“Don’t be messin with my hustle, now,” Sandra says, her voice rough as a gravel path. We’re drilling our way down Broadway and Sandra adds, “I’m gonna push these motherfuckers into the street if they don’t get outta my way.” Nearby, a woman, long blond hair, young, wearing leggings, swoops in front of us, pushing a stroller, then abruptly stops to wait for the light to change. I think Sandra is going to go off on her, but, instead, Sandra bends forward and grins and waves at her baby who gurgles back. That’s so Sandra, one minute she’s ready to fight, the next she’s kissing babies with the confidence of a politician.
New Yorkers are notorious for ignoring a naked man calmly strolling down the street, but they are people watchers. When I’m with Sandra people take note, partly because of our gray hair—hers cut close to her scalp, mine curly, almost to my shoulders—but more likely because we’re two, barely five-foot tall, female, ebony and ivory, fifty-ish, inappropriate, gray-haired peas-in-a-very-odd pod.
Sandra says, “We should take the bus.”
“Your doctor wants you to walk,” I say, “and I need to get my ten thousand steps.”
“Suzanne. You’re a bully. We always have to walk.” She stops in the middle of the sidewalk, fists tightened as though she’s angry, glimmer in her eye showing her pleasure in performing for random passersby who now have to scoot around us—I guess some people want to avoid getting stuck in a race war, since Sandra’s Black and I’m Caucasoid, as my granddaughter says.
I say, “So if we do what you say and take the bus, does that make you a bully? No, it doesn’t. We’re reaching a consensus.”
In full theatrical mode, Sandra gives me her incredulous look. “Consensus? What’s that, some kind of game you’re running on me?”
“No, it’s us figuring out a way to agree. Now come on, let’s walk.”
“Bully,” she says, and marches on, breasts pointed like machine guns. Every so often she waves her arms and stops to put an exclamation mark on her words.
When we prowl between our apartments in the East Village, it’s like a party. Having lived in this area for over thirty years, I toss a hello at people in front of the laundry, at Mannie who sells books on Avenue A, and at Kembra, downtown artist AKA The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. But Sandra! We can’t go two feet without someone stopping her: woman with small boy tells Sandra the little one is on “candy restriction;” domino players greet her in Spanish; numbers players and runners disclose today’s important tips; guys blasting Motown on old school boom box joke with her. She’s a celebrity, a politician, mayor of the Lower East Side—appointed by consensus.
Though when we walk anywhere else, people look as though they’re confused about what we have in common. They see our exuberant conversation, our teasing, our age, but not our shared addictive nature, now held in check by recovery, or the internal struggles and family lunacy we deal with. Her Southern family, mine Midwest. Her outward thrust, my inward.
Sandra grew up in a small town in North Carolina, stopped school after the 5th grade, got sent to New York when she was pregnant at 16, had her baby, found drugs, then served 16 years of her 25 to life on a cocaine bust; the D.A. knew she wasn’t selling, but if you don’t name names, it’s what you get. Still, no one can put a handle on her, no pre-fab mold will fit around those curves. The same for me. I grew up in a small town in Minnesota, ran out as soon as I could, earned a Master’s Degree in film—doing crystal meth at the time so I recorded and edited more video than the rest of the class combined. Busy running the streets myself, I didn’t find a use for that degree till I got sober. Still, it’s Sandra’s presence that holds the public’s interest, her animated talking, the sense of danger steaming off her. I might pass unnoticed, but Sandra is NOT invisible. You can’t gaze at her energy too long, it might harm you, burn you, bring you crashing to the earth. Sandra strides ahead of me, happy to be going to the Pandora Store. But for me, this is silly—exchanging a bead that doesn’t fit the bracelet. The bracelet Sandra gave me.
* * *
Sandra and I met ten years ago. At the time, Anthony, my gray-haired, six feet two, bass playing, recovering coke-addict hubby and I were milling around with a group of loud-talking folks, maybe thirty or so, blocking the sidewalks outside our AA meeting. We had to arrive an hour early to get a seat in a place that had room for 200 people. Anthony and I listened to the snatches of conversations that made a kind of rhythm and blues: “I was a vegan coke head. / You stupid. / Forgiveness is like an antibiotic. / If I’m not grateful, I’m hateful. / Keep coming back.” These phrases might be said with heartfelt meaning, other times, spring-loaded with sarcasm.
The air around us crackled with this loud, aggressive joking. In the city, gatherings on walkways are naturally occurring events outside performance venues, churches, big sales, and funeral parlors. All noisy, except the last, where the muted conversations of mourners caused even self-occupied New Yorkers to speak in hushed tones.
