There was a time when I didn't know
I was privileged, and that might
have been when I walked forty blocks
in the New Orleans heat to apply for food stamps
when I was in my early 20s, and should have been
shopping for a rich white husband
to sequester me in an air conditioned mansion instead.
I was heckled the entire way by men
who stood on the perimeters of sidewalks
and offered to give me money for blow jobs
or just stared at my breasts for a few minutes
while making comments about how high they bounced.
I swiveled my entire body and averted my eyes
so I could no longer see how they looked at me,
with the same expression on their faces
as my own, when I stared at cheesecake
and boiled crab in the restaurant windows of the Quarter.
I hustled past them on my way to my waitress jobs
while wearing my unpressed white shirt and black pants
and carrying a folded apron underneath one of my arms,
always running a bit late because I hated to work.
I was fired almost weekly by managers
who thought I was too slow, or too friendly
or not friendly enough, or my shoes were the wrong color,
or I didn't wear a bra and hair spray, or I wouldn't
have sex with them, and then money disappeared from the till,
so I must have been the one who stole it.
I never stole anything, but I should have,
because at least I would have had the satisfaction
of knowing that I stuck it to them
and got away with a small chunk of the spoils,
but the truth is that I was laboring away
in an honest, though deeply resentful manner
carefully balancing platters of fried seafood
and gumbo and omelets and etouffee
on the ends of both of my bony forearms,
trying to make people smile so they would
give me a dollar, and not complain to the manager instead.
They complained anyway, because I didn't refill their water glasses
often enough, or I forgot their basket of rolls
or one of their meals didn't emerge from the kitchen
in a timely manner, or they were overcharged
by fifty cents, and they would draw huge lines
through the tip area on their credit card receipts
or write fat, bulging zeroes with slashes through them
or leave quarters for me in puddles of spilled beer.
They'd tell the manager they were never coming back again,
as if they'd ever had plans to do so in the first place,
and they weren't just going to go back home to their jobs
at oil refineries in Texas, or insurance offices in Omaha,
or wherever the hell they came from.
So I'd be out of a job again, and the next thing I knew
I was pleading for cash with some caseworker
who hated her job, but at least she had one
and she could stare across her desk at me
as if I was leprosy on a plate.
So now I am given to understand
that I was white and privileged the entire time,
and I just didn't realize that obvious fact-
and therefore should tread lightly around the egos
of everyone who didn't have my opportunities
and the sad truth is: I empathize deeply
with everyone who finds herself on the bottom,
regardless of the reason for her unfair placement
on the most rickety rungs of the economic ladder,
scrounging for the tiniest, moldiest crumbs
of the fat slices of cake the rich are devouring.
Just don't tell me that it was easy for me,
because you think I had it slightly better than you did,
because I'm not buying your story
and I can't afford the interest payments.
The same enemy has both of our heads
on a serving dish, with apples stuffed in our mouths
and steam pouring out from underneath the lid,
and if you are unable to see this,
then we have nothing to talk about
and I am just going back to the carnival routine,
and absolutely nothing will change for either of us.