Saturday Rumpus Essay: Black Barbie
“GFE’s are what I was good at. The Girl Friend Experience. I could dress-up like you. Nails done, hair done, college girl, businesswoman, just meeting for drinks. Could pretend with doctors, lawyers, engineers who’d call and ask for me by name, wanting a ‘girl friend’ to wake up in the morning with. To French kiss. To talk to. To eat out. To fuck. I used to be beautiful. Even before I got a man to take care of me, before women like me were called providers. Before then. When I was still strutting this round ass up and down these streets. Six-inches of high heels and spandex. My father was my first. Then the others. They wished I worked Monday through Sunday. Girl, everyday, cause those were the days when my milkshake…” She pushed her tongue against the inside of her cheek, making it bulge. “Oh, my milkshake. Would bring all the boys to the yard. Had to pay extra if they wanted me to swallow.”
My client continued telling me her story as I tried to look past her baldhead where blisters, ready to pop, sat shiny in clear droplets attached by chemical burns. Intake deputies had removed her platinum wig when she was processed, leaving her exposed.
Her eye was swollen shut and sealed wet, glowing moon green at the seam from a jailhouse infection. The cruds, deputies called it. A smorgasbord of viruses that attacked new inmates and new deputies alike. She’d been out of jail two years by that time. Had lost her immunity. So when she wiped the corner of her eye with the back of her hand, she left a live streak of shine from the edge of her black lashes to her chin where her jaw was seized, unhinged and tilted to the right from addiction.
I was her criminal lawyer but it was the writer part of me who noticed her every movement—the way her eyeball fluttered behind her liquid-lid as if dreaming whenever she tried to look at me closer.
Futile, I thought.
She reached out for my hand from behind the boxed area of the courtroom that separated the inmates, like her, from the lawyers like me. Me and the bailiffs and the good citizens just there on parking tickets.
“Can I hold your hand?” she said.
I hesitated. Not only because of the juice she had just put on the back of her hand but because I’d never been able to get used to the touching of palms, or worse, the brushing against the end of someone else’s long sleeve, spreading sick—stomach flu, pink eye, the cruds.
Images of sleeve-ends could replay in my mind obsessively, how their cuffs swept across assholes during wiping—too close to shit—and how they’re sneezed on, or rested on dirty tabletops.
Fingertips were worse. How they’re dipped in mouths to get that last bit of donut glaze, or shoved in noses and ears for picking. They push elevator buttons, sticky. It’s why I avoid pressing them.
It’s usually easy to hide these paralyzing mental replays while in the Downtown Criminal Courts Building. Ninety-nine percent of the time someone in the elevator will push the button to the floor I want to go to. If not, I’ll stand at the back and yell out a floor like, “Fifth floor, please,” and a stranger will kindly push it.
In fact, with the hundreds of people traveling the floors in the morning alone, it’s a breeze getting to the lobby. Someone is always going there. Though, my luck ran out recently.
An old lawyer and I stepped into the elevator going down from the 13th floor and we both stood at the way back and did nothing.
“He said, “Is the lobby on the 2nd floor?”
I said, “No, the first.”
He nodded and said, “Are you going to lobby?”
Yes, please,” I said. “First floor…” and I pointed to the button.
“First floor, please,” he said back to me, and neither of us moved.
The doors closed, and we kept staring at the buttons. “Seriously?” I said. “We can’t both be germaphobes.”
He laughed and asked, “Everything, too?”
“No, just elevators and food,” I said. “Chuck E. Cheese’s—the kid’s pizza place—is a house of Satan.”
Suddenly the doors opened again and a lady—a gangster with tattoos on her face and neck, the word “Puppet” written in Old English—started walking in. She was startled when she saw us standing at the back of the elevator.
Cautiously she said, “Is this going down?”
“First floor, please!” the old guy said. She pushed the button.
“I’m not dirty,” my client said, smacking her lips and squinting her only good eye. “Ain’t no dick in Twin Towers. None I want. Pretty girl like you, can get all the dick she want, ain’t that right? Or you want some of this…” she said, relaxing back in her seat, lifting her hips to me.
