“it was always so hot in barranquilla, the police wore sandals. they were very poor and not paid well, so, you know, they only had like one pair. they didn’t want to get shit all over their feet and their shoes, so they never wanted to walk in our backyard.” this is why, my father told me, he grew up in a house full of animals. his great grandfather had parrots, dogs, chickens, cats, sows, donkeys, “and so on and so forth.” they would keep them in the backyard and the animals would roam around cagando por todos lados. my great grandfather liked it this way because underneath the layer of animal feces, beneath the grass, and deep within the soil, was buried contraband. no cop in sandals would snoop around there.
when i was little, my father loved telling the story of how a puma or a cougar, maybe sometimes it was a tiger, got loose in his childhood neighborhood. deja, y te lo cuento…
a friend of my grandparents owned a circus; it’s a long story how they became friends. in any event, he asked them to watch some of the animals while he went away on a circus related business trip of some kind. you know how it is. there were animals all over the house! these were very exotic animals. the bathtub was full of alligators! there were monkeys in the living room! iguanas in closets! and a couple of panthers in a cage in the backyard! but then, one of the muchachas or the gardener or my father and his brothers accidentally, or maybe on purpose, sin querer queriendo, let the tigers escape! they were running all over the neighborhood! on rooftops, through backyards, in the streets! they were scaring everybody, and, of course, todo el vecindario knew it must be the crazy romano family. and then, you know, some people came and took the leopards away. end scene. i loved that story, and i still do. what i love more than anything, though, is that my father wanted to tell us about the big cats so bad he made up a completely different tale in order to do it. i would totally do that.
it’s true my grandparents were friends with someone who owned wild and exotic animals, but they were not circus animals, or at least not yet. my grandparents would house expensive animals en route to miami to be sold in the underground market. as it turns out, the bulk of the romano wealth and family business was in the importing, exporting, and selling of contraband. can you believe it? contraband. in colombia. i know, it’s difficult to process.
what you likely never knew or remembered or cared to know is that cocaine was never a main source of illegal money making in colombia until the war on drugs. prior to that, selling and buying of all kinds of goods in the underground market was commonplace, though not really discussed openly; kind of like bootleg dvds and imported marlboro’s at your local corner store. colombia is geographically located in such a way, the buffer country between central and south america en route to the states, with the caribbean on one side and the pacific on the other, that trafficking of all kinds is too good to pass up.
cigarettes and booze were their main sources of income, but they also dabbled in exotic animals, purebred dogs, and anything else you needed. they brought their goods in from aruba, and for this reason we have many 8mm home movies of my dad’s family vacationing there. they kept the goods in their house and obviously kept some for themselves. i always wondered why and how my grandparents procured a set of afghan hounds. they didn’t seem like the kind of pets a colombian family would own, but they loved them. they even had portraits painted of the two dogs. natasha and napoleon, if memory serves.
i remember a room off the garage that was always packed to the brim with stuff, and i remember the hired guard that sat in a rocking chair in the living room all night with a rifle in his lap. much like a member of any dysfunctional family, i assumed all colombian households were like mine.
mamaia and her mother sahara, aka sara or mama sara – my half hewish half black single mom great grandma whose girth and warts frightened me and who eventually fell into dementia and set her room on fire- were just as much a part of this business as everyone else. their house was raided regularly by the police, and mama sara would lie in her bed feigning to be an old invalid while the police bustled around her. what the police never found were the cartons of whiskey and cigarettes strapped to her thighs. meanwhile, my father and his brothers would throw merchandise over the wall into their neighbor’s yard, where they had paid off the muchacha to hide their things until the cops left. the neighbors did not care for the romanos, or at least the single mom head of household did not. they were a well-respected and religious family whose youngest daughter would eventually jump that fence to marry the oldest romano son. i was born of this rebellious coupling.
you crave that whiteness…
work hard for it.
bank checks on it.
risk our story with it.
clean white sheets to hide inside. to smell and taste that life without consequence; that purchasing power spent on the backs of those you cannot see; that upward mobility breaking spines you cannot hear. because you deserve nice things. because you deserve everything. theirs. to fill your mouth up with desire and swallow it into the void they made to keep and tame you. do not choke. their whiteness will not care. they do not see you. not like i do. i will sow ambivalence into your ambition.
our brownness smudges you with reminders of repercussions. pulsing like drumbeats in your throat. thundered storms. the roars of our memories leave you weak with a knowing that gives you strength; it is hard to bear. that thirsty want of knotted knuckles from a hard day’s work making you so tired. i know. i know. trust. do not let go. stop resisting that struggle you rather turn your back on. so you can lie back with that white cocoon pressed against you so smooth you might just slip inside its hollow unnoticed. and let go of us. her lack cannot quench your want. it is an empty purity of stolen lives. masked. her sweetness a veil made of your grandmother’s bones; of bodies bludgeoned and left swinging by scandals smiling coyly and manufactured apologies served a decade late and stale with pretense.
