Moving On

After ten too-short years of settling into my beautiful Brooklyn apartment and my equally beautiful Brooklyn neighborhood, I have to leave. My landlords are expanding into the full house, so it’s time for me to go. I’m sad about it. “Sad” doesn’t fully express the sense of loss I already feel, especially knowing that it’s unlikely I’ll get to stay in the neighborhood. Rents have outpaced me, rising considerably in the time I’ve been cozied up at home.

I wanted to call this piece “Paradise Lost” because that’s how I felt when I first got the news from my landlords.

It’s been a good ten years. I’ve done good work at both of my jobs. I became a bread baker. I became a better knitter. I became a vegetarian. I discovered and was embraced by the VONA writing community. I became a blogger, which has affected a sea change in my writing and my life–I’ve written hundreds of poems (poems! me), I’ve started working in comics, I’ve found a channel through which I can funnel my anger productively and satisfyingly. I’ve acquired a pair of new knees … and they aren’t perfect, but they’re better than they were.

A good ten years. I’ve been more happy than unhappy. And it’s true that not all of those things happened because I lived in my pretty Crown Heights apartment, but being comfortable at home didn’t hurt, feeling at ease and having a good relationship with my landlords and neighbors certainly didn’t hurt. Knowing I could take off for weeks at a time and my cats would be well taken care of didn’t hurt.

Okay, enough of that. It’s bringing me down. Not everything has been rosy about living here, right? There are the awkwardly steep steps down to my basement that have been scary and difficult for someone with mobility issues. There’s the occasional leak under my back door when the rain comes down heavily and at just the right angle (though, surprisingly, not a drop came in during the biggest, most aggressive rainfall I’ve seen while living here: Superstorm Sandy). There has been the cavalcade of bugs that have made themselves at home with me: grasshoppers, lightning bugs, ants, slugs, millipedes, and those black-red bugs with the pincer-like mandibles! (Having the yard out my back door has been a dream, but I never imagined how many uninvited guests would wander in from that pretty patch of “wilderness”!)

I have a little time before I need to be out, but I’ve started looking. And as I’ve started looking, I realize that I don’t have much experience with apartment hunting. And that’s a crazy thing to realize because I’ve lived in nine different apartments in the 30 years I’ve been in this city. I have always found apartments really quickly and easily–once, much too quickly, so quickly I didn’t look closely enough to notice all the awfulness until the lease was signed and I was in the middle of it. A few of the apartments I barely had to look for at all, friends were moving out or looking for a roommate, and there I was. The others, maybe I looked at a small handful of places, but I always found what I wanted in no time. I looked at two apartments before seeing and falling in love with my current one. Two.

Two is not going to be my magic number this time around, however. I’ve already seen fourteen places, already been disappointed by the unsuitableness of nearly all of them. I’ve sent “contact me!” messages to dozens of people through at least five different apartment-finding websites, and I’ve wandered neighborhoods I’ve never considered living in–or never considered returning to.

It shouldn’t be as complicated as it’s shaping up to be for me. But homeowners and brokers give me the fisheye on the regular. Because, as steady and stable as I generally am, I also look like an unacceptable risk. 

I have a good job. I have a history of longevity both as an employee and as a tenant. I make a pretty decent salary, a significantly larger salary than the brokers are hoping for when they tell me what I need to make in order to be eligible for apartments in my rent range. I don’t smoke. I have cats, not dogs. I have no children.

But

I have a ton–make that a TON–of thorny, hairy, ugly debt. All that money I borrowed and charged during the try-to-have-a-baby phase is still hanging over my head. Well, not all of it. I’ve paid a chunk back, but the rest is still sky high, blocking the sun with its mountainous bulk. It makes for a lousy credit report and score, makes me look like the last person you want renting in your building.

Add that debt to their surprise at discovering that I’m the woman they’ve been talking and texting with. A big, Black woman with kinky hair is not who they expect to meet. A big, Black woman with kinky hair and crappy credit? Yeah, I instantly become an even less attractive candidate. (No, I don’t think every broker or homeowner I’ve met so far is straight-up racist, but their reactions to me have been such that all of them have failed the test. One of the things I liked about my current landlords when we met was their flying-colors handling of the test. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen two people show less surprise at finding me on their doorstep.)
And all that debt repayment means I’ve saved nothing, so buying is out of the question.

When I wrote about my fear of homelessness, this is where it comes from. No, I’m not two steps away from the street. Hardly. But I’m many steps away from stable, and a lifetime away from comfortable. And all of that mattered before now, but it didn’t matter in the same way. I was paying down my debt and imagined myself having at least another five years or so before I’d have to start thinking about moving (right around the time I thought my landlords’ oldest daughter might be thinking she’d like her own apartment somewhere not too far from home …).

So. Looking. It really does suck. But there is one interesting thing about this process that is maybe good. I have to tell my credit score story over and over. People have a hard time understanding how I can have a good salary and a crap score all at the same time. I didn’t know that was a weirdness, but apparently it is. So I have to say over and over to one stranger and then another that I ran up a crazy pile of debt while trying to have a baby, and now I’m paying it back.

This is interesting to me because this isn’t something I’ve ever been able to say without getting teary. But here I am, looking men I don’t know in the face and telling them this intensely personal and painful thing, saying it as if it ain’t no thang.

I first thought about this Tuesday. I was saying it to the gruff Irishman who was showing me the first nice apartment I’ve seen. He asked the credit score question and I gave my answer. And I thought, “I am saying that so casually, as if it isn’t hard to say, as if saying it in the past hasn’t sunk me into tears. When did I get comfortable with this?”

