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Monday, August 29, 2016

NW and More Sad Stories

NW is the postcode for North West London. Like how Americans sometimes fixate on certain zip codes or area codes, NW is shorthand for a neighborhood filled with council estates (similar to American housing projects). It's poor, racially diverse, vibrant, sometimes scary, and difficult to escape. The book follows four people as they negotiate growing up in NW, sometimes try to get out, and find themselves pulled back in.

There's a lot of talk about race, which I've talked about a lot, and class, which happens to be something I've thought a lot about lately. This election in particular seems obsessed with it. There's this great article I read last night about the persistence of a white underclass that just fascinated me. I plan on reading both the books the article analyzes, so look forward to that, I guess.

I've talked recently about privilege, and white privilege specifically, and I do this because I'm white and I'm trying to be aware of it. I hope that in those talks we've had I haven't been so one-sided as to infer that I don't empathize with the white poor. And listen, this is coming from someone who has spent a significant amount of his adult life well under the poverty level. I've experienced some of the crushing despair that comes from not having enough money. I have faced legitimate threats of losing my house. We've stood in lines for free food, gotten reduced school lunches, and written checks to the grocery store that we know won't cash them for a few days. I've been rejected for car loans, and as an adult, had to ask my parents to cosign. It sucks being poor.

But even in those struggles I have to constantly remind myself how lucky I am. When stuff was real bad a few years ago and I was underemployed and we didn't know where our next house payment was coming from the specter of losing it was legit for a minute there. But we also knew that we wouldn't be homeless. Also, when I found a new job and we had to move, I was in no position to pay a deposit and first-month's rent. I had to ask my parents, which is humiliating and sad and deserving of whatever scorn you want to heap on me. Thank heavens for it, though.

No complaints
All of this has been psychologically trying, and when I think about buying another house I get a little bit of PTSD. But things have been pretty good for us, all told. In recent years, due to volunteering, I've started to get deeper and deeper glimpses into the lives of people who don't have the support structure I have, who are trying to navigate this unforgiving world without the safety net I took for granted, and who are just getting hosed.

I talk to people whose parents died very early, or who were abandoned, or who lived in their grandparents' house with their mom, a revolving cast of guys who calls themselves stepdad, a couple of aunts and uncles, some random friends, and a bunch of kids. There are drugs and alcohol and someone is always in jail. Some of them don't have jobs but others work constantly and still don't have money. There aren't clean clothes for school, nobody cares if you shower, and you're scared every time you try to fall asleep.

I talk to people all of the time who have gotten out of those situations and done something amazing with their lives which is humbling to me and makes me feel like I've squandered my opportunities. But also, you guys? I talk to a lot of people who didn't. People who tried to get out, but due to domestic violence, or addiction, or getting involved with crime, or a bad job market, or predatory loans, or aggressive credit card companies, or multi-level marketing schemes, or oh my gosh the medical bills, or a trillion other reasons end up in that same house with their own kids and wondering what happened.

Do you get it, though? How hard that can be? Junior high school and high school are a nightmare in the best of circumstances. Try it when you smell like cigarette smoke and wear dirty clothes and never get a hair cut and have bad dental care and none of that is your fault. My guess is that you're going to end up hanging out with other kids like you, because they get it. And they look out for you when the rich kids corner you. So you learn to fight and be scary. And without be a lot of parental supervision or cool stuff in your house to keep you entertained like ping pong tables and video games you walk around the streets and you're bored and there isn't a lot of consequences for what you do so you do dumb stuff. And nobody cares if you do your homework.

So yeah, you start to look at the world as antagonistic and that nobody gives a crap about you. It's hard to hear someone tell you that you have advantages based on your skin color. Your experiences with police are also fraught with complexity. You get harassed because your car is old, because you have unpaid tickets, because your car isn't registered, because you aren't insured. When your sister tries to report a rape or domestic violence, the police don't believe her. Or are scornful. They threaten a battered wife that if she calls one more time, it will be she who is arrested, because she keeps going back to the scumbag. But the scumbag has a job, and a house, and she has kids who need to eat, and maybe it's worth taking a few shots if it means they get a meal that night. 

Last post I talked about how hard it is for people of color to pull themselves out of a quagmire that is slavery and segregation and separate but equal and institutionalized racism. I don't take that back one bit. But if you read that The Atlantic article I linked up there, we're dealing with hundreds of years of oppression of a white underclass as well. We often see them as villains (think Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird ), and the last group we can all feel good about mocking. 