white legs coiling around your neck. her pleasure is thin and cold. releasing you with a wrongness that is not yours. theirs. they will kill you. whispering white delusions in your ear. their breezy dreams make our night terrors. i no longer sleep. i lie awake. their fantasies curdle into sour lies on the heat of our copper skin and spill off the truth of our curves.
my sharp corners poke at you. her round tears dull you. my dark stares leave you bare. her white gaze obscures you. you lie half asleep with sticky eyes too groggy to feel. numb. wake up! i know i am angry. my pain is thick and hot. it is the rightness of rage. i know i am loud. it is the hysteria of being hushed. standing in my flooded body. i know i am stubborn. it is a strength born of stillness. i have learned to cry over the rush of white noise.
we belong in the crossroads where all the arteries bleed. they take you to idle down back alleys. i will not follow. listen. walk away. forward and back to us. ache for the oneness amidst our resistance; heal from the desire of their condition. aspire to struggle not to settle.
i autoload my clipper bus card with my credit card because i hate money and money hates me. we agree to interact in silence and only as needed for our mutual survival. i swipe the clipper on the bus swiping clipper machine and it goes “beep,” and i’m golden. sometimes, it goes “boop-boop,” which means it didn’t work and you have to swipe it again. i don’t always notice that.
on one of my commuting days, i walked up to the platform from the underground train and the public transit gestapo was asking people for their proof of purchase. they scanned my card and asked for my id. in true gestapo fashion, the asshole refused to tell me why. whatever, i hemmed and hawed, and then he wrote me a $103 fare evasion ticket. i guess it went “boop boop” and not “beep.” i’m all, what the hell are you talking about? i pay my fare! he’s all, you can dispute it later, ma’am. i refused to sign the ticket; he refused to care. a dude getting ticketed next to me was all i’ma take this all the way to the supreme court! sigh. this is so fucked. on the rest of my commute home, i was on the verge of tears; emotional and fuming. all i could think of was google buses, poverty, wealth disparities, and injustice. they can suck it. i love fighting tickets and i usually win.
the law says you have to be intentionally trying to evade fare. so, i printed out a record of all my electronic payments from the last few months to show i commute daily and pay my fare daily. several times a day, in fact. i sent it along with a firm and pleasant letter stating my case, and awaited my denial letter telling me to appeal in person. they give you 21 days or something to go for your in-person hearing. i missed the deadline by a day. it’s not 21 working days like any other normal business allows, it’s 21 calendar days. i’m told i now owe an additional $30 late fee. $133 total. i’m as sincere as a sincere person can sincerely be, asking the window person to please grant me a hearing. i can’t pay this ticket -cannot, will not, should not- and there’s no reason for it. look at my paperwork. please. maybe she cares, maybe she’s not allowed to care, maybe part of her used to care, or maybe none of her ever will. she tells me i can do project 20 -where you “volunteer” your time off of a ticket. she tells me i would have to pay m.t.a. $55 and then pay project 20 another $20. poor tax on top of poor tax on top of poor tax. but i can volunteer wherever, right? no. Half of it has to be done with the department of public works. poor tax on top of some public humiliation wearing an orange vest cleaning up people’s crap on the street. i start tearing up. no, no, no, no, no, no, no. they can’t do this. how do people do this? what if you can’t afford it? she tells me they withhold taxes or your car registration. no, no, no, no, no, no, no. what do you do if someone can’t afford it? shrugs. this is a light skinned middle-class girl freaking out at systemic impotence. i just can’t. i walk out and cry on the sidewalk as tech buses roll past me.
how can they do this? how is this ok? i think of all the poor people getting ticketed on the bus, and i think of all the privileged asses on tech buses with their illegally elite door to door transport. if any of them gave a shit about anything, they could pay their damn taxes and public transit could be free for all. they could. i know it. nobody cares. with my pride buried in the pit of my belly, i walk back in and suck some cock.
i show up for my indentured servitude at like 7am on a saturday to the fresh scent of urine and feces warming up on the sidewalk in the mid-market morning sunshine. the “office” you have to report to is a little room near the entrance of a bart train station. there are about 50 other people in line. we all get a number and then they pull numbers randomly to assign you to a supervisor to go clean somewhere. there are several regulars that staff seem to know by name. i go into the little office to ask if they have a bathroom and they say no, and i’m all “whuuut?? they don’t even give you a bathroom. that’s hella scandalous!” the man in charge says, “what’s your number?” i show it to him and he tells me i’m staying with him today and i’ll find out if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. shit.
