Or, like I call it: home

in the inner city
By Lucille Clifton

in the inner city
like we call it
we think a lot about uptown
and the silent nights
and the houses straight as
dead men
and the pastel lights
and we hang on to our no place
happy to be alive
and in the inner city
like we call it

I’ve been thinking hard about what to call my poetry manuscript. It was at some point rolling around in my head as “Piano Wire” and then “The Lost Art of Garroting” because I’m morbid as fuck. Then I got a book deal with a publisher, and the editor suggested “Sleep Corrupts Her,” after one of the poems in it. And I like that poem, but I don’t love it. And I didn’t love it as a title for the book, either, though it seemed appropriate enough. Now, though, more than a year after the book deal went pear-shaped and I went back to the drawing board, both in editing and in trying to find a new publisher, that title feels even less appropriate than it did before. The book is about both the concept and the reality of home more than anything else now, and being reminded of a line by James Baldwin from Giovanni’s Room–“perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition”–has only further convinced me of this.

Thinking about home, and what it is and what it isn’t, and how and why that definition has changed for me over the years, made me pull out some old writing. The first bit below I wrote several years ago in a moment of stream-of-consciousness. The second I wrote last year, shortly after I moved to Austin, Texas with my ex-fiance, Jason. I’m hoping that revisiting these pieces will help me find a title for the book, if not a home for it.

Or for myself, for that matter.

Written in January 2005

Sleeping on my grandmother’s couch in the parlor of her Morgan Park apartment. How we battled the roaches, but they always came back. How they’d scatter when we turned on the light. Every year I ever lived in Chicago had involved roaches, but this kitchen seemed alive with them.

I was in the ninth grade. My mother had sent me from Miami Beach, where I’d been for two years, back to Chicago to punish me. Living with Nana, the most loving and stable person in my life ever, was no punishment. But after years of proclaiming that education was the most important thing in the world, I was now back in Chicago attending one of the worst high schools in the city at the time, Percy L. Julian.

Getting to school required two (three?) buses and a lot of walking in the snow. I’d forgotten how Chicago winters made your toes numb, your fingers curl up and die in useless mittens.

I couldn’t take half the classes I would have been enrolled in back in Florida; they just weren’t offered. This was a black school in a black neighborhood. The kids in my geometry class, all juniors and seniors, were suspicious of me. “Did you take summer school?” Somehow, after not coming to school for weeks, I was still ranked third in my class.

I got jumped, had my bag stolen. Twice. There were bottles thrown at me in the cafeteria. The football players protected me for a while, though I don’t know why, but eventually they too turned on me. I retreated to the library during my lunch period, where the books were yellowed with water damage and smelled of mold, read Maya Angelou and Edgar Allan Poe. I found solace in those books.

But then there were the many fire drills that drove us out coatless into 20 degree weather, always during my social studies class: Disciples from Corliss had come, set off the alarms, picked off whomever they wanted from the crowds of freezing kids. Beat them up, once or twice tossed them over the chain link fence into the Calumet Expressway. This boy in my social studies class, Harry, began harassing me during these drills, pushing me on the stairs, laughing at my unrelaxed hair, ripped jeans, thrift store shirts. Trying to smash my hands between our desks. One day I snapped, stabbed him in the arm with a pencil. “I’m gonna kick your ass,” he told me. After school, a football player from my keyboard class waited with me at the bus stop across the street while Harry and his girlfriend ran around the campus, looking for me.

After that I refused to go back to school. “My stomach hurts,” I told my grandmother each morning. “I don’t feel good.” I never felt good. Something always hurt.

I saw doctors. They couldn’t find anything. They told my grandmother my pain was psychosomatic. My exasperated grandmother put her foot down and demanded I return to school. I put my foot down and refused.

I failed all my classes that last session. Well, not all. My keyboard teacher gave me a D. “You always do good work when you’re here.”

My mother had wanted me to be tough. I remember her laughing when I told her that someone had said I “was a white girl trapped in a black girl’s body.” She’d convinced herself that this experience would be good for me. But now she gave up. I came back to Florida, enrolled at Miami Beach Senior High. That would be one of the only times I’d feel grateful to be there.

How strange it was to be lost so late in the year. The sun shone as I ran from one wing of the school to another, looking for 9th grade biology and the frog I had an appointment with.

Written in July, 2011:

We moved to Austin, Texas almost two months ago, but when people ask how long we’ve been here, I find myself saying just a month. It’s not only the nearly two weeks I spent in Edmonton, Alberta after less than ten days here–a training trip, a chance to meet my boss and the rest of my team in a blue-collar city three hours north of Calgary where, in late May and early June, the sun didn’t set until nearly 10 o’ clock at night, conspiring with my anxiety to trigger some of the worst insomnia I can remember. There’s something else keeping me from owning this place as my home.

I was the one who was restless. I’ve moved more times than I can count during my life. I can distinctly remember three different apartments with my grandmother when I was a child:  the one place near a viaduct on a gray, stark street—87th, I think. My great aunt Alene lived there with us. She had brain cancer. I remember her messing herself in the bathroom once and my grandmother cleaning up after her. I was very little then, maybe two. There were rats in the walls. I don’t remember seeing them, but my grandmother always talked about hearing them in the walls. She would stuff cotton wool and broken glass into the holes they used for access.

