State o' Maine

by Ayelet Waldman

It says something about my excitement at adding my voice to this remarkable blog that I'm up so early, even before my kids. I've been sleeping late this summer. After 15 years of waking up with babies and small children, my four kids have finally figured out that they're capable of pouring their own cereal and entertaining themselves for a few hours. They've been letting us sleep in, and my husband and I appear to be reverting to the hours of our adolescence, working and reading until 1 or 2 am, and then crashing until 10.

But it's much earlier than that today. I haven't beat the sun, but we're in Maine, in that weird part of the state that hangs over itself, so you're not quite sure whether you're north or south. They call it "Downeast," and whatever the geography, it gets light early. Like really early. I don't know how early, because there's no way I'm getting up early enough to see the sun rise. I could Google, but the network connection is so slow here I've been fantasizing about the speed and efficiency of vacuum tubes.

This part of Maine, like most of the state, is decidedly white. Whiter than anywhere else I've been, and I'm a Jew who lived part of her life in Israel, in a time long before the immigration of the Ethiopian Jews and the fashion for Filipino domestic workers. Last spring the US Census Bureau released figures estimating that the state of Maine is 95.3 percent white. It is, in fact, the whitest state in the country, just edging out Vermont and West Virginia for that dubious distinction.

There are, on this peninsula of lobster workers, boat builders, off-the-grid Yurt dwellers, retirees, long-time summer visitors primarily of the WASPy variety, classical musicians, and Irishmen named Mac from Southie who now rub feet for a living (to name just a few of the people I bumped into yesterday), 4 black people, and two of those are adopted kids with white parents. OK, maybe there are more than 4. In fact, it's likely there are more, but I haven't seen them.

This place is so white that when I saw a young black man in the grocery store yesterday, I found myself giving him such an insanely huge grin and a hearty "Hey!" that the poor guy looked behind him to see who the hell I was ogling. How different, honestly, from clutching my purse to my chest and rushing to the other side of the street?

It reminds me of a case I had back when I was a federal public defender in Los Angeles. It was a fairly typical take-over bank robbery: a group of armed young men walk into the bank, put everyone on the ground, grab the money, and get caught 15 minutes later. What was interesting about this case was how they got caught. The men were black, the bank was in a very white part of the county (remember Simi Valley?), and the cops recorded themselves on their radios searching the highways for "a raisin in a bowl of rice." Let us all give thanks to the 911 recording system, to the 4th Amendment, and to the judge who ruled that being a black man isn't in and of itself probable cause. (You listening, Arizona?) And to those of you up in arms at the idea of a bunch of bank-robbing gang-bangers getting off, worry not. The State of California promptly filed charges, before a judge less concerned with the protections afforded by the federal and state constitutions. (No, it's not double jeopardy. Different jurisdictions.)

Anyway, that's a long introduction, during the course of which you've hopefully figured out that I'm: 1.) Not Ta-Nehesi; 2.) A writer; 3.) A white lady; 4.) A mother of four kids; 5.) A Jew, born in Israel; 6.) A former lawyer; and 7.) From Berkeley but spending part of my summer in Maine.