Today was Harriet’s birthday. She had no special plans. After all, at her age, seventy, birthdays came and went so fast that to call particular attention to one would have been foolish.
Sometimes, when waiting for the bus, Harriet counted on her fingers how many children she had taken care of. She parsed the numbers by years to make it a more manageable diversion. It was easy enough to lose count.
After Franklin Roosevelt died, Harriet’s mother, who had a succession of children named for important people, was ready and waiting for Franklin Thurgood Baker to be born. “I’m glad I had you instead of another boy,” she later told her daughter. “You’ll see, women outlive men ‒ we outsmart them, too.”
At ten Eleanor Harriet Baker didn’t know enough men to gauge whether her mother was stating a fact. One day she found an old address book with empty pages and started to use it as a diary, a repository for her thoughts so she could keep the facts straight. Her mother suggested that she include some ideas from her namesake, Eleanor Roosevelt.
Her first family, as she called them, changed her name. They thought Eleanor was not a fitting name for a person of her position and class. So in 1959, her middle name, Harriet, became her first, but Eleanor was always with her. Her first family had no idea who Harriet Tubman was, even though they had the paper delivered every day, and, to Harriet’s amazement, one entire room in their apartment was filled with books. The shelves were from floor to ceiling, encasing two large windows overlooking Fifth Avenue and the park beyond. Harriet was not their regular nanny. Her job, as she told her mother, was to clean up after Miss Hecker.
“I’m in training, that’s what Mrs. Benchley told me.”
“I don’t understand, you pick up after someone who was hired to pick up?”
“There are things that Miss Hecker doesn’t do,” Harriet said firmly.
“Well now, I do believe I’ve heard it all.” Her mother shook her head. “Rich people are surely the strangest humans.” Her mother waited for a reply and when none was forthcoming said, “Here’s one for your little book, Eleanor. It is not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself.”
Harriet took Henry, her first child, as she called him, to the park one morning when Miss Hecker had a doctor’s appointment. There, facing the white nannies sitting on the bench across from the black babysitters, Harriet learned her worth.
“They…” The woman sitting next to her turned, and looked at the nannies with blue capes over their white uniforms, busily laughing with each other. “They make two dollars per hour. That’s not fair. Is it? I make fifty cents.” The woman got up and went over to the sandbox to pick up the toys the boy she was watching had discarded. “How old are you, Harriet?” She asked, returning to the bench with two sandy trucks.
“I’m eighteen, why?” Harriet lied and looked down at Henry, who was sleeping in his stroller.
“No, you’re not; you’re fifteen if you’re a day. Those people are taking advantage of you. How much do you get paid for working six days a week?”
“Mrs. Benchley told me not tell anyone how much I was being paid.”
“And why do you suppose that is?”
Harriet remembered she would have been too afraid to ask for a raise. But it didn’t matter because the Benchley’s were going away for the summer. They were taking Miss Hecker with them, and they didn’t need her anymore. She missed Henry for a while but not deeply.
Harriet tapped her fingers against the side of her cotton dress and started counting slowly. She tried to remember all of the children who came after Henry. The family she worked for now needed her to work nights. They wanted her to be at their apartment when their daytime help left and leave when the help returned in the morning. When Harriet arrived at six she fed the children, gave them a bath and presented them to their parents for an evening story. By this time it was eight and, while the children were being read to, Harriet put away the toys scattered during the day. Mrs. Hall had a few rules; all of Harriet’s families had rules.
The M2 stopped on Madison and 66th street at nine. It was usually on time. Harriet had been taking the same bus for five years. The route through the upper east side of Manhattan passed shiny boutiques and well-dressed people until it reached 110th street. There the neighborhood made a shift to the world where Harriet lived.
“You’re three minutes late, Billy.” She tapped her watch and laughed. The bus driver had become friendly a few years earlier when he realized she was one of his regulars.
“Yeah, Harriet, I know.” He waited for her to pull herself up the first few steps. “Been a busy day.” He looked in his rear-view mirror to check the passengers. “I’ll make it up when we get into the 80’s. I see a seat half way back, move up when you can; I have some good news.”
