Thursday, November 06, 2008

I Remember Ethel

Sometime in the last 24 hours, I dreamed about Ethel. It was just for a second, just long enough for me to realize who she was. Then she walked away, head held high.

I probably wouldn't have remembered that snippet of dream were it not for the fact that Merry Maids has a sign up announcing that they're hiring. I considered for a moment whether I'd be willing to wash windows and vacuum floors just to get employed again. Then I saw that the pay offered is hardly more than I'm getting in unemployment now.

Ethel was a maid - or, more accurately, a housekeeper. Within a year or two of our moving to Manlius, NY in 1961, my Mom hired her to come in twice a week and clean our house. She did laundry and vacuuming, dishes and dusting. And when I was little and not in school, she made me Campbell's soup and bologna sandwiches for lunch. I think that when she started, she was 28 years old. Her favorite tv show was The Edge of Night.

We didn't get along well, especially as I grew older. It wasn't because she was the only African American I knew back then (not that that term existed yet). It was because she found that the most efficient was to clean my room was to throw my stuff away. Once I wrote on an envelope, "Do not throw away." She threw it away. There was money in it. I got in the habit of going through the trash cans in the garage on Tuesdays and Fridays.

I should have been cleaning my own room, and I should have negotiated with her rather than resenting her. As it was, I probably wasn't very respectful. She called me a "b---h" when I was too young to know the word. When I was a little older, I tried to get her fired. Not good. My mom was never going to fire her in any case. Mom's health wasn't great - she had lingering effects from polio encephalitis - and she really needed the help.

And yet, even back then, with no experience of black people beyond this woman I didn't like very much, I saw that bigotry wasn't confined to the people on tv, the people down South who opposed "forced busing" and the man who killed Martin Luther King. I saw that even my mom, the Johnson Democrat from Stratford, Connecticut, had her lapses and her biases. It made me question my own attitudes, and fight to be fair-minded. And when we finally did terminate Ethel's employment, because my parents were divorcing and my mom was moving to Florida, I cried and wished her well.

And here is where I'm going with this seemingly pointless reminiscence. I would like to think that 45 years later, a young woman like Ethel would have a much broader track of opportunity than the woman I sort-of knew. Today's Ethel should have the same shot as anyone else of a decent education, and of a job that doesn't involve cleaning up after a suburban family of professionals. Given the same advantages I had, today's Ethel could probably be a suburban professional herself. And I hope that even the original Ethel's life improved considerably after the day we said goodbye.

Are we there yet? The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States points to the answer, that yes, she can. But as far as we've come, we still have some distance to go. Last night, NPR ran a memorable photo of a hotel ballroom in North Carolina, site of an abortive GOP victory party. The signs for Elizabeth Dole (shame on her!) were still up, but the Republicans had left. "But as Obama's speech came on the TV in the hotel ballroom, about a dozen hotel employees gathered to watch -- all of them African-American."

There will always be people cleaning rooms and vacuuming floors, and making considerably less money than other people with better jobs. But we should never have reason to assume that the people at the party are white, non-Hispanic and Protestant, and the people doing the cleaning are African American in some parts of the country, Hispanic in others. We really should be beyond that by now.

And it is getting better, much better. Last night's election proved that. The smart, thoughtful, even-tempered Harvard guy didn't fit the old profile for the job of President of the United States, but he was the better candidate and he won anyway. The old barriers are falling. And that's also why I'm sure that the passage of Proposition 8 in California, of Prop 102 in Arizona and whatever the equivalent measure was in Florida is only a temporary setback. The tide of history is pushing us forward, and a single wave of bigotry can't hold it back for long.


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