The first thing I did when I got to the beach was look for Flappy, our ring billed gull friend who has a short left leg and a crimped left foot. We first met her six years ago when she found some vegetables that fell off my pizza; we’ve been seeing her at the beach ever since. Flappy, named in 2014 by my then toddlers, hops with her right foot and sweeps the sand with her left; she’s small but can squawk as loud as the other seagulls. The only consequence she seems to face is that she’s an easy target for some children to chase.
Flappy and I know each other now. I like to think that we seek each other out. Certainly she is no longer scared of me and my DSLR; she has posed for many pictures. On this particular beach, the one to which my in-laws have been graciously welcoming me since I was just the girl their middle son was dating, Flappy and I make a good, conspicuous team. She stands out because of her foot and I stand out because usually I am the only person on the mile long beach with brown skin.
The last time I was at the beach melanin was on my mind even more than usual. Kamala Harris had just been selected as the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee. At work we had been discussing racism and anti-racism in medicine, as well as how to recruit and support physicians from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. These discussions made me reflect on my own experiences with choosing a place to live and to work. Eventually my thoughts circled around to something that happened when I was very young.
Before second grade we lived in a small one-story home in a modest neighborhood. Most of the neighbors were friendly. Mrs. Burke next door baked us mint chocolate chip cookies and let us use her above-ground pool. On the other side were Rose and Sam, an elderly couple. Rose, a retired teacher, had a cloud of white hair and wore flowered blouses or dresses. She was quiet and kind. Sam was short, wore thick black glasses and had thinning hair. My older brother and I lived in fear of Sam. We knew that if we lost a ball or a toy in his yard retrieving it would mean getting a yelling from Sam. But leaving something on his property meant that he might come storming into our yard with the offending object. I remember his voice being thin but menacing, flat with a Western New York accent.
We had beautiful fruit trees in our yard, apples, plums, figs, and pears, and for a few weeks each year our backyard was an abundant orchard. Some of those trees sat just next to the fence between our yard and Sam’s. But he didn’t want to share our fruit which perplexed me, a fruit-loving kindergartener. First he threw the fruit that fell into his yard back into ours. Later he chopped down the branches that hung into his yard. When that didn’t stop the fruit from spilling into his yard he poured something—he said it was gasoline—through the slats of the fence onto the tree roots.
It didn’t stop there. To prevent rainwater in our backyard from draining into the house, my parents had part of the backyard filled in with dirt. The week that this project was done happened to be the week that Sam and Rose had chosen to be away on vacation. When Sam returned he was furious, convinced that we were purposely diverting water into his basement.
That’s when the phone calls started. The phone would ring late, while we were all sleeping. The phone was on my mom’s side of the bed and when she answered the caller didn’t say anything. She could hear the start of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the background and heavy breathing.
It continued, every day at the same time. We didn’t have an answering machine so the options were: answer the phone; let the phone ring indefinitely (which it would if no one answered); or take the phone off the hook. My parents called Bell Telephone to report the situation. No one was surprised when they traced the calls to Sam. He got a warning from the telephone company. The calls slowed but didn’t stop and he got a second warning. He finally stopped calling us.
At the same time we started to look for a slightly bigger house in a town close by. I started second grade in a new school while my parents closed on our new house, the one my mom still lives in today. Midway through the school year we moved in. There was a crab apple tree in our front yard which I called the Sam-apple tree. Besides that we forgot about Sam until years later when my mom was talking to a colleague and mentioned where she used to live. The other teacher said, “Oh, you lived next to happy Sam!” There was no trace of humor, no irony in her voice. Happy Sam.
I talked to both my brother and my mom about Sam as I prepared to write this. My mom was surprised that I remembered him since I was so young when this happened. “And, you know what?” she said. “When you brought up his name all these years later it just occurred to me that he was probably racist.” My brother, who is six years older than me and was a wise pre-teen when this was happening said to me recently, “I wonder how much of what he did was racially motivated?”
I can’t claim to know what his motivations were, but it is hard to imagine that he wasn’t racist, that he wasn’t angered by the smells of Indian food wafting across the driveway, the occasional gatherings of Indian people in Indian clothes, the accents, the unfamiliarity seeping into his neighborhood.
Though I hardly think about Sam any more, he has forever influenced my life. I’ve rarely chosen a place to live, work, go to school or even vacation without considering whether or not it will be safe and welcoming for me and my brown skin, and for my mixed race family.
As we think about expanding diversity in the physician workforce, know that this is an incredibly complex issue. Some BIPOC may carry forty year old racial traumas or, worse, four hundred years of racial trauma. Others may not. So please, read, listen, hear our stories. Learn from these stories. Recognize that the breadth of these stories is unimaginable though they are painfully real.