turns out, it’s a gross old man thing. i spend the rest of my “shift” -a total of an hour- as “back up,” sitting in a room with five other young girls; we wait there in case one of the other supervisors needs an extra person. these girls are project 20 veterans. the asian girl with tiny tattoos all over her hands and body given to her by an ex-boyfriend tattoo artist -which her father is paying to have her laser off- had over 100 hours to work off (over $600 in tickets). she recounted a tale of having to clean up dead rats in chinatown. the young latina girl who just had to add extra “volunteer” hours because her car got booted that morning, told us about how someone grabbed her crotch when she was cleaning in the tenderloin and she whacked the dude with her pick up stick. these chicks are m.t.a.’s golden geese. our supervisor would come in and out of the office, talking pleasantries like a grampa about keylime pie from jack-in-the-box and his impending retirement, and then going out to smoke cigarettes or do something else. we were basically the typing pool gals there to keep him company. i wasn’t mad.
i came back the next saturday trying to figure out how i could weasel my way back into the sexist back-up room. fuck it. if i have to pay this poor tax then i will suck that cock and get mine. i see grampa and, with lashes batting and my best old-men-like-smiley-girls smile, i’m all, “you gettin key lime pie today?” “not today. what’s your number? you’re staying with me.” sweet.
my older sister’s acne made me super jealous when i was little. i wanted my own to pick at. it seemed so satisfying. all of the sudden, i started breaking out when i was about 30, and it was irritating as fuck (though also satisfying). i got on birth control to regulate my hormones and tried three or four different types of oral contraceptives over the course of a year. i’d never been on birth control before and each one made me crazier than the last: muscle twitches on my legs and face, drowning in outrageous night sweats, charlie horses that could cripple a bitch, and brain loopies. like serious brain loopies. i couldn’t remember anything (worse than usual), i felt like a ditz (slow to process and indifferent), and my math was deplorable (it’s already shamefully bad). i gave up on the whole thing; besides, my course of pills seemed to trigger something because my face cleared up anyway.
i thought a lot about why i reacted so strongly to birth control when people i knew maybe gained some weight or something but seemed fine. my thinking is they started taking the pill when they were adolescents; being hopped up on age appropriate hormones, they likely couldn’t tell the difference. then in time perhaps bodies adjusted and it was no big deal eventually. or maybe they felt and were treated like crazy ladies and no one realized why because no one ever talks about it, or the way it’s talked about is hyper controlled. like sex in the victorian era, if you believe foucalt.
a few months ago, i skipped a period. when i got my period again, it gushed like a geyser and wouldn’t stop. the doctor probed, tested, and prescribed; there was just nothing doing. the internet told me i was not alone. there were women out there in their 30s who started bleeding and never stopped. maybe those of us afflicted with eternal bleeding haven’t birthed a babe or didn’t get jacked on anti-baby pills when we were little or maybe we have fibroids. it’s not really discussed.
most of the women i know have had fibroids: non-cancerous tumors or masses of tissue all wadded up in and around the uterus. you bleed; you have to pee all the time; your tummy gets engorged and bloaty. my friend had three; my mom had one so big it made her middle hard and round like a wheel barrel. turns out she had it for years and just ignored it until she saw a commercial and all of her symptoms matched. it seems odd we have to learn about a common medical condition via pharmaceutical commercials, and yet our uteruses are the subject of so much conversation. it seems our lady bits are only subjugated to a very particular manner of discourse with a specific purpose in mind.
just like motherhood: spoken about all the time solely to maintain the dominant paradigm. cis women are aggressively defined and controlled by a motherhood articulated through whiteness and misogyny. it is all sweetness, grace, and individual sacrifice. narrated as a lovely and appreciative tale of a princess femininity, pregnancy, birth, and an ever after, all-encompassing infatuation; yet it is so much more complex, wrenching, and nuanced. the truth of cis women who don’t want to reproduce, hate being pregnant, hate giving birth, and hate their babies, are incinerated. those of us who look at our children and don’t want to give up our entire selves for them are obviously witches. if our choice or circumstance creates a community to share our communal burden of reproduction, we are branded lazy whores. all the horrors of walking on the razor sharp edge of parenthood are silenced or we are simply blamed for making them up. they talk about it all the time, and never say a god damn thing.
one of my aunts had at least three miscarriages; my mom had at least two; my sister has had three. each of us knows to hide it for a couple of months, which appears to be a way of placating the rest so it won’t get awkward because baby death is weird. each woman finds herself in complete shock when it happens. it is not a part of our health education, it is not ingrained in our psyche of possibility, and we do not know how to grieve it. “it happens and be quiet,” because it’s kind of your fault anyway.
