or five years, I spent most of my days watching white children. The building I worked in sat between a gym and an overpriced grocery store. Our after-school care’s population was self-selecting—you can either afford kale, or you can’t—and most of the parents who paid us expected that faux robustness from their sitters.
I’d gotten the job as a favor from a friend, off the glowing recommendation that “I was a good guy.” I’d scored him some beer a few months back, filching it from a neighbor’s cooler. I owe you, he told me afterwards, in the parking lot of some party, and I hadn’t believed him then, but he’d cashed out.
On my first day, Joy handed me a white boy swaddled in blankets. Joy was my supervisor. She had skin like worn oak. Don’t drop him, she said, and then she disappeared, and the kid looked up at me and I held him like a sack of tomatoes.
Most of our kids were young. Enrollment ended just before junior high. And it’s hard to say too much about them, since they were early on the route to becoming themselves.
Or at least that was Joy’s spiel. She gave us pep talks every morning. Anecdotes were her thing. Whatever shit they give you, she said, you take it and make a snowman.
On more than one occasion, I’d pick up a baby, or somebody’s toddler, and their eyes would quake at my skin. They’d stare from the elbows up.
Baby, I’d say, me too.
But after the initial shock, they usually got over it. And so that interaction became cyclic, its own tiny revolution: revelation, containment, amazement. Their tiny epiphanies became integral to my day. I talked about them at bars. People stopped buying me drinks.
Once, a little white girl asked me why I was black.
Ah. Hunh. Probably because of my folks.
Your parents are black?
It’s true. Both of them.
And why are they black?
Hunh. Their parents were, too.
Okay. And their parents?
Same story. We go back. We’ve got some outliers, my grandfather was Cherokee, but he’s dark in the photos.
The girl squinted deeply. Then and now, I do not blame her.
I took the question to Joy. Her eyes glazed over. Joy was light-skinned, in her thirties, and there were rumors that she’d owned a business, and that she’d lived in LA, and that she’d had some sort of breakdown, and that this gig was some sort of reprieve, but when I eventually asked her about it she said sometimes people just change their minds. Parents asked her to stay with them often—everyone needed a live-in nanny. To my knowledge, she never accepted. She said there were too many people in Houston who needed that job.
When the little white girl’s parents came to pick her up, we mentioned her inquiry, casually, slipping it in between compliments. The mother covered her hand with her mouth. So, she said, what did you tell her?
Joy blinked. She looked at me.
My child asked you a question, said the mother, and the kid, hearing her name, smiled.
We told her the truth, said Joy. I nodded behind her.
Well, said the mother, and what the fuck was that?
Once, a kid’s father gave me tickets to a football game. He was a graying white man, but young, with a paunch.
Corey likes you, he said, and I checked the stubs for the seats.
He must like me a lot , I said.
He must, said the father.
I can’t take these, I said.
Bullshit, said the father, I asked your boss.
But it wasn’t bullshit at all. I’d actually worked the lots surrounding the stadium. One time, twenty minutes into a game, a man offered me a twenty for a reserved spot. When I didn’t bite, he bumped the twenty to a hundred. When I didn’t bite on that, he spat on me.
The guys I’d worked with (there weren’t any women) handled the lots, but they always had something else going: They worked lots and DJ’d on the side, or they worked lots and took night classes, or they worked lots and painted Mt. Fuji’s expanses across the walls of their sister’s garage apartment in the Heights. Once, I’d gotten drunk with a coworker—this guy who worked lots and sang mariachi—and we made a pact to never take a seat in that stadium, a promise I made because I thought he’d let me kiss him afterwards. (He didn’t. But he wasn’t cruel about it either. He grabbed me by the shoulders, launching into “Amor Eterno.”)
I told Corey’s father I appreciated the gesture. He stuffed both his hands in his pockets. He said it really was too bad, but he shook my hand afterwards, and he never brought it up again.
When I mentioned it in the break room at the daycare, everyone shook their heads at me. Fucking idiot, said Noel. He was the other black guy on staff. He stood a foot taller than me, with dreaded twists lining his scalp. He always walked with a lope, as if he kept time with Thelonious Monk. Parents regularly confused us, and mostly we went along with it.
Once, Noel was playing basketball with some of the kids, and after catching a lay-up he dunked across some ten-year-old’s head. A few hours later, his father slammed through the doors. He asked Joy for Bryan.
When she’d fished me from the back, he laid right into me. He wanted to know what the fuck I was thinking. I was stuck, and a little shocked, but mostly impressed by his vehemence. Joy just shook her head at him. You mean the other one, she said.
