Conroy there, he and Miz Daisy don't get along too well. They don't get along, is all. And people knows why. Erbody knows why. I knows why. See, Conroy ain't too good at work. He could be better, but he don't try. He jus' too lax. And that's why Miz Daisy, our boss chief a production, one time wrote him up and tried to git rid of him. But it ain't easy tryina do that to somebody in guv'ment service 'pecially if somebody try to fight it like Conroy did.
I know some a the things that took place mostly through talks around the office but also because I happened to... well, assidentally one time bring up one of Miz Daisy's files on my screen which happened to contain the write-up on Conroy. It's a long story but in it she described what's bad about him. Things like not knowin' what he's espected to know at this time after seventeen years on the job as a computer technician, not doin' what he's s'posed to do at times like when a job blows up, before he calls or beeps the analysts on call for the week.
Generally, he's made a lotta mistakes either by doin' somethin' or by not doin' somethin' when he's s'posed to. I'm not sayin' he's totally incapable. He just makes those mistakes he coulda helpt hisself out of. And who gets the heat from the analysts and the managers upstairs the next day? Nobody else but the boss lady Miz Daisy.
That was sometime over a year ago when I was still feelin' new in the office, even after seven or eight months on this job. Incidentally, nuthin' happened to Conroy. They couldn't fire him, even the big bosses upstairs in the second floor who backed up Miz Daisy. I don't know all the details, but things just quieted down. Erbody just quit talkin' about it, and Conroy hisself never sez anything about it either. One thing, tho, I think he's gotten better at his job since. But he's a long way to pleasin' Miz Daisy.
After I've been here only a few months, I picked up quickly on the people I work with. Generally, I feel sorry for most of 'em. Many of 'em are old enough to be my grandparent. I'm twenny two, be twenny three in a coupla months. I'm a computer aid working for Tricia, one of the senior computer technicians.
This guy Mahmud, for instance, I don't know how old he is but he must be over sixty and close to retirement. He's always sick. He's one of the earliest oldtimers here. Twenny four years straight, without quittin' and then comin' back as some people had done, that many years he'd given the Production Control Unit. Tha's the name of our office here in the basement of the Federal Office of Personnel building. PCU is part of the Civil Service Retirement Division up in the second floor which is part of the Office of Information Services still up higher in the tenth floor, a place erbody below it, all of us, calls The Top.
We, at the basement, are lirally and physcally at the bottom of the heap. But nobody in it seems to mind. Including me. It's pleasant enough here. There's enough light and air, and it's cool 'pecially in the summer. The only thing I mind about it is when some people, 'pecially those in the second floor, call us down here the basement people.
"Call up the basement people and ask 'em about this or that," I've heard them say, times I've been up there.
By the way, we're all blacks down here. They was only one white I'd seen work here since ah've been here. A man, Mr. Glemph. But soon after I came, two three months, he quit. He was one a the oldtimers too. Put in fifteen sixteen some years. He quit on disability. He had a awful health problem, lung disease, or somethin'. Wheezin' all the time. Word came to the office a few months later that he died.
Now, Dixie there, she and I are the youngest people in the office. Erbody else is at least twenny to forty years older than us. She's also twenny-two but younger than me by a few months. Highever, she's prob'ly years ahead of me on a few things in life such as gettin' pregnant, which I never was, havin' a baby and learnin' to live hand-to-mouth. See, she was a teenage mother who didn't have an abortion and even kept the kid.
I don't know how I coulda managed if I were her, raisin' a baby, workin' parttime and goin' to a training school so she could get a better job than the one she had flippin' burgers at a diner in Arlington, Virginia.
When I think about this, I feel like a weak person next tuh her. Tha's why I'm tryin' my best to stay in school at Nova and finish my Associate Degree in computers and then maybe, later, go on to one of the local universities, GW or Georgetown, for a full Degree. Then, I want to move up, possibly even while I'm doin' this.
I ain't puttin' ten fifteen years of my life here, runnin' computer systems developed by somebody else. I wanna be the one to develop the systems myself.
Now, when I say move up, I mean that in every sense of the word: move up to the second floor from the basement and from being a technician to a analyst. Tha's what took place over the years in the Division. About a third of the analysts up there now including a coupla managers went there after puttin' in a lotta years here in the basement, some I heard as many as eighteen or twenny years.
Not me. Um-um. Ah've been here almost two years. I might put in two more just to finish school, at most three and I'm outa here.
Dixie and I get along. We he'p each other out with work and we go out tuh lunch together evernow and then.
