Going Back to Cali…

I moved back to California and left it all behind in Washington. I left my furniture behind, packing only what I could fit in my Chevy Cavalier. It was me, my clothes and personal items, again. I was driving the Cascade Mountains the reverse route, back to California. I’m not sure how I felt or what I was I thinking. I was normally organized and had some direction but in this case, I did not have a plan. I was 20 and I only knew I was going to stay with my mom temporarily until I could find a job and save money to get my own place. I just HAD to live closer to my “friends. ” I didn’t have much money saved. I had a car payment which I didn’t have before and now I was moving in with my mom which was a situation I knew was not ideal before I ever made the decision. I did it anyway.

My mom moved a few times throughout my teenage years and by the time I asked her if I could stay temporarily, she was living in a house with my grandma and sister. (My dad sold his house and moved to the mountains so my grandma moved in with my mom)

It was in the same neighborhood in unincorporated San Leandro, off of East 14th where her previous rentals had been. She grew up in San Leandro and seemed tied to that area for some reason. She just couldn’t afford to live anywhere but the areas where rent was lower and the crime rate was high. It was also closer to where she worked.

They shared an old 2 story, 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom house with a Jack and Jill bathroom between the 2 bedrooms. My mom had one room and my grandma had the other. There was a 2nd bathroom downstairs but it had plumbing issues for the entire time they lived there (about 10 years), and if I remember correctly, It was just never fixed or useable. The carpet throughout the house was very industrial, more like what you would find in a construction office and it had huge imbedded stains of grease, almost like someone rebuilt a motor right in the middle of the living room floor. Actually, I think the landlord told her it was a transmission. Nonetheless, the flooring had character and was never replaced. She covered that up by painting the walls a mix of dark burgundy and a mauve tone of pink. Once that happened, you didn’t even notice the carpet. It was a castle. Everyone’s dream!

I was used to visiting her in that neighborhood when I was young and can remember getting on the BART train in Fremont and riding to Bayfair Mall in San Leandro. That ride was about 25 minutes. Then, from there I walked from the mall to my mom’s house which is a straight shot down East 14th and just under 2 miles away. I can remember doing this as young as 12 years old and I often had my younger sister with me.

My mom always seemed to be in a time warp. It was like she didn’t realize that more than 30 years had passed and that the area was no longer the safe, suburban neighborhood she knew in childhood. It was not a place most people would let their kids walk alone, especially two young daughters. We did it all the time and at all hours of the day and there were no cell phones back then to call for help. No one ever thought twice. Today, when people ask me if I’m afraid of being an Uber driver, I laugh and say no. I just flashback to the drive by shootings and robberies that I witnessed many times in my life. An unruly Uber rider is a walk in the park, even the drunks. I am prepared to handle myself, no problem.

The upstairs of her newest rental home was more like an attic, turned loft where the walls were only about 3’ high and went to a slant toward the ceiling. Walking around up there meant bending completely forward so you wouldn’t bump your head on the slanted walls. It could easily have been divided into 2 rooms due to the layout but my sister and I had a hard time sharing space anywhere, much less in a room where one of the rooms was the entry to the other giving neither of us personal space. The entire upstairs was hers before I came to stay.

She was 16 by this time and I was not quite 21. I had “my half” of the loft but nothing was ever sacred. She helped herself to anything she wanted, despite my protest, and no one said boo about it. She stole money that I worked hard for. The most devastating was trying to recover from the theft of 6 months’ worth of a car insurance payment. I lost sentimental jewelry from my grandmother that I can never replace. She didn’t care about my clothes because by this time I was about 260lbs and she was always very thin so my clothes didn’t fit her. Same with shoes. We didn’t fight over the common stuff like that. Our issues were bigger.

This was more than 20 years ago and she is not that person today but it was awful back then, especially for me. When your parents make excuses for thievery instead of addressing it because they feel out of control over the situation, something is very wrong! Ignoring situations doesn’t make them disappear. Imagine that.

I worked very hard for my money and it always seemed like my mom was more concerned over protecting her instead of standing up for me and putting a stop to the theft. I never got paid back and my sister rarely faced any tangible consequences. My mom acted as though my calling her out was an annoyance and blamed me for leaving my money in a place where she could find it. It’s pretty sad when you have to hide money in your mother’s home. My mom chose not to acknowledge the reality of that situation. I actually used to put my money in a Ziploc bag to take in the shower with me because it wasn’t safe anywhere else. Those are the things that stick to my gut when I think about my mom’s death. I think about the times she didn’t protect me when she was alive. That totally sucks.

