Raisins

I was spoiled as a child. My parents gave me wonderful experiences.

I don’t know what year it was when the black limousines started coming into the neighborhood. It was probably the year that Kenny Dooley was five, but I realize that doesn’t place for anyone but me.

Kenny didn’t look five, anyway. What he looked like was a Raisinette. Just going by height you might have guessed him at four, but only until you looked in his eyes. Or until he opened his mouth. How anyone that small could have such a tough, gutteral bass voice I don’t know. Or how his typical glare could look both innocent and outraged at the same time. When he’d call my mother “Barb,” it was a resonant bass note.

I don’t recall it ever being voiced, but it was generally understood that the black limousines were delivering the Black Muslims missionaries. It didn’t seem odd that our neighborhood would be the target of missionaries. The Pentacostals had their tent and the Mennonites came through every summer with a bus, right behind the ice cream truck, recruiting children for vacation bible school. They got me one summer.

The black limousines were scary, but the way we figured it was, Black people had the right to be scary. And when my friend Mantan came over to shoot hoops, the only mention of fear was our standing basketball joke. Mantan would hit some crazy shot with his eyes closed or behind his back and he’d ask, all false innocence, “Did I hit that, Mike?” And I’d say, giving it all the misery I could fake, “I’m afraid so, Andrew.” I could never bring myself to call him Mantan. And he’d laugh and say, “Don’t be scared, Mike!” But black limousines were never mentioned.

We always left our doors unlocked. I don’t think we had locks. And once a week the whole family went shopping. One night we returned from a shopping trip and Kenny was sitting on our kitchen table looking (figuratively, of course) green.

We started unloading grocieries and my mother paused, noticing some extra intensity in Kenny’s usual glare. What I couldn’t help but notice was that he was completely surrounded by empty raisin boxes.

“Barb,” he said, fixing her with as intense a look as I’d ever seen, “don’t buy no more raisins.”

Kenny’s mom, Queenie, was raising him on her own, and he pretty much roamed the neighborhood at will. But that’s misleading. There was a large extended family to keep Kenny home, and it wasn’t enough. Mostly he hung out at our place. Queenie’s brother King was two years ahead of me in school and he was a basketball star. Without doubt the best player the school had produced in years. He was also the most polite, deferential person I’d ever known. I was shamefully clueless in those days, but I think I sort of got the connection. The better he was, the more steps back he had to walk. Thinking now of the rage in five-year-old Kenny’s eyes, I can’t imagine what King must have been holding in. And it never, ever came out.

Kenny didn’t hold it in. One day, I think it was a day after a visit from the men in the black limousines, Kenny sat on our kitchen table, eating something other than raisins, and lecturing my mother on how terrible White people were. Mom was enjoying it immensely. I wish I had my mother’s appreciation for the absurdity of life. I would have expected her just to soak up the delicious irony of Kenny’s lecture, but on this occasion she apparently decided it was time for Kenny to grow a little.

“But Kenny,” she said, “We’re White.”

She’d found something that could shut Kenny up.

I suspect that what Mom takes away from that episode is richer than what I got out of it. But all I’ve got is my take. What I take away is Kenny’s reaction. He didn’t handle it like any other five-year-old I’ve ever known. He shut up. He thought about it. He went home. And he never said anything bad about White people in our presence again.

And Mantan and I keep shooting hoops.

So, what I’m trying to say is, I was a pretty lucky child.

Poverty on Parade

This radio play first appeared in Dr. Dobb’s Journal in a different form.

CHARACTERS

RUSTY PALADIN: radio announcer, host of “Poverty on Parade”
HOBART FLURN: unemployed 22-year-old slacker

A radio station.

This is a pure homage to, or rip-off of, the old Bob and Ray routines, and should be played as such.

(RUSTY and HOBART are discovered on opposite sides of a table on which sit paraphernalia suggestive of a radio broadcast, including a large microphone and styrofoam coffee cups. Of course, the audience doesn’t see any of this, because this is radio. But I mention it in case of Method actors.)
(Sappy theme music up and out.)

