To the AirBnB Guest Who Felt “Very Unsafe” in My Neighborhood
for Angel; thank you for sheltering me
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it’s nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
– Thomas Merton (to Dorothy Day)
“Are people the only holy land?”
– Naomi Shihab Nye, “All Things Not Considered”
Oak Park, Sacramento. 1994. This is my family.
A recent AirBnB guest informs us that she had to leave our listing because the person she was traveling with felt “very unsafe” in our neighborhood. She never steps foot on the property, but still finds it necessary to evaluate her stay through the AirBnB rating feature. 2 stars for “Location”. She writes the phrase “very sketchy” in the justification portion, perhaps in the event that we did not understand her the first time.
In the online form’s suggestion box, she tells us that we need to make it explicit in our description of the property that we live in an environment of such offensive squalor and ill-repute.
As I thought about this woman’s disgust, images of my surroundings naturally entered my mind. It’s true that our neighborhood is not the most well-kept cluster of streets in the area. Many homes are old and run down. Some homes have old cars, furniture, or appliances in their front yards, which are often bordered by chain link fences and protected by large dogs. In other words, there are a lot of people around here who don’t have a lot of money, and sometimes it shows.
But two brand-new homes and two new duplexes have just been built on our street. And just now, at the start of spring, bunches of bright tulips have sprouted all over several of our neighbors’ yards–some still holding their petals together in compact crowns of red or yellow, others falling open widely and loosely, as if to gather up more rays of sun. It’s a particularly beautiful time in our neighborhood, when the seemingly interminable months of Oregon gray give way to more vibrant and explicitly joyful things.
And most importantly, even if all of the above wasn’t true, the people who live in our neighborhood are kind. They are mothers and grandparents, retail workers and long-haul truckers. Faced with more than most of us will ever know, they are just trying to get through each day that they live. And they are the most loyal neighbors I’ve had in my life.
Something about the incident with the AirBnB guest reminded me of a conversation I once had with my ex-boyfriend’s mother. One afternoon, while sitting in his fancy home in the suburbs–where his neighbors would report his family to the HOA if they left the garbage cans out on the curb for more than one night (oh, the abject horror)– I ranted about the fact that several people in our town had begun to complain about the new extension to the BART line. They believed that because folks from “bad” areas of the Bay Area like Richmond and Fruitvale were now able to enter the pristine upper-middle class paradise that was Pleasanton, California, local crime was on the rise. Oh, and our high school was losing its spot in the national ranking. And, my God, the local mall had become a hotbed of iniquity!
At the time, I primarily (and naively) associated the phenomenon of rich people turning their noses down at poor people, and especially poor people of color, with BBC miniseries characters that used the word “riff raff” and documentaries about segregation. So I was surprised when my boyfriend’s mother quietly replied, “Well I hate to say it, but I agree with them.” At that age, I knew that racism remained a powerful force in the world. But admittedly, it didn’t fully hit me until that moment that racist elitism was very much alive and well in the supposedly progressive and educated corners of this country. It just sounded a lot more polite.
My boyfriend’s mother once cried at dinner while telling me that because her kids were mixed-race, people often assumed that she wasn’t their real mother. Even in bougie, organic vegetable-slinging Bay Area supermarkets, strangers would make comments to this effect. She also once asked me privately, again with tears in her eyes, if her son was doing drugs. She had given her children nice things, a great school, and a beautiful home. She wanted to believe that this–at least in part– both protected them from the worst parts of the world and kept from them ending up like the “riff raff” from Richmond.
It’s true that her kids turned out smart and creative, well cared for and certainly well-dressed. But they were still victims of racism. They still failed classes and did drugs and hurt people. Because more than anything, they were human beings like everyone else.
It’s not likely that I will ever see the AirBnB lady again. But if I did, and I was brave, I would want want to tell her this:
When I was in middle school, I went to Pismo Beach– a popular (and considerably non-sketchy!) tourist spot close to my hometown– to spend the weekend beach camping with my best friend. We were sitting in the crook of a tree in a little coastal forest set back from the shoreline when two teenage boys stumbled up to us.
“Hey!” one said, pointing at my friend, “Hey, you. My friend wants to fuck you.”
I flinched. I had never heard the word used that way before. I remember watching my friend as she stared blankly back at him–her eyes wide and slightly frightened– before smiling awkwardly and quietly laughing it off. Because I was (always) the anxious one, I immediately suggested that we leave. So we did, climbing the sand dunes back to our nearby campsite. My friend seemed unhurried, and that upset me.
When I looked behind us, I could see the boys following us. Though it was far from the most dangerous moment of my life, it felt like the beginning of something. Images from that day instantly seared themselves into the part of my brain concerned with my safety, my body, and my visibility as a woman. I remember the first boy’s face in particular, his expression of surprise as he lost his footing and slipped down the side of a dune while matching our footsteps in the sand. Over a decade later, that face and that collapsing sand dune are still right here, sticking in the recesses of my memory.
After we closed the door to the RV, I turned around to confront my friend, asking her through tears why she didn’t take the incident more seriously. Though I can now look back at that day and see with adult eyes that those boys were drunk, and that they probably came up to us on account of a joke or a dare, the framing of the incident –even in my child’s mind– carried with it the threat of violence. My friend disagreed with me. She shrugged, and said that she had already dealt with this kind of thing before. So much so, in fact, that it didn’t really bother her. We were twelve, maybe thirteen.
