By Stephanie Saline
I’d popped out of my house to check and see if the mail had come yet. It hadn’t yet, but I looked up and noticed Louis was in his car, idling.
Louis is a retired police officer whose adult daughters live in the house across the street. He sometimes sits in his car in front of our house, waiting with his windows down. It’s always struck me as a retired police officer thing to do.
Side bar: I don’t think I’ve ever seen Louis outside his car.
I didn’t have anywhere particular to be, so I ran down our front porch stairs and up to Louis’ car to give him a high five.
Over the course of this conversation, I found out the following things about Louis: he grew up in the neighborhood, is one of fifteen kids, and when he got a large settlement from a car accident (he showed me the four-inch scar on the inside of his bicep), his now ex-wife insisted they move out to the suburbs and get a big house.
This turned into a discussion about how bigger isn’t necessarily better, and living in the ‘burbs doesn’t always make you happier.
“When I got all that money, my ex-wife wanted to move out to a big house with a big yard,” Louis said. “She wanted to get away from all my sisters. She wanted…” his voice trailed off.
“To live with all the white people,” I finished his sentence.
Louis, who’s Puerto Rican, laughed. “Right. She wanted to live by all the white people.”
Seems like every time Louis and I catch up, he tells me he’s Puerto Rican. I’m not always so good about offering details about my own life to the people I talk with; I tend to hang back and listen more than I share.
But I appreciated Louis’ pride in his heritage, so when the conversation circled back around, I told him my people come from Sweden and Ireland. And then I told him about how my great grandma came over with her parents when she was five years old, and that some of her siblings were left behind with relatives.
Louis asked me if I went to the St. Patrick’s Day celebration in town. I told him I didn’t, because I didn’t feel that much affinity with my Irish heritage anymore. My dad likes to tell the story of how, every St. Patrick’s Day, my great grandfather would put on a grass-green blazer and bowler hat, and strut around town in painted-green loafers. But that was the extent of our Irish pride.
“I think it’s because we’re so assimilated,” I told Louis.
It struck me as odd, to be a white person talking about being assimilated. Probably because the underlying assumption is that other people assimilate into white culture.
But there’s no such thing as white culture, is there? It, too, is a mash-up of other traditions, assumptions, and behaviors. Isn’t it?
Side bar: I once heard about the website Stuff White People Like. I was dismayed to find out that I like all the stuff white people like, too: farmers markets, riding bicycles, hummus, J. Crew. That’s how I found out how I was white.
After Louis’ marriage ended, he moved back into his old neighborhood. He doesn’t have as much money as he used to, but he likes his new life better. He goes out to coffee with his friends every morning. He is surrounded by people he knows, and who know him. He’s got his community. His sister calls him every day to make sure he’s got enough to eat. And sometimes? She comes over and cleans his house.
I told Louis he’s lucky. My brother lives in Sweden now, after he married a Swedish lady. And although I love him dearly, I’d never clean his house.
Is there such a thing as reverse assimilation? Because I think that’s what I’m trying to do. Pull myself and our family out of the enclaves of racial and social isolation, by moving into a Rust Belt city and mingling with people who are, in some ways, different from us.
To not live with all the white people, but instead, live with all different kinds of people.
It’s an unusual dream, I realize. But it’s rooted in an aspiration to someday live much like Louis does now: going out to coffee with friends every morning, surrounded by people I know and who know me, belonging to a people and a place… and convincing my brother to come home and sometimes clean my house.