But I didn’t have time to keep puzzling over that question because something else happened, too. I said my piece, and I saw him change. He hadn’t been in my court before that moment, was clearly ready to move on to whatever his next thing was, was practically tapping his foot as I looked into the closets (so many closets!) and checked out the view (no buildings obstructing any of the windows!). But when I explained my debt situation, he morphed into a different man. He began to counsel me on how to write my application for the apartment, on how to write the accompanying cover letter he thought I should write to help the owner see why they should take a chance on me. He started telling me more about the apartment owners and the kind of tenant they were looking for and urged me to talk up those aspects in my letter.

Because he felt for me, because there I was, childless–this fact already established before I’d come to meet him and see the place–and telling him I’d spent myself into a hole trying to have a kid. And it turned me into an actual human being for him, a person. I don’t know why he wasn’t interested in being helpful to me before that moment. I can speculate, but I really have no idea. But all of that melted away and he turned into the man he probably is most of the time.

I don’t tell this story about myself to turn myself into a human. It never occurred to me that that would be the result (or in any way necessary in this context). It’s the actual answer to the question about my credit, and telling it is easier than making up a story. But now I see that not only has it helped me get past the awfulness of saying it out loud, it also clearly impacts the person who’s listening to me. This shouldn’t surprise me, should it? I haven’t been meeting with brokers who are androids or robots and incapable of experiencing human emotion. Maybe every single one of them has felt differently about me after hearing my story, but this man was the first one who made his change of attitude so dramatically obvious.

That apartment I saw Tuesday was the first one I’ve seen that I really like. Thirteen duds to get to one place with the potential to be fabulous. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty and large and has great closets and great windows and a doorman (who, apparently, was an engineer in Georgia before he came to this country decades ago) and laundry on-site … It’s nice. I’ll have to jump through a series of hoops to apply for it, but the broker, let’s call him Patrick, has talked me through each of them.

It’s a relief to finally see an apartment I can imagine living in. True, I haven’t been looking long, but really everything in my price range has been totally unacceptable. All have been less than half the size of my current place, one had roaches in the medicine cabinet! (Always check the medicine cabinet!) I haven’t seen roaches in so long, I wasn’t prepared and did a terrible job of hiding my startle response. The broker looked over my shoulder to see what I was seeing and shook his head, “Should I just show you out now?” he asked. I nodded. I mean, there was no way I was ever going to be able to live in the tea-cup-sized house, but then to have to share it with roaches? No.

Tomorrow I’ll see a rent-stabilized place that looks even nicer than the one I saw yesterday. Big, eat-in kitchen, better transportation, across the street from a beautiful park. It’s a little more than I’d wanted to spend, but if it’s as nice as it looks online, it’ll be worth it. And there’s another on deck that has potential, too. I want to move before the end of the year. Seeing a lot of perfectly unsuitable apartments was beginning to make that seem like the height of Pollyanna-ish fantasy. Now I have some hope again.

There’s another thing I realize I’ll have to deal with if one of those three apartments becomes my new home. And I hadn’t thought about this until I stepped off the bus on Tuesday and started walking to the apartment. I was in a part of Brooklyn I haven’t spent much time in. The adult ed program I ran years ago offered English language classes in a senior housing building there–I passed the building on my way to meet Patrick–but it’s not a neighborhood where I’d normally find myself. To be as plain as possible: it’s a very (VERY) white neighborhood. Super white.

And you know, I like white folks well enough. Some. And yes, some of my best friends are white and everything.

But I haven’t had to live in a white neighborhood in ten years. Crown Heights is gentrifying at the speed of light, but it’s still full of Black folks. And I hadn’t thought about the fact that leaving the neighborhood might also mean leaving the pleasure of being surrounded by people who look like me. The pleasure of riding home at night on what I like to call the Black World bus.

I’ve lived in white neighborhoods before. I grew up in white towns. I’ve lived in Park Slope and Cobble Hill. This is a thing I know I can do. But the fact that I’ve already done it is always why I know it will be hard, especially after so many years in Crown Heights. Especially since we’ve entered the age of white folks putting Black folks’ lives in danger by calling the cops for nothing at all.

I lived in Cobble Hill before moving to Crown Heights. If you don’t know Brooklyn neighborhoods, just know that Cobble Hill is a ridiculously over-priced neighborhood full of chi-chi restaurants and tiny boutiques that have three items on display, each costing as much as your rent. (This is a mild exaggeration. Mild.) I lived there for seven years. And for the whole of that seven years, I got to watch my neighbors see me approaching or realize I was walking behind them … and clutch their bags more tightly or pull their children closer, or stare at me with suspicion and fear. It was, to say the least, fucking exhausting.

I think of all the ways I’ve had to adapt to white neighborhoods, change my appearance or behavior on the street just so the people around me aren’t frightened by seeing me. I don’t walk with a scowl on, or with my head down. God forbid I should look angry or like someone trying to avoid eye contact so you can’t identify me after I mug you. And I don’t make eye contact because then I look defiant or angry or confrontational or like I’m sizing you up to decide if I’m going to mug you. I don’t walk closely behind people, I make myself give a half smile and a nod or say hi or something to show how open and personable I am. I make myself not have an explosive reaction when people assume I’m someone’s maid or nanny simply because that’s the only role they’re willing to ascribe to a Black woman walking around in their community.

