The following is a (true) story that transcends much of the Thanksgiving themes, and evolves into something so much more. It is my pleasure to share it with you.
Thanksgiving in the Ghetto
I spent last Thanksgiving in the Cincinnati ghetto. At least, that’s how my boyfriend Rory described his father’s neighborhood–where, he warned, I would be the only white person within a one- or two-mile radius.
This, I wasn’t too concerned about. After all, I had traveled abroad extensively and many times over had been only one of a handful of “white” people within a radius of one- or two-hundred miles. It wouldn’t be the first time that I stuck out like a sore thumb.
My boyfriend then warned me that his father and stepmother were poor. “Ghetto poor.” Public-housing, food-stamp, malt-liquor poor.
This didn’t concern me too much either. From what I could glean, his father’s family had a roof over their heads, food in their bellies, heat, electricity, running water, a car and a little money left over for fun. They even had a deck and a front yard. This was “American poor.” Compared to some living standards I had experienced, it was almost extravagant.
As much as he tried to warn me, my boyfriend also tried to reassure me. “Don’t worry,” he said. “They’ll like you.” But meeting your boyfriend’s family is always nerve-wracking, no matter what the circumstances. In fact, this was precisely what concerned me most.
As we embarked on the 17-hour drive from Rhode Island to Ohio, I felt like I was starring in a real-life version of “Meet the Parents”–with a twist. Well, make that a few twists. Instead of a Jewish nurse meeting the rich WASP family of his preschool-teacher fiancé, it was an editor/novelist/bartender, hippie/yuppie, Ivy-league-graduate white girl (me) meeting the poor black family of my ex-con/ex-Mormon, paramedic/rapper boyfriend.
I just had to hope that in this version of “Meet the Parents,” there would be no dead cats, burning buildings or bloody injuries involved. And I had one other nagging concern: “Please,” I begged Rory after he outlined what I should expect for the sumptuous Thanksgiving spread, “please don’t let them make me eat chitterlings.”
To this, Rory offered no reassurance. Only a menacing snigger.
Late that night, we entered the neighborhood of Avondale, parking our little rented Kia behind the broad rear end of Rory Sr.’s ’78 Cadillac. Exhausted, we said our hellos to Rory Sr. and Rory’s stepmother, Lydia. The house was spacious and warm and clouded in a permanent haze of cigarette smoke. After presenting our gifts–a bottle of Absolut Citron and an eighth of weed–we sat around the kitchen table, passing a blunt and sipping vodka tonics.
Things were getting off to a good start. As Rory Sr. took a drag of the blunt, a wide smile spread across his face. “Man!” he exclaimed, exhaling a long slow stream of smoke. “This is the sh*t that killed Bob Marley!” I guess that’s one way to win your boyfriend’s parents’ approval.
In the morning, I was torn from sleep by what sounded like a zoo of children suddenly unleashed in the living room. Whines, screams, shouts and Stop that!’s resounded through the air. Judging by his absence in the bed beside me, Rory–or “Little Rory” as they called him here–was already up and about. I stared at the ceiling, slightly dreading what lay ahead. Today, I knew I would meet Rory’s 19-year-old stepsister, Keisha, her three children and any other members of the family who happened to be passing through. But at least I still had one day to acclimate before Thanksgiving, when who knows how many family members I would be introduced to–and who knows how many chitterlings I would be forced to eat.
Taking a deep breath, I opened the door and immediately caught the attention of Keisha’s three children–aged two, three and four. They stared at me as though I had just landed from the moon. I’m not sure they had ever laid eyes on a white person before, let alone one in their house. The eldest, Lucy, tentatively approached me.
“Do you whoop people?” she whispered.
“What?” I asked, even though I had heard the question.
She dutifully repeated herself, and not knowing how else to respond, I said, “Not usually,” which wasn’t a lie. I had given my little sister a few good whoopings in her time. Then it was Rickie’s turn: he tiptoed toward me and poked at my leg, as though to make sure I was real. Kane was the only one who held back. He was staring at me with an almost uncomfortable intensity. Then finally, he sauntered up to me–at age three, he already had a swagger in his step. He put his hands on his hips and looked me squarely in the eye. “You got a man?” he said.
