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June 23, 2006
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Volume 34
Issue 25
 
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Not Thinking Straight by Madelyn Arnold
Patriotic...
Every human is born somewhere. To which s/he is supposed to form an attachment like a clam to a rock. It's home. It could be a stinking black sinkhole, but one is supposed to be heart-full of affection near one's birthplace.

And what should one feel for the turf where one rests one's head? Especially, if one's birthplace vomits one up?

NEAR MY BIRTH

It was in the 80s, a scene hard to forget: after having hunted around in a Midwest strip mall pharmacy for about 15 minutes, I was standing at the end of a very long checkout line. There was one checker. I hadn't been thinking anything profound, let alone paranoid, if I had been thinking at all - when I looked up to see that everyone in line, and everyone in the store, and the checker whenever she had the chance, was staring balefully at me.

I turned to see if there was somebody... But there was nothing behind me but aisle. Tobacco, I think.

Please understand that I had traveled all over the South, so I knew what a hate stare was. What I was receiving was milder than that - which was less reassuring than it might have been: I had been living in Seattle, where people in general glared at me infrequently - even in areas with immigrant gangs or where almost everybody was darker than I am. These people in line were about my same color, a wash-water pink, so I jumped to a Hating Queers theory.

But how did they know? I was dressed the same way I did to teach at the University of Washington, where I always showed respect for my position - didn't wear jeans, didn't imitate students. Wearing a rust colored blazer, a blouse with a tiny checkerboard pattern, and brown slacks, I could have just come from a (Quaker) church service. I thought my disguise was good enough, so how did they know?

HOME AND FAMILY

This was just before Christmas, in the Speedway section of Indianapolis, the city where I was born. My sister, a medical student, had just produced the first of my nephews, the first child in my family for decades - and he had slain me with his first sweet glance. Prepared to love him as my nephew, I now adored him for himself. But as much as I loved the family, I was uneasy in Indiana - much of my life had been so brutal there. In Washington, I was used to walking pretty much anywhere at any time - I'd found it was good for my nerves - so an hour had not gone by in my sister's house before I decided I needed a walk.... Sis said: "take the dog!" - and up it leapt. The dog was a German Shepherd the size of Montana. I took the dog.

This stroll (many) was my first to a place, heading for this drugstore; I roped the dog to a broken bicycle rack. It wasn't Seattle. Few sidewalks, few Christmas lights, slews of flat little L-shaped houses. And that store - I was looking for paint for a gliding bird I had brought for over the baby's crib. I wanted bright colors, but it hadn't been easy to find them. There were little paints in dull, metal colors. Finally - red.

HAD SOMETHING CHANGED

I stood in line... So what jig was up and what were the cold looks for? I thought I was dressed like most people's Sunday best.

I had so spent so much time doing Butch in Indiana that in Seattle I had swung around to more or less Femme. Because in Seattle, it often didn't matter. Femme didn't mean that you minced around prissy and stupid. Butch didn't mean that you sat around spitting chaw. Well, not all the time.

No, surveying the weekend-easy dress on the women and girls, I wasn't the one who looked Queer. Except with that dog...?

Meeting accusing eyes was too much a part of my history there, so I didn't. I looked for the children, something that I always do... But I really had to search... There were always more kids around there than you'd see in Washington State (one of the things I didn't like in Seattle was how few people seemed to have kids). Where were the little Indianapolitos? And, then, suddenly there were children everywhere I looked - peeping from under their fathers' coats, from behind their mothers, pressed against their parents' legs. I couldn't imagine why I hadn't seen them before. And, then, I got it.



AND I WAS BORN THERE

Wherever you go, people dress their children more brightly than they do themselves. It's almost a rule. At the very least small children wear simpler clothes in brighter colors, and these kids I was seeing were, after making allowances, no exceptions. But my own clothes were, er, more gaily colored, you might say - brighter than any on the kids, who, taking cues from the adults around them, peered at me somberly. It was like being Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter.

My blouse was a pattern of yellows and rusts; my jacket was light, and my cropped hair was auburn and gray. What was ordinary dress in Seattle was shocking as "liberal", or "hippie", or something. I paid my bill, collected my package and the dog, and left - completely aware of the unfriendly eyes on my back.

That's the way things had been before I had moved; that's the way I had lived. But with fear as well; which I now remembered.

All those things that had once seemed so odd to me about my new home back near Canada - the sharp angle of the sunlight, the markless seasons, the constellations in the wrong place, the almost constant flowering and the evergreens - I could no longer afford to feel them as strange, because Indianapolis, where I had been born, was even stranger. And it still didn't want me.

I don't know if its reasonable or not to feel at home here... Toleration for people like us may only be a fashion that will pass. Just as I begin to think of myself as ordinary and tolerated, Tim Eyeman pops up with pure hate. Just like back in Indiana. Still, though, it seems to me that I have a home here in Seattle, where - for the first time in my life - I am just myself.

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