Angelou: Chapter 14

Chapter 14: San Francisco

The house seemed smaller and quieter after the trip south, and

San Francisco didn’t seem as exciting. I realized that I had given

up some youth for knowledge, but my gain was more valuable

than the loss.

Bailey was much older, too. Even years older than I had

become. He had made new friends and his language had

changed. He may have been glad to see me, but he didn’t act like

  1. When I tried to tell him of my adventures, he responded with

a lack of interest which stopped my stories. His new companions

drank alcohol secretly and told bad jokes. Although I had no

regrets, I told myself sadly that growing up was not the painless

process one expected it to be.

In one area my brother and I found ourselves closer. I had

learned public dancing, and Mother allowed us to go to the big

band dances in the city hall. In a few months handsome Bailey

and his tall sister were famous.

Although I had risked my life (not intentionally) in her

defense, Mother’s reputation, good name, and community image

ceased being of interest to me. I didn’t care for her less, but I was

less concerned about everything and everyone. I often thought

how boring life was after one had seen all its surprises. In two

months, I had become uninterested.

Mother and Bailey were having mother—son problems. Bailey

was sixteen and hopelessly in love with Mother Dear. Her heroes

and her friends were rich gamblers who wore expensive clothes.

How could a sixteen-year-old boy hope to compete with such

rivals? He did what he had to do. He acquired a white prostitute,

a diamond ring on his finger, and an expensive jacket. He didn’t

consciously think of the new possessions as a way to gain Mother

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Dear’s acceptance. And she had no idea that her preferences led

him to such excesses.

From another room I heard their arguments and listened

hopelessly. I was left out of their power-love struggles.

One night he came home at one o’clock, two hours late.

“I guess you’re a man . . . ” she said to him.

“I’m your son, Mother Dear,” he responded.

“Clidell is the only man in this house, and if you think you’re

so much of a m a n . . . ” Her voice was angry.

“I’m leaving now, Mother Dear,” he announced.

“Then get moving.” And Bailey went to his room.

Bailey was leaving home. At one o ’clock in the morning my

brother, who had always protected me, was leaving home. I went

to his room and found him throwing his clothes into a

pillowcase. His maturity embarrassed me. He didn’t look like my

brother. Not knowing what to say, I asked if I could help, and he

answered, “Leave me alone.”

I leaned on the door, giving him my physical presence, but

said no more.

“She wants me out, does she?” he continued, talking to

himself. “Well, I’ll get out of here fast. She won’t see me here

again. I’ll be OK. I’ll always be OK.”

At some point he noticed me in the doorway. “Maya, if you

want to leave now, come on. I’ll take care of you.”

He didn’t wait for an answer, but quickly returned to speaking

to his soul. “She won’t miss me, and I won’t miss her. To hell with

her and everybody else.”

He had finished pushing his shoes on top of his shirts and ties

and socks in the pillowcase. He remembered me again.

“Maya, you can have my books,” he said. Then he grabbed the

pillowcase, pushed past me, and headed for the stairs. I heard the

front door shut loudly.

Mother’s eyes were red the next morning, but she smiled. No

one mentioned Bailey’s absence, as if things were as they should

be and always were.

I believed I knew where he had gone the night before, and

decided to try tofind him and offer him my support. In the

afternoon I went to the house. A woman answered the doorbell

and said Bailey Johnson was at the top of the stairs. His eyes were

as red as Mothers had been, but his face was not as angry as it

had been the night before. I was invited in.

He began to talk about everything except our unusual

situation. Eventually he said, “Maya, you know, its better this

w ay … I mean, I’m a man, and I have to be on my ow n . . . ”

I was angry that he didn’t curse Mother or at least act upset.

“This morning Mother Dear came here. We had a very good

discussion.” He chose his words carefully. “She understands

completely. There’s a time in every man’s life when he must leave

the safety of home and go out on his own. She’s arranging with a

friend of hers to get me a job on the trains. I’ll learn the job and

then get a better one. The future looks good.”

If I’d had any suggestions to make, he wouldn’t have heard

them. And, most regrettable, I had no suggestion to make.

“I’m your sister, and I’ll do whatever I can,” I told him.

“Maya, don’t worry about me. That’s all I want you to do.

Don’t worry. I’ll be OK.”

I left his room because, and only because, we had said all we

could say. The unsaid words made us feel uncomfortable.

Back in my room, I felt depressed. It was going to be

impossible for me to stay there. Running away from home

wouldn’t be right, either. But I needed a change.

I would go to work. It would be easy to persuade Mother. I

was a year ahead of my grade in school and Mother believed in

taking care of oneself. After I had made that decision, I just

needed to decide which kind of job I was most suited to. Because

of the war, women had replaced men as conductors on the

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streetcars, and the thought of riding up and down the hills of San

Francisco in a dark-blue uniform, with a money changer on my

belt, was appealing. When Mother asked what I planned to do, I

replied that I would get a job on the streetcars. She rejected the

idea with: “They don’t accept colored people on the streetcars.”

My first reaction was disappointment. I’d pictured myself

dressed in a neat, blue suit, my money changer swinging at my

waist, with a cheerful smile for the passengers which would make

their own work day brighter. I told her again that I would go to

work on the streetcars and wear a blue suit, and she gave me her

support. “That’s what you want to do? Nothing beats trying

except failure. Give it your best effort.”