pop movies told me from a young age that testicles could be different sizes, but i never saw a pair until my late teens. i was never told that breasts could be different sizes, yet i was seeing them in movies since betamax. orgasms happen to all genders in the same cis male way, or so the story goes. so when your happy ending is different or nonexistent, your reality spins a yarn of wrongness. we are left confused, shamed, and isolated because in the normative legend only our bodies exist not our truth. we are characters in a myth; any authorship and protagonism is villainous. and anyway, it’s almost impossible to hear over all the white noise.
we were living in the penthouse when the f.b.i. or the d.e.a. or the i.r.s. came to the door with a search warrant. it wasn’t really a penthouse, or at least not what an 11 year old thinks of when she thinks of a penthouse. the floor was not marbled, nor was the ceiling high, and there was no fireplace, not even a decorative one; instead, the carpet was scratchy and beige, and the ceilings had those little pocky plaster bits that someone once told me caused cancer. there was a balcony, but i couldn’t see over the edge; the fact that the main entrance was on the second floor seemed a bit tacky to me.
i climbed up the stairs and peered around the corner to see who was at the door: two white men in suits holding badges, or a similar image. our muchacha, the live-in housekeeper/nanny, had opened the door. i think i ran downstairs to tell my parents the police were at the door. the next thing i remember, my parents ordered my sister, my grandmother, aka abuela, and me down to the lobby of our apartment building while they dealt with things.
our apartment building was called the tidemark. before that, we had lived in a mor modest apartment building, the botanica. both of these buildings were part of a 40-acre, gated, beachfront apartment complex called key colony. we lived there for about four years, and i would regularly explore and discover new paths, hidden gardens, small waterfalls, tennis courts, apartment units, and swimming pools. there was an arcade and plenty of lizards to trap. during my tenure there, my hobby of capturing and accidentally killing lizards reached genocidal proportions. it was an odd yet perfect tropical oasis for a young girl with a bicycle. we’d been living in key biscayne, florida -at the time an unincorporated island village in the city of miami- for about two years. over the course of about ten years of growing up in key biscayne, we lived in seven different houses on the island. residential properties cover about a four mile area; one time we literally moved around the corner.
back in the lobby… there was talk of sending the three of us to the apartment of my mom’s cousin josefina, aka pillo. i didn’t really want to be escorted out of the drama, and i understood this wasn’t meant for my little eyes and ears. though i couldn’t picture my stressed out abuela praying the rosary at pillo’s house, i loved the idea of going there. she was super cool. pillo was young, thin, attractive, and sporty; all the things my nuclear family was not. she windsurfed! windsurfed! and she owned a white volkswagen cabriolet convertible that i’m pretty sure my father bought her. she worked for my father’s company as a secretary of some kind. a couple of years later my mother would exclaim, “just because a man and a woman work together everyone ‘over there’ assumes they are having an affair.” over there, or alla, was colombia, and i learned that sometimes there’s truth behind people’s assumptions.
i can’t recall how i felt about the government agents visiting. i try to remember if there was confusion, worry, fear, or amusement, but i have no idea. i can attribute my foggy emotional memory to trauma, and likely i approached the situation with the same detached empathy i usually do: observing events as a curious outsider with a healthy degree of understanding for the involved actors. i’m pretty sure i had the thought it was all doubtless a mistake and everything would work out in the end, because it always does, because it has to, because mami and papi are up there and they can do anything.
an hour or so later, we were back upstairs. our muchacha was in the kitchen with her head in her hands, crying. she was being taken away because she did not have papers. se la llevaron. she made the best scrambled egg, ham, and cheese bagel sandwiches ever, and she would make me as many as i wanted everyday after school.
i don’t think i heard much else about the search, except they didn’t find anything, or maybe they didn’t have the right warrant. my father took a great deal of pride in fucking over systems with their own red tape. one time he came home and told a story about how he got out of a ticket by arguing that the light of the moon and the position of the police car would have made it impossible for the officer to have seen him making the illegal u-turn. he argued the officer only assumed he made an illegal u-turn and thus the probable cause for being pulled over was thrown out. many years later, his younger sister, fiorella, aka fio, told me that the subsequent search of his car during that stop led to the discovery of a suitcase with 12 kilos of cocaine in the trunk. she exuded pride as she told me how my father got the charges dropped by the light of the moon.
they didn’t take my father away in handcuffs that day, just la muchacha, and she wasn’t in handcuffs, she was in tears. i assume they just wanted to look around the apartment and see how we lived. like in “say anything” when the i.r.s. agents ask ione skye if her house had a lot of nice things bought with cash. in the movie of my life, i play ione skye.
for like a year i was obsessed with celebrity gossip. it was triggered by the merger of tom cruise and katie holmes -tomkat. it was such an oddly compelling display of humanity, society, and fame, i was hooked. fluff sociology is my intellectual cotton candy. my stalking ended when britney spears had one of her infamous meltdowns. the one where she shaved her head and attacked the paparazzi with her umbrella. it was no longer fascinating; it was just depressing.