Seeing this mixture of eccentrics, a person might have guessed the amount of jail time from these hard jaws and stances but wouldn’t guess the number of graduate degrees, often earned after getting sober. Surrounded by this goofy, yet serious cast of characters, some frightening, some frightened, some just off the street, some professionals, we were at home, sheltered. We belonged. There was an understanding between us, a kind of music only we knew and heard.
Nearby, three of our friends chatted in a circle: Freddie, barely nine months sober, gorgeous Black dancer in his twenties with trendy hair, shaved on one side, braids dripping down the other, his long neck moving sharply in time to his words; and Bill, a Black ex-boxer, vet, with a Ph.D. and a jauntily cocked fedora; and Queens David, a white, cigar-smoking, storyteller, voice even more gravelly than Sandra’s, rakish in his flat cap. With over ten years sober, David referred to himself in meetings as “a Jew from Queens.”
From the middle of their circle, a short, dark-skinned woman with gray-hair gestured broadly, saying loudly, “I did 16 years. Fed time. They tell you in months. Once I was in the cell, I asked what 300 months meant. When they said 25 years, I fainted. Out cold.” Her movement was startling, not like a dancer, more like an explosive device. In her stiffly ironed white shirt and loose jeans, she flung her arms about as she posed in positions of astonishment, anger, or toughness, like she was starring in “Real Housewives of AA.”
Anthony said, “That’s Sandra, the one I told you about. From my Saturday meeting. She always has to bring up her time in prison. She’s only got two years sober.”
Anthony and I had 15 years clean and sober at that time and two years seemed like a minute, though we knew the first 90 days took an eternity, five years went by like molasses, and 15 years ran by like a rushing stream. The 25 we had now had passed like a finger snap. Time playing a game on us. But 16 years incarcerated, how would that pass?
Sandra spied Anthony. “Oh shit,” she said and rushed over. “This your wife?”
“This is Suzanne.” Anthony put his arm around me and smiled at Sandra as if she were an unruly child. She gave me the once over and stood back like she was afraid. “She goin to stab me?”
I gave her my serious don’t-fuck-with-me face, assuming she was playing for effect. Then her attention moved to Veronica who was kissing and hugging her way towards us. Veronica, a Black woman over six feet tall with locked hair pouring out from under a wide-brimmed orange hat, caused all eyes to fall on her, a stunning figure in a yellow dress electrified next to her dark skin. With 20 years sober, Veronica was a lawyer, yoga instructor, and painter—of lush oils of brown women in glorious bright colors—whom you’d never guess had such a low-down, drug-addict beginning. Sandra watched her closely, gauging who this bougie-but-rough Black woman might be.
After Veronica hugged us, Crystal came up behind her, threw her arm around Veronica’s shoulder. With a hurricane of red curly hair, milky pale skin, height of nearly six feet, this white woman was dressed all in black except for a bright blue silk scarf. Nearly eighteen years sober, an ex-stripper, a writer, and a social activist—or sometimes, we joked, an antisocial activist.
As Anthony introduced them to Sandra, Bill, in his cocked fedora, sauntered over and said, “I never thought Sandra would still be sober. When she first came in, I said, she won’t be here but a minute.”
Sandra pushed up on him. “But here I am. Two years! You want to loan me 20?”
Bill and Anthony smiled and shook their heads and continued to tease Sandra, till Crystal’s words, as she was talking with Veronica, surfaced. “I miss Obama. How could we have gone from the sublime to the absurd?”
Veronica shook her head. “Black people knew it was coming. I kept saying, watch out for the backlash.”
“You got that right,” Sandra jumped in, singing, “Tell me, Mister Backlash/what you think I got to lose?” Of course. Nina Simone’s version of Langston Hughes’ poem. Taking another hairpin conversational turn, Sandra said, “When I first got sober all I wanted from meetings was a man to take care of me. Let me live with him. He would buy me a terry cloth bathrobe. I’d get up in the morning and drink my E&J in a snifter.”
Anthony grinned. “E&J? You’d be drinking that cheap wine that never met a grape.”
Sandra moved in on Anthony. “Come on, give me money for coffee.”
“No, get away.” He stepped back from her.
I offered to lend her a five, but she said she wanted the money from Anthony. He took out two dollars. “Now leave me alone.”
“That’s all? I can’t get a coffee with that.” She put her arm into the crook of his.
He pulled away. “Don’t play me close, now. Go get it, the meeting’s starting soon.”
