I drove through an Indian Reserve on a class trip this weekend. Homes were rundown and ramshackle, with junk piled helter-skelter. I was deeply uncomfortable without knowing exactly why.
Then one of my classmates ‘explained’ that the houses looked so bad because the First Nations people of the area owned the houses communally, with no family having full ownership of their own home. Without a sense of personal ownership, no one cared to keep up their houses.
My discomfort, my anxiousness to get through the reserve was replaced with absolute fury. This person who had earlier described her painful lesson of personal responsibility when her parents restricted her use of their third car was passing judgment on these people.
I turned to her, incredulous and angry, and said, “This is what poverty looks like. This is what your house looks like when the only jobs around are mindnumbing, physically hard and/or dangerous, and pay so shit you can barely afford to feed and clothe yourself, when education is so bad and funds so constantly short that there seems to be no way to escape the desperation of living paycheck to paycheck, or when it’s cheaper to live on unemployment and welfare than to apply for minimum wage jobs over and over and over, when saving money is impossible and even if you have extra you may as well spend it on beer or cigarettes or cable because it’s never going to be enough to get out of this crap town and at least you’ve got people here that you care about.”
She looked at me like I was crazy and continued her conversation with another student. (She eventually suggested that as the Canada was the ‘conqueror’ of the First Nations, Canada should stop trying for reconciliation. After all, the Egyptians didn’t try to accommodate those Hebrews and great things like the pyramids resulted!)
I didn’t join in that conversation. Instead, I sat back and looked out the window, overwhelmed with the familiarity of the surroundings and a need to be far, far away. I didn’t really think about how odd this was, that a place that felt like home, that I felt like I needed to defend from the privileged analysis of my peers, made me physically restless and upset.
I didn’t plan to write about this experience. I probably would have pushed it out of my mind in a day or two, but reading Femmedagger’s experience in a run down diner forced me to recognize the source of my discomfort and the surprisingly personal anger I felt towards my ignorant classmate.
The waitress came over to us, awkward, bustling, with one, dingy-white bra strap falling limp against her arm. Scores of errant hairs escaped the meager ponytail at the nape of her neck and her forehead glistened with what I imagined to be spores of oil from the air. A faint line of foundation rimmed her jaw, but under her eyes and around her pursed mouth it resigned into each crevice and wrinkle like a film of butterfat over heavy cream. A rough smile spread across her face, exposing the broken and uneven landscape of her teeth. She approached us with two menus, as I meekly spoke of wanting malts. I grabbed the menus, not even reading the words on the page, as a similarly bedraggled woman chirped to us from behind the counter that they made the best malts we could ever imagine.
The waitress returned to take our orders, but had neither tablet nor memory to fully handle all of the seemingly special requests we threw at her. I was overcome with pity for her, but also twinges of guilt for my pity. I told my friend I was uneasy; asked if we could sit outside, in the sun, away from this dust and gloom, this sadness and this heavy, heavy air. Everyone in that place was shamefully nice to us. Shameful only because with every smile and eager attempt to please us, I battled more and more against some unknown feeling. I turned my attention towards the regulars inside. Here we were, I thought, two queers from the city, fresh from a day of swimming and idling at the river, and there they were, stuck inside this relic of a 50s diner on the last hot day of summer. It was gorgeous outside and they contented themselves with sitting at a counter sticky to the touch, in a depressingly low-lit room, smelling frozen chicken patties sizzling in a deep fryer. How could they bear it?
Our malts arrived and my stomach heaved at the sight. I did not want to put anything that came from that restaurant into my body. But, once again, I felt it rude not to touch it. With each spoonful, I ebbed closer and closer to why I was overcome and oppressed by the situation. And the thought occurred to me—as bald and unadorned as deep revelations are bound to be—that this place, these people, this low-quality ice cream with synthetic syrup flavoring, felt familiar and like home. And home is not always a place I want to return. I looked upon the women working at the diner and was faced with the specter of poverty and fear of living a life of disappointment that had haunted me many of my days. I projected upon them how I would feel had my life turned out this way—with me slinging days old coffee to silent and expectant regulars, my face and body ravaged by years of hard and unrelenting living. But the truth is, the diner was a community. The regulars at the counter and the waitresses had an easy air between them that suggested they had spent years in this place, talking to one another, sharing in the joys and hardships of life, and forming cultural practices through which they were constituted as interconnected human beings. And the even bolder truth is, I did not see them for who they were, but rather, as embodiments of those deep, dark parts of my personal legacy that I seek daily to repress.