When you leave home, it always looks beautiful and perfect in the rear view, doesn’t it?
Even if it was a place of violence and corruption and broken systems. It was also Home.
Less than five minutes into a drive out to Stoughton, Mass, there’s this awful sound coming from the back passenger side of my car. I’m thinking that I just drove over something that somehow got stuck in my back bumper or undercarriage, so I pull off of Alewife Brook Parkway, and I find a hook at the end of a bungee cord embedded an inch deep into my rear tire. I limp to a parking lot nearby and try to consider if I believe I'm capable of putting on the spare. Yeah, I’ve changed a tire before. I know where the jack is and I know how to put a spare on, to loosen or tighten the nuts together, so one isn’t impossible to get off later. But somehow, this feels massive, like I’m just not capable of it today.
I’m standing there beside my car, sweating and whimpering, scrawling a note to put in the windshield so I don’t get towed while I walk to the closest gas station to ask about a tow.
Some guy, I don’t know who, approaches me: white, late 20’s, jeans and a t-shirt, creased face and cool eyes. “You got a flat tiah theah?” Boston is thick in his mouth.
“Yeah, I just drove over a cable or something and it was flat in less than five minutes.”
“You got a spayer, you need some help changin’ it?”
I swear, it never occurred to me that he would offer to help. I mean, I wasn’t clutching my purse and guarding my sanctity or anything, I just thought the time of folks offering to help when you had car trouble had come and gone. Like, years ago. If I’d actually thought about it, I’d probably have said yes and we could have done it it together. But I thanked him repeatedly and then waved him off, and hoofed it to the gas station.
I haven’t always depended on the kindness of strangers; I’ve depended on their apathy. I was so stunned by the generosity of this person that I couldn’t actually receive it.
Almost a month, I’ve been in Cambridge now. I keep doing that thing that Chicagoans do, where I try to compare other places I go to parts of Chicago that I know. Porter Square and Davis Square ( the second not strictly Cambridge, but Somerville, according to the maps and the locals) feel like Andersonville; Central Square feels like Wicker Park; Harvard Square feels like Lincoln Park near DePaul, crawling with undergrads and funky restaurants and indie bookstores and shops that have been there for thirty years, cheek-by-jowl to Urban Outfitters and hot yoga studios; and it all feels like it’s been dropped into Evanston: two or three streets out of these squares, there are blocks and blocks of 18th-century homes in various state of (dis)repair or renovation, window AC units abound, and parking is tight.
It’s just similar enough to feel charming, and just different enough to feel, well, not like Chicago.
So I was scared about interacting with the white Boston personality once I got here. Boston’s all Sean Penn and Mark Wahlberg and Kevin Bacon in that new Showtime series: working men and women with no time for friendliness or generosity, and if they don’t know you, you might as well just keep moving. The feel of a small town with the attitude of an East-Coast city, and a legacy of white supremacy that is at best cool and distant and at worst dangerous. Just before I left, a friend said to me, “Jess, don’t go there behaving like what you expect to meet.” It was good advice: if I’m all defensive and gripped against race-based fear and distrust, I don’t stand a chance of connecting to my neighbors in a way that breeds anything other than antagonism and distrust. But if I maybe remember what I believe about people, that we all carry the same piece of Divinity and Wholeness inside us, that maybe I’ll get a chance to see that piece, that spark. I have to show mine in order to see it in others.
She was right. It was in the face of the guy who tried to help me change my tire. It’s in the face of the neighbors who speak back when I speak to them as I run or walk past. It’s in the friendliness of the folks at the grocery store who don’t yet know me, but who are willing to have a fragment of conversation with me as they ring and I bag.
I have encountered plenty of folks who don’t know about their Divine spark, or who won’t share it: I’ve gotten all kinds of side eye from grown adults who can’t meet my eyes, from painters and carpenters and workers who wonder what I’m doing there and who don’t trust my freedom. I’ve gotten plenty of attitude from the yoga girls at the studio for not knowing “how things go” there. I’ve gotten crotchety-old-man sass from, well, crotchety old men. And for all the people of color I see, they feel few and far between somehow. For all of the diversity I see at my neighborhood market, I’m the only black woman at the closest coffee shop/bakery; I’m the only woman of color in the yoga class; when I run by massive houses near the Charles River, housewives can’t tell I’m just admiring the architecture or casing the joint.
College towns are interesting. They’re these bastions of diversity, attracting thinkers and makers and doers from all over the world, full of progressive values and youth and hunger and angst. These thinking communities are smashed against pockets of established wealth and privilege, and working-class frustration, and young and old folks with no money and young and old folks with too much money, and it’s all just happening.
So many white folks, when I told them I was moving to Boston, were all, “Oh! I love Boston! You’ve got to check out—” and they’d finish the sentence with their favorite restaurant or yoga studio or even American history site.
And so many folks of color, and in particular black folks, when I told them I was moving to Boston were all, “Really, hon? ‘Cause you know what a racist, awful place it is, right?”
(Also, there are wild turkeys in the neighborhood. I don’t mean the cheap whiskey, I mean there are actual wild turkeys just hanging around: last night Mister and I walked by a pair of them, ten feet away, strutting and pecking and eyeballing us warily. One of the things I like most about Cambridge/Boston is how much green there is, at least in the nearby parts of it, but encountering a bird the size of a Labrador retriever that’s moving with the pace and urgency of a grandma selecting just the right melon at the market is just weird! I haven’t figured out how to handle these birds, aside from declining to eat them ever again. If one ever got between me and the sidewalk or the street, I’m not sure what I’d do. Stay home that day, I guess.)
Much as I wanted to paint Cambridge with a broad brush, I can’t. It’s too complex. I get the feeling that the white liberalism that I perceive here is maybe a kind of sheen—like maybe if I scratch too hard it’ll fleck right off. It’s not nuanced, it’s just complicated. I like it. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. I know how to do complex. It’s good for me. I keep learning.