The Uglier Side of Paradise

By Nicole Gervasio

            In the city where I come from in New Jersey, there are no roses or daisies, but sometimes you’ll find a dandelion straightening up from the spines in the sidewalk.  Cars shoulder the street like bumpers in a bowling lane since nobody has garages.  The houses are not as close to each other as they are in many other parts of Trenton; many are either semi-detached duplexes or free-standing row-houses, like the one where I live.  Its white front is turning color like the tired rot of an egg.  Scratches splay spider webs of aluminum underlay across the siding, especially near the front door knob, where my mother always fumbles her key against the jamb at night. 

            Six years ago, I walked around my block by myself for the first time in my life.  Before that, my mother had kept me and my younger sister locked away, as if our crumbling home was Rapunzel’s tower.  We would often complain about not being allowed to play outside during snow days or walk to the park at the end of our street.  My mother would remind us that the kids cavorting through the snow had alcoholics for parents, drug dealers hung out by the swings, and our neighbors were all Puerto Rican and Jamaican immigrants, which, of course, meant that they carried criminality like a disease.

            While taking that first walk, the one that I had coveted for so many years, my mother’s warnings squawked in my ears.  I rounded the corner slowly at first, then more briskly as I became aware of the silence in the crippled trees, the flicker of a porch light, snickering men on the corner ahead.  I feared them because I had been taught to fear them, because they were poor or desperate or angry, even though I was poor and would soon enough share those other two traits as well.

            I wasn’t able to enjoy the freedom of my own feet; I ran home.

                                                                                                                *

            Now I have strolled along the bridges of Stockholm and through the graffiti, the railroad underpasses, and the hibiscus bushes of Cape Town, where gangs of adolescent boys menace the stairwell of the train station at dusk.  Yet I have still only ever driven past the public high school that stands barely three blocks from my home.  I have only seen the strip of fried chicken joints, five-and-dimes, and check cashing kiosks on the way to my suburban Catholic high school from behind a car window.  I have gone too far from what I know by living in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, where I moved for college three years ago.  I had never imagined how quickly my working-class culture would fade indiscernibly into the suburban sprawl.  Some would say that I’ve “come a long way,” as if to congratulate, but I have only come a long way lost, shorn of the hardness, the bone and glass that make Trenton so familiar.  I feel like a creature of wire rusting in a wilderness of daisies and dogwoods, supposed beauty.

            While taking a walk through Garrett Hill, a narrow street that shoulders the left side of the park next to my apartment building in Bryn Mawr, I was hoping to glimpse a semblance of home.  The mansions that line the streets along the rest of Lancaster Avenue, the main road, disappear there, but the desolation that results looks a little more capricious than real.  Parked cars congest the road.  The colors of the semi-detached dwellings feign cheer— celery green, butterscotch, pink. 

            On that day, the weather was unnaturally warm for January, as if to spite the snow still clinging to the ground.  I was already chastising myself for bringing my dog along for the task.  As she pranced in her snowsuit at my side, my own complicity in the elitism of the Main Line revolted me.  I looked like any wannabe trophy wife in an ivory pea coat, watching her spoiled, hairless dog wrap its leash around garbage cans and belly flop into puddles as she ventures voyeuristically into the “ghetto.”  But more so, I resented myself for not being able to be alone, with only my own thoughts pounding in my head, without distractions or responsibilities to anyone else.

            So, part of me was relieved to find that the “ghetto” wasn’t especially like the kind that the other part of me had hoped to find.  The houses on Garrett Hill were more exhibitionistic in their degradation than in Trenton.  Their windows laid everything bare, agape without curtains, revealing foyers, eyeless dolls, a wheel from a ship’s helm now hanging as décor, heaps of sticky, defiled action figures, other doors.  Many advertised green “Save Garrett Hill” signs because the township intends to efface the street like a plastic surgery scar and cover up its failures, its humiliations. 

            The front yards there were shameful, all depression on display.  In Trenton, you could tell how poor your neighbor was by the state of his backyard.  Piles of dead leaves, dry thrush, jaundiced grass, minefields of dog feces, and warped wire fencing all pointed to a caretaker who didn’t have the time or money to devote to landscaping.  Moreover, backyards were hidden, unless you walked between alleyways or looked from above.  I used to have a vantage point like that, perched on the awning outside of my bedroom window and tossing cigarette butts into the leaf gutter.  We approached our bankruptcy with discretion, especially once it infiltrated our hearts.  But on Garrett Hill, the front yards showed these lazy attempts at redemption, decorations mingled with wiry shrubs and ruptured trash bags.  A bush of tiger lilies bordered with bricks loomed in front of one house.  It reminded me of the one my grandma used to keep in her front yard in a different part of Trenton.  All of its buds were closed tightly like traps against the winter, overgrown and ravaged by thirst.  In another yard, squash and pumpkins, deflated like basketballs, sunk into the mud, set out for a holiday three months ago and never retrieved. 