I pretended not to notice.“It’s not that I think you’re dirty,” I said, lathering on hand sanitizer as I usually did every other hour and as needed. “I’m a bit of a germaphobe which means as soon as you touch my hand, well…anybody touches my hand, that hand’ll be useless. I’d rather hug you than touch hands, but as it is…”
She stared at me.
Stared, as if she were the one disturbed by me. Judging me.
She said, “Well, when I get out of here, I’m going to law school to be like you. Get plenty of dick, too.”
That’s when she grabbed me. Grabbed my hand-sanitized hand and as I tried to pull away, she wouldn’t let go.
She said, “I guess we all got things we need to get over.”
A few days later, I sat in the drive-thru line at In-N-Out Burger with my six-year-old daughter Ava. We were ready to order. Ava said, “I want a cheeseburger and a…a…strawberry milkshake.”
“Not a milkshake!” I said, that word reminding me of my client and her tongue-bulged cheek. “Milkshakes are for nasty babies. Say…say… smoothie. Yes, strawberry smoothie or something like that. Not milkshakes. Not ever!”
I can’t say that my work never crosses over into my mothering life. Career choices often affect who we are as people, as parents, the same way filmmakers can’t watch a movie without criticizing it. They hear the sounds and see the shots differently. They see the decisions there on the screen.
“Welcome to the Thunder Dome!” the Deputy District Attorney (D.A. or D.D.A) said to me as I walked into the Compton Courthouse. He was the prosecutor and I was private counsel—the defense. He always had that same line waiting for me or gave me some other reference to an old movie: “Gotta put Old Yeller down,” he’d say.
As a D.A., he was one of those who’d try to put my clients in jail for probation violations, or would try to unnerve me, or his favorite thing—threatening to send immigrants back to Mexico. Tried. It was no different that day. He said, “Your client’s getting a one-way, all expense paid trip back to the border.”
But I ignored him, searched the courtroom for my other client, one who was referred to me by a legal aid program, which meant I didn’t get paid to represent him. But it was my pleasure. I often took cases that other lawyers didn’t want and cases where clients couldn’t afford to pay. It was my small stand against the classism and racism that could deem a sixteen-year-old boy an adult and demand twenty-five years of his life from him for being three times a fool. Three strikes.
This was half the reason I was in Compton that day. For a homeless man I’d never met before. He was in custody and when the deputy brought him into the courtroom, I could see that he was newly showered and shaved. A smudged patch of dirt was still on his forehead. He was an old white man with a long gray beard that touched the black writing stamped across the chest of his jumpsuit, Los Angeles County.
I stood and walked over to greet him, smiled and said, “Hi, I’m your attorney.”
“Nigger bitch!” he yelled. “I don’t want that Black Barbie Bitch representing me.”
“Momma?” Ava said, as I helped her get into her pajamas under the low glow of her firefly night light. “Am I black?”
You see her father is London-white and I’m L.A.-black.
“You are,” I said. “And whatever else you want to be.”
“Then I’m black,” she said. “And English. Will people call me the N-word, too?”
“Where did you hear that word?” I said.
“A boy at school. He called the new girl,” her voice lowers, “Nutella.”
I used to think that maybe I was the one paranoid about race in this new “post-racial America” where President Obama is in the White House and black folks are making strides. But I’m not allowed that sort of ignorance. The bliss part. I’m reminded everyday in the courtrooms across Los Angeles, that there is no such thing as post-racial.
“It’s a con-man of a term,” I read in the New York Times recently. “A mythical idea…” the writer said, “an intellectual Loch Ness monster…A shield against uncomfortable but necessary discussions allowing people to say or think, ‘Why are they complaining about racism? We’re post-racial.’”
“Ava’s mom?” a sweet little blonde girl called from inside the group of first-graders I was leading on a nature hike through the Angeles National Forest. My feet were cold, as they always were, and I had to give my second jacket to Ava.
Parent Helper is what I was designated, a class volunteer. I got the raw deal since my husband went to the last birthday party and it was my turn. I was tasked with holding a nasty snake, pointing out owl pellets and fox droppings, and pretending for the children’s sake that it was a good time.
“Ava’s mom?” the girl said again as I moved our class around dangerous poison ivy or what may have just been a lavender bush or something edible like sage. I was taking no chances. The blonde girl said, “Are you black? Or brown?”
