Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Growing Up Poor

I grew up somewhere between poor and lower middle class. Raised in a largely single parent household, by a working mom who had a high school education (maybe).  Pops was there occasionally, mainly when he had finished his drinking spree and wanted the comfort of a home and good woman. Sometimes, my mom would let him in, sometimes not. Mainly, though, he was missing in action.
So, we had a tenuous grasp on an apartment in midtown Manhattan, once having to change apartment buildings quickly, to stay one step ahead of the collection agency.  There were three kids, me being the youngest.  My sister tired of the education game, dropped out of Julia Richman high school and went to work in the same company employing my mom—it was the War, and worker bees were much in demand, even undereducated ones.  
Note that education was not a large issue, at least not a spoken one.  My mom’s folks, Scottish immigrants to the US during the late 1890's, were not educated beyond the 8th grade, and that could be a stretch. Similarly, on my dad’s side, education did not figure prominently.
But, there were no pulls away from continuing our education either. My brother was extraordinarily bright and was granted access to Stuyvesant High School in New York. My sister, through luck, charm, and good looks, hooked up with a med student attending Columbia. They were married and began their life together, a life very different from my sister’s early days.  Because Bill was so bright, he propelled himself towards college, graduating fairly young.  With him as my male role model, I went off to college, with nary a thought about how to pay for it. Happily, with loans from my sister, and working a job or two, I also managed to make it through my days at my small college in what is now Silicon Valley.
Our lives growing up poor in Manhattan provided little trauma, aside from the occasional broken arm, or other assorted street accidents—we played on the streets, and wandered all over the city, did my bro’ and me.  Will even was mugged once in Central Park, but it never stopped us from walking there with great frequency to play.
During this growing up absurd phase of our lives, never once were we hassled by the police; there were no gangs harassing us, and nobody got shot on the streets, aside from our cops and robbers games.  It was not that we were never “armed”. We made "brass knuckles" out of garbage can handles. My brother and I used to play War, and we would sometimes duel with real steak knives—I have a V scar on my hand to prove it. And we learned to make a flame thrower—turns out, if you load a water pistol with a flammable fluid (lighter fluid??) and then shoot that liquid through a lit match, you get a magnificent flame thrower—of course, we almost burned down the bathroom door, but what the hell . . . we were armed and ready.
But throughout this period, when we were forming our personalities, no one harassed us, no one told us we were thugs, or stupid. Our apartment, though modest, was not rat-infested (lots of cockroaches, though) and our plumbing worked.  My mom earned enough as a bookkeeper to pay the rent and keep us fed. We attended school every day and then played in the streets after.

We knew nobody who got shot, or otherwise assaulted/killed.  We were just modestly poor, like a lot of people during the War in New York City.

And then we went off and got educated, married, had kids and the kids got an education, and then they married and educated their kids. That’s the way it is in Middle Class White America, at least for most of us. We didn't know any Blacks growing up in New York City, and later in Rockland County. Black residents mostly lived above 125th Street and largely stayed there. If police were hassling folks north of 125th Street, we didn't know about it.

But I’m fairly sure, had we been Black and living in Harlem, our lives would have been different.  I don’t know how different, but different they would have been.  And I’m pretty sure that the people of color growing up now in the segregated sections of Baltimore live very different lives than we did as poor White folks growing up in 1930-40's Manhattan.  And I’m equally sure that those people of color have a different view of American privilege than we do.  And that many of them do know someone who has been shot and killed. And they do know about police harassment—DWB, and even Walking While Black (WWB) are real things, even if not to me.

So, as I read about the riots in Baltimore, my mind goes in two directions simultaneously. One side says, “God, why burn down your own neighborhood? How will that solve anything?”  But then my other side says, “I no longer care what you think. I’m fed up with the whole shitload called America. My life is always going to be in the toilet, so if I feel like burning something down, I will.”  That’s what can happen to folks when they feel as though they have nothing left to lose. When you lose all hope, then anarchy reigns, and anything can happen.

So, as much as I want to see rational behavior, including even peaceful protests, I need to understand that many people are beyond that point. And I am reminded of another conflict, the one that has been raging in that benighted place called the Middle East. I ask the same questions there of that conflict raging now since, at least 1947.  Why do you keep shooting rockets at Israel, when you know they will return the compliment tenfold? And the answer is, “because we no longer care.”  And Israel, why do you keep up the Settlements, and why do you level apartment buildings with all those innocents inside?  And the answer is, “because we can.”

Maybe we’re dealing with basic human nature in these awful conflicts, whether here in Baltimore, or around the world. Maybe people will continue killing one another. But I keep wondering, isn't there anyway to call a halt? Can’t we find some way to treat other people as humans, capable of hurt and love? Can’t we for God’s sake just stop what we’re doing and quit pretending that we’re better than “those other folks” just because it makes us feel bigger?  Can’t we try people???

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