The elevator door opens at the first floor, and a boy no more than nine years old pushes past me to get in before I can get off. The community center's rule is no kids without adults, and I'm the building manager.
"Where are you going?" I ask.
"Lookin' around," he says. His eyes target the elevator control panel, and a chubby finger with a chewed nail aims toward the third-floor button.
Before he can push it I say, "You can't look around. You can't go to the third floor. You got to stay with your mom."
He doesn't look me in the face, and his index finger wavers about six inches from the button. He's a stocky kid, maybe a bit short for his age, and dressed in fashionably baggy clothes. His hair is closely cut with a lightning design freshly carved into the left side.
I use my key to turn the elevator control to "manual," which stops the car. "Get off," I say.
I hear the rudeness in my voice, my grandmother's stern, unnegotiable, steely tone, and I repeat my words more softly. "Look, there's eight different agencies here," I explain. "The rule is an adult has to be with you, and you have to stay in the agency you've got the appointment with. My guess is you're supposed to be in the clinic with your mom."
"Auntie," he says, his head pointed down.
"OK. Then go into the clinic and find your auntie, 'cause this elevator isn't moving until you get off."
He walks off in that kid-slow-as-molasses-in-January way.
I don't wait for him to open the big blue clinic door, but reactivate the control panel and push the button for the basement so I can check on a drinking fountain that's reportedly leaking. When the elevator door opens I see the chubby boy again. He's taken the stairs down from the main lobby. Ken, director of the mental-health counseling program, has the boy's shoulder in a vise grip.
"Got a problem, Ken?"
"I'm just telling the kid that this is an adults-only floor and that he has to go back to wherever he's supposed to be. He's not buying it though."
The boy defiantly looks me in the eye and stands up straight.
Ken is a former marine with three of the best-behaved boys you've ever seen. They're enrolled in a private Afrocentric school. Ken worries sometimes that their education isn't broad enough, but he likes the strict order in the school and the old-fashioned discipline. His boys listen to him, and he's proud of that. But this isn't his kid. The veins in his neck are like ropes.
"I've met this kid before--I'll take care of him," I say, turning to the boy. "OK kid, this is it. Come up the stairs with me, and we're going to find your auntie."
He clumps behind me. At the top of the stairs he pushes in front of me, points to his forearm, and says, "You wouldna do this except for this." He stabs his finger hard into his fleshy forearm. "It's only because I'm black and you're white." He stabs at his arm again.
In my 15 years at the center I've been reminded of my beige-tone skin more times than I could ever count, called a "honky motherfucker" maybe 15 times. I try to be fair and pragmatic. "Your brown skin has nothing to do with it," I say, hoping he'll remember that the hand that grabbed him in the basement was darker than the forearm he's stabbing. "You screwed up. That's all."
His face twists with a rage I'd have thought impossible in a kid so young. "No. It's because you're white and I'm black."
I follow him as he moves backward toward the clinic door. Staff, patients, and parents are stopping, listening. Some I know, most I don't. I'm the only beige-tone in the group. "No," I say as firmly as I can. "This is because you tried to go where you weren't supposed to go. You screwed up. That's the end of the story."
He glares at me and opens the clinic door.