Angola is a tiny, charming "village" outside of Buffalo, New York. It has a beach, some cheesy bars called "Turtle Joe's" and "Mickey Rats," and Connors Hot Dog Stand which is the platonic ideal of "eating fried things and homemade ice cream at a picnic table." My friend has a lake house there, on the same street as a bunch of uncles and aunts and cousins, and a bunch of us have gone out to see her for the kind of weekend that involves wine and board games and hosing your feet off before you come back inside the house.
On Sunday afternoon, our last day at the cottage, it's hot enough to go swimming, so I head to the beach. Little League games and practices are in full swing in the public park I cross to get there, and I hike/slide down a steep hill to get to the water, which is glorious. After my swim, I hike back up the giant hill and sit at a picnic table and pull out a book. There's a gray-haired man in a t-shirt and workout shorts who guards the way to the park bathrooms. There are signs posted that say that the bathrooms are for residents and their guests ONLY, and this guy asks each person who heads that way if they are a resident or a guest of a resident - that's how he says it - "areyouaresidentorguestofaresident" - over and over to each passing family and Little Leaguer and beachgoer - and we all say "Yes!" and he says "Okay!" and then we can use the cinder-block park district bathroom with overflowing trash bins and scratchy toilet paper and drains in the floor.
I successfully tune out the areyouaresidentorguestofaresident background theater and read my book, until there's a break in the pattern. Old Man Potty Patrol has stopped asking questions and has skipped straight to "Park restrooms are FOR RESIDENTS ONLY" and "YOU have to go use the bathrooms at the bars…"
"…or wherever you came from."
He's talking to two young women dressed in adorable plaid and polka-dotted bikinis. One of them is hugely, obviously pregnant. Her friend, in the polka-dot bikini, says politely "My grandmother is a resident for the summer - she's renting a house here" and moves to pass him. The Toilet Avenger is not having it - he plants himself in the center of the path, Gandalf-You-Shall-Not-Pass style - and says something about RULES and how there are perfectly good bathrooms at THE BARS for NON-RESIDENTS to use. These bars are down an enormous hill and about a quarter of a mile away and they probably have RULES about CUSTOMERS ONLY and also this lady is about 8 months pregnant and she has to pee, so, why the fuck is this happening, exactly? I've watched the dude let about 50 people by without a hitch, so what's so different about this situation?
I mean, there is one very obvious difference between the two young women and everyone else I've seen at the beach: They're black.
It is 2014 and a white man in the Great State of New York is telling a black person which bathroom they can use.
The Restroom Ranger points to the sign and repeats, very slowly and loudly, that the bathrooms are for residents and their guests only. His face is getting red. Polka-dot bikini lady repeats the fact that her grandmother is renting a house, which makes her a resident, and makes the women guests of a resident and by the way could her friend please pee already? The Powder Room Paladin says, "Ok, what's her address then?" and the young woman says, "I don't know off the top of my head, let me pull it up on my phone" and he sneers at her and says "You do that."
It's been at least 10 minutes at this point. The pregnant woman in the plaid bikini still has not been able to pee.
I got involved at that point, asking him if he was serious. "She says she's a guest. I said I was a guest. I didn't have to tell you the address where I'm staying, which, by the way, I don't know off the top of my head. Why was my explanation good enough but hers is not?" And he stared at me in that way that old white fucks who have been caught out being racist stare, like, I-know-that-you-know-that-I-know what this is really about. I asked him if this was his job or if this was part of his Ku Klux Klan volunteer service. He told me to mind my own business so I went close to him and took a photo with my phone of his bloodshot blue eyes and red face and spiky gray hair and sunken chest. After that he made a big show of stopping white people and asking them if they were guests or residents (but not asking them for exact addresses or really challenging them) and he'd turn to me and say "did you take a photo of THAT?"
The women's friends have come in search of them, a small crowd of 6 or 7 athletic and preppy young men wearing madras shorts or swimsuits with Abercrombie t-shirts. When they see what's happening, they are understandably upset. Ye Olde Towne Privy Keeper tells them to "go back wherever you came from" and one of the young men says "I come from Buffalo, where my uncle plays for the Bills, and I promise you…I PROMISE YOU…we will let you use the bathroom if you visit." The Washroom Warden's face gets even redder at this and he says "ARE WE GOING TO HAVE A PROBLEM?" One of the young men says "Maybe? You look like you're about to stroke out, my dude. Is this really necessary?"
That's the last straw for the Doorman at Club Doo Doo. He pulls out the radio he's got in his waistband and says "I've got a situation at the beach."
