Joe Oestreich is the author of two books of creative nonfiction: Lines of Scrimmage (co-written with Scott Pleasant, 2015) and Hitless Wonder (2012). His work has appeared in Esquire, Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, Fourth Genre,The Normal School, and many other magazines and journals. Four of his pieces have been cited as notable essays in the Best American series, and he's received special mention twice in the Pushcart Prize anthology. He teaches creative writing at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC, where he is the nonfiction editor of Waccamaw.
The Get Down
I was the only white kid at the birthday party. The host was one of my first grade classmates, and we were all sitting at his dining room table, urging him to make quick work of the candles. Because this was 1975, the guys wore hair that was an inch deep, minimum. The girls were braided and beaded, doyennes of the Double Dutch. With my bowl-cut bangs, I was the odd boy out, which, given that I was the only pale-skinned person in the first grade and one of a handful in the whole elementary, seemed to be the natural order of things.
We scarfed the cake and ice cream, and while the host’s mom cleaned up the plates, a teenager—maybe a sister, maybe an aunt—shepherded the ten or so of us kids into the front room, where more members of the family—brothers, cousins, uncles—were drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. The sister/aunt recruited one of the men to help her lift the coffee table out of the way, and then she arranged us in a loose circle in the center of the room. Wearing a jumpsuit and standing on platform heels, she towered toward the ceiling like a disco goddess.
“Now,” she said, “guess what time it is.” Snapping her fingers, she shook her way over to the record player and then spun back to face us. She was holding the 7-inch single of the Jackson 5’s “Dancing Machine.”
We cheered. The Jackson 5 was everybody’s favorite group. “Dancing Machine” was everybody’s favorite song.
“It’s time,” she said, twisting her polyestered hips lower and lower until she was sitting on the backs of her heels, “to get down.”
As she slid the disc from the sleeve, I was plugged in and ready, all set to show everybody—my classmates, the sister/aunt, the whole block—that I was the dancing machine. Automatic, systematic.
Four years earlier, my peacenik parents had moved us from Texas to here in the Franklin Park section of Columbus, Ohio, an inner-city neighborhood of formerly grand Victorians and Queen Annes, most of which had, by the ‘70s, fallen into disrepair. Some had been chopped into apartments. Our house wasn’t massive, but it was whole, and because of its stone exterior and stained glass windows, it looked to my sister Jill and me like a castle. Across the street was Franklin Park itself, and on summer evenings, Jill and I would sit on our front steps and watch the neighborhood hustlers cruise the park in their Eldorados and Continentals. From the open windows of these big American boats came “Low Rider” and “Keep on Truckin’” and “Living for the City.” My parents were partial to Joan Baez and Simon and Garfunkel, so we didn’t listen to R&B or Funk at home, but still I knew these songs by heart. By osmosis.
The one album Jill and I owned was the Jackson 5’s Greatest Hits. Jill swore she would one day marry Michael. I wanted to be him, to literally become him, grow new skin, sprout new hair. But first I needed to prove I was worthy of Jackson-ness by mastering Michael’s dance steps, the ones I’d seen him perform on Soul Train and The Carol Burnett Show. When nobody was looking, I’d stand in front of my mom’s full-length mirror practicing my moves. In my reflection I could see that I wasn’t quite as good as Michael, but I was better than Tito. About on par with Marlon: Rhythmatic, acrobatic.
Now at the party, I heard the click-woosh of the record dropping to the turntable. The pops and crackles as the needle struck vinyl. This was my chance to step out of my parents’ bedroom and onto the public stage. Right here I would cement my place in the first grade, not as the odd boy out but as the super-bad boy in. Recognizing the significance of the moment, however, caused me to hesitate, and by the time the Jacksons finished singing the opening hook—Dancing . . . dancing . . . dancing!—the other kids were already grooving, while I remained stalled in place. Standing there, watching my loose-limbed classmates stick and move, I saw for the first time how plodding even my best steps were. Nothing I had ever performed for the mirror looked half as smooth. These kids weren’t just dancing; they were shake-shake-shaking their booties. They were elastic, like the rubbery soul-brothers and -sisters in the image featured in the closing credits of Good Times, which I would later learn was an Ernie Barnes painting called “Sugar Shack.” They were hip and funky—half scale versions of the Franklin Park Cadillac cruisers. When practicing at the mirror, how I not seen that whatever I was, I certainly wasn’t, well, this? How had I not noticed my oppositeness?
That’s when I understood that I had mistaken desire for skill.
I stood frozen for at least a minute before the sister/aunt smiled and said, “Aww, that’s cute. He shy,” which drew a few laughs from the beer drinkers on the periphery. She placed her palm against the small of my back as if trying to coax rhythm into me. “It’s okay, baby. Just do what you feel.”
I felt like going home, but I knew it wasn’t time for my mom to pick me up. I could sense that people were staring at me—not the kids, who were too busy trying to impress each other to be concerned with whatever I was doing or not doing, but the older folks. And I realized that the longer I just stood there, the longer I’d be the center of attention. So I started moving—dancing, sort of. I planted my right foot and stepped with my left. Then I planted my left foot and stepped with my right. Plant, step. Plant, step. Jacksonesque it wasn’t, but at least I was keeping the beat.
