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The Poverty Perspective, Part 1: Growing Up Ghetto

I kind of grew up in the hood. Sometimes people think I’m exaggerating when I say this, but it’s true. It wasn’t the worst neighborhood in town (that honor went to a place called, appropriately enough, The Bottoms), but some houses didn’t have, you know, front doors.

I always thought this was the creepiest house, but there were certainly other contenders.

The neighborhood baby, the one we carted around in a stroller and cooed at to make her smile, died when her mother’s boyfriend beat her in a fit of rage. In the house up the street, my childhood friend’s father shot her mother to death mere feet away from her. A bit farther around the block, a two-year-old child died when his siblings shut him in a car in the middle of summer. No one had been watching them. No one ever was.

I remember once looking out the window and seeing one man whaling on another man with a pipe, across the street. The pipe-wielder was already somewhat notorious, as he had bitten off a man’s nose in a previous altercation. As one does.

And then there were the neighborhood children who would disappear and come back around in cycles, as protective services transferred them to foster care and back out again, and the ones who wandered the streets all afternoon with their pants filled with shit. I would often look out the window to see some random ragamuffin using my tree swing or my toys; a lot of the kids weren’t big on manners, and a lot of their parents weren’t big on caring what they did.

The first girl in our neighborhood to get pregnant was ten at the time. Ten years old. Need I go on?

This is the closest house to my old one that’s for sale. And here you thought $241 was a car payment, not a mortgage.

Me, I had good parents who invested heavily in me, both financially and otherwise, and I also had good neighbors–the elderly ones who had refused to leave even as the neighborhood degenerated–who kept an eye out for my welfare. With the exception of one rather alarming evening that I spent being held at knifepoint by a paranoid older neighborhood boy who was high out of his mind, I don’t know that I was ever in any serious danger.

Yes, knifepoint, though all he did was talk a lot and refuse to let me go home until after dark. I was too young to realize how much differently that could have ended. Years later, he would get shot in a botched robbery. I don’t know whether he lived.

For a few years, my family was as poor as everyone else. We rode around in an ancient blue boat of a car that we named Blue Bessie. Bessie’s seats were pocked with cigarette burns, and she didn’t smell so great. We ate pancakes for dinner, or egg sandwiches. I can still remember the disappointment and confusion of choosing a pretty outfit for myself only to hand it over to the layaway lady.

But eventually, my parents dragged themselves out of their financial rough patch, and each became the owners of their own successful businesses. As my parents joined the lower middle class, I became more of a pariah as, hilariously enough, a “rich kid.”

It’s amazing to think I once knew anyone who thought two relatively new cars in the driveway, a house that wasn’t peeling with old paint, and a pair of Guess jeans made you rich. The notion is even a little refreshing.

From their Have-Not perspective, I was a Have. Kids stepped on my new shoes on the bus to dirty them up, and I came home crying; the situation got so bad that my parents wound up driving me to school until I was old enough to drive myself. I was teased because I was one of the only kids in my school who didn’t smoke–in fifth grade.

My expansive vocabulary was certainly not appreciated. I can remember getting harassed once because I had used the expression “bound to,” as in, “that’s bound to happen.”

A neighborhood girl said, “bound to? What the fuck does that mean?”

“It’s a figure of speech,” I told her.

“What’s a figure of speech?”

“A figure of speech is … it’s … just something people say.”

“You’re making that up,” she responded angrily. Then she hit me in the face with her fist with an odd sort of gentleness–almost like a chin-chuck to the cheekbone–to see whether I’d fight back. I didn’t, choosing instead to use the brilliant military strategy of standing stock still and praying it would end peacefully; I knew a losing battle when I saw one.

She was so amused that she called a friend over to watch and then hit me again, but harder this time.

My parents drove me to school, but I still had to survive the bus ride home. Once, when I was still in elementary school, a group of kids told me they were going to smash my face and then chased me all the way from the bus stop to my front door. I didn’t have the key–my sister did. I twisted the knob in a panic and begged her to open the door while the kids behind me called out sarcastically that they “just wanted to talk.”

By the time I managed to fling myself inside, I was so terrified I could taste it.

I’m not sure I can really blame them. They had nothing, not even decent shoelaces to keep their shoes on their feet; my mother would quietly replace those shoelaces anytime they came over. One of my neighborhood friends in particular was just as bright as I was, but without any of the opportunities. My parents would ultimately scrimp and save to pay for me to go to one of the top five journalism schools in the entire country. Meanwhile, her parents wouldn’t even take her to our elementary school’s awards night, even though she was being featured prominently.

She won enough awards that the awards presenters eventually just got her a chair near the stage, so she wouldn’t have to keep walking up and down the auditorium aisle. My parents, who had driven her there, were the only ones there to see. I’m glad they could do that for her. Later, they would take her out for ice cream to celebrate.

I doubt her own parents knew or cared where she was that night. She wound up in foster care permanently once their rights were terminated.

When I was in college, my parents finally moved out of my old neighborhood and into a nice subdivision more typical for someone of their income. I walked out of my old house, went away to school, and simply returned at Christmas break to a different house altogether–one with vaulted ceilings and a Jacuzzi tub in the master bathroom. I’ve only been back to the old neighborhood a handful of times, and it’s been years now since I’ve laid eyes on it.

Part of me, though, never really left. And now, it seems, that part of me has a few things to say.


  1. Desiree wrote:

    What you have described is similar to what I deal with at the middle school where I work in East Austin, and people in better circumstances are shocked when I tell them about pregnant 6th graders and the revolving door of foster care.

