Or, The Day I Watched “Star Trek” with a Black Woman Friend in My Bedroom and Fell Out with My Racist Landlord.
It began innocuously enough.
I relocated from New York to California without knowing a soul. I was all-in on my literary pursuits and had planned to move cross-country to cultivate my career as a writer.
An ex-girlfriend told me she had a cousin in Marina del Rey, California, who was looking to rent out a bedroom from her house.
“Because I doubted you,” my ex said, “if there really is any chance of you making it, I wanted to help.” We had met up so I could collect some of my belongings. I told her I had to hurry home as I was flying in 72 hours and still needed to residence-search as didn’t want to blow all my California money on a hotel. “And I wanted to say goodbye the right way,” she added.
I told her I appreciated the gesture a great deal. We embraced, and that was that.
I called her cousin, L. Three days later, I moved in.
Everything went well for the first four months. L and I had our run-ins, but they were usually over nonsensical things like “Star Wars” being truly science fiction or her ex-beau Eddie Fisher (father of Carrie) being jealous of his daughter’s success.
Our biggest disagreement — okay, misunderstanding — happened early on in my stay and very nearly left me on the street. Two Jews, her and I. She was kosher. I was not. I was not vegan at the time (am presently and have been for a decade), and I fried a steak in a pan designated for dairy.
For those of you not of my tribe, perhaps most of you, for Orthodox and other observant Jews, doing what I did was a crime punishable by … what exactly I’m unsure, but I’ll share this much. She buried the cutlery, the pan, and the proper pot in the backyard and prayed for me — on her knees in the dirt, flailing her arms skyward — until she re-entered the house three hours later and fell promptly asleep.
I felt horrible and profusely apologized the next morning. I was forgiven … but I became marked for weeks. Meaning, I was watched, and closely.
And I was no longer allowed to use the kitchen.
I reference the above story not to undermine or mock anyone’s religious beliefs, or in my own case the lack thereof. After all, I had relatives that also kept kosher and I should have known better. But her response, I felt then as now, was over the top.
In the midst of all this, before L and I were back on full speaking terms, a friend from Brooklyn called.
“Joel, I’m coming out to California on the way to Hawaii. I’ll be there a night. Can I stay with you?”
I certainly had no issue with it. Her name was Vanessa (changed), and I had long considered her a potential romantic interest save for the fact that one of us was always seeing someone while the other was single. We taught at the same school for three years. I quite honestly was attracted to her … and she was black. (Still is.) Truth is, I couldn’t wait for her arrival. I was single now, I was game … I was in the home of a very religious Jewish woman, paying $300 a month to use a spare bedroom who had me believe lightning would strike me down as I slept.
This could be problematic, I ventured. But damn if I’m not taking the chance.
I reasoned that my rent had increased, as the dollar amount no longer covered the kitchen or the kitchen table. I was forbidden from bringing food into the house unless it was certified kosher, and I had to show labels.
I became tired of it all.
“Sure,” I said. “For one night it shouldn’t be a problem.”
I picked up Vanessa from the airport. On the way to the house, I warned her about the owner. “She can be severe,” I said. “Nice woman, very stringent in her beliefs.”
“You’re sneaking me in, huh?” Vanessa asked.
“I’m sneaking you in.”
“Don’t worry, I get it. You don’t think I’ve been through shit?” There was a pause, and then — “I have a boyfriend now. No fooling around, okay?”
I was crushed. “Not even a little?”
“Can’t do it. If you want you can drive me back, I can stay in a hotel …”
Not my style. It was good to see her. “No worries,” I said. “It’s nice having a New York friend here for a change.” Still, I barely covered my disappointment.
I’m sure she knew.
We arrived and soon both fell asleep fully dressed. Before the mutual snoring, however, we watched a VHS-taped episode of “Star Trek,” the one I had planned on watching before I knew she was dating someone. Not so conveniently, the episode I selected was “Plato’s Stepchildren,” which has popularly been referred to as featuring television’s first interracial kiss.
It is not. It was among the first. Look it up.
I was hopeful before being blasted back to earth, as we were both fans.
Regardless, William Shatner’s Captain Kirk and Nichelle Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura kissed, against their will but alas. The fact that Vanessa was hands-off was something I respected, as I wouldn’t have wanted to be cheated on either when I was dating someone.
