Tag Archives: identity

Retrograde

I need to get a few things out of the way. I am young. I am white. I am straight. And I am male. The world has virtually been designed for people like me to succeed. I cannot—and do not—claim to know the difficulties of people who fall into various marginalized groups. Yet, I am going to write about them.

In a recent interview with Slate Magazine, Jonathan Franzen, perhaps our country’s foremost literary voice, said that he would never venture to write a novel about race. He said that it was “dangerous” to presume that his “good intentions [were] enough to embark on a work of imagination about Black America.” Like me, Franzen is straight, white, and male. He believes there is something paradoxical about reaping the benefits of white privilege and then exploiting the struggles of people unlike him in his writing.

I hope this long-winded disclaimer will, instead, act as a preface for this article. I am going to write empirically about three interviews I conducted with homeless people while doing research for my senior thesis. The numbers vary, but the marginalized groups remain the same. People of different races and members of the LGBTQ community create a large portion of the homeless population, despite the fact that they make up only a small amount of the general U.S. population. Women do tend be homeless less often than men, but if they do become homeless, they are exposed to a drastically higher risk of disease, physical assault, and sexual assault than homeless men.

The idea which guides me is this: it is precisely people unlike me that have the highest risk of homelessness. So, in writing about these people, I have to consider the line that divides compassion and exploitation.

***

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The Lunch Box is a one-room soup kitchen in Poughkeepsie, New York. It has six long cafeteria-style tables, a small kitchen, and several milk cartons against the back wall—some full of paperback books, others offering an assortment of nearly-rotten fruit and vegetables. It was almost Thanksgiving when I went. On the walls, cardboard pilgrims smiled next to cardboard turkeys. Red and green Christmas garlands added a tinge of off-season color. There were roughly forty people in the room. A few were white, some younger than I expected. But, most were older, black men.

I had mentally rehearsed my elevator-pitch to a mechanical degree. Be quick. Be direct. Do not offend.

My name is Derek. I’m a student at Marist College and I’m working on a senior thesis about local homelessness. Would you be open to answering a few questions?

***

Homeless families consist of 33 percent of the total U.S. homeless population.

The first person I spoke to was a 43-year-old woman. She said that her husband, a roofer, herniated two discs in his back and got laid off because of the injury.

“How long have you been homeless for?” I asked her.

“Not long at all,” she said. “It’s only been a couple weeks. We haven’t slept on the streets or anything yet. We just got evicted from our house and we’ve been staying in the shelter since then.”

She said that she had two kids, both of whom were staying with their grandparents. She added that there wasn’t enough room for her and her husband to stay there as well.

“What do you think is the hardest part about being homeless?” I asked.

“Oh, I really couldn’t say. Like I said, it’s only been a few days.”

“As somewhat of an outside observer then, do you feel like Dutchess County is doing enough to help the homeless?”

“Well, that’s a tough question too,” she said. “I don’t know if I feel comfortable answering it. I can tell you that my husband and I have found ways to get food and we’ve also had some help from my parents. I guess it’s finding a job that’s really the hardest part.”

She went on to say that she had been offered a job as a taxi driver in Poughkeepsie, but she couldn’t afford the $43 fee needed to upgrade her driver’s license from a Class D to a Class C.

Her husband came over midway through the interview, looking quizzical, but stern. I explained why I was there and asked if he wanted to be interviewed as well. He declined and said that he and his wife should leave.

***

37 percent of homeless people in America are black.

The second person I spoke to was a 31-year-old black man. He said he had been born into poverty and had lived in Poughkeepsie his entire life.

“How long have you been homeless?” I asked.

“About four years now.”

“How did you become homeless?”

“I think a few things made it happen. First, a lot of it has to do with drugs.”

Without being prompted, he said he had gone from pot to coke to heroin.

“But, I only became homeless after my mom died a few years ago,” he added. “My dad kicked me out because I couldn’t get clean. But, I think it’s this city too.”

“What do you mean?”

“I know it’s my fault [that I’m homeless], but the city doesn’t give a fuck about us. There’s nothing really proactive to help people before they become homeless. Then, once you do, it’s almost impossible to get back on your feet. I’ve heard that Poughkeepsie is better than most places. They’ve got a lot more shelters and stuff, but I’m telling you, it’s impossible.”

“What’s the hardest part about being homeless?”

“I think it’s boredom. I try to find things to do most days, but it gets so boring.”

This answer stood out to me. Most people I spoke to that night said sleeping in the cold or constantly looking for food were the most difficult parts.

