Today, in the produce section, I was simultaneously praised for keeping my babies (although I never considered not keeping my babies) and verbally flogged for being different. Yeah. The produce section is hard fucking core.
I really want to share the story with you but first I need to set the stage. My town. My town is in Pennsylvania. My town has a population of approximately 9,800. We are above Pittsburgh, and the river that runs through my town meets another river in Pittsburgh to make the Ohio River. My town is the seat of my county. It is situated in the middle of a national forest. My town is beautiful – starting just outside of town. In town, however, there is an oil refinery, which is my next door neighbor. My end of my town smells, depending on the temperature, weather, and day, like fish, rotten eggs, or the fires of Hell itself. It’s really not that noticeable once you get used to it. Just outside of my town is a dam. The dam creates a lake. Beneath the lake lies what used to be the Allegheny Reservation. Six hundred members of the Seneca Tribe were forced to move from the land, onto which European Americans had forced them in the first place, by John F. Kennedy in 1961. Also displaced by construction of the dam were two small villages and a hamlet. These people were forced out of their homes so that the entire area could be flooded. This happened six miles from my house. The residents of my town are 98 percent white, according to the 2000 Census. According to the same Census, the two largest age groups in my town are under 18 and 25 to 44. Males tended to make a median income of 32,000 per year. Women made a median income of 22,000. The average family income was 41,000 per year. That’s not a lot of money, folks, but it’s more than my family makes. Also, keep in mind that nearly 11 percent of the population in 2000 was below the poverty line.
There are a few big names in town, and those names are attached to people with lots of money. There are many, many dirty names in town. Those names are attached to people with lots of arrests, drug problems or legacies of poverty. If your name is famous in my town, either for money or lack thereof, it will influence how you are treated on a daily basis. Everyone doesn’t know everyone in my town, but if everyone knows your name they’re going to assume they know you. And if they know the rumors associated with you they’re going to assume they know the truth.
No one knows my name. I like it that way. Some people know some of my relatives’ names. I try to keep anyone from finding out that we’re related.
The overall atmosphere of my town is one of thinly veiled xenophobia and conservatism. People in my town are mainly white, mainly republican, mainly racist and mainly fans of silly things like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. I speak not from blind judgment, but from experience. I once brought a boyfriend home from college to celebrate a family event. He was black. I’m white. As we walked into the hotel where we were staying, he received three separate threats – one of hanging, one of shooting and one of drowning.
So, stage set. Let me give you a bit of character background.
I have tattoos. They are visible. My left lower arm, from the elbow down, is covered in tattoos. My right arm has two on the back of my wrist. My chest is covered. None of my tattoos are suggestive, insulting, judgmental or otherwise untoward. On my chest, above my heart, I wear a banner that says “Thanatos.” On the other side of my collarbone I wear a banner that says “Eros.” The rest of my artwork consists mainly of forties style birds, stars, nautical themes and some black shading. I have my upper lip pierced with a small, clear diamond stud. I wear black glasses. My nails are clean. My hair is clean. I’m wearing a tee shirt, black 3/4 length sleeved sweater, and a pair of olive green canvas pants. I smile at others. I say “excuse me” and “thank you.” I’m carrying a green reusable shopping bag. I’m looking for a pint of strawberries that’s not turning black.
I’m approached by a woman with white curly hair. I look over, say “hello.” She gives me the once over and snorts. She reaches in front of me and takes a pint of strawberries and starts to leave. She turns around.
“How far along are you,” she asks, eyeballing my Sneetch belly. I place my hand there. She sees I’m not wearing a wedding ring. Doesn’t realize that it’s only because my fingers are so swollen. I tell her that I’m eight months. “Well,” she says, rolling her cart to the other side of the produce rack and picking up a package of raisins, “at least you’re keeping it.”
“Them,” I say. “I’m keeping them.”
“Twins?” She touches her chest. I hope she doesn’t have some sort of cardiac episode. I really don’t need everyone looking at me as though I gave her some sort of bad mojo. I nod. “Lord have mercy,” she says. My brows knit together. It’s not intentional. It’s just a natural reaction when I don’t understand the direction a conversation has taken. “Hopefully you have a good family that can help you,” she says, shaking her head.
“I have lots of help,” I say. I’m stunned.
She puts down a package of dried cranberries and looks right at me. “You’re not going to be able to work,” she says.
“My husband works.” Why am I telling her this? Why do I feel the need to justify myself? Why is my internal censor so incredibly functional? There are so many things roiling in my head just clamoring to get out of my mouth that none of them can seem to find their footing.
“Oh you’re married,” she says, looking again at my naked ring finger. I nod. My brain screams at me, go look at peaches! Cereal! You need milk! Milk is at the other end of the store, for fuck’s sake! Abort! Abort! Run! I stand there. My cheeks are hot. “At least there’s that.”
And then she’s gone. Just turns away and heads for the mushrooms, still shaking her head. I finish my shopping and leave, suddenly aware again of the sideways glances and whispered remarks that I’d grown so accustomed to that I’d failed to notice for quite some time. I notice, too, that the kid in front of me buying Mountain Dew and a bag of candy with his food stamp card isn’t of any interest to anyone. I notice that the girl in bright pink pajama pants with a greasy ponytail, sores on her face, black teeth – a sign that she’s a skin picker when she’s smoking meth – draws no attention whatsoever. I’m sad that I’ve become so used to being so blatantly judged that I stopped noticing it. I’m sad, too, that it’s okay in this town to let oneself go, forfeiting any attempt at personal hygiene, but that having tattoos and a lip ring makes one a sideshow.
I’m sad that such a beautiful part of the country is plagued by such an ugly little town.