Notes of an Uncle Tom
“Tom, Tom…Come in Tom. Do you read me tom?”
I still laugh at my father’s reaction the moment I informed him—with unprecedented pride—that I’d been hired as a door attendant at a high-end apartment complex in the city. I had started off as a security guard at the same complex greeting the high end residents with a high end greeting (such as “Wonderful morning, isn’t it?”…followed by an under the breath “you son of a bitch”), high end nod, and of course, a high end—albeit chickenshit—smile.
I always pictured a door attendant as wearing one of those outfits with a wide shouldered jacket and captain’s hat—like the door man on that classic TV show, “The Jeffersons”. I was given a pair of tan pants—Dockers—a light shirt and well made, high end leather shoes. I slipped into the outfit and began to feel high end. My end had never felt so high. Anyway, it’s getting higher with every passing minute.
“Hey dad” I said. “I got a new job…a house negro job, a doorman. Aren’t you proud of me? You think grandma and grandpa are proud, having braved the stormy seas to come to America like George Washington and John Wayne (not really, but it sounds like a good thing to say), in hopes of providing a new life, new opportunities to their offspring and their offspring’s offspring. Dad paused. He’s a native San Franciscan living in Hawaii. I heard the waves pounding the shore through the static of his Metro PCS cell phone. He finally spoke: You ain’t got no house negro job…you got an uncle Tom job. I listened to the waves and the sound of the ocean over the phone. My dad, working years and years as a janitor in San Francisco; he’s got the Hawaiian beaches now. Let him have that beach, he deserves it.
I stand by the door waiting. I look around. The building is big and spotless and I hear the calls of ravens outside. They sometimes call out to me. “Hey Uncle Tom, you think you can throw us a few breadcrumbs…at your convenience, of course”. I got to the lobby kitchen area and look for breadcrumbs but all I find is expensive gourmet coffee. I see a resident walking to the door. I step on it, moving with the swiftness of a gazelle, reaching the door and opening it with much class. Sometime the residents say thank you, sometimes not.
I am 90 days into my Tom-Hood. I am doing a decent job but I have some concerns. One of these concerns involves an old white man in a terry cloth robe–let’s call him T.C. (short for Terry Cloth). “T.C” comes down every morning to the lobby for his morning paper and coffee. He is pleasant, and his robe his befitting of the terry cloth prince that he surely is. He requested a cart from me to move a few items into his apartment. Like the good Tom that I am, I complied. He came back with the cart 30 minutes later. Put it there, he said, producing a fist. He inched his fist close to me. “Give it up” he said. I looked at my hand. “T.C” took a hold of my hand and formed a fist. He then, in a beautifully choreographed moment, bumped his fist into mine–a “Brotherhood of the fist” of sorts–not predicated upon race, economic status, education or various other chickenshit requirements and/or sensibilities. It’s tough being a Tom, for you forget how to make a fist and must rely on older white men to give you an occasional refresher course.
Sometimes I find myself dozing at the desk and at the door. I think of the neighborhood outside. Not long ago, my grandparents were prevented from moving here. It was in the 1950’s. Grandpa was a black man from Louisiana, grandma was San Francisco Irish. Nobody in this place knows this. I open the door and the ravens cry out. I step back inside and see another resident approach. They all look so important, all making so much money. What do they do to make so much money? I open the door and smile. “Have a nice day, sir”. I don’t earn enough to live in this place, yet I grew up in this neighborhood. Nobody in this place knows this.
A coworker stops by. His name is “J”. We talk about the job. He mops the floor and changes the toilet paper consistently and with much expertise. He speaks of the former doorman, a fellow named Kissassman. Kissassman lasted a couple of months. “J” explained that Kissassman was running around every second, attending to every need. “Kissassman get me an umbrella, Kissassman make more coffee, Kissassman call me a cab, Kissassman arrange to have my dry cleaning picked up, Kissassman, kissassman Kissassman…etc, etc. One day kissassan left—kissed it all goodbye like a snake shedding some unfamiliar skin. His last words, “I’m tired of being Kissassman. I’m going to have my name changed…legally.
In the meantime, I stand by the door. I catch myself dozing off. My cell phone rings, a text message from good old dad. I read it:
“Tom, Tom…come in Tom…do you read me Tom?”