“There was one time when I didn’t talk to anyone for like two weeks,” he said. “It was before I really knew about shelters or places like this. But, I went so long without even having a conversation with someone. I think that was the hardest part.”

***

One in five homeless people in America suffer from mental illness.

The last man I approached was sitting by himself. He was white, boasted a beard that covered his Adam’s apple, and, at sixty-two-years-old, he was the oldest person I interviewed all night.

I quickly felt that his answers and mannerisms were consistent with someone experiencing mental health issues. He spoke tirelessly, but without direction. Throughout our conversation—nearly half an hour long—he often made claims which undercut previous ones.

“How did you become homeless?” I asked.

“I became homeless after my parents were forced to leave the coven [an organization of witches],” he said. “My parents went against the superiors and they kicked us out. After that, we didn’t have a place to live.”

“How long have you been homeless?”

“On and off for thirty years.”

 


 

**Derek Rose is currently a Master of Fine Arts candidate in creative writing at Columbia University. He likes sitcoms without laugh tracks, movies without climaxes, and books about antiheroes. He grew up in Stillwater, New York—a town so small it doesn’t have any street lights. His fiction has appeared in the Atticus Review, Sink Hollow, Potluck Magazine, and Crab Fat Literary Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter (@Derekrose21) and Instagram (@Derekrose212). Check out more of his writing at https://derekroseblog.wordpress.com/.

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Like Endless Rain Into A Paper Cup

When I was thirteen I accidentally traveled back in time to the 60s. That’s sort of what it felt like, anyway. Up until then I considered myself a pretty “vanilla” teenaged girl. Shy, easily influenced, brainy, and desperate to blend in with the other girls in my class. I was in my room one night after school VERY busy listening to my new Jonas Brothers CD when my parents called me into the living room.

“We’re gonna watch a movie, come sit with us?” my dad asked. He phrased the sentence as if I was being given an option. By his tone, I knew I had no option. I reluctantly plopped down in my sofa crease and prepared myself for two hours of apathy. (Movies have never been my cup of tea. I think it’s an attention-span thing.) The movie was called “Across the Universe,” and I could tell from the graphic designs on the DVD Menu alone that this wasn’t like the usual genre of movie my parents gravitate towards. (Them being English Literature teachers, I’ve seen every movie adaptation of every Jane Austen book known to man.)

I was shocked, blown away. I can see how I may be coming off as dramatic when I say this, but no amount of mental training could have prepared me for this moment in my life. “Across the Universe” was turbulent, rebellious, artistically beautiful, exciting and romantic, but above all, what struck me most was the soundtrack. All Beatles songs. I can’t accurately explain how much that movie hit me in all the right places. And thus, my obsession with the 1960s began.

It started with The Beatles (appropriately) but then it evolved to the whole of “The British Invasion.” The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Hollies, The Who. Then I furthered my education to American bands: The Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Stooges etc. By the time I was a Sophomore in high school I was an extremely advanced rock n’ roll historian. If my friends knew the extent of my love for elderly rock stars sixty years older than me, they probably would have had me admitted to the most heavily guarded psych-ward in California. Very few of my high school buddies got the chance to visit my house. I never invited anybody over for fear that they would see my poster-covered walls and think I was a serial killer or stalker. You think I’m exaggerating.

I had the four walls of my room painted the exact same colors as the jackets The Beatles were wearing on the Sgt. Pepper album cover. Blue, pink, orange and lime green. (So chic.) Then, those walls were plastered with countless posters of mods and rockers all looking down at me while I slept. Joy Division, Patti Smith and The Velvet Underground chillin’ on my ceiling. My furniture ranged from all things psychedelic to all things grunge. In 11th grade I made a shrine to Andy Warhol in the corner of my room, complete with candles, incense and a painting of Edie Sedgwick my friend made for me. In 11th grade I painted brick walls just above my vanity, in honor of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, of course. And let’s not forget about the Amy Winehouse collage I’ve had behind my door since her Back to Black album came out in 2006. It was an acid-tripping, heavy metal, glitter-covered, flannel-ridden nightmare. And simultaneously, my paradise.

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I was a little self-conscious about my hobby. Only because it was hard to find people who could relate. While I was discovering Frank Zappa, some of my closest friends were making the transition from The Black Eyed Peas to LMFAO. (NOT that I look down on people who enjoy LMFAO, I’m just saying we were definitely on different wavelengths.) But overall, I think I received more respect for marching to the beat of my own drum. I never once felt that I was outcasted for following my joy. I had managed to trick people into thinking I was cool just because of the music I listened to.

