OWW (Older White Woman) - Janet Ruth Young

Scene One: The KOA Campground, Plattekill, New York.
An extended family group of kids and adults throws a ball around in the swimming pool, laughing, jumping, lunging, playing keep-away. The group seems to be Latinx, possibly Dominican. The sound and action are exhilarating, and I, an older white woman, swim around and within the game, while others watch from the pool deck.
            Many of the guests at the pool are staying in RVs, tents, and cabins on the grounds. Others however, may be locals who’ve purchased a day pass that entitles them to use the campground’s amenities: pools, playground, bouncy pillow, arcade, catch-and-release fishing pond, nature trail, rock climbing wall, mini golf, snack bar, picnic area, and wine store.
            When I get out to dry off, another OWW, wearing the yellow jersey of a KOA staff member, approaches in a golf cart and speaks to me through the fence. “We got a report that someone here was using profanity.”
            This is the day I learn I’ve been voted most likely to Karen. Or even GrandKaren. Apparently, since last summer I’ve been given the job of pool monitor. No, I reply, I haven’t heard any profanity. Everyone’s just having a good time.
            A jagged edge of resentment begins to shimmer in my chest. I’ve been known to use profanity myself. For me to complain, the profanity would have to be extreme ‒ like the c-word ‒ and directed with hostility at another person.
            I hadn’t seen this large group in the camping area, so I assume they’re here on a day pass. And for hours afterward I think about how badly this could have gone. The ball players and I were being pushed into roles in a kind of set piece. The actual complainer chose to remain anonymous, while I was placed at a tipping point. At a word from me, the group could have been thrown out of the pool and lost their pass.
            What would I have done if someone tried to stop the game on account of my perceived verbal fragility? I would rush to the oldest family member in the pool, the matriarch or patriarch, and tell them I supported their continued play. I would plead “Don’t stop playing, guys!” Maybe I would swat at the ball a few times to show that I, in my empowered position, endorsed the game. By then, of course, all the joy might be drained from the game, and the day would be tainted.
            Later in the afternoon, some folks in their group have moved on to a climbing competition at the synthetic rock wall. They listen in silence as a staffer explains how the competition will work. One, a tall, skinny man in his twenties, had been one of the most boisterous and adroit players in the pool. Now he concentrates almost to the point of caricature: slow nod, furrowed brow, hand on chin, glancing from the staffer to the wall to assess the level of challenge. For some reason the way he listens summons a powerful empathy. Perhaps I feel that it confirms his nature, one I recognized when I recoiled from condemning the group. Or perhaps I see a simple similarity between the two of us: We both just want our shot at the game.

Scene Two: The same pool, maybe even the same day.
            I’m in the pool, this time with a bunch of frolicking white children. A mother of thirty-five or forty, lying fully dressed on a chaise, looks up from her phone and says, “Don’t play rough around that lady.”
            In her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, the journalist Isabel Wilkerson wrote,  “Each of us is in a container of some kind. The label signals to the world what is presumed to be inside and what is to be done with it.” I am having to accept that my container looks different than it did just three to five years ago. My muscle tone is not what it once was. Brown spots caused by sun damage have erupted on my face. My silver hair is undyed. So, I’ve been assigned this role again at the pool, a role I never auditioned for.
            Gross assumptions are being made about my level of athleticism. Yet I am quite a good swimmer and comfortable in the water. Crawl, breaststroke, backstroke, and sidestroke are all firmly in my wheelhouse, as is floating on my back serenely for three to five minutes without moving a muscle. I can swim underwater on a single breath for much of the pool length, and occasionally I bust out my butterfly. But no one asks my concerns or preferences, how rowdy I like to be. No one notices how strongly I can swim. I am the person folks are supposed to be careful around and not swear in front of.
            I feel angry that people are deciding what I can and cannot do. “Don’t play rough around me?” I want to reply to the mother. “You’re too much of a wuss to even get in the pool.”