For the next five minutes, people practically stampeded us to get in to protect the seats they’d held with sweaters and scarves. We waited outside for Sandra, who returned, coffee in hand, just as a tattooed woman with bright pink hair kissed Anthony. Sandra scrunched up her face in distaste. “You let that young girl kiss up on you like that?” Then to me, “You gonna slap him or do you want me to slap him for you?”
I laughed, but Anthony just held out his hand. “Where’s my change?”
Sandra sputtered, “You only gave me two dollars.”
Anthony shook his head and they both broke out into joyous grins. Anthony held the door and we went inside.
The three of us sat in the back row in a room full of rambunctious, over-caffeinated, recovering alcoholics and addicts, shouting out commentary as the meeting hadn’t yet started. Gray hair, purple hair, no hair. Black, white, Asian. A mad house of inmates who couldn’t keep any conversational strand going, but whose differing realities met at the same street corner.
Once the meeting started, the rustling and catcalling stopped. A guy spoke for about 20 minutes and his story stopped me from thinking about myself at the same time as it brought up my past memories. That this coming together to talk about ourselves and to listen to others could cause us to NOT use drugs or drink was clearly impossible, except it worked.
After he finished qualifying, he called on people with their hands raised. When he called on Sandra, she stood up, though most sat when they shared. She said that last night at the shelter where she worked two women got into a ruckus. Recently released from prison, they were threatening to throw each other out their third-story window. “I wanted to punch them both, but I remembered what Mr. Steve said about counting to ten before I react. I got the clients to stop but only after one threw a mattress out the window.”
Someone yelled: “Is that so the next body to go out has somewhere to land?” People laughed. I was friends with Mr. Steve who was a legendary member of our group; as a young Southern Black man he went to Harvard in the 1950s but ended up a bum on 42nd Street.
Sandra continued, her dramatic hand and arm gestures marking time like a conductor. “The first time I walked into a meeting I said I’m not staying in here, wasn’t a Black person in that Wednesday night meeting until Mr. Steve walked through the door. I told him I don’t want to go to that meeting, those people can afford to get drunk. Then Steve took me here to this meeting. I was surprised to see mostly Black people. Still, I hated everyone. I didn’t want any of you lying motherfuckers to come near me.” That got a round of laughter. “I hated all of you, Black, white, and Oriental.” Various voices called out, “Asians—You should say Asians.” Sandra appeared confused, then went on. “But I’ve changed. Yesterday at the grocery store, this old lady dropped her wallet. Right in front of me. She didn’t see it, so I picked it up and got out of there. Around the corner I counted, five hundred eighty dollars. My part-time, minimum-wage fucking job barely pays the rent. Now I could pay my Con Ed bill, the phone bill. God gave me a present. I could shop like a Caucasian!”
Everyone laughed; our laughter is like a divine energy vibration, a communal Om sound for our recovery crew. One element of our amusement came from our collective awareness that “Caucasian” was an upgrade from her more frequent usage of the non-pc “crackers,” not to mention her use of the n-word, the b-word, and the f-word for gays.
When the room quieted, she added, “I walked a block, but I kept thinking about the woman. The money was probably for her rent. I felt so bad, I went back and told the manager I found the wallet. From his office window I saw the old lady crying. He wanted me to talk to her, maybe get a reward. I couldn’t. I ran out. I don’t know what’s happening to me. I’m so mad at myself. Look what you recovery people have done to me.” Sandra said she was angry, but other emotions were overtaking her and she sat down. With that, in the midst of chaos and silliness, our friendship began.
* * *
But that was 10 years ago. Now we’re still aimed for the Pandora store, defensive-blocking our way down Broadway. A middle-aged couple walking towards us, sees me in their path and move to let me pass. Sandra says, “Here we go again, Suzanne, white privilege.”
With a hand on my chest, I whimper, “You have no idea how much I’ve suffered!”
Sandra stops, nods to three Black teenagers, points to me. “She thinks she knows something about suffering. Nothing but white privilege. White privilege.”
I’m laughing, thinking teasing shows what friendship is about, when out of nowhere, she says, “Did you ever get fitted for a bra?”
“No, I buy cheap stretchy things.”
Sandra sticks her chest out, “I got fitted. What do you think?” She puts her hands on her waist and profiles. “Just like when I was 20.”
“They’re gorgeous,” I smirk.