In a way, I am eternally grateful to the artists who have managed to captivate my imagination. Now that I’m a young adult it is so obvious to me how much Debbie Harry has affected my fashion sense, or how Bowie has inspired my love of all things eccentric and bizarre. I’ve realized that every passion and every experience (whether fabricated in my mind or a physical event) is just another Jenga block on the tower of my identity. If I were to remove one, the tower would crumble and I wouldn’t be me. I am composed of every work of art I love.

Now, Oscar Wilde wasn’t a rockstar but he has made some pretty punk rock comments in his time. One of my favourites being: “Art is the most intense mode of individualism the world has known.” There are very few statements that I agree with more. The art you love defines you just as much as the people that you love. The Beatles didn’t make me who I am, their work allowed my soul to express itself the way it had always been meant to be expressed. If I were alive in another era, I would have found the same outlet with Beethoven, William Blake or Robert Frost. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and had I not sat down to watch “Across the Universe” that night, who knows how I would have developed? Sometimes it’s best to do what your parents ask you to.


 

** Emma Tice is a Marist College student form Anaheim, California. Upon her graduation this May, she will have a major in Media Studies and Production and a Creative Writing minor.

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Displaced and Confused: Growing Up Feeling Like an Outsider

I didn’t know I was different right at first. It wasn’t until I moved from Florida to Chicago, from Chicago to Detroit that I started to realize I wasn’t like other children my age.

My difference wasn’t incredibly significant, on the surface you probably wouldn’t have noticed it, but as the other children spoke of their families that had lived in the same area of suburban Michigan for decades, as they spoke about Irish or Polish pride, showing me traditions I had never heard of or been a part of, I started to realize the truth: I didn’t fit in.

For one I was Hispanic in an area that was predominately black and white—but even then, I was only half Hispanic. If there had been a Mexican community near us, I’m sure I wouldn’t have felt like I belonged there either. My mother had never taught me Spanish; she’d never raised me to feel that close to my heritage. My biggest claim to being Hispanic was going to visit extended family in Texas and eating authentic Mexican food my aunts and uncles would make.

My father’s heritage was always a bit of a mystery to me growing up—I didn’t even learn his people came from Appalachian, Scotch-Irish territory until I was in college. Though I had been told as a little girl that my great-great grandmother was the daughter of a Cherokee chief, sold to an Irish man (who turned out to be a Scotsman—my father didn’t even know his own history).

So this left me with no real cultural identity. I was part Mexican, though I barely understood what it even meant to be Mexican. I was part “hillbilly” as my dad used to say—a vague term for a family ancestry he was uncomfortable discussing or just uninterested in. I was growing up in a place where I had no extended family, no grandparents (my one surviving grandmother lived in Texas until she passed away in 2006) and no siblings. I was a stranger to the ways of the Midwest. I was a stranger to the ways of the suburban Detroit middle-class. I simply didn’t fit in.

As I grew, I craved some sort of community. A part of me craved a large family, a culture that I could be a part of, but I felt like I had none. In stead I searched out social communities. I jumped on a variety of bandwagons, went through many phases and different identities, always looking for like minded people, people I could call my own, people I could say “really got me”, who were like me, who understood. But nothing seemed to fit. I continued to be the odd one out—a bit of a black sheep.

Finally I ended up in New York City and a new kind of cultural displacement fell upon me. I had moved into an area that was very big on race and culture, and a bit exclusive. In Crown Heights I live right in the middle of a large Hasidic community and a large Caribbean and Jamaican community—though both are made up of very kind, hard working people, there was no place for me in either. It was very clear I was still the outsider. Around the time of this relocation, I also started getting interested in Korean culture, even deciding to start learning the written and spoken language. But what did this all mean? In the end, I found it confused me more than ever. Who am I in this big world? Where exactly do I fit? Will I ever find a community, a “family” where I can belong?

I had a brief period of feeling plugged in, feeling like I was a part of something bigger than myself, part of a true community. In college I was a part of a large group of artists, filmmakers, writers, and musicians and for the first time in my life I had thrived, no longer the lone black sheep but one of many black sheep. Together we were different, and therefore we were the same.

But all good things come to an end. I parted ways with my group of artist friends and we all scattered to the four winds.

Now, living in my interesting, diverse neighborhood I am sans community once more. Not that I don’t have friends—I have many and I love them all dearly; they are my family more than anyone (except for my mother who I still speak with daily). But there is still no sense of belonging, no cultural identity like I always craved as a young child growing up. It’s certainly not the worst thing in the world, but it is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

Maybe the answer is to start my own community, one that will welcome all those who are displaced, confused, and feel like outsiders. A new culture for those without a culture. Who wants to join me?

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