Sunday, November 15, 2009

Of Tanya and Twanya and a Barn Full of Polo Ponies...

I watched Conrack the other night and it got me to thinking. Conrack is based on Pat Conroy’s book The Water is Wide. I've seen the movie three times. I haven’t read the book, but a friend of mine, who is a teacher a Georgia, has read it. He hasn't seen the movie. So it goes with movies made from books. Its a story about teaching. Its a story about racism. However, its the racial aspects of the movie that reminded me of Tanya and Twanya.

Tanya and Twanya were twins. They were black. And I attended my first three years of elementary school with them. They were bussed from Bridgeport, Connecticut along with a small group of their neighborhood kids to attend all white Bedford Elementary School in Westport, Connecticut. It was 1971 and while our parents, and in my case, my grandparents, were very aware of the intricacies of bussing, the kids were oblivious. We were just kids and the world was new...we didn’t know that it was a big deal to have this bus make that long drive from Bridgeport to Westport everyday, hell, we didn’t even know where Bridgeport was.

As we grew older though, we learned very quickly that Bridgeport was poor and black and we never traveled there. As teenagers we called it “Bree Po” and made jokes that we didn’t fully understand. I remember being confused when my grandmother, who came from a very wealthy family that lost it all in the Crash of ‘29, told me her family’s winter home was in Bridgeport. Their summer home was in Greens Farms. It was a grand house that faced the Long Island Sound and was surrounded by a beautiful marsh near Burying Hill Beach. But when the leaves would turn in the fall, they would close up that house, load everything up on carriages and move to a smaller, but equally grand house in Bridgeport. The house staff would carefully pack the china and the silver and my grandmother and her five siblings would see their toys and books and clothes put into great trunks. They would make the 25 mile trip away from the shore to hunker down for the Connecticut winter in a more urban setting, one that my grandmother assured me was not populated by “colored” people. I asked my grandmother to take me to Bridgeport to see the winter home. She said it was gone, just like Red Oaks, the summer home, which had mysteriously burned down in 1968. There was a part of me that didn’t believe my grandmother, who was the most honest person I ever knew. There was just no way she was going to drive me to Bridgeport. It wasn’t a place that we belonged.

You know who came from Bridgeport? Robert Mitchum came from Bridgeport. P.T. Barnum came from Bridgeport. And so did Hogan’s Heroes’ Bob Crane. That alone made me want to see Bridgeport. But you know what? I never did. I never saw Bridgeport, only on a map and only as an exit off of I-95.

Tanya and Twanya were mean. Twanya was the meaner of the two if you want to split hairs. I imagined that when they fought amongst themselves, Twanya always beat Tanya. I learned to tell them apart not long after meeting them in my first grade class. They both wore glasses, but Twanya had a lazy eye and her features were slightly finer than Tanya’s. They were very beautiful and always wore matching clothes. But they were mean. If you glanced at them in the cafeteria or on the playground they would lean into your face and utter their trademark threat, “I ain’t playin’ with you girl!” and that was it, you were marked for a beating. The beating didn’t necessarily come at the moment of your trespass, it usually came when you were least expecting it, when you had forgotten that you had even invited the beating.

I was the kind of kid who got beat up a lot. Not just by Tanya and Twanya, but lots of kids, girls and boys beat me up throughout school. I know, I know, you’re smiling right now, you’re not surprised that I invited beatings as a child. I was small and blonde and really hyper, but quietly hyper. My mind was constantly reeling with thoughts and ideas, as it still does today, and I looked at people. I would stare at them and try to figure them out. And I was weird. I would go off on the playground by myself and play with my imaginary friend Indian Girl. Indian Girl and I had long conversations, with me on the ground and her, most of the time, up in a tree. She lived in the tree outside my bedroom window at home and my grandmother would catch me talking to her or reading books to her. Mom was very disapproving of my friendship with Indian Girl. She believed it was a true sign of insanity. But Indian Girl faded away eventually. I didn’t need her anymore.