Okay, now, there's Tricia, my team chief. Now, there's a black woman who looks a lot younger than her age. I know for sure she's halfway through fi'ty but people think she's only thirty somethin'. She's like my mother. She likes to teach me things and she enjoys doin' it too. I really luckt out when I came on board and ended up workin' with her.
Jus' like erbody else, she wants to move up too not nessarily to the second floor but jus' up fum the basement to anywhere on the ground or above it. She's been in the basement eighteen years. In her case, highever, she wants to move out too if she could find a job elsewhere in another guv'ment agency. But what she really wants to do, she was sayin' to us one time, is really to become a interstate truck driver. She says she dreams of drivin' those semis cross-country and keepin' busy talkin' on the CB with the other guys on the road.
I laughed. She's so funny sometime. I like her a lot. We're good friends, but I feel sorry for her too. Actually, she's jus' tryina stretch her time in guv'ment service to thirty years which she'd have in four more years, then she'd retire.
Thirty years. God o' mercy. I can't imagine.
The rest of the crew which is mostly women ain't much dif'rent than Tricia. Middle-aged black people, oldtime guv'ment workers in the clerical wage-scale level. The whole staff is broken in two groups, each group switching day to night shift every coupla weeks takin' care of the computer production runs which goes on average till half past midnight, unless one o' the systems 'blew' and we had to call in the analysts on call, in which case it may go till two or three in the morning, depending on how long the analysts fix the problem. There'd been times when I got caught in one a those system blow-ups in my night shift and I had to stay till five-thirty in the morning.
And then, of course, there's Miz Daisy, chief of PCU. I don't know how old she is with twenny-two years in the basement. She, too, must be close to retirement although I haven't heard any talk of it fum anybody. All I can say about her is that she's fat and squat. She's a'least three hunnerd pounds or close, and only about five feet two enches. But inside that person is the mind of a woman sound as that of any o' those analysts upstairs, white or black, man or woman.
She knows every system that runs in our computer, to the detail that she's espected to in order to have control of production schedules. She does her job well in runnin' the place, and tha's why she thinks it's only fair that erbody else in the staff does so too.
Sometimes, when I'm in the day shift, usually on the days I go to school, I'd go up the second floor after work between three-thirty and four, and study in the system library they have up there for the whole Division. I have almost two hours to do this before my first class at six at Nova, Alexandria campus.
Doin' this has actually helped me with my school works, with all the books and IBM manuals they have in there. And not only that. I've become familiar with many of the people up there as well as the work they do and how they do them which either makes our life in the basement easier or harder.
One of 'em is a black programmer analyst name a Carlton. Now, here's one black man I could really feel proud of. Could, I say, but a lotta times ah ain't. He's intelligent, quick to learn and good at work for which he's respected by many of his co-workers 'pecially the white ones.
But Carlton's got a attitude. He seems to forget that he's black because he made it to the second floor after only a few years in the basement. Less than four years, he tells me. He's one of several applicants from the PCU staff who got picked a few years ago, before I came on board, for several openings upstairs.
I don't like it at all when he talks about the 'oldtimers down there who spent they whole life in those dead-end jobs'. He talks so low of 'em sometimes it hurts to listen to it. Other than that, he's not bad. He's taught me quite a few about what to espect if and when I make it up there too, someday.
Evernow and then, he'd let me do a piece of his work assignments. Sometimes, too, I'd do things on my own, the same kind a things most of the analysts are working on. With the experience I get from this plus my schooling in data processing, I've come to a point where I think - I know, samatterfact, that I could get out of the PCU now and move upstairs, if there's an opening at my grade level, or if not, get a job as a programmer someplace else.
I would definitely consider an opportunity of going upstairs first before any other. I feel comfortable going up there and I know it's 'cause it's a more perfessional environment. Also, I find the people which are more'n half white, genuinely friendly.
Now, I could be wrong about this, but for what I'd seen with Carlton and the other black people there, I couldn't be too wrong. When Carlton and some of the other black workers I've worked with weren't around, I've had several of the white analysts help me out with my school assignments and with some of the actual work I do on my own.
Even their boss, P.J. Henderson, the branch manager, a man with a real thick southern drawl he coulda only come from way down deep in the state o' Geohgah, he sat next to me one day at one of the computer terminals in the terminal pool room and worked with me on one of my application system design problems. He, too, by the way, came from the basement. He rose to chief a operations in the Computer Operations Unit, next to PCU, before finally movin' upstairs, ten eleven years ago, he said.
