Monday, April 18, 2011

An Immigrant Experience, Diluted

There is a corner that exists in my past and my present.  When I exit the freeway on the way home from work in my present, I inevitably sit at a red light at the whizzing intersection.  On the corner, there is an odd, dumpy little house that sits up on a cement platform, about four feet above the service road.  There is a weatherbeaten wooden engraved sign, usually with grass growing around its base, that says, "Welcome to Forest Park."  Sometimes the white-ponytailed dude who lives there is sitting out with a friend having a beer, although at my usual hour for many months of the year, the sun is bearing down from the west on the elevated porch with such ferocity that Miller Time must be taking place indoors, if at all. 

This crossing sits at the top of an old and elegant neighborhood where I would later live and where the children would attend the Norman Rockwell elementary school which we'll leave tearfully in a month or so. If the corner is trying to ensure Fort Worth's Berkeley stays a well-kept secret, it's doing its job.  Across the street from the sign is Mr. Jake's, a grimy convenience store and gas station where I occasionally stopped on Friday nights for fuel and a six-pack before one evening I heard a tattooed patron ask the young clerk about how to deal with a hangover.  "I don't drink, man," said the handsome guy, whose dad is, I am confident, getting rich off people who do drink and don't plan ahead. "I'm a Muslim."  I still stop for gas, but feel weird about buying hooch from people who don't partake.

Nearly fourteen years ago, this corner was my first glimpse of my new hometown, to which I had moved, sight unseen, from immaculate Ontario.  The trip from the airport had been flat and scrubby, but the stripmalls and chain restaurants along the route had made it innocuous.  But now we were heading to see friends who lived in the city proper; they had been instrumental in getting us to Texas.  I was thirty years old--a grown-up, I thought at the time, though I had more stubborn resolve than real nerve back then, and was scared to death--with a toddler in the backseat and, was expecting another child, though this was an ill-fated pregnancy. I had a short haircut and an earnest attitude, which to say the least didn't bode well for my new life in Texas.  And this was a bloody awful looking corner.  It reminded me of Detroit, which as a Canadian who had not summered at Cape Cod or walked the streets of Manhattan, was my perception of big, scary America.

Eventually I learned how to use hot rollers and where to find cute sundresses, and the heat made me a little more relaxed.  Now if I come across as tightly-wound, I hope it's in charming Texan manner. (Okay, not exactly. But a girl can dream.)  Eventually I came to look as though I might be from here.  The freckles and English as a first language allowed me, as Marisa Tomei said in My Cousin Vinny, to blend.

I did find a beautiful and quite inhabitable city which ended up looking, in my experience, quite unlike that corner, which is actually set for transformation, as so much of Fort Worth has done since I arrived. I am no longer a stranger in a strange land, and good friends and deep roots have replaced the early disorientation. But even now sometimes my gut clenches involuntarily when I sit in that spot as I as I did so many years ago. More than a thousand miles and a world away from home, I wondered, astonished, how on earth I got here. It's still like that fairly often, a kind of out of body experience where things are familiar, but I know, viscerally, that I am not exactly of this place. And yet, so many years later, I have little recollection of where it is that came from.  This, perhaps, is the experience common to all immigrants. The key, I suppose, is maybe one for happy living under any circumstances: never look back.


  1. I too am a bit of an immigrant. A chld of the Midwest, specifically Chicago, I never dreamed I'd live in Texas which was as far as I could tell a foreign country. And sometimes, forty years later, I still marvel that I live here. I wouldn't change it, wouldn't change my life here--though it's increasingly hard to live in a state that even thinks about sanctioning 80 mph on the highway, guns on campuses, and drastic cuts to education funding. Oh, and holds the records for executions. How did I get here?

  2. Jude, it comes with the territory. I learned a long time ago that if I wanted to think about how things are different where I come from, I can go back. The good here, however, far outweighs the bad for me, so I live with it.

    And what's wrong with 80 mph on the highway? Okay, it's expensive and I am sure worse for the environment, but if I had to drive the speed limit, I'd be unemployed!

  3. Sue, I knew immediately which intersection you were talking about just by your inital description of the house...I too have fond memories of that one for other reasons :)


  4. Well, those are likely worthy of a blog post. Let me know when you start your own :-)