Samantha Powell’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
I didn’t know that November 29th, 2013 would be my final Black Friday working in retail. I did know that for the first time in ages I was going to buy something on that day, although it wouldn’t be a gift for someone else. It would be one for myself.
The business cards arrived not long after I placed the order using the special promo code that had been sitting in my inbox. Samantha Powell. Writer. I liked the way the words looked stamped there in black ink on thick white cardstock. I liked that I was starting to embrace a part of myself that was so important to me but that I often tried to deny when faced with the questions of others. (Much to the chagrin of my close friends, I still play that game at times.) I decided that I would need something to carry the cards in in order to protect them from the refuse that lived in the bottom of my handbags.
I long ago grew up and out of Urban Outfitters. As I got older, my style settled into a comfortable rhythm, and I became less enamored with stores married to fleeting trends. But my gift’s arrival awakened a memory from my adolescence of seeing a cardholder there among the various knick knacks that the store peddled. I had to start somewhere, so for the first time in years I walked around the place with my eyes truly open.
“Rebellion” still clung to every corner. Although trends had come and gone and returned once more since my early teens, that fact remained true. Here was a store for those playing at being anti-establishment. A retreat for those into setting themselves apart by breaking the rules. Somewhere deep inside my teen self I longed for the lifestyle that enveloped the place, but I was never really in their target demographic. Rebellion of any sort had no place in my life. Disobedience was out of the question. Those things were luxuries for children who did not share my skin color. It was something my suburban-raised, white classmates could explore if they so chose but it was not for me.
As that final Black Friday approached, I made the decision to take the day off. I’d recently “celebrated” my fourth anniversary in apparel retail and was tired in multiple ways. It seemed only fitting to give myself a break. But I was living a life of non-existent economic margins and could often transform into a fool unable to say no, so when asked by a manager if I’d come into the store for a couple of hours before the onslaught began, I said yes. My mother insisted on joining me during any early morning walks to work. Her Boston was still the one of the 1970s and 1980s, filled with danger at every corner. I chafed at the implication that I was not adult enough to look out for myself and hated every minute of those tense walks. All I wanted in those pre-dawn hours was to be alone with my thoughts about how I had ended up living a life in which I was merely existing.
I arrived a little before 6 AM that day. Even though customers began streaming in at 8 AM, I kept myself busy behind the scenes. I had originally taken the day off for a reason. I was tired of shoppers. I no longer had the heart to bend to their wills and smile as they berated me. I greeted the cold, late November air a little after 10 AM having avoided speaking to a single one and rushed off to meet two friends for breakfast.
In the final days of 2000, I stood on the balcony of a spacious apartment. I was dozens of floors up and staring down at a Manhattan crippled by a vicious blizzard. A few friends and I had arrived from Boston before the snow shut down the city but soon enough we found ourselves slightly anxious prisoners in an Upper West Side high rise building.
It was a party full of private school kids, many I knew and some I did not, and predominately white as those parties always were. The balcony was a popular place for people to hang out. You could take a break from the crowd or inhale the crisp winter air or sneak a cigarette. People chatted here and there but I spent my time looking down upon a vibrant city now forced into stillness and silence. We were 17 years old and often thought of ourselves as adults although we were still very much children, so it was no surprise when someone started chucking snowballs down upon the empty streets. A few more people joined in but I only watched as the uneven spheres were enveloped by the snow drifts that covered the sidewalks below.
Next to me was a girl sitting on a chair. She was one of the few other non-white kids at the party and was also observing our white friends’ little game. I don’t know who said it. It could have been her or it could have been me although it probably wasn’t me. I had become an expert at policing all aspects of my life and liked to keep my mouth shut.
It was meant to be a joke. Maybe. Not really. It was said in a joking manner but it was the truth of our experiences and so even a chuckle would not have been able to mask the earnest tenor. “If the cops came up here to see what was going on, we would totally be the ones arrested.” Whoever said it got a nod in response. We chatted a little bit longer before I retreated indoors in search of warmth.