watching her was sad, and watching us watch her was much worse. because the way we watch is shameful. because you cannot just watch without impact, right? observation changes that which is being observed. fame is physics. fame is twisted. fame is dumb. so dumb i don’t even want to dignify its absurdity by deconstructing it like it matters. the desire to do so pulls from the same narcissism that birthed hollywood in the first place. and a little i can’t help myself…
we play out bizarre fantasies onto these people made objects. i suppose we do this a bit in all our intimate interactions, but we don’t know these people. we don’t care about these people. we fabricate this one-dimensional perfection, and then love and hate them for it. we offer them admiration and then flex our cruelties when they remind us of their humanity. we set them up. we toss children into this whirl of money and abuse, sex and drugs, flattery and fallacy, loneliness and attention, insecurity and adoration, freedom and suffocation, and think it’s cute. and when the structures necessary for hollywood’s economy of celebrity crack its swindled players, we revel in the shame of it and smirk at our superiority. i know we’re being swindled too. and i know the majority of them are just rich and entitled and they’ll be fine, but what it says about all of us is so unfortunate. when people roll their eyes at the shenanigans or self-involvement of celebrity, all i want is empathy. tu eres mi otro yo, and all that.
i get that hollywood stardom may not feel worthy of our compassion, but we treat true artists the same. these are just symptoms of a grander social ill and it kills, and what’s the point of any of this living if there’s no art, music, dance, humor, theater, writing, etc.? we stare at young artists as they disintegrate in front of us and do nothing. or worse, we stare harder and point and criticize and laugh.
when kurt cobain killed himself, i wrote his name in chalk outside of my house. he meant something to me; i knew we lost somebody, i understood why he did it, and i felt complicit. “the montage of heck” reminded me how much kurt cobain’s music gave and how incomplete our version of him was. every single song is breathtaking. seeing his face and recordings of his joy and humor, and writings of his pain and motivation, all the mayhem that comes with genius, inspired and crushed me. i wanted to bury him in my uterus and take care of him. i wish we actually cared about our artists. i can’t imagine struggling between the drive to create and send it out into the world, and the pain of entrusting that creation to a superficial and spiteful culture. plus, y’know, the serious mental health problems that seem to be correlated with great talent. i wish we knew how not to humiliate them. maybe kurt would have died sooner if we hadn’t been there, and maybe he would have lived longer if we’d just been there a little bit more. maybe they all would have.
this is a transcript of my thoughts recorded live in front of a like-minded audience.
how’s everybody doin’ tonight?
[hoots and laughter]
cool. we all enjoying the spoils of capitalism?
[hoots and laughter]
yeah, capitalism can be rough, man… i mean, it’s uh-may-zing, don’t get me wrong. [laughter] but, y’know, it requires that there always be some people struggling at the bottom y’know? and the hope is we have a system that helps rotate folks through the bottom and climb up out of it, and the cycle of life, or struggle or whatever, continues.
and, in the meantime, a lot of us have to sort of make ends meet through “gigs.” y’know, the gig economy is pretty strong these days. i’ve had some good gigs for a while… i’ve been parking bikes for a long time, some babysitting, some sex work… [laughter]
and sex work isn’t as easy as it used to be. [laughter] tech bro johns aren’t cruising in their ubers down capp st., y’know… [laughter] now, you gotta get online or get an app… and the market is just super saturated. [laughter]
plus, i only do ass work… [laughter] and i know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking, “well, she’s got a niche market. she must be doing fine.” [laughter] but since everyone has an asshole. [laughter] well… i don’t want to be an assholist… or is it orificist? [laughter] ok, most everyone on the gender spectrum has an asshole… right? [laughter] so, there’s a lot more competition… [laughter]
what i’ve discovered though, these days, of all the wuhn-derful things the tech industry has brought us… [laughter] like indifference and white men… [laughter] is a deregulated economy where everything that used to be illegal… like picking up passengers in your car or running illegal hotels… is now legal! [laughter] it’s a wonderful time to be a capitalist! [laughter] we’re just sharing, y’know? i don’t want your money. [laughter] i just have this thing and we’re gonna trade it for something you have. like, whatever’s in your wallet. some paper currency or your credit card number… or whatever, dude. totally chill. [laughter] actually, no, just your credit card number. [laughter] and complete access to your phone so they can steal your thoughts. [laughter]
so, with this new entrepreneurial spirit, i’ve decided to airbnb my anus… [laughter]
