Showing posts with label youth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label youth. Show all posts

15 February, 2019

from Record of a Pair of Well-Worn Traveling Boots: Be Safe Out There [a brief ethnography]

The middle-aged black man was wearing a blue suit coat that was too big for him, worn around the cuffs, and missing a couple of buttons. It was October, and after dark, which meant it was a little chilly. His clothes under the blue coat were rattier than the coat. Tired flipflops left his feet exposed. In his hands, he held an empty baby bottle. He approached me after I finished pumping gas. Debit cards weren't a thing in those days, and neither were card readers on gas pumps. But in that part of the city, near the university and Short Vine -- another area I ended up spending a lot of time -- you walked in and paid before you pumped. And I've always preferred cash transactions, anyway --chalk that up to my small towniness. 

The town where I'm from isn't remote or isolated in a geographic sense, but I learned early there are other kinds of distance, other types of geography that are difficult to cross -- especially when it's crossed under duress. And truthfully, crossing the distance between where I'm from and where I have ended up wasn't so much a problem for me. But it took me a long time to figure out that there's no going back. Not really.

Cincinnati was the first place I escaped to when I got my driver's license. It was the closest city, and the nearest place of any size. And though I didn't mean to end up there, necessarily, I ended up in a part of town that I would, and do, return to: Over the Rhine. In those days, Vine Street was still an open market for pretty much any illicit thing you could want. Not that I tried any of it; I still had a healthy dose of small town naivete that, for good or bad, managed to save me. But I did witness my first drug deal and accidentally walk up on a sex trade transaction. All the parties involved were amused by my small town whiteness -- amused and too busy to punish me for it. Because while Cincinnati was a dangerous place, and while OTR was probably the place furthest from where I lived -- for a whole host of reasons -- it never once occurred to me that I might have been in danger. I explored it with an anthropologist's curiosity -- and detachment -- that has served me well over the years, no matter how deep I dived or how close to the bottom I got.

He started in by telling me he wasn't just panhandling. He was passing through, he said, pointing directionlessly towards the interstate. His car broke down and his wife and baby daughter stayed with the car because it was chilly out. He waved the baby bottle at me as proof that his story was true. In the moment it didn't occur to me that he might just be hustling for drug money; it did occur to me that he sounded too practiced to be in moment. Growing up as I did around a few truly ineffective liars, I had started to pick up an ear for that sort of thing.  But also, in that moment, I didn't care. I don't know if it was the dedication to his story, or the flip flops. But I gave him a few dollars, wished him luck.

- Be safe out there, I said. And then I got in my car and left, traversing the various geographies back to my hometown, where panhandlers were prime time television extras, where the poverty was just as palpable, but somehow different. A place I would not be able to look at in the same way, or ever really be able to stay -- though at the time I wasn't aware that anything in me had shifted.

I think about him often and wonder whatever happened to him. I see him in every face I've met doing outreach. I've revisited that moment hundreds, maybe thousands of times over the years. And while I don't know if that was when it all changed or when it first occured to me that something had, I'm forever grateful that he crossed my path.

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11 February, 2010

[Playing Pretend]

My First Love was Erica Delaney. She was five years old. I was six. She lived with her parents on the newer side of town. Her father was the team leader of the power company that had built the dam and blocked off The West Fork. The hydroelectric plant saved the valley, according to the power company; the alternative was to build a nuclear power plant a little bit up river. But that presented other problems. What to do with the waste was one. The other was the blow to civic pride that Blighton would’ve gotten the power plant instead of New Leeds. Erica’s father was a popular man and a CPA. She didn’t understand any of these things anymore than I did; all she did was laugh and run around in circles the way small children used to.

I was older because I got sick and couldn’t start school in time. When all the other kids my age were learning to write large block letters and to count on their fingers, I was in and out of the hospital. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me. When one specialist either announced his confusion or offered one more incorrect diagnosis, I was shuffled off to another specialist. I learned to read sitting in waiting room next to my mom, who would read aloud to me and teach me words at the same time. It was the same thing with every specialist, though. Each one of them would do the same tests: listen to my heart and lungs, take a blood sample, stick me with some needles, pinch and poke and prod, take my temperature. The allergists always stuck me with this needle that was actually a bunch of tiny needles bundled together. None of it did any good. One doctor thought there was some infection in my tonsils. Another thought it was my appendix. I’d been sick so long that I didn’t remember what it was like to not be sick; and even when I did go to school a year late, the only thing anybody came up with was chronic asthma and a ton of allergies – which meant pills, inhalers, and shots once a week.

And when I did go back to school, the slightest thing set off an attack. I couldn’t run too much at recess or hop around during classroom games. Any hint of excitement triggered an attack. Maybe that was when I learned to bury it all – because to show any excitement, happiness, or to get too rambunctious would lead to an attack that might kill me. All the kids knew about my asthma because the teacher had told them. But it was beyond any of them. I didn’t look sick. They just thought I was lazy, and their parents probably thought my parents were just babying me. When the kids made fun of me because I wasn’t allowed outside when the groundskeeper was mowing the grass, I learned to tune them out. Mostly While they were outside playing tag football or dodge ball, I sat inside, drew pictures, looked at books, and started making up my own games. Games I played in my mind. Playing Pretend. And in my mind, I was never sick and the other kids were all slower and weaker than me and none of them ever made fun of me.

Erica Delaney was not one of the kids who made fun of me. I think that was the reason I fell in love with her. She had long, curly blonde hair in which she wore brightly colored ribbons; the ribbons always matched her dress. Her eyes were a sparkling blue and she had this birdlike little laugh that I could pick out at a distance. Mrs. Chance, our teacher, liked her the best and always let her take the chalkboard erasers outside and clean them. She also let Erica pass out the cookies and juice during snack time, and whenever she asked a question, Erica Delaney’s hand was always the first hand in the air.

Sometimes, when I was actually allowed to go outside, Erica Delaney would smile and wave at me. And when I wasn’t allowed outside, she became part of the game I played in my mind. Sometimes I was a secret agent; that was when I first encountered the evil Dr. Tongo, enemy of all mankind, bent on either ruling or (if he couldn’t rule it) destroying the entire world. Inevitably, Dr. Tongo, in an attempt to keep me from stopping him, would kidnap my sweet Erica Delaney and hold her hostage. That meant I had to break into his super secret hideout, buried deep in the mountains in a place only I could find, to save her and upset his diabolical plans. The adventure was always full of peril, and while I was playing pretend I could be strong, emotional, and in control. I was trained in all the deadliest forms of fighting and I was an excellent athlete. And in the end, I would always rescue her and stop Dr. Tongo. And Erica would wrap her arms around my neck and hug me and kiss me the way women did in the movies and the television shows I watched. And her blue eyes always shone brightest for me.