I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou (1993)
Just like Jane Withers and Donald O’Connor I was going on a vacation. Daddy Bailey invited me to spend the summer with him in southern California and I was jumpy with excitement. Given our father’s characteristic air of superiority, I secretly expected him to live in a manor house surrounded by grounds and serviced by a liveried staff.
Mother was all cooperation in helping me to shop for summer clothes. With the haughtiness San Franciscans have for people who live in the warmer climate, she explained that all I needed were lots of shorts, pedal pushers, sandals and blouses because “southern Californians hardly ever wear anything else.”
Daddy Bailey had a girl friend, who had begun corresponding with me some months before, and she was to meet me at the train. We had agreed to wear white carnations to identify each other, and the porter kept my flower in the diner’s Frigidaire until we reached the small hot town.
On the platform my eyes skimmed over the whites and searched among the Negroes who were walking up and down expectantly. There were no men as tall as Daddy, and no really glamorous ladies (I had decided that given his first choice, all his succeeding women would be startlingly beautiful). I saw a little girl who wore a white flower, but dismissed her as improbable. The platform emptied as we walked by each other time after time. Finally she stopped me with a disbelieving “Marguerite?” Her voice screeched with shock and maturity. So, after all, she wasn’t a little girl. I too, was visited with unbelief.
She said, “I’m Dolores Stockland.”
Stunned but trying to be well mannered, I said, “Hello. My name is Marguerite.”
Daddy’s girl friend? I guessed her to be in her early twenties. Her crisp seersucker suit, spectator pumps and gloves informed me that she was proper and serious. She was of average height but with the unformed body of a girl and I thought that if she was planning to marry our father she must have been horrified to find herself with a nearly six-foot prospective stepdaughter who was not even pretty. (I found later that Daddy Bailey had told her that his children were eight and nine years old and cute as buttons. She had such a need to believe in him that even though we corresponded at a time when I loved the multi-syllabic words and convoluted sentences she had been able to ignore the obvious.)
I was another link in a long chain of disappointments. Daddy had promised to marry her but kept delaying until he finally married a woman named Alberta, who was another small tight woman from the South. When I met Dolores she had all the poses of the Black bourgeoisie without the material basis to support the postures. Instead of owning a manor house and servants, Daddy lived in a trailer park on the outskirts of a town that was itself the outskirts of town. Dolores lived there with him and kept the house clean with the orderliness of a coffin. Artificial flowers reposed waxily in glass vases. She was on close terms with her washing machine and ironing board. Her hairdresser could count on absolute fidelity and punctuality. In a word, but for intrusions her life would have been perfect. And then I came along.
She tried hard to make me into something she could reasonably accept. Her first attempt, which failed utterly, concerned my attention to details. I was asked, cajoled, then ordered to care for my room. My willingness to do so was hampered by an abounding ignorance of how it should be done and a fumbling awkwardness with small objects. The dresser in my room was covered with little porcelain white women holding parasols, china dogs, fat-bellied cupids and blown-glass animals of every persuasion. After making the bed, sweeping my room and hanging up the clothes, if and when I remembered to dust the bric-a-brac, I unfailingly held one too tightly and crunched off a leg or two, or too loosely and dropped it, to shatter it into miserable pieces.
Daddy wore his amused impenetrable face constantly. He seemed positively diabolic in his enjoyment of our discomfort. Certainly Dolores adored her outsize lover, and his elocution (Daddy Bailey never spoke, he orated), spiced with the rolling ers and errers, must have been some consolation to her in their less-than-middle-class home. He worked in the kitchen of a naval hospital and they both said he was a medical dietician for the United States Navy. Their Frigidaire was always stocked with newly acquired pieces of ham, half roasts and quartered chickens. Dad was an excellent cook. He had been in France during World War I and had also worked as doorman at the exclusive Breakers’ Hotel; as a result he often made Continental dinners. We sat down frequently to coq au vin, prime ribs au jus, and cotelette Milanese with all the trimmings. His speciality, however, was Mexican food. He traveled across the border weekly to pick up condiments and other supplies that graced our table as pollo en salsa verde and enchilada con carne.
