This is how it usually starts: I see a headline in the paper or one of our cars gets broken into or Im in bed overhearing an argument on the street and wondering whether or when to call 911. Then my throat constricts and the thought erupts: "I want to move away from here," and then I'm moving all right, off and running.
This is how it started this morning: the kids and I walked together to the Ashby BART station, them to take the Fremont train to school; me to board the San Francisco train I take every day to work. Inside the station, two BART cops are talking to a boy twelve or thirteen, about Peters age. The boy is crying and covering one eye with his hand. He looks as embarrassed to be crying in public as Peter or Jesse would be, all the briefcase people staring as they herd themselves through the turnstiles.
"He got beat up," Peter says flatly, slicing through my denial of that same thought. I see that hes got that studied "Shit Happens" look on his downy little face. Jesses big brown eyes get bigger; he gives me one of those surreptitious sidelooks that says, simultaneously, "Dont get overprotective; Im eleven years old; dont embarrass me," and, "Are you my mother? Are you protecting me?" The cops take notes as the kid talks in bursts through the sobs that keep collapsing his swollen face.
"At 8:00 in the morning," I mutter, and immediately regret my words. Peter exhales loudly, shakes his flat-topped head, and gives me a long-suffering, eternally patient frown. "Mom," he begins, and I know Im in for it. "People get beat up here all the time. Teenagers hang around in the parking lot and wait for white kids to beat up on. Were used to it. Why do you make such a big deal out of every little thing?"
My heart aches. I'm torn, as always in these interactions, between hanging on to my self, whether my kids like her responses or not ("My babies! This world is too harsh for my babies...") and the cool, detached, streetwise Mom who mimics, and therefore is acceptable to, my children ("Shit Happens").
I try for a compromise between the two. "What do you guys do to protect yourselves?" I dont know why I always say "you guys;" its Peter, the shop steward for the younger half of our family, who invariably provides the answer, while Jesse silently and attentively fact-checks his brothers response. "Run," Peter says without hesitation, the tightening around his downcast eyes the only hint of emotion. Jesse focuses on me intently, then quickly looks away.
This is how it starts, the self-berating that builds on its own momentum. I cant believe Im raising my kids like this. How can I call myself a mother when I cant even keep my kids safe? How can they turn out to be the sweet, sensitive men I promised myself Id produce when the life Ive given them requires such callousness, such denial, such smooth detached responses to fear? I moved to California to raise my kids so they wouldnt grow up to be crime-glazed New Yorkers. Now theyre more jaded than I am. How did I let this happento them, to me?
The kids train pulls in. I squeeze Jesses arm good-bye, the most affection I am permitted to display in public, and look longingly down the platform where Peter stands (so as not to be seen in the presence of his mother). Im in luck today: graced with a glance from my firstborn son. Peters curt nod in my general direction satisfies me, because it has to. Jesse lets his hand graze mine as he steps away from me into the crowd. They do love me.
I watch my children whiz by me in the silver train: Jesse looking young and tall and innocent; two cars back Peter looking nearly man-sized and bored. All that work, all their lives, to teach them to know their own feelings. Will I ever again be allowed to know what they feel?
If Id raised them on a farm in Petaluma, a hilltop in Marin, in a commune in North Berkeley, would they be as open with me on a subway platform as they are in their bedrooms in the dark, way past their bedtimes when they keep me up way past mine, so I can scratch their velvety backs and inhale their puppy scents while they talk to me for hours about making out with girls at parties, and how outraged and afraid they were after the Rodney King verdict, and whether its entrepreneurial or unethical that Peter rents out his "Fuck Authority" button for $1 a period at school, and the likelihood of Jesse making a living someday as a comic book artist, andnine years after the factwhy their dad and I got a divorce?
If Id sent them to private school? If they were girls? If I wasnt a lesbian? If the womens movement had succeeded?
Moments later I embark the San Francisco train, alone.
When I get like this, the world around me tends to cooperate. Todays morning newspaper headline announces: "Seven Murders in 24 Hours Jolt Oakland." Oakland, I remind myself needlessly, is where I have entrenched myselfwhere I own a house and pay taxes and send my children to school. I imagine my richer, wiser, and infinitely more fortunate friends in Mill Valley, Menlo Park, North Berkeley reading that headline and wondering what Merediths problem is, anyway. When will she ever get over that outdated commitment to raising her kids in a mixed (meaning: mostly Black and poor) neighborhood and move somewhere safe, already?
