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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.

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