When I was eight, I did a brief stint in prison. By “prison” I mean a small town in New Jersey. Don’t get me wrong; there were some lovely things about that town. It was the pastoral small town of times gone by, with only two main streets, a lake in the middle, and the kind of safety that permitted third graders to roam unattended. But unbeknownst to me…
I was in for some difficult lessons there. And it’s possible that something even more sinister lurked…
My post Breast Milk and Burgers describes some of my earliest foodie experiences in then-innocent sun-bathed Southern California. In Jersey, I encountered for the first time the indescribable beauty of nature. But it took me some time to gain perspective on it, because in the mix of that year, I also confronted the fickleness of boys; the jealousy of girls; the ugliness of racism; and long division. I was exposed to wealth and opulence such as I’d never seen before. And I learned that money doesn’t make people nice.
Not that we had money. I’d gone to live with my mom and new stepdad. He was a high school teacher, and we rented the upstairs of a small farmhouse. Yet just a few doors down that same street, a family with a daughter my age owned a very upscale home. And down a few more lived the richest family in town, also with a daughter my age, in a veritable mansion. When my upwardly mobile mother learned about our neighbors, she immediately set her sights on these girls as my new best friends. My poor mom nearly wet herself dreaming about the possibilities for my new life in Jersey high society.
( In Licking the Spoon, my book in progress about food, sex and relationship, Chapter 3, “Horizontal Mambo,” discusses the science of mate selection – including girls having mothers who groom us to ‘marry up.’)
Well, Melinda, the wannabe, seemed OK – until the real rich girl, Nancy, was around. Then Melinda jealously guarded their friendship. And when I saw Nancy’s house, I got an inkling as to why: Enormous, lavishly furnished, it had a sunken living room and an indoor pool. Best of all, Nancy had a walk-in closet full of dress-up gowns, heels and jewels that was BIGGER THAN MY WHOLE BEDROOM! There was enough for 100 girls, but apparently Melinda didn’t think so. It was almost funny how snobby and hoity-toity she acted, and the riches weren’t even hers.
Meanwhile, then there was my romance with Walter. In spite of his nerdy name, he was cool – he lived with a single dad and hung out with an older African-American boy named Earl, whose rep as ‘tough’ gave Walter some street cred. But even more amazing to me, Walter was allowed to buy his own clothes!? He was a confident little third-grader. When he kissed me in the woods behind the baseball diamond, that meant I was his girl.
Through him I met Earl’s sister Cassandra and began my first inter-racial friendship – that is, until my mom found out. Cassandra just did not fit in with my mom’s plans. In an act of unspeakable ethnocentric craziness, she kidnapped me from a visit to Cassandra’s poor but clean home and warned me never to go back again. From then on, Cassandra and I were relegated to sending wistful gazes across the playground, longing for the friendship that might have been.
That is, until the race war in Nancy’s swimming pool…
(To be continued, including how the beauty of nature fits in.)