Muddled in an endless search up and down the aisles of the grocery store, my frustration was reaching critical levels. I resolved to break the most basic law of mankind.
“Excuse me, can you give me directions to your cake section?”
The apathetic high school student lazily mumbled back to me, “Far back…next to the deli.”
I began my journey down a well stocked aisle of cereal. Sixty brands of cereal for these fat American kids to cry over. My mood was worsening, saturated with growing anger, but I was determined to follow through with my plan. Sliding between a mother and son arguing over the nutritional value of Pop-Tarts, I pulled the collar of my jacket up around my neck in a subconscious effort to block out the world.
Family. Kids. Responsibility. It all left a bitter taste in my mouth. I’m a 20 year old college kid, as far as I’m concerned being caged in a monogamous relationship was akin to drowning. I had bigger plans for my life.
Cakes. Finally. Resisting the urge to grab the one on top and go, I sorted through them until I found one that matched the occasion. Nothing too fancy. Yellow frosting on a vanilla cake. Old white guys like vanilla, right? You are what you eat, I laughed to myself.
I hurried up to the register to pay, thrusting the cake at the cashier with one hand and digging around in my back pocket with the other.
“$15.19 is your total.”
For cake?! I could eat for two days off of that!
I pulled out a wrinkled ten dollar bill, a few ones, and dug around in my front pocket for the change. College kids, we live off the coins we find.
After counting out the last four pennies, I grabbed my receipt and quickly headed for the door almost running into a middle aged woman in an obnoxious fur coat.
“Excuse you!” she exclaimed condescendingly, with a look that reeked of “I’m better than you-ness”. You’d think she’d never seen a black man in Philadelphia before.
Mostly unfazed, I gathered myself and jumped in my ’85 Honda Accord. My mom bought this piece of crap 9 years ago when it was brand new, and bequeathed it to me. I fired up the engine, thankful, at least, to have transportation.
A terrible easy listening version of a New Edition song played in the elevator as it ascended to the top floor. I always felt out of place in this building. Something about the dark, polished wood and regal carpeting made me feel like an unwelcomed guest. I swallowed that thought as the elevator chimed and the polished mirror doors slid open to reveal a familiar site.
“Hi Mrs. Betty,” I said to the older, round woman behind the secretary’s desk, “I brought something for Mr. Clifton.”
“That is exceedingly kind of you, Carl. I’ll make sure he gets it.”
“I was kind of hoping I could give it to him myself…to wish him a happy birthday?” I said in a inquisitive voice, for some reason. I was feeling out of place, despite having been here so many times before.
Mr. Clifton was the Dean of Students at Temple University. I had been working, for minimum wage mind you, in his office over the last few months doing administrative work. I hated coming to the Admin Building, but Mr. Clifton was one of the few older white men I respected on this campus. He’s always been generous to me, and even though I finished the envelope stuffing project he hired me on to do, he’s always found a reason to keep me around.
Last week he had me re-organize his filing cabinet in alphabet order. Two weeks prior I was putting it in reverse alphabet order. He’s a good man. One of the few.
“Well,” Mrs. Betty replied, “If you can wait a few minutes he should be getting off a conference call momentarily.”
I sat on the stuffed, red leather couches studded with brass buttons on the seams. I looked around at the paintings of the campus on the wall and a new feeling of out-of-placeness came over me. Stronger than before.
What am I doing here with a cake for this man? Mr. Clifton is too busy for me, and I doubt he cares if I brought him a cake for his birthday. He’s going to think I’m such a needy loser. I really am a momma’s boy; I latched on to the first strong male figure in my life and am acting like a child to get him to notice me.
The red leather couch was beginning to get unbearably uncomfortable. My collar felt tight and I kept fidgeting where I sat, rubbing my shaved head, re-tucking my shirt. I held the cake on my lap, and then set it on the table. Then put it back in my lap.
I was considering heading for the door and leaving the cake with Mrs. Betty, when she made my decision for me.
“Carl? You can go back into his office now.” She smiled at me. She was a kind lady, but in this moment I hated her timing.
I wiped my hands on my pants, picked up the cake (now back on the table) and walked into Mr. Clifton’s office. I didn’t know what to say at first. Happy birthday! Here’s a cake! Please be my father-figure!
This was not a well developed plan. I guess I hadn’t figured what I would actually do when I got here. Thankfully, Mr. Clifton broke the silence.
“Carl! What can I do for you?”
“I just came by to say Happy Birthday, sir. It’s been a real pleasure working with you and, um, here. I brought you something.” I sounded like such a foolish child. If my face could turn red, it would have.
“My guy! Thank you so much! Put it here on my desk.” He responded seemingly genuine.
We chatted briefly and I left. Relieved it went better than I expected. Of course it did. He’s generous, authentic, and actually cares for people.
I turned down the collar on my jacket as I got in my car thinking maybe people weren’t as bad as I make them out to be. I just needed someone to shake me free from my solitary world of self-loathing. It was a good day. I had a real smile on my face and felt encouraged.
I was thankful for Mr. Clifton, and his old, white butt.