After growing up in a situation that looked pretty on the outside and was a total mess on the inside, I refuse to live in denial. If something is not right, I am going to say it’s not right! If being popular means quietly letting things that are unacceptable slide because you don’t want the consequences of confrontation, fine. Personally, I can’t live in that state of complacency. It stifles me. When something is wrong, I’m saying so, period!

That house was in a neighborhood that most people would drive through with the windows rolled up and the doors locked. My mom never had a lock on her front door. I wondered if she was oblivious sometimes. It was an old house with huge windows. Old windows that you had to slide upwards to open and she left them wide open all the time with no screens. Yes, even in the middle of the night while we were sleeping. The house was left open in the middle of the day when no one was home. This includes the front windows facing the street! No curtains and no blinds, by the way. No window coverings at all.

Directly across the street from our house there was a small gas station with 2 pumps, a soul food restaurant that had delicious cobbler and chicken, and a liquor store. Our favorite was the small Mexican grocery store because it was convenient for produce and last minute items. The best part was the Mexican woman who parked at the auto shop next door and sold tamales out of her van on Saturday mornings, hot and fresh. We couldn’t have a conversation but her tamales spoke directly to my heart, EVERY.SINGLE.SATURDAY. Pork tamales, please!

The name of my blog is no mistake, “TrialByGinger.” Yes, Ginger as in red hair, pasty white skin and freckles. On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the most Caucasian in appearance, I am definitely an 11! I mean I am whiter than white and I stood out in my new surroundings. I had visited a lot but never called it home until that time. I was in the minority there. My sister was too but she grew up in the area and was more accustomed to the neighborhood. Her friends lived there and she dated a guy who lived up the street. She even worked part time at the body shop next door.

The neighborhood was made up of multiple minority groups but it was predominately a mix of Black and Hispanic people who lived there. It was different for me than growing up in Fremont which was predominately white when I was a kid. So, just like I had to learn to adapt to a slower speed limit in the northwest, I had to learn to adapt to my new surroundings in San Leandro with high traffic and high crime. I had to learn to blend in rather than stand out because I definitely stood out.

I could do that! Why? Because, I had to learn to respect other drivers on the road who were used to driving 55 instead of 70. Because, I already knew that not everybody lived the same as me and that our differences are ok. I learned to understand that this way of life is something most people are constantly striving to get out of or they are simply stuck. Crime, violence, and drug abuse are a symptom of a greater problem.

Have you ever been stuck in a cycle where you see people outside your environment thriving at the same time you are suffering? Have you ever tried and tried and felt like a failure while watching others get through life with extra help and resources? That extra help could be as simple as a parent who will co-sign for a car loan. Do you realize that if someone has ever helped you  by co-signing on a car loan, that’s a luxury that many of us have never had the opportunity to experience? Not everyone has that! Do you know how it feels to be judged by another person who was born into more opportunity than you were? That could mean your parents could afford to buy groceries at Safeway every week and another person’s parents had to shop at the canned food outlet. Their family learned to share a can of chili between 3 people for dinner because that’s the only thing they could afford. Doesn’t it make sense that this could be a contributing factor to animosity between people in lower income groups and who they perceive as “wealthy?”

When you are so broke that having Top Ramen for dinner is a challenge, anyone who can afford hot dogs is wealthy in your eyes. In life, perception is reality for people. When you have to take 10 extra steps to get to your job knowing there is a guy out there who pays $10,000 a plate for dinner, it makes you angry. Suddenly, doing the “right thing” is harder than choosing a life of crime where you can put cash in your pocket and not worry about anything else. It is a choice for many but I don’t know how many people really understand why people are driven to that choice? It’s not always laziness or stupidity. Sometimes, it’s survival. If you haven’t lived it, you couldn’t understand. Fortunately, for most of us, we don’t have to. I have lived in a picture perfect neighborhood. I have lived in the kind of neighborhood you see on TV when you watch, “Cops.” I’m here to tell you, beautiful suburbia doesn’t insure you are surrounded by good people either. It just looks prettier there.

I am not suggesting this would be my first choice of neighborhood to settle down and buy a house but I am suggesting that I don’t think it was anyone else’s dream who lived there either. We were all in the same rut. We all had similar surroundings and a similar cost of living. Who knows why they lived there? Who was I to judge? My family was there too.

I know this, between the traffic and the crime and the gunshots and the sirens, there were people riding the bus or driving to work. There were kids walking to school. There were people getting up every day to make a living and support their families. There were multiple small businesses operating around us. It was definitely not the most uplifting environment but the people there still had to live and survive and they did that every day just like the rest of us.

