Thursday, August 14, 2014

Insert metaphor here

I had a dream last night that I was back at the first elementary school I attended. In 1980-4 it was a modest brick affair, but in my dream it was a slick, multistory monstrosity. Rick was with me and we were the ages we are now but I felt lost and scared like a little kid.

I was freaking out about how much the school had changed and how big it was when I said to Rick, "You know, I've got this recurring dream that I'm in some school I used to go to, but it's big and different now and I'm lost. So this must be a dream. Let's see if I can fly." And I jumped off the top of a flight of stairs and landed at the bottom without incident.

I'm getting better at telling myself "this is a panic attack" or "this is a psychosomatic symptom you didn't have until someone mentioned it to you" or "you are depressed so you need to do the opposite of everything that seems like a good idea." I'm not as good as I want to be. My brain sucks. But at least every once in a while I tell myself "this is a dream" and it works. Thanks, brain. There may be hope for you yet.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Entitlement, ambition, or shut up and have a beer?

I believe you should never tell another person "at least you have your health" or "at least you have a roof over your head" because it's dismissive of their troubles and preachy to boot. Same applies for "first world problems" or "white people problems." I do think it's okay to tell yourself things like that so you keep perspective.

And I do. I'm grateful I haven't had major health problems in my life, especially as I get older and more and more of my friends deal with bullshit like cancer. I do sometimes lie there at the end of the day happy that I have a comfortable, warm bed to sleep in and no one in my house who wants to do me harm. I'm thankful to have a husband who can still stand the sight of me after all these years (just kidding, he actually loves me, the crazy bastard). I'm not big into making a lot of money or climbing a career ladder or having a nice car or a house in a zip code you understand. I may never make more money or have more prestige than I did as a 24-year-old imposter on the business writing scene. I write for fun. I don't mind that my job involves mopping floors. I like me. I'm good.

I like to think I don't ask for much.

It's an odd and foreign feeling to stomp around thinking "I DESERVE BETTER," but I've been doing a bit of that lately. I suffered from low self-esteem for so many years it feels weird to think I deserve things, especially since I know I have it better than most of the planet simply because my parents are white and raised me a place where no one was shooting at my neighbors. Where is the fine line between being thankful for what you've got and being happy eating shit? When do you stop shrugging and saying "don't sweat the small stuff" and decide that respect and support and room for growth may actually be Big Stuff? And after you decide you deserve more, how do you stay sane during the transition period where you do Annoying Grownup Things that involve settling for less?

To abuse Aimee Mann's metaphor: I'm watching the parade go by, and while I'm not sure I want to be waving from a float, I at least want a better spot in the crowd. There's a tall dude in a hat right in front of me and I'm getting a sunburn and I think I stepped in dogshit.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Hello Richmond my new friend

It's been an interesting year adjusting to being a homeowner and living in a new neighborhood. Richmond is misunderstood in the Bay Area. Yes, the crime was off-the-charts bad a few years ago. It's still way higher than it should be. But we've got a similar/lower crime rate *and* a more responsive police force than Oakland, which is a media and real estate darling. Go figure. It wasn't my first choice, but when you live within 50 miles of San Francisco and you want to buy a house and you don't have family "helping" you, you do what you gotta do to get your piece of the American Whatever.

Here's the thing. There are parts of Richmond that are seriously troubled. Like, type-of-neighborhoods-I-used-to-teach-in troubled (for you 4 long-time readers). There are parts, like Point Richmond, that are solidly middle-class/affluent and, gee, what a coincidence, super white. There are parts, like Richmond Annex, that abut El Cerrito and therefore cost more but I see no tangible benefit. There's the hills, and the hills are always perceived as being where we put our affluent people. I do not live in any of those places.