Does all of this sound ridiculous to you? It should … except that it’s totally necessary in certain neighborhoods. After I moved to Crown Heights, I was back in my old neighborhood and saw one of my former neighbors. She was about a block away from me. I waved at her, and she looked distressed. I waved again. Her look stayed distressed. As I got closer to her, I spoke, greeting her by name. When she realized I knew her name, she allowed herself to see me–not to just look at the person approaching her but to see me–and realized that she recognized me. “I guess you didn’t see me waving,” I said. I mean, I figure she had definitely seen me, but I also knew there were times when I walked around so in my head I didn’t see the people right in front of me. Also, I was giving her an out because I didn’t feel like being bothered with anything more serious. But she didn’t take the out I’d offered. Instead, she told me the truth, her very odd and telling truth: “I saw you,” she said. “I didn’t know how to read that hand gesture.”

She. didn’t. know. how. to. read. my. hand. gesture. The mysterious and frightening wave. This is how annoying and wearing it can be to be a Black person on the street with white people. Do I really want to move back to that? Do I really want to have to deal with that nonsense morning, noon, and night?

Sigh.

 

(Yeah. This is what happens when I don’t censor or carefully edit, when I just say all the stuff, even when more than half of it belongs in another essay and some of it really just belongs in my head!)

What I want to say is that I’m scared. I have gotten so comfortable that this change looms so much larger than it should, and I’m scared. Whatever happens, it will be fine. I’ll go out tomorrow and see these two apartments. And I’ll find and hold onto my optimism and my belief that I really am a good risk despite my debt and my Black skin and my nappy hair. And I won’t be living in my so-comfortable-it-seems-made-for-me home anymore, but I’ll find a new so-comfortable home. I new place for my cats to explore, for my books to line up side by side, for my knitting stash to grow, for my friends to come for dinner and brunch and writers’ group and book club. Home. Again.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

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A House Full of Grandpas

Not too long ago, a lot of people in my community were angry. The City was renovating a small building with plans to turn it into a 110-bed homeless shelter. People were angry because the City seems to think the nickname for this community is “home for the homeless.” We have a disproportionate number of shelters here. This is especially glaring when viewed in comparison with the number of shelters being added in our Mayor’s home nabe: ZERO.

I understood my neighbors’ concern and—because the new shelter was being set up less than a block from my house—I understood the heightened concern of my most immediate neighbors. And to a degree, I shared their worries.

Almost 30 years ago, I worked at a homeless shelter. By interesting coincidence, it was in this neighborhood—Crown Heights, Brooklyn—not too far from where I now live. It was a large facility and was what is called a Tier 2 shelter, which meant it was for families and provided apartments rather than barracks- or dorm-style accommodations. I was there to teach a GED class.

The shelter wasn’t a great place. The building was well-kept, but the care and services provided were distracted and impersonal at best, disjointed and uncaring bordering on counterproductive and detrimental at worst.

The shelter was in a part of the neighborhood that was more than a little run down and not particularly inviting. My students were mostly women in their twenties and thirties with one or two or four small children. Most were made homeless when their relationships with men soured. Frances had lost her home to a fire. Carolyn had learned after her parents’ deaths that there was a massive lien against her family home and she had to vacate so it could be sold to pay that debt. Tiffany’s father had kicked her out when she could no longer hide her pregnancy, and Yohaira’s mother had put her in the street when she’d refused to put her baby up for adoption. Tonya was rumored to have a drinking problem—I will admit that I loved that the women who mentioned this to me actually said, “drinking problem,” so old-fashioned and prim. She was also rumored to have a man in the building next door. Tonya was as dramatic as we got in our group.

The renters and homeowners in the neighborhood seemed not to give the ladies and their kids a second thought—at least not in ways that I was likely to notice. And, too, I was only on site a few hours a day. Every once in a while, however, ugliness would bubble to the surface … or walk right up and smack me in the face.

As I walked to the train after class one day, a woman stopped me and expressed surprise at seeing me coming from the shelter: “You live here?” she asked.

I explained that I was teaching a GED class for the residents. More surprise.

“Whores need diploma nowadays?”

And then the surprise was mine.

It turned out that a lot of people in the community thought the shelter was a brothel of sorts. My students told me about daily harassment when they were on the street—interest from men, anger from women. “Even when I’m with my babies,” Florence said. “These people have no shame.”

Now, yes: there were those rumors about Tonya and the man from next door. And yes: it was certainly true that then (like now, to be honest) I could be entirely oblivious to things going on around me, I was pretty sure there was no truth behind that idea. But the residents of the neighborhood were faced with a building full of people they’d rather not have to welcome into the community. It is, unfortunately, somewhat natural, predictable, that anyone who disapproved of the shelter would imagine whatever they could imagine as the least desirable truth about the place. And that they’d work to spread that story to ensure the universal dislike of the shelter and its inhabitants. What easier conclusion to leap to when looking at a building full of young women? The brothel story shouldn’t have surprised me at all.

I heard a lot of stories about the shelter being built down the street from my house, too. It would be a shelter for young men, for young men with mental health problems, for young men in drug treatment, for men returning from prison, for young men with mental health problems who were returning from prison and dealing with addiction. You get the idea.

I get why the mix of descriptions would concern people. Young men, ex-offenders, the mentally ill, people dealing with addiction … they all come with any number of negative things we’ve been taught to believe and fear and distrust about them.

And I’m not saying I’m all saintly and above falling for that. I was concerned about who would be moving in. In my heart of hearts, I wanted the building to go back to being a daycare center, which it had been when I moved to the neighborhood ten years ago. Maybe some fun after school programs could be run from there. Maybe there’d be a nice indoor home for the adorable pre-adolescent drum corps and color guard who practiced on the roof next door. (Also, I don’t lock my front door, and having a building full of ex-offenders down the street made me worry that I’d have to start.)