Harriet smiled, dipped her card into the kiosk, and walked holding on to the backs of each seat until she made her way to the middle of the bus. A slender girl, sitting next to the window, was looking out at two dog walkers.
“Crazy isn’t it? These rich folks buy dogs, and they can’t be bothered to walk them. Too much trouble, I guess; all they want them for is petting.” Harriet lowered herself into the seat next to girl.
The girl smiled but didn’t say anything.
“You work for one them, right?” Harriet asked.
“Well, I don’t know yet.”
“Where you going?”
The girl read from a scrap of paper in her hand, 1105 Park Avenue.
“Ooh, you’ll be working for one of them, all right,” Harriet adjusted her dress.
“I’ve got to get off at 86th Street. I have a job interview,” the girl said.
“I know you didn’t ask for any advice, honey….”
“No, go ahead.”
“Well, just answer their questions, don’t e-lab-o-rate. I’m sure you have references from people who speak their language. You know what I mean, right?” Harriet could tell that the girl was nervous: she kept looking at her watch and touching her hair. Harriet had had a lifetime of jobs: taking care of other people’s houses and families; she wanted to tell the girl about all the lessons she had learned. Instead, they sat next to each other without speaking as the crowd on the bus thinned out.
The young woman shook her head and smiled. “I’m getting off here. Thanks for the advice.”
Harriet held her purse and pushed herself up tentatively. “My pleasure, honey. Maybe I’ll see you on this bus another morning. Good luck.” Harriet sat, opened her purse, and pulled out a well-worn address book held together by two rubber bands. What would Eleanor have said to her, she thought. She thumbed through the pages and found: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Harriet stared out the window and watched the people starting their day. The bus became less crowded at 86th street so she moved up to the front and sat across from the driver. “Going to be another hot one, Billy.”
“Yeah, might top ninety-eight today. Good thing we ride cool, hey, Harriet? I noticed you were making a new friend back there.” He tilted his head.
“Aren’t you supposed to be watching the road?”
“Gotta keep my eyes on the passengers too, this is New York,” he laughed.
“What’s your good news?”
“I just put a deposit down on a condo in Florida.” He continued to talk about how he was going to rent it out until he retired in two years, how he was going to move to Florida and start a new life.
Harriet stopped listening when he said “new life”. She smiled and thought of the young woman who just got off the bus. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do,” Harriet said.
“That’s good advice.” Billy signaled to pull out into traffic.
“Not my advice ‒ Eleanor’s,” she smiled. Harriet often thought about retiring. She was waiting for this last family, as she called them, to tell her she wasn’t needed anymore. When that happened, she would be ready. Looking over at Billy, she noticed his air of confidence as he managed the bus on the crowded streets.
“You got air conditioning in your house?” he asked.
“I sure do.” She paused as Billy put on the brakes for a pedestrian. “Do you ever think about accidents?”
“Nah, you start thinking about all the things that can wrong in one day, and you freeze up. I have a natural instinct for this job,” he tapped his head with his right hand. “After a while everything that can happen has happened ‒ right?”
Harriet smoothed her dress and resettled herself on the plastic seat. “I guess,” she sighed.
That doesn’t mean we can’t have a surprise once in a while,” he laughed. He looked over at her. “But I prefer not to have them.”
“I don’t like too many surprises, either.” Harriet rubbed her right arm. She had felt a pain this morning when she was lifting Jason, the Hall’s son, out of his crib. “A little stiff today, must have slept on the wrong side.”
“Take it easy in this heat. You’re not in a rush to get to another job, are you?”
“No, Lord, today is an easy one.”
Billy pulled into the bus stop on 125th street. Harriet held on to the railing and waited for him to lower the steps. It was ten, and the sun was already glistening off the mica in the pavement. She took a deep breath and started walking home.
Harlem was slowly being gentrified; it seemed that every week there was a new coffee shop replacing an African American store. White faces, once an oddity, had become commonplace.