Noel emerged for the tongue-lashing. He smiled and apologized. He called the shot a lapse in judgement. He said it wouldn’t happen again. Before Joy could start in on him, but after the man had left, Noel made her the same promise. She called him stupid, stupid, stupid.
But the next day, Noel called in sick. Then he dropped the next few shifts afterwards. After the second week, I started covering all of his hours.
It wasn’t an anomaly—ours was a transient gig. Most of the staffers I worked with were floating between community colleges, or stuck in town over a break. We shed our identities, however amiable, once our clocks punched on the premises.
It was rare for me to run into parents outside the childcare center, and when I did, a nod sufficed. For a while, I thought that of course they’d recognize me—I was probably the only black guy they interacted with all day—until it occurred to me that maybe they didn’t see me at all.
I brought this up with Noel a few months before he took off, while we were shooting baskets in the back of the gym. What the fuck are you talking about, he said. They see us all over. Bagging their groceries and shit. They just don’t care.
Once, this Latina girl jabbed a pencil into my arm. A staffer had lifted her from the computers. She hadn’t agreed with that call. I was the nearest target, the closest totem for her rage, but it dissolved after she stabbed me and she burst into tears. Regrettably, reactively, I yelled out, Shit.
Joy ran over with some other staffers. They looked at the little girl. Then they looked at me. We all shook our heads at one another.
When the girl’s mother picked her up, Joy told her what happened. We showed her my arm. She nodded, showing nothing, and I admired her deeply. When she got hold of her daughter, she demanded that she apologize, which she did in Spanish, Spanglish, and then once again in English.
It’ll never happen again, said the mother. Never.
And it didn’t. We didn’t see the little girl again for months, and when we did, she avoided us altogether.
We rarely saw parents of color, let alone colorful parents. But when we did, the difference in demeanor was striking. They remembered your name. They came back on time. Their children didn’t break shit. And they always, always apologized.
I wondered why that was. I brought it up to Joy. She looked at me for a long time, and said that’s what the neighborhood did to you. These parents lived in Texas. They knew exactly where they were. The same way that they knew they’d gained entrance to this world, they were aware that the slightest miscalculation could evict them from it.
And besides, Joy said to me, you should know. You live here too.
When the end came, it happened all of a sudden—one day, a guy ran in dragging his daughter. He tugged on her shirt collar.
Someone bit her, he said. Some fucking nigger took a chunk out of her neck.
He’d shown up late the night before. The center had closed an hour earlier. His kid had sat in front of the television, cycling through Disney cassette after Disney cassette, and it’d been some time since she’d had anyone to play with on our watch, let alone someone hanging around to bite her under the jaw. If she had been bitten by anyone, it would’ve happened before she arrived at the center.
But none of this mattered. Because he was an angry white man. He was an angry white man who felt wronged without cause. There was nothing in the handbook for this, and yet I’d been training for it my whole life, so I apologized, nodding. I told him I’d investigate.
The man said that wasn’t fucking good enough. He asked his daughter who’d been watching her. For a reason that I cannot, and never will never make sense of, she pointed over the counters, across the room, at Joy.
Joy hadn’t even been working that day. She’d only passed by to pick up some paperwork. But when this man approached her, she opened her mouth, closing it just as soon. And in some great display of fortitude, she didn’t wring her hands. She didn’t point at me. She smiled, nodding. She apologized for everything. The father diffused immediately.
Fine, he said. He told us he’d fix the issue.
The very next morning, Joy was fired on the spot. I didn’t see it happen. I’m told that she just smiled.
I held the job for another month. I could feel myself slipping away at light-speed. After shouting at a parent who didn’t deserve it in the least, I left one day and didn’t go back.
There weren’t too many jobs in my town for young people. Before I moved, I ran through a couple more. I served chicken sandwiches for a week. I worked at a grocery store for three minutes. For a minute, Noel worked clipping coupons beside me, laughing across departments about white people’s selections for dinner. The longest gig I held was selling shirts at T.J. Maxx.
I saw a number of the parents while working these new jobs. Most of them didn’t say shit, but a couple did. The ones who asked genuinely seemed to care how I was doing. One woman, an art teacher, asked if she could speak freely while buying some lingerie.
This isn’t where I thought you’d end up, she said, but then she smiled, because what could you do.
One day, leaving that gig at the department store, I passed a kid who called me by name. It spooked me so much I nearly turned right back around. It disturbed the kid’s father, too, but her mother just smiled. She shook my hand. She asked how I was doing.
She said I’d meant a lot to her son, that he’d talked about me often. Her kid was short and pale. He’d gotten taller since I’d last seen him.
He smiled, waving, and my stomach absolutely sank. I couldn’t remember his name. I couldn’t remember it for anything.