            The chicken wire encircling a few of the front yards did pack a stab of familiarity.  I hadn’t realized its absence until it appeared here, a familiar safeguard in this incongruous place, where the houses on all the other streets are lined with pickets and stone.  Splinters of emerald glass glittered on the pavement, right next to my dog’s paws.  I yanked her back, surprised not to have expected there to be a broken bottle on the sidewalk. 

            Even so, this wasn’t the urban squalor that I had expected.  It is true that it may have been something even more insidious—the breakdown of middle class pride, evidence of begrudging humility, of a malcontent that might not even be justified.  A closer look at the cars betrayed their owners’ statuses—Volvos, Hondas, Volkswagens.  The black woman in a purple business suit climbing into her car on the other side of the street was not a black woman in a torn Mickey Mouse t-shirt corralling her kids into a yellow school bus racked with its own exhaust.  I also saw a Chinese family squabbling at the trunk of their S.U.V. in a language that sounded to me like wind chimes— musical, but rushed.  In Trenton, there would have been a Guatemalan family chattering in Spanish on their front porch, drinking beer and blasting salsa music.  I would have understood fragments, I would have wanted to know them, know what inspired them to dance to such supple music, what made them laugh so loudly, so effortlessly, when my house was so ungodly quiet.  That inescapable disconnect was the reason why being the child of two working-class parents was the only source of cultural identity that I had.  A culture founded in poverty may not have been glamorous or even gratifying, but at least I belonged somewhere, even if that place was austere, naked of the warmth that emanated from the boom boxes on my Hispanic neighbors’ porches. 

            Since leaving for college, though, education had only alienated me further.  No longer equipped with the slang or the vocabulary to communicate, bored with the interests that stimulated conversation back home— with even my accent diluted— I had found that rising in success was only separating me farther and farther from the patchwork of industrialized, smoking earth that I knew.

            So on Garrett Hill, with this family shrieking, two teenaged boys shoving hockey sticks at each other’s chests while their parents threw their hands into the air, I didn’t really care about their angst.  I only knew, with much gravity, that if they had lived in the ghetto like I had, they would not miss it—even if they had only slept there without living there, like I had, and had never known what they had lost.

            My walk had reached a dead end: a house with white aluminum siding stood next to me at the farthest corner.  It shined, and its façade was wholly unconvincing.  This was what people wanted, wasn’t it?  Suburbia, a sturdy footing on the proverbial ladder, a security guard and a Mercedes?  Everyone always used to talk about “getting out of the neighborhood,” and they weren’t wrong.  For most people, it was a trap, an unrelenting cycle of service sector or unskilled jobs, unemployment, or drug trade.  But here, I had “made” it; I would be the first in my family to get a Ph.D., maybe even the first person on my block.  Nevertheless I couldn’t help but feel that every time I ventured home, I would feel a little bit less safe.  I would resent myself for the distance that I have created, despite all its promises for opportunity and a good life.  While the neighbors continued their battle with inescapability, I retreated with my dog to the park on the other end of the street, and the smell of the mud on my flats stung of rock salt, the uglier side of paradise.

*

Postscript

            I wrote this essay in response to a prompt to “write about a walk, a la Henry David Thoreau” for my creative nonfiction class.  It was 2009, and I was a junior at Bryn Mawr.  To be blunt, I still knew next to shit about nature.  I thought the best I could do was walk through somewhere familiar and give it shape.  The trouble was that there wasn’t anywhere familiar, so I settled for the closest corridor to “urban” that Bryn Mawr has to offer.  That alone is laughable now.

            Rereading it, my language startles me more than anything else.  It’s beautiful nonsense, really.  Lyrical, intelligent, probably pleasant to read, but frankly, it’s downright lifeless.  Aside from the poetry, it’s got next to nothing of me in it. 

            This draws the question, so what is this “me?”  What’s missing?  I perform myself here like a character in a Jane Austen novel, girdled up to my neck in scratchy cotton and reading aloud to a room of nodding, corpuscular men while I pretend not to notice I’m sweating through my armpits.  What I really am is an English major who graduated from a women’s college without ever having read a Jane Austen novel (you can go ahead and think that’s shameful or inconceivable all you want, but it’s still the truth).  I’m a loud, bawdy, increasingly tattooed lesbian with a vicious sense of humor.  I have a tendency to throw my head back when I rack a room with my cackling, probably because I was raised in a family where our usual mode of communication involved extreme decibels uninflected with emotion.  I have zero pretensions about how long I’ve owned the clothes I wear.  I’ll probably scowl at you if you try to engage me with your unmatchable savvy for French film or your foolproof plan for resolving “the conflict” between Israel and Palestine.  I embrace contractions, and I curse every fucking chance I get.

            So, why does this personal essay sound so alien?  There are myriad reasons, not all of which orbit the college I chose.  Some of the important ones do, though.  By the time I wrote that essay, I was working two part-time jobs on top of a research fellowship to cover my living expenses and to start saving for my student loans.  I had moved off campus a year before to save extra cash.  I had received a Beinecke Scholarship, which funds students “of exceptional promise” to attend graduate school in the humanities and social sciences.  Like the Mellon Mays Fellowship I had already received, it had a financial need component. 