People with a real familiarity with Richmond -- people who live here, real estate agents -- ask me what part of Richmond and I tell them and they say, "Nice neighborhood!" And I agree. But it's not "nice" by our obnoxious dot-com 2.0 Bay Area standards. It's not nice like Mountain View or Noe Valley or Rockridge or Lafayette is "nice." We have a burglar alarm and we need one. I keep my eyes open and my phone away around the BART station. If it's late, it's only a mile to home from the station, but I grab a cab. It's a city, and a city with a dropping but still city-like crime rate, and I'm neither naive nor stupid.

It's worth it. It's worth it to own a home because we're not scared of a place where the real estate is cheaper because people are scared. It's worth it to live in a neighborhood where my neighbors are every color and several socioeconomic classes. It's worth it because I love the food that's available when you have lots of immigrants for neighbors. It's worth it because even if I had a million dollars cash to buy a house in a neighborhood most Bay Area people would understand, I wouldn't want to live somewhere you need the HOA's permission to paint your house purple, or where you'll get judged for having a crappy lawn or a crappy car (we have both). I'm not gonna start Fight Club here but I'm not my fucking khakis either.

Of course, the elephant in the room is that I'm probably a gentrifier. There are plenty of white people in my neighborhood -- I sometimes see them walking their dogs -- but they're old. And I don't see them at the taco trucks or at the train station. I'm constantly told I look about 10 years younger than I am so I can't help but think people see me in my hoodie and think "Oh shit, the kids who can't afford Oakland anymore are coming." My life in LA gave me good training for being the only gabacha in a place, so I'm not weird about it, but I wonder if I'm welcome. Then again, my neighborhood mailing list occasionally talks about things like nannies and housekeepers so there have got to be some actual capital-G Gentry in this place hiding in their houses -- which makes me feel better about myself but maybe I shouldn't. And yes, I realize I'm conflating whiteness and affluence even though most poor people in this country are white. The Bay Area, however, in many ways, is not this country
As a homeowner, of course I want the value of my house to go up. I want the broken-down vacant houses to get fixed up. I don't want to get mugged and I don't want my neighbors to throw trash out their car windows. But I want this to continue to be the kind of neighborhood where big working-class families can continue to make a life, and that's economic. I want it to be a place professional people of color continue to live because it's predominantly not-white, and that's demographic. Rick and I not at all rich by Bay Area standards, but we're DINKs and we do okay money-wise and there's certainly no denying that we're white as hell. And how hard is the shit gonna hit the fan if I'm the one who someday puts a beer bar in this town? (I promise to have a full selection of Mexican beer no matter how much my beer nerd fans make fun of me.)

I figure all I can do is keep spending money in the community, saying hi to my neighbors (even the ones who don't reply) and living my life. I do wonder who'll be moving in as the old white people, one way or another, move out. I wonder what rough neighborhoods like the Iron Triangle are in for once the type of people who like "grit" and feeling like "pioneers" realize it's next to BART and costs practically nothing. (Me, I moved to the nicest neighborhood we could afford that had what we were looking for). I wonder about how to make a neighborhood better without changing its culture. (Picking up trash? Volunteering with the people who capture, fix, and release feral cats? God forbid, tutoring some kids? Just keep my lawn from looking like shit?)

I don't have answers. I'm torn between wanting to defend my new community against mass ignorance and wanting to keep it a secret so it doesn't get vultured by...well...people like me, I guess.

Ah well. As one of the three trillion blog posts on SF/Oakland gentrification put it recently, right now in the Bay Area you're either the gentrifier or the gentrified. Communities change and I'm not sure there's anything one honkey in Richmond can do to either accelerate or prevent it. All I know is I like this town. I hope it even remotely likes me.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Of course. That is the way of the world.

(Trigger warning, I guess.)