The train pulls into the West Oakland station, which is outdoors and elevated, providing me a sweeping view of the past two years worth of East Bay disasters. Just a few feet in front of me is what the 89 earthquake left behind after it compressed 45 people into specks of bone and blood on the Cypress freeway: two cement platforms suspended 100 feet above the ground, neatly sliced off by the demolition crews that cleared the crushed cars, rebar, and people from the shattered interchange throughout the weeks of aftershocks. Looking back toward Berkeley I see the hills, once landscaped with million-dollar homes and stands of silvery eucalyptus, now scorched, with blackened chimneys towering above the ashes and rubble like elongated gravestones.
My fellow commuters are buried behind their newspapers and blank faces. I wonder, as I do daily, why Im the only one who stares out the window when this view is spread before us like a color still from some Grade-B disaster movie. Why they dont take this moment to reflect on the lessons we all learned the hard wayin October of 1989, when our chimneys came crashing down, and again in October of 1991 when chimneys were all that were left standing?
Since the earthquake, since the week after it when I moved with my lover and my children into our still-shuddering dream house on the fault line, every moment of stillness has felt to me like a warning, a gathering of the forces of disaster preparing for the next strike: a brief cease-fire between the sounds of overpowered undermufflered American cars screaming through the streets with cop cars in hot pursuit; between diagnoses of AIDS and cancer in people I count on for my happiness; between dark rainy nights when my kids come home a few minutes late to find me shaking with terror and rage, between earthquakes and firestorms.
This is how it goes on from here: "Ive got to get away from Oakland, get safe. Ill put the kids in private school, convince their father to move to New Mexico, Vermont, Marin..."
Eight years ago I uprooted my children, and eventually my joint custodial ex-husband, from suburban San Jose, where we never locked our doors and a car break-in was a gossip-worthy neighborhood event. I wanted to raise my kids in what I then referred to as "the real world." I wanted them to know people who werent white. I wanted neighbors who didnt wear bras. I wanted to walk to demonstrations at Sproul Plaza and Mime Troupe plays in the park.
And so, after five years of socio-political deprivation and desolate isolation in the stucco tracts of San Jose, I put my $10,000 divorce settlement down on an $80,000 cottage on the Berkeley-Oakland border and hurtled myself and my kids into the closest thing to a sixties life I could construct.
I put Peter and Jesse in an Oakland public school and went to endless meetings to make it sure their education was politically, if not academically, correct. I rode my bicycle to the market and rode home with my backpack full of exotic lettuces and tomato-basil baguettes. I helped organize our Neighborhood Watch Association. I took my kids to puppet shows about Nicaragua at the neighborhood community center whose walls were papered with flyers announcing solidarity marches, multicultural daycare centers, and incest survivor support groups.
I got to know my neighbors, the mix Id dreamed of: long-haired carpenter men and short-haired carpenter women. Friendly Southern black men whose grandchildren played double-Dutch on the sidewalk. A coven of pagans who danced with flutes in their adjoining back yards. A couple of lesbian chiropractors, and never mind about the crack house up the block and the speed freaks across the street and the unemployed young man next door who rattled my house and my brain with pounding rap music all day while I sat at my computer trying to earn a living as a freelance journalist.
I slept with a crowbar next to my bed for the first few months and installed a burglar alarm in my house, but for the first time since Id left the Haight-Ashbury in 1972 and embarked on a course that led me, eventually, to Marxism and ten years of factory organizing and living among white working-class people whod never met a Jew, let alone a communist, and believed (correctly, based on their own empirical experience) that there was no difference between the twoI felt again that I was living among my people.
Five years later I sold the first house Id ever lived in without parents or a man, the nest from which Id launched my brave new life, for $185,000an inadvertent beneficiary of the Bay Area real estate boomand bought a three-story Victorian a few blocks away, big enough so that after six years together my lover, Ann, and I could live under the same roof, and Peter and Jesse would each have his own door to shut.
Now I find myself poised for what must honestly be named white flight, bound to my urban life not by principles but by the geographic restrictions imposed by joint custodyand by profound ambivalence.
As my parents did, as I scorned my parents for doing, I find myself yearning for the good and safe old days, when the drugs being bought and sold on my block were marijuana and mushrooms, when the absence of children in my life kept my lofty child-rearing principles untested and unshakable, when I never leashed my dog, locked my car, hesitated to take a walk alone at night.
As my parents did, as I came of age swearing I would never do, I find myself worrying about who my childrens role models and friends are, and why my children choose them, and what these strangers might teach or convince my children to do.
