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Poor but proud

Income level doesn't determine the quality of a neighborhood

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Let me put this plainly: I am poor and will probably stay that way. When it comes to money I take after my mother, who spent her income unwisely, as opposed to my father, who usually made no money at all and also spent my mother's income unwisely.

I started working early, at 13. I was a trainee at a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream parlor where -- besides my practice of "over-scooping," which caused the store's gross-point percentage to dive like a flaming plane -- I once spent an entire shift wondering aloud what it would feel like to be bit in half by a shark. "Would you try to hold your entrails in? Or would you just flail there in the ocean for a few seconds and then die feeling really dumb?" A few days later they canned my ass like a truckload of tuna.

But I'm still a blue-collar laborer and don't see that side of myself changing soon. Don't get me wrong, I have other things I do for money, like writing, and I'm also an official foreign-language interpreter. I picked it up while living with my mother as she was dispatched by her company to build defense weapons in different countries. But I've been told I speak German like a Turkish construction worker, and I think my Spanish is anemic as well, so even though for years people have been paying me to interpret, it's not an income on which I allow myself to rely. Instead, I will always rely on the laboring, and I'll always feel untethered unless my hands are rough from lugging stuff.

I've tried not to know this about myself. Like once I worked in the copy department of a slick city magazine in California, sharing an office the size of a guest bedroom with three crusty copy editors who smoked at their desks like living chimneys. They once told me my laughter lowered their concentration level. I said it was a good trade-off since their smoking lowered my life expectancy. Once I witnessed them spend an entire workday determining if "corn stick" is two words or a hyphenated phrase. At that point I felt certain that my co-workers, rather than go home at night, simply crawled up the walls and hung upside down from the duct work over their desks until the next day.

Thinking about that office job reminds me of the time I asked Lary to come to Target with me to buy baby clothes for Mae. "First I'd like to shove wooden railroad spikes in my eyes and set them on fire," he said, and I have to laugh, because asking him had been a joke in the first place. I know that putting Lary in the baby aisle at Target is like putting a hermit crab in a bin of cotton candy -- the crab is not only out of place but about to be killed by its insipid surroundings. And that's how I felt about that office job; it was killing me and not just in the literal sense. I lasted six months.

So here I am today. I wouldn't say I always lack money, I just lack the knowledge of what to do with it. Lately I've been having a hankering for "holdings," whatever those are, so I bought a house in a bad part of town two years ago in a neighborhood called Capitol View on the West End, because I couldn't afford my beloved Poncey Highlands, which is just minutes away. But since I had Mae, I've been thinking it's time I look for a better neighborhood, one that doesn't have crack dealers and dumped trash. But being broke has precluded me from affording one.

So I stopped searching and soon realized the better neighborhood I was looking for was materializing right outside my window. People, probably poor (but nonetheless productive) like me, are buying up the beautiful ruins in the neighborhood and laboring to restore them. One couple, Greta and Monty, with the help of Trees Atlanta, just planted more than 100 crape myrtles along Dill Avenue. That'll be a sight this summer, crape myrtles with purple and pink blossoms framing the same street where two years ago I almost accidentally ran down two crack addicts. They are not known for walking fast, crack addicts, but they must have walked off somewhere because I'm seeing less of them lately.

What I see instead is people like my 87-year-old neighbor Miss Taylor, who has lived here since the early '70s. She grows big sunflowers in her front yard and likes to kick up her bare feet in the rain. Recently I saw her in her garden, so I crossed the street to pay a visit. I had my baby with me, and Miss Taylor's eyes brightened as she saw us approach. "Give me that baby," she smiled, so I passed Mae from my calloused hands to hers, and we stood there in her garden, Miss Taylor and I, two neighbors enjoying each other's company, surrounded by the blossoms of our toils.

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