“I don’t know,” I said, stepping into some God-knows-what-mush. “What do you think?”
“Brown,” she said.
“She can’t be brown,” a Latino kid said from behind her. “I’m brown.”
“Well, she’s not black,” the girl said.
“So which is it?” the boy said.
That’s when a chubby white kid with a tinge of Aspergers said, “I’m Icelandic. It’s why I’m not cold right now.”
“No,” the white girl said, “it’s cause you’re fat.”
“Well, Nutella’s not a nice thing to call someone, Ava.”
“I know,” she says. “I wouldn’t. But that boy said too, that you’re a lawyer for bad people.”
“Not for bad people,” I said. “People who make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes, Ava.”
“So, the people who hire you aren’t bad?”
I couldn’t answer.
I knew there would always be a man named Lamsby (name changed). He was a fifty-year-old small man, built like a leprechaun. He stood with me in the hallway of the Criminal Courts Building. We had just won a 16-month battle to erase his name from the sexual predator database.
As he celebrated in the hall, he asked, “Can I give you a hug?” He rubbed his sweaty hands down his oversized, off-the-rack, gray suit.
His seventeen-year-old new wife stood next him, cheering and hopeful.
He said, “I don’t want to hug you without your permission.”
You see there was a loophole in the law in California that allowed child molesters who molested family members to have their names removed from the Sexual Predator List. He was one of those, one who met the criteria, and one who was eligible to be deemed “rehabilitated” by the State of California. I told the law firm who gave me the case that I didn’t want to know what he’d done.
“Just let me know if he’s eligible or not,” I said. “The crime was twenty years ago.”
It was the deputy district attorney who slid me the testimony of Lamsby’s then 13-year-old daughter. Normally, I would never be privileged to this because there is never a good reason for a D.A. to voluntarily share with a defense attorney, evidence collected by his detective unless forced to but he did this day. Voluntarily. The D.A. gave it to me just before the judge came out and made his decision.
The D.A. knew I had children, a daughter and son. And he has two boys. Over the years, this D.A. and I have chatted about diapers and loose teeth, and family trips to Disneyland. “It was a mistake,” he told me after I’d read the testimony. (It wasn’t a mistake). He said it was a mistake because he gave me the “wrong file.”
But it was too late. The blood had already left my face and I’d already walked out the courtroom with this “wrong file” clinched in my hand, and I had already prayed in the bathroom stall for the strength to return for Lamsby, to not abandon him, and to do it because Jesus would’ve done it for me. A Bible verse repeated in my mind, telling me to “live in faith, hope and love but the greatest of these is love.” Help me to love even this man, I prayed…at least until this hearing is over.
I had already read the testimony. Slowly at first, carefully, the way I did with all papers suddenly shoved in my face by a D.A. And there, in black and white, was Lamsby’s daughter testifying about the way her father would give her weed and alcohol at ten and eleven years old. And how she was drunk on gin the first time it happened, the first time this father came inside his fourth-grade daughter as if she were a woman.
The night it happened, his daughter had stumbled into him as he sat at the kitchen table. He caught her from falling, the way any loving father would do. And as she apologized to him for being drunk and clumsy and for knocking into his shoulder, he put her hand in his lap and told her, “It’s O.K., you can touch me anywhere you want.”
It’s how it started for her that night. Then at his office. Then with her father’s friend who joined them. Then over the next two years. Page after page of sickening testimony. The testimony that sent him to prison for eight years…on a deal.
“Rehabilitated,” is what the court found that day.
Rehabilitated, because of me.
“Rehabilitated,” the judge said, as Lamsby stood next to me with his seventeen-year-old wife and their two-year-old son sitting behind us in the gallery and then in the hallway as they celebrated…
“No,” I said, disgusted. “You can’t hug me.”
“Mommy,” Ava said, as I tucked her into her bed, wrapped her tight in her pink princess sheets. “Why do you help these people?”
“Because they need somebody, Ava. They need somebody when they can’t afford to…or when no one else will. Because everybody deserves a defense and to have a fair trial, fair punishment. Or maybe I just need to be touched.”
Rumpus original art by Sam Geer.