Sunday, September 28, 2008
The more things change...I went to an evening social event last night that happened to be exactly next door to the house I lived in while I was in high school in the 1970s. White wine in hand, R and I walked around the corner lot and I explained the layout of the house, what it felt like to live there, and how wrenching it was to have to leave.
The house is in an established part of Pasadena, a staid and graceful neighborhood of comfortable homes with well landscaped yards and 1930s architecture. This isn't the old money section of Pasadena around Orange Grove and the Arroyo, but it's an architectural step above the developments of the northeast. It's not the bungalows of bungalow heaven either. To me, living there for a few years, it was saturated with a kind of Ozzy and Harriet complacency... which made my skin itch with annoyance at the time, but that I now aspire to and crave.
I remember the streets through the filter of my troubled adolescence, with the smog hanging thick in the summertime and casting a haze down the vanishing perspective of the gridded streets. Much of the beauty of the neighborhood was lost on me. I rode my bike along the ragged sidewalks, and fantasized wistfully about the lives going on within the quaint English cottages, what it would be like to live in a home draped with wisteria and mystery.
My mom and I first moved to the neighborhood, into a two bedroom house that we bought for $19,000, and were already a freak of nature without a man in the house. She and I had been solo for many years, so I barely noticed it. But these were the days when a "broken family" was something to be commented upon in low voices and furtive glances. Living in apartments, as we had for the previous couple of years, this didn't seem to matter much. But this was such a stable neighborhood, it was obvious that we were unusual.
But the shock was yet to come. When we moved down the street a year or so later, it was because she had remarried and we could afford a much bigger house (at the obscene price of $45,000). The fact that she had remarried was not the issue. It was that she had married a black man. And black men were not something you would ever see picking up a paper in this neighborhood... unless he was the guy who had delivered it.
A black man. It got very quiet around our house. I can't say we ever had any specific problems, at least not that I knew about. But it was very... quiet after we moved to the big house down the block. It felt like there was a shield of discomfort surrounding us.
He was a black man but embodied very few stereotypes. He worked at the post office, was somewhat short and overweight, and was (as my mom would always describe him) as comfortable as an old pair of slippers. He wasn't Malcolm X (which was too bad as that would've suited my mood perfectly), he wasn't a cool hip poetry-spouting bebop king (which would've been even better). He was as conservative and boring as any of the other heads of household in a three mile radius. But he was black. And that was unusual and freaked people out and they avoided us mainly -- I think -- because they had zero idea of what to do with us.
Maybe we weren't really aware of how bad it was as we were dealing with problems of our own (they fought and were divorced within a couple of years, and the wreckage of the marriage carried with it a foreclosure on the house and the slim remainder of my childhood innocence.) There were no crosses burning on our lawn or anything like that. But the whole situation was greeted with deep mistrust and fear, which had nothing to do with the man himself and everything to do with the unknown.
As we walked by and looked into those comfortable long-lost windows again last night, I was heartened to see an Obama sign on the front lawn. And I woke up this morning and thought how far we've come in the last 35 years. It really is true, I thought. There is such a thing as progress, and enlightenment of thought.
But as I've mulled this over all day, my comfort has diminished. Once again there is a black man in the national neighborhood, and he's once again being treated with a knee-jerk repulsion. People are embracing a ludicrous ticket led by a befuddled old man and a self-righteous moose-shooting bimbo, embracing it like it's the second coming itself come to save the day -- and all because of this primal antipathy towards a man with dark skin. Once again, as it was 35 years ago, the neighborhood is reacting with mistrust and fear, which has nothing to do with the man himself and everything to do with the unknown.
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 7:23 PM 2 comments