Kage Baker didn’t attend Dickens Fair consistently the last few years of her life. She was beginning to be at constant demand for her work, and sometimes found it easier to write when her noisy roommates (me and Harry), were off carousing in faux London. I brought stories back to her, for her amusement.
I didn’t bring this story back to her; she was already dead when it happened. And the incident shocked me so much I never told anyone except Kimberly. But right now, it has achieved sudden relevance, with the loathsome Donald Trump about to finally leave the White House … this was my own first taste of what the next 4 years would be like.
So! We set our scene in London, as that great city exists in transient glory in the Cow Palace …
Mr. Charles Dickens reads daily in the Parlour of the Green Man Inn, from his “new” classic, A Christmas Carol. It’s a madly popular show – people crowded all around the long Parlour table where The Great Man sits; taking every chair and sofa, leaning in windows, even sitting on the rug at his feet. My staff and I go happily bonkers: waiting at the Parlour door to take his hat and coat, setting up a nice little fancy tea where Dickens sits, with one of the ladies standing ready to pour him out a fresh cuppa when he appears. The Keeper of the Book – a facsimile edition of Dickens’ own performance copy – would hover anxiously by his place, dedicated to putting the volume into no hand but his.
On this day, a friend of mine was visiting Dickens, and asked me to save a space at the table for his lady – she had never heard it before. I was happy to do them the favour, and resumed my Dickens-watch holding the back of a chair for her.
And then an elderly lady suddenly walked up and sat down in the chair I was holding, PLOP. She didn’t even look at me; I apparently did not exist. I deduced this by the way she then tried to hitch the chair forward, and was surprised to find me holding on to it.
“Pardon me, Madame”, I said in my friendly innkeeper voice. “I am holding this seat for a friend of mine. May I seat you – ” and I gestured at an empty chair across the table ” – closer to the head of the table?”
See how sneaky I was? But, really, it was a better seat. However, she just gave me a long blank stare over one shoulder, and then turned away; I really did not exist.
So I repeated myself. I caught the attention of one of the Parlour maids, and asked her to hold the other seat for my apparently stone-deaf visitor. I leaned beside the chair as obsequiously as really good corsetry would allow, offered a cup of tea, pointed out the plates of biscuits at the other chair … nothing. However, a younger woman came up as I was repeating that the seat was saved; she was apparently the elderly lady’s daughter, and joined me in urging that her mother change chairs so I could seat my guest.
At this point, I need to mention that I am white. The old lady and her daughter were white. But my dear friend and his lady are black.
And so: the elderly lady looked up at her daughter (still treating me as a part of the chair) and said, in a shockingly normal tone of voice: “But, honey – Trump won in November. We don’t have to be nice to them any more.”
The daughter looked horrified, and stared around to see if anyone had heard. Only me, of course – and I had the back of the chair in stranglehold as a wave of rage poured over me. It felt like ice cold water rising up into my throat. I was thinking: Here, of all places? Is this my moment to to live up to my ideals? Because if I answer this old bat as she deserves, I am going to get fired. My face must have been rather weird: I suspect it was frightening, since the daughter grabbed her mother’s arm, yanked her out of the chair, and walked her rapidly out of the Parlour.
My friend and his lady came back as I stood there, shaking. Staying in character is a great way to hide your feelings, Dear Readers; I was able to slide back behind Mrs. Bombay and welcome my guests warmly to the Reading. Just then, Mr. Dickens made his entrance, and I excused myself to wait by his chair at the head of the table. I poured his tea, laid The Book by his saucer, exchanged some cheery seasonal badinage, and left the Table in the excellent hands of Mr. Dickens.
Then I went and stood behind the Bar, fixed a vacuous smile on my face, and shook for a half hour.
Dear Readers, I cannot really actually describe the horror of that encounter. There in my own Parlour, at Extreme Christmas, in the liberal haven of San Francisco, out of the mouth of a decent-looking, amiable little old lady – the festering and yet so normal-sounding hatred that would come to be one of the hallmarks of Trump’s regime. I didn’t know, yet, that ordinary people would go instantly mad under Trump’s control, and crawl out of every rat-hole like the living dead; that they would turn out to be legion.
But I definitely felt I had been missed by a bullet – I hadn’t had to put my ass on the line, my friends did not meet this horrible old lady face to face. I could see them seated there, listening raptly, happy as anybody should be to be listening to Charles Dickens read A Christmas Carol. They thanked me afterwards, and I never told them what had happened. They never gave me any hint that they had heard it, either; perhaps we were all desperately trying to spare one another’s feelings. If so, I was and am grateful – because that day I was ashamed of my skin colour, my nation, my own craven thankfulness that I didn’t have to take more action myself.
But that scene has never left my mind for long, not through the last four long, ghastly years. I’ve never been completely off-guard, never stopped watching and listening for another Trump-zombie to wander up and slime all over my day. As my health got worse and worse, I couldn’t make it out to march or protest – though I did proudly knit a pussy hat for a friend who wore it to that first women’s march. I sent letter and emails, I signed petitions. And every time I did, I heard that old woman saying in a calm, reasonable voice: But, honey, we don’t have to be nice to them anymore!
