Sunday, October 2, 2011

This Life We Live In

My mind has been racing these past few weeks. I’m not sure why I feel that way, except that change is on the horizon, so that always sets off both anticipation and fear. At fifty-four I’d rather have some quiet moments for reflection, but we can’t always choose. We can only accept what the universe has placed in front of us and find a way to make the best of it. I guess that’s why people in my life nicknamed me the “Woman Who Makes Things Happen.” I like living up to my reputation. So that means I have writing to do, and ideas to share, and lots of things to accomplish.
I’ve also been pondering the growing divisiveness in our country, and feeling sad about it.  Dreamers are protesting down here in North Carolina. They are illegal immigrants who arrived in our country as children. They’ve grown up here and they want to have the rights of citizenry so that they can go to school and work. Lots of people hate them and want to send them back to a country they don’t even remember. Their parents came here looking to make better lives. They were enticed to come, often by corporate farmers looking for cheap labor. They work jobs that most Americans would not even consider, no matter how dire things get.
But some people don’t want to talk about the need that was created and that they’ve filled. They don’t have empathy for the children who are coming of age and only want to be a part of the country they’ve grown up in. I can’t understand it. What are they worried about? What do they feel will be taken away from them if we let these children – these lost children – have a piece of the American pie?
But the pie is getting smaller and richer. Sweetness has been added in the form of executive perks, tax inequalities and unethical business practices, while the rest of America is fighting over the crumbs.
Do people really believe that some illegal immigrants, people of color who just want a level playing field, the poverty stricken who need a handout, and gay couples who dare to want a long lasting monogamous relationship with the same rights as heterosexual couples are really ruining our country?
It’s a diversion. Then we won’t think about how our salaries have stagnated because of the Bush years or how our homes have lost value and our pensions have been taken away while our 401k plans have tanked. Or maybe we’ll forget about the friends who have been unemployed for two or three years, are well into middle age, and are at risk of losing everything including their health. Or we’ll forget our grown children who went to school and work hard but have no access to health care. Or we’ll forget that the poor haven’t chosen to be poor, and that there few avenues out of poverty and they are rutted and uneven and crowded. And every one of us except for the very wealthy could easily be there. It’s a strong diversion that makes some people wish that people with no health care would die rather than ensuring they have access to medicines and cures. It’s a diversion that makes people hold tight to what little they have and wish ill upon others.
It’s such a strong, pervasive diversion that a growing number of people use Christianity as an excuse for discriminating, judging and hating others.  They don’t want the government to interfere in their lives, but they want it to prescribe a certain, narrow moral code for others. Some of our politicians are claiming God is on their side. Where did that come from? What happened to the good news?
I hope I never get there, where what I have is more important than another person’s life or where I feel that my life is more important than another’s or that I am worth more than another or that my morality is more right than another’s.  I remember writing once that I grew up poor and being poor didn’t hurt; it’s what other people said about it that hurt. We are all human, flawed, and imperfect. I have to be careful the diversions don’t divert me.

(Excerpt from Chapter 4, The Ghetto Will Follow You, Shades of Tolerance)
Ronald remembers his cousin Jackie imparted a fatalistic worldview to him around this time. He said, “Ronnie, no matter where you go in life, no matter what you do, the ghetto will follow you. Just when you think you’re a success, look around you – all the same people will be there.”
So when the Hagans moved to the eastside – Whitey-Whitey Land the three brothers called it – just a few months later, he knew better than to think his circumstances had changed for the better. They had only gotten more complicated.
“Don’t be following after those white boys, thinking you can act like them,” Syl Sr. told Ronald when they first moved into the gray and white house on Euclid Avenue. “You can’t do what they do. You’ll just get yourself in trouble.”
Then he said, “And, Ronnie, stay away from those white girls. They’ll only get you in trouble, too.”
I imagine Ronnie stared at the girls intently, studying the aesthetic quality of shape and line – the way he looked at something he wanted to draw. The girls on the eastside were, he tells me, different than the girls on the west side.
The white girls on the west side paraded as caricatures of women: hair sprayed stiff in teased page boys, thick black eyeliner, ruby lips bought at the five and dime, tight tees and short skirts, sometimes hand hemmed for better effect; they smacked gum when they talked and smelled of cigarettes, eyes squinted against the smoke. Oftentimes their introduction to sex happened at the hands of an older boy or man, sometimes a relative or friend of the family.
The black girls on the west side wore their hair greased and hot ironed straight. They were circumspect when it came to sex. Getting caught would probably result in a beating. But sometimes it was worth the new shirt, new shoes, a necklace or perfume.
Babies were born out of these exchanges and raised by their grandmothers, who already worked two or three jobs to feed the children in the apartment. Sometimes the girls thought they were gaining freedom and independence when they went down to Social Services to collect welfare and get an apartment of their own, yet, Ronald says, it only sealed the fate of another generation of teen girls who grew up too soon.
The eastside girls, almost all of them white and many of them Jewish, smelled of shampoo, crème conditioner and perfume. Their makeup enhanced rather than painted. They wore the latest styles, go-go boots and mini skirts, their hair long but also ironed straight. They relished their girlishness, wanting to draw it out for as long as possible. Sex to the eastside girls was a game, Ronald says. It was something they played at until they got serious about becoming an adult. Babies were hardly a concern – birth control pills were as common as platform shoes.
“I like you,” one petite blonde co-ed confided to Ronnie shortly after the school year started at his new middle school Levy Junior High. She leaned against the Hagans’ front porch post, her hand on her hip. She shook her head and artfully moved her waist-length hair behind her shoulder.
“What’s that mean?” Ronnie asked.
“I mean, let’s go out,” she said, her mouth sly and conspiratorial.
“You want to go steady?” Ronnie said, knowing he would have to hide it from his dad.
“No,” she said, laughing, “My dad would kill me. I just want to fool around with you.”
Girls called the house asking for Ronnie, and Sam would listen on the extension. He would tell them they might better go out with him instead of Ronnie because Ronnie was not allowed to go anywhere. That was true, Ronald tells me. Syl Sr. thought he was more immature than the other two boys and curtailed all social activities while the other boys went to school dances at the high school back in the old neighborhood and dated the black girls they met there.
Later when Syl Sr. got home from work Sam would say, “Dad, Ronnie’s been calling this white girl, and he won’t stop. She doesn’t even like him.”
“Ronnie, what did I tell you, boy? You’re going to get yourself in trouble.”
Another girl invited him over to her house. Debbie had dark brown hair falling below her shoulders and a sweet smile with bright eyes. Her mom, who knew Ronnie because she worked in the school library, looked like an older version, and she talked to him cordially as she served iced tea and cookies and listened attentively to everything he said. Ronnie liked the girl and her mother, and was more encouraged when her dad, dressed in a gray sharkskin suit, got home from work and shook his hand when he was introduced. Soon it was time to go home.
Ronnie said thank you and stepped outside to pick his bike up off the front lawn. The dad followed him out of the house.
“If I don’t invite you, don’t come here,” he said. He pulled his tie loose, turned on his leather dress shoes and strode back into his house. Ronald says he stood frozen by his bike, trying to process what he had just heard, wondering if he had heard right, and knowing he had.

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