There's a woman whose blog I read. It's not a low-profile blog but I still feel weird naming it or linking to it because of what I'm about to say, so I'm not going to. She goes to a troubled neighborhood and writes about what she sees there. When I say "troubled neighborhood," I mean worse than anything I saw in LA. Or at least, as bad as the places I worked in LA but she goes deeper. She hits the streets and befriends junkies and prostitutes. People living in crack houses, people living under bridges, people living with abusive pimps. People dying of AIDS, or of drugs, or of no drugs, or of everything. It's astounding. I've seen some shit in my time and made myself uncomfortable at times trying to do the right things for people no one else seemed to be helping out, but she is doing scarier, braver, more dangerous things and has been for some time.

I really respect this woman, as much as you can respect someone you don't know personally. I also always thought, "I hope nothing happens to her down there." Of course things happen down there, but you know...happen happen. Violence. I worried. Not because I'm racist or classist or whateverist. But because I know that extreme poverty and hardcore junk addiction and bouncing in and out of prison and feeling trapped in sex work and being hungry and having no stable housing and no stable family or social network can do things to otherwise good people. Because I know that good people living in troubled neighborhoods know people who the neighborhood has turned into not-good people. Because I wasn't born yesterday and once you've had multiple students tell you about watching family members get murdered in front of them you lose a little hope for anyone spending lots of time in America's most downtrodden blocks.

This blogger got raped in broad daylight. I kept thinking, oh my god stranger rape...that still happens? Have I ever been anywhere you can just get dragged into an alley at 3pm (3pm!) and raped by someone you've never seen before? I've been reading about this kind of thing happening in India, but I like to think even America's most third-world cities have their shit more together than this.

Then again. She never *said* it was stranger rape. Nor does she say was someone she knew. She doesn't say. He told her not to look at him. I don't know. And it's none of my business, but I'm thinking about it anyway. It could have been, if not someone she knew, someone who knew her. Someone's pimp or dealer who didn't like the outsider hanging around with a tape recorder. Someone who'd followed her from one part of the city to a block where she didn't have so many friends willing to take revenge for her. Sometimes you make enemies just by being from elsewhere, just by being well-meaning, just by "interfering."

Or maybe it was a total stranger and she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Look, rape happens everywhere. Some of the highest-profile cases of horrible gang rape have been in white and/or affluent communities (Glen Ridge, Steubenville.) It's easy to get racist/classist when it happens somewhere else (Richmond High...which, oh hai, I now live walking distance from). That's exactly why this woman hesitated to reveal her assault...she didn't want anyone casting aspersions on the neighborhood she's grown to love, the challenging people she's befriended, or people who look different or have less money in the bank than we do.

It's possible this woman was monumentally unlucky and if she'd stayed at work 5 minutes longer someone else would have crossed paths with a man intent on raping a stranger that day.

It's also possible no good deed goes unpushished. And if you think that goes just for poor people or brown people or addicts or felons, you may not have started paying attention yet.

Or, as Alex Haley wrote in Roots:

And she would begin in the way that all Mandinka story-tellers began: "At this certain time, in this certain village, lived this certain person." It was a small boy of about their rains, who walked to the riverbank one day and found a crocodile trapped in a net.

"Help me!" the crocodile cried out.

"You'll kill me!" cried the boy.

"No! Come nearer!" said the crocodile.

So the boy went up to the crocodile--and instantly was seized by the teeth in that long mouth.

"Is this how you repay my goodness--with badness?" cried the boy.

"Of course," said the crocodile out of the corner of his mouth. "That is the way of the world."

The boy refused to believe that, so the crocodile agreed not to swallow him without getting an opinion from the first three witnesses to pass by. First was an old donkey.

When the boy asked his opinion, the donkey said, "Now that I'm old and can no longer work, my master has driven me out for the leopards to get me!"

"See?" said the crocodile. Next to pass by was an old horse, who had the same opinion.

"See?" said the crocodile. Then along came a plump rabbit who said, "Well, I can't give a good opinion without seeing this matter as it happened from the beginning."

Grumbling, the crocodile opened his mouth to tell him--and the boy jumped out to safety on the riverbank.