If Dolores had been a little less aloof, a little more earthy, she could have discovered that those ingredients were rife in her town proper, and Dad had no need to travel to Mexico to buy provisions. But she would not be caught so much as looking into one of the crusty Mexican mercados, let alone venturing inside its smelliness. And it also sounded ritzy to say, “My husband, Mr. Johnson, the naval dietician, went over to Mexico to buy some things for our dinner.” That goes over large with other ritzy people who go to the white area to buy artichokes.
Dad spoke fluent Spanish, and since I had studied for a year we were able to converse slightly. I believe that my talent with a foreign language was the only quality I had that impressed Dolores. Her mouth was too taut and her tongue too still to attempt the strange sounds. Admittedly, though, her English, like everything else about her, was absolutely perfect.
We indulged in a test of strength for weeks as Dad stood figuratively on the sidelines, neither cheering nor booing but enjoying himself greatly. He asked me once if I “er liked errer my mother.” I thought he meant my mother, so I answered yes—she was beautiful and gay and very kind. He said he wasn’t talking about Vivian, he meant Dolores. Then I explained that I didn’t like her because she was mean and petty and full of pretense. He laughed, and when I added she didn’t like me because I was so tall and arrogant and wasn’t clean enough for her, he laughed harder and said something like “Well, that’s life.”
One evening he announced that on the next day he was going to Mexico to buy food for the weekend. There was nothing unusual about his pronouncement until he added that he was taking me along. He filled the shocked silence with the information that a trip to Mexico would give me an opportunity to practice Spanish.
Dolores’ silence might have been brought on by a jealous reaction, but mine was occasioned by pure surprise. My father had not shown any particular pride in me and very little affection. He had not taken me to his friends or to southern California’s few points of interest. It was incredible that I was to be included in something as exotic as a trip to Mexico. Well, I quickly reasoned, I deserved it. After all, I was his daughter and my vacation fell far short of what I had expected a vacation to be. Had I protested that I would like Dolores to go along, we might have been spared a display of violence and near tragedy. But my young mind was filled with self, and my imagination shivered at the prospect of seeing sombreros, rancheros, tortillas and Pancho Villa. We spent a quiet night. Dolores mended her perfect underwear, and I pretended to read a novel. Dad listened to the radio with a drink in his hand and watched what I now know was a pitiful spectacle.
In the morning, we set out on the foreign adventure. The dirt roads of Mexico fulfilled all my longing for the unusual. Only a few miles from California’s slick highways and, to me, tall buildings, we were bumping along on gravel streets that could have competed in crudeness with the worst paths in Arkansas, and the landscape boasted adobe huts or cabins walled with corrugated metal. Dogs, lean and dirty, slunk around the houses, and children played innocently in the nude or near nude with discarded rubber tires. Half the population looked like Tyrone Power and Dolores Del Rio, and the other half like Akim Tamiroff and Katina Paxinou, maybe only fatter and older.
Dad gave no explanation as we drove through the border town and headed for the interior. Although surprised, I refused to indulge my curiosity by questioning him. After a few miles we were stopped by a uniformed guard. He and Dad exchanged familiar greetings and Dad got out of the car. He reached back into the pocket of the door and took a bottle of liquor into the guard’s kiosk. They laughed and talked for over a half hour as I sat in the car and tried to translate the muffled sounds. Eventually they came out and walked to the car. Dad still had the bottle but it was only half full. He asked the guard if he would like to marry me. Their Spanish was choppier than my school version but I understood. My father added as an inducement the fact that I was only fifteen years old. At once the guard leaned into the car and caressed my cheek. I supposed that he thought before that I was not only ugly but old, too, and that now the knowledge that I was probably unused attracted him. He told Dad that he would marry me and we would have “many babies.” My father found that promise the funniest thing he had heard since we left home. (He had laughed uproariously when Dolores didn’t answer my goodbye and I explained as we drove away that she hadn’t heard.) The guard was not discouraged by my attempts to get away from his probing hands and I would have squirmed to the driver’s seat had not Dad opened the door and got in. After many adiós’s and bonitas and espositas Dad started the car, and we were on our grimy way again.