“That’s it, baby,” the sister/aunt said. “You got it.” Then she started moving back and forth with me. Plant, step. “Come on, y’all,” she said, and she pulled two of the beer drinkers off the couch and onto the floor. Next she waded into the pool of elbows and knees that was my fellow first graders, and soon she had all of them imitating me. The whole room. Adults and kids. Plant, step. We were moving as one.
I know the sister/aunt meant well, but there’s no harsher critique than to witness a grand production of your own incompetence. Watching those unencumbered bodies get handcuffed to me and my rigidity seemed almost an act of cruelty, like hobbling Dr. J or muzzling Muhammad Ali.
The honky-tonk line dance lasted only a few seconds before one boy broke free and transitioned to a near-perfect imitation of Michael Jackson’s signature robot routine. This kid truly was a dancing machine, and he made my unintentionally robotic steps look even more pedestrian. But thankfully he’d steered the room’s attention away from me. I’d never been so happy to be forgotten.
That birthday party turned out to be to the first of many steps that would distance me from those kids and from that neighborhood. The next year, in second grade, I attended a private Montessori school that was almost entirely white. The year after that, my dad, who had been directing the state agency that advocated for people with disabilities, took a similar job at the national level, and my family moved to Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. As we drove away from Franklin Park, I wasn’t sad to leave. Our house had been broken into several times; an arsenal of rocks had been chucked through our stained glass; one day while I was waiting for the bus that would take me to my new private school, a group of older boys shook me down for my lunch money. Beyond all that, I was sick of being called honkey.
After a year in Maryland, we moved back to Columbus, where my dad was now directing a vocational rehabilitation facility. This time my parents bought a cookie-cutter house in a suburb called Worthington, which was as lily-white as the name sounds. We lived there all through the Reagan ‘80s, and in middle and high school, every time I heard an upper-class white kid use the n-word or tell a black joke, I’d shake my head at his ignorance, and I’d silently thank my parents for having given me the gift of living in Franklin Park.
But I wasn’t thankful solely for the cultural awareness I’d gleaned—no, I wasn’t that goodhearted. I was also betting that the years I’d spent in a black neighborhood, or “the ghetto,” as I’d taken to calling it by then, would make me seem more hard-edged and complex than I would have been otherwise. None of my Worthington friends had ever run their fingertips around the milky circumference of a whitewall tire, as I had on a few of those Franklin Park Caddies and Lincolns. None of them had ever been humbled at a black kid’s birthday party.
After I got my license, I’d sometimes drive my buddies across town to Franklin Park, ostensibly under the guise of showing them the stone castle-house, so different from the aluminum siding that encased much of Worthington. Really, though, I wanted them to notice all the other houses in the neighborhood. The boarded-up windows. The security bars. I wanted them to appreciate the Schlitz Malt Liquor billboards and the shady-looking taverns. I knew how these urban details would play to a suburban audience, and I was more than happy to accept any residual badassness my once having lived in the inner-city would bring.
In the ‘90s Franklin Park and the adjacent community, Olde Towne East, underwent the now-familiar pattern of gentrification. Gays and urban professionals, black and white, renovated the Victorians and Queen Annes, and many of the mansions that had been carved into apartments were rehabbed back to stateliness. Tension arose between the newcomers and the longstanding homeowners (the complicated interactions and competing agendas among Olde Towne East residents were documented in the 2003 film Flag Wars). I didn’t—and still don’t—know exactly how I feel about gentrification, but I knew one thing for sure: As soon as Franklin Park turned “nice,” there was no longer any reason for me to drag my friends there.
My wife and I are now raising our young son and daughter in a small town in South Carolina, where we both teach college. When we shop at the Food Lion or visit the public library, I see a higher density of dark-skinned faces than at any time since those seven years I lived in Franklin Park. I’m proud to reside amid such diversity, but I sometimes worry that I value living in a racially mixed community primarily so that I can applaud myself for valuing it. The worst kind of liberal self-congratulations: Look at me! I live among actual black people! And then there’s this: I don’t really live among black people. The town may be nearly 40% black, but our neighborhood is nearly 100% white.
On those rare occasions when I find myself on the black side of town, I think about my parents and their decision to buy a house in a neighborhood where they knew they’d be in the minority. My mom and dad have always preached equality and acceptance, but lots of well-meaning people—liberal or otherwise—can talk up the importance of these lofty ideals. My parents didn’t just talk; they put their mortgage where their mouths were. They put their kids where their mouths were. For seven years they enlisted Jill and me in the fight to erode the racial divide. I feel like a hypocritical coward by comparison. For all my progressive politics, I know I’m not going to move my kids into a house across town. I know I’m not going to send them to a school across town. We drive through the black neighborhood, but we don’t stop.