As much as I love my homey, family-full neighborhood just as it is, as much as I think other communities should share the responsibility of housing the City’s homeless population, it was hard for me to be full-on anti shelter.

New York has an enormous homeless population. Our Mayor has promised to deal with it somehow and deal with it better than mayors past. But we’re talking about housing more than 60,000 people. That’s an entire town’s worth of people—it’s roughly the total population of Delray Beach or Utica, Palo Alto or Des Plaines. Finding housing for a whole city’s worth of people is a herculean task. And there aren’t, as far as I know, any neighborhoods anywhere in the city opening their arms wide and looking to embrace homeless New Yorkers. And we don’t have near enough affordable housing stock … and even if we did, people don’t usually go directly from homelessness to fully-independent apartment living. There are steps to stability that need to happen. And placement in a residential shelter is an important step (although I’ll admit that I am very much enamored of the Housing First model that has had a dramatic impact in places like Salt Lake City and Milwaukee).

I’m not mad at my neighbors for their concerns, which—unfairly—are very NIMBY-sounding. How could I be angry with my neighbors? I totally understand where they’re coming from. But I’m also thinking about the possibility—the likelihood?—of my eventual homelessness. Yes, I’m sure that’s some over-dramatic catastrophizing. Brought on, no doubt, by the stress of learning that I have to leave my beautiful and beloved apartment and seeing how slim and distasteful the pickings are out there in Apartment Hunting Land.

Still. I think about how old I am and how I haven’t managed to accumulate really any wealth at all. I think about the fact that I will surely not have a pleasant retirement because I won’t have a retirement at all because I will be working until the day I die.

And then I think what neighborhood will welcome my tired, aging, broke ass when that time comes? How far away from the world will I be forced to live because no one wants destitute poor folks bedding down near their beautiful, expensive homes?

Yes, obviously that is crazy talk. I have a number of options before homelessness. Many options. But this is where my brain goes. It’s hard to down-talk the homeless when you think you’re going to join their ranks eventually.

Back in the real world, there were town hall meetings and protests. And when those were finished, the City moved right along with its original plan. The shelter opened a few months ago.

I don’t know if our new neighbors, the shelter residents, are dealing with drug addiction or if they have histories of mental illness or incarceration. What I do know is that they are all older men. Some are quite old. It’s early days, sure, but so far I’d say the net effect of the shelter’s opening has been to increase the population of grandfather-y men in the neighborhood. Most of them (like me) walk with or carry canes. I see them as I walk to the bus stop or the bakery, making their sometimes slow, sometimes shuffling way up the block.

Other neighborhoods should definitely take on more of the responsibility of providing housing for homeless people—Park Slope, for example, or maybe Cobble Hill and Kips Bay, Forest Hills and Yorkville …—but I also think my neighborhood has gotten lucky in this current arrangement. For me, anyway, it’s hard to stay mad at a house full of grandpas.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Fat Talk: The Cage, Part I

One of the first things that struck me in Hunger was Gay’s statement that her body is a cage of her own making. The truth of that resonated for me, even though I have never thought of my body as a cage. Like Gay, I made myself fat as a form of protection and a way to become invisible. I wasn’t as aware as she was of what I was doing, not in the beginning, but even after I became aware, I kept right on building the wall of my body. And now that I have come to a place where I no longer think I need the wall, the wall remains. There is more, of course, to tearing down a protective shield than just deciding I might be fine without it.

Why does it still feel safer in the cage than out of it?

***

I wasn’t fat when I was fourteen. I was fat when I was fifteen. A couple of years ago, a friend from high school sent me scanned snapshots of 9th-grader me performing in our school musical. The shock of seeing those photos was of seeing how completely not at all fat I was. I have no memory of looking the way I look in those pictures. I thought I was fat then. I thought I’d always been fat.

That’s a thing I say, that I’ve always been fat. Even though I know it’s not true. I see myself in childhood photos, and I’m not fat. A picture of myself as a 12-year-old at summer camp shows me as a leggy, curvy adolescent, not as a fat person. The pictures of me belting out my big number in that musical show me as a not-in-any-way fat teenager.

And then I’m fifteen, and I’m fat. Not as fat as I’d eventually get, but definitely fat. So clearly, fourteen years old is ground zero. The reason for building the wall of flesh I live in.

It’s easy to point to some clear catalysts for building the wall. No, I was never brutalized the way Roxane Gay was. I can’t imagine finding a way to survive, to hold on to any part of myself after such an ordeal. I was raped in my 20s, but I still can’t imagine Gay’s experience and the strength she had to marshal to survive.

But when I was fourteen, I became visible to boys and men. Or, more exactly, I became more visible and more easily available to boys and men.

I’d been visible to men for years. I was eight the first time a man exposed himself to me, nine the first time a boy tried to touch me in a sexual way, the first time I was shown porn in an attempt to arouse me. I was twelve the first time I kissed a boy, the first time there were boys who wanted to kiss me who I also wanted to kiss, thirteen the first time an adult man propositioned me.

That was likely the beginning of seeing my body as a problem, of associating my body with the dangers presented by men. That man was a counselor at the summer camp I’d attended from seven to twelve years old. He’d known me since I was nine, and yet he had no qualms asking if I was a prostitute, if I was interested in money for favors.

I didn’t understand what he was asking me, but I understood how uncomfortable he made me, how uncomfortable I felt under the look he gave me. I understood that it wasn’t okay, that he shouldn’t have been asking, that no one was supposed to look at me the way he did, certainly not someone I thought of as a teacher, someone who was a grown-up, like my father. In truth, the man was probably in his early 20s, but I was thirteen. Whatever his age, he shouldn’t have been asking me about selling sex.