Not what the situation IS (a pregnant black woman tried to use the toilet, which, by the way, she has still not been able to do), just, "A situation" like he's the fucking Secret Service. So when the cops roll up they roll up in numbers - 3 SUVs-full- and some of them roll up with their guns already out as they get out of the cars. They go straight for the young men. The terrified women crowd next to me at the picnic table. We quickly introduce ourselves. The pregnant woman is Tina, her friend in the polka dots is Xan. "What do you want to do?" I ask them. "Don't leave us," Xan says. "They might not do anything real bad if they know you're watching." My phone won't even let me open the video camera app - it's almost out of battery - but I pick it up and pretend to film the action. I still can't really believe this is happening. The black people believe.
One of the policemen comes over to question us. He looks about 12 years old and like he hasn't quite mastered the art of shaving yet. His hand is on his gun. He does that thing they must teach at cop school where he asks a question and then yell-talks over the answer, cop-splaining to Xan and Tina that the bathrooms are for RESIDENTS and GUESTS OF RESIDENTS ONLY. Xan starts to explain, politely, that they are guests of her grandmother and tries to show him the address on her phone but Officer Babyface isn't having it. I try to throw a little white privilege into the mix with, "Sir, she's trying to tell you that she is a guest but you're not listening. If you'd let her speak, she would tell you the address where she's staying." I use my best Georgetown Class of '96 White Lady Voice and everything, but it's not good enough.
The cop defends Captain Comfort Station, saying he's "just doing his job" and "the taxpayers of the town want him here to protect the bathroom because sometimes people from outside come and mess it up." Lots of coded stuff about "the taxpayers," etc. and how only residents and guests are allowed and why is everyone making such a big deal over a posted RULE? "The rules have to apply to everyone" was the cop's mantra. I interject with "Okay, but he's NOT doing his job, because this lady's grandmother lives here, so she is a guest, and if the rules apply to everyone they apply to her" and "surely you are not implying that this young pregnant woman is here to vandalize your park's bathrooms." Like, if you want the bathrooms to stay nice, howabout having the Castellan of the Crapper actually clean them? After a weekend full of Little League games they leave a lot to be desired.
Officer Dumb-As-Rocks repeats himself a bit, saying that people shouldn't read it "as a racial issue" and everyone should stop making such a big deal and I say "Hey. Tomorrow I'm going to leave this town and never come back, but you're going to have to keep dealing with that guy. I get it. But he definitely treated them differently from how he treated me and everybody else who came through here, and I know that we both know why. Maybe you could solve it by, I dunno, letting them pee?"
Then everyone was yelling and no one was listening.
In the chaos, Tina slips away and quietly climbs/slides back down the hill to the beach. From the corner of my eye I see her weave between old folks in lawn chairs and kids playing frisbee and walk into the water, where, hopefully she let go of the pee she's been holding for god knows how long.
The cops hassle everyone else away from the precious park district cinderblock bathrooms with threats of arrest and being barred from the beach in the future. The Buffalo Bills-Nephew guy laughs bitterly - "Like I'd ever come back to this shithole." The cops stand around with their hands on their guns talking shop and laughing to each other until the black folks pack up their stuff and head down the beach to the parking lot. Xan reminds me one more time - "Please don't leave until we leave, it's just 5 more minutes" - and I tell her I won't. It's only June for them, I think. It's only June and summer is already destroyed for them, for their grandma who rented a cottage by the beach so her grandkids could come visit all summer. I don't think they give you your deposit back because of racism.
I wait until the last cop leaves, until the sun drops a little in the sky and the picnic tables and the little league games are bathed in a perfect, golden light. When I stand up to go, there's a fat red finger in my face and the Shitter Chaperone has something to say to me.
"It's not about race" is where he starts.
I hope you don't need me to tell you this, but 100% of the time when a white person tells you something isn't about race, whatever it is is most definitely about race. If you take nothing else away from this story, from this whole evening, take that one with you.
"It's not about race" the Outhouse Overseer repeats. "There are rules and everybody has to follow them."
"Okay," I say.
"I got grandkids. I'm a nice guy. Ask anyone, they'll tell you."
And he probably is a nice person 99% of the time. He looks like a Grampa, he looks like every sports coach I've ever had. His blue eyes are capable of crinkling up at the corners when he smiles. His wife probably sends him to work with baked goods for the staff, he's probably good at giving nicknames. I'd bet he raises money for charity and goes to church on more than Christmas and Easter. There are lots of "nice" people like him in America, lots of people who think that that the police are always on your side and that who gets to use the toilet is a matter of rules and debate and what the "taxpayers" want.
"I saw what you did and I know what you are," I say.
And then I leave, back to the house to hose my feet off before coming inside. I tell my friends the story and they express sympathy and discomfort but it doesn't really ruin the trip for them. There's still time to play one more board game, drink one more bottle of wine and circle back to the stand for one more fried baloney sandwich and one more ice cream cone in this nice, adorable, quiet little town.