In the Ghetto

My friend C. came for dinner last night. C. was born in England and he’s lived here for many years. C. is gay and like all my gay friends, he’s spinning over the 11 states that voted against marriage rights. He’s been joking, in a not very funny way, about starting to wear a pink triangle. He’s also been reading the Nuremburg laws to see if he can pinpoint the place at which things started to change. The whole idea makes my skin crawl, not just because I’m Jewish. We weren’t rushing to conclusions about how we are now just like Nazi Germany, we’re more sensible than that, but we did both ask what, exactly, it was that made people know it was time to start packing. By the time they got to Kristalnacht, it was way too late, but were the marriage laws the turning point?

This led to us talking about the ghettoization of intellectual culture. When you look at the map, either the map that divides the vote by state, or if you can stand the loneliness, the map that divides the vote by county, you see how we’ve insulated ourselves in these little outposts – the Northeast, here in Seattle, you know where you are and who you’ve surrounded yourself with. My nearest neighbors are a lesbian couple and a gay man. My best friend? Gay. The crowd I see the most at dinner parties are a surprisingly religious bunch, both Jewish and Christian, with a huge thirst for knowledge about the world beyond their doors.

And me? I’m a bookish, free-flying independent with a fine arts degree who’s managed somehow to build an odd little compromise with corporate culture so I can make a fair living while avoiding working all year round. I married a foreigner but I don’t live with him, I have zero desire to have kids, and I drive a 20 year old car.Last night when C and I went out, I realized only my shoes, socks, and underwear did not come from a second hand store. To top it off, I play the ukulele. Oh my god, I’m a total hippie.

So what? So this: We’re in the ghetto. We love it here in the ghetto because it’s safe. We’re surrounded by people who may not be exactly like us, but they don’t judge us. They do more than accept us, they embrace us and pull us in to their families, making our ghetto the warmest place you’d ever want to live. Nobody sent us here to the ghetto, we came here under our own volition because we feel at home here. But we are ghettoized all the same.

This is a rude awakening for me. See, becuase I grew up in the ghetto, I thought the whole world was like this. My parents worked for desegregation of the public schools. As kids, we learned that art and music and literature were things of great value. My father insisted that we study liberal arts because those things taught us how to think which was way more important than learning how to DO a specific thing. My mom was – and still is – and incurable reader. Our house was full of books and art, not prints from Cost Plus. Not posters. Original art.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I had this rose tinted Rennaissance upbringing. There was a nasty divorce. I was a foster child for a while. Later, my dad did some time for white color crime. The point I want to make is that I’ve ALWAYS lived in the ghetto, I’ve never known anything else. I’ve stayed in the ghetto my whole life, even out of the US. I was an exchange student the same year I was a foster child. I’ve hitched rides from Palestinians while I was working on a kibbutz. I lived in Brixton, for crying out loud, the site of the British race riots in the 80s. I went out to see the world when I was 16 and I thought I had my eyes open.

But I have spent the whole time blinded to what America is. When I first met my husband and we would talk about America, he would totally get down on it. And I would fight back every time. “Americans are A, B, and C” he would insist. I would argue vehemently against that. Because the America I knew was never A, B, and C. It was always X, Y, and Z. “I AM A TYPICAL AMERICAN,” I would say, over and over and over. “Nope. Not even close,” was his consistent response.

The thing I have learned from this election is that he was right. I am nowhere near a typical American. I want to force my values on others as much as I want theirs forced upon me, which is not at all. I react to strangers with more curiosity than fear. I have hardly any interest in “getting ahead.” I am not a hammer. Everything is not a nail.

Until Tuesday night, I loved my country. I felt truly patriotic, in spite of the damage that the Rove-ing band of thugs have caused at home and abroad. I believed we could take it back. I believed that my values (a word that now feels profane) were shared by enough people that change was imminent, inevitable.

Now I just feel stupid. How could I have not seen it? How could I have been so blind? Typical American? My ass. To the NASCAR dads and security moms, I’m a fucking joke. And, hey, how handy for them, they needn’t give me a date for relocation, I did it already.

Come on in and make yourself at home. No the walls aren’t new, they’ve been here the whole time. I can’t imagine why you never noticed them before. I’m making cornbread and veggie chili, will you stay and eat?

Welcome to the ghetto.