    Thank you for bringing this to your readers’ attention. If more of us continue to talk about what abject poverty really means, I hope more people will get involved in trying to change it.

    Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 8:37 am | Permalink
  2. Natalie wrote:

    I am, as always, blown away by your writing.

    Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink
  3. Sam wrote:

    I can’t believe you wrote about this. I was there today for the first time since high school. I was telling Mike about Matt Hale and the boy who kidnapped you. When we were younger, I never realized that it was even a bad neighborhood. I just loved being there with you. :)

    Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink
  4. muskrat wrote:

    Holy shit! Our “poor spell” was brief and was rural. So, the only victimization my brother and I got was from the fighting rooster the rednecks owned next door to us. The local graveyard was our playground. It wasn’t that bad.

    I’m looking forward to more of this series of posts.

    Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink
  5. I grew up in a niceish part of the poor part of town. I remember getting made fun of for my vocabulary and chased by sniggering groups of bullies who “just wanted to talk” too. My family wasn’t rich–we were solidly working-class–but compared to some of our neighbors we were rolling in dough.

    I look forward to more of this series.

    Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  6. Emilie wrote:

    I’m “delurking” to say how much I love your writing. Someone suggested your blog on Twitter a year or two ago, and I’ve been hooked since. I always get excited when I see you pop up in my Google Reader

    Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink
  7. Anne wrote:

    Once again, you have made me cry, in a good way. And to think I knew you when you back when you had a few rabbit questions for me… the answers to which I was singularly unable to give with any competence. :( Your writing is brilliant, even when it is brilliantly sad. I want to thank you for inspiring me. You have been a catalyst to change in what has been a seemingly geological time period of stuck-in-a-rut. Thank you.

    Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink
  8. Anne wrote:

    Also: hi Sam! :)

    Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink
  9. Avitable wrote:

    Your writing evokes palpable memories that I didn’t even have. It always impresses me that you can do that with your words.

    Monday, August 22, 2011 at 5:34 am | Permalink
  10. Leslie wrote:

    I found you through Adam’s posting on Google+. This piece took me back to my own childhood experiences. Your writing is wonderful! I’ve added you to my Google Reader so I don’t miss anything. :)

    Monday, August 22, 2011 at 6:21 am | Permalink
  11. Adrienne wrote:

    Wow. Thank you. That was beautifully written. I can’t wait to read more.

    Monday, August 22, 2011 at 6:28 am | Permalink
  12. Brooke wrote:

    To have such understanding at a young age… your parents are the type of parents every child should have. It pains me to hear about kids that are just brushed aside, not encouraged at all – I just don’t see how someone can do that to their own flesh and blood.

    Monday, August 22, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink
  13. Columbiarose wrote:

    Sigh. Kids are so profoundly affected by the whims of parents. I know of a girl who got accepted this year to Stanford, with good financial aid, but she declined and took the full ride at the local commuter school because her parents refused to contribute financially, because she had had the gall to begin dating.

    Monday, August 22, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  14. Dawn wrote:

    I know that girl who hit you…except she spit in my face. And my neighborhood was in North Carolina…then Vermont.

    And when I worked for Social services, worked with those families and people would ask me why I was wasting my time, my education, my brain on Kids and families who didn’t give a fuck?

    Well, I think you can guess my answer.

    Monday, August 22, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  15. LisaAR wrote:

    Powerful, evocative writing…I’m ready for another journey with you. Thanks for sharing.

    Monday, August 22, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  16. Issa wrote:

    Very powerful post you’ve got here. I’m glad you shared it with us.

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  17. Mandy wrote:

    Wow. This so reminded me of stories my husband tells of growing up in the ghetto. I’m sending it to him.

    Gave me chills.

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  18. Sir wrote:

    Are you writing a book? Because if you aren’t writing a book, you should drop everything and start writing a book.

    If you ARE writing a book, then you should WRITE FASTER. This is amazing stuff.

    Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 6:27 am | Permalink
  19. Jen wrote:

    Thanks, everyone. Sir, I did write a book, but it’s terrible. I’m thinking about trying again, but finding the time is hard, so I just sort of write the same stuff here for free instead. (Clearly I am not a great businessperson.)

    Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Permalink
  20. Kerri Anne wrote:

    I really don’t have anything witty or smart to say right now. I just wanted to say I love the way you tell stories, friend. And I love the person you are.

    Friday, August 26, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink
  21. Tabatha wrote:

    I came across this blog from Schmutzie’s Five Star Friday and THANK YOU, because as someone who is raising two babies in the white-trashy-going-down-hill-since-we-bought-the-house ghettohood as I call it, you are proof there IS hope of raising decent children despite your surroundings and financial situation. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    PS — If we were to refinance, our house payment would be similar. We bought in 2007 and are paying out the ass for it now, even though it’s probably just a luxury car payment instead of a sedan to most people.

    Sunday, August 28, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Permalink
  22. Jen wrote:

    Tabatha, I can do you one better: I honestly think growing up this way was good for me, that I would be more ignorant and much less compassionate without this background.

    This is not going to be a story about feeling sorry for myself in the least, believe me–if I had children, raising an entitled child would by far be my biggest fear. I’ve met many people who were raised in such an ideal environment that they don’t know how to appreciate what they have (having had nothing to compare it to) or be sensitive to those less fortunate (because surely the poor are just these “other people” of an inferior nature who deserve to be poor).

    I honestly believe that with the right parenting (that’s you!), your children will flourish not DESPITE their circumstances, but BECAUSE of them.

    Sunday, August 28, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Permalink