It was the most positive encouragement I could have hoped

for.

In the offices of the Market Street Railway Company, the

receptionist seemed surprised to see me there. I explained that I

had come to ask about a job. She asked if I was sent by an agency,

and when I replied that I was not, she told me that they were

only accepting applicants from agencies.

“I’m applying for the job listed in this morning’s Chronicle and

I’d like to be presented to your personnel manager.”

“H e ’s out for the day. You could come back tomorrow and if

he’s in, I’m sure you can see him.” Then she turned her chair

around and I was supposed to be dismissed.

“May I ask his name?”

She half turned, acting surprised tofind me still there.

“His name? Whose name?”

“The personnel manager.”

“The personnel manager? Oh, h e’s Mr. Cooper, but I’m not

sure you’ll find him here tomorrow. H e ’s .. . but you can try.”

“Thank you.”

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“You’re welcome.”

And I was out of the room and out of the building. I thought

about our conversation. It wasn’t personal. The incident was a

repeating dream, made up years before by stupid whites, and it

always returned. I accepted the receptionist as another victim of

the rules of society.

On the streetcar, I put my fare into the box and the conductor

looked at me with the usual hard eyes of white contempt. “Move

into the car, please move on in the car.” She patted her money

changer.

Her Southern accent interrupted my thoughts. All lies, all

comfortable lies. The receptionist was not innocent and neither

was I. The whole situation in that waiting room was directly

about me, Black, and her, white.

I wouldn’t move into the streetcar but stood on the platform.

My mind shouted.

I WO ULD HAVE TH E JOB. I WO ULD BE A

C O N D U C T O R AND H A N G A M O N EY C H A N G E R

FROM MY BELT. I WOULD.

I was determined. During the next three weeks the Negro

organizations to whom I appealed for support sent me from one

to another. Why did I insist on that particular job? There were

opportunities that paid almost twice the money. They thought I

was crazy. Possibly I was.

During this period of strain, Mother and I began our first steps

on the long path toward shared adult admiration. She never asked

for reports and I didn’t offer any details. But every morning she

made breakfast, and gave me carfare and lunch money, as if I were

going to work. She understood that I had to try every possibility

before giving up.

On my way out of the house one morning she said, “Life is

going to give you what you put in it. Put your whole heart in

everything you do, and pray, then you can wait.” Another time

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she reminded me that “God helps those who help themselves.”

Strangely, as bored as I was with these sayings, her way of saying

them gave them something new, and started me thinking—for a

little while at least. Later, when she asked how I got my job, I was

never able to say exactly. I only knew that one day I sat in the

railway office, pretending to be waiting to be interviewed. The

receptionist called me to her desk and pushed a bundle of papers

to me. They were the application forms. I had little time to

wonder if I had won or not, because the standard questions

reminded me of the necessity for lying. How old was I? List my

previous jobs. How much money did I earn, and why did I leave

the position? Give two references (not relatives).

Sitting at a side table, I made a story of near-truths and total

lies. I kept my face without expression and wrote quickly the

story of Marguerite Johnson, age nineteen, former companion

and driver for Mrs. Annie Henderson (a white lady) in Stamps,

Arkansas.

I was given a number of tests. Then on one happy day I was

hired as the first Negro on the San Francisco streetcars.

Mother gave me the money to have my blue suit made, and I

learned tofill out work cards and operate the money changer.

Soon I was standing on the back of the streetcar, smiling sweetly

and persuading my passengers to “step forward in the car, please.”

For one whole semester the streetcars and I went up and

down the hills of San Francisco. My work shifts were split so

much that it was easy to believe my superiors had chosen them

with bad intentions. When I mentioned my suspicions to

Mother, she said, “D o n ’t worry about it. You ask for what you

want, and you pay for what you get.”

She stayed awake to drive me out to the streetcar garage at

four-thirty in the mornings, or to pick me up when I was

finished just before dawn. She knew that I was safe on the public

transportation, but she wouldn’t trust a taxi driver with her baby.

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When spring classes began, I returned to my commitment to

formal education. I was much wiser and older, much more

independent, with a bank account and clothes that I had bought

for myself. I was sure that I had learned and earned what was

necessary to be a part of the life of my classmates.

Within weeks, however, I realized that my schoolmates and I

were on opposite paths. They were concerned and excited over

football games, but I had recently raced a car down a dark and

foreign Mexican mountain. They concentrated their interest on

who would be the school president, and when the metal bands

would be removed from their teeth, while I remembered

sleeping for a month in an abandoned car and working in a

streetcar in the early hours of the morning. I realized that the

things I still had to learn wouldn’t be taught to me at George

Washington High School.

I began missing classes, walking in Golden Gate Park, or

wandering in the department store. When Mother discovered

that I wasn’t going to school, she told me that if I didn’t want to

go to school one day, I should tell her, and I could stay home. She

said that she didn’t want a white woman calling her to tell her

something about her child that she didn’t know. She didn’t want

to have to lie to a white woman because I wasn’t woman enough

to talk to her. That ended my days of not going to school, but

nothing changed to make it a better place for me to be.

Angelou, M. (1969). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. [http://www.academia.edu/8078608/I_Know_Why_the_Caged_Bird_Sings_-_Full_Text_PDF]. Retrieved from