Scene Three: Somewhere on Route 9 near Cortlandt, New York.
            My OWM husband is having knee surgery today. We are new to this area, and the surgery will take place in what I consider an odd spot for a hospital, tucked in behind a shopping mall on a hill overlooking a tributary of the Hudson River, accessed by a series of tight, counterintuitive ramps and rotaries. In our former home base of Massachusetts, hospitals were built on large tracts of land near major highways, with big blue H signs encouraging you all the way.
            My husband drove himself to the surgical unit, with me in the passenger seat. It’s my job to get the car home and then return to retrieve my OWM with his repaired knee and his body full of painkillers. I left him at what may have been five a.m. but seemed more like three. I thought I paid good attention on the way here, so now I’m winging it back home without my GPS.
            Heading toward Route 9 North (called a state highway but to me just a road winding through the woods), I can’t quite make out where my entrance is. It’s still dark and very few cars are on the road. If I saw some cars going by, I could merge with them, but I’m on my own. Recent construction may also have tampered with the usual layout of the entrances. I decide to go a few meters too far and turn right. Now, too late, I see other cars, and their headlights are coming right for me. I am going the wrong direction on a state highway, south in the northbound lane. A lone car passes me, honks. Directly after turning on, I see a generous shoulder. Thank God I can get out of everyone’s way, or we would all be in a lot of trouble.
            I turn onto the shoulder, stop my car, and put my flashers on. I take my phone out and dial 911, reaching the local police, and struggle to describe my exact location to the dispatcher. But before I can finish my conversation, a state police car pulls up behind me, and a wide-hatted trooper walks toward the car.
            “It’s all right,” I say, ending my call with the dispatcher. “Someone’s here to help me.”

Scene Four: Lilongwe, Malawi.
            The flossy purple blossoms of the jacaranda tree; the long, low concrete buildings of shops; the forests outside the center which have been cut for firewood; the women’s stiff city dresses that pair indigenous sarong-type skirts with Victorian-imposed puff-sleeved bodices; the young men in suit jackets at the windows of banks and post offices; and most of all a feeling of relief at not being part of the group that runs everything.

Scene Five: Upper Manhattan.
            At the university where I work, I need help completing a payroll timesheet. I walk down the hall to Human Resources, which in my area of the university is mostly run by Black women, beginning with the director. I’ve often wondered why this is, but I’ve never figured out a way to ask. The form seems like it should be easy, but I’ve tried filling it out three times on our online system, and it just won’t “take.” Now the bi-weekly pay period deadline is drawing close. I have less than half an hour to get this finished.
            I approach HR sheepishly. I always think the HR associates like me, but I can’t be entirely sure. They greet me warmly and never seem to get annoyed. I like to open the interaction with a self-effacing joke: “Yep, me again.” I think I’m good at making HR laugh, and that’s why they are kind to me.
            As I joke and plead, I edge toward debasing myself. I can hear my voice and manner take on that familiar talking-to-HR tone. I sound dense. Daffy. Apologetic. Even scatter-brained. I may be babbling a bit.

Recently I described my behavior to an OWW colleague and learned that she acts inept around HR, too. I was even more astonished to find there is a name for the phenomenon: the Yale psychologist Cydney H. Dupree calls it “the white competence downshift.”
            Though I seem unable to stop downshifting, I am constantly aware of the paradox I must present to my HR peers. Do they wonder how I’m able to operate the back end of our school’s website, but unable to fill out an online form? As we conclude our interaction, I do and don’t have qualms about debasing myself in this manner. I would prefer to be more authentic at work, but I am greatly relieved about the timesheet. As I walk away from HR, competence gradually seeps back. Soon, no doubt, I’ll return to being one of the people who run the world.

