Hashtag throwback Thursday. It has been twenty-three days and I’m still trying to make sense of the election. I’m not sure I will. I wake up in the middle of the night and think the thoughts that come and come and come. I’m thinking about reading and comprehension. I’m thinking about news and propaganda. I’m thinking about the libraries of my youth on the east side of Buffalo, New York and how each book I read opened a door to an entirely different world and allowed me to see through and read between the lines of the moments and people in my life. I’m thinking about the city bus that I took to high school. It was the #19 and I waited for it at the end of my street. It took me through and out of the neighborhood, past the University, to my school. Every morning I waited with an elderly black woman who I let get on first. She sat in the first seat at the front. I liked to sit in the very back so that I could get a good view of everyone, and then make up little stories about them in my mind. Here is the thing about the #19 I want to share with you. Lying awake at night and remembering the #19 as an old man it occurred to me how democratic that bus was and how much it shaped how I came to approach people. A year or two into school, a teacher of mine who was also my running coach got onto the #19, which was unusual considering he almost always ran home, I’d see him sometimes from the window. It was a blustery winter day, he got on, saw me and sat down next to me. He pulled out a folded New Yorker story he had ripped out of the magazine and gave it to me. Thought I might like it. He told me about where he grew up in the neighborhood, his family and then his stop came and he got off. I watched him walk through the snow in the center of the street as we pulled away. We passed Anacone’s Inn, a bar I would underage drink in, and then back into my neighborhood which sagged with the weight of the economy. Thinking about it again in the middle of the night, it struck me that my teacher took the same bus I took and it was no big deal. I took the bus with the elderly black woman who sat in the front. We said hello to each other, I let her on first, or she demurred and let me go ahead, and we sat. I made up stories about the greasy mechanic and the woman with the bags who arranged them and rearranged them. I made up stories about the University students, and the office workers, and the elementary school kids with powdered donuts around their mouths. I looked, and with the light from the window streaming in, they all became me. The stunned, tired old grandmother with her granddaughter on her lap was me, and I was the granddaughter too. I was the elderly black woman in the front, and I was the bus driver too. I was the teacher and the mechanic and the University student before I was a University student. I saw in them the struggle of life, of too little money, problems, and old clothes, but I saw their smiles too and the courtesy they extended by moving a bag or wiping melted snow off of a seat so someone could sit. That is what I remember most, the way an old handkerchief was unfolded and used to wipe away the wet to make room for someone who had been standing for too long and just needed a seat with a view of their world in a big plate glass bus window.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. It’s been eight days and I’m still trying to make sense of the election. I’m not sure I ever will. It keeps me awake, and as old men do in the middle of the night they look backwards to the past and then inwards towards themselves. I’m thinking deeply about the origins of my own thinking on race in America. I grew up in a predominately, but not overwhelmingly, white lower middle class, working poor, catholic neighborhood on the east side of Buffalo, New York. The Buffalo of my youth was in a major upheaval. The economy of the city, and the jobs from the heavy industry of the steel plants, had collapsed. High unemployment, crime, and despair were prevalent. It was not uncommon to hear stories of white neighborhoods not far from mine making it uncomfortable for people of color to even walk through them, let alone live. The older grades in my elementary school were almost entirely white, but my grade and the grades below me, had more diversity. I like to think my thinking on race began then. That the otherness I experienced was more of a curiosity and not an animosity. It was as though I was going into someone’s house for the first time and looking at their pictures on their walls, then noticing the pots and pans, chairs, and hardwood floors, the mystery revealed. We were the same. I remembered Chandra, the way she smiled, and how she snuggled with me one night when some of the girls had crashed a sleepover at my friend’s house before they were found out and had to leave. Chandra, if you had to describe her in terms of color, was a light skinned brown girl. Chandra, if you truly described her, was a sunlight of smile and a fierce intelligence that was seeking. When she smiled, dimples appeared and I was smitten. I don’t even remember how we became innocently entwined that night, but it was a powerful connection for me. It was a brief moment of one night before we went back to the usual schoolyard separation of boys and girls, but here it is again all these many years later. Two people enjoying each others company. Here is what I do remember: her smile, and the way she talked to me quietly and the way we laughed together while the party went on around us. It was what boys and girls did and color played no part in it. They played at love. They held hands, and squeezed together. They saw each other, listened to each other, and looked at each other and accepted each other for who they were. My heart fluttered. Around this same time, a Vietnamese refugee family was sponsored by our church and, like that, three Vietnamese children were in our school. The Tranh’s had three children, two boys and a girl, and the youngest two, the boy and girl were for a period in our class. They were quiet and delicate. I can only imagine, as I think back now, that they were afraid and unsure. I am not making sense. I am trying to understand where my own view on race in America began. It is not perfect, but I am trying to see where the thinking began, and how I diverged from a group in the country who elected a man who campaigned on bigotry, misogyny and racism. In the middle of the night, I have come to these early instances. Chandra and the Tranh’s. There are two things I distinctly recall about the Tranh’s. The oldest was in my brother’s class and though the Tranh’s spoke English, it was clearly a second language, and someone in my brother’s class had taught the oldest the middle finger as a greeting. At recess, I remember one of my brother’s friends calling out to him from across the yard and saying hey Tinh, and giving him the finger and Tinh raising his hand and giving the finger back. I remember it clearly. It made me feel like something was very wrong. There was a grotesqueness that the gesture, of which I was no stranger to, had taken on that was more deeply troubling than I had noticed before. It was wrong. That is one recollection. The other is that the brother and sister in my class, though quiet, reserved, bent to learning could take a scrap piece of paper and fold it into a crane, or frog, or star. I want to say it was my first experience with origami. As an old man awake in the middle of the night, making sense of a senseless election, I saw Chandra again, that little girl making sense of the world and in so doing reshaping me in a brief moment of tenderness. I see the Tranh’s again and how they took a scrap of discarded garbage paper and made it something beautiful.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. Here is a photograph of the east side of Buffalo, New York, sometime in the mid 1980’s. Buffalo was undergoing a historic transformation from a vital industrial and manufacturing city to a service oriented one. Steel plants closed. The population drastically declined with nearly one in four moving out of the city to find work. Skilled laborers were left reeling, neighborhoods seemingly lay in ruins. It was against this backdrop that I grew up. But the crumbling wasn’t crumbling to me. What I mean is that within it, the crumbling was something else, something distinguished. It carried a patina of the hard work of generations. We climbed, and bicycled, and ran through this landscape of rocks and soggy lawns and brick buildings with brass door knobs. Of steel railings, canvas awnings, and concrete. It was translucent glass, old wires, engines, and flowers. It was foreign accents, incense, and Franciscan nuns. It was the bent chain link fence that demarcated yards which separated but somehow also brought neighbors together. I am not sure what I am saying, the chain link fence allowed you to look through; it gave you a line but one you could cross visually. It is this openness of the chain link fence that stays with me. When I was little I would put my eye to look through one of the diamonds that the chain link fence made. I would look through that diamond to the space it contained and move to another, piecing the neighborhood together like that bit by bit. In the best of the backyards, the chain link fence was a tool, it carried the trailing vines of peas, and cucumbers. It carried the vines of wisteria and rose and grape. The fences became living things in those yards, like hedgerows you see in the countryside and this too is important. The east side of the Buffalo, New York of my youth was a dying industrial city but it carried within it the old homelands of rural Europe, of Poland, Italy, Germany, and Ireland. At dusk, neighbors pulled weeds or smoked and stopped, elbows on the top pipe of the fence, to share a moment, laugh or memory with their neighbor who did the same while their children tumbled nearby seeing without looking, learning without the lesson.