Signs informed me that we were headed for Ensenada. In those miles, along the twisted roads beside the steep mountain, I feared that I would never get back to America, civilization, English and wide streets again. He sipped from the bottle and sang snatches of Mexican songs as we climbed the tortuous mountain road. Our destination turned out not to be the town of Ensenada, after all, but about five miles out of the city limits. We pulled up in the dirt yard of a cantina where half-clothed children chased mean-looking chickens around and around. The noise of the car brought women to the door of the ramshackle building but didn’t distract the single-minded activity of either the grubby kids or the scrawny fowls.
A woman’s voice sang out, “Baylee, Baylee.” And suddenly a claque of women crowded to the door and overflowed into the yard. Dad told me to get out of the car and we went to meet the women. He explained quickly that I was his daughter, which everyone thought to be uncontrollably funny. We were herded into a long room with a bar at one end. Tables sat lopsidedly on a loose-plank floor. The ceiling caught and held my attention. Paper streamers in every possible color waved in the near-still air, and as I watched a few fell to the floor. No one seemed to notice, or if they did, it was obviously unimportant that their sky was falling in. There were a few men on stools at the bar, and they greeted my father with the ease of familiarity. I was taken around and each person was told my name and age. The formal high school “Cómo está usted?” was received as the most charming utterance possible. People clapped me on the back, shook Dad’s hand and spoke a rat-a-tat Spanish that I was unable to follow. Baylee was the hero of the hour, and as he warmed under the uninhibited show of affection I saw a new side of the man. His quizzical smile disappeared and he stopped his affected way of talking (it would have been difficult to wedge ers into that rapid Spanish).
It seemed hard to believe that he was a lonely person, searching relentlessly in bottles, under women’s skirts, in church work and lofty job titles for his “personal niche,” lost before birth and unrecovered since. It was obvious to me then that he had never belonged in Stamps, and less to the slow-moving, slow-thinking Johnson family. How maddening it was to have been born in a cotton field with aspirations of grandeur.
In the Mexican bar, Dad had an air of relaxation which I had never seen visit him before. There was no need to pretend in front of those Mexican peasants. As he was, just being himself, he was sufficiently impressive to them. He was an American. He was Black. He spoke Spanish fluently. He had money and he could drink tequila with the best of them. The women liked him too. He was tall and handsome and generous.
It was a fiesta party. Someone put money in the jukebox and drinks were served to all the customers. I was given a warm Coca-Cola. The music poured out of the record machine as high-tenored voices wavered and held, wavered and held for the passionate rancheros. Men danced, at first alone, then with each other and occasionally a woman would join the foot-stomping rites. I was asked to dance. I hesitated because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to follow the steps, but Dad nodded and encouraged me to try. I had been enjoying myself for at least an hour before I realized it. One young man had taught me how to put a sticker on the ceiling. First, all the sugar must be chewed out of Mexican gum, then the bartender gives a few slips of paper to the aspirant, who writes either a proverb or a sentimental remark on the strip. He takes the soft gum from his mouth and sticks it to the end of the streamer. Choosing a less densely covered area of the ceiling he aims at the spot, and as he throws he lets out a bloodcurdling scream which would not be out of place in a bronco-busting rodeo. After a few squeaky misses, I overcame my reserve and tore my tonsils loose with a yell that would have been worthy of Zapata. I was happy, Dad was proud and my new friends were gracious. A woman brought chicharrones (in the South they’re called cracklings) in a greasy newspaper. I ate the fried pig skins, danced, screamed and drank the extra-sweet and sticky Coca-Cola with the nearest approach to abandonment I had ever experienced. As new revelers joined the celebration I was introduced as la niña de Baylee, and as quickly accepted. The afternoon sun failed in its attempt to light the room through the single window, and the press of bodies and scents and sounds melted to give us an aromatic and artificial twilight. I realized that I hadn’t seen my father for some time. “Dónde está mi padre?” I asked my dancing partner. My formal Spanish must have sounded as pretentious to the ears of the paisano as “Whither goeth my sire?” would have sounded to a semi-literate Ozark mountaineer. In any case it brought on a howl of laughter, a bear-crushing embrace and no answer. When the dance was finished, I made my way through the squeeze of the people as unobtrusively as possible. A fog of panic nearly suffocated me. He wasn’t in the room. Had he made an arrangement with the guard back at the pass? I would not put it beyond him. My drink had been spiked. The certainty made my knees weak, and dancing couples blurred before my eyes. Dad was gone. He was probably halfway back home with the money from my sale in his pocket. I had to get to the door, which seemed miles and mountains away. People stopped me with “Dónde vas?” My response was something as stiff and double meaning as “Yo voy por ventilarme,” or “I am going to air out.” No wonder I was a big hit.
