Marva Hicks, my co-worker, had long wanted to make me over. This was back when we both worked in the credit and collections department of W.B. Smedley, a large, distinguished, and rather stuffy publisher of medical books in downtown Philadelphia.
There was nothing stuffy about Marva Hicks, though. She and my other black co-workers had never really bought into the protestant ethic of Smedley. Oh, she and the other credit and collection clerks and customer service women generally did their jobs, but their style was irreverent. Marva, especially, kept things light.
I'll never forget the time our boss, Bill Garibaldi, had just announced some change in office procedure to us. Marva's reaction was to tell Bill that he had a "small dick".
Bill only shrugged. "It gets bigger," was his nonplussed reply.
He knew Marva by now. I did, too. We had worked together for over four years. We got along well. I loved the way Marva always cut up the white, male bosses. She was always questioning their intelligence and their looks. She had the balls to express out loud what I only thought. Since she was black, she could get away with it. Everyone expected the blacks to be disaffected. Marva,in turn, thought I was a sweet, smart, white girl, but one who was too straightlaced, too drab, too bookish...in short, I needed a make-over.
And now the year-end holiday party was approaching...Marva's big chance. Because Smedley was a conservative, tradition-bound company, they generally held their holiday parties in a tony, if not "hip" place. This year it was to be held at the Warwick Hotel at 17th and Locust Streets. The Warwick is a nice, Edwardian-style, tradition bound hotel...it's often the site where Philadelphia mayoral campaigners wait out Election Night.
So, one cold weekday in the middle of December, Marva and I left the credit and collections department at lunchtime, wended our way down the snow bordered sidewalks of West Washington Square and hopped a SEPTA bus up Walnut Street over to Wanamaker's at 13th and Chestnut. Marva was going to help me select an appropriate "after five" outfit for the company bash.
I had my doubts, but allowed myself to be led. Marva seemed so enthusiastic about the expedition! She was a married woman about six years older than me, in her mid-thirties. She had two kids, girls who attended Catholic school. Marva's husband worked for the City Water Department. He had come into our office a few times. He seemed like a nice, friendly, paunchy guy. One time he was wearing Bermuda shorts. I speculated that perhaps Marva wanted to re-live her years of singlehood through me. Whatever.
As we walked from the bus stop to Wanamaker's, I was conscious that we made an odd pair. Marva, a very tall, extroverted black woman, who gestured while she talked. Me, a very short, introverted, white woman. I had to look up to Marva as she talked. Passersby looked at us as we walked along, probably amused and a little surprised. This was Philadelphia in the Frank L. Rizzo dominated 1980s. You didn't see too many interracial friendships back then.
Once in the store, we picked out a black, velveteen cat suit. Sexy. And matching black heels. A little bag with black sequins. I paid cash. "You are going to be one of the best looking girls at the party," Marva assured me as we walked back to the bus stop.
I was still listening to Marva when some guy dropped a big duffle bag in front of the bus steps, just as I was about to board it. Both Marva and I looked down at the bag. A young black guy bent down to pick up the bag. When I looked at him, I noticed a smirk on his face as he retrieved the bag and looked directly at me. A short minute later, I noticed that my wallet had been stolen from out of my shoulder bag.
"Oh shit!" I said.
"The guy with the..." Marva said, quickly making the connection with the duffle bag diversion. Although she didn't say it in words, her chagrined expression told me that Marva was now deeply embarrassed. The duffle bag guy had been black. His accomplice, who had so deftly picked my wallet, probably was, too.
I could have told Marva that she shouldn't feel bad. That I wasn't some kind of white person who thinks all blacks are criminals. But I didn't, because she didn't...bring it up, that is. She just told me to call the police. Well, what the hell. What had the thieves gotten for their efforts? I had already spent most of my cash on the outfit and I didn't have any credit cards with me. The thieves had gotten about seven dollars. Chump change.
The holiday party was nicely catered. The ballroom was elegant. The DJ was good. I looked sexy, I supposed, in my velveteen jumpsuit with the slightly low cut neckline. I had a lousy time. Who was there to dance with? My married, heterosexual female co-workers? Marva? She was off chatting with the other "girls". Let's face it...I was in the pink collar ghetto. Contact between us grunts in credit and collections and the people of Editorial and Finance and Marketing was virtually nonexistent. The prestige departments didn't know I was within a year's worth of credits of a BA from an elite college. The few who did know didn't seem to care.
So I sat there nursing my rum and coke, spacing out on the music, and eating the occasional hors d'oeuvres. I was glad when we could go home.
After the holidays, it was business as usual at Smedley. The artificial tree and other Christmas decorations were taken down and packed up. Dreary winter wore on. It was in early Spring when Marva came in one Monday morning and announced that she had been mugged while waiting for a bus in West Philly, near where she lived. She had been going to visit a girlfriend. She told us all about the mugging in abundant detail. Fortunately the mugger hadn't brandished a gun or knife and Marva hadn't been hurt. In fact, she seemed relieved, almost light-hearted, about the whole incident. As if the whole incident were penance she had done for having "gotten" my wallet stolen. Of course she hadn't "gotten" my wallet stolen. She just felt like she had.
I spent eight years of my life working for W.B. Smedley. As much as I applied for other jobs within the company, they never promoted me out of credit and collections. Someone later told me that I had been "typecast" as a credit and collections "girl" and good collections "girls" were hard to find. I finally went back to college...to the University of Pennsylvania's night program, and completed credits toward my degree from Vassar. Now I'm a teacher and a published writer.
I've never seen Marva Hicks again. She stayed on at W.B. Smedley while I moved on. I still do own the velveteen pantsuit, though. I am loathe to part with it. It reminds me of who my friends really are.