Ever walked down a part of town and counted the white faces to give yourself a sense of how safe to feel, and also hated yourself for doing so?
Since leaving school I have become a public library junkie, and today on my day off I went to return two items to two very different libraries.
I live in Yonkers. It’s above the Bronx, if you don’t know. It’s sometimes called the sixth borough, although when voters had the chance in 1894 they opted to stay the hell out of New York City.
I can’t really afford the part and apartment of Yonkers wherein I live, but years of (what I now see as) fatcat living off a public school teacher’s salary has made me loathe to give up such bourgeois fixtures as my own washer/dryer, so here I am, drinking discount beer and eating peanut butter sandwiches twice a day.
Yonkers is where Sarah Lawrence College is, although as one of my professors put it, “the school has a Bronxville zip code so parents feel better.” Bronxville is a rich little town nestled within the Yonk where everything looks like Playmobil and thus has nothing to do with the actual Bronx.
Yonkers has a reputation for racial tension and segregation. In the 80s, the city wanted to use Federal money to put up new public housing settlements. The problem was they wanted to keep all of those settlements in a narrow little strip of land. In layman’s terms of course that’s a ghetto. A judge ruled that for decades the city had been involved in institutionalized racism, and ordered the city to build public housing on the east side as well as the west. Well, white panic set in, and citizens and race-baiting politicians kept the city in contempt of the judge’s ruling. The problem was that the ruling came with a $1 fine which doubled every day the city failed to comply. So the city started losing a lot of money in order to keep their poor elements well-contained. Finally the rookie mayor, in the face of massive layoffs and cutbacks, got the council to relent and build the housing. That mayor later shot himself.
So it’s not hard to understand how two of the city’s libraries can be in two very different-looking locales. My first stop today was the Yonkers Riverfront Library, on the west and traditionally poor side of town. However, because it also happens to look out on the Hudson River and is thus prime real estate, the city has been spending a lot of money to try and revitalize the area (the importance of diction: it’s all in the hopes of gentrification, that dirty word). So there are new buildings, like the library, new expensive restaurants, new condos. This is all well and good except if you happen to be sipping a whiskey by yourself in the lobby of the Yonkers Hampton Inn, as I was recently, you may hear the bartender talk about how she deplores the revitalization because “it just made it nicer for the crackheads.” She is a woman of color, for what that’s worth.
Regardless, though it’s a little out of my way it was the only place in town where I could check out Loretta Lynn’s second autobiography (that’s a whole other story). But I like to go there anyway because they sell used books for a quarter and tend to have good stuff. Anyway I took a slightly different route and ended up in Getty Square, which is known to some in their infinite wit as Ghetto Square. So here’s paranoid white boy dilemma number one: do you lock the doors to your car while surrounded by people who might be offended by hearing the sudden click? (I once read an essay by a black man who heard the click and was offended, so there.)
I locked my doors and rolled up my window. I was playing Katy Perry’s “Roar” so the window was really just to prevent mockery, not theft.
Then I found public parking that was cheaper than the expensive new garage I usually use. Only thing is you have to walk through the less nice part of town, with the fried chicken joints and check cashing signs. I’M JUST SAYING THEY’RE THERE. Okay so I’m walking down the street and this car slows down and waves to someone. So the guy, who had been slouched against a wall, goes over to the car. I’m like in my head going, “Oh shit. Oh shit. I saw a season and a half of The Wire. I know what’s going down here. If that guy leans in the window but doesn’t get in, this is a Drug Deal.”
That’s just to let you know how my brain works. Racist? I routinely beat myself up trying to figure that out, but all the PC in the world can’t stop me from quickening my step or crossing the street to avoid a particular passerby. If it makes you feel better or dislike me less, walking back from the train in Bronxville one night it was dark and I was going up a hill and there was a guy ahead of me, white, and I put my keys between my fingers like they teach you in lady defense courses because my fear knows no bounds. But yes, I was once “jumped” by a group of black kids, black young men, black teenagers, what have you. So I unfortunately have something in common with Obama’s white grandmother, whom he described in his famous speech as having “fear of black men who passed by her on the street.”
Guess what? I made it to the library without being attacked for the two dollars in my wallet. So there I am, browsing the 25 cent books, and I still can’t help but think about the guy in Union Square who, it appears, died because this black guy was looking to punch a white guy. Well, he punched a retired train conductor on his way to pick up a book on the art of Grimm fairy tales, and the guy cracked his head on the pavement and died. If you care to read it just gets sadder and sadder, and the article also includes another unrelated attack on a white man.
One story I read early on said that the assailant was going to hit the next white person who bumped into him and didn’t apologize. That sort of sounds like my dad, who has been known on occasion, while walking through Times Square, to say, “the next person who elbows me is going to enter a world of pain.” But of course my dad is mostly joking. Still, while sitting in traffic to get on the George Washington Bridge, where the inconvenience is compounded by the ugly landscape, I have lately wondered why there aren’t more murderous flare-ups among strangers. I mean living in this city, any city, can drive you fucking NUTS.
Anyway, this terrible news came back to me while I was picking up my used copy of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn (yeah, I like strong women, deal with it), mostly because it dealt with chance. If that man had walked through five minutes earlier or later, he would likely still be alive. If he had stopped at the Strand, say, to pick up Jane Fonda’s memoir (which is awesome, and I’m judging mostly by the pictures), then he would have his comic book and still be taking care of his 94-year-old mother.
So I just had an image of me being the victim of some freaky hate crime, lying on the pavement clutching my new hardback Siddhartha pushing my last words through bloodied teeth: “It was worth it…”
My second library was the Yonkers Crestwood. Here I was returning my DVD of Coal Miner’s Daughter. I first went here a few weeks ago, and it makes Bronxville look metropolitan. Sleepy, is really the only word I can use to describe Crestwood. It’s the kind of place where there would be an X-Files episode about Satan worshippers in the city hall basement purely for the irony.
This is the actual aww shucks library:
I walked up the tree-lined street, walked in, nodded at the seniors book group having coffee to my left, slipped the DVD in, and went back to my car.
I thought, how can Yonkers be a city? I mean, how can the name mean anything when it includes such vast differences and wide disparities? It’s like saying there’s such a thing as a “New Yorker.”
What frightens me is how, when I first visited Crestwood I thought, I want to live here. I know I have within me that infamous white flight impulse. Fear of crime or fear of the unknown makes a part of me want to settle down in communities that will continue to pinch themselves off into smaller and smaller pieces as the country gets darker, so to speak. I come from such a haven: Milton, GA. It’s only been Milton for a few years, a new retreat with an old name for the wealthy Atlanta suburban, but it has earned national attention for the way it represents the tendency of the rich to hook or crook re-segregate themselves (Naomi Klein discusses it in The Shock Doctrine, for one thing).
I don’t hate myself for wanting to live in a sleepy town, the kind of place where I don’t have to get mad at my senior citizen upstairs neighbor for consistently failing to lock our shared front door. But I don’t want to let prejudice fester in my brain, and I don’t want to let fear keep me from a full life. I taught at a school back in Georgia that was a curious mixture of north and south Fulton County students, which means it was economically and racially diverse. I don’t want to romanticize what were some tough years, but I believe I benefitted from teaching in a more diverse high school than the one I attended.
I need to keep reminding myself of that. It’s too easy to stay in my little bubble.