This July finds me on the hunt again for a place to live. This time I am moving through New York City’s dog days, plodding through daily apartment viewings, and all the time wondering where I’ll end up when all this is done. I’m once again working with the kind of budget that factors in “A Whole Lot of Luck” to make up for the “Meager Sum”.
Reading the classifieds often makes me wonder, like Sylvia from Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson”: “Who ARE the people who can afford these prices and how come I ain’t in on their racket?”
Strangely, I’m also once again remembering Reagan. I blame The City.
The real estate agent for the city-subsidized apartment— the one built in the once-economically-depressed-but-now-“up-and-coming” neighborhood— spoke about his dissertation: the one he never finished twenty years ago, the one about history, about US domestic politics, international relations, and global economics. While showering that morning, he suddenly realized that he had it all wrong. Domestic policy and international politics are driven not by a search for national security, but by a desire by local politicians to secure their positions. It’s a matter of a seeing history and the world through a revised motive! It made all the difference in the world.
My partner and I sat and listened and added what we could. But I was anxious to know about the affordable apartments available after the lottery applications had been exhausted. I had been looking for a home to replace the one I was recently told would be sold out from under me, the one my landlord hardly found time to repair and now wanted to free himself from. I had been looking for months and, just this week alone, had seen over twenty places. I was tired of searching. I was ready to land some place and settle on a location.
But this agent was excited by our doctorates, and he wanted to share his research. He was on yet another cup of dark tea, pouring yet another capsule of creamer into the mix, and effusing about politics and policy and economies and political motivations. And we listened and played our part in the conversation, all while I grew more and more anxious for news about what this new development in this changing part of the city could offer me. I wanted to land a home.
Soon enough my partner mentioned President Carter and the agent shrank back from us. He declared that he’s a card-carrying Black republican and a lover of Reagan. And it was my turn to shift, suddenly away.
I remember Reagan the same way I remember leaving home.
I was a girl, and it was the early 1980s. I was barely ten and I understood nothing of the world. I wore T-shirts from The States with images of Michael Jackson and Madonna. I sat on the concrete steps in our backyard and ate mangoes from our tree and watched the farmer across the street weed his callaloo patch and listened to Radio Jamaica’s steady streams of the songs of America and the sounds of the island. I also learned the words of “Old Britania”, but only by way of my mother’s stories. I knew all this and enough to pass my exams, to be considered a good student, but I knew nothing of the world — nothing of the policies, the politics, the political motivations, the histories that were shaping my little life.
But then Reagan, the president, became our news. And we saw him on our only channel, the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation, as often as we saw Michael Manley, our prime minister. And we saw American Apples replace ours, and powdered milk replace our cows, and bread become something we stood in long lines for and the money for the bus to school become a wad of bills, no longer a handful of coins. And I still knew nothing of politics and policies and political motivations, but I knew that money had changed and our lives were no longer the same.
Soon enough, in a matter of years, we left the home we’ve always known for the possibility of something more. The States.
Here, my parents kept their faith in our education. It was worth all sacrifices. And they reminded us always to “get our papers.” And we understood them to mean our degrees would save us from poverty and from a hard life of wanting and having to give up the only home our children may ever know so that they can make a living, make a life.
When I was a child, there was an expression the grown-ups use to throw at us kids while we played. “You free paper soon bu’n,” they’d warn. And I saw freedom as a kind of paper that could burn, a paper you could hold in your hand like money. This was when I knew nothing of the world, and I was just a child playing under the eyes of the small world I was born into.
Later I learned that these people and I came from other people who were bought and sold. I learned that the history of my little world was one of conquest and killing, of money changing hands, of people leaving the only home they’ve ever known, of people being taken from the only home they’ve ever known, of capital and commodities, of commodification and capitalism, of buying and selling and bloodshed, of free markets and a lifetime of enslavement.
So here I sit with my doctorate in English Literature and a fledging career teaching it, twenty years into my life in these States. And I am searching for a new place to live, one I can afford in this city where neighborhoods get investments of public capital as they are taken over by influxes of those with more capital worth; I am searching for any home I can land in this land where I have struggled for more than half my life to scrape together a living and secure a place that I do not have to leave at the command of those who hold the papers on it. But I am no longer the child I once was and I have come to understand in ways I wish I could forget that I live in a “free market” and, for some of us, the cost of living will continuously take a toll on our lives and will even decide for us where we make our home.