I drove the car gingerly, carefully, as recently licensed drivers do. My boyfriend, soon-to-be husband, sat in the passenger’s seat. He could not yet drive, a curious situation for a nineteen year old Black man in Baltimore. He would not learn to drive for years – after we were married and built a home in the suburbs, and after I became angry about chauffeuring him to business meetings and waiting in parking lots to drive him home again.
We were young, and naïve, and afraid – somewhat misfits. He wore a necktie every day to classes during our first year in college. I was skinny, and poor, and thought people could see the death on me because so many of my family members were dying from a hereditary disease. We were insecure; both of us. We didn’t know, as my mother tells it, “our heads from a hole in the ground.”
We were driving in the Baltimore area scouting apartments for our first living experience as a married couple. I remember driving slowly west on Liberty Heights through the city, until we came to the event center marquee on the left side of the road. I froze, panicked, almost stopping the car in the street.
I had worked in that empty building-turned lunch preparation facility, for a summer during high school. Along with other poor Black students, I was on the assembly line, packing lunches for more poor Black kids in summer programs throughout the city. Since I was not a trouble-maker I was often given the coveted position at the head of the line, cracking open and placing the empty cardboard lunch boxes onto the belt, setting the pace for the others to drop in their components – sandwich, salad, banana, cookie, napkin, milk.
I took two buses to get to that facility, but had gone no further down the road. And though it was still in Baltimore city, it was the end of my known world. Beyond that empty event building yawned the White world. I had been there, but only as a guest, escorted by my White friends or their parents who lived there. Their modest, separate homes and their clean, wide streets twisting away from the main corridor where buses ran seemed grand to me. I had never ventured into this White world west of Baltimore on my own.
My mother did not drive and my father had become too ill to do so during my high school years, so I took city buses wherever I went. And with my father unemployed, we could not afford a car, anyway.
Riding buses was not unusual for poor Black kids in Baltimore. But since my middle-class white friends did not live near bus lines, they had to come into the city to pick me up for sleepovers or movie dates. Sometimes my mother would ask and pay a relative or neighbor to drive me to them and to evening events at the mainly white Catholic high school I attended.
I was embarrassed about this, about our poverty. And insecure. I promised myself I would always have a car so I could drive my future children everywhere without having to beg rides. I swore my kids would go to real doctors’ offices with bright waiting rooms, like on television, instead of foreboding-looking state hospital clinics where they would feel small and humiliated like I had felt. My children would feel secure and confident.
But I had no experience in these areas yet.
Just a few miles from my home, I had come to the limits of my universe and I was terrified. I had been away to college for a year, dropped into a foreign world in rural Indiana, and I had come back home wounded from the experience. But this was different.
I can still feel the panic in my chest. Once we passed the event center, we were in uncharted territory. I began to breathe heavily, hyperventilating. “We have to turn around! We have to go back!” I fought the urge to slam on the brakes. My soon-to-be-husband glanced over at me amused, mocking. He certainly would not admit his fear. “What’s the matter with you? Just keep driving.” So I did.
On that day in 1977, I tensely gripped the steering wheel and crossed over into the unknown world.
First published at www.journeyofagrownupblackwoman.com
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