The names of the children I learned later, as no one thought to introduce me. I was used to beaming, overzealous parents coaxing their children to shake my hand and sharing with me not only their names but also many other details I didn’t particularly care to know. “This is Benjamin. He took a poop all by himself today.”
Here, there were no such introductions. Instead, Lydia bellowed, “Don’t bother her!! Leave her alone!!” and the children quickly disbursed. I got some coffee and met the young mother, Keisha, who was sitting at the table rolling a joint. “I heard you got some good sh*t,” she said.
“It’s the sh*t that killed Bob Marley,” Rory Sr. said, from what seemed to be a semi-slumber on the couch.
Keisha offered me the joint, but at 9 a.m., I was more interested in breakfast. No one seemed to be eating any, so I went to fetch some of the food stashed in our rented car. As Keisha smoked her joint and I munched on a fruit ‘n nut granola bar, Rickie approached me again–apparently having convinced himself that I was in fact real–and reached up his hands. “You want some?” I asked, breaking off a piece.
Rickie munched, swallowed, and promptly grimaced. “You don’t want no more of that,” Rory Sr. chimed in from the couch. “That’s some hippie food.”
Always being one for plans, I was glad we had an agenda for the day: to take Lydia grocery shopping and to make some rounds to various distant and not-so-distant family members. The grocery store was teeming with shoppers as we scampered around in search of ham, turkey, collard greens, macaroni, cornmeal and other essential ingredients. (The chitterlings, I was told, we would get somewhere else.)
The rest of the day passed by in a blur. In each house we visited, we were offered not a glass of lemonade or wine, but instead a smoldering joint. Of course, it would have been rude not to accept.
As we drove around the neighborhood, I couldn’t help but notice how pretty it was. A bit run-down, yes, but not the treeless-street-boarded-window image that pops into most people’s minds when they think of “the ghetto.” It wasn’t crammed with towering housing projects; rather, the streets were lined with two- or three-story houses, with front yards and porches and people sitting on them. The homes we entered ran the same gamut as any homes I had entered: some shabby with things strewn about, others immaculate with pristine white wall-to-wall carpeting.
The thoughts that passed through my pot-addled mind on that November afternoon were the same thoughts that often occur to me when visiting the so-called “ghetto” areas of Providence, Rhode Island. There, I work in two “ghettoes”–one predominantly black and the other predominantly Latino. White people from the “nice” parts of town often gasp when I tell them that I bike and walk through these neighborhoods. Aren’t I worried about muggings? Crack dealers? Drive-by shootings?
What comes to mind when you think of “the ghetto?” Let me guess: guns, gangs and drugs. What people often forget is that there are families living in these poor neighborhoods: children going to school, and mothers and fathers living and working, just like anyone else.
And on Thanksgiving in Avondale, these families were busy roasting turkeys, just like families across America. I spent much of the day entertaining the kids, who were getting used to seeing me around and becoming incrementally bolder, despite Lydia’s repeated admonishments to “Leave her alone!!” Lucy was especially fond of me–Rickie apparently a bit nervous about being forced to consume any more “hippie food,” and Kane, somewhat aloof since I had confirmed that yes, indeed, I did have a man.
Lucy, for her part, was still trying to understand exactly what I was doing in her house. “Where you sleeping?” she wanted to know.
“In that room,” I said, pointing.
“Who you sleeping with?” she asked.
“With Little Rory.”
Lucy crinkled up her nose. “Why you sleeping with him?”
“Well,” I said. “He’s my boyfriend.”
This perplexed Lucy even further. “How come he your boyfriend?”
“Well, because we love each other.”
Lucy didn’t un-crinkle her nose, but for the moment, at least, she stopped asking questions.
I tried to help out around the kitchen, even though I didn’t know much about cooking ham or collard greens. Give me some tofu and brown rice and I’ll work magic, but I was lost when it came to soul food.
Lucky for me, Lydia seemed to have everything under control. Everything, that is, except the chitterlings. In the midst of all the house-visiting and joint-smoking the previous afternoon, we had never gotten around to picking them up. “I was gonna make them special just for you,” Lydia said. “Little Rory told me how bad you wanted to try them.”