Seen through the open door Dad’s Hudson sat in lonely splendor. He hadn’t left me, after all. That meant, of course, that I hadn’t been drugged. I immediately felt better. No one followed me into the yard where the late afternoon sun had tenderized the midday harshness. I decided to sit in his car and wait for him since he couldn’t have gone far. I knew he was with a woman, and the more I thought about it, it was easy to figure which one of the gay señoritas he had taken away. There had been a small neat woman with very red lips who clung to him avidly when we first arrived. I hadn’t thought of it at the time but had simply recorded her pleasure. In the car, in reflection, I played the scene back. She had been the first to rush to him, and that was when he quickly said “This is my daughter” and “She speaks Spanish.” If Dolores knew, she would crawl up in her blanket of affectations and die circumspectly. The thought of her mortification kept me company for a long time, but the sounds of music and laughter and Cisco Kid screams broke into my pleasant revengeful reveries. It was, after all, getting dark and Dad must have been beyond my reach in one of the little cabins out back. An awkward fear crept up slowly as I contemplated sitting in the car all night alone. It was a fear distantly related to the earlier panic. Terror did not engulf me wholly, but crawled along my mind like a tedious paralysis. I could roll up the windows and lock the door. I could lie down on the floor of the car and make myself small and invisible. Impossible! I tried to staunch the flood of fear. Why was I afraid of the Mexicans? After all, they had been kind to me and surely my father wouldn’t allow his daughter to be ill treated. Wouldn’t he? Would he? How could he leave me in that raunchy bar and go off with his woman? Did he care what happened to me? Not a damn, I decided, and opened the flood gates for hysteria. Once the tears began, there was no stopping them. I was to die, after all, in a Mexican dirt yard. The special person that I was, the intelligent mind that God and I had created together, was to depart this life without recognition or contribution. How pitiless were the Fates and how helpless was this poor Black girl.
I made out his shadow in the near gloom and was about to jump out and run to him when I noticed that he was being propelled by the small woman I had seen earlier and a man. He wobbled and lurched but they held him up firmly and guided his staggering toward the door of the cantina. Once he got inside we might never leave. I got out of the car and went to them. I asked Dad if he wouldn’t like to get into the car and rest a little. He focused enough to recognize me and answered that that was exactly what he wanted; he was a little tired and he’d like to rest before we set out for his place. He told his friends his wishes in Spanish and they steered him to the car. When I opened the front door he said No, he’d lie down on the back seat for a little while. We got him into the car and tried to arrange his long legs comfortably. He began snoring even as we tugged at him. It sounded like the beginning of a deep and long sleep, and a warning that, after all, we were to spend the night in the car, in Mexico.
