Monday, August 6, 2007

Weekend out of town

I've been gone for the weekend, visiting family in NH. It was a good time, but travel is really hard on me. We rented a van that had seats which could not recline even the slightest bit, so I spent the trip sitting bolt-upright. Thank goodness for dramamine!

On the trip, I busied myself with writing in a notebook and drawing bad art. No camera work, as I didn't see much that inspired me to take photos.

Part of our trip involved a picnic at the lake. My in-laws live in a gated community situated on a lake, where the houses are anywhere from half a million to several times that. While we sat under the huge tent, I had a strange feeling being among all of the people there, and it took me a little while to put my finger on it.

I had not seen such a gathering of all white people since I moved to Albany, NY from Quincy, IL. I've lived in NY for almost ten years now, and I've grown very accustomed to the diversity here; so accustomed, apparently, that I'm actually uncomfortable without it. My brother-in-law, who lives in the Washington, D.C. area, said that it weirds him out every time he visits as well.

Albany, NY has an enormously diverse population. Any race or nationality you can think of is represented here. The tech and engineering industries have brought in a ton of Asian and Middle Eastern people, for example. When I lived in Schenectady with my first husband, we were one of maybe two non-Indian/Pakistani families in our huge apartment complex. All of the men of those families worked for GE doing engineering and computer stuff, as did my husband. The block where we currently reside is mostly a mix of Black and white families, and we are moving to a neighborhood that is similar, with fewer whites than here.

One of my most recent jobs was in a neighborhood where our customers were incredibly diverse. There were many immigrants; countries represented included Russia, Germany, The Dominican Republic, Columbia, Japan, Australia, England, and Poland--and that's just the few that I can think of off the top of my head. I got to hear about all kinds of places, and I felt so lucky to learn from so many different people.

When I read about people who struggle to find salons that even know about, let alone specialize in, African hair, I want to invite them to Albany, where I can direct them to at least four places that I know pretty well. I had to do a photography gig for an area merchant association, and every business in that small area knew who I was. The sheer number of African hair places, including one that was specifically devoted to braiding only, was striking to me. It's a nice little community where you can get just about every service under the sun, including a fantastic manicure, amazing pizza delivery, delicious specialty chocolates, and the best homemade pumpkin ravioli in the entire world, and it's because so many different people have come together to create a neighborhood that is relatively safe, clean, and friendly.

I felt very much NOT at home in the sea of Caucasian faces on the shores of that lake. I don't know if it was the lack of diversity, or the careful masks that everyone wore, but I never thought I'd be so glad to get home to the unruly neighbor kids that run absolutely wild in the streets here (all races, all heavily unsupervised; they're not really naughty, just loud and not very cautious around cars*!). Seeing homes that looked "lived-in" instead of the cookie-cutter McMansions, being in a neighborhood with history, all of this is comforting to me.

Is it any wonder that I was not inspired to pick up my camera? Every ounce of "wild" had been squeezed out by perfectly manicured lawns. There was no architecture to capture my interest, no urban graffiti that made me think, and no broken-down items at the curb to tell stories. Just perfect lawns, perfect houses, and perfect people with perfect children, 2.5 in number, and primarily blonde, blue-eyed, and indoctrinated with the absolute knowledge that they are the Be-All and End-All, and that all attention should be entirely focused upon them, no matter what. I suppose the up-side to this is that I was pretty much forced to rely on introspection and imagination to write and draw. In the presence of a sterile environment, we have only ourselves for inspiration.

*One day, I came within inches of running over the little neighbor girl who is ~6 years old. We have diagonal parking spaces on our block, and she was sitting and playing in one of them, next to a car, but in the space next to it, by the tire. I could not see her at all when I turned into the space, and I glimpsed her at the last possible moment and braked hard. She did not even look up. Her mother was nowhere in sight, as usual, and I was extremely freaked out. She's a nice little girl, and she loves to see and touch my snakes when I bring them out, but I wish someone would talk to her about playing in the street, which she does quite frequently.

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