“It’s OK,” I insisted, while casting a sidelong evil glance at my beloved. “You bastard,” I told him with my eyes.
Around three o’clock, relatives started filtering in. Compared to the Thanksgiving dinners I was accustomed to–before which my father forced everyone to hold hands and share what they were thankful for as we tried to contain the rumbling in our stomachs and watched our food go cold–this one seemed a bit unceremonious. But I was hungry, and that was fine by me. For hours, we lounged, making gradual inroads into the feast laid out on the dining room table–and into the 30-rack on the bottom shelf of the fridge.
As we sat and festered in our gluttony, one of the children announced, “I’m bored.”
“What you say?” her mother demanded, giving her a sharp look.
Undeterred, she proclaimed more loudly, “I’m bored.”
“Why you bored?” her mother asked.
“I dunno. We’re just sitting around on couches.”
“Well, what you expect to be doing?” her mother asked.
“I dunno. Not sitting around on couches.”
“What you want me to do, huh?” her mother asked. “Put on a show for you?”
Her daughter’s eyes darted nervously around the room, as she tried to gage the precise temperature of the hot water that she was incrementally lowering herself into. “Naw,” she said, “it’s just, it’s Thanksgiving. Shouldn’t we be doing something else? Not just sitting around on couches?”
“What in the hell you talking about? You just ate good and you with your family and you complaining about sitting around on couches? What the hell you expect, huh? You gonna complain about having a full belly and being around all these people who love you? I mean, what you want? A traveling circus? You want all these people to sing and dance for you? Should they rub your feet while they’re at it? I mean, who in the hell you think you are, the Queen of Sheba? Don’t be complaining to me about sitting around on no couches, you hear me?”
Apparently, the water was hot. The girl stared down at her feet. But her mother wasn’t done yet. “You deaf or something? I said, you hear me?”
“Yes,” she mumbled. Silence engulfed the room for a few seconds, and then conversation resumed as normal.
So that, in a nutshell, was Thanksgiving. Soul food and sitting around on couches. The next day, midway through the morning, Rory Sr. promptly disappeared, just as he had around the same time the previous day. He returned home late that evening, slurring and swaying slightly from side to side. While Little Rory tried to brush it off–his father, he reasoned, was just trying to enjoy his four days off from his job as a university cafeteria cook–he couldn’t hide his irritation.
Neither could Lydia. “I’m telling you,” she said to me, “that man is crazy. You better watch out. You better hope your man doesn’t take after his father.” It wasn’t so much that Rory Sr. was heavily inebriating himself, or that he was probably cheating on her–it was that he was doing it so carelessly.
Rory has always described his father as someone who never made the most of himself. Scratch that. Who never made much of anything of himself. Rory Sr. is incredibly intelligent (like his son), but is easily distracted by liquor, weed and women. He is a man who, like most of the people around him, lives day-to-day. He has been conditioned to believe that life is about “getting by”–a viewpoint shared by the majority of this earth’s people–and nothing in his environment has ever suggested anything to the contrary.
I’m not letting Rory Sr. off the hook. Like any foray into a different culture, there’s a difference between feeling comfortable with the things people do–or the ways they think–and being aware of the cultural context. Just as I never felt comfortable with the machismo I encountered while traveling in Latin America, neither did I feel comfortable with certain practices I encountered in Avondale, like whooping children, or regularly smoking joints at 9 a.m., or cheating on one’s spouse. For the life of me, I will never understand Keisha’s decision to have not one, not two, but three children before the age of 18—-all with different fathers.
But at the same time, we need to recognize how our society’s tendency to group poor people together in “ghettos” fosters certain ways of thinking about life, and creates pockets of society where there are no examples set to make anyone think otherwise. No one, for instance, has ever suggested to Keisha that she consider college. No one has ever shown her that there are more than two options in life–either getting by on minimum wage or getting by on welfare. There’s nothing inherently wrong with “getting by,” but wouldn’t it be nice to at least have the option of pursuing an alternative vision?
