WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Is Self-Publishing His New Novel

A tale of two cities

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I come from St. Louis. It’s always delightful, as a homeboy in exile, to read things like this longer article in the Times yesterday — about how ingrained segregation there still exists in spite of social policies meant to destroy it. Sad, that I left that city twenty-seven years ago, but nothing has changed.

In the southern ‘burbs, where I grew up, there were literally no blacks. 0. The only blacks I ever saw were the ones we were ordered to roll up the car windows in knee-jerk reaction to when we drove downtown for an event, such as the old Veiled Prophet Parade (sponsored by an elite an organization that didn’t admit its first black member until 1979). I kid you not, I didn’t meet a black person until my family moved to Newport News, Virginia, when I was eleven. Luckily, I was impressionable enough at that age to see them as what they were: kids just like me who played baseball and made jokes and talked about girls and loved music and Slurpees.

By the time we moved back to St. Louis — just a year later — my personal ideas about race were set, though obviously nothing had changed in the city. We lived in the white part of town again. I wouldn’t rub elbows with black kids until a high school track meet three years later.

A couple of teammates and I were warming up for the 880 (what we called the 800 m race in those pre-metric days), when we crossed paths on the track with a group of black guys from the other team. They glared at us. There might have been a shoulder bump in there somewhere too, but what was clear to me was that they were reflecting a racial hostility, or resentment, at least, that I was completely unfamiliar with. I didn’t get it. We hadn’t done anything to them, had we? Of course, I didn’t have the imagination at the time to picture their neighborhoods, their homes, their family lives, their sense of defeat (despite their team kicking our white asses that day). They’d been piled onto a bus and driven out to our school from some place I’d never set foot and probably never would. They’d watched the homes and businesses go from decrepit and seedy to new and well-groomed, sans boarded-up windows. (Even now, as in places like Detroit, you can drive through inner city neighborhoods in St. Louis and see nothing but boarded-up apartment buildings and abandoned storefronts.)

My friend Tom had a side business repairing hydraulic pallet jacks and had to pick one up in a section of town that sounded kind of dangerous. Near a place called Lafayette Square, which in later years became a gentrified bohemian spot but was still scary when Tom and I drove there that day. It was summertime. Hot as the bejesus and it smelled like hell too. Garbage, industrial pollution, shit, piss, and whatever it was that came out of the Anheuser-Busch smokestack down the road. The minute we got off the highway, we knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore. We stopped at a corner to get our bearings and saw a dead dog splayed in the dirt yard there behind a chain link fence that looked like a cannonball had been fired into it. That death smell rose up and Tom hit the gas. A couple of black teenagers yelled something at us as we drove by toward the warehouse where we now wanted in and out of as fast as possible.

I delivered prescriptions for a pharmacy in a tony neighborhood close to Washington University (founded by T.S. Eliot’s granddad, if you didn’t know). Once a week I drove to the north side to drop off medicine at a nursing home up there. The shortest way was through black neighborhoods, which didn’t bother me but always educated me. I crossed a certain boulevard and the world changed. The billboard ads, the fast food outlets, the number of people waiting at bus stops, the very elements that constitute daily living. Everything was different.

And not very long after that I lived in a city neighborhood that abutted the edge of the north side, hop skip and a jump from one of the notorious streets that was always in the police blotter for shootings, strong-arm robberies, and rapes. But the two universes seldom overlapped, as if a kind of mutual segregation were going on, unspoken but practiced out of knowing nothing else. Once, though, a black man stopped me and demanded something to eat. He was not a threat but his manner was threatening, and my girlfriend and I walked away double-time as he shouted to our backs, “Fuckin’ white motherfuckers!”

I could go on. Sadly. I wish St. Louis were the only town in America with this problem. I would take it and own the shame of it if I could know that all the evil of racism and segregation and hostility and pain were concentrated and quarantined in this one unfortunate place.

But it’s not.

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19 comments on “A tale of two cities

  1. kingmidget
    August 10, 2015

    Can’t like this post. It’s too sad, too discouraging. I’ll leave it at that.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 10, 2015

      Nothing to like about the situation, that’s for sure. Interesting how we reach a certain age and we can see things from a clearer perspective, i.e., that the fight is never done.

      • pinklightsabre
        August 10, 2015

        I like your POV on that.

      • kingmidget
        August 10, 2015

        “That the fight is never done”. That’s the frustration right there.

  2. pinklightsabre
    August 10, 2015

    Reminds me of a year in North Philly, very similar and true-to-life exchanges, and worth looking at, talking about. Thanks for sharing your story Kevin.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 10, 2015

      Naturally, I have some uplifting stories in the “race relations” folder too, but: Ferguson (today).

      What do Germans make of our “situation”?

      • pinklightsabre
        August 10, 2015

        We were pretty isolated today from German-talk on the subject. Found ourselves surrounded by American and Chinese tourists instead, in a timeless bubble of the medieval town Rothenburg ob der Tober. But I’ll keep my ears and eyes open as I try to. Distressing, everpresent, slow to change, but things reach a tipping point it seems. Of course they think we’re all crazy with our guns and our long hot showers, and I don’t blame them.

  3. John W. Howell
    August 10, 2015

    I grew up in Detroit. Learned that I was not a soul brother. Never thought of the divide until that time when the color of skin theoretically demonstrated what side you were on. Was sad to find out friends were reluctant to be seen with a white guy. Also sad I was jumpy being seen with them as well. What you say is very true and I wish there was a fix.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 11, 2015

      It does seem like there’s so much pressure inside each group not to fraternize. Peer pressure. But the sickening thing to me in the St. Louis story is that discrimination is still practiced but with a smile now.