Even spending most of last year hospitalized, there were other patients, members of staff, whose casually ugly remarks reminded me. I spoke up whenever I heard them, the way you do to let some beer-bellied jackass know that his x-rated “joke” is not funny. Some nurses refused to tend me; at least one roommate objected to sharing a room with me. I spent my last 3 months there essentially in solitary, as my roommate was comatose. Video calls with Kimberly and Michael were almost my only human contact.
I watched much worse things happen, as people were shot, spat on, run over, harangued. Their attackers looked normal, but acted like lunatics. Trump was even worse, offending and alienating all America’s friends and allies with behaviour so awful even SNL had trouble parodying it. Could anyone actually be as horrible as he was? And with every action, he showed us that he could get even worse.
But that old lady stuck in my mind. She’s haunted me for 4 years. Now maybe the bitch will lie down and die in my memory.
So, Dear Readers, this old lady walked into a bar and learned that the world had changed. And it was her own bar! Like everyone else, she began to learn that the light was fading. Atlantis was well and truly sunk, there were no faeries, the Dark Lord had not only won, but he was much uglier and more inelegant than the stories had led us to believe.
But soon he’ll be gone, gone to live (in defiance of his lease) in Mira Largo. He’ll be Florida’s problem then. Mind you, I don’t know how the hell we’re going to get Air Force One back from him. And he’s walking off with the nuclear football, too, but at least we can turn that off long range …
Damn, but it’s been a long,dark walk into that bar.
There are no words except what bubbybite said. However, I commend your grace under fire. Not that I’m surprised at your grace.
Like the others, I admire your grace under pressure.
I told off a woman in the Kaiser pharmacy one day while we were waiting for prescriptions. She was bending the ear of another patron, who was not with her, about how “those people” should stick to protesting in their own neighborhoods and away from the news cameras so that she wouldn’t have to be inconvenienced. She and the other patron were white, as am I.
I remarked to her that it certainly took more hubris and privilege than I possessed to dictate how other people should express their concerns about injustice directed toward themselves … and she was *appalled* that I would dare say such a thing, and how could I not understand that white conservatives were the most oppressed people of all?
I don’t think the Trump cult will be gone nearly as soon as we want it to be … but I’m glad that the head of the snake is being cut off all the same.
It will take a long time to heal, despite all the mealy-mouthed whining from the republicans. we’ll need to stay vigilant, though my personal inclination is to go dance in the street and fling daisies in all directions …
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My best friend of over 50 years, Marc (who blessedly introduced me to you & Kage) passed away two years ago. At the age of 71 or so, his greatest regret in in a turbulent life, was that Trump was his last president.
Gods willing I live until at least noonish Wednesday, so I won’t suffer the same vile regret.
Thanks for this day’s piece…peace?.
Thank you, Brad – and please accept my condolences on the passing of your friend, Marc. I think your own luck will be better, as I hope for myself!
As a member of faux London, this horrifies me. And yet, it doesn’t surprise me. Thank you for sharing this.
I am a proud Alum of Antioch University. Upon our graduation we have a private ceremony before the public bestowing of our degree. In that ceremony we swear to speak up for those who have no voice, to stand up for Justice and to make a positive difference in the world. I commend her actions and the subsequent personal perceptions. Standing up for what is right is hard, even on small things. Thank you for sharing this.
Thank you, Jean. I still feel it was sheer chance that saved me from a more direct confrontation – that, and a profoundly embarrassed adult daughter.. But the entire incident stands, I hope, as an example of how any of can be called on to live up to our principles. We must be ready.
Thank you for sharing this, Kate. It is beautifully written and quite impactful. I have heard – and responded directly to/reported some very inappropriate things from the mouths of a few fellow Londoners (and Black Point players) over the decades, but nothing like this, especially from the mouth of a customer. I hope that we will all be able to receive additional training and support if we encounter such situations. As mentioned by Jean above, this horrifies me – and it does not surprise me. I have been through similarly toxic and shocking encounters with relatives and former friends over the past four years – all of whom either stopped talking to me or vice versa when I called them out. It’s always a shock when one fully realizes the human capacity to unmitigated, irrational hate.
“Never stopped watching for another Trump Zombie to wander up and slime all over my day……..hyper vigilant ptsd…….loved this one,but then I love all of yours.
I’m so sorry you had to suffer through this “banality of evil”. Good for you for you for standing up to this!
You are loved, and that little old lady will only have her hate. I am sorry you have been seperated, but you are on my heart, even if we have rarely spoken.
Congratulations dear lady on your condoled behavior and victory. Surely it being in faux London ( a term I must remember) placed a duty upon you as surely as a soldier standing guard at Buckingham Palace, and you maintained your discipline. Being polite when your being is shouting to be otherwise leaves a bitter taste ontop of the sourness of the experience of the boorish behavior. I do not know if i could exercise any control anymore. Especially after the 6th. I am now up against the limit of polite language for simply talking about it. I feel I’m facing an existential threat to my country, my family, my home. I’m an American from FDR’s New Deal world. We are all one, and those traitors should try and remember what our breed is like.
Thank you, Bert. Be of good cheer – we are much better at what we do than the (ultimately disappointed) people who elected a dud President, and then couldn’t even successfully carry out his misguided orders.