Just about every morning, I walk past this very shi-shi parking garage with a little booth in the front. And inside that little booth is a fan, a tiny TV, and an older black woman whose job as the dutiful security guard is apparently to just be there, maybe answer a question or two, and — God forbid — thwart any plots that threaten the splendor of the Benzs and Jags that surround her. It’s a befitting job for a senior citizen, and she seems quite content to sit in her low-key employee-dom and watch the world bustle by from her 3×5-foot hut.
She’s not the friendliest thing in the world, that little lady in the itty bitty booth. But I am nonetheless caught in a vicious habit that I can’t seem to break: I speak to that woman every day. And e’ry day she barely grunts a greeting and I seethe, not so much because her manners have eroded with her age, if she ever had any to begin with, but because I went against my own direct warning from the day before not to, under any circumstances, say hello to her again. We have a dysfunctional relationship in my mind: I vow that I’m not going to say beans to her anymore and go on about my business, but as sure as daylight dances across the early morning sky, there I am, nodding my head, smiling, and saying a whispery “hi” as I stride by. Dammit! I say to myself. I did it again.
That’s because in my family, it’s a flaming, red-hot sin not to “speak,” especially, especially to your elders. The surefirest way to either get choked up by the back of your collar or lambasted after company leaves is to sashay into any edifice containing people old enough to be your parents and not part your lips with a greeting or some sort of acknowledgment. You can be hobbling on a sword-impaled foot, you can be running in with a full report about an oncoming herd of zombies, it doesn’t matter. You stop and show respect with a cordial “hello.” You speak. It’s what people with home training do according to the tribal council in the Harris clan.
And even though I am grown as all outdoors, it’s been ingrained in me. Hence Ms. Thang — who is lucky I don’t shake her shoulders once an hour for having a fresh jheri curl in 2012 — gets a shout-out every day.
Trumping only the obligation to speak, however, is the obligation to call any man or woman who even looks like they could be your mama’s or your daddy’s age “miss” or “mister.” I have all confidence that my mother would materialize like Edward from “Twilight” if she even sensed that I was about to call a 60-year-old by her first name without first tacking an honorific in front of it. Beyond just my kin, it’s pretty much one of those unspoken across-the-board cultural behaviors among black folks in general. I’ve overheard other people, obviously too cozy in their adulthood, get checked by grown-er people who demanded the respect their silver hair and advanced years should inherently afford them.
A few months ago, in fact, I was sitting on a bench outside of my grandmother’s church, minding my own business, when someone stopped within inches of me, threw his white linen-clad backside into my face and launched into a whole conversation. He urgently needed to introduce a young saint to a woman who’d been in the congregation since Jesus walked, and I sat on the sidelines, generally disinterested, until she delivered her response.
“Cynthia, God bless you. It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he gushed, cupping her hand in his and bathing her in a manufactured smile. I sent her a telepathic message not to fall for his cheesy come-on. He might want money, Granny, I warned. Proceed with caution.
I don’t know why I was worried. In the grand tradition of sassy sisters with unbridled tongues, she gripped her cane and shifted back. “Uh, Mizzzzzz Cynthia,” she corrected, hanging on that last consonant cluster and raising her eyebrow in a silent scold that clearly conveyed she expected him to know better. He chuckled a small, dry, joyless laugh, embarrassed Miss Cynthia had sizzled his narrow tail, and the banter kind of tapered off after that.
She was right, though. In all of the things our families have raised us to revere, respect for elders — and for our community as a whole — is one of the most important. I’ve struggled with letting “miss” and “mister” go in the corporate world, where professional etiquette trumps old-school manners. Working with people old enough to be my parents or grandparents but, according to the organizational chart, hired as my equals — even more awkwardly, my underlings — and calling them “Betty” or “Floyd” or “Ida” is as unsettling as eating food off the floor. It just feels wrong, just like walking past an elder and not speaking.