Sandra’s face changes and she says, “I used to be so mean to people. One time when I was smoking crack, a friend fell dead on the stoop. I didn’t do nothing but pick his pockets, take his drugs, and leave him there.” She lets go of my arm, all the acting gone now. “I thought then that people were meant to be hurt and I hurt them. That’s what I used to think. But payback is a bitch. Now I love people and they die on me. When Queens David died, I couldn’t take it. It was like a river came over me.”
Her words crack open my own loss. Queens David died just two months ago. When Sandra was first sober and out of work, he hired her to clean for him. She hated it, reminded her of women of her childhood cleaning white people’s homes. But she was grateful for the money. Then two months ago, Sandra and I’d gone to see him in ICU and he said he loved us. Sandra told him to stop it; we didn’t realize he was dying, but David knew. Since then, Sandra often talked about her friend David. It made me think about friendship. Till recovery I didn’t know how to have a friend. Or how to not hurt people. How to be a true friend still troubles me.
At Houston Street, waiting for the light, Sandra stares hard into the distance. “When I heard they killed my sister, at first I didn’t feel anything, I couldn’t believe what they were telling me. No, I said, you’re not talking about my sister. Then when the feeling hit me, it ran like syrup down my brain. I wanted to put myself into a box and shut myself inside and never feel anything. I was so angry I couldn’t contain it.”
What can I say? Before I have a chance to add a word of sympathy, Sandra, choking up, switches, pretends to grab my purse, says, “I want that.”
I hug the big green bag to my chest, pretend to protect it from her. “Anthony gave it to me, you can’t have it.” At my job, my friend a security guard and I often joked this way too. A woman I hardly knew at a conference did the same. It was only this green purse that caused this reaction and only from Black women and always in public.
“Tell him to get me one,” she says, and we march on towards the Pandora store, Sandra shoving her way against this jammed Broadway sidewalk
* * *
People from the Project for Justice asked Sandra to make a recording to agitate for press on her sister’s death, so three months ago, we went there together. On the third floor of an old building, their office had been cut into small rooms with moldings and a tin ceiling. I imagined large TV cameras and stage with two chairs for her and the interviewer. A thirty-ish, no-nonsense Jamaican woman brought us into a room with a long table. No stage, just a chair against a wall and a cell phone for a camera. I was disappointed, but Sandra didn’t seem fazed. The woman adjusted the mic on Sandra and said, “Tell us who your sister was, get people to understand she was a person.” She gave Sandra a computer-printed picture of her sister to hold.
So I wouldn’t be in the way, I sat on a chair to the side. The woman sat across from Sandra and lifted her phone to record her. Sandra started, stopped, said, “Turn off the camera. Suzanne, move your chair next to the camera, so I can talk directly to you.”
I pushed my chair closer, honored that looking into my blue eyes would help her, especially since in prison she’d called us “blue-eyed devils.” She began by saying her sister Robin was messy as a child. As an adult she was kind. They’d gotten a pizza the week before she was killed. Killed. She couldn’t believe it when she heard it on the TV. But it was true, cops shot Robin three blocks from where we sat. The TV announcer called her a mentally ill woman living in a shelter. Later Sandra heard one patient had attacked her sister and another had given her a knife to protect herself. Staff sent them both outside and called the cops. On the street, when the cops arrived, the woman was still harassing Robin who was still holding the knife in one hand and her cane in the other.
I bowed my head. One minute Sandra’s sister was in the street, the next, she stopped existing. When I lifted my head, Sandra was saying, “It’s been two years and they haven’t even held an inquest.” Sandra spoke directly to me. “They shot her like a dog. My sister was raised up in a loving family, she was in a shelter but she had family. She had a heavy limp and used a cane. They say she’s just a homeless Black woman. But why is my sister dead? Why did you have to shoot her? What fear did she put in you when she could barely walk?”
She was silent then demanded, “Turn that off.” The woman put her cellphone down. Sandra said, “I’m too angry. It makes me hate all white people.” She rubbed her head and dropped her sister’s picture. It floated to the floor as she stumbled towards the ladies room.
When she came back, we walked, together, in silence, towards our separate homes.
* * *
Last month, November, a month after David died, two months after that taping, Sandra called me at my office where I’m the assistant head of the documentary research and archives division for our local TV station—once I cleaned up in my middle 30s, those college degrees finally worked for me. This job was perfect. I liked the work and the people. A friend suggested me for the job and I’d leveraged my experience in the 80s shooting video on old u-matic tapes at clubs like the Garage, World, and Palladium. When interviewed for the job, I failed to mention those venues didn’t invite me back as I’d been too high to keep my camera focused. Then, two years ago, after nearly 20 years as a professional underling, they promoted me. Now I was the boss and I’ll be eligible for a pension in a few years.