"Do you like crocodile meat?" asked the rabbit. The boy said yes. "And do your parents?" He said yes again. "Then here is a crocodile ready for the pot."

The boy ran off and returned with the men of the village, who helped him to kill the crocodile. But they brought with them a wuolo dog, which chased and caught and killed the rabbit, too.

"So, the crocodile was right," said Nyo Boto. "It is the way of the world that goodness is often repaid with badness. That is what I have told you as a story."

Friday, August 23, 2013

My alternate life in which I moved to DC, part 3: Smash, trash, and whiskey

Remember record stores?

There were some bad ones, like the one in Middletown where Owen asked for Portishead in 1996 and they had no idea what he was talking about. There were some solid corporate options, like the Tower Records at the ass-end of Newbury Street where I wasted half the late 90s listening to demo CDs on headphones I now remember as comically big.

There was my three weeks in DC in 1992, and there was Smash.

I had a small amount of spending money from my parents and from my previous summer as a counselor at nerd camp and I think I spent it all on $3.05 Big Mac value meals (don't judge) and cassettes at this little indie music store that made me feel twelve times cooler than usual just for walking in the door.

From the website:
"SMASH! Records opened in Georgetown in 1984 and has been the premier punk and alternative music and clothing store in Washington, D.C. Smash! specializes in punk, indie and alternative rock and roll CD’s, LP’s and 7″s as well as Vintage and Indie Designer fashions.

"In the summer of 2006 we closed our longstanding location in Georgetown, and have since relocated to Adams Morgan. Visit us at 2314 18th St NW (1st Floor), Washington, D.C. We’re on the Facebook and the Etsy, and we have the Twitters!"

Turns out there's also beer in Adams Morgan these days. And there were long stretches of time this March where, despite knowing actually TOO many people at the Craft Brewers Conference (and can they please all stop asking me questions I can't answer about that place I used to work?) I had a lot of missed connections, crossed texts, and solo headspace. I had ample time to browse the used CD bins at Smash. I had no one to be confused by how happy I was to see this neon sign again after almost 22 years.


It's smaller now -- no surprise. It was empty -- sadly, no surprise either. The young lad behind the counter looked bored to death. I still felt twelve times cooler just for walking in the door.

It was great to be back inside (sort location) and also sad. The internet giveth but the internet taketh away. I bought a Pulp CD for $3 then waited in a long line at the overly-lit Ben's Chili Bowl and got a hot dog. Things no DC tourist does and things every DC tourist does.

The final tourist stop of my introspective night was Busboys and Poets, a bookstore/cafe/bar that's in all the guidebooks. (Remember bookstores? Oh fuck, Jen, get over it...) I told the bartender I was in town for the beer conference and to please make me something not-too-sweet with liquor in it because I was sick of beer. He gave me what I gather is his go-to whiskey cocktail for idiots like me. I realize I am the booze equivalent of the people who come into specialty beer bars and say shit like "I want an IPA, but nothing too hoppy." Didn't care at that moment.


I bought a Trashball from the vending machine. It had a used Czech postage stamp in it.


Sipping my very tasty cocktail-for-dummies and zoning out on the mural behind the bar, I was having another "this is what life might be if I was single and living in DC" moment. Because I would assuredly be single today if I'd gone directly from Jersey to DC without passing Go, and drinking whiskey in a bookstore on a Wednesday might have been just about typical. Just then the middle-aged black guy next to me tried to buy me a drink after he got done buying a drink for the Brazilian volleyball player -- no surprise you struck out there, dude -- but I was one-and-done which is always the most polite excuse anyway.

It was time to head back to the hostel and it was a nice, quiet walk with my nice, quiet one-whiskey mini-buzz. Everywhere I walked that night took me through neighborhoods you weren't supposed to walk through back in the day, and maybe still aren't. I kept alert and it seemed fine. DC, I'm sure you've still got your sketchy bits but you are one gentrified motherfucker. Thank you for still having a punk rock record store and a bookstore with a bar in it.