Substitute Me

Substitute Me

3.2 8
by Lori L. Tharps

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Zora Anderson is a 30-year-old African American middle class, college educated woman, trained as a chef, looking for a job. As fate would have it, Kate and Craig, a married couple, aspiring professionals with a young child are looking for a nanny.

Zora seems perfect. She’s an enthusiastic caretaker, a competent house keeper, a great cook.…  See more details below


Zora Anderson is a 30-year-old African American middle class, college educated woman, trained as a chef, looking for a job. As fate would have it, Kate and Craig, a married couple, aspiring professionals with a young child are looking for a nanny.

Zora seems perfect. She’s an enthusiastic caretaker, a competent house keeper, a great cook. And she wants the job, despite the fact that she won’t let her African American parents and brother know anything about this new career move. They expect much more from her than to use all that good education to do what so many Blacks have dreamed of not doing: working for White folks. Working as an au pair in Paris, France no less, was one thing, they could accept that. Being a servant to a couple not much older nor more educated, is yet another. Every adult character involved in this tangled web is hiding something: the husband is hiding his desire to turn a passion for comic books into a business from his wife, the wife is hiding her professional ambitions from her husband, the nanny is hiding her job from her family and maybe her motivations for staying on her job from herself.

Memorable characters, real-life tensions and concerns and the charming—in a hip kind of way—modern-day Park Slope, Fort Greene, Brooklyn setting make for an un-put-down-able read.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A year spent working as a nanny in Brooklyn helps directionless Zora discover that her true passions are cooking and her boss's husband. Tharps' guileless first novel (after Kinky Gazpacho: A Memoir, 2008) seems, like Zora, unsure of its orientation, heading out as a discussion of ambition but ending up a more conventional love triangle, the narration split between its two female characters, white overachiever Kate and the 30-year-old African-American college dropout she hires. Kate, happily married to Brad, is returning to her high-powered PR job after maternity leave and needs reliable help at home, which she finds in Zora, whose middle-class upbringing in Michigan has left her feeling guilty at her lack of professional focus. Although uncomfortable about "playing mammy," Zora enjoys being a domestic goddess and begins cooking meals for Kate and Brad, leading to dreams of having her own catering company. Meanwhile, Kate's job engulfs her, and Brad suddenly falls for Zora, leaving the marriage ruined. Tharp, more successful discussing stereotypes of black women and white men than explaining this plot twist, wraps matters up quickly, restoring her sadder but wiser protagonists to happiness. A simple, readable tale takes an unusual detour before returning to predictable terrain. Reading group guide inside

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Read an Excerpt


Summer 1999

ON paper Zora Anderson was a statistic. A clichÉ, really. Single. Age thirty. African-American. College dropout. Failure. But in real life, Zora Anderson had a lot to offer. “I am a good person,” she would often remind herself. It was a mantra she used to lift her spirits when she contemplated all of the things she’d meant to do with her life and thus far hadn’t gotten around to. It was what she remembered as she walked down a quiet tree-lined street on a warm, sunny day in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and tried to prepare herself for what she was about to do. “I am a good person. I am a good person. I am a good person.” The phrase repeated and replayed like a network news ticker across her brain, giving her the courage to go through with her plan. If her parents knew what she was about to do, they would completely disown her, probably change the locks on the doors and spit on all of her photographs. But they wouldn’t know, she reminded herself, because she would never tell them. By the time they stopped being angry, she’d have moved on, and this thing, this job, would be over.

Zora had to believe that.

She knew the only reason she was applying for the position was because of Sondra. She promised Sondra that she’d sublet her apartment for a year while Sondra went off to begin her undergraduate education at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Sondra had been dreaming about going to Smith ever since she found out that the prestigious women’s college had a special program for old ladies—basically, anyone over age eighteen. At twenty-eight, Sondra fit the bill and had applied right away. But moving to Massachusetts didn’t mean she was willing to give up her tiny studio apartment in Fort Greene, because it was rent-controlled, and the landlord lived in Florida. In New York, that combination of coincidence was the equivalent of winning the lottery and then finding out you didn’t have to pay taxes on your loot.

Zora had promised Sondra back in the spring, when Sondra had gotten her acceptance letter from Smith, that she’d take the apartment. Back then she’d just been killing time at her parents’ house in Ann Arbor, waiting for something to happen in her life. Sondra’s offer was the perfect something: her own place, a big city, and all of the endless opportunities New York City offered a girl still trying to figure out what to do with her life. Or at the very least find a decent job. Even her parents thought it was a good idea for her to go. The problem was, Zora had been in New York for six weeks now, her cash reserves were disappearing fast, and she still hadn’t found a job. She owed Sondra, though, both money and immeasurable thanks. She’d practically saved Zora’s life back when they’d first met, so Zora wasn’t going to let her down now. She was going to convince Kate Carter to hire her, and then she could hand Sondra her first month’s rent just in time for her to chase her Ivy League dreams at the end of August.

Zora pulled the crumpled newspaper ad out of her skirt pocket and looked at it again.

It read: Substitute Me. Looking for a nanny who will take care of my six-month-old baby as if he were her own. Five full days a week. No cooking or cleaning required. Must love children and be prepared to show it. References required.

In the margins Zora had scribbled the address Kate had given her on the phone. Maybe she should call her Ms. Carter, Zora worried. The woman had seemed so formal, even though she didn’t sound that old. But you never knew. The women here in New York seemed to have children later and later. Sometimes Zora couldn’t tell if it was the mother or the grandmother pushing the stroller down the street. For all she knew, Kate Carter could be well into her forties, Zora thought as she started down Second Street. She was careful not to walk too fast, so she wouldn’t work up a sweat in the sticky summer heat. Even though she didn’t know her way around this area, it was easy enough to navigate. The layout was pretty basic: The streets ran north-south and the avenues east-west. Sondra claimed Park Slope had turned into a storybook neighborhood practically overnight, a place where the yuppies from Manhattan migrated when they were ready to start a family. The Carters’ house was supposed to be on Second Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, so Zora quickly calculated she had three more blocks to walk while simultaneously trying to retard the perspiration process. That meant she had three more blocks to get her head straight for the interview.

