(If you haven’t read Raised Rural one, two, three, and four, I recommend reading those first. Also consider checking out Ivy Wrapped Around My Throat about how my social life changed along with my politics at this time, and The Music Dies about my college dreams.)
To recap: in college in Philadelphia, I identified myself politically as an Independent, leaning libertarian, embracing social freedoms but concerned mostly with fiscal responsibility, economic freedom, and a watchful foreign policy. I supported moderate Republicans. Then, when I lived in Chicago – outside of the bubble of campus housing that I’d lived in while in Philly – I started seeing the cracks in the social systems that I’d thought were fair and just. This is how I came up close to those cracks, learned a vocabulary to describe them, and if I’m a good enough writer, how it changed me.
“Community” is not a word I understood until very recently in my life. Of course, I knew the dictionary definition, but I’d never been shown its actual meaning of community – in fact, I was raised by parents who were at times hostile to the surrounding community, and from a young age I knew the meaning of words like “nonconformist,” “small-minded,” “hypocrite,” and “ignorant.” So naturally, I didn’t invest in community. Not the public school, where I struggled to fit in and felt isolated. Not the church, where my grandmother took me to Sunday school and I prodded the teachers with questions they couldn’t answer to my satisfaction. Not among the Pennsylvania Dutch, whose heritage I shared but racial attitudes and small-town perspective I found abhorrent, and whose stagnation I found stifling. Not at community college, where I knew I would leave after two years, and not at La Salle where I didn’t fit in among the middle-class suburban kids who had attended private religious schools. It sadly wasn’t until 2013, when everyone was excited about the men’s basketball team and there were touching stories about the team members’ families and friendships, that I realized how awesome La Salle’s community was and allowed myself to root for the team and feel like I was part of it.
In Chicago, though, I took trips by myself downtown, for errands and for fun. After work, I walked my dog around the neighborhood and let her run around with puggles and Australian shepherd mutts. We walked her along the lakeshore, and we would pick her up to laugh at the sight of her eating mulberries right off the tree in Washington Park. I borrowed graphic novels and art museum passes from the local library branch. I read classic novels and Augusten Burroughs while riding the Green Line out to my graduate courses in the River Forest suburb, watched my breath come out in frosty puffs while walking and listening to Rilo Kiley and Wolf Parade, sat on a bench with crochet hooks and yarn in the lobby of the botanical garden until my classes in their library started, and wrestled with oversize WPA blueprints in the narrow archive of the African American History museum. A few months before I left, I bought a White Sox hat and wore it to represent the South Side. I could have lived there, happily, for much longer than two years. However, as in so many other places, I knew my time in Chicago had an expiration date. I was a temporary visitor, and my opinions wouldn’t mean much. And as a white 22-year-old student living in largely Black and then mixed neighborhoods, who couldn’t find Chicago on a map until after the lease was signed, I didn’t think it was truly my space to claim.
But I went to New Haven knowing I would be here at least six years, the minimum amount of time it would take my husband to get his doctorate in history from Yale, and with the possibility that he would need an extra year, or that we would land good jobs that would keep us in the area. I had a reason to care more about my community here.
Again, though, I’m jumping ahead. Thinking about community and involvement in these terms was something I had to learn. And I learned it from my job.
When we moved to New Haven in August 2011, I had hoped I would get a job in archives or special collections, or maybe a museum. I had the MLIS that qualified me for professional work as a librarian. We hoped that Yale might take an extra look at my resume, if I dropped in my cover letter that I lived in town because my fiancee was getting a Ph.D. from them. I applied to every position in the university’s library system that I could (not the ones that required fluent Japanese or an advanced degree in GIS), and I got a pile of rejection emails, and an interview for a job at the second-lowest tier of library clerk work, which amounted to nothing. I luckily found a temporary part-time job at a corporation in Stamford after a few months, and when it was extended from 3 months to 6 months, we finally set a date for our wedding and knew we could pay for it. For work, I was limited by what I could reach by the local bus system and Metro North, and when several part-time positions opened up in the city library a month after the temporary job ended, I had no choice but to go for it and keep applying for full-time jobs that would allow me to afford a car. That’s how, after a year in New Haven, I came to public libraries.
