Note: I wrote the first three paragraphs of this post in June of 2005. The rest I am adding in December.
I’m not exactly sure why I began thinking about Rene recently. I was driving back from Amy’s shower, and my mind was wandering around as it is wont to do when I’m driving for quite a while. I recalled Rene, a boy I was acquainted with as a young teen. As a naive suburbanite living in Cheektowaga, coming from a working class, polish immigrant, hard drinking, self-definsively racist, devoutly catholic background, I became friend with Dawn. Dawn was from the city of Buffalo, and we lived in Cheektowaga. WE were going places, living in Cheektowarsaw. So you can see there was an obvious class difference. My family had escaped Buffalo, and had a long time ago. Both sets of grandparents had lived in the polish suburb of Cheektowaga for many years. On my paternal side, my grandparents had lived in Buffalo in their youth, including when they first married. They were part of the historic white flight from the city to the ‘burbs. I’d say my family mellowed with generations, but it really depends on the individuals to be frank.
So Dawn had the citified edge to her. She actually knew people who were not white, though they were indeed still catholic. She had this friend Michael, who was hispanic and lived in Buffalo. One day we chatted on the phone with him, and he put his friend Rene on to chat with me. I was in ninth grade, and this was one of the first times I was flirting with a boy. I was receiving attention I liked, and so I had a telecrush on Rene. To be honest, I don’t think I even had any idea of his race. I’m not sure I know his last name at the time, but because he had what I thought was a french name, I probably assumed he was white.
We exchanged phone numbers, and we chatted on the phone often. It was a time of teenage sexual exploration, in the most benign manner. He asked me how big my bumps were under a sweater (not very), but I was becoming aware of myself as a sexual being, not for the first time exactly, but in a continuing sort of way. He participated in some junior air force group. I think he flew(?) — hell, I’m not sure what they did there, because he could not have been more than 15. They were having some sort of ball, and he asked me to go as his date. A DATE! Of course I wanted to go. So I asked my mom, and she said a resounding no. She said he was probably black, and that seemed to be the strongest reason for me not to go wth him. I don’t remember her saying much about the fact that he was a stranger I’d only chatted with on the phone. I so clearly recall having to call him to tell him that I could not go and citing the reason as my parents would not allow me to be in an interracial relationship. Of course when I think now, I wonder what the hell possessed me to be that brutally honest. I suppose it was complete ignorance.
(Now in December): I’d still like to hope it was ignorance. I just posted about being very mean to a girl in my homeroom. I guess I, too, have the confessional bug, which I will blame on my Catholicism, as we Catholics can’t take any blame ourselves. (The devil made me do it, afterall.) I was out the other night with co-workers, and Asha, the new teacher, said of Debbie, the teacher she replaced, that Debbie’s former students told Asha that Debbie was black. Debbie is asian. We chuckled in a sad way that our students see all non-whites as black, but frankly, I did the same damn thing as a teen, or my mom did, or we both did.
When I was so honest with Rene, he told me, “Well what race do you think I am?” And when I said black, he told me he was Spanish (might I add, not hispanic, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Guatemalan, etc). Of course that didn’t change anything for our potential dating situation. Again, I’d like to chalk it all up to age and inexperience, and perhaps in part I can. It’s not easy to figure out our own places in the world and other people’s places in the world. The sad thing is: there ARE places for us in the world.
Again and again, I am aware of my own roots, especially having jumped a social class. I am very uneasy living in West Hartford at times. I still have some disdain for ostentatious wealth. I think of the American Dream and how it deludes people so easily. That is the goal of capitalism, to delude people. I look around at hardworking people in the service sector, and I see sharp class lines. And the sad thing is, I am often aware that I help maintain those lines. When I have the energy, I do try to shake up those divides, but it’s not easy. I wonder where Rene is today. I wonder if he joined the armed forces and if he is in Iraq. I wonder if he is married and has kids. I hope he has left Buffalo, if for no other reason than the racism there is thick enough to be cut with a knife, as it frankly is in Hartford. Anyway, ‘nough said. Thoughts?