So, even before I was fourteen, men had become a problem, my body had become a problem.

I was thirteen the first time my mother put me on a diet. She signed me up for Weight Watchers. It was my first summer home, not at camp. All of the other people in the group were women, were my mother’s age and older. And there I was: thirteen, confused … and not at all fat.

I wasn’t aware of not being fat. There was clearly something wrong with my body or I wouldn’t have been having so many problems, wouldn’t have met with my mother’s displeasure. So I accepted that I was fat.

I’ve come to realize that, rather than fat, what I was was terrifying: I was grown-looking. I suddenly had a woman’s body — breasts and hips — and I think the reality of that scared the crap out of my mother. I think she hoped that, if I lost weight, I wouldn’t look so womanly. My friends were all small, skinny girls. Maybe she thought she could whittle me down to look more like them.

She had worked hard to keep my body under wraps, dressing me like a toddler until I was eleven or twelve, then transitioning me from a child’s clothes to a matron’s. Looking through family photos at the change in my appearance is interesting. There I am at ten in a sundress so short it reveals the matching bloomers I’m wearing underneath. There I am at eleven in a short babydoll dress and patent leather Mary Janes, an outfit that would be more appropriate on a five or six year old. There I am at twelve in short-shorts and a tie-dyed midriff top — surely the outfit that solidified my mother’s fear. There I am at thirteen on summer vacation in a coat-length, baggy cardigan and a turtleneck next to my older brother and younger sister who are in shorts and tees and who look like my children. There I am at fourteen in a 70s suburban mom uniform of 1000% polyester, sewn-in-crease slacks while everyone else in the family is wearing jeans and shorts.

There was no denying the body under the clothes, however. And dieting only served to accentuate my voluptuous hourglass, setting me up for even more male attention, the entirely opposite thing from what my mother had hoped.

***

I was fourteen, me and my newly-slender woman’s body, me with my no idea how to deal with boys or men, and no way to learn much of anything. We lived in a very white place, a place where there would be no white boys looking to date unacceptably not-white me.

But there was still the opportunity to come into contact with men and boys. No one wanted to date me, but that didn’t mean no one noticed me. I was molested twice when I was fourteen, repeatedly by a boy close to my age and once by a man at my church.

(I think about that man at my church and about that counselor at camp. I’m sickened when I think about them. What is wrong with men that they think it’s okay to decide an adolescent girl is fair game for their sexual advances? What is wrong with our society that we have allowed them to feel entirely within their rights to prey on children? Yes, in our current apocalypse-world with a president who brags about being a sexual predator, I can’t truly be surprised. THOTUS wasn’t spawned whole from the ether. He was cultivated, steeped in a culture that had no problem with his behavior, that has no problem with most men’s behavior when it comes to women and girls.)

I told one of my friends, a boy, about the man at my church. He became very protective of me, sticking close to me when that man was around. And that was a good thing. It meant the man never had another opportunity to be alone with me.

I never told anyone about the boy who molested me. That situation was much more dangerous, fraught with terrible consequences that I couldn’t make myself cause.

He was a little older than me, and not at all interested in or attracted to me. I know this because he made sure to tell me, to tell me that he couldn’t find me attractive because of how I looked, that if I looked more like [insert name of whichever (white) cheerleader he currently lusted after], maybe I would be desirable. He told me all of that while doing a lot of unpleasant and often painful things to my body — the body he didn’t find desirable.

There was no penetration, and for that I’m grateful.

***

Here I am in the school musical, playing the Acid Queen in our production of Tommy (seriously.)


Today I look at those pictures, and I can see that I was cute as fuck, that there was not one thing wrong with my body. And I wonder how differently my life would have played out if I’d known that then. Would I also have known that I deserved better treatment? Would I have allowed that boy’s abuse to go on for as long as it did?

***

I was fourteen and I knew some things clearly: I wasn’t attractive, my body was unacceptable, my body drew unwanted attention from men and boys even if they didn’t find me desirable.

And deep in my psyche, on a level I wasn’t aware of, I made the decision to change my body, to erase it, to remove it from the focus of that problematic attention.

This was when I started to think of my body as separate from me, as “other,” a burden I had to deal with but not who I was.

Maybe I could have gone the other way, tried to disappear myself with anorexia. But I knew that wasn’t the answer — skinny girls got attention. Thinness made my body a target, so it seemed reasonable to assume that skinniness would make me more of a target. Skinniness equaled weakness and vulnerability, so I wouldn’t be skinny.

***

I got fat quickly. those Acid Queen pictures are from the fall of 9th grade, right after I turned fourteen. By spring of sophomore year — halfway through being fifteen — I was fat.

Since I have no memory of getting fat, since I have only recently been forced to acknowledge that I wasn’t always fat, I can’t say much about that period, that quick-march toward obesity. How were people responding to the changes in my body? What did my mother think was happening? How did we afford to buy me an entire new wardrobe when money was always tight but I couldn’t fit my old clothes? No idea. I wasn’t fat. And then I was.

***

Being fat had the desired effect: I stopped having to deal with unwanted male attention because there was no attention. So, in some ways, the body I built created freedom and safety. I had managed to remove myself from the equation of men’s lust.

But I made myself invisible right at the moment when I was starting to be interested in boys and would have welcomed some non-violent attention. But my body closed the door on everyone, not just the predators. (This isn’t the story of my whole life here. There were, eventually, men I was interested in who were interested in me. But high school and the world are decidedly different places.)