I thought fast as the couple laughed and jabbered at me in incomprehensible Spanish. I had never driven a car before, but I had watched carefully and my mother was declared to be the best driver in San Francisco. She declared it, at least. I was superbly intelligent and had good physical coordination. Of course I could drive. Idiots and lunatics drove cars, why not the brilliant Marguerite Johnson? I asked the Mexican man to turn the car around, again in my exquisite high school Spanish, and it took about fifteen minutes to make myself understood. The man must have asked me if I could drive, but I didn’t know the Spanish for the verb “to drive,” so I kept repeating “Si, si” and “Gracias” until he got in and headed the car toward the highway. He showed his understanding of the situation by his next action. He left the motor running. I put my foot on the accelerator and clutch, jiggled the gearshift and raised both feet. With an ominous roar we leaped out of the yard.
As we shook onto the shelf of the road the car nearly stalled and I stamped both feet again on the pedal and clutch. We made no progress and an awful amount of noise, but the motor didn’t stop. I understood then that in order to go forward I would have to lift my feet off the pedals, and if I did so abruptly the car would shake like a person with St. Vitus Dance. With that complete understanding of the principle of motor locomotion, I drove down the mountainside toward Calexico, some fifty miles away. It is hard to understand why my vivid imagination and tendency toward scariness didn’t provide me with gory scenes of bloody crashes on a risco de Mexico. I can only think that my every sense was concentrated on steering the bucking car.
When it became totally dark, I fumbled over knobs, twisting and pulling until I succeeded in finding the lights. The car slowed down as I centered on that search, and I forgot to step on the pedals, and the motor gurgled, the car pitched and the engine stopped. A bumbling sound from the back told me that Dad had fallen off the seat (I had been expecting this to happen for miles). I pulled the hand brake and carefully considered my next move. It was useless to think of asking Dad. The fall on the floor had failed to stir him, and I would be unable to do so. No car was likely to pass us—I hadn’t seen any motor vehicles since we passed the guard’s house early in the day. We were headed downhill, so I reasoned that with any luck we might coast right up to Calexico—or at least to the guard. I waited until I formulated an approach to him before releasing the brake. I would stop the car when we reached the kiosk and put on my siddity air. I would speak to him like the peasant he was. I would order him to start the car and then tip him a quarter or even a dollar from Dad’s pocket before driving on.
With my plans solidly made, I released the brake and we began coasting down the slope. I also pumped the clutch and the accelerator, hoping that the action would speed our descent, and wonder of wonders the motor started again. The Hudson went crazy on the hill. It was rebelling and would have leaped over the side of the mountain, to all our destruction, in its attempt to unseat me had I relaxed control for a single second. The challenge was exhilarating. It was me, Marguerite, against the elemental opposition. As I twisted the steering wheel and forced the accelerator to the floor I was controlling Mexico, and might and aloneness and inexperienced youth and Bailey Johnson, Sr., and death and insecurity, and even gravity.
After what seemed like one thousand and one nights of challenge the mountain began to level off and we started passing scattered lights on either side of the road. No matter what happened after that I had won. The car began to slow down as if it had been tamed and was going to give up without grace. I pumped even harder and we finally reached the guard’s box. I pulled on the hand brake and came to a stop. There would be no need for me to speak to the guard since the motor was running, but I had to wait until he looked into the car and gave me the signal to continue. He was busy talking to people in a car facing the mountain I had just conquered. The light from his hut showed him bent from the waist with his upper torso completely swallowed by the mouth of the open window. I held the car in instant readiness for the next lap of our journey. When the guard unfolded himself and stood erect I was able to see he was not the same man of the morning’s embarrassment. I was understandably taken aback at the discovery and when he saluted sharply and barked “Pasa” I released the brake, put both feet down and lifted them a bit too sharply. The car outran my intention. It leaped not only forward but left as well, and with a few angry spurts propelled itself onto the side of the car just pulling off. The crash of scraping metal was followed immediately by a volley of Spanish hurled at me from all directions. Again, strangely enough, fear was absent from my sensations. I wondered in this order: was I hurt, was anyone else hurt, would I go to jail, what were the Mexicans saying, and