There are many boundaries separating people in my town. There are over 700,000 people in 49 square miles (ooh! so many magical 7s) representing every shade of economic/racial stratus.
But Where are They?
My coworkers are almost to a person, solidly middle class (maybe they started somewhere else, but they are there now), Englsih speaking (other languages, too, but we all conduct our biz solely in English). My students are generally very interested in doing well in school and going to college, and most of them come from working/middle class families. In my daily interactions, I am only seeing a very small slice of the folks. Walking down the street or riding the bus, I see all sorts of mysterious people-- old people, gangsters, white collar workers, immigrants of all sorts, sick people, poor people. We all walk in our own kevlar bubbles.
Seven Maids A-Metering
So its always very exciting to cross the invisible divides. Last month I had the thrill of actually talking to a Meter Maid. I learned her number (they don't give out their names). Found out someone stole her chalk (how is she supposed to mark car tires without chalk!). She even told me that "contrary to popular opinion, I don't eat my young." Seeing those little carts zipping around strikes me with deep fear and dread. After months of playing cat-and-mouse with Big Red, it was almost like meeting a celebrity, or a dragon, or a famous dictator. She refered to the cars on her beat as "my cars." Almost as if she felt some... ah... affection for them.
Former Reluctant Gangsters
I never talk to gangsters. Its not that I particularly don't want to, but generally, we don't have much to say to each other on the bus. Usually, I try not to even sit on that part of the bus. Often, its hard to tell the real ones from the wannabes. If they are vandalzing or mugging (the last year, two of my students were mugged on the bus), I really want to be invisible.
Flags (semantic signals)
I was sitting with my new student today during class. He finally relaxed and he started talking to me, and didn't let up for the entire period. As he talked, I realized the anxiety I was sensing from him last month must have been fear, and finally, he had realized that at least he didn't have anything to worry about in the Lab. Normally, I wouldn't let a student monoploze my attention for so long. He was telling me how much he liked the school, no one was trying to kill him. He told me about friends who were murdered, uncles in jail and other really depressing things. He expressed annoyance about some of the little wannabe gangsters at our school. How they don't know how great they have it here. How all the kids at his old "ghetto" school just wanted to be in the suburbs. How its so great being away from the gangs.
He called the red bandana he formerly carried in the back pocket of his sagging jeans a "flag." Downtown was "murder zone." (So far, Dutch has dodged the bullets down there). He referred to his friends as "my boys."
After getting a commodified version of ghetto culture through the media, it was strangely refreshing and odd to hear it first hand-- without the romance, without the tired cultural cliches and with the real heartbreak. I felt like I was peeking into another world. So physically close and yet so (thankfully) far from my day to day experience.