by Sharon A. Hutchinson
July 30, 2002
THE CARDBOARD BOXES ARE STACKED BY THE DOOR, and my weariness is becoming apparent as I add another to the growing pile. We have been packing all morning and the better part of the afternoon, and arms grow weary as we tape and lift each heavy box, carrying some from the upstairs floor where the boards now echo with the emptiness of rooms devoid of furniture, carpets and life. The walls seem to watch silently, without protest, as the contents are lifted up and carried away forever. One could almost imagine them weeping as they watch us take away the inanimate objects which filled those rooms for decades and somehow exuded a life of their own.
It is moving day for my mother. Because she is 74 years old, I and my other relatives have offered to do all the packing for her, but she refuses. These are, after all, the pieces of her life which are being so lovingly wrapped and placed within their plain and uninteresting exterior. The drab nondescript boxes belie the precious mementos contained within; the accumulation of a lifetime filled with joy, with sorrow, with all the little pieces that are expressions of our human experience. She wants to be there, to cradle plates and glasses and photographs, stopping to gaze lovingly at some of the faces, now long gone, which peer back out of the old and tarnished frames. I watch as her eyes fill with tears, one tiny drop gathering in the corner of her eye and finally spilling over down her cheek and falling on the cardboard lid, absorbed by the porous material. I turn away, heart aching, watching her sorrow and not knowing what to say, how to comfort her, afraid to make matters worse. For once, words fail me. I go on wrapping, taping and stacking the ugly brown objects by the door, where a truck awaits to carry them away.
And then the anger rushes over me like a flood. My mother doesn't want to move, doesn't want to leave the house where she spent over 50 of her 74 years on this earth. But she is forced to -- forced by the end results of the policies of an uncaring, unresponsive and out-of-control government that has allowed our once beautiful, historical inner cities to be turned into the U.S. equivalent of jungles or shanty towns. I curse the lawmakers, I curse the liberals, at times I want to curse the Creator Himself for allowing this to happen. Most of all there is the feeling of impotence, knowing that no matter what I do or say nothing is going to stop an administration bent on forcing the blessings of "diversity" upon us and destroying the wonderful country we once knew.
My mother's home was burglarized last month; the second time within ten years. She returned home from work to be met at the door by my brother, who had come over to perform his daily visit; a visit made necessary because the neighborhood had become so dangerous that he feared each day for her safety. He had found the front door completely open, and upon entering found the house ransacked, drawers opened, the mattress thrown off its foundation. Luckily, my mother did not walk in upon the burglar; if she did, she might not be alive to be here today, weeping as she closes another box filled with the treasures of her daily life. It is time for her to go; time to run away before something worse happens. Besides, over the last 6 months alone repairing the damage done to the house by the new class of "citizens" gracing the neighborhood had robbed her of almost all of her meager savings. The drainpipe torn from its brackets and evidently stomped on in a perverse game, the cost of removing the filthy graffiti sprayed on the white siding, the storm door panel with the shoeprints of the vandals clearly evident, the window cracked by an unknown projectile-all had cost her more than a poor widow could really afford, even with our help. All things considered, she had to leave -- after the break-in, we knew her very life was at stake.
My mind drifts backward to the time when I grew up in that house. It is different from others in the area, which consist mainly of the typical row homes built to house the factory workers who had come over from Europe during the Great Immigrant Wave of the early part of this century. These houses stood side by side, like the sentinels of a Napoleonic army, their sameness alleviated by little personal touches of flowers here and there and lovely hand-woven lace curtains bearing intricate designs gracing their windows. But my mother's house stood out from the rest. It was a very large, rectangular building, with huge rooms and tall windows, letting in the glorious sunlight into even the farthest corners of its many rooms. Rumor was it was originally built as a school house, and from the outside one could certainly draw that conclusion. But whatever its origins, it was home to my family since they settled in Trenton, New Jersey, after their long voyage from a homeland rife with war. Passing through Ellis Island with all they had in the world, they scraped together enough to make a downpayment on the house and set immediately to work, building what they thought would be a new and promising existence, free from fear of war, from attack. How wrong this proved to be would only become evident decades later, and the enemy would take the form of people whom they probably never even knew existed, from countries they had never heard of, let alone knew where on the globe they were. The term "third-world" had not even come into existence.
