Working Class Heroes

By staff March 1, 2007

Recently I left the cushy upper-middle-class world of Southside Village in Sarasota, with its charming old houses and perfectly clipped hedges, with its all-white residents walking their chocolate Labs and calling out friendly greetings to each other, and moved to a working-class neighborhood in Bradenton. I thought it would be basically the same, less affluent certainly, but with the same basic social structure in place.

Boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Now let me say right at the beginning that whenever I write anything—anything – about racial or class differences, I’m slammed with letters, e-mails, lawsuits, etc., accusing me of racism and elitism. So I’m expecting that. And I think it’s great. It just shows there are a lot of watch dogs out there sensitive to such things, and that’s the way it should be. Still, I am offering these insights to people who plan affordable housing because they are things that never would have occurred to me until I experienced them firsthand.

First, a compliment. In my neighborhood (I live right near the Tropicana plant) we’ve got white, African-American, African-Caribbean, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Central American, and a sprinkling of Asians. That’s an awful lot of cultures to fit into a tiny area, and the amazing thing is that everybody gets along as well as they do. The secret is not so much overt friendliness as respecting each other’s rights. When I first moved in, I was surprised at the lack of interest in me on the part of the neighbors. Nobody came over to introduce himself. Nobody so much as glanced my way. At first I thought it was me. Now, after peering out the front window for several months, I realize that’s the way they operate with each other. People keep their distance. It’s live and let live, and that’s why things work so well. “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Second, everybody rents out rooms. I don’t think there’s an empty room on the entire block. They rent to family, to friends, to strangers. An unused piece of real estate, no matter how small, is much too precious a commodity to just let sit there. I have no idea what the zoning laws are. It doesn’t matter. People figure out a way around it. The concept of a guest room, which reached it zenith in Southside Village with those beautiful Pottery Barn creations that are used once or twice a year, is inconceivable here. The downside, of course, is parking. Most houses have three or four cars, vans and trucks, and a lot of them end up on the lawn.

In Southside Village the general angst floating in the air has to do with money, social position, weight loss, self-esteem. Up here it’s much different and revolves around one simple issue—getting to work on time. I’ll say one thing for the working class. It works. Daddy works, Mommy works, the kids work, and they all have to get there, usually at some ungodly hour. The entire household centers around this one simple issue. Here a car is not a BMW to express your inner soul but an old clunker that you hate because it’s always breaking down. The bus is not some abstract idea for city planners to noodle over. It’s a lifeline. All day long a steady stream of people passes my window heading for the bus stop on the corner. A bicycle isn’t a leisure-time activity. It’s a viable way to get to work. (So, by the way, is a motorcycle. Just ask the guy across the street. He revs his up each morning at 6:45, sometimes for 15 minutes at a stretch.)

Adjusting to so many customs from so many countries can be a bit of a shock, it is true. When holidays are celebrated, they are really celebrated. On Christmas and New Year’s the music and firecrackers put anything in Sarasota to shame. I was up all night, whether I wanted to be or not.

Religion is very close to my neighbors’ lives. There are three storefront churches within a couple of blocks, and they have services most weekday nights. I find it very comforting to peer in at all the singing and the testifying. Some other neighborhood customs are less appealing to me. The concern of upper-middle-class America for pets and their comfort baffles many of the newly arrived immigrants. Leash laws are ignored, dogs are chained to trees, and feral cats are living in the vacant lot on the corner.

Perhaps the biggest unifying force in this melting pot of differing ways of life is the most unlikely one of all—the popsicle man. An older Mexican guy, he gives the impression of having pushed his little cart all the way from Guadalajara by foot. It’s a real, authentic Mexican popsicle cart, just like one you’d see in a small Mexican town. Now, children being children, no matter what race, shape or form, they all want popsicles; and when he starts down the street they all appear, parents in tow, to flag him down. He must be the hardest-working man in Bradenton. I see him all over town. To me he’s the poster child of the industrious immigrant, and I sure hope he’s making a lot of money.

Sometimes, when I’m lying in bed at night, my new neighborhood seems like the most romantic place imaginable. There’s something very American about living in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood near a big industrial plant. It’s like an old Warner Bros. movie. There’s the train whistle in the distance of the orange juice train heading up North, and if the window’s open you can even hear the clickety-clack of the wheels. Also, if the window’s open you can sometimes smell the plant. It’s an unmistakable odor—part orange blossom perfume, part sweat. It’s the smell of cheap bars everywhere, and as industrial pollution goes, it could be a lot worse.

And the other night, just before dawn in fact, I heard something new. A rooster. One of my neighbors is now keeping chickens. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest. In fact, I think it’s very cool.

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