I was an expert mimic when I was a kid.
This talent often led to awkward moments when I would deliver, verbatim, whole sections of Eddie Murphy’s “Raw,” because I watched whatever my mother watched, adult content ratings be damned. Or the nervous laughter at the 1985 company picnic when I flung my bat to the ground and charged the pitcher on the mound when he hit me with the softball; it’s what Keith Hernandez would do.
My ability obviously served me well in school, particularly in French and social studies where I could fairly accurately repeat my teachers’ lessons in class and on exams. It was less useful in math because the numbers kept changing. Well, except for multiplication. Oh, how I loved the multiplication tables weeks!
Anyway, to the extent that I am a writer today, I credit the hours a day spent in the public library reading. I read everything from Beverley Cleary to Aldous Huxley. To quote my obnoxious second grade teacher, I was a “latch-key kid.” I lived with my mother, who worked at a hospital in Manhattan from 8:30 – 4:45 five days a week. I had school in Brooklyn from 9-3. I’ve had my own set of keys since I was seven years old.
I received them without much ceremony. “Here. If you lose them, I will beat your ass. If you let anyone in, I will beat your ass. Do not turn on the stove or…”
“You will beat my ass.”
“Good, you understand.”
I didn’t get to use them right away, though. In elementary school, I’d wake up every morning at 6:30, get dropped off at Mrs. Brown’s house by 7:15 and watch cartoons till the school bus collected me.
In the afternoon, I got dropped off at Mrs. Hall’s house, because Ms. Brown had dialysis most afternoons. I would wait there until my mother came home at 6.
The thing about staying at Mrs. Hall’s in the afternoon, though, is that I hated it. She babysat seven kids from the neighborhood from babies to kids about twelve. Everyone called her “Grandma” because her grandson lived with her, that’s what he called her and he was the oldest of us. Of course, if that’s what everyone called her, I would call her that over my cold dead body. I had my own wretched grandma, thank you very much.
Plus, Mrs. Hall would constantly call me Steph.
“How would she like it if I call her Mrs. Ha?”
My mother’s glare indicated that I shouldn’t attempt to find out.
The other kids my age, her grandson included, went to the local public school; I went to the school for gifted kids – information which was awesomely stamped on the inside cover of all my textbooks. So, you can imagine my popularity.
I was never bullied about it, though, because the only thing faster than my mouth, in those days, was my fist. Plus, the girls were very conscious of their hairdos and dresses and I was a hair puller.
So, come 3:30, I’d get off the bus, trudge to Ms. Hall’s, sit at the kitchen table doing my homework and wonder why my real mom, Diana Ross, had consigned me to this existence.
However, the best thing about Mrs. Hall’s was that it was across the street from my house and the public library a few doors down the block from me.
One day, I had a flash of sheer brilliance.
“Mrs. Hall. I have to get a book from the library.”
“Okay, pull in the door tight behind you.”
Apparently, $20 a week doesn’t get you much in terms of adult supervision.
I sat in the library and read until it closed at 5.
Then, I went back and sat at Mrs. Hall’s till six.
Eventually, I’d get off the bus and head straight to the library and only go to Mrs. Hall’s in time to meet my mother.
And now we come to the dreaded Scooby Doo ending. The one where I would have gotten away with it too…except for… on Tuesdays the library stayed open till 8 pm and I lost track of time.
When I realized my mistake, I ran, literally ranacross the reading room floor, down the two flights of stairs and broke into a dead sprint for Mrs. Hall’s building.
I was too late. I could hear my mother’s voice. I have no idea how long she’d been there. I was a chubby asthmatic girl, so I also couldn’t breathe by this point. Of course, given the tone of my mother’s voice, death seemed like my best option.
“Where the fuck have you been?”
“The…li…bra…ry. For…school…I needed…a…book…for school.”
“Where is it?”
“I finished it there. That’s why I took so long. It’s a reference book…they have a chain on it so you can’t take it out.”
I am a genius! Children everywhere will sing songs of the girl who came home late, yet escaped an ass whupping. I would pose for statues and sign autographs!
“Mrs. Hall says you go to the library everyday. For months. They don’t give you any books in school?”
“No. It’s the same book. It took a long time to read cause it’s long. And I had to ask the librarian questions and I only finished it tonight.” (This was the day I learned that bad lies have lots of “ands” in them.)
