“Let me give you a tour of the house!”
I was in my classmate’s house, taking the elevator down the 5 floors she called home, right next door to Spike Lee. I was entranced by the complete luxury of her life, from the marbled entrance and clean chrome kitchen, up the carpeted stairways to a floor just for the living room, the bedrooms on another, personal bathrooms for everyone in the house. I took in the reflection of myself in her bathroom that was triple the size of the one my parents and I shared, looking at the marbled counter and lights and spotless shower.
I sat for dinner with her family around the table, brought in by their own chef. In my house we just ate wherever we were, whenever we got home. You had to scrape your own meals together, none of us had the energy to organize a dinner. The one big table at our house barely had space to exist, frequently the victim of one of us bumping our hips against it when trying to get by. If we were able to get through the difficulty of cooking a dinner and sitting together to eat it, would we even have anything to talk about? The thing was that the three of us were in wildly different existences. My father repaired lines, my mother sold things and braided hair, I was a student at an elite prep school. We didn’t know how to communicate with each other. My friend’s family was all on the same page, each understanding the others’ lives in a substantial way. As I listened to them talk about doctor’s appointments and grades and trips I felt a pang, wondering how simple it would be to be her. Nice clothes, tutors, cabs, a house not heavy with the hearts of people who didn’t want to live in it.
She lived on the Upper East Side, in New York’s 12th Congressional District, the country’s richest. I took the 5 train home 40 minutes away to my district, the country’s poorest, District 16.
I don’t get the obsession with The Hunger Games. Millions are enthralled by the story of a dystopian world with districts where kids have to fight to survive. Well you don’t have to read about it. You’re living in it. Not 30 minutes away from some of the world’s richest people live children who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Here live people without options, when 30 minutes away people are drowning in them. I considered this as I walked to my house which was not my home. I walked into the lingering smell of cigarettes and the stubborn grime which wouldn’t leave no matter how much someone tried to mop it away. I entered 3E, missing the second lock, and for the millionth time padded down the long hallway into an empty living room, turning on the t.v. to fill in the silence.
I never stopped considering this contrast. I considered it on the train to school every morning as it was just about to descend underground into 3rd Avenue - 149th Street. Leaning on the door which said “Please do not lean on door,” I looked out of the window at a building I had passed by every day for 5 years. It was called “Horizons Juvenile Center,” but I didn’t know why because the kids in there couldn’t see any horizons. I felt shame because I had the opportunity to travel away from this district daily and go to a prep school while the kids in there were stuck, surrounded by fences and barbed wire. I passed by every day, heart heavy, wondering if I could’ve ended up in there. My gaze always lingered and my heart beat for kid like me in that building.
I considered it as I sat in the conference room of the Schomburg Junior Scholars, discussing something called environmental racism: “Environmental racism is policy or practice that differentially affects or disadvantages (intentionally or unintentionally) individuals, groups, or communities because of their race and/or class. Poor communities and communities of color often experience disproportionate impacts of environmental hazards.” I listened as a girl talked about going up to the observation deck of One World Trade.
“Up there you can see all of New York, like 360 degrees. I couldn’t even see Harlem or the Bronx because of all the pollution. It was crazy.”
She was right.
Here are the facts, according to the New York Environmental Report*:
I took the subway home, angry. The Sword loomed closer to my head, threatening to fall. What were we supposed to do if even the environment was an agent of our oppression? I considered the elements: the air bad in the South Bronx, and the water bad in Flint. Pick one.
At this moment, I was hit hard with reality. Every day I traveled away from this district, away from waste and pollution to clean air and pretty streets. But the second half of the day I had to come back, because this was where I lived. I imagined the effect this had on the inside of me. If a surgeon opened me up, they would discover that one of my lungs was black and the other pink. One side of me dying and the other flourishing, no way to make the sides identical because they existed in two different worlds. I walked down to Hunts Point, inhaling the air that dared to harm me. I inhaled deeply, wanting as much of it in my body as possible, so irrationally angry that I let it swirl around and seep into my cells. This air was mine, this air was that air that made me. And I took in more, knowing that this air and these streets would lead me to greatness.