Sandra has worked at woman’s shelters on and off for 10 years, this time as a security guard—thankfully unarmed. At her present job staff and clients love her, but she often has to work double shifts. She complains mightily but never about the fact that she’s in her sixties and still has to work, no pension in sight. If I didn’t have mine to look forward to, I’d be screaming. Last week Sandra told me about a new co-worker, white, who did 35 years in prison and was having difficulty adapting. I asked how old she was. 70. 70 years old and starting her work career. Okay, I guess this ought to give me some perspective here.
Though Sandra and I’ve been friends for 10 years, we continued to have blurred visions about who the other was. With 25 years in recovery, I was still working out who I might really be. Or what it meant to be a true friend, that mysterious connection I can occasionally feel. Same with family. When I’m alone, filled with that dark emptiness that tells me only drugs will relieve my pain, I want to give up. Then my son’s face or our granddaughter’s smile appears to me or I hear Anthony or Sandra’s words and I’m swimming in meaning—mystifying, indescribable, intangible meaning.
I walked from my office to the common area for better cell phone reception to talk to Sandra. Surrounded by staff members’ cubicles, I noticed a young woman searched through videos for sections wanted by the news division, two other staff members logged in videos, describing the content. It occurred to me that telling our stories in meetings was like this—organizing the un-organizable, trying to put markers on the mysterious.
Sandra said, “I want to buy a couch. Can you help me?”
“I don’t know anything about buying a couch.” I noticed a staff member quickly duck his head back to his computer.
Sandra continued, “Help me figure out what to choose.”
“I’ve never bought a couch in my life. The one I have now I got used, 20 years ago from a friend. I think you have me confused with someone who knows about consumerism.”
When I hung up, an intern, only there a short while, not getting paid, and not expecting a job, shook his head in disbelief, said, “That was amazing. You never bought a couch!”
I couldn’t tell them that years of shooting heroin didn’t prepare me for major furniture purchases. Guess some people don’t know what pigeonhole to stuff me into either. That’s how Sandra mistook me for someone I wasn’t. And me too. I thought Sandra was Miss Tough Girl from the penitentiary, then she called to say she wanted a new couch and I saw the middle-class, homemaker side of her. My apartment was a mess, three people, my husband, his granddaughter and me, crammed into a tiny, 100-year-old, five-floor walk-up with no closets, but cheap maintenance. While Sandra had a spacious apartment in a new, low-income elevator building with lots of closets. She kept it spotless.
Only a few weeks after that call, when we were having lunch, Sandra said, “My birthday’s next week. You can get me a Pandora bracelet and all my friends can give me beads. Before, I never wanted friends, people were only there to take things from. But you all been teaching me another way to live. I want a bracelet so I can look at the beads and think about the friends who gave them to me.”
“What? Are we in grade school?” I said.
Sandra gave me her dimpled smile. “I love those things.”
I groaned. “I never wanted one. If I get you a bracelet, you’ll just become a bead addict. Besides, isn’t Pandora the one who opened the box and let all those evils out?”
“What evils? I already been up against most of them.”
I didn’t get her a bracelet as she was always asking for things, then forgetting about it. Later she told me Veronica, our tall Black lawyer friend, gave her a bead for her birthday, but she still didn’t have a bracelet. I watched a television ad for Pandora. A white woman in a black cocktail dress looked at a white woman holding a stemmed wine glass and said she knew the other woman’s story because she “read” Pandora. Close-up on her beads that communicated that she was married, played a violin, and had two children, or some such crap. “Life’s special moments.” I wanted to vomit.
* * *
Last month, December, for my birthday, Sandra met me at Lincoln Center. Standing by the Plaza fountain, she said, “I haven’t been here in years. It’s bringing back all kinds of memories. I used to work in this area.”
“Really, what did you do?”
She gave me her incredible smile, round angelic face, bright eyes. “We came downtown to steal from all the rich white people.”
I burst into a laugh, feeling like her straight man. Then Sandra pretended to grab my purse, and I, as usual, pulled the giant green thing to my chest. I noticed a white man by the fountain watching us hard. Then I noticed a Black woman stare at us. Did she see a nervous white lady protecting her purse? A simple joking gesture between friends mutated into a loaded public situation. As Anthony said, people see what they want to see. Interpretation, misinterpretation.