"I'll be done at Nova next year," I told him then when he akst how much longer I got left with my schooling. "But ahmana continue for my Bachelor's at one of the higher schools in the area," I said too.
He looked at me like he got stung and said with a smile: "You want it all, don't yuh?" He then later told me to keep an eye on the job announcement postings on the personnel bulletin board and make sure I apply for the opening in the office should any come up.
PJ, as erbody calls him altho once a while some would call him Pete which I never do (sometimes I call him Mr. Henderson when I want his attention quick), he's one of the whites I can say I trust the most as far as being level about black-white relations is concerned. But there are many others I could say nearly as much about.
Now, th'other type, there are a couple of 'em Carlton had warned me about which he didn't really have to, 'cause I seen how they are. In the way they talk, the way they act to yuh - to us blacks.
They're too open about their prejudices and I think they don't even know they have it. Which in a way I think is good 'cause they're honest about it. They're not like some a the bigots I'd run into here in Washington who'd say one thing to yuh about themselves and be another type a person when yuh turn your back.
They were prob'ly brought up with it, their prejudice, by their mommas. So, they don't try tuh hide it. They wouldn't know how. Sometimes it comes out too wide open it makes you laugh more'n it makes you angry or hateful.
One of 'em is a middle-aged programmer analyst name a Leroy Mooney, born n' raised in Durham, North Cah'lina and proud of it 'cording tuh him. This man had actually been cautioned by management about his attitude toward the blacks and other minorities on more'n one occasion. He doesn't know what to do with his prejudice so it don't git him into trouble and don't create tension around him everwhere he goes.
'Tween some of us in the basement, he's known as the Looney Mooney.
"Here comes the Looney Mooney," somebody would whisper whenever he'd show up for anything down there. Or, sometimes, it's just 'Mr. Looney'.
I had a brush with him one time up in the second floor, one I didn't find sump'n to laugh at. He called me Keisha, a name he meant to stereotype young black girls with, which I don't know for the life o' me where he picked up. For a man in his late fortys to be even payin' attention to this sort o' thing, to me is totally inane.
So ah tole him coldly, like he didn't know, my name is Mona. Short for Ramona, but I didn't tell him this. (Ramona is the name my father chose when I turned out to be a girl, in memory of his older brother Raymond who died in Vietnam.)
Looney Mooney then went on to say: "Keisha Mona. Hm-m, that's not a bad combination. Listen, we're having a birthday snack party up here at two o'clock this afternoon for one a the guys. Somebody's bringin' in chitlins n' wings. You're invited if you stick around."
This took place in the presence of some o' the other black people, and white people as well, in the office. And this is one a those occasions when he was called in by management and reprimanded, after I told PJ Henderson who already knew about it before I went to see him.
I never try, ever, to be anybody else but myself. Or to be something I'm not. Like Carlton does. Sometimes, the way he acts, talks and do things, I forget that he's black. I really do.
But lately, I've begun seeing into this. Maybe I shouldn't blame him for the way he has become since he went upstairs from the basement. After all, Carlton is an educated black. He has a college degree. I don't know what he majored in. But that alone sets him apart from ninety-five percent of the people in the basement. Not only in the PCU but the COU as well where half the people are white. I don't know anybody in the entire basement offices who is a college graduate.
What I see in this is that, once a person becomes educated and enters the perfessional world, he sorta rises above the things that has nothing to do with that world. Things like whether he's rich or poor, black or white or anything in between.
The really important thing in it is what one does and how he does it. That is - his perfession. And this is true with the people he works with regardless of race, national origin, sex, age and the rest o' that. They all speak the same language, talk the same way, and has a similar thinking habit although they may not all think the same way about the same thing.
I guess what ahm sayin' is people's inellectual activities go above their differences physically, economically and what-have-you. And this, I s'pose, explains Carlton. So, now, I suspect he's been thinkin' all along that he understands me better'n I and the rest of us in the basement understand him.
I hate to admit this but he may be right.
Shoot, he's ten, twelve years older'n me, and he's college educated. He should know better'n most of us.
A few months before I completed my associate degree at the Northern Virginia Community College, I picked up on people around me a li'l bit more. People, in general, but more 'pecifically - black people; those who touch my life daily.
One day at work, Dixie and I took a walk to the Mall by the Reflecting Pool after a quick lunch at the cafeteria. We were walkin' right by the water toward the Monument, the Lincoln Memorial behind us, when she told me she missed her period and she's almost sure she's pregnant - again.