My life up until this point had included little contact with the public library world. My mom got my brother and I library cards when I was eight or so, and we used them to check out old stories from the libraries near Allentown while my mother gathered sources for a community college paper. Sometimes in junior high school, I would spend my Wednesday afternoon in my hometown library, asking one of the two librarians for help finding Stephen King novels, or reading books on ghosts and the supernatural until a parent picked me up on the way home from work. I didn’t return until my senior year of college when I needed to use a scanner to complete a graduate school application for an academic program, several months before I considered turning my work-study archives job into a career path. This library was still a single room with a small staff, but I had been happy to see they had a number of modern computers and a group of boys playing games on them. A couple years later, I would run into the librarian at a summer fair in town, and her husband would step into the conversation and complain about the boys’ preference for Spanish, stating, “This is America. Speak English or get out!” with a violent thumbjerk. I had been too stunned to ask why he thought it was any of his business. In hindsight, I might have formed my response in Spanish.
I knew the issues facing city libraries from what I learned in library school out in Chicago, and from visiting my neighborhood branches and the big downtown Harold Washington Library for a weekly class. New Haven was an education unto itself. I got to know the regular patrons – disabled women who borrowed hundreds of books a year and ran a library out of their apartment for their neighbors, men who harmlessly flirted with the women workers and called my hijab-wearing coworker “sister,” elementary school girls in uniforms from the nearby private school whose appetites for books challenged my readers’ advisory skills, orthodox Jewish families with mothers who often seemed tired, exhausted elderly wives acting as constant caregivers to their husbands who were deteriorating from Alzheimer’s, young autistic adults who lived down the street and sometimes couldn’t control their emotions, single mothers who borrowed DVDs, retired Yale professors, men who used the computers every day to search for jobs, smiling middle-aged women who called me “honey,” high-functioning alcoholics, people who talked to themselves or who chronically spoke too loudly, quiet kids who weren’t in school and who hung out at the library all day until their parents returned home after work, and refugee families who barely knew English.
I was a very rule-oriented person for most of my life, an extension of my father’s parenting and his black-and-white worldview. It carried over into my work for years, and the public library challenged that. Adherence to the rules meant collecting sometimes exorbitant fines from people who I knew were receiving assistance or were unemployed. It meant stopping a child or homebound adult from borrowing a pile of books because of the limit on materials borrowed. It meant not getting interlibrary loans to curious adults because the limit was too low for their information needs. It took me years, and the wonderful example of my boss (who was also trying to balance internal problems in the workplace), as well as bosses and coworkers in other library systems, to learn the best way to deliver library services. You override the book limit. You waive the overdue fines, even if the person on the phone or in front of you might be lying about their extended hospital stay. You waive half the fees and let them borrow the book in their hand, even though their balance is technically still too high to allow borrowing. You let the wife take the newspaper out to her husband waiting in the car, even though the newspaper isn’t supposed to leave the library. When the city hasn’t plowed the street and your tiny parking spot is the only place where parents at the nearby preschool can put their cars, you talk to the head of the preschool instead of shouting at the parents. You let the person whose phone has run out of minutes make a call from your branch’s phone. You tell people you just want the books back that have been overdue for the past year, and you heap them with gratitude when they return them while you waive their bill. The kid who is hanging out in front of your library in below freezing temperatures an hour before you open, you start a conversation with him and call his parents to feel out his situation. You order the rap CD or the Sister Souljah book even though you know it’s going to be stolen. You let the person you’ve never seen before pay you back next time for their printouts. You let the ESL learner, who takes classes in the basement meeting room with the literacy volunteers, renew the English-Arabic dictionary over and over and over.
It became clear to me that, contrary to what I’d believed before, we were not all on an equal playing field. I met people, primarily working-class African Americans from the area around the library, who searched for jobs for months and even years unsuccessfully, though I saw them in the library every day, and their friendliness never wavered. I saw cover letters rife with so many grammatical errors and so simple in tone compared to my own letters, that I didn’t feel like it was worth commenting, especially when my workday didn’t allow me the time I would have needed to help them. I once helped a young man try to navigate the online system to expunge a drug conviction from his record, and I heard over and over again from men in their 40s and 50s about how they had made mistakes in their past that prevented them from getting good jobs, or any jobs. I helped – or tried to help – a woman get on the waitlist for section 8 housing, a needlessly labyrinthine process that involved a hunt through the local newspapers to find the announcement that listed the website that would be open for a week, and the specific times she needed to be online to apply, times that didn’t coordinate with our open hours.