When I was a sophomore in college, several boxes of my stuff were stolen from the garage of the house I was living in on a nice, tree-lined street in Portland. While walking home one day, a man drove by me, rolled his window down, and called me a whore before driving away. On another occasion, a man standing next to me at a local bus stop told me that he was going to shove vegetables up my vagina.
When I was a junior in college, a man stalked me in the even more well-manicured “University Park” neighborhood adjacent to my university. He followed me as I walked home. He waited for me outside of my house. Our campus Public Safety referred me to the Portland Police Department, who sent over an officer with experience in sex crimes. He asked me a series of questions to determine if the man might be a violent serial rapist.
Later that year, after a string of local robberies, someone broke into our house.
While studying abroad in Spain, I grew used to getting catcalled and propositioned while walking down the street, a daily occurrence known as the culture of the piropo. Most days, I remained unbothered by it. But one afternoon, while walking down one of the most famous, populated (and touristy! and clean!) streets in all of Granada, two men walking in my direction would not leave me alone. I was tired, I was late for class, and I was sick of feeling like I was constantly on display. So, feeling angry, and knowing there were plenty of people nearby, I turned around and held up one middle finger to each of them. I thought they might laugh, or simply grimace uncomfortably and walk away, but instead they started shouting at me again. Louder this time. They shouted, among other things, that they were going to put me in my place by raping me.
Of course, none of these moments could be labeled anomalies. Most are familiar to women, queer folks, and people who present themselves in ways that offend mainstream culture. People of color, religious communities, and transgender people are frequent victims of hate crimes, street violence, and premeditated acts of violence.
But then again, we all know that people considered anomalous or offensive to mainstream sensibilities are not the only ones subjected to danger. 223 American students have been shot dead in school shootings since Columbine.* Many of them have been killed by white American boys in “good” neighborhoods.
In light of all this, in many ways, I know that I’ve been lucky. But the moments I’ve shared still speak to the fact that violence wears many faces in this world, and that these faces continue to bare their teeth even in places we consider safe.
I’ll never forget the moment in the Netflix documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, when commentators described the reason that officials let Bundy, the violent rapist and serial murderer of dozens of American women, study law unattended in an Aspen, Colorado courthouse after he was caught. They said it was easy to trust him because he was charming. He was handsome and articulate. A well-dressed, well-educated white man. The documentary suggested that even when people were provided incontrovertible evidence of Bundy’s murders, they could still not quite believe that he was the “kind of guy” to commit such heinous crimes.
On June 7, 1977, Bundy jumped out of Pitkin County courthouse window after the one security guard assigned to him went out for a smoke. After landing on the ground, Bundy ran down the street in plain sight, where he was able to escape for six days before capture.
These are painful stories. But I would want to tell the AirBnB lady more than just painful stories. I would want to tell her beautiful ones, too.
My babysitter, friend, and next-door neighbor Angel with me as an infant. Looking through old photos, I continue to be struck by all of the ways she taught, cradled, and protected me.
The day after I was born, I was brought home to a small house in Oak Park, historically one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Sacramento before its rapid gentrification in the 2000s and “revitalization” during the tenure of Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. There, I lived my first years kissed and carried by folks who were the best neighbors my parents ever had. Though our neighborhood continued to struggle with drugs, and my grandmother would call us in a panic because she saw our block on Cops, we were always okay. That was largely because of the privileges that we had been afforded. It was also because we were surrounded by good people, and because we took care of one another.
During elementary and middle school, I lived in a small city on the Central Coast of California called Santa Maria. For a couple of years, my parents worked for a nonprofit organization that worked with local low-income teenagers– many of whom were first-generation students whose parents came from Mexico– to teach them job skills, help them write resumes, and develop connections in the community.
I remember sitting on threadbare couches, watching Telemundo while my dad helped the kids and their parents fill out paperwork for the program. These families lived in small houses in run-down neighborhoods that looked much like the one in Oak Park and the one I live in today. These families treated me like family. Years later, I majored in Spanish partly because I wanted to make Spanish-speakers who might need a hand in the community feel as safe and welcome as they had made me feel growing up.
It’s 2019. I have grown up. And my country’s president, Donald Trump, has an extensive track record of framing people from “shithole countries” as dangerous, banning people from our country on the basis of their religion, and calling immigrants “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists.”** No, Trump, you enormous pile of human vomit. The drug dealers, criminals, and rapists are right here, no matter what they look like, and no matter how well you think their curated surroundings and impressive credentials conceal their various and violent sins.
If these truths are truths you are unwilling or unable to confront (perhaps because you yourself automatically consider pretty white people and their pretty white homes as bastions of safety, or perhaps because you have spent a great deal of money on landscaping yourself), then I advise you to do a bit more research before you reserve a room in the *slum capital* known as Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and consider paying for a nice night at the local Hilton Garden.
Notes and Further Reading
* Of course, this article came out in April of last year, so this number is larger now. It does not include the number of students who survived their gunshot wounds.
**I was going to call these methods Nazi-esque, but no, they are actually just copied…directly from the Nazis.
Check out this article for a bit of a primer on this issue, which summarizes Holocaust historian Christopher Browning’s essay “The Suffocation of Democracy”. Here’s a little excerpt from author Zack Beauchamp: “Browning’s essay covers many topics, ranging from Trump’s “America First” foreign policy — a phrase most closely associated with a group of prewar American Nazi sympathizers — to the role of Fox News as a kind of privatized state propaganda office.”