***

Not all stories of fat have their origins in sexual abuse … or at least I imagine that to be true. I wonder how many do, however. My own story has more to it than sexual violence. There was the dissolution of my parents’ marriage, which triggered a low-grade depression that resulted in fortifications being added to the wall. But there was also an attempted rape while I was at college, an actual rape in my early 20s.

Whatever the catalysts, here I am, many years later, much larger than I was at fifteen, the wall miles thick at this point and nearly as high. And me nestled inside with my books and pens, my knitting. Still protected, but also held back, trapped.



One in a series of essays inspired by reading Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger.
If you haven’t read my ground rules, please take a look before commenting. Thank you.

The plan for 2017 was to be on my #GriotGrind, to write an essay a week … except I’m MONTHS behind! I’m determined to, somehow, catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.

Fat Talk: The Ground Rules

I started reading Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger a few weeks ago. I both wanted and didn’t want to read this book. Wanted to read it because I like Roxane Gay’s writing and the way she thinks, and I was curious to see how she would talk about her body, her weight. But I knew reading the book would be hard, that it would call up all kinds of things about my own body, my weight, my life. And, as comfortable as I am with myself, I wasn’t sure how ready I was to have all those things–or unexpected things–surfaced.

As I knew out would be, reading the book has been challenging. I’ve had to put it down more than once and walk away. That’s why I’m a few weeks in and still nowhere near done. Any other book of this length and readability, I’d have blown through in a couple of days. With this one, I have no idea how much longer I’ll take to push myself to the end.

As I get started with writing here about the book, my body, my weight, this is a good moment to put some cards on the table. Not all, not yet, but some key introductory ones. Talking about being fat is charged and difficult, so I’m posting some ground rules.

Card #1: I am fat. Very fat. I’ve been fat for decades. I’ve been both fatter and less fat than I am today, but never in my adult life have I not been fat.

Card #2: My decision to talk here about my body, my fat, is not an invitation for any attempt at education, intervention, or counseling. I’m not interested in anyone’s nutritional or medical advice, in predictions about what my future will hold or what dire outcomes I’m waddling toward if I don’t change my lazy, evil ways posthaste.

Card #2a: I’m also not here for all the “You’re not that fat!” reassurances folks like to give. I’m not actually sure what that’s supposed to mean, anyway. There’s no set of gradations I’m measuring myself against. I am fat. Punto. It’s not a negative or positive thing, it’s simply a descriptor of my size, differentiating me from thin people, or stocky people or waif-like people, or whoever. I. am. fat. It is in no way flattering for anyone to deny the reality of my body. That’s in the same category as people who tell me they don’t think of me as Black–and, in case there’s any question, I am decidedly, unquestionably, and unashamedly Black.

Card #3: This is the first of what will be a number–perhaps a significant number–of  “Fat Talk” essays. Essays about my body, about being fat. Now that I’ve opened this flood gate, it’s open. I’m sure there will be folks for whom all this fatgirl talk will get wearing or boring or troubling. If that’s you, I won’t be offended if you step away, choose to stop reading. But I will be pissed if you violate Card #2.

Card #4: Spoilers! If you’re planning to read Hunger and haven’t yet, you should know that I will give away things from the book. Hunger isn’t a mystery and there are unlikely to be any surprise twists, but if you’re like me, you still won’t enjoy hearing what happens before you’ve read it. I’ll try to remember to give spoiler warnings as I go, but I know I’ll forget–in fact, I’m likely to blow it straight out of the gate–so just be aware of what’s in store.

I think that’s enough cards for now.

I’ve gone back to reading Hunger. I picked it up yesterday after an almost two-week break. I’m not sure I’m actually ready to dive back in, but not reading it is starting to make me feel cowardly. I’ve walked away from other books. And I’ve finished books I wish I’d avoided (the night- and daymare horror of reading Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder comes readily to mind!). But I want to finish this book, so I will. And it’s high time I wrote more directly and sustainédly¹ about being a fat Black woman in this world, so I’ll read … and then I’ll write as many of the things the book surfaces for me as I can. And I’ll share them here. Perhaps not all. Most probably not all. But some.

Depending on how people respond to all this direct and sustained fat talk, I may have to add some more ground-rules cards as we go.

__________
¹ No, it’s not a word, but I like thinking it is.



I’m not sure this really, truly counts as an essay … but I’m counting it anyway!

The plan for 2017 was to be on my #GriotGrind, to write an essay a week … except I’m MONTHS behind! I’m determined to, somehow, catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.

Don’t Try This at Home

NPR’s podcast, Invisibilia, just ran a piece about Max Hawkins, “a kind of unassuming white guy.” Maybe you know Max because he arrived, uninvited, at your Passover seder, or the sushi-making party you threw last year. Because that’s his thing: using technology to find and show up at private events.

And—surprise!—strangers welcome him gladly! Relationships are formed, and good times are had by all!

The piece is skewed to read as wacky, charming, renewing-your-faith-in-the-basic-goodness-of-your-fellow-citydwellers. All that. Definitely played for sweetness: young man realizes he lives in a bubble and uses tech to try new things and meet people he wouldn’t have otherwise met. You can listen to it on the NPR site. It’s a great story.

And it enrages me.

For real. On so many levels: as a woman, as a Black person, as a private citizen who doesn’t have a lot of love for colonizers and gate crashers. This story reeks of privilege, and NPR’s inability or unwillingness to call that out in a real way is frustrating in the extreme. There is a half-second nod to Hawkins’ privilege. But that’s it. The idea is almost acknowledged, and we’re told that Hawkins acknowledges it, too … and then we move right back to the smiley, feel-goodness of this zany tale.