And my institution was playing a part in keeping that playing field uneven. The kids with unstable home environments, who walked to the library by themselves and who couldn’t give a permanent home address, were kids who might take materials out and never return them, but they were also the kids who needed the library the most. Those who couldn’t afford a home computer and internet connection, let alone a printer, had to pay high printing fees for paper applications for food or housing assistance. Many libraries don’t put much of their budget into hip-hop albums or urban fiction or blockbuster films due to the high rate of theft, even though they often reflect the interests of many patrons more accurately than National Book Award winners and foreign films. Computers filled up fast at the main branch, so people would take the bus to our branch – but the time limits on the computers were too low for those who were looking for jobs, and there were still too few computers for us to always extend their sessions. And I noticed that patrons who didn’t share my skin color – the color of most library workers, cops, aldermen, teachers, politicians, and other authorities – were more likely to acquiesce to the rules instead of ask for an exception. I could see in kids’ eyes how they calculated the answer they thought I wanted to hear, or the simplest answer they could give, even if it wasn’t the most truthful answer. I realized that the Dewey Decimal system includes at least 73 numbers for topics in Christianity, but only one – 297 – for Islam, that most books on racial discrimination usually get filed under current events instead of under history, that it gives preferential treatment to Western European languages and even ancient languages over those from Asia, and that it shows its limits as the product of a 19th century British Christian male.
I fucked up, plenty of times, and perpetuated the injustices that I was only beginning to understand. I waived the fines for the patrons who challenged them and let meeker patrons pay them. When I had to reiterate library policies to unfamiliar patrons, I sometimes lapsed into a casual tone with who looked like me and stayed formal with those who didn’t. The well-behaved kid who wasn’t in school and obviously had a chaotic home life, once when he hit his daily computer limit and he jumped on somebody else’s computer session after she stepped away for a moment, I canceled the session from the admin computer and without a word he got up and wandered the stacks, when I should have just let him use the computer to play games and been happy he had a warm place to be, or better yet, I should have asked him if there were books or movies I could get him and show him I was a safe adult. I let one of the autistic young adults have a meltdown because I told her she needed to wait her turn when the desk was busy. I didn’t always give my full attention to reference questions from patrons whose minds jumped from one subject to another before my first search was over. When I heard two boys calling another boy stupid, I should have stepped in and told them that treating people well was much more important than intelligence. Sometimes, I myself struggled to kill with kindness.
But I know I made a difference in lives, too. I would talk to one of the regular ladies about movies, and when I found her a certain film one day, she was so happy she gave me a hug. One of the curious adults spent a long time in the local hospital, and he gave us medallions with the Serenity Prayer from the hospital shop when he came back. I gave directions to GameStop to a refugee family’s father who wanted to buy one of his children the handheld game system they had seen their friends playing. I made friends with another refugee family’s daughter, a six-year-old with moxie to spare who asked me to help her with her math homework. I looked up services that were available to full-time caregivers and printed them out for the exhausted wife. I found a food pantry for a patron who had lost his housing and who couldn’t get some necessary medication, and he appeared several months later looking much healthier and holding down a steady job.
Throughout this whole time, I had become deeply curious about issues of race, and I started seeking explanations for the realities that I’d only started seeing at 20 years old when I moved to cities. Freakonomics had included a chapter by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, and I finally got my hands on his book Gang Leader for a Day, where he talked about the economic system of gangs in one of the decrepit housing projects not far from where I’d lived in Chicago. I learned in Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. that being able to code-switch between street language and school language hinted at a linguistic prowess that I, as somebody who speaks in one mode, do not possess – and I also learned that when I’d said Obama was articulate, it came with an unspoken asterisk: “for a Black man.” At one of my library jobs I was lucky enough to maintain that current events nonfiction section, and I pulled together a display on racial discrimination in our country after Michael Brown was shot, and I earnestly scouted new titles to add to the collection. I read Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped and learned how she received messages of her sub-worthiness as a Black girl, and listened to audiobook versions of Wes Moore’s The Other Wes Moore and Alex Haley’s gigantic Roots: The Saga of an American Family. I watched documentaries and read Wikipedia articles on Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, the more violent parts of the civil rights movement which had never, ever been discussed in my high school, ever, and which had been spoken of with negative, dismissive, or hostile tones when the terms were used in rural Pennsylvania. I came to understand the necessity of those radical strains within the fight for civil rights. I learned the phrase “making a way out of no way” and how it related to the perseverance of African Americans. I learned how nuclear families were intentionally separated in public housing projects, shedding understanding on the statistic I’d heard that African-American women have a high rate of single parenthood. I learned that the non-charter public high schools in New Haven graduate less than 70% of their students, and that it was a significant improvement from five years before.
