catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 5 :: 2010.03.05 — 2010.03.18


The invisible border

There is a place where an invisible border cuts through the west side of Milwaukee. It’s not the actual city border, which, in my part of town, is at 60th Street. At the actual border, the street signs switch from blue to green, indicating to travelers heading east that they have left the suburb of Wauwatosa and entered Milwaukee proper.

The invisible border occurs around 40th Street. Route 41 passes underneath drivers heading toward downtown Milwaukee on Wisconsin Avenue, away from the wealthy western suburbs. Situated near this border are the Miller Brewing Company factory, a few industrial fields with ancient brick smoke stacks, and the Miller Park baseball stadium. Crossing over the border, drivers reach 35th Street and Wisconsin. There, tired-looking folks — old and young, black and white — stand idly as they wait for the bus in the cold.  Across the street, convenience stores advertise various beers in neon lights alongside signs that shout “WIC APPROVED.” Ancient cars chug by, spewing exhaust from run-down engines. People jaywalk across cracked streets, entering sinking antique mansions converted to low-income housing.

This is only three miles from a world where doctors, lawyers, investors and computer programmers drive luxury edition SUVs, jog beautiful river walks after work, drink strong organic coffee at hipster cafes and dine at upscale restaurants, sipping wine while listening to live jazz and discussing business, home restoration techniques, current events. This is my world.

I cross the invisible border daily in order to get to work. I teach English at night at a career college in downtown Milwaukee. When I enter my classroom, I see single moms, ex-convicts, homeless women, recovering addicts. The faces are black, white, Latino, sometimes Hmong or Laotian. The sounds that fill the air include bursts of slang and noisy fights with lovers over cell phones. The odor of French fries lingers in the elevators. Some of my students come to school just for the financial aid check. Others desperately want to improve their lot by educating themselves but find it nearly impossible to make it to school because of deadbeat babydaddies, babysitters MIA and unreliable bus schedules. Over 60 percent of my students each semester fail my classes.

Despite this, I love my job. I find it stimulating. I love my students. I love their humanity, their desire to learn. I forget that I am separated from them by a lectern as well as by years of education, by an easy upper-middle-class childhood, by a relatively sheltered, comfortable life if the suburbs. I forget that we are different, us and them, until I make that drive back home.

Then, I cross the invisible border, and I remember.

Back home in my white-collar suburb, the world I left behind is but a distant memory. In MY world, the “us” world, we take the highway downtown to avoid driving through “bad neighborhoods.” We hover over our children and hyper-schedule their lives. We go to book clubs. We have master’s degrees, sometimes PhDs. We shop at organic grocery stores. We work out at posh gyms. We are tolerant and politically correct. We dress tastefully. We exchange niceties and save gossip for private conversations. We discreetly cover our sins. We lock ourselves into strict routines and observe cultural practices that will ensure that we and our progeny remain comfortably enclosed within our class for generations.

I don’t know if there is an answer to this problem of division. I long for an answer, though, and as a teacher, I often wonder if it lies in education. Maybe if I could find the magic bullet to open the minds of a greater number of my students, they would then find ways to solve the problem of the invisible border. Or if I could encourage my friends in Wauwatosa to stop ignoring the invisible border, to stop speaking in hushed, disdainful tones of “them,” maybe things could change for the better.

But the ugly truth is I have much to confront in myself before I can expect anyone or anything to change. I am a willing slave of the suburban mentality. I have chosen to live within the safe and comfortable confines of suburbia. I have chosen this because I am afraid of discomfort and poverty, afraid of the urban cultures that are largely foreign to me as a suburbanite through and through. And until I can get over these fears, I cannot expect the invisible border to go away.

I think about this at night, as I take in the sights along Wisconsin Avenue on my drive home from work, past the haggard faces at 35th street, over the border around 40th, into the neighborhoods that become increasingly charming and well groomed the higher the numbers on the intersecting streets. I think, and I wonder, and I question, and I grow sad, until I am both relieved and tired when I return home.

I am happy where I live. I am sad for those who live on the other side of the border, and yet, I am disappointed at my own sadness, disappointed at my own sense of judgment and condescension and assumption. It makes me ponder such phrases as “the poor you will have with you always” and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Though I am not without hope, I dwell on these words, try to interpret them and justify them and explain them away as I wonder, every day, what life would be like if that invisible border did not exist.


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