Some weeks at the shelter nobody knows me. This week, as soon as I walk into the lounge of the Older Females Unit, it's "Bead Lady!" Even Ynnhoj, who all but ignored me last week, acknowledges me graciously from behind her sunglasses. Ynnhoj is six two and muscular, with a deep, sultry voice; her name, you might note, is the name Johnny spelled backwards. We are old friends, from when she was here last year.
"Why is Ynnhoj on the girls' floor, and all these stone butch girls aren't on the boys' floor?" I asked Samantha last year, when they were both there at the same time.
"Because Ynnhoj would probably get his ass kicked on the boys' floor," she said, looking at me like, duh. "And so would the girls."
So I set up at the table in the lounge, and I don't know if there's cops nearby, or an EMT, but it sounds like a crackling walkie-talkie nearby, constant static interrupted by chirps. Brrip! Then someone's voice, low and gravelly over the airwaves. "You comin' down here or what?" A slight butch girl with braids under her sideways cap raises a Motorola to her mouth, presses a button. Brrip! "Nah," she says. "I'm upsturrs now."
I've got a lot of takers at the bead table this week -- Preggo, Good Girl, Purple-Wearing Girl. Even Ynnhoj sits down, headphones on, music blasting so loud through them she sounds like a portable radio. The slight butch skirts the circumference of the table, wandering aimelessly around the small lounge, her Motorola chirping every few minutes with some new entreaty.
"Yo, come downstairs and gimme a cigarette."
"Ain't got one."
"Yo, come down anyhow."
The scruffy girl across the table from me takes the red and black beads, starts alternating them on a long string. Blood colors. And here's my chance to say something, as usual -- something like, "Gee, I wish you wouldn't make gang beads; I worry someone's going to shoot you." She sees me looking askance at her color selection, and I raise my eyebrows and smile.
"Dime-O?" I say, meaning, "You're a Blood?"
She shakes her head. Of course not! "Red and black is my favorite. See my scarf?" And she does have a red and black scarf around her neck, the colors too dull and weather-worn to be representing Bloods. I want to be satsfied with this, but Purple-Wearing Girl has to challenge her.
"Yeah, but you know people gonna stop you, ask if you Dime-O. I don't even want people askin' me."
Scruffy shrugs one shoulder, keeps stringing the red and the black. "So?"
"Yo, who's up there?"
"Serious, who's up there."
"Walk your ass up here, 'f you care so much."
Brrip! Brrip! Brrip! Brrip!
The slight butch puts the walkie talkie away, aproaches the table, where we're all grooving to Ynnhoj's tinny, ambient music. She and Good Girl start talking about the job placement training they got that day. Both Good Girl and Butch thought it was useful. "What's your strengths," prompts Good Girl, and Butch thinks about the answer she's been advised to give.
"Um, I'm a hard worker, and I want to grow...I want to grow in a company and stay for a long time." She smiles shyly at the end of the sentence, and Good Girl applauds.
"Good. Now what's your weaknesses?"
"Um, I would like to have...to get...more experience in the workplace."
For a scrawny little braided butch with a sideways ball cap, she has an adorable smile, and when I smile back at her, she meets my eyes without hesitation and gives me a chin-nod in acknowledgement.
"See, now, that's the most important thing of all," I tell her. "You've got a great smile, and you know how to look people in the eye. Employers love a good attitude like that."
"That's right," Preggo affirms. "White people love it when you smile right at 'em." The scruffy girl who's not a Blood puts down her beads and gives Preggo a glare, tipping her head my way.
"Oh!" says Preggo, embarrassed. "I didn't mean you, Miss. No offense."
In fact, I kind of love it when the girls talk about "white people" in front of me. I feel like I'm getting privileged information -- This is what we really think. And it's true -- us crackers are suckers for a big smile and some eye contact.
Ynnhoj finishes her rainbow choker, which looks like it's going to snap as she pulls it over her head, but it manages to hold, and it looks great. Preggo has made a pink and white necklace with letters that spell "I LOVE ME MORE THAN YOU LOVE YOURSELF."
"I hate myself," offers Scruffy.
"I know what that feels like," I say, rueful. "Sometimes I've felt that way. It's hard."
Scruffy's necklace says "DON'T LOVE ME." I read it and put my hand over my heart.
"I maybe not be able to help myself," I tell her. "You're very loveable."
"Yo, you comin' down or what?"
"Naw." Butch isn't making beads, but she's seated at the table now, in Ynnhoj's abandoned chair, moving the packs of beads around the table like they're Matchbox cars. "I'm making beads. Stop chirpin' me."
"Seriously," says Preggo. "Bitch be chirpin' every sixth second."
"Bead Lady up there?"
"What you think?"
"Yo, give Bead Lady a shout for me."
I duck my head so I can smile furiously behind my hair. I have been shouted at. I have been chirped. And you know us white people -- we love it when you chirp us.