A few weeks ago, we were walking around our neighborhood, Mary Jo and I, just a little something that we often do when the weather is mostly warm and the sun mostly shining. We wander the streets to check in on our neighbors. We wander to get out of the house. We wander for exercise. We wander and talk. It’s a suburban thing.
When we settled here, almost 20 years ago, we were among the last families to move into what was a relatively smallish subdivision of new homes. A few houses were still rising along the winding streets, all dotted with freshly planted saplings in newly sodded front yards, the paint still tacky on front doors, the driveways still unstained. One vacant lot, stuffed with great waves of kudzu and hundred-year-old Georgia pines, sat defiantly across our cul de sac. But everything else was brand new and everyone, it seemed, had a little kid or three running around. Nobody wandered back then. We all had too much else to do.
But now that all the trees have matured, and the pines across the street have fallen to a final new home, now that our driveway is beyond hopelessly mottled and we, beyond our wildest nightmares two decades ago, have become one of the older couples here — Get off the lawn!, I actually found myself urging a kid on Halloween; we had just paid to have the damn thing reseeded — we have time to walk. The neighborhood kids, the originals, including ours, have grown and moved on. They’ve been replaced by new kids with impossibly fresh-faced and in-shape young parents, all going places in their frighteningly big SUVs and occasionally conferring on the sidewalk about powerwashing and painting bricks. We smile as we amble around, toss up a wave, stop to exchange a word or few about the nice weather and the new crosswalk. We walk some more.
We’re not the only originals left, Mary Jo and I. And we’re not the only ones who regularly haunt-walk the streets. An older couple that we know only by their first names — they’re certainly older, by god, than Mary Jo and I, and by a lot I’d say — have been here even longer than we have. They constantly zig-zag around the streets, up on the sidewalks and down, with no apparent aim and in no discernable direction. Secretly, we call them the Roombas.
Anyway, we were walking, Mary Jo and I, a few weeks back. A father and son — the boy was probably 8 years old or so — were having a catch in their front yard. (Definition: “Having a catch,” is what I did growing up. We never “played catch,” as some insist it’s called.) We waved. They nodded. As we turned toward our house, we saw another young man and boy in another front yard. They were there visiting, playing on the newly mown grass with a stick and a ball. We smiled and waved again.
Not until several steps later did I realize that, just a few front yards from that little sliver of timeworn Americana — a dad and son tossing around a baseball — another father and son were doing something entirely different. They were playing with a cricket ball and bat.
Our suburbia. It’s not what it used to be.
We’re a week or so removed from another election in the U.S., a bit of civic duty that has become increasingly dispiriting over the past several years. I have wondered whether that’s just me getting older — it’s certainly possible, I’ll concede, that a not-small amount of cynicism may have crept, kudzu-like, into my thinking in the past decade or few — or whether these times really are messed up. Whatever, the feeling that something new and dangerous has descended on us is hard to shake. For anyone. Of any age.
Look around. Read the headlines. Go online. Anti-semitism is on the rise. White nationalists are out in the open. Common decency — especially, it seems, among politicians and the overtly political — is on the wane. Name-calling is in vogue. The hate, magnified through social media rantings, is real. It’s visceral. Disturbing.
Just listen. DemoRats. Deplorables. Socialists. Fascists. Snowflakes. Right-wing nut jobs. Elitists. Extremists. Radicals. Wackos. Everybody’s looking for someone to blame. Everybody’s pointing fingers. A common target of the finger-pointers: Immigrants.
You’ve heard it: Build the wall. Keep ’em out. Round them up. Send ’em home. They’re stealing our jobs. They’re sucking up our tax money. They’re dangerous. They’re … too different.
And you know what? At least a little bit of that is true. The face of America is changing. It’s undeniable. We go to Costco, Mary Jo and I. We see people there that we never would have encountered years ago at JCPenney or Sears. The long lines — there are always lines at Costco — are populated with older people in strange clothes and thick accents, and younger couples, not white like us, toting little kids decked out in Nike sneakers and hoodies.
This is America in the 21st century. It’s definitely not what it used to be.
Or, maybe it’s exactly what it used to be. And how it’s supposed to be.
Mary Jo’s parents came to the U.S. from Italy in the 1960s. They didn’t know the language. They knew only a few people in Cincinnati, some family members who immigrated before them. Mr. and Mrs. D. settled into the Queen City, scrapped for jobs, started a family, bought a house, built onto it as the family grew. They joined the church across the street, worked even harder, paid their taxes, put their kids through school. Somewhere in the basement of the house on Pleasure Drive, where they have lived now for more than 50 years, sits the trunk that Mr. D brought with him on the boat from Italy. The whole experience is a living example of the American Dream, right there on the West Side of Cincinnati.
It wasn’t always easy for Mary Jo’s parents. New language. New culture. New everything. It wasn’t always easy for Mary Jo, either, a full-blooded Italian who was born in the U.S. and had to help explain America to her parents and her parents’ Italian habits (homemade wine in the basement, prosciutto in the garage, opera blasting from speakers in the front windows) to her friends. Being a stranger in a strange land is difficult. The kids of immigrants know.
But being an immigrant has always been hard. On everybody involved. From the Library of Congress:
“As immigration from Europe and Asia neared its crest in the late 19th century, anti-immigrant sentiment soared along with it. The U.S. was in the grips of an economic depression, and immigrants were blamed for taking American jobs. At the same time, racialist theories circulated in the press, advancing pseudo scientific theories that alleged that “Mediterranean” types were inherently inferior to people of northern European heritage.”
Before Italians started coming to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Irish, fleeing famine and poverty in the homeland, arrived in huge numbers for the promise of the new land. More Irish were in New York City at one time than in Dublin. Like the Italians, they were scorned by those already here.
That mistreatment of immigrants, since the first European invaders claimed the continent as their own, has always been a part of America. You’d think we’d have learned by now.
My paternal grandfather — maybe a great-grandfather, I’m not sure; it was a long time ago — worked the railroads as an Irish immigrant. My grandfather on my mother’s side was German and worked in a factory in Philadelphia. Everybody has stories like that, even if they have to go back a few generations to nail down their ancestry.
Our neighbors now, on one side, are white Southerners, born and bred. The neighbors on the other side are from Venezuela. We have a few families from India in the neighborhood, and across the street sits a copse of houses all filled with families from India. A few Black families live here. And we’re in the Deep South, an area not widely known for its diversity. I’m sure the mix is similar in a lot of places these days. Certainly not all. But in a lot.
I don’t mean to make this post political. Like many people, I’ve had enough of politics lately. The needle on my personal up-to-here gauge when it comes to the current state of political talk in this country, where everything from a T-shirt to a mask is politicized, is way into the red zone. Meaning the danger zone. Not the red zone. (Every damn thing is political these days. You have to watch what you say.)
But of all the problems that we face … we’re going to pin them on immigrants and immigration? It’s ludicrous.
The facts are, immigrants don’t take our jobs and don’t bring crime. Undocumented immigrants — the ones some people rail about all the time — actually commit fewer serious crimes than other immigrants and people born in the U.S. They don’t pull down the economy. In fact, they feed it.
They’re not invaders. They don’t want to take over America. They just want to be part of it. Like my grandparents did, and Mary Jo’s parents did, and legions of people from all over the world have done for centuries. Like the people coming over the Southern border now, struggling to get away from terrible tragedies in Central and South America. Like those fleeing war in Europe. All of them are simply looking for the promise of a better life. The promise of America.
Just like our new neighbors. Just like all of us.