[World, November 4, 1995]
The message on my answering machine begins with the loud exhalation of a child holding the phone too close. Then, apparently, she pressed her hand over the mouthpiece because this is muffled: "Mom, it’s a answering machine."
The voice of a middle-aged woman comes on the line. It is kindly and somehow lush; I picture a full-bodied woman with big eyes. "Hi, Daisy? This is Cammie. Would you like to go on a cruise?" She speaks clearly and precisely; maybe Daisy is hard of hearing. "In August. If so, give me a call." Cammie gives her number, then adds in a sweet voice, "Thank you. Have a pleasant evening."
I’ve had this phone number for over two years now, and I’m still getting calls for Daisy. I’ve been saving one on my answering machine for over a year. It sounds like a very, very old man:
"Wha’ she say?" Pause. Then, with mild exasperation, "I’m sorry, that didn’t even sound like Daisy."
No, it sounded like someone saying, "Hello, this is Frederica Mathewes-Green." But no matter. I love this old man; I play back his recording every few weeks. I’ve lost all the older men in my life, my grandparents, uncles, and father. I can imagine this is one of them, perhaps my grandaddy Oetjen who, when his hearing was failing, screeched at the operator who told him she had a collect call from Frederica, "From Puerto Rico?!?"
The phone rings and I say "Hello?" "Daisy!" exclaims a jaunty male voice. A straw boater sails across my mind. I wish Daisy’s friends were my friends.
The old TV show used to proclaim, "There are eight million stories in The Naked City," and Daisy and I are just two stories in Baltimore, brushing up against each other, separated by a single digit. Despite my curiousity about her, however, I cannot take the step of dialing that number so much like mine. Partly because even brash me is not that forward, partly because the mystery itself is enjoyable. But at least one of the reasons is this: I’m pretty sure that Daisy is black.
The ink spilled about racial tension over the last few weeks boils down to this: how do two real people of different races relate to each other? What overlays charge the relationship, that would not otherwise be there?
In Baltimore, as in many another city, there is a murmuring sense of racial alienation. With a 65% black population, it’s an exploitable situation. In the recent election, Mayor Kurt Schmoke’s signs were in African-nationalist red, green, and black; whites complained this felt like their votes didn’t count. Nor do liberals have a corner on this tactic. When Alan Keyes ran for Senate against Barbara Mikulski three years ago, billboards showed his face and this message: "Why not one of us?"
During each of the two recent events of racial import, I stood in a single-race crowd. When the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced, I was in a shopping mall in Sioux City, Iowa, where dozens of small-town and rural citizens had gathered in front of the fifty TVs in an appliance shop. The shock of the verdict was met with a few "I don’t believe it!"s, but mostly sober silence, dignity, surprise and sorrow.
On the morning of the Million Man March I came into the Baltimore train station to encounter a high-spirited group of black women shaking rattles and chanting encouragements like "The black man is a strong man!" I felt awkward and abashed, an unwelcome intruder. Then I noticed that the hundreds of black men around me weren’t sharing the party mood. They were sober and dignified, appearing to embody the announced spirit of repentance and male responsibility. Some had young boys by the hand, or toddlers in strollers. Whatever the chaotic message that would come from the March’s podium, these Baltimore men were polite and patient, gentlemanly to me. They were like the black men in my neighborhood, in my church, not strangers but brothers.
Daisy is in some way my counterpart, my alter ego, and I am curious about her. But for too many reasons I feel awkward about making contact. Not least of these is race, in a city and a time when color is so charged with misunderstanding, sadness, and wounded dignity.
Lately, when her friends call, I’ve been telling them, "Tell Daisy hello for me." The other day, after chatting with one of them, I hung up and then heard the phone ring again, about ten minutes later. I picked it up and, as soon as I said "Hello," heard a woman say very quickly, as if she had prepared the line: "Sorry, I have a wrong number!"
I think it was Daisy. Curious about the mystery of me.