So Tanya and Twanya would stalk me, somewhere beyond the swings and the kickball field. They would chase me and when they caught me, they beat the crap out me. Once they trapped me in this large concrete pipe -- the school had three or four of them on the playground for us to play in. The pipes were painted in bright colors and they were great refuges to sit in with friends and talk about the questions of life. But on a winter's day Tanya and Twanya chased me into one of those pipes and I will never forget the echo of their voices. Tanya at one end, Twanya at the other and me in the middle. “We ain’t playin’ with you girl!” and they crept in and pummeled me. I never told on them. How could I? The beating I would receive for tattling would certainly bring me close to death, so I just kept my mouth shut. And I witnessed the beatings of other children. Tanya and Twanya did not discriminate in their beatings -- they beat girls and boys, black and white. We were all terrified of them.

They did get caught once though. I had received the kiss of death from Tanya in art class -- there I was scribbling away with these marvelous crayons Mr. Clark used to give us and I must have looked funny and Tanya whispered in my ear, “I ain’t playin’ with you.” Mr. Clark was our art teacher, my first real live hippie. He had long black hair that he kept in a pony tail and a handlebar mustache. He collected Clark Bar wrappers and he had a terrible temper...which is very un-hippie like, but I guess the Westport brat scene would just drive him over the edge sometimes. He would snap like twig and beat our desks with a yard stick and heaven help you if your hands were in the way. But he gave us all these magical crayons -- they were the size and shape of a domino and they were made of melted crayons of every color, so that when you laid them to paper, they made rainbows.

Later in the day, I was in the cafeteria, a place I hated more than anything in those days. I hated the crowd of kids, the food, the noise...I always felt vulnerable in the cafeteria, a feeling that continued through high school. I set my tray on a table and proceeded to sit down, but as I sat, my chair was swiftly pulled out from under me. I hit the floor and felt a sting that zanged right up my spine and continued out my eyes. I turned to see Twanya holding my chair and smiling at me. But her smile was wiped cleanly from her face by Mr. Clark, who was on lunch duty. He saw the whole thing. I was sent to the school nurse, who called my grandmother. Next thing you know I was in the doctor’s office and they determined that I had bruised my coccyx bone, I was mortified and what was worse was that my grandmother started asking all these questions about the girl who had hurt me. Suddenly the adults were involved and this was never a good thing. Tanya and Twanya continued their beatings, but under the cover of shrubs in the playground and in the back stairwell of the school. I played dumb when my grandmother’s questions came, “I don’t know who that girl is. She never hurt me before...”

I became best friends with one of the Bridgeport girls in the third grade. He name was Sheryl and we met on the playground every day. She knew Tanya and Twanya and wasn’t afraid of them. She didn’t fight them, she just ignored them. T and T were in another class in third grade and so I hardly ever saw them, they were just like a bad dream at that point and Sheryl seemed to be some sort of protection for me. Maybe T and T moved on to other things by then, their bullying days perhaps were over.

One spring day I asked Sheryl if she wanted to come to my house after school. I had a pony I wanted her to meet and maybe my grandfather would let me take Sheryl for a ride. Sheryl said she couldn’t come to my house because she had to take the bus home. She became quiet. I said no problem, my grandmother would drive her home. Sheryl balked again and said she would have to ask her mother. When I went home that afternoon I asked my grandmother if my friend Sheryl could come over after school one day. “Who’s Sheryl?” I explained that she was a girl in my class, that she took the bus from Bridgeport, but couldn’t she come over and then we could drive her home before dinner? My grandmother said this wouldn’t be possible. And when I saw Sheryl the next day, she told me that her mother said no to my plan. I was completely perplexed by the whole thing. But I understood later on. You see? Bridgeport was another world, it was an island, and the only place we were to mix our worlds was in school.

Bedford El closed down in 1974 and so all of us who were attending the three story old fashioned school would be divided up around the district into nicer and more modern facilities. I never saw Tanya or Twanya or Sheryl again. I might have changed schools, but something remained the same. You could count the number of black students in the school on one hand. This trend continued through junior high school. By the time we got to Staples High School, you could count them on two hands. There weren’t enough blacks in my school to cause racial tension, but I know there was racism and they were so outnumbered that I cannot fathom how they must have felt. They were prominent students and memorable and good characters in my memory and some were my friends -- outgoing achievers academically and in sports, they seemed happy enough to be with all of us white kids, but I am certain they had days when they hated us.