Do you know how I survived? I respected my peers. I didn’t judge or fear anyone by appearance. I was kind to people. I talked to the cashiers at all the local stores when I stopped in to shop. I bought from the lady selling tamales. When I got “mean mugged,” I smiled with sincerity, giving rude and aggressive people no fuel. I kept my head up and paid attention to my surroundings. I shopped in the neighborhood. If I was in the local market or buying a cobbler, I exuded confidence. I did what I had to do to blend without participating in the crime. I got to know the neighborhood rather than being afraid to leave the house.

I’m not suggesting I went out for coffee with prostitutes after their 2am John but I definitely wasn’t staring them down in judgment on their way to the bus stop. If they passed by my house and I was in the yard, I waved and said, “Good Morning.” She was doing what she had to do to get through the day. That’s none of my business and her struggle is obviously worse than mine. At least when she passed my house, she saw me wave and show her respect as a human being. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want? To be respected, regardless of our circumstances? That prostitute had her own demons to battle. She didn’t need my judgment.

Were there criminals and drugs? Yes! Were there robberies and violence? Yes! It was going on all around me. The sirens were deafening and the sound of gunshots was just another thing you heard on Tuesday afternoon.

What I decided was to take every precaution to hold my own, take care of myself and respect my surroundings. I avoided confrontation by not feeding the machine. In the face of aggression, I remained calm and removed myself from the situation. I didn’t run away. I just know when it’s ok to pour gas on a fire. I definitely know when it’s best to just let that fire burn.

The truth is, no one grows up with the intention of living in a place where you constantly have to look out for your safety. Some people were born into it and it’s the only life they’ve ever known. It is their “normal.” Those people definitely don’t need my judgment either. 

I was always on guard and the neighborhood made me fearful at times but I did not look at the people who lived there differently. Most of them were doing the same thing as me. They just wanted to get gas, grab some tomatoes and bananas and go home. There are more people like that than the thug trying to rob you. The majority of us were just working people trying to get through the day.

I think if society treated people from those types of neighborhoods better and showed them opportunity instead of judging them, we’d have a better chance at slowing the cycle of crime, poverty and oppression. Maybe a person in that neighborhood could have thrived if they met a friend from out of state who gave them the opportunity to get out and start over? The reality is, not all of us have friends or family that will give us a hand or an opportunity. I was fortunate to have the chance I was given. If I hadn’t landed that opportunity, I could have been destined to that neighborhood too.

I stayed with my mom until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I’m guessing it was a few weeks at best. My sister and I were constantly fighting. The fighting really upset my grandma and she was aging quickly. I couldn’t stand the turmoil. I didn’t come home most of the time anyway if I could stay at a friend’s instead. It was miserable and I did it to myself. Bummer.

It was back to couch surfing for me. I stayed with my best friend in Oakdale for the most part. She had a 3 year old (that 3 year old is now 24 and one of the greatest loves of my life) but also did my share of couch surfing when I hung out in the bay area since Oakdale was an hour away.

During that time, I worked with my best friend in the office at a towing company. It was owned by her boyfriend’s father and was located in Fremont. They had a small house nearby we could stay in while we working but on our days off I went home with her to Oakdale fairly often. Aside from that, I couch surfed within my circle of friends. The baby was at work with us, or home, or wherever we were. He was always there. He still is. I will share more about our relationship later and how I met my best friend when I was 14. Her son was born when I was 17 and we’ve been inseparable all his life. I’m so lucky. Our story is for another chapter.

During this period of my life I was a hot mess and had no direction. I was 20. I didn’t have a place to call “home” and no one to call to encourage me or give me direction. I won’t discount that my mom’s house was an option but it wasn’t the right option and staying there wasn’t helping me to move forward. My dad had moved to the mountains and I hadn’t spoken to him for more than 2 years. He was the last person I was going to call for help.  I was flying by the seat of my pants which I had done since I was 10. I was used to living just to get through the day so I did just that.

The truth is, going back to California was a mistake. Relying on my mom to help me and give me a safe space to get on my feet was a mistake. Thinking that my childhood friends had my back… that was a huge mistake. That chapter of my life took me straight back to Washington with an entirely new plan. It took me less than a year to figure out that the situation in California was not ideal.

I went back to Washington for a variety of reasons, many of which are a blur. The biggest reason led me to the hardest lesson I’ve ever learned about the meaning of “true friends.” I’m here to testify that loyalty is expensive and you should never expect it from cheap people. Shame on me, I’d made decisions in my life that revolved around cheap people and I paid dearly for it later. There is a difference between people who are around all the time and people who are your true and loyal friends. Did I mention that I should have stayed put in Washington in the first place? Because, I definitely should have.


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