My paternal grandfather tried his hand at operating a neighborhood bar, but cancer destroyed his dreams and the business foundered. Still, things were not all that bad as there were plenty of factory jobs to be had, and the rest of the family dutifully, eagerly went to work. These were a proud people, and it was apparent how much pride they took in their homes and in their new status, deliriously happy to take part in the American dream. And we children grew up surrounded by clean, safe homes where even the sidewalks and curbs would be swept by grandmothers wielding brooms. No doors were locked, no cars were stolen, and we played secure in the notion that if any kind of trouble ever brewed, we could knock on anyone's door and seek help. Like when the nearest Junior High School let out for the day. The black kids would walk home through our neighborhood, and before they came we made sure our bikes and toy wagons were put safely away until they passed by. We peeked out of windows and from behind banisters until the last dark body had disappeared down the street; then we emerged once more to go on with our games of hopscotch and hide-and-seek. That was really the only bad thing about living there; we lived on the streets directly leading to the black neighborhoods about a mile away. But we only had to be careful twice a day, when the blacks went by on their way to school and later in the afternoon as they made their way home. After that, the streets were ours to enjoy once more. There were very few Puerto Ricans then; the Immigration Act of 1965 was far in the future.
So when did it all go wrong? I can remember when the first black family moved in a few blocks down. It must have been around the early seventies. They were followed by still others, and soon that block started to look like any other slum in any other large city in the United States. The elderly people began to pass away or enter nursing homes, replaced by absentee landlords who couldn't care less about the neighborhood, just so long as they collected the rent. And if the rent wasn't paid-so what? There were more than enough Section 8 blacks anxious to infiltrate a white area. To these blacks, it was a victory of sorts and an opportunity not to be passed up. The house fires which would destroy these same homes-fires started by blacks intent on burning the remaining whites out of the neighborhood-lay far in the future. Back then, such atrocious acts were unheard of; the "coloring" of a neighborhood was enough to keep them satisfied.
But worse was to come. Insidiously, like rats in the night, the neighborhood began to fill with Puerto Ricans. These were followed by Guatemalans, legal or otherwise, who hung clothes on the once immaculate front porches and considered streets to be pedestrian walkways. Soon, one was more likely to hear Spanish being spoken than English, and in the warmer weather the streets fairly reverberated with stereos turned up full blast with the rhythms of the Caribbean, all courtesy of our wonderful government's lenient third world immigration policies. Garbage was simply thrown in the street; battered cars raced down the narrow avenue, their owners neither licensed nor insured, or were parked for months like dying metal animals, huge rusting hulks, abandoned to become eyesores. If a complaint was made to the police, that person would soon find graffiti sprayed on the house, car tires slashed or a door destroyed. So the older white folks stayed inside, like prisoners, coming out only to obtain the necessities of life. I would often watch them walk down the street, glancing nervously over their shoulders and jumping at any little sound; a sad, pathetic sight. A few murders occurred, either over drugs or a quarrel over something as simple as a stolen bicycle. I remembered the day I watched as across the street drugs were being sold openly from the trunk of a car, the buyers ranging in age from adults to children who couldn't have been more than 10 years old. Their parents were already so drunk or stoned they either didn't know or care what was going on. These children routinely snatched purses from terrified elders to obtain the money necessary to get high. Occurrences like these happened so frequently that the police barely took notice anymore.
And so the poor, mainly elderly widows found themselves living in fear as their world crumbled around them, transforming once immaculate homes into filth and garbage and watching people with foreign customs and strange tongues yelling and fighting and threatening anyone who dared complain or look at them for more than a second. My mother joined their ranks. She denied being frightened, but we knew differently. Her daily night time ritual of pushing the heavy couch against the front door told us she too felt threatened, in danger of someone breaking in, or worse.