In 2008 I started embracing my formerly secret love of hip-hop, and with burned CDs from my husband’s brother (who people had called some stupid racist words in high school for his love of Black rappers) and my husband’s admission of his own love of rap, I began understanding how it worked: some rappers spoke to a reality they’d faced, some used the language and imagery of samurai films to express violence in their neighborhoods, some sold fantasies of endless money the same way rock bands sold fantasies of endless sex, some were fascinated with gang life the way the rest of our culture was fascinated with the Italian mob. I channeled Jay-Z’s swagger before going into interviews, felt trapped with Tupac when I thought I’d never escape working shitty jobs and living in shitty apartments, got angry with Nas, and blew off steam with ridiculous Ludacris songs. Parts of Black culture became my culture.
After two years working part-time in the city library, and living in the city myself, I could no longer ignore the realities of my patrons and my neighbors. I could no longer believe in equality. And that’s why I could no longer subscribe to libertarianism, or vote only for fiscal issues while ignoring the social.
Addition on February 20 when I realized I completely forgot to talk about the neighborhoods in New Haven:
During this time, I saved money by mostly walking the mile and a half from my downtown apartment to my workplace, instead of constantly taking the bus. My path down the major street took me past multiple Dunkin Donuts, hair braiding salons, chain pharmacies, soul food and fried chicken stands, liquor stores, bank branches, quiet rowhomes, and a Jamaican place that pulled a gigantic smoker out onto the sidewalk on the weekends for jerk chicken and made the block smell heavenly. The neighborhood visibly changed when I got close to my branch, to brunch places, art galleries, salons with European models on their signage, the section of the large park that held a weekly farmer’s market, an optometrist, yarn-bombed bicycle racks, and pubs beloved by longtime residents. On my lunch breaks, I would take walks around the neighborhood, passing cute single homes with cats lazing on porches, Tudor woodwork, magnolia trees, and bougainvillea spilling from planters.
Sometimes coworkers or Yale students I knew mentioned locking their car doors at night when driving through other neighborhoods at night, or avoiding them entirely. They were neighborhoods whose mostly African-American demographics were similar to the neighborhood I passed through on my commute, where I had never felt in any danger. Passing those supposedly dangerous neighborhoods during the day, I felt bad for the people who had to live next to decrepit abandoned houses, without a trash can or a bus route or a well-stocked grocery store in sight. One night in my early days of running, I ended up taking a wrong turn and passed right through a street that people avoided. My big takeaway from my journey – aside from noticing the crumbling sidewalks that characterized every block in New Haven that wasn’t part of Yale – was that there were a lot of churches. Another day, when I stopped for groceries on my way home from work, I saw a memorial for a teenage boy who had been killed by gunfire from a rival gang outside the store a few days before. I put some money into a collection at checkout for funeral costs, knowing it wouldn’t lift the grief from his family and classmates – and not once having the thought cross my mind that my store was unsafe.
When conversations drifted to the high rate of violent crime in New Haven and eyebrows shot up in disbelief at where I walked, I brushed off my conversation partners’ concerns by reminding them that I’d lived in south side Chicago and north Philadelphia. And I remembered an orientation at La Salle, when an older student pointed out that the neighborhood around the university was working-class regular people and the threat of looming danger was blown out of proportion. There was crime against students, for sure, but most of the incident reports related muggings late at night against kids who were almost definitely coming back from parties. I wasn’t wandering around backstreets drunk out of my mind at two in the morning, and potential muggers would have been disappointed to find only a few dollars in my wallet anyway.