            Rather than dwell on the likely reality that I was being tokenized for my lack of socioeconomic privilege, I decided to capitalize on the boons my lower class finally seemed to be making available to me.  I sensed that I would need a persona that would be compatible with these benefactors’ aims.  I had also already spent years feeling deeply uncomfortable when the issue of class came up around my peers—when I would have to explain again that I couldn’t go to a movie because I needed to pick up an extra shift at the dining hall, when a coworker would compliment me on a skirt that I’d sewed back together, when I wore pearls to my college seminar and sensed that everyone knew I was a fake.  I felt like I had finally discovered how to bridge those worlds in a way that made me plausible.  I would volunteer for the background role of smart girl from the hood.  Maybe I would get the chance to educate people once I’d tricked them into thinking I was one of them from the way I dressed and spoke.  I’d stop allowing my aloofness and easy disdain—what my father has always referred to as my “antisocial behavior”—to alienate myself.  Basically, I cleaned myself up into a poster child under the pretenses that Bryn Mawr needed more stories like mine.

            I became a leader in a community I had never felt kinship for, solely because I believed in certain principles—the right of the diversity-based arts magazine to thrive, the necessity for our historical feminist newspaper to survive, etc.  I stopped using vulgar colloquialisms in meetings with my professors (most of them were some variation of “ass,” like, “You’re right that I only half-assed that paper,” or, “F. Scott Fitzgerald had a stick up his ass, huh?”).  I deeply shamed myself whenever I lapsed.  I stopped crusading for a broader discussion of class [1] and mentioning the following aspects of life at any given table: sex, heavy drinking, rap music, post-industrial poverty, and racial tension.  Safe topics included: baking, homework, studying, my dog, and internships (ostensibly which I couldn’t afford to have but vied for anyway, just for the sake of participating).

            Even though I supposedly didn’t attend a finishing school, I accustomed myself to crossing my legs habitually and only speaking in a voice that was highly academic in its opinions and, therefore, respectable and intensely credible.  In short, I trained myself to become a woman who people didn’t mind seeing, listening to, and believing.

            In retrospect, I wish I had been able to take the ivy less seriously when I was at Bryn Mawr.  If I’d laughed at the lacey skirts on the cafeteria tables at Christmas and the profusion of Ann Taylor and J. Crew at the clothing swap in the Campus Center, I might have felt more able to have fun.[2]  I only had one genuine social class discussion by the time I left Bryn Mawr, and it was with a psychologist-in-training from Widener University.  She was researching how first-generation students dealt with class pressures at elite colleges.  I am not surprised that the one time I was heard, I was a subject of study.

            Distance from Bryn Mawr—both temporal and geographic—has admittedly inured me with an appreciation for the place and its people that I had never possessed while there.  After graduation, I moved to San Francisco to work in online sales at Google.  I started reconnecting with the classmates who I’d been so remote from, even some of the ones who I had initially considered intolerably snobby when we first met.  Time and again, I was surprised to find that, rich or poor, we’d all grown up.  No one felt the need to flaunt their privilege or lack thereof anymore.  Frankly, the barely financially feasible nonprofit jobs, Americorps positions, temp work, and unrelenting state of unemployment in which many of my peers found themselves post-grad did a lot to humble us all.  Suddenly we could all only afford nights that consisted solely of Red Stripe lager, bittersweet humor, and the absence of cable, and we could be friends without the pressure of assimilating.

            I can look back now and see that yes, I really have come a very long way.  When it comes right down to it, I can’t fault Bryn Mawr for everything it did for me.  This fall, I’ll be starting a doctorate program in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where I’ll specialize in queer and postcolonial theory.  The Beinecke led to a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, a scholarship that the federal government awards based solely on merit and financial need.  Perhaps the irony is that it will afford me the highest stipend currently possible for a humanities Ph.D., which will still be only a baby’s step beyond the poverty line.  Even so, I do feel lucky that it won’t be such a startling shift for me; maybe in some strange way, it will build the bridge home.



[1] By that next semester, my second-to-last, any hope for such a talk would extinguish entirely.  I was a teaching assistant for a Growth & Structure of Cities class that I had loved as a freshman.  My professor had suggested I lead the portion on socioeconomic identity.  When I polled my students to define the ever-elusive term “working-class” for me, one freshman Mawrtyr actually said, “People who aren’t educated and probably come from bad neighborhoods where they do drugs.”  I gave her the half-grin I’d trained myself to deliver every time a tendril of me shriveled up and died inside.

[2] In fact, a girl in my English class once wore a black pinstripe blouse that I’d thrown into the swap.  I’d bought it from the DEB Shop in Quakerbridge Mall, probably when I was fourteen.  The DEB Shop is full of hoochie prom dresses and peasant tunics made in China, besides pinstripe blouses.  I wondered if she had known, whether she would have cared.  Probably not, given that she was probably just like me.

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