Or: How Kristine grew up in and around the poor neighborhoods.
I grew up in a neighborhood that wasn’t exactly bad, but it wasn’t the best either, and slowly got worse the longer we lived there. It wasn’t like that when we first moved in. I was going on nine, my sister was barely two, and after spending a year in a tiny apartment, we were thrilled to have our own rooms and a backyard. Our house was large. One of the largest on the block. There was a playground across the street, and even to my nine-year-old eyes, the neighborhood looked good and safe. My dad had grown up just down the street. My mom, in the neighborhood behind ours. My sister and I were going to grow up on the soil that had grown our parents, and they had nothing but good memories of those days. Ours would surely be the same.
It wasn’t exactly the same. We still have good memories of growing up in that neighborhood. I chased my friends down the same street my dad once chased his, my bike chain not quite as rusty as my friends’, mostly because my dad was meticulous with his WD40. I hung out at the park long past the age it was designed for, first using the playground equipment like it was intended, later, hiding in the shadowy places, legs swinging, a cigarette dangled between my fingers, laughing with those same kids I’d once chased on my bike. I did all the things typical of a youth in those days, but there were parts of the neighborhood I was forbidden to go, because past a certain point, it stopped being my seemingly-safe bubble, and a different kind of bubble took over. You could see the point where it happened, anyone visiting could. The houses lost their modest, but well cared for, air, and the yards went from being green to slightly yellowed. There were brown bags that littered the gutters. It wasn’t a shock to see a needle in the strip of grass between the cracked sidewalks and the road. That was the forbidden zone. I had friends who lived over in that area, and even they urged us to stay away after dark. The people who lived there weren’t bad, but some of them did bad things. Better we stay to the lights. Their’s didn’t always work for one reason or another.
The neighborhood behind us, the one my mom grew up in, was the same. The people who’d once settled there, mostly plant workers for whom the neighborhood had been built for, eventually died off, moved on, or their kids and grandkids moved back in with them. Those kids and grandkids brought the troubles our generation tangled themselves in. Drugs, drinking, violence for the sake of violence. Things that had always existed, but now were done in the open. I delivered pizzas there as a young adult. It hurt my soul a little to see the houses and streets captured in my mom’s old pictures now in various states of ruin. But I also understood. Just like I understood how that bad stretch of our neighborhood was expanding, creeping toward ours. How my mostly-safe bubble was slowly deflating. Maybe growing up there gave me a better insight than I would have had had I grown up in a gated community. We were stuck in a cycle of poverty. Each generation had dreams, but with the plants these neighborhoods had been built for closing, there were few options left for the families who lived there. They soldiered on, buried their roots deep in the earth below them, but when the jobs dry up, the opportunities do too. Some got out. You always heard about that. Some turned to minimum wage jobs and struggled to make it paycheck-to-paycheck. Some fell back on escapism. Others jumped to crime. Like my friends had once warned me about their area of our neighborhood, these weren’t bad people, but they sometimes did bad things. Not because they didn’t have other choices, though many certainly didn’t, it’s not so easy to escape that cycle, despite what some Talking Heads would have you believe. But because they felt like they didn’t. And it’s the easiest thing in the world to believe that when you’re surrounded by evidence that seems to say this is all there is, all there ever will be.
I eventually moved away too. Most of my friends growing up did. Some because of what the neighborhood had turned into. Some just moved because that’s what people who can do. I moved back to the area later on. Different neighborhood, same scenario. The town that grew me was slowly falling to that cycle of poverty that had hidden down certain streets for so long. Friends from new places in my life would visit and remark that it was sad, but sad was never how I’d choose to describe it. Harsh reality, maybe. But there was also a level of loveliness to the determination of the people who stayed. Who kept those roots buried where they were. This was their home. They might have had to find other ways to survive, but they did survive, and even when I wouldn’t have personally chosen their methods, their means, I couldn’t help but admire the ends.
Though I didn’t plant my own roots there and instead ran to the soil that grew my parents’ parents, those days marked me. Being raised working-class poor (somewhere my parents shiver, as we were never allowed to call ourselves poor), and around poverty in general, marked me. It’s the lens I see, and probably always will see, life through. You won’t see many, if any, rich people in my books not because I harbor any kind of disdain for them (quite the contrary. I admire rich people for an entirely different set of reasons) but because growing up, I rarely saw me and mine in books. My neighborhood, my friends’ neighborhoods, were the places the rich characters would go to slum. The poor boy, or sometimes girl, was someone to be pitied. You rooted for them to hook up with the rich kid and be saved from their lives. I rarely ever came across the ones who stayed, for whatever reason. Who maybe didn’t accept their lot in life, but existed in it and made the best of it. There were times, times when work was scarcer than scarce for my parents, when there’d been violence close enough to home I could touch it, did touch it, that I wanted to see that poor character saved by the rich one. But there were other times, so many other times, I wanted to see a kid like me and mine growing up, falling in love, and chasing their dreams in the ways I saw every day. I wanted the story of the poor girl with the poor boy, finding their humble HEA together surrounded by the cracked sidewalks I knew. I wanted to know it was possible. I wanted to know we could do it too. That even if there was no White Knight in a luxury car on the horizon, we’d find our own brand of happiness.
And though it’s never been asked of me explicitly, that’s my answer. Why I don’t write rich characters. Why I have no real plans to in the future. That’s why my characters live where they do, operate how they do. Because maybe there’s another girl standing on yellowed grass out there looking for herself in a book. There’s definitely a girl in me that always will be.