RUSTY
Welcome to “Poverty on Parade,” the radio show that asks the question, “Is there life after dot-com crash?” I’m your host, Rusty Paladin, and today we have with us Mr. Hobart Flurn, whom we discovered at Recession Camp, a trendy gathering place for recently laid-off dot-com workers in San Francisco.
(To HOBART.)
Mr. Flurn, it’s obvious from your scruffy appearance that you haven’t found work yet. So thank you for coming all the way to Grants Pass, Oregon, by Greyhound bus to share your miserable story with us.

HOBART
That’s okay, I enjoyed the ride. And it’s not like I had anything better to do.

RUSTY
How poignantly true. I would imagine. Unemployment must be quite a letdown from the adrenaline rush of being a highly paid programmer in a high-flying dot-com.

HOBART
Well, I was in tech support, so I don’t know about the adrenaline part.

RUSTY
Still, it must have been stimulating to breathe the charged atmosphere of a web-based startup in the height of the dot-com boom.

HOBART
Not really, not until the sheriff’s deputies came in and escorted everyone out. That was sort of exciting.

RUSTY
And after those heady days, you’re hitting the unemployment line?

HOBART
Actually, I’m spending most of my time sponging off friends and watching the Cartoon Network. It’s just hard to imagine starting over again at 22.

RUSTY
I suppose you lost a lot of money when the company shut down?

HOBART
Oh yeah, I lost everything. My $1.5 million house in Atherton. My Jag XJ-6. My Vespa Obsession. My Handspring Visor. The orthodontist repossessed my bridgework.

RUSTY
Yes, I thought you were talking sort of funny.

HOBART
The ironic thing is, I didn’t even need the bridgework. But everybody else was getting it done. Oh, my dog ran away. I’ve been reduced to using a 56K dialup.

RUSTY
All right, all right. I imagine you harbor a lot of resentment toward FlyByNight.com, the company you used to work for?

HOBART
Actually, I can’t do that.

RUSTY
Beg pardon?

HOBART
I can’t do that.

RUSTY
You can’t feel resentment toward the company that laid you off?

HOBART
No, you see, they outsourced responsibility.

RUSTY
Outsourced responsibility? Is that possible?

HOBART
Oh yes, you can outsource pretty much anything these days. They contracted responsibility to a free-lance human resources consultant by the name of Delmer Clupferer, of Walkerton, Indiana, wherever that is.

RUSTY
So you resent Clupferer then?

HOBART
Well, I have to.

RUSTY
Because he’s responsible for your being laid off.

HOBART
Right, because the company —

RUSTY
— outsourced the responsibility to him.

HOBART
Right. I don’t feel very good about it, though. Clupferer seems like a darn nice guy.

RUSTY
I suppose he was well compensated, at least.

HOBART
Not really. The company went Chapter Eleven before it had paid the contractors anything, so I don’t believe Clupferer ever saw dime one.

RUSTY
That must make him angry.

HOBART
If so, he’d have to be angry at himself, because FlyByNight.com outsourced responsibility to him.

RUSTY
Yes, you said that. Look here, I really wanted to ask you about Recession Camp. It’s quite an interesting concept, a combination support group and trendy club. Are you a regular there?

HOBART
No, I only went that once and they asked me not to come back.

RUSTY
Was it your complete lack of social skills?

HOBART
That, and my trying to borrow money from everyone there.

RUSTY
I can see their point. Well, thank you again, Hobart Flurn, for sharing your pathetic experience with us here on “Poverty on Parade.” So until next…

HOBART
Aren’t you going to say that you have some lovely parting gifts for me?

RUSTY
No, we don’t do that.

HOBART
Well, do you validate?

RUSTY
Yes, but you don’t have a car. So until next time, this is Rusty Paladin for “Poverty on Parade,” saying, “Write if you get work — or better yet, if you don’t!”

(Sappy theme music up and out.)