I almost fell in the water.
The feeling that shot up in me came near to makin' me say tuh her: "You crazy fool! You stupid girl!"
But ah said tuh her 'stead: "You want another baby?"
"No!" she said flat out.
"Then whatcha doin' wif it?" I have trouble sayin' things sometime when ah get upset.
"Mona, please don't start smart-talkin' to me. I wanted you to know about it. I haven't told anyone else. Not even my family."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to."
I akst what's between her and the fellow that got her that way, hintin' at the possibility that maybe they could both agree to do the right thing and start a family. She said there's nuthin' between them at all and that a relationship is out o' the question. "Not with the child I already have," she added. "Besides, I wouldn't want him for a husband."
"Dixie, you fool!" I finally said to her, angrily.
"I took a chance," she argued and at the same time started sniffling. "I made a mistake."
Nine times outa ten it's always a mistake, honey, I thought to myself, fighting not to yell it at her.
I've been seein' a fellow myself, and I have sex with him once a while. He would do it without rubber if I let him but I never let him. Looking at Dixie soon after she told me about her condition (she was pregnant, she learned a week later from her doctor), I saw more clearly the differences that separate us in spite of our closeness in age.
I also reckinized that I, as a person, a black person, actually have more in common with Carlton than I do with her and, for the same reason, with any of the people I work with in the basement. Samatterfact, I feel I have more in common even with many o' the white people upstairs than I do with any of the black people downstairs.
This of course does not make me feel good about myself. I feel the same way about myself as I felt about Carlton before this... this seeing into people, although not as bad. I don't think my knowing how less disciplined and capable than I am the others are in puttin' their lives in order and makin' a future for themselves makes me as hard as Carlton the way he puts 'em down.
Looking at Dixie now, I realized we each have our own strengths and weaknesses. But I am not and can not be as weak and thoughtless as she is where it counts the most to be strong and intelligent 'stead.
Ah ain't gettin' myself knockt up and ruin my future over a stupid mistake on a night out with a fella. Tha's too shortsighted and just plain dumb. And neither am I gonna satisfy myself with the job I have now for the next twenny years of my life if there's anything I could do - which there is plenty to do, and which I'm doin' now, and will continue to do - to get to where I'd wanna go even though I don't know exactly yet where and how far that is.
Sure, I'd wanna have a baby too, but only when I come to the decision that it's the right time, not the way Dixie and a lotta other girls who don't have or don't want to have control over themselves, are havin' them.
Also, and this is another thing: I wanna have a husband too who'd wanna be a real father to my baby.
I feel terrible seeing things the way I do now which I can not help. And this is mostly because of the consideration I have for the people I work with down in the basement. I wonder how they see me in relation to themselves. Each one of 'em.
I don't know if I oughta consider myself lucky or unlucky for what happened the weekend after the final exams, just before the spring break at the university: lucky that the car accident happened after the exams, not before, and it didn't kill me; unlucky that I missed some of the partying that I've been looking forward to during the break.
Shoot, what am I talkin' about? I a-am lucky! I'm here alive talkin' about it. I was on my way home to South Arlington from work in my '82 Toyota Corolla just past the Memorial Bridge over the Potomac river when the idiot in that big American gas-guzzler - a Oldsmobile or Chevy somethin' - took my lane without lookin' as we were goin' around the Memorial Circle at the foot of the bridge. I was hit on the right front-end and my car fishtailed and tipped over on my side of it, skidding all the way to the grass and I was trapped inside, out cold.
I woke up in the hospital three days later and I had to try hard to remember what happened.
A medical staff called a psycho-moderator or somethin' like that, helped me: I was out for three days, she said, since the ambulance brought me in from the scene; I was in a coma, had a few cuts and two cracked ribs which they fixed quickly because it caused internal bleeding; other than that, all I needed to do was come out of the sleep.
When I woke up, the first I saw was my mother's face lookin' close at my face. She cried when she saw my eyes open and look at her. Next I saw was li'l Jovee, my seven-year old adopted brother standing next to her.
The next day, people from work started showin' up. Even the ones I wasn't close to, and those I never thought even paid attention to me. And this is what really surprised me. I felt awful. Even ashamed for having thought that none o' them cared about my presence at work at all. They brought cards and flowers and boxes o' candies. They lined up tryina cheer me up.
After the last of 'em had finished visiting and I was alone in my hospital bed, I cried. I got so emotional I cried for a long time. Most of it was because of my sudden understanding of how they see me which is something I've wondered about before. Now I think I know.
