When I was a child in Oakland, before moving to Los Angeles at age ten, our next door neighbor was a woman everybody called ‘Tootsie.’ I never knew her real name, but I knew from listening to the adults around me that Tootsie was known to hit the bottle every now and then – like everyday! Tootsie had ten children. (Stairsteps, my mom used to call them because that was the phrase she used in those days for multiple siblings close in age. Today she would call them the equality unpolitically correct phrase -- bananas.) There was a ‘Mr. Tootsie’ who would show up every now and then, but, for the most part the children were on their own. Their house was in disrepair and the kids didn’t always make it to school.
Tootsie pretty much kept to herself. Sometimes when my mom was hanging clothes on the line, she would venture out to say hi. They would chat and laugh for a few minutes and then Tootsie would return to her sanctuary.
Even though most of us were only one paycheck from abject poverty, there were those on our street who looked down on Tootsie and her brood. Some of the neighbors wouldn’t allow their kids to play with Tootsie’s children, but my mom let me play with the ones closest to my age. She also insisted I address Tootsie properly – calling her Mrs. Johnson. (I think a couple of her kids had that last name.)
Once I caught a real bad flu and was out of school for two weeks. Tootsie made sure one of her children would go to my class and get the homework for me. I also remember when my grandfather died, Tootsie cleaned herself up and came over to pay her respect. She even brought some food over, although everyone was afraid to eat it.
There were other “Tootsies” that I came across in my Los Angeles area neighborhoods as I grew up. Some had money, some were destitute. I always remember my mother telling me that it is a gift to be able to relate to everyone – from a pauper to a prince. That was the beauty of the neighborhoods I lived in. There were all kinds of people from all walks of life.
Today, we try to keep our children away from the have-nots in life. Our suburban neighborhoods are pretty homogenous, so our kids may never learn about “the other side of the tracks.” Also, they may never come to understand the saying “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Yet I’m sure that within our pristine, well-kept neighborhoods, there are Tootsies lurking behind closed curtains. Sometimes we see them at the supermarket, or picking their kids up from school. They are just waiting for a “Hi how are you?” or some acknowledgment that they exist. Maybe, instead of judging them, we need to throw our arms around them and see what we can do to help. Someone might have to do the same for us one day.
(First published in 2007)