My boyfriend’s mother had an alternative vision, but in order to make something of herself, she had to leave Avondale. It wasn’t just a hop, skip and a jump, either. She drove thousands of miles to Salt Lake City, where a visiting Mormon missionary in Cincinnati had told her that she and Little Rory could stay with his family.
But the missionary had neglected to tell his family one crucial detail: that Little Rory and his mother were black. Upon taking one look at them, the family closed the door on them, after which they slept in their car for a month while Rory’s mother worked and saved for an apartment. For the next eight years, she raised Little Rory, worked full-time and put herself through college. She received her Master’s degree last week.
It’s an inspiring story, yes, but a disturbing question lingers: should it really be that hard? I know plenty of rich white kids who view getting through medical school as a nearly impossible struggle, even when there is no racism to struggle against, when everything is paid for, and when they have the full support of their family, not to mention a guaranteed job and a hefty salary at the end of it.
By the same token, it’s easy to see how ambition falters when you’re surrounded by people “just getting by.” If it takes uprooting yourself from everything you know and putting in 80-hour weeks for years on end to “get anywhere,” maybe it’s better to sit back, shrug your shoulders, and roll a joint. It might not be the sh*t that killed Bob Marley, but hopefully it will do.
By the day of our departure, I was even starting to feel comfortable in this small pocket of middle America. The night before, after Rory Sr. returned from his mysterious excursion, we had all engaged in an impromptu singing and drumming session when “Stand by Me” came on the radio. By now I had a reserved seat on the front porch, where we had spent the slower hours of each day lingering in the unseasonably warm sun. The men who worked at the drive-through liquor store now greeted me with familiar hellos–though in Avondale, I suppose it’s not too difficult to remember a blonde white girl driving a Kia. And Lucy had come to adopt me as a kind of surrogate mother.
Years ago, Little Rory experienced a similar level of comfort when, after falling out with his mother, he had come to Ohio to live with Lydia and his father for a year at the age of 18. At first, the differences overwhelmed him. Having been raised in the Mormon tradition, it was a shock to see adults getting drunk and high. Not only that, everyone made fun of his “white boy” accent and preppy clothes. The fact that he had dated white girls won him much respect from his male neighbors but disdain from the females.
Gradually, he fell into the rhythms of life in Avondale, working at the local McDonald’s and drinking forties and Rose’s wine along with the rest of them. After a while, though, it started to get to him. Lydia asked him one night, “You’re not used to living like this, are you?” and Rory had to admit he wasn’t. He was 18, hadn’t finished high school and was working at McDonald’s. And if he stayed in Avondale, this would be the rest of his life.
I had to admit, I felt a similar sense of despondence when I looked at Lucy–a bright, beautiful child who would probably lose her innocence too fast. It was the same feeling I got when traveling and interacting with children from “third world” slums. While consistently amazed at how children are still children the world over–no matter the conditions under which they grow up–I also felt furious at the injustice of so many possibilities being closed to them. And then, at the same time, my intuitive urge to “save them” left me feeling guilty for assuming that I would know what was best for them, and for believing myself and my way of life to be superior.
Needless to say, it was all very confusing.
On our last morning in Avondale, Lucy, of course, had no idea that these thoughts were crossing through my head. In fact, she had no idea we were leaving. She just assumed we had come to stay, and that from now on, Little Rory and I would be in the master bedroom while her grandparents slept on the couch.
Ten a.m. found us on the porch while Lucy braided my hair. She had begun by taking a fistful and yanking on it so hard that I yelped. She scrunched up her nose. “How come it don’t come off?” she asked.
As I was trying to understand her question, I remembered another perplexing question she had asked me the day before: “How come you bald?” Slowly, it dawned on me that because my hair was so strangely silky and such an odd color, she had naturally assumed I was wearing a wig. “This is my real hair,” I insisted to Lucy. “You can’t yank on it like that.”
Again, the scrunched nose. “How come it like that?” she asked.
“It’s just the way I was born,” I tried to explain. “Just like I was born with light skin and you were born with dark skin.”
Aaah, if only it was really that simple.
Morning waned into afternoon, and Little Rory and I knew it was time to hit the road. Hugs were exchanged all around. Rory Sr. and Lydia insisted that we come back soon. “I know we don’t have much,” Rory Sr. told me, “but you been all over the world. I’m sure we got more than them folks down in Bolivia.”