      • John W. Howell
        August 11, 2015

        I can no longer speak for Detroit since I left and never went back. I can only feel sorry for all those who were disappointed by the events.

  4. 1WriteWay
    August 11, 2015

    Your post is sad news but I Liked it anyway (because I like you :)). Where I grew up, among dairy farms in the Mohawk Valley of New York, there were three black kids that went to my high school. And they were cousins, so we’re not even talking about three separate families. I don’t remember any tension, but they were outnumbered. There was one incident where the oldest boy (same age as me) shouted out something in anger and frustration, I think during gym class. I don’t know how the other boys treated him, but most of us girls felt sorry for him. Everyone was dating and you know he wanted to but there were no blacks girls for him to date. And as much as we liked him, we knew our parents would not allow it. Ironically (maybe, maybe not), the city of Amsterdam, only a few miles from my little hamlet, had a sizeable Puerto Rican population which has only grown over the years. That’s a whole other story.

    So my feelings and experience with blacks were fairly benign until I moved to Oakland. What a shift in perspective and experience. I had never before been hassled because I was white, but I think people could see my naivete from a mile away. Oakland was an awful experience for me. San Francisco, in the 1980s, was much better. It was so much more racially diverse than it is today and I think that made us get along much better. Now here in the South, where there is a kind of implicit segregation in how people form friendships and identify with groups, I feel more tension, less acceptance, and definitely less familiarity. It’s almost like people don’t want to find common ground. It is sad, and another reason why I don’t like living here.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 11, 2015

      Thanks for telling that story, Marie. God, I can’t even imagine what it’d be like to go through adolescence as the only kid of my race in school…

      We had a fascinating experience in SF last year when we went to the Paul McCartney concert at Candlestick. The Stick (now being demolished!) was in a predominantly black neighborhood. For that concert, parking was a colossal nightmare, so the folks who lived adjacent to the park started to sell parking spots in their driveways for thirty to fifty bucks. Here came all the yuppy whites to see an ancient Beatle, but if a lot of them wanted to see the show they had to deal with the local entrepreneurs. I loved that!

      As for the South, I’ve always heard that there’s a certain transparency to race relations down there. Everyone knows where they stand. Up north, it’s harder to read because discrimination and resentment are often under the surface.

      • 1WriteWay
        August 12, 2015

        You know, I’ve often heard that race relations are more “transparent” in the South. Even one of my black coworkers in San Francisco suggested the South was more “honest” in its race relations. But I don’t see how that has been a positive thing. I’m grateful that my workplace is fairly diverse, otherwise, the way this town is laid out, I’d be thinking all blacks were poor and all whites were rich (or better off anyway).

      • Kevin Brennan
        August 12, 2015

        I know what you mean. Transparency is worthless if all it does is formalize the old ways.

      • 1WriteWay
        August 12, 2015

        Well said.

  5. islandeditions
    August 15, 2015

    I see the beginnings of a novel in this blog post … I grew up in Toronto, and in a neighbourhood that was predominantly WASP, at that. I hadn’t experienced anything during my life like what you describe here until I moved to Bequia in the Caribbean, where I was suddenly part of a minority, but not so much because of the colour of my white skin. (There are still many descendants of white settlers from a few hundred years ago who never intermarried.) More because I am a foreigner and presumably wealthier (I’m not!) than many here, having led a much more privileged life, apparently. Just the luck of where I was born, seizing opportunities, and living up to my potential is the way I see it. Even though I now have citizenship, I’ll always be considered not one of them. And it’s taken some getting used to, but I’m okay with it now. Besides, it’s all fodder for the writing.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 16, 2015

      Your situation is fascinating. And it highlights that socioeconomics is usually a big part of the conflict. It all gets really complicated…

  6. cinthiaritchie
    August 27, 2015

    Nice post, though it brings up uncomfortable feelings plus that guilt many us feel of being white and therefore entitled to things we didn’t necessarily have to earn.

    I grew up on a farm in northwest PA and there were two black families in our school district, no Asians, no Hispanics; everyone else was white. When we drove to the city, my mother always had us lock our doors when we traveled through the “black” section. I remember looking out the window at the bright colors and vibrant air of the streets and wondering what it would be like to live there, instead of out on the farm where everyone adhered to strict social standards and behaviors, and thinking outside the box was both discouraged and ridiculed.

    Thankfully, here in Alaska things are different. Oh, there is racial tension but there is also a lot of diversity. In many schools, whites are actually a minority. When my son was about 8, we went back to the farm in PA, We were standing in line at the supermarket and my son kept looking around. “Something is wrong, Mom,” he said, in a loud voice. And then he said, “Look, look, everyone is white.”

    I loved him so much for that, for noticing what so many people can’t see.

    I say this because I think there is hope for the younger generations, for children growing up in diverse classrooms, with students from every race and country imaginable. Someday we’ll all be mixed and all of our skin will be one or another shade of brown and the whole damned white majority, old boys’ club conservative bullshit will finally be over, thank you very much, and maybe we can all get around to appreciating and accepting one another. At least this is my hope.

    That said, I am white and middle-class. If I were poor and Hispanic, I’d probably have a totally different opinion of living in Alaska and diversity and how we all get along, blah, blah, blah.

    I’m shutting up now. My head hurts if I think too much so late at night. Again, nice post.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 27, 2015

      Thanks, Cinthia. Seems like so many parts of this country are Lily White, so the white experience of black people is somehow skewed. We may become convinced that everyone’s living in harmony but we’re totally blind to facts on the ground in black neighborhoods. It doesn’t take a lot of research, though, to see that racism is alive and well.

      It’s ironic, and satisfying, to know that the world’s population is growing ever browner. Heh heh.

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