So we fell asleep with our clothes on, in the same bed, with the television running and the five-other episodes of my six-hour VHS tape passing into the night.
We woke early. The idea was we would sneak out before L exited her bedroom.
But, akin to a scene from a bad movie, Vanessa had to use the bathroom before I returned her to the airport. Nothing in the neighborhood was open so early.
“I’ll be quiet and only minute,” she said.
Feel free to guess what happened next. As we left the house to get into my car, L’s eyes bore right through me. She heard the whispers, apparently, and woke up earlier than usual. As I went to lock the door behind me, she looked at me and said, “We need to talk when you get back.”
I locked the door, saying nothing.
I returned an hour later. Damnation beckoned.
“Sit down,” L said.
I sat on the easy chair, every last muscle tensed. She sat on the couch, just across.
“Before you say anything,” I began, “I’ve always tried to be respectful of you and your boundaries. And I’ve never been late on a payment.”
I thought about it. “Yeah.”
“Good.” She stood. “You have a week to get the hell out of my house.”
“Why?” I asked, to the far right of incensed.
“You know why.”
“Because I snuck someone into the bedroom that I’m paying rent for? I have no use of anything else around here — ”
“No,” she responded. “Because you snuck a shvartze in my home.”
I was done. “Shvartze” is a Yiddish racial slur most commonly used as the equivalent of “nigger” (spelling them both out for the impact, as neither is at all acceptable to me and as a Jew they are interchangeable).
I said something the equivalent of, “You racist bitch.” Not proud of it, especially in hindsight, but I was infuriated. She was stunned. I grabbed the entirely of my belongings and shoved them into my trunk.
A new friend let me stay the night after hearing my story. A few days later, following a brief hotel stay, I temporarily moved into a spare bedroom of his house. I stayed for a year, paid rent, and had no further problems.
The stay may have been (considerably) longer than either one of us had anticipated, though everything remained even-keel.
The life of a liberal writer who knew no one upon entering the strange new world of Southern California did get easier. I soon discovered many like-minded friends, thankfully, but it was touch and go for awhile.
Philosophically, I came to understand there are reasons why people are who they are.
There were as many reasons for my ex-landlord to have had racist tendencies as there were my own views championing civil rights and diversity which remain today. Interestingly, whenever I step back for a bit of self-analysis, I’m reminded that my views stemmed from rabid anti-Semitism I experienced when I was young. Even prior to those experiences, though, I just could never comprehend why someone would be picked on over differences, simple or otherwise.
Maybe their tormentors are fearful.
It is now 2020.
The above incident occurred in 1989.
I think of this incident today as I ponder our current racial matters and if we can really change, as our recent protests strive to realize.
L has long since passed away. With the hindsight of 31 years, as respectful as I believed I had been, I could have been more so. The house was still hers, though the moment I would have heard any racial invective would have been the moment I volunteered to leave. For the record, we did meet a few months after and mutually acknowledged we both could have handled matters differently.
There were no apologies from either of us.
Aside from a brief phone call maybe five years back, Vanessa and I no longer speak. We had no falling out or anything close, just time and circumstances changed and life went on for us both.
And here’s the twist: Vanessa admitted to me she was not seeing anyone during our overnight. As soon as I mentioned my landlord … she decided she did not want me to get into any kind of trouble if we were caught. She said she called me then because she was interested in the same thing I was, and she really was disappointed and wanted to sleep at an airport hotel once she read into my vague warning.
She was en route to Hawaii on business.
Vanessa married in 2005 and has since divorced. That reveal aide, our bittersweet California adventure was our primary discussion point after not having spoken for many years.
I married nearly 20 years ago to a Jew who doesn’t keep kosher and who I believe is the world’s greatest cook. And … I can use the kitchen table, as long as I eat with my mouth closed and don’t talk about my first So Cal living experience for the 75th time.
She prefers to talk about current events and solutions to world problems.
I’m certainly with that.
Thank you for reading.
Post-script: I write frequently about racism, and on my Medium profile am considered a Top Writer on the topic.
I recently initiated a new series of face-to-face Zoom interviews on racism, in the spirit of cultivating real dialogue and mutual understanding.
See the first interview of the series, with actor-writer-director Bill Duke, included in this article:
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