The next apartment was in a brownstone on 111th Street near King Drive. It had three bedrooms, high ceilings, a sparkling chandelier in the dining room, a fireplace, and gleaming wood floors. It was across from a big park that she used to take me to so that I could play on the swings. We must have lived there for two years at least; I remember my mother asking me if I wanted to go to school, and soon I was attending Happy Holidays, the preschool around the corner.  My grandmother’s brother Harry lived with us there for a while, and then her nephew Jackie. Aunt Alene lived there, too, and she died there. My mother then moved into her room, but I still slept with my grandmother. In the mornings, I would wander into my mother’s room and climb into her bed, playing with her closely cropped hair and pulling at the many gold hoops in her ears and pulling open her eyes while she was still asleep, fascinated with this woman who was my mother but seemed so strange and unfamiliar.

The tenants above us, who were closely related to the landlady, used to stampede through their apartment so that the chandelier in the dining room would swing dangerously above our heads. The landlady complained that we made too much noise. The truth was she wanted us out so that she could move another relative in. I was four years old when my grandmother gave up, and we moved further north.

Our new apartment was a small second-floor one-bedroom without a shower over the tub on Champlain near the corner of 78th Street. My aunt Barbara–who was my cousin, once removed really, but around the same age as my mother, who was an only child–lived on the first floor with her husband Joe and her two daughters, Dolly and Debra. We lived there for years–it was the last apartment I lived in with my grandmother until I moved to California to live with my mother when I was ten. She insists I lived with her in Chicago as well, but I have only a vague memory of an apartment in an elevator building somewhere on the north side where we briefly had a black puppy I named Pookie, but he bit me and I don’t think I ever forgave him. I’m not sure what happened to him after that.

The apartment on Champlain is the place I think about when I think of Chicago as my home. I was an only child like my mother, but Dolly and Debbie were like older siblings, with all that entails. Dolly had covered the wall on her side of their room with posters of Blondie and Duran Duran; Debbie and I wrote terrible rap songs together (“Me and my cuz / We are the best / She wears Gucci / and I wear Guess”) and choreographed dance moves to Michael Jackson and New Edition, and in the basement, with its chipped and cracked red and black checkered linoleum, hosted roller skating parties when our other cousins were visiting. I would always insist that we play my Disco Duck record, and they all hated it, but the portable red and white turntable we had down there belonged to me, so I got my way. I wasn’t trying to be a spoiled brat, but I was the youngest, and it only seemed fair.

We also listened to house music in that basement, and snuck down there to memorize rap songs that would have earned us whuppings had the adults known.

I went to the doctor’s office / I said, “What have I got?” / He said, “Turn around, boy, / and take this shot.” / I looked at him like he was crazy / and I said, “What? / Ain’t nobody sticking nothin’ in my butt. / He turned and said in a real deep voice, / “Have it your way if that’s your choice. / And I’ll put it down if you want me to put it / but don’t blame me if it turns into a foot / extended from the middle of your body / and the next time you see your cute hottie / you won’t be able to screw / the only thing you can do / is just kick her, so go take karate. / As I turned around to receive my injection / I said, “Next time, I’ll use some protection. / If I see a pretty girl and I get an erection / I’m walking in the other direction. / Cuz I don’t want to do the sick-sick dance / so I’m keeping my prick inside my pants / So if I see another girl, and I know I can rock her / before I put up, I’ll make her go see the doctor. 

– Kool Moe Dee

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I could write about what happened when I moved to California to live with my mother and her girlfriend Joanne, and I probably will. But right now, I’m just thinking about the concept of home, and whether I feel like I ever had one. Jason can’t remember living in any other house growing up than the one his parents still live in in Fremont. This is the first time in his thirty four years that he’s ever lived anywhere but the Bay Area. He got homesick while living in the dorms at San Francisco State, and that was just half an hour across the bridge from his family. I’ve moved around a lot, and more so when I lived with my mother. I wondered sometimes if she was allergic to stability or simply incapable of providing it. Later, after we had moved to Miami Beach, whenever we’d move, she’d get rid of all the furniture she’d bought for the previous apartment. We’d still have beds and dressers, usually, but the living space would be empty for months until she suddenly had some other big, used sofa and dining room table delivered. In the interim, we’d retreat to our rooms. In retrospect, I think she kept the living space devoid of furniture so that we couldn’t comfortably share it. Not that it was often that more comfortable when we had a couch. We were just not comfortable with each other.

Despite all my moving around, I lived in the Bay Area longer than any other place–ten years. And I was there for two years as a child and then for eight months in my early twenties after I took a leave of absence from Cornell. But this ten-year stretch–though I bounced back and forth between San Francisco and Oakland–was significant. On my own, I sought out the family I hadn’t had since I was ten, roller skating in the basement with Debbie, playing in the backyard under the apple tree my grandmother mined for fruit to use in pies and apple butter until it was struck by lightning one summer night during a storm. In the Bay Area, and really in my last few years there, after moving to Oakland and deciding I had no interest in going back to the expensive and whitewashed city on the other side of the bridge, I felt like I had found home.

And yet, here I sit in an apartment in Austin, in a living room without a couch. I said for a long time that after spending my teen years in Miami, I would never again live below the Mason-Dixon line. Visiting Austin over the last decade–for the National Poetry Slam in 1998 and game developer conferences and then SXSWi–I recognized it as a special place, and it went on a list in the back of my always restless mind of places I could see myself living someday. It was still below New York, which on some level will always feel like home even though I’ve never lived there, but Austin remained a possibility if the stars were somehow to align. But now I’m here, and I’m missing my friends–my family–back in the Bay Area more than I ever thought I would and also feeling like an alien here in this place of blindingly bright sunshine and 102 degree days which, while the most liberal city in the state of Texas, is still in the state of Texas. I’m wondering how long this place will take to feel like home, or if it ever will. Maybe we’re here because on some level, like my mother, I’m allergic to stability. After all, we got rid of our sofas before we left the Bay Area and haven’t gotten a new one yet….


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