finally, had Dad awakened? I was able to answer the first and last concern promptly. Buoyed by the adrenalin that had flooded my brain as we careened down the mountainside, I had never felt better, and my father’s snores cut through the cacophony of protestations outside my window. I got out of the car, intending to ask for the policías, but the guard beat me to the punch. He said a few words, which were strung together like beads, but one of them was policías. As the people in the other car fumbled out, I tried to recover my control and said loudly and too graciously, “Gracias, señor.” The family, some eight or more people of every age and size, walked around me, talking heatedly and sizing me up as if I might have been a statue in a city park and they were a flock of pigeons. One said “Joven,” meaning I was young. I tried to see which one was so intelligent. I would direct my conversation to him or her, but they shifted positions so quickly it was impossible to make the person out. Then another suggested “Borracho.” Well, certainly, I must have smelled like a tequila farm, since Dad had been breathing out the liquor in noisy respirations and I had kept the windows closed against the cold night air. It wasn’t likely that I would explain that to these strangers even if I could. Which I couldn’t Someone got the idea to look into the car, and a scream brought us all up short. People—they seemed to be in the hundreds—crowded to the windows and more screams erupted. I thought for a minute that something awful might have happened. Maybe at the time of the crash … I, too, pushed to the window to see, but then I remembered the rhythmic snores, and coolly walked away. The guard must have thought he had a major crime on his hands. He made moves and sounds like “Watch her” or “Don’t let her out of your sight.” The family came back, this time not as close but more menacing, and when I was able to sort out one coherent question, “Quién es?” I answered dryly and with all the detachment I could summon, “Mi padre.” Being a people of close family ties and weekly fiestas they suddenly understood the situation. I was a poor little girl thing who was caring for my drunken father, who had stayed too long at the fair. Pobrecita.
The guard, the father and one or two small children began the herculean job of waking Dad. I watched coolly as the remaining people paraded, making figure eights around me and their badly bruised automobile. The two men shook and tugged and pulled while the children jumped up and down on my father’s chest. I credit the children’s action for the success of the effort. Bailey Johnson, Sr., woke up in Spanish. “Qué tiene? Qué pasa? Qué quiere?”Anyone else would have asked, “Where am I?” Obviously, this was a common Mexican experience. When I saw he was fairly lucid I went to the car, calmly pushed the people away, and said from the haughty level of one who has successfully brought to heel a marauding car and negotiated a sneaky mountain, “Dad, there’s been an accident.” He recognized me by degrees and became my pre-Mexican-fiesta father.
“An accident, huh? Er, who was at fault? You, Marguerite? Errer was it you?”
It would have been futile to tell him of my mastering his car and driving it nearly fifty miles. I didn’t expect or even need, now, his approbation.
“Yes, Dad, I ran into a car.”
He still hadn’t sat up completely, so he couldn’t know where we were. But from the floor where he rested, as if that was the logical place to be, he said, “In the glove compartment. The insurance papers. Get them and er give them to the police, and then come back.”
The guard stuck his head in the other door before I could form a scathing but polite response. He asked Dad to get out of the car. Never at a loss, my father reached in the glove compartment, and took out the folded papers and the half bottle of liquor he had left there earlier. He gave the guard one of his pinch-backed laughs, and descended, by joints, from the car. Once on the ground he towered over the angry people. He took a quick reading of his location and the situation, and then put his arm around the other driver’s shoulder. He kindly, not in the least condescendingly, bent to speak to the guard, and the three men walked into the hut. Within easy minutes, laughter burst from the shack and the crisis was over, but so was the enjoyment.
Dad shook hands with all the men, patted the children and smiled winsomely at the women. Then, and without looking at the damaged cars, he eased himself behind the steering wheel. He called me to get in, and as if he had not been helplessly drunk a half hour earlier, he drove unerringly toward home. He said he didn’t know I could drive, and how did I like his car? I was angry that he had recovered so quickly and felt let down that he didn’t appreciate the greatness of my achievement. So I answered yes to both the statement and the question. Before we reached the border he rolled down the window, and the fresh air, which was welcome, was uncomfortably cold. He told me to get his jacket from the back seat and put it on. We drove into the city in a cold and private silence.