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.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

My alternate life in which I moved to DC, part 2

Untitled, originally uploaded by Jen and Rick.

A friend of mine who I hung out with in LA moved to DC for a while after grad school. As I discussed in the previous post, I had a lot of warm fuzzies for DC because it afforded me rare opportunities to hang out away from home and unsupervised. She...she didn't like the place. I'm sure someone reading this lives in and loves DC so I'll spare you her exact vitriol.

This chalkboard in a coffeeshop, however, was my first inkling that I really need not regret leaving the district behind for my eventual weirdo lives in Europe and California and even Boston.

"If you can go shopping, where would you go?" Hermes! Aruba! Louis V! Mall of America! There seems to be not a trace of irony here (except in the person who wrote "Wal-Mart.") And yes, DC does seem to be the sort of town that shops. And gets its hair done. And shops some more.

Not gonna judge a place by one chalkboard in one coffeeshop, but call it Exhibit A in support of my friend who thought DC was...well...worse than LA. One man's trash, etc.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

This day in solipsism: my alternate life in which I moved to DC, part 1

March 2013. July 1992. They both seem far away somehow.

Back in March, before I started two new jobs and even further withdrew from the huge chunk of my Bay Area social life that used to revolve around one bar, I went on a trip to the East Coast. The point was to attend the Craft Brewers Conference, which was in DC this year. I figured if I was going all the way out there I might as well see my parents in Jersey too. I flew into New York first and got to spend time with an old friend I don't see often and her wife who I only met at their wedding. I walked around Park Slope and ate a legit Brooklyn pizza and had a couple of local beers and all was well in the universe.

DC is an interesting place I don't really understand. It was a big field trip destination for Jersey kids like me so it, like New York, came to represent all the untapped potential of Fancy City Grownup Life. Looking back it's weird that a bunch of 15-year-olds were left unsupervised hundreds of miles from home on a class trip in a strange city with the agreement that we'd all meet back at the bus later. It was a different time? (Am I that old?)

We went for the day with our 10th grade history class -- a Hara Krishna tried to turn me vegetarian outside the Air and Space museum. In 2013, I went to a giant beer industry party in the Air and Space museum. Huh.

We went for a week with our 12th grade government class -- my trio of gal-pals engaged in low-grade rebellion like browsing in a sex store, eating raw fish (ew!) and buying (and mostly not smoking) cigars. In 2013, I went back to the site of our then-exotic food explorations (Greek food!) which, as it turns out, was Union Station. I can barely remember a version of me that was excited by any food you could get in a train station.

In the spring of '92, I went to the giant pro-choice march on Washington. I was totally that kid with the t-shirts that said things like "A Woman's Place Is In The House...and Senate!" I was very earnest. I was also starved for life experience and desperate to get out of my hometown. Any day somewhere else was more thrilling than it should have been. With apologies to my four high school friends also in the picture (who am I kidding, they're not reading) ...dig this shit:

Jean jackets and/or feminist t-shirts for everyone!

In 2013, the Mall was empty, as it is on a normal day.
Reproductive rights are still somehow an issue. But a couple of miles away, the Supreme Court was in its first week of hearing arguments about DOMA, and later did the right thing, so there's that.

I spent most of July 1992 in DC at a summer journalism program at American University. Back then, I was going to be a journalist. That was before it fully sunk in that journalism meant doing things like asking people awkward questions and talking on the phone to strangers. The most valuable part of that trip was meeting kids from elsewhere. High school was pretty much torture for me, and it was nice to enter my fourth year of it with the knowledge that once I left town people liked me. My BFF for the month was a punk girl from Massachusetts, and my white-bread Morrisssey-loving alternateen ass was the closest thing she had to a punk friend in DC, so we spent a lot of time together hanging out at this one cool record store. This is a picture she took of me. Remember when sharing photos with friends involved having the photo lab make you a double and handing it to your friend? This one even came in the mail.

I guess I was pretty excited about my new Ministry cassette. Isn't that the most early-90s thing you've ever seen? Holy shit I am wearing striped tights and jorts. I SAID IT WAS A DIFFERENT TIME OKAY? Babies born the month this photo was taken can legally drink now.

There's an alternate universe where I went to American for college, majored in journalism, settled in the DC suburbs, and never left. Instead my parents pushed me towards a more prestigious college, which was both good and bad, where I triple-majored in "English," over-self-analysis, and wasting time on the nascent Internet. I'm glad I didn't go to American. I'm glad I never became a journalist in the classic Lois Lane sense of the word. I have very mixed feelings about my college years, but without them I wouldn't be where I am now so that's fine. I'm glad I spent a few days alone in DC as an adult so I could solidify all this gladness. Sometimes things work out for the best.

Coming soon: I return to that one cool record store, and to the warehouse club with the scary bathroom and the goats.