have any of your ever been on these sites? or signed up? i mean, they’re pretty cool. they’re totally disrupting… humanity and decency. [laughter] they offer you this easy to use appy website thing to help connect you to johns or visitors or whatever to share your space. and they’re not like pimps either. [laughter] they’re just a platform to help people share currency for sex or products. i mean, they do take a cut and they don’t care if your shit gets smashed… but not pimpy at all. [laughter] they’re really chill. [laughter]
anyway… first you have to describe your unit, as it were, and i had to think on that one but i just decided to be straight to the point, y’know? so i typed in *pretend to type on keyboard* “cozy, back-door getaway.” boom. [laughter]
and then, they want you to put a picture up, and y’know, everyone has these beautiful 360 panoramic shots of their dwellings, and they’re all staged, like they’re renting out pottery barn… is pottery barn still around… [laughter] aside: it’s sad when you grow nostalgic for shit you hate, huh? that’s when you know it got bad… [laughter]
so anyway, i haven’t been to yoga in like ever so i just didn’t have the reach *act out reaching behind me to take a picture of my ass* [laughter] wasn’t gonna work. so, i taped my phone to my dog’s face [laughter] cause that makes sense, right? and kinda’ crouched in front of him *crouches and spreads butt cheeks* [laughter] but i forgot to switch the camera around, cause i had been banking selfies earlier… [laughter] and so all i got were pictures of his face. and you should have seen it… i’ve never seen such a look of surprise and hope in my life, like “oh my god, we’re really finally doing this. ok, keep it cool, man…” [laughter]
so that didn’t work… [laughter] i decided it might be best to just be mysterious, y’know. everyone loves mystery. so i put up a lovely picture of a brown starfish at the bottom of the ocean. [laughter] right?
then you have to describe your place… [laughter] so this is my blurb, tell me what you think: “nestled in a small community of cheeky neighbors, ease your way into this ‘off the beaten path’ posterior unit. it’s a tight squeeze, so just one person per night, please! wifi available! bleached upon request.” [laughter] is that ok?
then, you can like put in all the amenities, so i was like pets ok? *check* [laughter] well, there is a kitty like right around the corner. [laughter] doorman? kind of? sure. *check* [laughter], wheelchair accessible? hell yeah! *check* [laughter] smoking allowed? probably. *check* [laughter]
so that was it! super easy, right? and then, i didn’t find anything about maximum number of nights and that kind of worries me cause while i’m sure in time i’ll start expanding [laughter], i just don’t want to be put in any compromising positions right away, y’know? [laughter] plus, i mean the maintenance fees alone. [laughter] i’ll probably have to put in an irrigation system or something. [laughter] hire a landscaper. *rolls eyes* [laughter] and now, y’know, i’m just kind of concerned about it all, but… i’m sure i’ll reap rewards in the end. *wink* [laughter]
you guys have been great! thanks! [applause]
life is full of tough choices. when, for whatever reason, you have some economic and social privilege, your lifestyle decisions are more likely to impact everyone around you. where you live, where you work, if you travel, how you travel, what you buy, how you buy it, how you get rid of it, and how you interact with others can be convivial or inadvertently violent. gentrification, por ejemplo, is violence.
i try to live a thoughtful life. from my quotidian interactions -making sure the person who was there first gets served first, trying not to make garbage- to my larger life -career decisions, money matters- and at the end of the day, no matter what i decide and what i disregard, i must own up to what i am doing, if nothing else. it is in this vein that i will openly admit i am a selfish, entitled, lazy, ignorant gentrifier.
i moved to the mission neighborhood of san francisco in 2001, at the end of the dot com bust. i’m not sure where in the displacement timeline i arrived. since i was half asleep or half awake when i got there, i wasn’t too concerned. i loved san francisco and the mission. it was the only place that ever felt like home.
i came back the bay area from my 10 month self-imposed sabbatical in 2012, only to realize my peer group had gentrified me out of the city (whether or not they are actually my peers is a disputable point). i knew right away i was going to be part of the giant wave, which had started years ago, of young professionals moving to the east bay, and to cool, dangerous oakland, in particular. this broke my heart, and still does. i love san francisco, and i love oakland; i didn’t want to kill oakland the same way i helped kill the mission.
rent in sf bordered on criminal before i left, and now it’s just murder. the idea of waiting in line for an open house with people half my age who make three times my salary vying for the chance to spend 60% of my income to live in a hobbit hole made me want to vomit. i’m selfish. i didn’t want to live in a house with ten other tech bros who party all night having money fights, or a family of co-op’y folks where i have to consensus myself into oblivion. i’m wasteful. i’ve had to make tough choices, and, in the end, it meant no choice at all. i could not afford the only choice that would have created the least amount of damage. my life then went on pause as i became paralyzed in transient sublet mode waiting for the gods to reopen those san francisco golden gates and let me back in. i was a yuppie refugee.
