Nothing or everything

Wrapped in two layers of clothing, I was well insulated to brave the brisk cold on my early morning walk, but not enough to keep me grounded in the present. Gloved hands burrowed inside my pockets, placing one foot in front of the other, I began imagining life on this side of my Norman Rockwell-like community: perky homes full of character, neighbors gossiping, punctuated by the sound of the freight train that habitually passes through the picturesque train station a few blocks away. From where I live on the other side of town, I can hear the train’s horn and rumbling, but walking so much closer to its origin, I can almost feel the earth trembling. The sound of its movement transports me to my childhood home in the Bronx (ever out of place as my great-grandfather built it in the early 1900’s), which had its own blaring soundtrack as the roar of the graffiti-adorned subway made yet another pass directly across the street from our house. A solid working-class community in a borough with few pockets of financial prosperity makes a striking contrast to the neighborhood in which I presently reside.

I have many memories of growing up in the 1970’s, including waking up on Christmas morning to see a bicycle wheel poking out of the doorway of the room that housed the tree. I remember family – cousins, aunts, uncles – seemingly always around. I remember a Fourth of July party when I was assigned DJ duties, spinning records. I remember playing baseball in the street with my brothers and neighborhood kids, Alex, Joseph and Steven. I remember my brother returning home from delivering papers with the front of his shorts ripped off because some kids mugged him for the money in his pocket. I remember the fear I had when the newspaper headlines all seemed to be about someone named “Son of Sam.”

A few weeks ago, several librarians received tickets to see former First Lady Michelle Obama at her book tour, promoting “Becoming” in Philadelphia. Of the many things she discussed, it was the description of her upbringing on the South Side of Chicago that struck a resonant chord. From her tightly-knit family, and community full of hardworking people doing their best, to her reminiscing about the neighborhood deli where people went to either buy cold cuts or alcohol, I immediately recalled my childhood. The Bronx may be hundreds of miles from the South Side of Chicago, but our neighborhoods sounded remarkably similar, down to the detail of the corner bodega where my grandmother would regularly give me money to buy bologna, American cheese, and a carton of Tareyton 100’s cigarettes.

At a time when hatred of “the other” is on the rise, it’s important to recognize the things we have in common. Each of us moves through the world, the product of thousands of stories, stories that are probably a lot more similar than we might imagine. As the former First Lady said, regarding her childhood, “I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.”

*The photo is of the author’s childhood home many years prior to her birth.

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