Growing up I was more than a little embarrassed that my family didn’t own a couch until I was thirteen. In lieu of expensive conventional seating, we had a queen-sized mattress in the living room of our apartment. Odd to some, but it was sheer goodness when my mother, sister and I played a game of Boggle on the floor-model Serta while watching The Jeffersons. That was our life.
I did, however, make it a point to avoid bringing guests home because, as a Black kid who desperately wanted to fit the suburban mold, explaining a mattress in the middle of the living room floor to White kids with fully furnished homes seemed a bit daunting. I mean, seriously, how to give reason for owning at least seven pairs of Jordache jeans, a gold rope chain and the freshest shelltop Adidas with fat laces while drinking from free-with-purchase McDonald’s cups in a bare apartment? And I’d been to my girlfriends’ houses. I sat on their parents’ flowered sofas which smelled like a mixture of ointment, hard salami and Love’s Baby Soft. I ate Beefaroni at their dining room tables and peeked into their mothers’ china cabinets with the dusty crystal bowls. I saw the perfectly matched bathroom towels, their French Provincial gold-trimmed bedroom sets and their Rob Lowe posters torn from the pages of Teen Beat. And in seeing all that and recognizing my own racial otherness, I didn’t want to throw allegations of poverty into the alien stew. Frankly, I didn’t want to be judged or ‘poored’, and I knew I was vulnerable to both. So, I vowed to do whatever was necessary to resist the implication and belong, even if it meant being aggressively fake, asking for things I knew my mother couldn’t afford or flat-out lying to my friends.
Thanks to time, that subjective eraser, I’d forgotten all about my adolescent blush and floss until a few weeks ago. That’s when I noticed a silver hazmat suit in a suburban Detroit, vintage store display window. Not that I was in the market for a potentially radioactive fossil, but strange things from the past have my number, if you know what I mean. It’s one of those quirks about me. I like out-of-context and free-of-context bizarro reminders, things in conflict with present-day aesthetics, culturally and temporally outmoded tchotchkes. Seeing as I dig past weirdness, it came as no surprise when I found myself swerving across two lanes of traffic to park outside this store that I’ve frequently driven past but never visited.
I grabbed my big brown satchel from the passenger seat, fed a meter three quarters and mentally readied myself with the pregnant possibility of bringing home a used 1960-something space-on-earth outfit. I didn’t even know if the suit was actually from the 60s, but that was the narrow narrative I’d constructed in my head. The mere thought of stuffing that metallic getup with cotton bunting and turning it into a Sci-Fi, robotic scarecrow to ward off the squirrel thugs invading my yard, seemed an ultra-compelling proposition. Not to mention the inevitable likes I would get on Instagram by posting a pic of that bad boy! Imagine how much cooler people would assume I was if I built a more-than-likely, probably, mostly radioactive scarecrow! Of all my unhatched plans, this one seemed brilliant, foolproof!
When I entered the store, I was immediately transported back to the 70s with its plastic-laminate furniture and gold-plated wall clocks with sharp rays circling the frame. I stared at those clocks for a solid few minutes, sure that some long-lost friend’s dad owned something like it once, or maybe my family did. Although we certainly wouldn’t have been able to afford the 70s until 1989, at the very earliest, so probably not. And just as I settled into that thought, I heard a woman with an unidentifiable lilt, ask, “May I help you find something in particular?”
“Yes, how much is the hazmat suit in the window?”
“It’s very, very expensive and I’m not sure it’s still for sale.”
“What…what do you mean you’re not sure it’s still for sale? It’s right there. In the window. With a tag.” I pointed to the display.
She indirectly glanced at my finger but, curiously, not at the display itself, “Oh, well, that one. Yes, it’s for sale but it’s very expensive.”
I knew this routine. I knew this routine all too well—“Assume the Black Girl is Poor” Downsell. “Ok, I hear you. Let’s start over. My name is Dee. What’s your name and what’s expensive to you?”
She seemed taken aback that I went personal by disclosing my name. Then, smiled, awkwardly, as if unsure she still could. “I’m Phyllis, working the store for my sister with her husband. I don’t know the exact price. I’ll check with him. Hold on a sec.”
Phyllis walked away, toward the cash register and yell-spered, a tonal mix of yelling and whispering, to her brother-in-law I presumed. Meanwhile, I climbed across two dark walnut coffee tables and straddled a porcelain lamp with a carved face of Marie Antoinette, to check the price for myself. I turned the tag over, saw the numbers 5-8-5 to the right of the dollar sign and gasp-cursed “Oh hell no!” I climbed back over the tables, knocking down a stack of LIFE magazines to quickly assume my original position before Phyllis returned.
“Suit’s $585. Real deal. From a shut-down chemical plant up north.”
I lied aloud, “I can tell. That’s not too expensive for a suit of its quality. I mean, that’s authentic…waste…protection.”
I emphasized ‘waste protection’ as if I had “Antique Roadshow” foreknowledge of the vintage hazmat suit market. I didn’t. I also had no idea if it was overpriced or not (it was). All I knew is that she believed it was too expensive for me and, in so doing, made a grievous income assumption. Phyllis was trying to ‘poor’ me.
“Not too much, then?”
“Of course not! Although I don’t know if I want it. Let me think about it as I walk around.”
And that’s what I did. I sort of thought. Me and my big brown satchel brushing up against sin-ugly wicker lamps and useless ceramic rooster figurines and completely taking out some racist, Mammy kitsch in the 50’s kitchen section. And at every turn, Phyllis walked right behind me. Highly suspicious of her shadow play, I presumed Phyllis presumed that since I was Black, and probably poor, I would five-finger discount something small and worthless from her sister’s overpriced curio cabinet of mostly worthless stuff that nobody needed then and nobody needs now.
Finally fed up with her not-so-subtle footstep shade, after making three very deliberate rounds on the floor, I turned, “You know what, Phyllis? Wrap up the suit, I’ll take it.” Her facial expression hinted a smug relief as she disappeared behind a large stack of old film reels to yell-sper the sale to her brother-in-law.
As my order rang up, a young, White hipster couple came in and inquired about the price of a framed print with Warhol and Basquiat in boxing gloves. Phyllis, released from her policing duties, said “I don’t know if that’s for sale. I do know it’s very, very expensive.”
Blood coursed from my head to the tips of my fingers as my credit card scraped through their reader. I immediately noticed the “no refunds/no returns” sign. I remembered the spiky clock, flowered sofas, my excuses, matching towel sets, Provincial headboards, Jordache jeans, trendy Adidas and my living room mattress. I wondered why I was willing to go poor to prove I wasn’t poor to a woman I’d probably never see again. It was as if my 1984 veil mysteriously reappeared, and the only thing missing was my well-memorized script: “Yea, I, like, can’t have friends over when my mom isn’t home/isn’t feeling well/is working/has a headache/(is watching tv on the living room mattress).”
My plan was less foolproof and more fool’s proof. I still haven’t gotten around to buying cotton bunting, nor have I figured out how to make my expensive mistake stand erect without a blueprint and a graduate degree in engineering. The suit hangs sloppily and half-folded on a shelf in my garage. And since one of the garage doors busted, squirrels go inside and chew off pieces of the hazmat suit to pad their slipshod nest. A nest that appears surprisingly comfortable and highly visible, out in the open, for all to see, as if the squirrels decided as I should have years ago, “Hey, it ain’t much. But you don’t live here, and I don’t have anything to prove to you. Pass the acorns.”
Who knew the available wisdom of those nimble grassrats?