So now, as I tape the last box and set it aside to be placed in the truck, I take a last look around at the home of my childhood, my teenage years and the few years after my marriage when my husband and I lived there until we could buy a home of our own. My eyes glance down at a spot on the living room floor; the spot where my father suddenly dropped dead of a massive heart attack at the age of 46. An impressionable 16 year old girl, I remember my mother screaming and watching a neighbor try to give him CPR, knowing by his already blue face that he was gone from us forever. Yes, even for me, the walls of that house drip memories. And now, all of that would be gone. For what reason? Why was this happening? What had we done to deserve this fate? Were these thoughts also running through my mother's head; was she too lost in past reveries? I look up at her once again. The tears had dried, but her face is pale, empty, and she looks like a lost soul. It is as though her mind can not comprehend the enormity of what is happening, and why. Why did she have to leave a familiar life behind for one strange and filled with misgivings? "What if I don't like the senior housing complex? I've never lived in an apartment before; what if I don't like it? I'll have no house and nowhere to go anymore." I tell her she will probably love her apartment; that it is safe and secure and she will make new friends and take part in all sorts of fun activities. She won't have to worry about paying the high taxes thrust upon inner city homeowners, or wonder what is happening to her house while she went off to visit friends or go shopping.
But I say these words only half believing them myself. I understand what is really happening; she is losing the little piece of earth she has been able to call her own. She is the last in her family, and has held on to the homestead as long as she was able. Maybe she considers herself a failure for having to sell the last remnant of our family. But one can always find another place to live; a mother's life can never be replaced. It is time to go.
We carry the boxes out to the truck. The "For Sale" sign hangs limply, barely visible, as though it too knows how hopeless the prospect of selling a home in the now decrepit neighborhood had become. All the while, foreign eyes were watching us from porches and cars double parked in the streets, the occupants not caring that no one else can get by. They are not friendly eyes, but filled with an arrogance and sense of superiority my ancestors never had. Perhaps this is the look of victory; of having forced another white person to flee, leaving behind a house which will soon fill up with as many Puerto Ricans or Guatemalans that can be fit into its once grand rooms. Perhaps they look at us that way simply because we are not them; we are of the hateful, oppressive white race and so are unworthy in their eyes because we still believe in justice, security, love and cleanliness. My husband returns the stare of one of them, invisible daggers flying back and forth. But I hustle him along; it does not take much to set off the hot Latin temper, and soon maybe knives as well as fists will be flying. We had learned how many of these creatures carry knives and sometimes guns as protection against the violent lives they live. Best for us to just leave in silence, heads held high as though we are the victors, even though we know this isn't so.
The drive takes us past my old church and school, founded by Polish immigrants in the early years of this century. Because of loss of white parishioners, the school has had to close its doors. We heard that the building was leased to one of these new "Charter Schools"; as we drive past, we see a crowd of blacks carrying desks and books and other furniture into the building. I turn away, unable to watch. I remember my grammar school days well. After standing each morning to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, we were taught geography, history, math, science and music; self-discipline and a sense of duty to God, family and country were drilled into us on a daily basis. Now, black and Hispanic children will sit in those very same rooms and hear how the terrible white men oppressed them and their ancestors and how we stole all the accomplishments of history, science, the arts and philosophy from the all wise and all knowing African peoples and other "people of color". How we are the most evil beings ever to walk the earth.
I think of our politicians, living in quiet, clean upscale neighborhoods in big houses with manicured lawns and cooks and maids. Neighborhoods where the sounds of the Hispanic beat never permeate, where men didn't sell drugs to children -- their children -- out of car trunks and alleyways and where they could sit outside and enjoy a quiet summer's evening without being harassed or having their voices drowned out by a cacophony of boom boxes . My anger grows, but with it hopelessness. The die has been cast, and we have lost the game. I watch my mother as we drive on. She does not look back. She is no longer crying, but she is holding a crumpled tissue in her hands. I see those hands trembling ever so slightly. She is alone with her thoughts, and I do not wish to disturb that secret place to which her mind has retreated. The senior citizen housing looms up in the distance, made of red brick, tall and impersonal. One part of her life is coming to an end; a life of laughter, love, long talks on porches or card games with neighbors on long winter evenings, a home filled with memories of the times shared with a beloved husband now long gone. Before her, the strange and unknown. Locked doors opened not with keys but with codes, bars on the windows of the lowest floors. And all because we must experience the wonderful merits of "multiculturalism."
I feel my heart breaking within me. And I know also that I will never be the same. Something within me, too, has moved away forever.
SHARON A. HUTCHINSON