6 thoughts on “In the Ghetto”

  1. Pam, you stopped me in my tracks this morning. The phenomenon you’re describing is certainly one I’ve noticed, but never thought about with such sinister implications. On the contrary, I have really warm, fuzzy feelings about my little enclave of lefty-intellectual-noncomformist types up here, overlooking downtown Seattle. And while I see your point, I think that it’s less a matter of ghetto-ization than of people naturally gravitating toward support networks. For much of the country, suburbs, corporate megamart chains, and car culture have all but eliminated any real community based on geographical proximity. In most places, people don’t run into the their neighbor and stop to chat while walking home from the bakery. People don’t stop and renew vague acquaintances at the Saturday market. They plan to meet at gymborees and self-select their communities by finding them in churches, school-related events, and other activities where there is some core thing that they already have in common. And in much of the country, people retreat into their own families and draw increasingly less strength or sense of identity from their community.

    Here, we have something more akin to what I think people in small towns used to have, and what suburbanization has all but killed in so many places. We run into our friends who just had a baby while on the way to return a movie and decide to have coffee and catch up, after saying hello to the woman behind the counter at the video store who asks if your dog is feeling any better. The woman who runs the pizza joint around the corner from me is Ana, and she knows my name, always asks about what movies I’ve rented lately, asks if I agree with her about what a handsome man Al Pacino is. The guy who runs the trinket shop where I pop in to find gifties for my mom when her birthday is looming as lived on the hill since the 60s and would never consider leaving. We’ve bonded over how the suburbs give us both the heebie-jeebies. He told me proudly about a young woman he’d once hired to do his store windows for Christmas and who lived up in one of those northern suburbs that I can’t keep straight (Edmonds, maybe?) and eventually decided to move down here.

    My neighbors stop and chat when I walk Yogi in the mornings. People I’ve been introduced to once before at a party stop and say hello while I’m reading a novel and having my coffee at Victrola and we talk for an hour.

    On Wednesday morning, I couldn’t leave the Hill. For lots of reasons (including that I was afraid I might be the crap out the first Republican I came across), but mostly because this is a safe community, where I have a happy little life that I might idealize a bit, but that does have a lot of the charms that people in the pre-Levittown days took for granted all over the country. And I absolutely draw strength from it. Honestly, I think it’s less about self-segregation, and more about being open to the idea and value of community that our Walmartized country has made so alien to so much of the country.

  2. A-hem. I might be working through some anger here. Okay, I’ll admit it. I might be feeling a little bit bitter and disconnected. I could not agree more with everything you say, but from the cold swampy place I’m in, I also see how my view and yours are totally compatible.

    Anybody flying by with a chopper and a grappling hook might want to throw me a line. You might have to climb down the rope laddder and help get me in to the harness.

    I know I’ll get out of here on my own eventually, but I’m so tired…

  3. Ahem and amen. To both of you. But do you notice how handily we have piled into the cities that are most liekly to be attacked when W REALLY pisses off the Muslims or Kim Jong Il or the entire rest of the known universe? As that post I linked to the other day pointed out, we’re a handy coastal human shield for the Red States. And if Seattle or San Francisco got hit, it would be all crocodile tears and “God’s terrible wrath.” I used to worry about it a lot… but now I feel strangely Strangelovean about it: “How I learned to stop worrying and love loose nukes smuggled in cargo containers.” If we go that way, friends, we’re going together and there would be no more worrying about Bush or Rove or the Red Horde would do to us. I’m not being facetious– I find that thought strangely calming.

  4. A-hem. Also, I could learn some things about gracious losing from John Kerry. But right now, I’m the picture next to “sore loser” in the OED.

  5. I see no reason to be gracious about losing. Don’t sweat it. We’re all there with you. And we’re going to continue to be as point out every Bush administration fuck up in the next four years.

  6. Yoo Hoo! Hey, it’s me, the suburbanite. I grew up in the suburbs of Orange County, California – otherwise known as Reagan Country. I spent 12 years in a private Catholic school. I was raised in a neighborhood that has block parties every Fourth of July. We played baseball, football and any other kind of organized sport our parents could form a league around. My mother is a Republican that voted for Kerry. My father is a Democrat. My brother is an Independent. My sister moved to Australia years ago and I am “decline-to-state.”

    I went to Berkeley, married a foreigner and I chose to live in the suburbs. I know my neighbors. Many of them helped me raise money this year for the American Diabetes Association. We are not all a bunch of zombies or red-state slaves. We are PEOPLE.

    Stop feeling sorry for yourself and this country and get angry at the lack of imagination and connection that the DNC has with a population that has been emotionally and psychologically threatened. Start figuring out how liberals can take language back and build consensus on the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    I know you worked hard. I know this is disappointing. However, it is also only 2 years away until mid-term ongressional elections. I have a fascist here in District 8 that needs to be gotten rid of. Help with that! There are others East of the Cascades that need to thrown out as well. The fight has begun – we need to keep stepping up and shouting out!

Comments are closed.