Sunday, February 7, 2010

Brother of the Stranger

Back in New York, I was a graduate student mom, and my husband was an Irish guy who would go down the corner to the pub, which happened also to have been the site of both our wedding reception and our son's baptism party.  In the small city in northern Appalachia where we now live, my husband is a man in a visible position, and I am . . . the wife of a man in a visible position.  It took us a while to figure this out.  It's hard to overestimate the anonymity of New York City, where you could have easily found ten thousand people almost exactly like each of us (but that anonymity is the reason that so many people decamp for New York from depressed post-industrial towns just like this one, anyway).

When we arrived here, my husband sought in vain for a pub like any of the couple of dozen back in our old neighborhood, but none appeared.  As for me, coming to a place that required driving skills when I had none gave me a unique perspective into our town, one that I have come to believe the town's boosters have missed entirely.  I walked everywhere, just like in New York, and also took buses and cabs; but it was nothing like walking and taking buses and cabs in New York, which are done by everybody.  In a place like this, cabs (as well as buses and hoofing it) are for those who are too poor to own cars, which, in a place like this, means very poor indeed.  So, in spite of the fact that I am something I never dreamt of being -- a prominent man's small-town wife -- I have come to see some things in our new town from the perspective of the local poor, and what I see has been disturbing to me.

New York is full of poor people, too, but -- or at least so it now seems to me -- the poverty in other places in America, if this place is any gauge, is its own special misery.  Here, there is isolation, alienation, and a tremendous divide between the haves and have-nots in ways that just don't exist in New York, because in New York, whatever people may think, there is a high level of equity in transportation access -- though the price of subway fare recently went up to $2.25, you can still traverse the entire length of the city, going the thirty or so miles from the northern Bronx to Coney Island, or from the Hudson River piers out to Kennedy Airport, for one swipe of a Metrocard, any time of the night or day -- which allows you to literally rub shoulders with everyone else in the city.  Here, on the other hand, those who have cars are in them all the time, and don't have to walk to the supermarket with a folding push-cart or take cabs home from Wal-Mart; in fact, they don't shop at Wal-Mart at all.  In New York, there is a sense of energy, ambition, and life surging all around, wherever you are.  In New York, there are the bad schools you've heard about, and they are in poor neighborhods; but under No Child Left Behind, the most motivated parents in poor neighborhoods can and do transfer their children to the better schools out-of-district.  In New York, everyone who can works; even welfare recipients work in the black market economy, and New York is full of illegal immigrants who live in poverty and squalor and yet work a hundred hours a week and send huge sums of money home.  My friend N., for example, would certainly qualify as poor by any American standard.  She came from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the daughter of an abusive alcoholic father and a developmentally disabled mother, didn't make it through the equivalent of the eighth grade, settled in New York illegally, is a single, unwed mother, and lives in a shelter; but she works hard at her illegal job in the salon, and has the ambition, drive, and intelligence to survive through situation after situation that would have made many a lesser person (myself included) crumble in despair.

Here, on the other hand, in my perambulations through the post-industrial landscape, I see the empty husks of many souls who seem to have been felled by despair, and by the kind of multi-generational poverty, out-of-wedlock childbearing, drugs, violence (domestic and otherwise), and welfare dependency that are supposed to be the hallmarks of the ethnic urban underclass, but seem even more entrenched in white semi-rural areas like this one.  And so I walk around; I go swimming in summer at the public park where the poor, the drug-dependent, and the tattooed take their children; I take the bus to the library, a beautiful structure in the midst of crumbling tenements and abandoned shopfronts, where a little black girl once asked me, incredulous, "Don't you have a car?" when she saw me getting my son into his stroller for the walk back to the bus stop; and occasionally I even take a cab home from Wal-Mart.  I see very young women with many children by different fathers, judging at least by the children's varying skin shades, and mouths full of stumps instead of teeth, which I suppose is a symptom of meth addiction.  I see little boys at the playground with neck tattoos just like their fathers'.  I see many people who stare at me with the same mixture of suspicion and hostility I met thousands of times when riding the subway through the South Bronx or through pre-gentrification Bedford-Stuyvesant.  I suppose I'm as strange to my fellow citizens as they are to me, though I hope I'm not as unsettling to them as they are to me.

However, we are now in the process of adopting a child from our community.  The child will, most likely, come from one of the broken families of the very poor among whom I have walked like a strange, observing shadow during the past year.  As the small-town wife of a prominent man and the prominent man himself, we are in a rather unique position -- a position we never dreamt of being in back when we were a grad-student mom and an Irish guy who went down to the pub in the Bronx -- to open our home and our hearts to children who might be called the children of despair, and we very much want to do so (and after our string of miscarriages, it's not at all certain that we will be able to have more children on the natch).