Sandra handed me a small box and a birthday card. Damn, I hadn’t gotten her anything for her birthday. I opened the package. A Pandora bracelet and a silver heart bead with I love you on it. I couldn’t believe it. Two weeks ago, Sandra was trying to borrow money to pay her phone bill and now, somehow, she got me a bracelet? As I thought this, she answered. She got the bracelet from the shelter where she worked. Staff were allowed to take things from donations as well as clients, a perk from a job without many perks. Instead of keeping it for herself, she had given it to me. She added, “I told everyone to get charms for you. That one with the cat head came from Veronica.” Veronica and Sandra had become good friends since that meeting when we introduced them.
I tried to act grateful, but really? I put it on. A rope of silver with a heart clasp. I added these beads to the bracelet. There’s room for about thirty, but, with only two, they nested together. I liked it like that. A badge of honor, two, count em, two beads.
A few weeks later my sister and her husband visited from Minnesota. He took one look at my bracelet and laughed. “Some women at my job have Pandora bracelets. Every time one gets a new bead, she’s so excited she emails everyone a picture. Never seen one with only two beads.”
My sister said that now she knew what to get me for Christmas and birthdays for years to come. “Yeah,” I said, “it’s a capitalist wet dream, like drugs.”
Anthony and I went on a weekend trip and when we returned, we found three Federal Express tickets for the same package; the final notice said we had to pick it up. Must be from my sister. The office was a 45-minute walk or bus ride to pick up a damn bead. Angry, I called Federal Express. Nothing they could do, she said. “After three tries, a person has to pick it up or they return it to sender. Just drive over and pick it up.”
“This is New York City, I don’t have a car. It’s all the way across town.”
“I don’t know about that, ma’am.”
So in the rain, I took a cab, nearly the price of a bead. At Fed Ex I waited in line, got the package, and waited in rain for a bus. 45 minutes later, home, I took off my wet clothes, tore apart the packaging, and opened this little jewelry box. The bead was silver and glittery. I opened the bracelet clasp to add it, but its hole was too small. What the freak was this?
I grabbed the receipt. I called the Pandora number. Woman was sweet. She said, “You should have read your booklet about your bracelet.”
“The bracelet has an instruction manual?”
“If you had read it, you would know there are different collections.”
“The reason to have my sister purchase it from your site was so that it would fit.”
“That’s why you need to read the pamphlet.”
“So now I have to send this back?”
“You’re in New York City, there’s a store on Broadway.”
* * *
Which is why Sandra and I walked all this way to Pandora and are now gawking at jewels in the store window. She punches my arm. I follow where she’s pointing. There’s Veronica and Crystal heading our way. With an oversized floppy straw hat, locked hair covering her shoulders, Veronica, is wearing a blue dress that makes her dark skin pop. Matching Veronica’s flamboyance, Crystal’s red hair is a wild mess of curls flowing over milky arms.
After hugging Sandra and me, their six–foot frames tower over our five-foot physiques. Sandra says, “Look, I got fitted.” She sticks her chest out. Both Veronica and Crystal blurt out, “Me too.” They push their chests out. Suddenly I’m a prisoner with six large architectural mammaries pointed at me, four at my forehead, Sandra’s at my chest. These trussed and cantilevered women talk enthusiastically about their fittings. Apparently this is a mysterious aspect of female friendship that hadn’t appeared in my handbook.
I say proudly, “I get my bras three for 25 dollars. Besides, I’m from the burn-your-bra generation.”
All three of them roll their eyes at me. Veronica says, “Suzanne, time to join the 21st century.” She turns to Sandra. “Where are you two going?”
Sandra says excitedly, “We’re going to the bracelet store.”
I show them the bracelet with two beads. “Veronica, thank you again for the cat bead.”
Veronica smiles proudly. “That looks good.”
Crystal says, “We’re headed for the New Museum on the Bowery.”
I say, “I went a few weeks ago. Really great light. The architects designed—”
Sandra jumps in. “The rehab I went to was near there. I saw David Bowie. Must be more than ten years ago. He got out of his limo wearing this all-white suit and I asked my friends who the weird dude was. They said he was famous. He invited us to the club across the street. I told him I didn’t like white music. He told me that I’d like this. So we went. I did like his music.”
Crystal says, with wonder in her voice, “You met David Bowie?
“Yeah, I didn’t know who he was.”
Veronica hugs her, says, “You’re a piece of work, but we don’t have much time. I have to get back to the kids soon.”
One by one, a pair of arms surround me and a pair of firm and fully-packed breasts jam into my neck. Then they’re gone.
