gall and gumption

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Barrio to Barrio

One reason for the long silence is that I've finally moved out of the Underground Cave. I've moved to the edge of another barrio, in Takoma Park.

You know, for years, when she was alive, my grandmother "Mama" mostly traveled. "A rolling stone gathers no moss" was her motto. And her travels took her repeatedly through the Silver Spring/Washington area, where she had one son living and an impressive assortment of world-class daffy old lady friends. I never met any of these people, but I heard stories about them from Mama and from my mother. There was one set of twins I recall named Mary and Martha, and they were both enormously fat -- too fat to move much apparently, and they sold Mary Kay cosmetics, it was like they had been completely taken over by Mary Kay, it was their whole life. Mama told my mother that the two sisters shared an apartment, but, disinclined to get up out of bed most of the time, spoke to each other by phone. And then they had this mentally ill brother whose name I don't remember, who occasionally flipped out and had to be restrained. It was on my first trip to England, I think, that my grandmother (who was also there) told my mother she was looking for a knife. She was always buying little presents for people who she thought needed a little extra kindness or who had been particularly nice to her. "Nobody thinks of him, poor fellow," she would say in justification of the pair of, for example, underpants. She had asked the brother what he wanted her to bring back from England and he had said "A big knife."

I remember hearing all this from my mother in one of those long talks we used to have when I was in my teens. They were monologues to which I listened all sympathy and awe. My mother regards bitching as a vice and no longer does it, but in those days she was a champ. I can only dimly convey to you the great rush of baffled irritation and wonder in which all these details came surging forth, concluding, "So then I said, 'Mama. Just stop and think for a minute.'"

And so now I find myself living in a place that looks as if it had been designed with Mama in mind, and that was, for many years, her stomping ground. When she wasn't in Jamaica or England, she was around here somewhere. What she would have liked is all these nice big solid apartment buildings along a main road where you could step out of your door, walk half a block to the supermarket or the post office or the library or the community center (always good for a laugh) or hop on a bus and go -- well, wherever you damn well pleased, nowhere special even, just watching the people and the scenery.

What the builders probably never quite imagined is that all these little apartment buildings would become almost entirely occupied by El Salvadorean immigrants, who all make very good use of all this wonderful convenience. I live a couple blocks off one of the main roads in a little forgotten neighborhood of small single-family houses and small apartment houses that just look like bigger houses, all built when "small, modest house" didn't mean "cheap little box." It's a mix of immigrants (Africans, a few Asians, West Indians), hippies, and just ordinary Americans of all colors.

When I was living in Mt. Pleasant, in DC, in the Underground Cave, I used to marvel at the prodigies of drinking that occurred on the streets around there. One of my last nights there my cousin had stopped by to discuss some details of my move, and as I was walking back across the street to the Cave a man popped up out of the alley and asked me the time, in Spanish. I didn't have my phone with me, so I didn't know the time. But the two sisters, Sherry and Terry or possibly Terry and Sherry, were out on their porch and answered before I could explain. "What do you need to know the time for when you're drunk at eleven o'clock at night in the alley? Go on back in the alley and quit bothering people!" And the man meekly went back into the alley. Out here it's a little different. I don't have the drunks right on my doorstep and there isn't the constant police presence -- the one time I could't find a cop was the morning a few weeks ago when a crazy man followed me six blocks threatening to kill Misha. I wasn't scared, and I was pretty sure he would get the worst of any encounter with Misha. But I didn't want him to catch me just the same. Not a cop to be seen. A friend at work, who used to be married to a DC cop, says they disappear when they know crazy people are around because they don't want to have to deal with them. I like that theory, though I suspect it's more poetry than science. Though one day I did see a patrol car fleeing from a female voice calling, "Police! Poleeeeeece!" rather breathlessly. She came out of an alley, a large young black woman, and they sped away as quickly as they could, pretending they couldn't hear.

Well there is much less apparent craziness out where I am. In the old neighborhood what was apparent was that a lot of the men who did the drinking were single, alone here, mostly without the emotional support of their families. Well, the comparison that came to me was with the English who went out to the colonies like Jamaica for instance, alone. Some would do okay, make their fresh start, and others would fall victim to loneliness and tedium and just the hardships of this life of exile, and maybe they'd take up drinking hard. Because it's not an easy life.

Although the neighborhood was physically integrated -- you had Latino construction workers, long-established black families, college students, and middle-class whites all living on the same block, which was wonderful -- there was a fair amount of social segregation. Blacks and whites talked to each other, and the long-established immigrants who had bought their own houses might share with their black and white neighbors a sense of belonging to the neighborhood, but there was this whole group of people who lived in a sort of interior El Salvador sort of overlaid on top of all this and didn't really come out of it. Language was a barrier, certainly, but also so many foreign things about the culture they found themselves in. People can only take in a little bit of that at a time; they've got crap jobs to go to, sometimes two of those per person, and then they've got their families and their connections with home and all their obligations and commitments, and social support in all of this is found within the community, for better or worse.

When I was living at the Tick Ranch and working in Loudoun County, Va., it was a different picture. I was just north of the border with Prince William County, which is heavily populated with immigrants. Men would work or look for work along Highway 50, that really ugly stretch of strip mallage extending from Arlington all the way out to the very edge of the DC exurbs. I would drive along Highway 50 and see these guys riding bicycles or walking in the bitter cold. They had to be living in constant fear of the police. Virginia has committed itself, with some success, to making them feel as unwelcome as possible.

I mean, I never understood this. I would drive through the Stepford Subdivision near the Tick Ranch, and all the landscaping in the common areas was done by crews of Latino men. And then it seemed that the "native" Virginians were spending all their time thinking up more and more draconian measures for making the life of immigrants more unpleasant. Moreover, when the economic consequences of the housing and credit bubble first began to spread, it was immigrants who felt it first, the ones who had opened small businesses like restaurants, for example. This is a hard uncertain life they undertake here. I actually did some reporting on this when I was in Sonoma County and I know how vulnerable, how at a disadvantage in every respect, these workers are.

And I am sorry, I don't care what you say, but I see all this law enforcement activity against them as simply the operating arm of a hysterical, mean-spirited ignorance and hate and yes, racism. Before I am willing to listen to any discussion of policy that has to be dealt with honestly. The claim that it's the illegality of the immigrants that is objectionable is a lie made in bad faith. "They're taking our jobs and using our taxpayer-funded services." These things are first of all not true and second of all even if they were, so what? Did you want that weed-whacking job? It's a lie when people tell you that they need a whole lot of scientific and authoritative proof to behave compassionately and decently to other people. Why not start with the compassion, why not start with being less ignorant, why not start with a mistrust of all impulses toward others that result in their material suffering? Is there any earthly reason not to start there?

That is the argument to have. The amateur haggling over the details and refinement of policy preferences (aka total fantasies), as far as I am concerned, is a mental pastime for cranks and bigots, mostly based on a self-serving, bogus, and costly notion of what it is to be an American, and on inexcusable ignorance about how the rest of the world lives.

And if you want facts, well, Bob -- an unfailingly trustworthy critic -- just favorably reviewed this book by Leo R. Chavez, The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation. Bob thinks Chavez way too nice about it. Being Bob, he says it nicely, much more nicely than I would.