Scene Six: Southern Duchess Country Club, New York.
            A lazy summer evening at my neighborhood pool. It’s not the hour for lap swimming, but the lifeguard decides to cordon off a section to separate the kids from adults who want to exercise. So, I mosey back and forth, not swimming laps exactly but not not-laps either. At one point I take a short breather in my backstroke, holding on to the wall at the deep end, my back to the pool. Suddenly another swimmer, face into the water, comes up too close and nearly crashes into me. Hand over hand I move away.
            “You’re safe,” the swimmer, a woman in her thirties, reassures me. She has seen my container and mistaken my quick movements for fear. As soon as I clear her, I resume my backstroke, and she realizes that we’re sharing the lane. “Sorry,” she says.
            On another evening, the pool is uncrowded. Non-swimmers lounge by the edge with their books, cocktails, and bags of potato chips. A friend and I meander around the deep end, reclining on Styrofoam noodles.
            “Let’s jump in,” says the leader of a group of three boys, lining up at the water’s edge.
            “Uh-uh. No rough stuff,” says my age-similar friend. “We have older people here.” She nods toward herself and me, but I wonder if the true intent is to protect the dry loungers from splashing. Some people come to the pool with no intention of getting wet.
            You don’t represent me! I want to tell my friend, in another replay of the summer’s theme. In a sense she does represent me, as she serves on the pool committee. But on the other hand, where else can the kids jump in but the deep end? If you jump into the shallow end, you may break your legs.
            Somewhere amid these pool incidents I have formulated the response I intend to use next summer rather than rerun the events in my mind: “I know you’re just trying to be considerate, but I’m able bodied and would like to be treated the same as everyone else.”

Scene Seven: Key Foods, Beacon, New York.
            In the pet aisle of my local supermarket, a store employee regularly stalks me if I slow down near the cat food display.

Scene Eight: Newburgh, New York.
            On a sparkling fall day, my husband and I bring out-of-state friends to see Washington’s Headquarters, a favorite park built around the stone house where the General and his staff spent the last days of the Revolution. Two OWW/OWM couples, we range in age from sixty-four to eighty. Our male friend, Ron, camped in this region as a Boy Scout for his history badge. Now a superb photographer, he will make the most of the sweeping Hudson River views. Julie will love walking around the site’s seven sprawling acres.
            But on arrival we find a sign on the tall iron fence: OPEN BY APPOINTMENT ONLY. “This can’t be,” I say, testing the gate. “We’ve been here several times, and it was never by appointment only.”
            We walk along the fence until my husband finds a gate that’s slightly ajar. “Here we go,” he says. All four of us slip in. We’re the only ones in the park. Passing the stone house, I describe Washington’s private chambers, where George and Martha slept together on a very short bed, sitting upright. We read the plaque by the Liberty Tree (liliodendron tulipifora) and assess the sculptures around the sides of the centennial Tower of Victory. Then we spread out toward the open air, river, and sky.
            But we are not in fact alone. A woman in office attire, holding an official-looking tote bag, is locking up the adjacent museum. She rushes downhill to the southeast corner, away from us. Soon we hear a man’s booming voice. “Folks? We’re closed.” He wears glasses and a necktie, and he seems to brook no nonsense. “Come out this way, please.” “Right now, please,” he says. “The museum is closed.”
            We have trespassed at a state historic site, perhaps knowingly, but through some telepathy, are united in a decision not to act abashed about getting caught. The four of us amble toward one another, meeting at the corner where the two staffers are waiting.
            “How did you get in here, anyway?” asks the man.
            “The side gate was open,” we say.
            “Ugh. I keep telling my director we should mark that as STAFF ONLY.” He isn’t friendly, and he gives us no encouragement to slow down; but Ron, camera in hand, stops short of the exit anyway to engage him with a long monologue about some historical detail.
            But wait, I misspeak. There are three of us, not four. Julie isn’t with us. She’s still on the other side of the Tower of Victory, way in the northeast corner. “There’s one more in our party,” I say. Should I go back to get her? Probably not.
            I turn back a few steps, but not so many that I seem to be contravening orders, and bellow, “Julie! They’re closed!” My voice seems to ring across the Hudson, and I feel we’re all suspended in time, waiting for a sign of Julie. She’s older than I, but even more physically robust, so I’m sure she’ll turn up soon.

Janet Ruth Young has always lived in the northeastern U.S., moving from the New York City area to the Boston area and back again. Her career as a professional writer and editor began with a stint at the Houghton Mifflin publishing company and is now in a more journalistic phase in university communications. When not writing and editing, she sings Celtic music and songs of the sea with her husband under the band name The Dorymates. She has also recently developed a healthy addiction to the Merlin birdsong ID app and has quickly racked up a list of 143 species, most of which were detected in her backyard in the Hudson Valley.