Over the course of the next 17 hours, Rory–no longer “little”–and I crossed five state lines and talked the entire way. We talked about white versus black and rich versus poor. We talked about suburbs and ghettos, about college degrees and factory jobs. We talked about ambition and about living day-to-day.
It was nearly 2 a.m. when we entered Rhode Island–a state that, like Ohio, and nearly every other state of the country, has racial and economic pockets of its own. And given the state’s microscopic size, these pockets are all crammed up against one another, which makes the utter lack of communication between them even more perplexing.
The street where my boyfriend and I live is one unique exception. It is precisely five blocks long, starting in the notoriously yuppie, rich, white “East Side” neighborhood” and ending at North Main street, which is notably poorer and darker. A set of housing projects across the street from us is mostly populated by Dominican immigrants. A family of African immigrants lives a few blocks down, and then there are buildings like mine, filled with young college graduates. A little further down my landlord lives with his family—dog, front yard, white picket fence and all.
When I moved to this street, I was immediately reminded of Marrakesh, Morocco. I’ve never been there, but read a book written by an American woman who lived there with her family in the 1970s. I can’t say how much it’s changed since then–or if it’s changed at all–but when she was there, she was struck by the city’s relative lack of economic segregation. The rich and poor all lived in the same parts of town, she said–only the poor crammed more people into each house. The result was that children grew up surrounded by neighbors from all walks of life. Furthermore, there were few truly “dangerous” parts of town where poverty was concentrated, where life seemed hopeless and where crime, drugs and gangs were the inevitable results.
Here in the States, economic segregation has evolved both naturally and by design, and the barriers that emerge seem nearly impenetrable. There’s this conception out there that the people who live in ghettoes are somehow “sub-human.” And if all you did was watch sensationalized Hollywood movies or listen to the crap that passes for hip-hop on the radio or take to heart people’s warnings not to ever set foot in “that part of town,” then you would never have reason to believe otherwise. Sure, there are guns and crack-houses, but mostly there are people, who, like Rory’s father, are “just getting by.” And if they lived in an environment where some people were doing more than that, then the more ambitious would be inspired to strive beyond the welfare/minimum-wage norm.
We always talk about “cultural exchange” in the international sense, but what about right here in the United States? I wish more of us could cross these invisible barriers and enter other people’s homes. Since Thanksgiving, Rory Sr. has visited my boyfriend and I here in Rhode Island. For him, it was a weekend of many firsts: the first time he smoked weed out of a glass pipe, the first time he ate calamari, the first time he met someone with a British accent and the first time he rode a subway. He entered the homes of many of my “hippie/yuppie” friends, and was as impressed by them as they were by him. “It’s so nice to be around people who talk about real stuff,” he told us, “like Iraq and politics and the future of the world.”
No one in Avondale talks about the future.
When it comes down to it, here is the single biggest difference between me and my boyfriend’s father: growing up, he was told to stay out of jail, and I was told to change the world. Neither of us has entirely succeeded, but we’re trying.
Kerala Goodkin, Travel Correspondent:
Kerala’s column, “On The Verge,” published every other Tuesday to Gather Essentials: Travel, shares stories and reflections from the less-traveled corners of the world.
Kerala is co-founder and Editor in Chief of the Glimpse Foundation, a nonprofit that fosters cross-cultural understanding and exchange, particularly between the United States and the rest of the world, by providing forums for young adults to share their experiences living abroad. Read their stories at glimpseabroad.org. Kerala has also recently published her first novel, “How Things Break,” which won the Elixir Press Inaugural Fiction Award and relates a year in the life of one young woman in small-town Michigan. It is available on Amazon.
You can find all of Kerala’s “On The Verge” articles at www.gather.com/OnTheVerge
Keep up with Kerala’s other postings and Gather activity by joining her Gather network — just click here and select the orange “Connect” button on the left-hand side of the page
You’ll find Kerala and other Travel Correspondents, plus expert tips and plenty of other travel lovers at travel.gather.com
Tags: Kerala Goodkin