While my family of origin has long been committed -- some in thought, some in action -- to ameliorating the lives of the poor, if not to overthrowing the structures that they believed made people poor to begin with -- the adoption will connect us in a mysterious way to the lives of the poor in our community, the lives that I find so unsettling.  We feel called to parenting through adoption, and to welcoming the stranger in this way, and recognize that the threads of grace that bind us to one another, not only as parents and children, but also as neighbors, brothers, and fellow citizens, can be impossible for the human mind to entangle.  Please pray for us.

As Rabindranath Tagore wrote:

Thou hast made me known to friends whom I knew not.
Thou hast given me seats in homes not my own.
Thou hast brought the distant near and made a brother of the stranger.

(Above:  my town.)


GretchenJoanna said...

I am very interested in your descriptive comparison of NYC and Appalachia, not having lived in either type of community or non-community--and touched at your embracing of your new life in a new place, among fellow humans atill, but in a new farrangement and role. I hope eventually to hear more about the adoption. I will pray for you.

elena maria vidal said...

"A small city in northern Appalachia." I love the description. There are no decent Irish pubs where I live, either.

What a beautiful post.

Pentimento said...

Thank you so much, ladies.

Some of these old cities have Irish-theme-type bars in a shopping mall or someplace, but none here. And it's not the same, anyway, to drive to a pub in a shopping mall as it is to walk down to the pub on the corner . . .

Emily J. said...

A moving post. Offering prayers for your adoption process. And for those whose paths you've crossed.

Dave said...

Prayers. Wow.

Catherine Delors said...

Very interesting and moving parallel between NY and Appalachia.

GretchenJoanna said...

Ack! Please forgive my sloppy typing and lack of proofreading in my first post!

Pentimento said...

No worries. Sloppy typing and lack of proofreading are the story of my life.

Rodak said...

This is a truly beautiful post. I have, perhaps, experienced some of the same things you describe so well.
I lived in New York City for twenty years, having moved there from Michigan in my early twenties. I lived first for two years in Brooklyn--Fort Greene neighborhood--and then in the Bronx for a decade--at Bainbridge Avenue and E. 198th St. I spend many a happy hour (and Happy Hour) in the Irish pubs that were liberally scattered along 198th St. My home pub was called The Glenside.
That neighborhood is within easy walking distance of the Bronx Botanical Gardens, from high points within which one can see the gothic stone of Fordham University a ways off to the southeast.
I now, too, live surrounded by Appalachian poverty, although I am at the southwest end, in S.E. Ohio.
Thank you for your post; there is much truth embedded therein.

Pentimento said...

Oh, Rodak, I used to live on Carlton Avenue in Brooklyn between Dekalb and Willoughby . . . lots of my friends and family used to live in Fort Greene.

And I'm very familiar with your old stomping ground in the Bronx -- we lived in Woodlawn, about a mile north of your old Bainbridge neighborhood (which is no longer Irish, all the Irish having moved up to Woodlawn in the 1990s). My husband apparently used to frequent a place called the Archway, but I think it was on Kingsbridge; my old next door neighbor, a cop, used to be a bouncer there.

I miss New York.

Rodak said...

I miss it, too. More than I can say. The Irish are beautiful people. A New York neighborhood is a much tighter (and more loving) community than anything I've experienced out here in the "heartland."
Yes, Google maps discloses that my old pub, the Glenside, is now a bodega. That's fine. I had many wonderful friends in the Hispanic community in New York, too. Also Easter Europeans from what was then Yugoslavia and Albania. I so much miss the ethnic mix, out here in fly-over country.
Thanks again for this post. I virtually wallowed in it.

Pentimento said...

There are still Albanians in your old 'hood. And believe it or not, one year I belonged to a Community-Supported Agriculture whose drop-off was at the Lutheran church on E. 206th and Bainbridge (I didn't rejoin, because we had weeks of green tomatoes, while our farmer sent his not-intended-for-the-Bronx produce down to the Greenmarket at Union Square). It is still a hardscrabble place, too, but it is beautiful. I used to take the bus down Bainbridge to Mosholu Parkway and walk to the Botanical Gardens with my little one in the umbrella stroller.

The saddest thing about missing New York is that once you've left, it's almost impossible to ever live there again, because the scale of cost is so different from that in the rest of the country. If you were moving there from another place, you would either have to be rich, have a well-paid job lined up, or be shacking up with six roommates. It was not always thus. It used to be easy to be poor and happy there.

Rodak said...

The post to which I now link includes a photograph (deliberately somewhat distorted here) of my old Bronx neighborhood by night, sometime in the 1970s.
You are quite right about going back. It certainly wouldn't be possible for me now. It probably wouldn't work, anyway...