The following is from a series of musings on trauma, memory, community, and place. The introduction to the series and beginning essay [link] explains the purpose of this month of entries.
I remember my neighborhood was pretty diverse growing up.
For this I am incredibly thankful.
I don’t mean to say this made it easier for a transracial adoptee.
Because it didn’t.
I mean to say this made me aware that there was something outside of the dominant cultural mode.
At least on a subconscious level.
Case in point: We still voted for “Most All-American” in my public high school senior poll.
A title “off limits” to 40 percent of the student body.
In a high school that 10 years earlier saw race riots.
Furthermore, there was, like in most American towns, a “wrong side” of the tracks as it were.
I think New Jersey’s saving grace at the time was its predominantly working class character.
Whether industrial, agricultural, or otherwise.
For example, my high school had an active Vo-Tech component.
This wasn’t looked down upon.
There was a kept promise in terms of the American dream at the time.
Such that it was possible to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor.
A house down the shore; a camp vacation in the state parks.
I remember when this started to change.
I remember the oil embargo.
I remember the recession that resulted.
I remember my father being out of work for a few years.
A few years.
He would take any job he could in order to put food on the table.
I recall when I was in university, and my summers were spent working in a textbook warehouse driving a forklift.
The books were university level, and I would sometimes get lost in a title in the pallet stacks.
For this, the men I worked with called me “college boy”.
It wasn’t a term of endearment.
As summer workers, we were seen as obstacles to their work quotas.
Daily I listened to their complaints about the work.
I made the mistake once of asking them why they didn’t form a union.
I was informed that any talk of organizing would result in immediate dismissal.
So I needed to be careful.
Daily I listened to their dreams for themselves.
I made T-shirts for one guy who collected parakeets.
This resulted in of the younger guys wanting me to go in with him in a business down the shore, doing airbrush art.
Sometimes I regret not having followed through on this.
That is, given the absolutely Nowhere that university degrees have gotten me.
Did I mention the fact that I only finished paying off my student loans a few years ago?
It took moving to a “Third World” country in order to be able to do so.
I recall in later years my neighborhood started to stratify class-wise.
Fences went up; neighbors stopped frequenting each other’s homes.
Formerly unimportant things started to all of a sudden matter.
The car(s) in the driveway; the landscaping of the lawn; the company kept.
The epithets grew uglier.
What I remember most was the kind of fear that comes from everyone pretending that everything was okay.
By this I mean to say the Myths and Dreams we grew up with were all-encompassing.
When someone punched through them with a choice nastiness, there was never any defensive measure taken.
Because at the time, this was considered not playing by the rules.
Today it has become the Rule.
My father would always make an effort to go and welcome newcomers to the neighborhood.
I remember his anger when this would be rebuffed.
“Imagine! Turning down a gesture of welcome!” he would complain.
He didn’t understand when he was being looked down upon.
Or else he did, and he just didn’t let on.
He played the game, my father.
That and a couple of dollars will get you a slice of pizza.
When my father passed away, I suggested to my family we put an ad in our former local newspaper.
Which everyone agreed was a good idea, that is, if the newspaper still existed.
Which it didn’t.
Something quite crucial to the family ended when my parents were more or less forced to sell the house.
It wasn’t much. Levitt built, with an addition upstairs to what was a basic ranch.
But there was a yard, and a calm street for kids to play in.
I remember turning the backyard into an organic garden.
The tail end of hippie-dom, ecological fervor during the oil crisis, and notions of self-sufficiency.
I even subscribed to Organic Gardening and Farming magazine.
Back before it too was upscaled.
My father referred to it as “Communist literature”.
He had much bigger dreams for us than his own plebeian roots.
And we were caught up in the wake of his being hellbent on upward mobility.
It was extremely difficult watching him go nowhere fast.
And yet he still clung to that Dream.
At a certain point it became obvious that the house would be going up for sale.
So we decided to remodel the kitchen as an investment toward the asking price.
We did it while our parents were on vacation, so as to surprise my mom.
She would have a few years use of the new kitchen at least.
We hadn’t really planned things out too well, that’s for sure.
And the “friend of a friend” who said he was an electrician, well, kind of wasn’t.
To make it a bit cheaper, we bought appliances that were floor samples.
None of them were really the worse for wear.
Except for the microwave.
There was a big brown burn on the bottom.
We asked the salesman what had happened.
He said: “The woman who bought it brought it back. She said a potato caught fire inside.”
We asked: “Is it broken?”
He hemmed and hawed before explaining further.
Finally he admitted: “No, her stated reason for returning it was that it was ‘possessed by the devil’.”
“But it works!” we insisted.
He answered in the affirmative, and we installed it in the new kitchen, while a more reputable electrician rewired the whole thing in time for our parents’ arrival home.
The fatal flaw of the surprise was the stain.
We explained it away, but I couldn’t keep a secret.
I mean, my mother is the daughter of a minister.
It didn’t seem right to withhold the information that Satan himself resided in her microwave.
When breaking news like this to my mother, it was always best to wait for when she was absorbed by a crime drama paperback, coffee, and cigarette at the kitchen table.
“Ma, I have to tell you something about the microwave.”
“Yes, Dan. . .”
“Well, the lady who owned it before kind of returned it.”
“mmm-hmmmm. . .”
“And it works fine and everything, but the reason she gave for returning it was kind of strange.”
“Okay. . .”
“Basically what she said was that. . .it was, you know, kind of possessed by the devil.”
