The narrator (unnamed) compares her friend Patsy’s mother (whom she calls Pasty Mother) to Miss Anna May Wong, an actress who plays femme-fatale characters in noir films. The narrator explains that when Miss Anna May Wong gives someone advice, he or she knows to follow it. Patsy Mother tells the narrator not to go into the basement of their building, and she obeys because she is terrified of the dark basement and considers the woman's advice unquestionable.
One day, the narrator is playing with Patsy while Patsy Mother visits with Patsy Aunt. The women discuss men, and warn the girls to find good men who will treat them right. The conversation turns to the pedophile building superintendent, who hangs around with his friends in the basement. The narrator recalls how the super always smells like bubble-gum, a scent that comes from “some purple tablets you suck on for your breath when you been drinkin” (144) Patsy admits to them that the super once took out his penis and showed it to her while she and some friends were playing jump-rope in the courtyard.
The narrator doubts Patsy’s story, because Patsy lies frequently and is “sex crazy” (145). Patsy Mother is enraged, however, and leaves to kill the super with an ice pick. Patsy Aunt tries to stop her, and they physically struggle until both women storm out.
The narrator gets ready to leave, since her mother does not like her to spend time with Patsy. Patsy begs her to stay, and offers to show her a surprise if she does. The narrator asks what the surprise is, and after a brief hesitation, Patsy starts to masturbate. The narrator leaves, resolving to tell her mother about everything except the masturbation.
One of the darkest stories in the collection, “Basement” offers an explicit look at pubescent sexuality. Other stories in the collection have flirted with inappropriate relationships between adult and child characters – for example, it is arguable that “Gorilla, My Love” features a subtext of molestation between Hunca Bubba and Hazel. However, not all of the sexuality in “Basement” is as problematic as Patsy’s experience with the super is. Although the masturbation scene at the end of the story certainly has taboo elements, the act itself can simply be read as an example of a naïve young girl exploring her sexuality in a way that she does not yet realize is inappropriate. By juxtaposing this example of inappropriate sexuality with the super’s exhibitionism, Bambara invites readers to examine their own assumptions about the proper way for young people to experience sexual feelings.
Another way to understand Patsy is as the victim of an over-sexualized environment. The narrator understands her as "sex crazy," and indeed, Patsy does talk about sexual activity a lot. Towards the end of the story, she claims that she "and James Lee did it on the roof" (147). This is arguably because of both the pedophiles in the basement and the frank talk that her mother and aunt engage in.
Certainly, the child characters in “Basement” are consistently failed by their supervising adults. Patsy Mother and Patsy Aunt seem to be alcoholic, and frequently discuss adult topics in front of the children. The narrator’s mother seems to be more responsible, but she is not the subject of the tale. Although most of Bambara’s young characters are strikingly independent, “Basement” drives home the fact that their independence does not always reflect their strength, but instead is sometimes a reflection of their circumstances.
In “Basement,” Bambara exploits the narrator’s youth to gradually reveal the story’s darker elements. The narrator is young and naïve, and she is therefore unaware of the actual things happening around her. This perspective allows Bambara to use small details to help the reader deduce major plot developments. For example, we are never told that Patsy’s mother is an alcoholic, but her hysterical behavior and unspecified beverages allow us to infer that information. Similarly, the first references to the building superintendent’s sexual deviance are fairly innocuous. This makes it all the more shocking when Patsy tells the story about him, because Bambara has led us to expect that these darker details will be implied rather than discussed outright.
Stories like “The Johnson Girls,” “Raymond’s Run,” and “The Lesson” showcase rich and productive relationships between friends and family. However, this story suggests that not even love is enough to sustain a person in certain situations. Men seem to cause many of the characters’ problems. Patsy’s mother and aunt fixate on making sure that the narrator and Patsy learn how to identify good men. The story’s main antagonist is a sexually aggressive man in a position of power. Ultimately, “Basement” is a chronicle of family relationships torn apart by external pressures. Patsy’s story about the superintendent’s predatory behaviors leads to physical violence between her aunt and her mother. Patsy also drives a wedge between the narrator and her mother when she masturbates at the end of the story. Although the narrator has told her mother everything up to now, she is so uncomfortable with the incident that she feels the need to keep it a secret. In each plot thread, maternal love fails to keep Patsy and the narrator safe.
Patsy’s attention-seeking behavior is a source of conflict in both of the above situations. The narrator’s relationship with Patsy is a far cry from the rosy view of female friendship presented in stories like “The Johnson Girls.” Students can certainly discuss whether Patsy is the real antagonist of “Basement.” This interpretation is reinforced when the narrator explains that Patsy has a track record of lying and acting out in order to get attention. However, real sexual abuse might also be a plausible explanation for Patsy’s strange sexual behavior. It is also worth noting that in her other stories, Bambara is generous in her portrayal of child characters. Characters like Manny in “The Hammer Man” or Gretchen in “Raymond’s Run” initially seem cruel, but are eventually revealed as equally innocent to the story protagonists. If Patsy is unequivocally troubled, her depiction reveals a major departure from Bambara's usual portrayal of young characters.