Thursday, June 26, 2008

It's the City

When we arrive in Boston, Toni is there to meet us. Toni is a transplanted New Jersyite African-American lesbian buddhist classic-pianist/sociology professor with a law degree. She likes to use the word "gentrification" and she refuses to let people take pictures of her because she says she wants to own the rights to herself. I love her. But she didn't love us, at least not at first. She had several misgivings about housing two white kids from Mississippi, and she told us as much. We only had a short time to help her peel away her reserve, which was heavy on her and almost tangible. Before she got on her plane, she said, "Come next time when I'm here. We could talk for a very long time," and she seems surprised.

We spent a good part of the morning learning the idiosyncrasies of this old house, which is beautiful and newly refinished, from its shiny pine floors to its stained glass windows. Each time Toni would show us something that was supposed to bolster the security of the house, she would sigh the same refrain: "It's the city." Like, "This is how you turn on the house alarm. You know, it's the city." Or, "the television and lamps are on a timer, in case you're late. It's the city." And, "Please hose my car off for me while I'm gone, so that dust doesn't settle and people suspect I'm not here. It's the city." These are parts of her routine I would never have thought of in my life, and yet, here they are, part of her daily existence, and now, mine.

Toni lives in Roslindale, which is Boston with the shine taken off, situated at the end of the Orange Line. It's a wonderfully confusing place, which bright-white new condos and sturdy detailed porch stoops and landscaped yards next to burned buildings and Taquerias and auto shops. Roslindale boasts a triangular city center with a bakery and a coffee bar and a tiny grocery store that sells chickpeas and wheat germ and expensive cheeses. It is unsafe to walk to the subway, so we stuff onto the bus, where I'm forced to stand. Naturally, I launch into a man's lap, prevented from direct touching only because he's carrying an oversized suitcase.

The subway smells like tar and heat and it's littered with odd signs, like "Do Not Feed the Pigeons," even though there are no birds underground. There's also "Flash someone and find yourself on surveillance" and "If someone touches you inappropriately, take a picture of them with your camera phone." Who knew public transportation could be so erotic? I suppress a giggle picturing myself being fondled by an aggressive youth only to make him pause in his endeavors so I can snap a picture of his face.

We head to Chinatown for dim sum and find an abandoned-theater-turned-chinese restaurant. The theater-restaurant retains its gold ceilings and walls but has been added that strange gilded Chinese deco that adorns most Chinese restaurants you're familiar with. So next to marbled cherub faces are bright blue-and-gold dragons and the room is enough to hold 500 people, though only 3 tables are taken. We order dim sum and the waiter insults me by bringing me a fork, which I end up needing. Andrew orders a meatball that entirely too closely resembles bull testicles that we are unable to finish because I tell him so. I do not tell him that I have never seen bull testicles; perhaps he assumes that, being from the country, I am just born knowing such things.


Camille said...

I find it interesting that you refer to Toni as African-American, yet refer to yourselves as white. Why not Irish-American? or Texan-American? or like me...British-American? HMMMMM.

Kacy said...

The answer to that is complicated -- first of all, she called me white, so it's a direct quote. But secondly, and I'm totally stealing this from a class I took on whiteness -- yep whiteness -- that around the 1920s the Irish, German, generally Europeans light-skinned folks began selling themselves as white to escape their third-rate status as immigrants, beginning to vote with the traditionally caucasian and allying themselves against other darker-skinned people to gain a political advantage. The strategy was effective; the Irish, Germans, Russians quickly became "white" further dividing the nation into two unequal racial categories. You can't claim a hyphenated existence, or at least I don't feel comfortable doing so, if your descendants are far enough removed, which mine are, and to claim them if they are about six generations removed as part of a hyphenated identity is to pretend to be part of some more complex minority heritage to which I don't truly belong, which would be affected on my part. I also believe there's no such thing as white, since it's a totally fabricated identity, particularly in America where it's a performance moreso than a matter of blood, but since it's too long to call myself Irish-French-British-by-marriage-Cherokee-caucasian, I opt for "white" for brevity's sake. In a nutshell.