But it’s not that simple. In 2017, in MAGA America, it cannot be that simple.

In the past, you could do an interview like this and never have to include even token acknowledgement of the power of whiteness. Why would you? It was expected that stories would be told from the point of view of white folk, quite often from the vantage point of white men. The white person’s point of view was, simply, the “norm,” and the rest of us were welcome to fit ourselves in around the margins if we could, but we were expected to accept our exclusion and erasure and keep quiet. Inclusion? Not possible.

Also impossible? The idea that anyone else’s feelings or interests or privacy need be respected. The white people are having fun, and that was the only point. Never mind if their “fun” disturbed or damaged someone else, one of those nameless “other” people who count so very much less.

This story is presented as funny and clever, something we should all try because surely all of us could benefit from stepping out of our comfort zones and meeting new people. Really? How well would that work for me as a woman alone to go present myself at the homes of strangers? How well would it work of for me as a Black person? How well would it work for a Black man?

Let’s pause for a moment to consider how unnecessary any of this is. In a city like San Francisco, there are plenty of public events that could have helped Max break free of his homogenous bubble. There are gallery openings, readings, performance art installations, open houses. He could volunteer with an organization working in a neighborhood he’s curious about but never visited. He could join his community board and meet some of the old-timey residents who have yet to be priced out by his gentrifying butt. Why am I supposed to think it’s okay for him to insert himself in other people’s lives because his own life feels boring or stuck in a rut?

As I said, the story does take a quick glance over the wall at privilege: “as a kind of unassuming white guy, [Max] actually didn’t [have to worry about people not responding positively.] (And Max acknowledges this privilege.)” Oh. Okay, then. Max acknowledges his privilege. Carry on.

This hat tip to white male privilege isn’t enough. No points for that little wink and nod. What privilege is it that Max is aware of? We have no idea because we’re just given that pat on the head, no actual information. No, sorry. NPR and Invisibilia, you have failed. You need to take that further. In the case of this profile of Max, a lot of my anger would have melted away if the reporter creating this story had stepped away from the cutesy narrative and said plainly:

Max was able to get away with his shenanigans because he is a young white man who is not aggressively muscular and looks goofily non-threatening. Given the realities of our current society’s entrenchment in rape culture, this kind of reliance on the kindness of strangers isn’t recommended for women. Given our adherence to the belief that all Black bodies are dangerous and criminal and in need of neutralization, showing up at strangers’ doors and demanding entrance to their parties is discouraged for Black folks … well, hell, for all people of color.

But my anger runs along another path as well. Yes, the white male privilege of Max being able to feel safe and comfortable putting himself in places he doesn’t belong would be enough to piss me right off. But there’s more. There’s the raging sense of entitlement that allows Max to decide he has the right to show up at strangers’ homes, at strangers’ private events. That entitlement allows him to made decisions about other people’s lives, allows him to decide that whatever he sees that he wants, he can have. And that is just the whitest thing in the world.

It’s easy for me to believe Max Hawkins is a nice guy. Look at his almost cartoonishly goofy face:

He really looks like a nice guy. That’s not the point, however. Nice people do shitty things all the time. Nice people take full, comfortable advantage of their privilege all the time. They may even, like Max, acknowledge that they have privilege. But when Invisiblia reports on all of that without acknowledging any of it, that’s the problem, that’s what sparks my rage.

Back in December, Storycorps raised hackles by framing an awful story as a heartwarming one, just in time for the holidays … and then refused to take full responsibility for their crap when listeners and readers called them out.

Now it’s Invisibilia’s turn. There is no excuse for presenting a story like this without context, without explicit acknowledgement of the ways in which Max’s life-randomizing hijinks are also dangerous, intrusive, and dripping with privilege.

Is it fair for me to expect more from Invisibilia, from NPR? I say yes. The Washington Post’s new motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” tells me that the paper must be held to an even higher level of accountability for its journalism, for its honesty, for its calling out of wrongs and lies. Not that it shouldn’t be held to high standards simply because it’s a major national newspaper. But when you slap that kind of high and mighty line on yourself, you are asking to be put under a more exacting microscope. I mean, Fox News was terrible for years, but when they started describing themselves as “fair and balanced,” that was clearly a call for pointing out every instance of their utter lack of fairness or balance.

NPR presents itself as the news organization that goes beneath the surface, that takes more time with its stories, digs deep for the hidden bits that are crucial to understanding, to informed, critical thinking. That standard of reporting has to apply to all of the reporting. That standard of reporting has to be followed even when a reporter is faced with “a kind of unassuming white guy” who’s doing some madcap thing that seems the perfect idea for a fluff piece. You sell your wares based on the promise of critical analysis. Throwing the words, “And Max acknowledges this privilege” at me is laziness. It’s telling me, “Look, we know there’s more here, some deep mess that needs dissecting, but we’re not in the mood. We like this guy and don’t feel like examining the seamy underbelly of his privilege, don’t want to make him feel bad about this adorably crazy thing he’s done.”

That laziness is bad journalism. There are people who don’t understand what privilege is or how it works, who don’t know how to spot it, who can’t see that it’s lurking in harmless spaces like Max’s decision to amp up the interesting-quotient in his life. It’s up to quality, responsible journalism to point that out.