The snow eventually stopped and the next day we went out into the world to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but that evening we were once again penned in, although by choice this time around. A group of us sat in one of the apartment’s bedrooms drinking cheap beer and sharing tales of particularly scary nightmares. This was a group in which I felt comfortable. It was the first large group that had made me feel that way in years, and it would be the last such group to make me feel that way for many years to come. Despite the warm feelings I had for these friends, I knew that I couldn’t share my recent nightmare. Telling that story would entail an opening up that I wasn’t prepared to undertake, and their responses would be filled with conciliatory hugs and looks that I wouldn’t be able to stomach.
It started like all dreams do. You are suddenly somewhere without knowing how you got there. This somewhere was familiar. I walked down an empty and eerie Huntington Avenue between the campuses of the Wentworth Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Colleges and universities are ubiquitous landmarks in Boston, and you can always orient yourself based on the closest one. I had taken the bus down this stretch before to the high school from which I would soon graduate. On occasion I had ridden the trolley that rambles down that street’s middle, old and slow and the butt of many a Bostonian’s jokes. But in that empty and eerie somewhere, I walked. I heard a trolley moving towards me from behind and turned to look as it passed. It was covered in something. At first I thought it was paint, but as it glided along there was no mistaking what coated it. Blood.
It was pretty standard nightmare fare at that point. I continued on and entered one of the many classroom buildings that line that street. I took a seat in a room littered with long tables and filled with kids close to me in age. I had spent close to eight years surrounded by white students, and I knew that no matter how the college application process shook out I would spend the next four years in a similar environment. So when I noticed that all of the other students in that room were black, I decided that I liked it there. I pushed the blood-drenched trolley to the back of my mind and made myself comfortable.
Nightmares rattle the nerves and expose us to the phobias that we hide from when awake. You lose teeth and you drop from great heights and you stand in front of crowds exposed. I sat in a classroom filled with teenagers as a middle-aged white man entered. He had a weary look to him. There was a badge attached to his belt and a gun in its holster at his hip.
It was this turn that I couldn’t share with the others but it was the turn that transformed it into the only nightmare that still haunts me. The man locked the door before explaining his presence. He had been ordered to close his eyes and shoot aimlessly into the room that was now filled with teenagers sitting quietly at tables. We could hide under the tables and behind chairs. But we could not leave. For some reason no one else seemed to be panicking, but I began to feel a weight on my chest as I scrambled beneath the table and curled into a ball. And then suddenly I was awake and safely in my bed at home. I had torn myself out of it.
I sat in my room gathering myself. I was both too shocked to cry and too shaken to breathe. I didn’t know that my subconscious could create a scenario so grotesque or that it cared so little for my well-being that it would force me to experience that scenario in my dreams. Fourteen years later, the occasional nightmare sneaks in here and there but for the most part I pull myself out of them. I never make it past the wandering in the empty and the eerie somewhere. I take no more chances.
I don’t remember having had any of The Talks, sex and death and all the others, with my mother. Because I can’t find the line between the before and the after, it feels as if I’ve always known certain things about life and its hard truths. I always knew that she expected only the best from me. I always knew that there were those in the world who assumed only the worst about me because of my race. I always knew that the consequences of stepping out of line, even playfully, when in the presence of someone who held those assumptions could be dire. And because people don’t wear signs alerting you to their small-mindedness and their bigotry, it was best to be on alert at all times. It was best to live a closed-in life in which you drew neither attention nor suspicion.
On a different early morning during that last winter in retail, my mother joined me on another tense, early morning walk to work. The weather had been in the news for what seemed like ages as large swaths of the country felt the effects of the Polar Vortex. But it felt like a normal Boston winter to me. No matter the year, the cold crackles at that hour. As we neared the train station that I always ducked into for coffee, a black teen girl sprinted past us laughing. Teens often waited at this station for their school bus. She ran while occasionally looking over her shoulder at the friends who chased her and nearly collided with us in the process. I smirked in response. It was cold and dreary. Play was the only real way to stay warm. My mother’s response was to yell at her. And I, in turn, got mad at my mother.
I don’t get outwardly angry very often. But it was early and I was tired in multiple ways and they were only playing. My rage made my mother recoil. She didn’t understand. The girl had nearly run into us. Her annoyance was not misplaced. I tried to explain myself but there was too much emotion and when that happens I lose my words. I shrugged and went into the station to get my coffee. When I came back outside, I expected to see my mother there waiting to see that I made it across the street and into the mall, but she was gone.