Thursday, August 21, 2014

Mr. Anderson, Janitor Super-Negro

Courtesy Andres Musta Flickr CC
My brother is a little more than a year younger than me, but most people still think he is older because he is 6'4" and was a high school sports celebrity.

He's a big guy. He's my only brother.

He's a psychopath and a racist.

I say this, not out of bitterness or resentment, but as a simple statement of fact.

Oh sure, I've had my bitter, resentful spasms through the years. But that's a different essay.

Back in the early 1960s, while my brother was still a psychopath-in-training and had not yet become a full-fledged racist miscreant, he was just a scrawny kid who liked to jump out from behind things to scare his sister (me), and who drew the same Easter Bunny over and over again for way longer than was appropriate or necessary.

He drew my mother a bunny one Easter and she liked it and pinned it on the refrigerator. When neighbor women would stop by for coffee she'd point it out, and they'd make nice noises.

But then, he drew dozens more Easter Bunnies. He drew a Thanksgiving East Bunny, a Christmas Easter Bunny, a Valentine Easter Bunny, a Mother's Day Easter bunny, and so on and so forth... It got so it was beyond awkward. We all could see something was wrong, and my parents, already badly hobbled in the sanity department themselves, had no idea what to do about it.

Ignore it maybe. Smash it.

In my parents' defense I should mention that this happened way before child psychologists even existed, and lofty notions of instilling 'self-esteem' in children were so alien as to sound heretical. This happened back in the day, when children were supposed to keep quiet and mind their elders, and infractions brought a whipping "for your own good".

Spare the rod and pretty soon you have too damn many rods. Might as well beat your kids.

Not to judge that reality either way. It was what it was.

Anyway, one evening my father, my mother, my brother, and me were sitting at supper together, and my father, by way of making conversation, asked my brother what he wanted to be when he grew up. (He didn't ask me. I was a girl.)

My brother brightened and answered immediately,

"Mr. Anderson!"

I was surprised that my brother actually gave a credible answer instead of choosing, oh, Superman, Zorro, or the Easter Bunny, and I totally 'got' why he chose Mr. Anderson.

Mr. Anderson was one of only two male employees in the entire school. (The other was the science teacher, who wore a crewcut and was kind of scary.)

Whenever anything went wrong, Mr. Anderson came and quietly fixed it. If a kid puked, bled, or peed on the school linoleum, Mr. Anderson came with a coffee can filled with something that looked like eraser shavings, sprinkled it on the disgusting bodily fluid, then swept it up in a dustpan, like magic.

Mr. Anderson was quiet, kind, helpful, and always nearby. He said little and helped much. He showed kids that men are kind, responsible people who take care of messes no one else wants to touch. Men respect women, especially teachers, and help kids.

At six years of age, my brother responded to this, including and maybe especially the magic eraser shavings.

How my father was able to remember that Mr. Anderson was the black grade school janitor I can't imagine, but remember he did, and at hearing my brother's answer his face went three shades whiter, then bright red.

My mother ventured into the thick, charged silence as tentatively as a mouse sniffing about for a cat.

"You can be anything sweetie. You can be an astronaut, a fire fighter, even President!"

I think my father said something about my brother not understanding until he was older. I really don't remember what my father said in response. I do remember the tension, the fear. I saw a beating in my brother's immediate future, and since I was already waiting for that I lost my appetite. I knew the Easter Bunny production line would not shut down anytime soon.

Bad Dad Syndrome. Every working class white kid knows what it is.

Today we do have a black President. We also have black fire fighters, and probably even a black astronaut or two, and my brother no longer draws Easter Bunnies (at least to the best of my knowledge he doesn't--I haven't spoken to him for over twenty-five years).

Most of the janitors around here these days are Mexican.