Kids compare things. Prices of shoes. Coolness of parents. Longevity of burps.
It’s pretty simple. You know what you have based on what others do or don’t. And at an age before humility, that egocentric awareness of others’ misfortune can soothe your soul like a dab of aloe on some sun-scorched skin.
Of course, not having things does the opposite. But in the neighborhood I grew up, since most of us didn’t have all that much anyway, nobody stood out. As Darwin would say, you adapt to your surroundings. Sooner or later the kids became as indistinguishable as the houses.
We weren’t poor per se, but we weren’t well off either. Streets behind the local mall hovered in the often overlooked gray area between the two economic extremes. Our parents worked blue collar jobs to make ends meet during the summer days, while we rode our bikes unattended down long, cracked sidewalks at twilight; off-brand sneakers having pushed the pedals on the rusted boys’ BMX.
Near the end of the road — before the pronounced curb that gave my mother a natural border for which I shouldn’t pass — I lived in a small, 900-square-foot home. Before we had moved in, a car had somehow tore through the left concrete-block wall. Instead of matching the replacement brick, the previous owners decided to paint the entire outside of the house white — the only one of that color on the street.
Mother smiled. She’d thought of this home as her very own little “White House” of Clarksville, making her the Nancy Reagan of the block. While lacking the couture fashion and psychic readings of her Washington counterpart, mother decided to embrace Nancy’s “Just Say No” philosophy when dealing with my requests. No dressing like Madonna. No Dungeons and Dragons and definitely no AC/DC. It stands for antichrist/devil’s child, she scolded.
Our white house wasn’t nearly as glamorous as the presidential version. Instead of mosaics lining the walls, dirty yellow splotches stained the living rooms ceilings creating an almost Rorschach feel. Secondhand smoke wasn’t warned against like it is now. Two packs of Kool menthols were smoked each day in that room, a tall old ashtray filled to the brink with half-smoked butts. I remember blowing on the ashes and making the room fill with a chalky silver haze. Dust stood thick on the side tables. A few more particles wouldn’t be noticed.
With few places to escape, the nicotine smell stowed away in my clothes, announcing to the good parents that I lived with either a Don Draper look-alike family or hillbillies from the south. Before long, they figured out it was the latter and dismissed me as the same, the whiff of a stale cigarette trailing my pigtails as I returned home in the breeze.
Winds did pick up sometimes. Storms came seldom, but when they did, with no basement we gathered in the hall coat closet during tornado warnings. When I say we, I mean me and the cat and a flashlight. Shoved between old musty jackets for cushioning, I prayed the misshapen coat hooks wouldn’t fall during the storm and impale the small calico. No more wire hangers indeed.
Looking back, I know other folks probably used that old house to judge me, just like I used their old worn jeans and Aquanet hairspray to judge them. Things probably aren’t too different today. Now, due to social media, it’s easier to distinguish the haves from the have-nots without leaving the confines of your own small home. Moms and dads and kids are still being rated by the neighbors next door or a fellow high school alum three states away. We all do it whether we mean to or not.
As my son runs in from school, the sound of his Jordans squeak along the wooden floor. I wonder if giving him too much helps temper this judgment. But before I can even say hello, he’s out the door to a friend’s house. They have a trampoline, you know. And a cool, steep hill. Who wouldn’t prefer that?
— Amanda Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at hoosiermandyblog@ gmail.com