Sandra pushes open the glass door of Pandora’s.
* * *
Inside, the narrow store has cases along the wall and a center row of jewelry stands with space for a store clerk. I’m in a space ship, gleaming and sterile, with brilliant rays of light streaming from behind the heads of bead-mad aliens. Ground control to Major Tom.
Aisles are packed with customers, squinting at necklaces, holding up earrings. Everyone is young. Sandra rams her way through and I follow her, as do security guys’ eyes. I notice a salesperson setting out several bracelets for a customer. On her arm are three Pandora bracelets tightly filled with beads. I point. “So that’s what they are supposed to look like.”
Sandra lights up. “That’s what I want.”
In disbelief, I shake my head. We stop at a counter with a light-skinned, twenty-something guy swathed in hip clothing and emanating epic hip distain. I show him the one we are exchanging and he pulls out a velvet tray full of beads.
He asks, “What do you like?”
Sandra gushes, “I love all this motherfucking shit.”
I say, “I hate this bullshit. I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for you giving me this bracelet.” Annoyed that I’m here at all, I randomly choose a bead and say to Sandra, “Do you want a bracelet? I’ll get it for you, I never got you anything for your birthday.”
Sandra says firmly, “No.”
“Ah, come on. We’re here. Let me get you a bracelet.”
She gives me her look that means drop it, so I do.
Kid leads us to the back and leaves us in an area with two registers and other customers milling about. We can’t figure out what’s going on, if there is a line or what. Sandra gives a passing person her worst most penitentiary sneer. When I laugh, Sandra pretends to make a grab for my purse. This time she actually touches it.
I yank my green purse back.
Two security guards, one male, one female, turn our direction. Suddenly I’m concerned. We’re in public. Gestures mean different things here. “No, no, no, it’s a joke,” I say to the general world.
The heavy-set, white, male guard hurries to Sandra, says, “Come with me, ma’am.”
She pulls away from him, says, “Get your hands off me.”
“Watch your mouth.” He yanks her harder, then he says to me, “She tried to steal your purse. I’ll take care of this.”
“No, no, really we’re friends,” I want him to believe me, so I smile grandmotherly. I check his waist line, notice his bulgy stomach, but no gun. He’s looking but he isn’t seeing. Inside I’m horrified. How could I have made that stupid joke here? My stomach contracts. I’m woozy with fear. I see all those online videos of Black people being choked, beaten, shot.
Sandra twists out of his grasp. “Get your hands off me. Stop touching me.”
Security guard grabs her arm back roughly as she wiggles, trying to jerk herself away. With police officer finality, he orders, “Stop moving. Stop moving.”
“Get your hands off me. Stop touching me. You going to shoot me?” Sandra twists and turns as he tries to control her.
My adrenaline pumps hard. “Why are you picking on her?”
White female guard yanks my arms behind me. She’s taller, heavier, and much younger than me. I’m trying to stay calm but my voice gets high and angry. “We’re just here to exchange a bead.” I want to kick them, but I’m a small, female, gray-haired senior citizen. Seeing people watch us, the security guard jerks both Sandra’s arms back and says to his partner, “I saw this one try to steal her purse.” His voice is commanding, like retired police.
The woman guard is being careful with me, the way the other is not being careful with Sandra, but even with that, my fifty-year-old arms feel like they are being pulled out of their sockets as my guard pushes me after Sandra into a back room.
The small manager’s office overflows with papers and file cabinets and stacks of unopened boxes. The guards have to move sideways to fit into the space with us. I cannot believe they are doing this. I try to remember what social media says on how to act with the police. All I can think of is to be nice. Growing up white in the Minnesota, being nice is my super power.
Male guard tells female guard to pat us down. Female guard starts with Sandra, touches her, hands on ass, pockets, legs, and finally cups her palms around Sandra’s uplifted breasts. I’m burning with rage, then the hands are on me, not like at airports, but rough, ugly, my legs, my belly, and finally she presses on my squished, stretchy cotton-covered breasts.
Then they shove us into two straight back chairs. Sandra and I are silent, locked in anger and humiliation. Once Sandra told me when she was in prison she did nothing but exist in that world, no friends, no distraction, just exist. At the same time as she was just existing in the world, she said, she was not in the world at all. I’m starting to understand. Here, but not here. Deep inside, yet far away. 16 years inside; 16 years she did on her own, under the control of authority and force. Together we became visible and invisible at the same time. A tiny sliver of her world is being revealed to me after only 10 minutes.