The decision to ignore the negative aspect of Max’s story is bad for Max, too. As I said, it’s easy to believe Max is a nice guy. He probably means well and didn’t set out to harm anyone. The I-can’t-fully-open-my-eyes, nerdboy look of him makes that easier to believe. He’s a nice guy. By not calling his attention to what he’s doing, by not picking apart his “awareness” of his privilege, he gets to continue running headlong down his slippery slope.

Max’s slope? Monetizing his behavior and taking it public. He is developing a “suite of randomization apps.” Of course he is. Because what he’s done is so fun and clever, and of course lots of other people should do the same.

He hopes to introduce [the apps] for public use in the coming months. He has also created a Facebook group that encourages people to attend strangers’ publicly listed events and offers tips and tricks for doing so.

(I’m not even going to list all the ways I’ve already imagined for this to go horribly wrong, all the folks with ill intent who could take full and painful advantage of Max’s apps. No, we’ll just pretend he’s done something fun and clever and of course lots of other people should do the same.)

When we don’t push people to think about the problematic things they’re doing, they will keep doing them. And, in some cases, they will expand them, and make money from them, and get other people to start doing them, too. Swell.

Being a nice guy shouldn’t give you a pass when you’re doing something wrong. By finding Max clever and off-beat, NPR lost sight of the work it’s supposed to be doing, the quality journalism we’ve been led to expect.

I expect my purveyors of quality news to be aware of the larger world, even in a puff piece about a bored hipster who’s created an app for that.



In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind. I committed to writing an essay a week … but fell behind behind pretty quickly. I’m determined to catch up, committed to 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following the lead of Vanessa Mártir, who launched #52essays2017 after she wrote an essay a week for 2016 … and then invited other writers along for the ride.

Y is for: Yoctosecond

Say what now? Yes, Yoctosecond. A yoctosecond is one septillionth of a second. That’s right, a unit of time equaling 10-24 seconds. Apparently, “yocto” is a prefix that attaches to a bunch of things, things like “newton,” “volt,” and “watt.”

I chose it because not only does it sounds silly and I am a fan of silly-sounding things, but also because yesterday I met a family member for the first time, and a yoctosecond was about as long as it took for me to know how much I was going to love her.

I have a small family. Painfully small. Various issues and estrangements on both sides have left us with precious few connections. We’re tight as can be with the few of us there are, but that wider circle decoupled a long time ago, and for pretty much my whole life, we’ve been our small unit. My mom has reconnected with some of her cousins, and I met the granddaughter of one of the cousins. And I’m so happy I did.

It’s definitely not a given that I would adore any family member I got to meet. There was a reunion of sorts when I was in my 20s, and those folks were kind of awful. My cousin is from a different branch of the family tree, so I wasn’t worried she’d be like those cranky, classist, petty folks I’d bumped up against 30 years ago, but still. You don’t know what you’re going to get until you get it.

And what I got was a lovely, smart, funny young woman with whom it turns out I have a lot in common.

Feels nice to stretch out a little, make room for more family in our tiny circle.

Our tiny circle —
mother, brother, sister, me.
Small, smaller, smallest.
The shrinking net around us
now stretching open,
now stretching wider, wider
welcoming new ties,
our whole makes a greater sum.
We are expanding,
spreading our arms, embracing,
opening our hearts to love.

__________

Only one more day of writing chōka left! I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to the end of this challenge, but I’d also be lying if I said I hadn’t enjoyed this month. I’ve really liked exploring this form. I might just have to continue chōka-writing after April’s done. I’ll take that fun offline, though, and certainly won’t be aiming for a poem a day! It’s time to turn my attention back to the #52essays2017 challenge, start playing catch up with all these missed weeks that are glaring at me from my calendar.

____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.



Q is for: Quotation

“Land is power.” Ruby McGee

Tonight I had the distinct pleasure of watching an amazing documentary, Dirt and Deeds in Mississippi. It tells another amazing “hidden figures” kind of story, some Black history that was rolled up in cotton wool and tucked way out of sight. In this case, the story of Black land-owning farmers and the role they played in the fight for rights — civil, voting, human — in Mississippi. It is an eye-opening, painful, powerful, important document of history. I could watch it on a loop for days.

Ruby McGee was the first Black person to be registered to vote in her county. Today, she owns and operates the family tree farm that gave her the freedom to take some of the chances she took as a young woman, that enabled her parents to run a Freedom School. She talks about what being a landowner gave her, says that it meant she didn’t have to work in white people’s kitchens. She talks about the idea of “knowledge is power” … and says no, “Land is power.”

And that resonated so deeply in my chest. I wanted to clap my hands and shout, “Yes!” It reminded me:

Got land to stand on,
then you can stand up,
stand up for your rights
as a woman, as a man.

“Achin’ for Acres” by Arrested Development was about exactly this, the power of owning where you live, owning the ground beneath your feet.

And it reminded me of my sadness, my personal heartache when family land has been lost, on my mother’s side, on my father’s. Those are pieces of ourselves we can never get back. I feel the empty spaces left by each even now, years later.

It reminded me of something I heard John Boyd Jr. say a while ago in an NPR profile piece: all of us are no more than two generations removed from somebody’s farm.

It reminded me of Constance Curry’s amazing book, Silver Rights, also about Mississipi.

This movie touched so many chords. And it spilled over into tonight’s chōka.

I have so much pride
seeing my ancestors fight
seeing them stand up
refusing to cave, to give.
This is what it means:
strength, power, faith, love, honor.
This is who we are,
fierce, unendingly stubborn
and sure. Sure of us,
sure of the fact we were right.
Sure that — live or die — we’d win.

My family isn’t from Mississippi — at least no one I’ve found yet — but Dirt and Deeds felt like home all the same.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.