I was born in Springfield. Not just in that the hospital where I was born was in the city but in that my first home, the home where in fact my mother still lives, IS in the city. The “in the city” part is somewhat misleading however in that my parents, my father mostly I suspect, chose the most rural house from a typological standpoint possible in Springfield in 1960: dirt road, well water, septic tank, and woods in front and behind. Even today a satellite view of the neighborhood looks like this:
The first black person I remember seeing was a girl at Tiffany Street School. She was wearing the brightest, whitest dress I had ever seen, and she seemed to me to have skin that was darker than the darkest evening sky. I don’t know that I was “attracted” to her, but that moment is one of my first and one of my clearest memories. The first two Puerto Ricans I ever met were two boys at Washington Street School. They would leave class for an hour or two every day to learn something else somewhere else in the school. Some other student made a petition objecting in some way to something about their integration or lack thereof in our classroom. It was 4th grade and “forced busing”, as we called it, took me from a school with one black girl to one with two Puerto Ricans.
In retrospect the two schools, the two neighborhoods, were very different. Tiffany Street School, later Alice B. Beal, was a horizontal post war building. Tiffany Street had sidewalks on one side only and many of the residential streets it served had no sidewalks at all. Most, if not all, of the homes on those streets were single family, even single story homes; some were on cul de sacs.
Washington Street School was at the center of an intense grid with a combination of multi-story and multi-family houses. I was jealous of the kids who lived around Washington Street. There seemed to be dozens of kids not just on every street but on every block. There was always a game of football or street hockey going on. The kids around Draper Street organized a street hockey league and kept track of goals for and goals against…and standings! I was a goalie, and not a bad one. My quarter mile long street had four kids my age. One other boy and two girls. The Ochenkowski kids were essentially not allowed outside (long and terrible story), and my next door neighbor Pam and I shared almost no interests; if I wasn’t up around Washington Street doing something I was down at the brook playing by myself or with one of the kids from Washington Street. Going to “the dingle“, playing in “the dingle”, hanging out in “the dingle”, whichever dingle it might be was, and I hope still is, kind of a trademark Springfield thing.
Fast forward a few decades and shift the scene from the most suburban to the most urban of Springfield’s neighborhoods and you’ll find me where I live now; in a place where my family and I are among the only white English speakers. There is Ron, an amicable white haired fellow who, if he ever wore a black suit, would perhaps be the photostatic negative of the black girl I saw in elementary school.
The relationships we have here are strange. Much of that is “on me”. I am not a hail-fellow-well-met. Plenty of people in the city have met me for the first time about a dozen times without their knowing it. I have mentioned to my wife many times that someone like Duncan Crary (famously from Troy, New York) could live here for a week and would have more people greeting him on the street than I do after 8 years in this house and 30 in the neighborhood. Oh, I’m verbose once I get started, but there’s more taciturn New Englander about me than one might suspect from this blog or my podcast.
Yes, that the relationships here have been and are strange is not all the “fault” of the neighborhood…but some of it is.
Let’s start with Nellie. One day my daughter Xela was rushing to get to the bus terminal to get back to Smith College. Nellie, who at the time none of us had never met, could see that Xela was frantic as she donned her backpack and rolled her duffle bag up East Park Street and Nellie offered to give her a ride to the bus station. A few weeks later Xela mentioned this act of kindness when she waved to Nellie who was looking down on our yard from the fire escape/deck behind her apartment.
We got to know her. One day my wife invited her in to the house for coffee. She hadn’t realized we occupied the entire building: all four floors of it. A few days later she came by in the late afternoon. She needed a ride to her aunt’s house or something and was wondering if I could take her. I did. A few weeks after that she borrowed a couple dollars promising to pay us back the next week, which she did. After that, however, the money borrowing occurred later and later at night and the repayments were less consistent. My wife began keeping a tab and when the amount hit $80 we stopped “having money to lend”. She paid us back the full amount, but then quickly began borrowing again. One or two of the visits happened after LuLu’s bedtime. One or two involved a Nellie I wouldn’t describe as totally sober. The account reached $80 again. We stopped having money again. Nellie stopped coming over.
We’ve seen her on the street from time to time. Somewhere between the two apexes of her indebtedness she moved from the apartment behind the house. Once or twice she has said she’ll be coming by to repay her debt. Mostly we see her walking on the other side of the street now. She walks briskly past.
Duke is a southern man. Like Nellie he is African-American. When he spied my first attempts at gardening he offered to lend me a hand. We met one day downtown and he mentioned that planting should begin soon. I agreed. As we parted he yelled across the street, three or four times, that “he needed a hoe”. I doubt that the people within earshot suspected that the black man wearing the “do-rag” was requesting that I supply him with gardening tools. Good stuff.
Unfortunately Duke has not been lucky in love. His relationship with his significant other is…let’s call it “tumultuous”. On a number of occasions he has come to the door, inebriated, professing to me that she is a terrible person. He makes cryptic comments about no longer being able to stand living with her. He calls her “the devil”. And then he begins to ramble. He rambles about how I don’t believe in the devil.
I made what I now see was the mistake of revealing my atheism. Living where I do, in one of the least religious regions of the United States, I’ve become very comfortable with my atheism. No one cares about it where I work and no one cares about it in the broader social circle of urban pioneers, symphony goers, and foodies within which my wife and I move…although I must say I’m amazed at the number of gay believers…but I digress. My region is atheistic, but my neighborhood is not. The black owned dance studio which LuLu attends is not officially religious, but that’s a bit like saying the Red Sox don’t officially hate the Yankees. The people there, like Duke and others we have met, clearly change in their behavior toward us when they find out we do not believe in gods.
By the way, my atheism refers to my belief. I don’t claim to know that there are no gods. My atheism is the expression that the evidence with which I have been presented is insufficient in my estimation to support a belief in any god or even in the supernatural. I don’t believe in leprechauns, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, trolls, unicorns, astrology, Thor, or JVWH. If I ever see evidence to the contrary I will consider altering my beliefs.
Next year I intend to be PTO president at my step-daughter’s school. That isn’t a boast. The only parent in the PTO is my wife. As my term on the School Centered Decision Making Team is up at the end of this year I cannot serve again next year, therefore I will take up the role she had last year on the PTO, and she will take mine on the SCDM team. As much as I will despise the ceremonial patriotism and “the woo” I will keep my mouth shut on those two topics…I hope. I don’t see an unbeliever who views the United States as just another imperial state, no more endowed by any creator with a special role in the world than any other, as capable of building community in a place like this.
I’m a nice guy who cares about his children and who loves his city deeply. People around here will see that and assume that I must therefore love ‘Merica and Jebus. I don’t. But there you go.