Amadou was standing in front of his restaurant, Little Dakar. He smiled when he saw her approach. “Morning, Harriet. You should have been at the VOTE people meeting last night. Sally Thuggs was in rare form; she was booed every time she opened her mouth. The queen of Harlem real estate doesn’t give a damn about us ‒ the people. She only cares about the new faces, the white ones. My landlord sent a notice to Omar about raising the rent. I’m sure I’ll be next.”
Harriet was feeling a little dizzy, and the pain in her right arm was stronger than before. “What you got cookin’ in there, Mr. Sow? I could use a sit-down and a little breakfast before I go home. A little water first…please.” Harriet took a handkerchief out of her purse.
“Come in, come in.” Amadou held the door open for Harriet and called to his wife, Awa, “We have an important guest, fix up some mafe for her.” He turned to Harriet and pointed to a table in the window of the restaurant. “Here ‒ the best seat ‒ just waiting for you.”
Harriet dipped the handkerchief into the ice water and dabbed it on her face.
“You okay this morning? You don’t look so good.”
“Just the heat and, I think, the little boy, Jason, is getting too heavy for me to lift.”
Amadou gave her another glass of water. “Are you going to sell your house to those people?” He looked up at a white man staring at the menu in the window.
“No, Amadou, I’m not selling. I’ve told you before: this is where I’ve lived my entire life, and no person on earth, not even Sally Thuggs, is going to make me move. Besides where would I go?” Harriet moved her fork and put the napkin on her lap. Sitting in silence they watched the people outside. “Melting pot,” Harriet said after a long pause.
Amadou sighed, “Not for long.”
Harriet looked at the bowl of fish stew that Amadou’s wife placed in front of her. “This is exactly what I need, honey.”
Awa smiled and retreated to the kitchen.
“I was thinking about quitting my job.” Harriet surprised herself as she confessed what was on her mind. “I was thinking about how I would spend my days if I didn’t have to go downtown.”
“What is the word they use here, the one when you stop working?” Amadou asked.
“Retirement.” Harriet started to laugh along with Amadou.
“No one retires in Senegal ‒ no. You start working as a child, and, before you know it, you die an old man ‒ still working,” Amadou said.
“Well, I don’t believe I want to keep working till then.” Harriet paused and considered dying in the apartment of her current employer. She rubbed her arm. “No, I’d like to die in my own bed…when I’m asleep.” She took a bite of her stew. “My mother lived until ninety-seven.”
“Our people live a long life; we are all from the same tree, Harriet.”
“When I retire I will make some changes,” Harriet said.
“Changing finances is a difficult endeavor, not something to do lightly…” Amadou gave his advice on how to save money and ended with: “After all, I am a businessman, and I know a few things.”
Harriet smiled and took a sip of water.
“That’s all I remember. I took a sip of water, and now I’m here.” She looked up at the emergency room nurse in Mount Sinai Hospital. There was an intravenous tube in her left arm. She felt the wires attached to her chest. “How’d I get here?” she looked around at the drapes pulled on either side of the hospital bed.
“A cab driver brought you in with a Mr. …” the nurse paused.
“Mr. Sow.” Amadou said. “What a surprising morning, hey, Harriet? Nice to see you back on this earth.” He was sitting on the left side of her hospital bed.
“What happened?” Harriet asked.
“We were talking about retirement.” Amadou laughed.
“We think you had a small heart attack; we won’t know until we get the test results.” The nurse put a thermometer in Harriet’s mouth and clipped a small devise to her finger.
Harriet watched the nurse read her temperature. “I can’t remember anything.”
“You may never remember what happened. I need to ask you a few questions, Eleanor.”
Harriet smiled; it was the first time in years that someone called her by her first name.
“How’d you know my real name, honey? Everyone just calls me Harriet.”
“That’s what it said on your registration paper. Should I change it?”
“No ‒ Eleanor will do just fine. Today is my birthday.”
This story was previously published in The Front Porch Review, October 2016
Photo Credit: Jeremy Pollard