Male guard opens Sandra’s purse and dumps her wallet, phone, and keys onto the desk. Sandra slams her chair into the wall. He ignores her and draws from my green purse my wallet, Kleenex, paperback book. Unzips the inner pockets, hauls out note papers, pens, keys, lipsticks.
Sandra says, “That’s the bag let out all the evils.”
Door opens and a gorgeous, dark-skinned Black woman steps into the office, so thin she’d cause any fashion model to break into a jealous fit. Blue slinky dress, hair straightened and shoulder-length, arms and neck swirled with chains loaded with Pandora beads. She must be the manager. Without emotion, she runs her gaze over Sandra, then me. She says without a trace of feeling to the security guards, “Did you find anything?”
“No. This one,” he points to Sandra, “was trying to steal this one’s purse. She,” he points to me, “said it was a joke. Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe they’re playing the distract-us-game while another friend steals things.”
Sandra says, “We didn’t do anything. They attacked us for nothing.”
I say, “We’re friends.”
Manager says, “So in fact these two did not steal anything?”
Big guard says, “Doesn’t mean they didn’t do something. We suspect she’s a thief.”
“Pure racism,” Sandra says. “I’m going to sue all of you.”
I’m thinking we discuss suing when we’re out of here, not while we are still under their control. I say, “No, really, we don’t want to sue, we’re fine. Just let us out of here.”
Dumbstruck, Sandra says, “Not sue? I’ll sue them for every bead in this store.”
I say, “Come on now. Let’s calm down.”
“Calm? You calm down. Murderers put their hands on me. Touched me.”
I say, “I know you’re feeling—”
Sandra turns to me, says, “Don’t tell me how I feel. You don’t know how I feel.”
“That’s not what I meant. I meant you’re angry, but we have to—”
She stops me, her warmth turned to ice. “No white motherfucker knows how I feel. Don’t try to tell me how I feel.”
Words fail me. Time stops. Air is still as death.
Beautiful manager examines our faces, thinking. “Okay,” she says, “Only friends fight like that.” She glances at the guards, then back at us. “You can leave. If you were exchanging a bead, your order should be ready by now.”
Security guard runs his dead cop eyes over us, then says to the manager, “You either want us to catch thieves or you don’t.”
Manager cripples him with her blazing eyes “Thieves, we want you to catch. Paying customers, not so much.” The guard grunts and just like that it’s over.
While Sandra drops her three items into her small purse, I jam my messy things into my large purse. Alternate endings metastasize in my head. A white manager has Sandra hauled off to jail and no matter how much I testify no one listens and Sandra’s stuck in prison while I’m free, living in a prison of guilt. Or Sandra goes to prison, ends up dead alone in her cell and they call her obvious murder a suicide. All I know is that my freedom is connected to her freedom.
Manager says to me, “That’s a nice bag.”
Sandra punches my arm. “That’s what started all this. That damn purse. Close it up and lock up those freaking evils.”
Manager holds the door open and Sandra and I escape into store area. A woman behind the counter hands me a Pandora bag with tissue and ribbons. “The new bead and paperwork are inside,” she says.
Holding this prissy little bag, my shoulders droop. I failed. I should have protected Sandra. I hug her, my white hair tangling with her white hair.
“You’re a mess,” she says, pushing me away.
I say, “I can’t handle this. What if….”
Sandra says, “You can’t go there.”
My heart races, head pounds. “I can’t deal. How do you?”
“I don’t know, you just gotta.”
I say, “You are one amazing person.”
“Ah, don’t get stupid on me,” Sandra says. “If you cry, I’m gonna have to slap you.”
I smile and her eyes are glowing, but a rage builds in me. I say, “Let’s get the fuck outta here.”
Sandra shakes her head thoughtfully. “No. Now I want you to get me that bracelet.”
“Are you kidding? Let’s leave.”
Sandra sees two Black women watching us, so she says to me, “You can’t tell me what to do—that plantation shit is over.”
“Yes, master,” I say and get up and follow her. Sandra emits her magnetic sly smile for the women who are still watching us.
Sandra leads me to front to our disdainful hip salesman. I’m jacked and say, “We need a bracelet.” He puts a silver-linked chain around Sandra’s wrist to check size. I keep talking. “We need a bead too. Do you have any beads that say she served 16 years in a Federal Penitentiary?” Salesman pays me no mind, has no comment or emotion. I can’t stop. “How about a bead that says her sister was killed by the police?”
Sandra peers into the glass case, says softly, in her most sweet voice, “How about a butterfly bead. My sister loved butterflies.”