As conservative writer Kevin Williamson of the National Review said,
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.
Oof. He got some criticism for that, so another writer stood up to defend him:
These are strong words, but they are fundamentally true and important to say. My childhood was different from Kevin’s, but I grew up in Kentucky, live in a rural county in Tennessee, and have seen the challenges of the white working-class first-hand. Simply put, Americans are killing themselves and destroying their families at an alarming rate. No one is making them do it. The economy isn’t putting a bottle in their hand. Immigrants aren’t making them cheat on their wives or snort OxyContin. Obama isn’t walking them into the lawyer’s office to force them to file a bogus disability claim.
Let me tell you a short story about a person I've met. He is an amalgam of several stories, because I have no way to ask for permission to tell these stories. But this story is a good representation.

A boy grows up in a house full of relatives. His uncle deals marijuana. The boy plays football and is good at it. He gets recognition from his peers. He feels like he's a part of something. But he gets injured. The school's insurance covers his initial operation, but not the pain medications. Tylenol works ok, but he's in constant discomfort. Nothing works like pot does, though. So he starts to smoke it regularly. Everything else is fine. Still playing football. Keeping good enough grades to stay on the team. Cute girlfriend (they don't know yet that she's pregnant).

He graduates with a scholarship at a small college. His family can't believe they're going to have a college student. There's a big party before he leaves. Everyone calls him college boy. He's a little drunk and he gets on his bike to ride to the gas station to get some more beer. Police notice that he's riding erratically and they pull him over. Because he's underage and drunk, they search him and find a small bag of marijuana. Because this is Utah, he goes to prison. In prison it's way harder to smoke and he's in pain all of the time until he sees some guys snorting Oxycontin. Man, does that work. When he gets out and has to buy Oxy with money instead of trading favors, he realizes how expensive it is. He had always said he wouldn't try heroin until he did. It's all over the halfway house where he's staying.

You know what? This guy made a lot of bad decisions. I get that we want to hold the poor accountable for their decisions, but I've seen people make much worse decisions and coast through life as if they're coated with butter and going down a waterslide of bacon fat. They inherit their dad's construction company and build their mansion and make some lawyers very happy and wealthy. Or maybe they're kind of middle class like me. They don't inherit a business, but they have health insurance. They don't live in a house filled with drugs and porn magazines. They have a support network of healthy people who are decent role models. Oh, and then there's this guy.

New feature: Inspirational Memes

Did the economy put a bottle in their hand? Not exactly. But it didn't keep it out of there, either.

NW follows four characters struggling with class and race in Northwest London. Keisha is black and brilliant, Leah is a fair-skinned redhead with more of a social penchant and a tendency to want to save the world. Felix is a reformed drug-dealer trying to rebuild his life after winning the love of a smart, ambitious woman, and Nathan is the adorable, charismatic 10-year old that Keisha and Leah obsessed over as kids, but in grown-up criminal form.
When being bullied Keisha Blake found it useful to remember that if you read the relevant literature or watched the pertinent movies you soon found that being bullied was practically a sign of a superior personality, and the greater the intensity of the bullying the more likely it was to be avenged at the other end of life, when qualities of the kind Keisha Black possessed– cleverness, will-to-power– became ‘their own reward,’ and that this remained true even if the people in the literature and movies looked nothing like you, came from a different socio-economic and historical universe, and– had they ever met you– would very likely have enslaved you, or at best, bullied you to precisely the same extent as Lorna Mackenzie who had a problem with the way you acted like you were better than everyone else.
The narrative follows Leah, then Felix, then Keisha, with Nathan's story interwoven throughout. It drastically changes tone throughout, as if there are three different people writing it. This kind of feat from an author always amazes me. I can only write the way I talk. Also, Zadie Smith's ear for authentic sounding London dialogue is endlessly delightful. I'll bet these are fun audio books. 

There is some part of me that thinks that I need to tell you whether I recommend a book or not, and another part that doesn't really think that matters. I've read books that I didn't, in the end, enjoy, but got a good discussion out of. There are themes to be teased out of bad books just like the good ones. And maybe the theme wasn't even in the book but it triggered something in me that forced me to look at something in a new way.
Philosophy is listening to warbling posh boys, it is being more bored than you have ever been in your life, more bored than you thought it possible to be.
NW is a good book, but I didn't love it. It's one of those books where the individual pieces are better than the overall product. Do I recommend it? Sure. It's filled with good things, and maybe if the whole taken together is flawed, there are enough moments within that make it worth reading. There are amazing insights throughout.
Don't you think they're as bored as you are? You think you're somebody special? You think I wake up everyday so happy to see you? You're a snob, just in the other way. Do you think you are the only one who wants something else? Another life?
The cereal part of Lucky Charms is gross, I think we can all agree on that. And unless you are some crazy person, the marshmallows by themselves are pretty nasty, too. But together? That bowl sings. I don't know if that metaphor holds up but honestly I just really want some Lucky Charms right now.