i’m well aware this is a complete insult to actual refugees who have not been bestowed my unearned privilege. and yet, that’s how it felt all the same: temporarily stuck in a place that was not mine and stubbornly refusing to plant roots because one day maybe the wall would come tumbling down and i could return. i was not alone, either. i saw others wandering aimlessly around -generally in a car because, y’know, it’s the east bay- pining the fog, a decent burrito, and that apartment they gave up years ago (damn it!). we are not committed to this place; we were pushed on to the good people of oakland, and we have money, which makes us dangerous.
pieces of the san francisco diaspora were everywhere: the leather daddy walking around lake merritt, the knowing look of defeat on the faces of my fellow commuters, the long lines for ice cream and brunch, and the preternatural bloom of pretentious beer gardens. and if this were all we left in our wake, i could learn to live with it. if it were paired with a conscious acknowledgment of said intrusions and active steps to ghettoize ourselves in berkeley, i could have committed to that thoughtful life (even if did not include pupusas). but we all just watch(ed) and did more of the same. we watch(ed) the rents go up and up, we watch(ed) west and east oakland families get evicted and replaced by our cooperatives and artist lofts, we watch(ed) as day by day the class and ethnic hue of passengers getting off at the west macarthur bart station became monochromatic, we watch(ed) our tech overlords barrel down streets in their tinted buses, and we watch(ed) as newly evicted huddled masses carry their used ikea furniture further inland -to live in places where there are no jobs so they have to commute to their old neighborhoods to work because people who can live wherever they want made the choice to displace them. antioch, ho! and don’t tell me you can’t afford to live in a richer neighborhood. you just want to eat brunch. quit playin. i watch(ed), and tried to stay very, very quiet.
because, honestly, who wants to be that guy? or date that guy? or spend any time around that guy? the angry one; the bitter one; the one that doesn’t want to go to the new place with the delicious sweet potato fries because they remember the affordable sandwich shop that used to be there; the one that cringes when you excitedly tell them about the apartment you “found” in west oakland/east oakland/fruitvale, and cringes more when you don’t know/don’t care what that neighborhood used to be or where those neighbors are now; the one that shakes her fist in your face when you talk about how gentrification improves the economy and makes oakland safer. well, maybe i don’t always stay that quiet…
“i hella ❤ oakland,” they say. if you really loved oakland, really, really, loved the small pocket of oakland you claim to know, you would move up the hill and try to advocate for economic and social justice development that is supportive of the desires of oakland’s most underresourced; those that have been respirando lucha for decades (do you know the deep rebellion that runs through this place?). admire it from afar, create your own culture somewhere else (i hear you’re fond of the desert once a year… no, I’m kidding, please don’t fuck up the desert), and invest your social and economic capitol in ways that are supportive of folks who created the culture you think you love but are truly just eating alive. the culture that will have to add one more struggle to its list after you realize detroit got cool and move there. your physical and economic existence is displacing someone else’s. it doesn’t matter if you clean litter up around your block or talk to your neighbors because you also call the cops on them, and you’re fooling yourself if you think anyone is grateful to wash dishes for you in one of the 20 new cafes or happy hour spots only you can afford. for those of us who remember what 40th and telegraph, city center, the laurel district, etc., used to look like, we know it wasn’t pretty. but it was honest. the artisanal glitz, foodie, faux indie nonsense that’s happening now, is uglier. it’s uglier because it is an ignorant lie wrapped in oblivion with a condescending, god damn, giant fucking pink fuzzy mustache on it (disruption is doublespeak for deregulation, asshat); because it creates more hunger and desperation; because it divides us more; because it swept poverty somewhere else.
the only constant thing in life is change, and that doesn’t mean all kinds of change are inevitable. thoughtlessly devouring the communities around you -whether in your big decisions or in your small ones- is a choice. gentrification is not inevitable. it is a choice. actually, it’s a series of choices made by individuals, and the only person i can control is myself.
and so i did sneak back across the border into fogtown two years after my return, and it’s more of the same. i returned to my beautiful, abusive, lover that i cannot leave and barely recognize anymore. where i pay 60% of my income for a 270 square foot shoebox; where the weight of a possible eviction presses heavily on my heart; where packs of white boys manspread all over the sidewalk; where city hall sold our soul; where no one seems to care and i choose to shout as loud as i can.
my muchacha -directly translated as “woman,” it is the latino word for nanny/housekeeper- was named paquita (pa-kee-ta). i can’t recall her real name, or it was never told to me; i don’t know if that’s how you spell her nickname, but that’s how i always saw it. she was in her 50s or 60s with leathery brown skin and large rimmed glasses, and her hair was always pulled back with barrettes in a long braid that reached the small of her back. i would hide in her skirts and she filled my belly with pupusas and fried eggs cut to look like suns. my sister’s muchacha’s name was cuca (coo-cah), and she taught me how to swim through treachery in the shallow end. we loved them, and fully believed they loved us.