But here’s something important to know about Westport. It was a hard place for almost all of us growing up there. It was a wealthy town and it weighed heavily on all of us with its expectations. We lived among CEOs, scholars, and famous actors and actresses and renowned writers and artists. Westport was infested with Somebodys.

So even though the black kids were feeling weird about being black, there were plenty of us feeling weird because we weren’t rich or beautiful or popular or brilliant or headed to an Ivy League college. There were plenty of things to make you feel bad about yourself in Westport and being black was just one of them. After living in the South now for over 20 years, I’ve grown to believe that the North is just as racist as the South. But its a different kind of racism. In the South, you are White or Black or Mexican. In the North, you are White or Black or Mexican or Italian or Irish or Sicilian or Russian or German or Polish or Armenian or Jewish or Catholic or Muslim or Greek Orthodox...its an immigrant thing and a classist thing too...everyone is defined at some point by their religion and their heritage and their money and sometimes it works just fine and other times it causes a brawl.

In the summer after my freshman year in college, I went home to Westport. My grandfather set me up with a great job -- taking care of a barn of 12 polo ponies owned by Franco, a rich Honduran business man, who was a mediocre polo player. My partner for the summer would be a beautiful black pre-med student from Stanford University. Her name was Lisa and she was on Stanford’s women’s polo team. She stood five foot eleven and rode a horse like a dream. She looked like a super model. Her parents were both doctors in Manhattan and they had just bought a house in Westport. Lisa and I were going to have a blast. The barn was located on the grounds of the Fairfield County Hunt Club, a well known old club that had been in operation since the 1920s. My grandparents were founding members of the Hunt Club and my grandfather ran the polo program there for many, many years. I had grown up riding at the Club. We kept our horses at home, but I would hack my ponies to the Club to go to horse shows and to ride with friends. It was my playground as a child. I spent hours there and I knew every inch of every barn there and I had memorized the menu in the clubhouse. I was on a first name basis with the staff of the Club House and the barns. It was practically my second home.

The ponies arrived on a truck from Texas in early June. They were skin and bones. Lisa and I started in right away with my grandfather’s help on getting the ponies in shape. We showed up early every morning and mucked out all our stalls, six for Lisa and six for me. Then we would tack up the ponies and take them out to the polo field to exercise. Since we had 12 ponies, we would ride one and lead two, one on each side. This way we could work the ponies in sets - two sets of three for me and two sets of three for Lisa. By the end of June we had the ponies looking pretty good. Their coats were beginning to shine and their ribs and hip bones were now fleshed over in muscle. Franco would come to ride in the evenings and sometimes Lisa would go out on the field with him to “stick and ball”, that is, scrimmage with their mallets and a ball. I would just hang out on one of the ponies, because I never learned how to hit a ball off a pony. I could play a mean game of bicycle polo, but my grandfather, despite being a great polo coach never taught me to hit a ball off a horse, he didn’t believe in girls playing polo, at least not until he met Lisa!

When Lisa and I were done riding in the mornings, we would hay up the ponies and then head to the beach for the afternoon. We’d sleep in the sand and eat lunch and swim in the Sound until late afternoon. Then we'd head back to the barn to meet Franco and feed the horses supper. It was a good routine.

One day in late July, I got an idea. Lisa and I had worked all morning in the barn and it was hot day. I said, “Lisa, how about I take you to the Club House for lunch today, instead of the beach. I can still use my grandparents’ tab.” Lisa had never been to the Club House and she thought this was a grand idea. So we washed up and changed into clean clothes, like we did every day to go to the beach and we walked down to the Club House. It was apparent from the minute we stepped into the high ceilinged dining room that something was terribly wrong. The Club ladies who lunched there every day went silent, and the Hungarian sisters who had waitressed at the Club since the beginning of time gave me a funny look instead of the usual smiles and hugs that I was always greeted with. I suggested to Lisa that we sit by the French doors at the front of the dining room so we could watch people working horses out on the polo field. Helga, the darker of the two Hungarian waitresses came to our table. She greeted me tersely, “Hallo Shannon, ice tea for you and your friend?”