A brief pause.
“And she put a potato inside and it caught fire. So that’s why there’s a burn mark.”
Unfazed, she replied: “Well. . .just as long as it heats up my coffee in the morning. . .”
My mother is nothing if not indomitable, in her own way.
We later found out that the “friend of a friend” had taken some checks from my father’s desk.
We didn’t press charges.
I mean, the guy was pretty down-and-out.
And certainly didn’t deserve insult added to injury.
In those days very many such “local disputes” were handled in this way.
Today everything is thrown into the System.
I remember doing jury duty in New York City.
I was knocked out of a potential juror pool for raising my hand when asked: “Who does not believe in the validity of the Rockefeller [drug] laws?”
“Get out of my courtroom!” yelled the judge.
She wanted to stack the deck against the men on trial.
I was in New York when they emptied the mental institutions into the street.
I was in New York when they criminalized homelessness.
I was in New York when they started playing with the notion of “probable cause”.
I was in New York when landlords got the upper hand and could evict tenants using legal sleights of hand.
Tenants such as me and my sister.
It’s a dreadfully slow process, this turning of the screws into the flesh of those destined for extinction.
A lifetime or two of slow.
While waiting to report to another potential pool of jurors, I remember a woman came down the hall.
She was yelling to everyone and no one that she needed to see the judge.
Apparently she had missed a crucial date for her case.
In her tantrum against the system, she managed to state the following:
“I don’t know if you are aware, but we are victims of this justice system! I politely request to be in the presence of my judge! I have an appointment! I would like to lodge a complaint at this time! I demand to see my judge! Perhaps you don’t know, but they are blowin’ up federal buildings!”
Things Not to Say in a City Court House.
At this point she was escorted away.
She had my sympathy.
The case I finally sat on seemed cut and dry.
A man assaulted another man with a hammer blow to the head.
The prosecutor hoped to ramp up the case from possible negligence to obvious criminal intent.
But it became quickly obvious that he had no case.
At one point there was a witness who was saying in Spanish, “I didn’t see anything.”
This was not translated correctly.
To this day I am haunted by the idea of people’s lives irrevocably changed due to a mistranslation in a courtroom.
Luckily two of us understood and related this to the other jurors.
Because they kept pointing her out as a “witness”.
They, on the other hand, seemed more concern with punishment than the task at hand.
“We know he did it; I say we throw the book at him.”
I explained that the judge was responsible for sentencing, not us.
Did I mention that the accused was a black man?
He said in the heat of the argument, he forgot he had a hammer in his hand.
In the heat of the argument, he swung to protect himself.
My mantra became: “Beyond a reasonable doubt”.
The prosecutor was counting on the jury to carry through for him.
So he could get his numbers up.
The vote in the jury room was 10 to two.
But we ended up acquitting.
But not for reasons having to do with justice.
They ended up siding with the two of us only because they did not want to be sequestered for a long drawn out deliberation process.
Did I mention we were the two non-white jurors deliberating in that room?
And thus the huge clanking rusty wheels of justice chew up some, and spit out others.
All I know is I never want to be on the other side of a “jury of my peers”.
I recall when New Yorkers started complaining about the presence of certain people among them.
My sister and I lived across the street from such an SRO.
Back in the days of SROs.
My neighborhood was considered “tolerant”.
Back in the days when being “liberal” really meant something.
I remember when Ruth Messinger debated Rudy Giuliani in the mayoral race of 1997.
She was asked how she replied to his epithet of “liberal”.
This in a city where four out of five voters register Democrat.
This when her city council district was on the Upper West Side.
A neighborhood that my father referred to as “The People’s Republic of…”
Populated by “red diaper babies”.
I was waiting for her to reply: “You’re goddamned right I’m a liberal, and proud of it!”
Instead she said: “I prefer the term progressive“.
At which point all hope flew out the window.
At some point you realize that there is a line dividing those who manage to claw their way up and out from those who don’t.
And I sense I am fondly reminiscing about a time when more of us were allowed to congregate “along” that dividing line.
With an obvious sense of mutual aid kept in mind.
There but for the grace of God…
Those days are long gone.
Now the line is an ever-widening chasm.
And those who “have it made” have no inkling of what it’s like on the other side.
To such a degree that they don’t even notice that there is an other side.
Adoption leapfrogs us up into a class that immediately demands of us such a view.
With each offense, the abyss widens.
Adoption is just one such offense.
Tolerance has become disdain.
But let’s cut to the chase.
“Tolerance” is just another word for “delayed genocide”.
“Civil rights” are not won, but are “temporarily assigned”.
Until such a time that the System can figure out a way to undo them.
We’ve been down this road before.
But we’re dangerously close to being past the point of no return.
For the day when such “tolerance” runs out has long since passed.
And the maneuver room for action diminishes daily.
To understand is that I don’t want to be merely tolerated.
To understand is that I don’t want an existence barely afforded me.
Much less an existence that comes at the expense of others.
I want us to truly be.
And I want us to be secure in such Being.
And I’m willing to devote the entirety of my self and my soul to such security.
Image: Arm and Hammer | Date: May 15, 2011 | Place: General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, New York City | Camera: Kodak Retina 35mm/1950s | Caption: In the shadow of its more famous neighbor, The Algonquin, the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen Building is just amazing. It features the second oldest library in New York City. It speaks of a time when work was honest, well-paid, and something to be proud of. It hosts the annual Independent and Small Press Book Fair, which is what brought me there.