As my parents did, as I never could imagine myself doing, I find myself turning to money as the balm for my fears, and I resolve to earn or somehow acquire more of it: money to move into a neighborhood or, better yet, a town, in which beepers are worn by pediatricians, not twelve-year-olds; in which the silence of night is not shattered by gunfire or the rattling of shopping carts filled with rags and bottles being pushed down the street; in which bicycles are left unchained outside shops without cast-iron bars on their windows, and teenagers speak politely to each others parents on the telephone.
As my parents did, twice each month I tell Peter and Jesse that tomorrow the housecleaner is coming, and I want them to clean their rooms, so she can clean their rooms.
And, just as I did thirty years ago, my sons stall and argue and invoke their right to privacy and constitutional amendments not yet written, until I glower and growl and threaten to withhold their allowance and inevitably end the evening sulking in my room, blaming myself for spoiling these boys who will someday, I am certain, leave wet towels and underwear on the floors of their own houses, and will therefore be divorced by their feminist wives and separated from their own childrenall because their mother, who could afford to hire a housecleaner, trained them to expect a woman to swab out their dirty toilets, change their flannel sheets, and pick up their smelly socks.
As my parents did, I have uttered aloud on several occasions the two words I swore Id never say "private school"and my politically correct commitment to fighting to make the public schools work has been replaced by the indignation of a property tax payer at the failure of the schools to make their own damn selves work.
How have I come to these transgressions?
Is it that my kids have graduated from the safe if under-funded elementary school that I used to complain about having to drive them to and from every day, and they now take public transportation to a junior high school where young men twice my weight punch and kick the flesh of my flesh and steal the Chicago Bulls caps off their stylishly shorn heads?
Is it that life in the cityany city, but most certainly the one I live in, whose very name, to those who don't live here and many who do, evokes all that is terror-provoking in modern urban lifehas simply gotten exponentially worse (along with my fear level) since I lived here happily eight years ago?
Is it that, despite all Id sworn would never happen to me, the upper-middle-class values I ingested along with formula from sterilized bottles have curdled and congealed in my nearly middle-aged soul?
And whatever the source of these twin fearsnot just the dangers in my life, but the death of all Ive believed inwhat can I do about it now?
What should I do about it now?
Would I be happier, would I feel like a better mother, would I be a better mother if I sent my kids off on mountain bikes to the very nearly all-white school I used to pass every morning on my way to work in Mill Valley, where the blonde kids dress the way my kids dress, but without benefit of proximity to the people or the culture whose style theyre emulating, whose overheard conversations once jolted me into a rare moment of perspective: "Meredith, youd be kicking yourself every day if youd brought your kids up in a place like this."
Would my kids be happier?
Driving through a small California town one night on our way to a weekend at our cabin in the woods, I dreamily ask Peter and Jesse, "Wouldnt you love to move to the country? Where people are friendly and we wouldnt have to be afraid all the time?" "Yeah, right, Mom," answers Jesse, rolling his eyes in the rear view mirror. "Then we could hang out in the 7-11 parking lot every Friday night and smoke cigarettes. Sounds really great."
"But whats so much better about living where we live?" I persist. "What do you do on Friday nights thats so exciting?"
"I couldnt live without Telegraph," says Jesse of the Berkeley avenue on which the Peoples Park war was waged, where his father was shot while throwing tear gas grenades back at the National Guardsmen whod fired them at him, where today homeless panhandlers extend their begging cups from sleeping bags stretched across the sidewalk, and Jesse is regularly threatened and occasionally robbed by the boys he beats at video games.
During a family trip to New York last summer, Peter overheard me muttering to myself that I could have chosen a worse place than Oakland to raise my kids. "Im glad I grew up in Oakland, Mom," he said. "Now Im prepared for anything. If I decide I want to live in New York someday, I know Ill be able to handle myself."
Im anchored now in the city I chose, the life I chose all those years and decisions ago, because its not just me, not just my lover and me, who live in it. This is the place and the life, the streets and the people, my children know and therefore is the place and the life they want to be in, and are old enough to say they dont want to be wrenched away from. Backed into a nineties corner by my sixties politicsand by my sons, whose childhoods and values reflect those politicsI am forced to confront the most difficult decision of all. Can I carry on the struggle to overcome whats wrong in the world, while keeping my children, my family, myself safe and sane within it?
I remember the night a year ago when Peter, at age 12, requested (and was denied) the right to carry a knife, for self-protection, to junior high school. "I didnt raise you guys to believe in violence," I declared.
"Make up your mind, Mom," replied my clear-eyed son. "If you didnt want us to grow up this way, you shouldnt have raised us in this neighborhood."
Make up my mind, indeed.