“Yes Helga. This is my friend Lisa. We have been working with Franco’s polo ponies this summer”

“Yes, we see you riding out there everyday!”

So things eased up a little and Lisa and I ate our club sandwiches. We tried to ignore the Club ladies who seemed to be staring at us as we ate. When we were done, I signed the check with my grandfather’s initials and a smiley face like I always did. Lisa and I stopped in the ladies room on the way out. We walked in and faced two of my grandmother’s old friends were primping their hair in front of the mirror. They were speaking in hushed tones and clammed up the second Lisa and I walked in. They wrinkled their faces as though something smelled bad. “Hello Shannon, how is your grandmother?”

“Just fine and how are you Mrs. Dee and Mrs. Rrrr?”

They barely answered me and spun out of the room. I looked at Lisa and she looked at me. We knew, but we wouldn’t say. I suggested we get to the beach as soon as possible, “Man, I need a swim, howabout you?” Lisa knodded and off we went. The salt water and the sun washed away the weird film we seemed to be covered with after having lunch in the Club House. And I had just about forgotten what had happened when I got home. My grandmother was sitting at the kitchen table reading the New York Times.

“Hi Mom.”

“Hi Dear. Do you want a hamburger?” Mom offered me a hamburger every time I walked in the door. It was the thing about her.

“Nope, I ate a big lunch at the Club today and then I ate again at the beach.”

“That’s nice Dear.” She didn’t take her eyes off the newspaper. But then the phone rang. “Will you get that Dear?”

“Yeah Mom...Hello?” The voice at the other end of the phone was familiar but it had a weird edge to it.

“Oh oh, Shannon? Its Joey. Is your grandmother there?” It was Joey T. She was on the board of the Hunt Club and a very old friend of my grandparents. Her husband was our family attorney.

“Oh Hi Mrs. T. -- yeah, Mom’s right here.”

Mom got on the phone and the first thing I heard her say was “But Shannon is a groom too...” and then I looked at Mom and could see her hackles going up like an a old fox hound bitch. Seems the conversation went like this:

“Hello Mabel. I hate to bother you with this, but the board asked me to call you. Shannon brought a groom to lunch at the Club House today. Grooms aren't supposed to eat in the Club House.”

“But Shannon is a groom know she’s been working with those polo ponies all summer.”

“Yes, well, Shannon is different.”

“You mean Shannnon is WHITE.”

“Oh Mabel, no, that’s not it at all, its just that...”

“Its just that Shannon brought a black girl to lunch today and it set the world on fire, didn’t it?!”

“Mabel, I think you are over reacting.”

“I’m not over reacting. Do you realize what year it is? Do you know that ”groom“ that Shannon brought to lunch today is a pre-med student at Stanford and the daughter of two Manhattan doctors? Not that it should matter who she is or what color she is! I am outraged that you would think that it was proper to call me and tell me that Shannon did something wrong!”

That’s how the conversation went and then my grandmother, my pithy grandmother told Joey T. that she would never step into that Club House again. And she didn’t. She never went back there. And I didn’t go back until my grandfather’s death. The Club held a reception after Pop’s funeral and there I was back in that big old dining room.

I never told Lisa about the phone call or the number of phone calls that came from various Club board members and members after that. Lisa and I just continued on with our polo ponies for the summer and going to the beach every afternoon. But Lisa knew and I knew that we had, as my grandmother put it, set the world on fire by having sandwiches in the Club House. We just never talked about it. When my grandmother asked me about it, she asked me if I knew people were going to be upset? I told her I had no idea. That it was the furthest thing from my mind that day. I just wanted to take my friend to lunch. I felt so naive. And I felt as though I suddenly didn’t know the people I had grown up around. My understanding of how the world worked was turned upside down. But there stood my grandmother as solid as a rock and I was never prouder of her.


mutt pretty said...

Brilliant story. Perfect in its pace and wording.

Robert said...

When this story becomes a movie, they're going to fight for these roles.

I can't stop laughing about T & T.