a young girl in her early teens used to live in my grandparents’ house in colombia. she would wear a white uniform and seeing her in civilian clothes was like seeing someone without their glasses. she played with us like a cousin not a muchacha, or so i thought, until an adult would yell her name, “maria claudia!” and she would run off at their beckoning.
my grandfather, papahugo, took maria claudia in at a young age; offering to pay for her education and lodging while she provided my young aunt companionship and helped around the house. he also asked her family to live in his one story office building to act as security in his absence. maria claudia never ate friday siesta lunch with us in the dining room. instead, she would come in and out through the kitchen, helping my grandma serve.
before my grandpa died, my grandparents took on another ward, as it were, making the same agreement with her family. neyla is now in her early twenties, and she started living with my grandparents when she was about fifteen. she doesn’t wear a white uniform, but she might as well. when my grandma, mamaia, got cancer a year or so ago, neyla dropped out of school to take care of her. she slept in mamaia’s bed every night and spent all day with her watching television or playing on her blackberry. she would take her to chemo, cooked her meals, did laundry, and helped her serve friday siesta lunch. when i was staying with them in colombia, neyla would tell me how she mourned papahugo. how he used to take her out for drives in his car and how she loves him like a father and misses him, but in the middle of the story, mamaia or my aunt or my uncle or my five year old cousin would yell, “neyla!” and off she’d go.
it’s a twisted tradition: offering to take the child of some poor family; to educate, feed, and raise them. this seeming act of benevolence stinks of cheap labor, indentured servitude, and psychological abuse. they treat them like family as long as it suits them, and then demand they serve in ways that none of my cousins nor i would have ever been expected. neyla sees herself as family, and was led to believe this by my grandparents, but no one else in the family identifies her as such. all i could think while i was there was, “what’s going to happen to her when mamaia dies?” will anyone offer to finish paying for her school, give her my grandma’s room to live in, or support her transition to an independent life? doubtful.
for safety reasons and the performance of heavy lifting, my grandparents always had a man working in the house as well. recently, they had a young man named wilmer, but my grandma called him wilber from day one. neither he nor anyone else ever corrected her. he was also in his early 20s, started working in the house when he was 15, attended a technical school, and had a young girlfriend who was very sick. i gained his confidence while i stayed with them, and before i left barranquilla, he and i commiserated on what a horribly tense and dysfunctional household it was -there was a lot of matriarch battling between my grandma and aunt- and how unnerving his role of errand boy was. he told me they paid him shit and treated him poorly, and yet he felt some loyalty to my grandma, especially since she got cancer. i tried my best to lead by example in that house, particularly with my little cousin; i would clean my own things and serve myself, but it only functioned as proof of my otherness to them. wilmer and i would exchange winks and knowing smirks during siesta lunch. he also told me how neyla would treat him worse than the rest. claro, i thought.
by the time i left colombia, wilmer had left. he was having personal difficulties and my family felt he just wasn’t performing up to par. they lamented the unfortunate circumstances of his dismissal, particularly his apparent disregard for all they gave him; for welcoming him into the family; for letting him eat lunch in the laundry room off the kitchen; for offering him advice and then gossiping about him when he wasn’t there. two months after i returned to the states, mamaia passed away. i have no idea what has become of neyla or wilmer, and, like paquita, cucona, and maria claudia before them, no one seems to know, or care.
since january of last year, the idea of working -even as i was actually working- was like a swirl in my stomache. a pit in my chest. i woke up every morning with dread in my heart. the u.s. hamster wheel was the knot in my shoulders.
i bought my freedom, and it’s served its purpose amazingly well. i feel revived, and the only reason i know this is because when i think of work and the straight world, i feel ok with it all; at peace. maybe even excited again.
granted, that wasn’t to be my sole purpose here. my intention wasn’t to just pep talk myself back into being a good, complacent yuppie. i wanted to internalize detachment from all the bits related to the square life; from all my silly routines and habits and belongings. i feel more willing to adapt and let go of expectations and objects. there’s no other way to be in the carribean, really. whether this translates back to english, i won’t know until i get there. which is why it’s time to go back. being here is like running in place and stirring up dust. i’m not going anywhere, but i’m not being still either. this would be ok, except i’m also being destructive.
no recycling, no composting, bottled water, styrofoam, plastic bags, working for a wasteful gringo empire, eating meat, and using up resources in a place where they are scarce… i’m not creating anything and i’m not helping. i’m better off back in the west coast bubble inside the devil’s claws where my footprint can at least be a little smaller. it doesn’t help that i miss my puppy and i’m out of money.
if all else fails, i let it all go and leave again. now at least i know i can, and i know i’m good at it. that knowledge is likely the greatest thing i bought for myself. i highly recommend it.