My son will be starting kindergarten in the fall, so I’ve been thinking a lot about neighborhoods and schools, and what makes the so-called good ones good and the so-called bad ones bad. I recently downloaded the Zillow app so I can research properties in a subdivision (plantation is often the appellation of choice for developers here in South Carolina) that would put our kids in an elementary with higher test scores than the school they are currently zoned to attend. As you can probably guess, this subdivision is even whiter and richer than the neighborhood we live in now. When I’m snooping on Zillow, I feel ashamed—almost dirty, like I’ve been looking at Internet porn. But why should I feel anything but conscientious? Isn’t the move to “good” schools the kind of decision “good” parents make? Then again, maybe “doing it for the kids” is a cop-out. Maybe I’m using my kids to justify my own desires, prejudices, and cultural assumptions. Maybe I want the big house in the ritzy neighborhood; the kids are just the excuse.
A few months ago, my dad visited from Ohio to attend my son’s 5th birthday party. All the guests were white. There was no dancing. After the cake and ice cream, while the kids were tearing through the yard on a dinosaur egg hunt and my dad and I were garbage-bagging the paper plates, I thought back to the ‘70s, to that first grade party, and I wondered what had driven my parents to make the “bad” decision of moving us to the “bad” neighborhood with the “bad” schools. Could they possibly have anticipated that I’d later see my years in Franklin Park as a gift? If so, then how the heck did my mom and dad get so wise and righteous—and why hadn’t those genes been handed down to me?
As we cleaned up the kitchen, I told my dad about the research I’d been doing into neighborhoods and schools, and I shared a little of my ambivalence about the prospect of moving to the well-groomed subdivision with the award-winning elementary. “I’m conflicted,” I told him. “This is complicated.”
“No it isn’t,” he said.
I felt better already. My dad would apply clarity to my confusion.
“You send your kids to the better school,” he said. “That’s the answer.”
“Really?” I wanted clarity, sure, but I was anticipating a little more nuance with my clarity. Or maybe I was expecting my dad to be clear in the opposite direction: Don’t sell out to the white-centric notion of what’s better.
He nodded. And in that nod I could see that this was a calculation he’d been working on for a long time, maybe since I was the age my son is now. He’d already factored in the value of integration and diversity. He’d already accepted as a given the fact that social class is more salient than skin color and that there are many different kinds of “good education.” He’d already tallied his accounting of the plusses and minuses of our family’s years in Franklin Park. And after considering all of these variables, his solution was send your kids to the better school. Period.
This may not have been what I expected my dad to say, but as soon as he said it, I realized it was what I wanted him to say. I wanted reassurance from the wise and righteous that it was okay for me to be stalking the subdivision.
The cleanup complete, we cracked open afternoon beers. “The only good investment I ever made,” my dad said, “was in you kids.”
I understood that in one respect he meant investment literally—racking up credit card debt to pay my college tuition, for example. But I also knew that he didn’t mean it only literally. I knew that what he was really saying was, “I love you. I’m proud of you. You’re a good dad.” And yet, those words, “good investment,” got me wondering about their opposites, my dad’s bad investments. And that got me thinking again about the inner-city.
“Hey, Dad,” I said, “Let me ask you something. Did you and mom buy that Franklin Park house because you thought it was important for Jill and me to grow up in a diverse environment?” I took a long sip from my beer. “Or was it because you thought the house was a potential investment, that you’d be able to buy low while the neighborhood was down and then sell high when it turned around?”
“Mostly the second one,” he said. “The investment.”
I’m not sure if I was surprised or relieved to learn that my dad was just as imperfect as I am. The belief that our parents’ motivations and decisions are purer than ours—that they are wiser and more righteous than us—is a myth. But it’s the myth upon which the institution of parenthood is built.
“Did you actually make money?” I asked him.
“Not much,” he said. “A few thousand dollars. Just enough for the down payment on the house in Maryland.”
My peacenik parents, it turns out, were OGs. Original Gentrifiers. And like me on that birthday party dance floor, they were out of synch with the rhythm of the neighborhood. They got to Franklin Park twenty years early for the big payoff—if profit was their primary objective, and I don’t believe it was, regardless of what my dad says about seeing the house as an investment. Still, whatever induced my parents to move to Franklin Park, my childhood was richer for the time I spent there.
I looked through the window to the yard, where a gaggle of kids in cone-shaped party hats was hunting for dino eggs. I saw my son and two-year-old daughter moving with shameless spasms of joy each time somebody unearthed another treasure. Wherever my wife and I eventually decide to live, whatever school we send our kids to, I hope they’ll continue to move through life as they move now: unbidden and unconstrained. I hope they won’t worry too much when they find themselves the odd kids out. I hope they won’t feel entitled when they find themselves the cool kids in. I hope they’ll, what? Dance like nobody’s watching? Nah. That’s the trite chorus to a Country song. Sounds like a lyric cross-stitched to a throw pillow. Though I fully endorse the sentiment, I don’t want to saddle my kids with that specific diction and syntax any more than I wanted to bind my first grade classmates to my timid two-step. Instead what I wish for my son and daughter is this: When it comes time to get down, I hope they’ll shake their asses right on down.