Zora barely registered her surroundings—the imposing brownstone town houses with their perfect miniature gardens, cozy stone churches on almost every other corner, and tiny bodegas nestled between some of the houses—as she repeated her mantra, “I am a good person. I am a good person.” She didn’t know why she was so nervous. Probably because this Carter woman had sounded so intimidating. She had already grilled Zora over the phone, shooting off questions so quickly, Zora hardly had time to catch her breath between answers. By the time the interrogation was over, her heart was beating furiously and her hands were cold and clammy. She hadn’t felt that much performance anxiety since final-exam week in college. Thank God for Paris, she thought. When she mentioned to Kate that she’d been an au pair in France, she could hear relief and what sounded like approval in the woman’s voice. Kate had asked for the phone numbers of the families she’d worked for in France, and for a moment Zora had panicked. She couldn’t remember the numbers, and she didn’t want this woman to think she’d been lying about her experience working abroad. Even though Zora had spent four years in Paris, more and more of her memories were disappearing, along with her perfect French accent.

“Don’t worry about it,” Kate Carter had assured her. “You can bring the phone numbers with you to the interview.” So Zora spent ten of her last hundred dollars on a phone card so she could call Valerie in Paris and beg her to track down the phone numbers of the Larouxs and the Bertrands, the two families she’d worked for. Of course Valerie yelled at her for not calling more often, but she promised to help. Luckily, she’d called back the night before with the numbers and updates about the children Zora used to care for. “Hey, Zora,” Valerie had said before hanging up, “if you’re just going to be babysitting again, why don’t you come back to Paris to do it? Remember, everything—” Before she could finish, Zora interrupted. “I know. Everything sounds better in French. But I just needed to come home,” she said. Valerie snorted in response. Valerie had been in France for eight years and refused to come back to the United States until she was finished writing the definitive novel about the Black experience in Paris. She also needed to convince Ahmed, the Moroccan bartender, to fall madly in love with her before her mission would be complete. Zora didn’t think either of those things was going to happen anytime soon, but she wished Valerie good luck all the same before she hung up.

And it was true, Zora thought. Being an au pair in Europe had far more cachet than being a nanny in Brooklyn. Even her parents could get behind the idea of their daughter being an au pair in the cultural capital of the world, but they would both hang their heads in shame if they knew Zora was interviewing for a job that her ancestors had sacrificed their lives not to do. In Paris, it was a different game. She was learning a new language, visiting art museums, and traveling all over Europe. She had responsibilities taking care of two young children, so she’d been forced to learn how to be both efficient and resourceful in all things related to child rearing. She could whip up a dozen crepes in ten minutes flat, and she learned how to drive a stick shift in twenty-four hours so she could take the kids on field trips outside the city. Back then she had still been able to claim the title of “college student” on a journey toward finding herself. Back then she was testing her independence, exploring a new culture, and learning about life. Now, at age thirty, applying for the same job, she was an embarrassment and a disappointment to her family.

The numbers on the left side of the street were odd, so Zora crossed over to the right. She walked slowly down the block, tracking the addresses on the houses. The Carters’ address was 246 Second Street. Kate had said the house was in the middle of the block, but it actually sat two houses from the corner of Fifth Avenue. Sondra had explained that Fifth Avenue technically marked the border between Park Slope and no-man’s-land and that it could get kind of sketchy at night. Maybe Mrs. Carter didn’t want to admit that her house teetered on the edge of respectability, Zora thought. But it didn’t really matter, as far as Zora was concerned. People could invent their lives any way they wanted.

Standing in front of the Carters’ house, Zora tried to discern what type of people lived inside. Like most of the other houses on the block, their brownstone stood four stories high with a shiny black shingled roof. There was a separate entrance for the garden apartment on the lower level, and a tall flight of brown concrete stairs led to the front door, which, to Zora’s delight, was painted red. The front garden was smaller than her parents’ front porch back home in Michigan, but it was ablaze with colorful blossoms in tidy rows, a splendid pink rosebush taking center stage.

As Zora pushed open the iron gate, she noticed someone watching her from the garden apartment. As soon as she raised her hand to wave, the curtains abruptly shut and the face disappeared. Zora glanced down to see if there was something wrong with the way she was dressed for the interview. She had chosen a navy blue denim skirt that was neither long nor short, a kelly green polo shirt, and simple gold post earrings. She had deliberately chosen an outfit that would downplay her tiny waist and curvy lower half because everybody knew nannies should be asexual and nonthreatening. A single gold bangle bracelet graced her left wrist. The look she’d been going for was neutral and stable, qualities she thought a nanny should have. She hadn’t bothered to remove the tiny gold stud in her nose, despite its very nonneutral connotations, because most people didn’t notice it until at least the second or third time they met her. Also because it was such a pain to remove.

Zora climbed the twelve steps to the front door, recited her mantra one more time, and rang the bell. She waited only two seconds before the door sprang open and a tall, attractive White woman in khaki pants and a pale yellow button-down oxford stood before her.

“Hello,” she said. “You must be Zora.”

© 2010 Lori Tharps

Meet the Author

Lori L. Tharps is the author of Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain, named by as one of their top ten books for 2008, and the co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. She is an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA, where she makes her home with her husband and family. She doesn’t have a nanny.

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