“Well, we’re going over to the library right now and you can show me.”
Oh no. My Stephane statue crumbled before my eyes. My adoring fans faded into oblivion. We put death back on the table.
Then she turned to Mrs. Hall. “What am I paying you for if my child is staying in the street all night?”
Here, I should note that Mrs. Hall was a billion years old, 4’9 and maybe 90 pounds soaking wet. My mom was 5’10 and about 270. The old woman wisely held her tongue.
“Get your things.”
I grabbed my knapsack from the kitchen and spied Mrs. Hall’s grandson snickering at me from the bedroom.
I glared at him.
We walked in silence to the library. There was only one chained book in the place. A dictionary. Still, if I pointed at it from afar, I might…
“Which librarian was helping you?”
“Um. She’s not here. She doesn’t stay late.”
Dear Mr. Death,
My name is Stephane Clare. I am 8 and a half years old and live in Brooklyn, New York. I am in very big trouble and if you could possibly come get me right now, I would be eternally grateful. Sincerely, Stephane
What? Rich kids write to Santa, poor kids write to Death.
My mother walked up to the reference librarian and asked her if she had seen me.
“Yes, she just ran out of here like a bat out of hell and left a big mess out of the Encyclopedias.”
(I was working on this project where I would learn all the knowledge in the world, leave school and go on tour with Michael Jackson. Also, I started with ‘A’ but it was too thick, so I skipped to J. Go on, ask me anything about jade, juicing or Jupiter! Go on!)
My mother looked down at me and sent me to put all the Encyclopedias back. And then she asked the librarian if any other books needed to be put away. I was given a cart to load them on.
Then they made me put away the newspapers.
“Apologize for being a slob.”
“Oh, that’s quite alright, sweetheart. You have been very helpful.”
To my mother, she added “your daughter is always in here reading. She must be a very smart girl.”
You. Are. NOT. HELPING. My increasingly panicky eyes flashed at her.
We walked home in silence. When my mom was really mad she threatened to a) Drop me off at the police station where they would take me to juvy for children who don’t know how to behave b) make me join the army so I could learn discipline or c) send me to live with my grandmother in Panama where I could learn to appreciate what I have. I wasn’t sure what kind of transgression going to the library was, but I was hoping it was the “don’t know how to behave kind,” cause I didn’t like doing jumping jacks and I couldn’t speak Spanish.
The cord of my TV got wrapped around the rabbit ears, I was beaten within an inch of my life and I was forbidden from leaving Mrs. Hall’s kitchen table once the bus dropped me off.
No jumping jacks or Spanish! All in all, not too shabby for Stephane. The weeks after that were spent doing homework and writing stories at Mrs. Hall’s kitchen table. I invented child detective “Brittanica Brittany.” Every day she solved the mystery of grandmama’s boy who got punched in the face. Now, see you think Brittany did it, right? WRONG! Turns out he had annoyed another girl years before, who grew up and came back to Mrs. Hall’s to punch him in the face! It was was a twist ending! I also made up historical events and countries and wrote pretend entries about them. I swear almost my whole life I thought I made up “President Harding,” until I got to Prep school and found out he was real. The real one didn’t have any of my awesome adventures though like liberating all the children and giving them candy. I was very big on children’s rights and candy.
Anyway, I’m currently working in a white collar factory downtown. The floors are open 12 hours a day, but we can only bill for a maximum of ten hours and the company mandates a one hour break for a total of 11 hours “at work.” My method of coping with working in these factories is to put on the most uplifting music I can, choreograph lip sync numbers in my head until I can’t bear to be seated anymore. My breaking point is usually around five or six in the evening, which is good because when I get back, it’s almost quitting time.
I used to roam around the streets of lower Manhattan, near Ground Zero and the big Wall Street bull or sit down in T.G.I. Friday’s and have a delicious french onion soup, but then my friend, Alceste, pointed out the Borders bookstore a few blocks away from my office. For the last few days, I’ve spent my mandatory hour break reading books in their cracked faux leather chairs. Today, as I took the escalator up pass my usual spot on the floor with the movies, a wave of de ja vu struck me looking around at all the books. Here I was again killing time with fine literature. I went back downstairs, to my usual chair and started writing.