Friday, July 20, 2012

From The Pen Of Joshua Lawrence Breslin- When Dorothy Parker Ruled The Whole “New Yorker” World- A Story of Two Peninsulas

Click on the headline to link to a Wikipedia entry for the writer and critic Dorothy Parker

A Story of Two Peninsulas

There was something, something weird about growing up poor, hell growing up dirt poor, certified dirt poor, and about growing up in the 1950s, the “golden age America” childhood period of what he would later call, and maybe would be called too by some smug sociologists but with a smirk, the generation of ‘68. He couldn’t put his finger on it just then and that hard fact bothered him. Yes he was at it again, thinking those old memory thoughts, thinking that came from a look back at the trials and tribulations of a family from his old working class neighborhood that he had just heard about from its original source. Some, after reading this, might claim that it was really his family that he was talking about, thinking about, but, no, it was, strange as it seems, another family caught up just like his in a downward spiral while all around that golden age was a-borning.

For the benefit of the two or three people in the world who do not know, hell he wrote about it enough in half the damn unread radical periodicals and progressive journals in the country when such stories were the rage, his own family had started life and he had grown to manhood in the housing projects, at that time not the notorious hell holes of crime and deprivation that they later became (and which he wrote many investigative reports about) but still a mark of being low, very low, on the social ladder at a time when others were heading to the nirvana of the newly emerging outer suburbs.

The housing project that he grew up in, officially the Adamsville Housing Authority apartments in a town just outside of Boston, was originally meant to serve as a way station for returning veterans from World War II caught up in the post war housing shortage. Thus, his family of five was actually the first tenants in their unit, although it did not take long for the place, small and cramped, of shoddy construction befitting the low bid mentality of the construction company and the political judgment that this was strictly temporary housing, to seem old. Perhaps, needless to say as well this project was all white, reflecting the population of city, Adamsville, at the time. Now although he was not sure of the city’s current population break-down he had checked to find that that still very existing projects was about 20% minority, mainly Asian-American, reflecting the city's population change.

A recent trip back to the old homestead revealed that the place was in something of a time warp. The original plot plan consisted of a few hundred four-unit two-floor apartment complexes, a departure from the ubiquitous later high-rise prison-like hellholes at least. It looked, structurally, almost the same as in the 1950’s except that it was dirtier, much less kept-up and he believed that the asphalt sidewalks and streets have not been repaved since his family left in the late 1950s to move a quarter- step up the poor rung from dirt poor to just poor as church mice. A very visible police substation was the only apparent addition to the scene. That told him all he needed to know about the doings now. (Although in the old days he had thrilled, vicariously thrilled, to hard-bitten tales of local desperadoes holding up gas stations, robbing liquor stores and, occasionally, pulling an armed robbery.)

This housing project is located on what, as local lore had it, was an isolated, abandoned piece of “ghost” farmland on a peninsula that juts out into a bay and is across from various sea-going industrial activities. This complex of industrial sites and ocean-related activity mars the effect of being near the ocean here. Certainly no Arcadian scenes come to mind. Moreover, he recalled (and on that return trip he swore he could almost smell the stuff) the smells and sounds from those activities were nauseating and annoying at times. A particularly pungent smell of some soap product filled the air on many a summer’s evening. Ships unloading, with their constant fog horns blowing, provided the sound effects.

A narrow two-lane, now deeply pot-holed, road was (is) is the only way in or out of this location. Over fifty years later the nearest shopping center or even convenient store is still several miles away requiring an automobile or reliance on haphazard and still infrequent public transportation. In short, and he had asked other people about this, one could live within shouting distance of the place and not know where it is. In short, a very familiar concept of public welfare social planning that he had endlessly railed against-out of sight, out of mind?

The ‘projects” were, in any case, where he passed his early childhood, including elementary school, Adamsville South. The elementary school was, however, located not in the projects but up that narrow one way out road previously mentioned some distance away at the beginning of another peninsula. That other peninsula, with its unobstructed views of the open ocean and freedom from the sight and sound of those previously mentioned industrial complexes, had many sought after old money, old- fashioned Victorian houses and a number of then recently constructed upscale colonial-type houses favored by the up and coming middle class of the fifties. The place might as well have been in another world. The school nevertheless, at least in the 1950s, serviced the children of both peninsulas.

He thought hard before realizing that he never had one friend from that other peninsula. Sure he talked to the Jimmy Prescotts but always in school, not outside. Later conversations with others, who also grew up in the housing project, concurred with his observation. He blushed as he thought about the couple of times that he had wandered over into that other peninsula and of his being stopped by the local constabulary, even at that young age, and asked where he was from and what he was doing there but the details of those episodes will wait for another time. The reader can see what is coming though, right?

This is as good a place as any to introduce what he called the ‘hood historian, Sherry. As part of his memory search he connected, by use of various resources including the Internet, with a number of people. One of them was Sherry, who is the real narrator, and is the source for many of the observations and physical details that fill out this story. He and Sherry went to elementary school together. He remembered her as pretty, a working class pretty that would fade with the effects of childbirths and the toils of motherhood and other sorrows.

Sherry and her family, after his family left, stayed in the projects for almost thirty years so that she saw the place as it evolved from that previously mentioned way station for hard-pressed returning World War II veterans to the classic “projects” of media notoriety. She knew “the projects.” Moreover, from what he had gathered about her, although she did not have a political bone in her body, she now wore her working class background on her face, in her personality, and her whole manner. Not in abject defeat, however, but as a survivor. That too tells a tale.

As they reconnected the obvious place for them to start was a little trip down memory lane to old school days. Naturally, since he had an ulterior motive and had a fierce sense of class society, he wanted her opinion on the kids from the other peninsula. Sherry then related, in some detail, what she had to tell about her life in elementary school, not without a tear in her eyes even at this remove. She spend her whole time in that school being snubbed, insulted and, apparently, on more than one occasion physically threatened by the prissy girls from the other peninsula for her poor clothing, her poor manners, and for being from “the projects.”

He said that he would spare the reader the details here, although if you have seen any of the problematic working class ‘coming of age’ movies or suburban teenage cultural spoofs the episodes she related are the grim real life underlying premises behind those efforts. You know the unkind, hell, cruel, snubs about hair not being “permed” just right, about wrong color (for the minute) dresses, or old style (for the minute), about not attending Miss Prissy’s (sic) after school dance classes, etc. Hell, even about her father being the janitor at one of the girls’ father’s shipyards. Moreover, she faced this barrage all the way through to high school graduation as well, including a nasty incident at her prom where one girl threw (or tried to throw) a drink on her hard fought for (and hard paid for too) dress. Jesus

It was painful for him to heard Sherry retell her story, and as he said, not without a few tears. Moreover, it was hard for him to hear because, although he did not face that other peninsula barrage then, he faced it later when his family moved to the other side of town and kids taunted him when they found out he was from “the projects.” Things like about his hand-me-down clothes, about his family not having a car most of the time, about his constant walking around town (rather than being “chauffeured” by mom), about his bringing his lunch rather than buying it at school (if you can believe that). And it got worst later when he went “beat” (well, imitation beat).

Now were the snubs and hurts due to Sherry’s (or his) personality? She can be, now anyway, a little abrupt although he remembered a polite young girl. Maybe. Is this tale a mere example of childhood’s gratuitous cruelty? Perhaps. Is this story the childhood equivalent of the working class battles at their nastiest on the picket lines of a strike? Hell, no. But the next time someone tells you that there are no classes in this society remember this story. Then remember Sherry’s tears. Damn.

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