As I said before, all of 'em except Dixie are old enough to be either my parent or my grandparent. And they see me, a black girl, who is tryina make somethin' of herself so that she won't have to spend the next ten or twenty years of her life where they are now, in that basement floor, like many of 'em did.
They see me as somebody of their own kind, black, who, now they realized, they coulda been like when they were my age and coulda done the same as I'm doing now - workin' and gettin' better educated for a better future. They see me as someone they wish they had been and now could never be.
So the best they could do is hope that I make it in life. They wanna see me succeed, and to see somethin' bad happen to me or anything to ruin my life is hard for them to take. It hurts them to see me hurt.
I see it in their faces, their innocent, half-educated faces. The same caring look I saw on my mother's face when I opened my eyes for the first time since the accident. I read it in the cards they all signed with all the different best wishes anybody could think of, the funny things they wrote to lighten up things and help bring me back.
Like the one Tricia wrote where she said: "See? Now you know why I wanna drive a truck. In this town, the best way to be safe while driving is to be driving a truck so you could take a hit and not get hurt." When she came to visit, she tried all she could to make me laugh but I still saw that same look on her face: that same hurt at seeing me all bandaged up in the hospital bed and a relief that somehow I'd come out of it okay.
Tricia is the first one of 'em I must say to stir up somethin' inside of me about them long ago, somethin' which Carlton helped build up in me with his attitude toward them. Recently, I learned how much I care about Tricia personally when she had her second heart attack in less than a year, about a month before my accident.
"Quit eatin' those pork rinds at the snack bar and those greasy fried chicken at the cafeteria," I musta told her over a dozen times already. "They're full of fat and cholesterol as if you don't know. And do some exercise."
"Yes, Dr. Mona," she said before the second heart attack as if she didn't hear me, but I know she did. She just didn't wanna listen to me, I don't know, maybe because she thinks I'm only a baby and that she should be the one telling me how to take care of myself 'stead of the other way around. But now, I hadn't seen her eating any of those things.
Dixie visited several times carrying her second baby, now eleven months old, in her arms. It's different between her and me. To her, I'm like a older sister, much older, although only by months. Tha's how she looks up to me more and more now since she had her second baby.
She listens to what I say to her and remembers it. She's missin' work more and more lately because of her children and she tells me she doesn't know how much longer she can keep up. Some of her mother's relatives, she told me, have offered to adopt them or take temporary custody until she could get herself on her own and she said she might just go that way.
I told her go the way that's best for the kids, but whatever else she does, I told her strongly, don't get herself pregnant again for godssakes!
What I could consider myself really lucky about was my fast recovery from my injury, which allowed me to get back to school just in time for the next term. This was the last half of my first year at American where I was going for the B. Sc. in Computer Science. I got my A.A. degree from Nova last year, and erbody was happy about it: my family - mother, father, aunts and uncles, and Jovee too. Even some a the people at work who knew about it especially Tricia and Dixie, PJ Henderson and Carlton upstairs.
The day I went back to work, people came up to me to talk a little, to know how I was doin'. Miz Daisy akst me into her office where she made me feel how the whole place really missed me and how glad erbody is to see me back.
PJ came down one day from the second floor to see Miz Daisy about some work and stopped by to see me too. He mentioned that some job openings at my level were just posted. He said look 'em up at personnel, so I did.
After readin' the vacancy announcement, I decided what I had in my SF-171 on education and experience easily meet the qualification requirements and the job description, so I applied. I wasn't countin' on it much although the announcement was to fill three positions of mid-level computer programmer/analysts. The reason is 'cause, I heard, a lotta times, those job announcements are posted just 'cause it's required by the law but as far as filling 'em in is concerned, the hiring people already have their pick for the jobs. It's something some people on the inside call wired job postings which is an illegal practice but unstoppable.
Gotta have somebody on the inside, I hear people say. Politics. Pull. It's not all true, but I believe some of it is. I really don't know much about it. I'm young and new in guv'ment service in a position that's about as low as you could go in that basement office. Thinkin' about politics and ways of beatin' the system to get ahead is as far fum my mind as planet Jupiter is at this point.
Highever, there's always a possibility they might pick me maybe as a token black. To meet a quota of minority hires or sump'n like that. Only trouble is, I do believe there's enough of us blacks already in this one guv'ment agency. If they had to do that, they'd hefta hire a Chinese or a Hispanic or a Indian, if they could find any.