The first time I saw the movie, A Streetcar Named Desire, I was very young and really didn’t understand all of the content in the story. But each time I see that movie one thing has remained the same. There is a scene when the slightly deranged, wilted southern belle, Blanche Dubois, mews in a coquettish voice to her would be suitor that she has always relied on the kindness of strangers. From the first time I heard that at an early age to this day, it is just as chilling.
The kindness of strangers is such a double-edged sword. So many times in my life and in the history of the world, the kindness bestowed by strangers can have the worst consequences no matter how well meaning. I have observed that no matter how the well meaning the gesture(s) are, the person, persons or organizations have an agenda and many times they seem to have tunnel vision regarding the outcome. Of the many times that I have thought about the events in my early life I come back to the same thing. The Mennonites that installed themselves in our neighborhood had one main purpose, to bring their version of the bible and Jesus Christ to the inner city people, particularly the children. Now with all the missionary efforts through time with as many religious groups as you can think of, there is one thing in common; they believe that their God is the one that you should worship and that thousand of years of your family or people have been wrong and are going to burn in hell if you do not bow down to their god and quit all of your heathen ways. What bugs the every-loving shit out of me is what gives them the right? Let me put it this way. Say all the rappers, controversial ones as well as the ones we find humorous, would go to a place like Kalona and tell them that all the music they have been listening too has been wrong all this time and if they don’t change what they are listening to, they are going to burn in the afterlife and future generations of their families will be damned too if they don’t conform. That would cause a riot, chaos. And yet that is what I felt they tried to do to our families back in the sixties and seventies.
I’m not sure how long the Mennonites had been hanging around the “inner city” area of Chicago, but I think it started in the early 50’s from what I remember hearing my mother talk about. The earliest memories that I remember was talk about the Union Ave. church. I can’t remember now if it burned down or why the had to move, but nonetheless, they moved to 1113 West 18th Street in the Pilsen neighborhood where I would come to live in 1958, when I was put in a foster home at five days old. They would have referred to me as a welfare baby, a.k.a. new recruit.
Mennonite Community Chapel was a storefront church with two big windows in the front flanking double doors with faux stained glass on them. Like most window displays in storefront houses of worship, there was the ubiquitous large wooden cross with a piece of deep purple satin fabric draped over it and to complete the display, at the foot of the cross, there was a really big bible opened to the appropriate page. The other window usually displayed something seasonal or a special event like an out of town speaker. Back in those early days, I remember the sanctuary was full. We had many fine white members that had come over from the mysterious Union Ave. congregation and they were very nice people, from what I remember. There were very few black members at our church and over the years, those black women who came with their husbands, slowly started coming alone and eventually stopped coming at all. I only remember my (foster) father only setting foot in there about three times. He seemed to have a natural aversion to the kindness of these strangers and seemed to cherish each time when they would visit our home and he was on a bender, he loved to cussed them out and preach to them his idea of God and religion. My favorite was when he would want them to read from the bible. Since he only had a third grade education and with a skin full of cheap liquor, he would tell them his version of what the bible said. I have to add that this was only funny when he did it to them not when he dragged me out of bed at 3 a.m. for a reading complete with his brand of fire and brimstone. If only my mother had stood back and looked, understood and listened to all the things that I felt she was and came from, maybe none of the influence they had on her would have never happened.
Human kind didn’t seem to have a handle on the concept of how early childhood experiences affect the blank slate that is a child’s mind. I have very vivid memories of looking at the white couples and their kids and looking up to them because they were white and seemed to have a lot of things that we didn’t in our homes and neighborhood. Their children always had nicer clothes and their parents had cars. None of the families in my neighborhood had cars and only a couple even had fathers in the home. Many of the white children displayed a certain amount of superiority towards us. While many of the mothers and kids from my neighborhood viewed them with a certain amount of suspicion, I pretty much drank the kool aid every time. Now please understand that there was no one there telling me that these folks were in fact superior to us but there was no one telling me they weren’t. All my teaching at home from my mother told me that these were good people with good intentions and that I should listen to what the say and watch what they do because it is right. And I remember being aware at a very early age that this didn’t seem right like something inside of me was saying that this isn’t who you are supposed to be. But there was nothing that I could do and this was all that I knew and was learning.
Because my mother was the one the one that was the friendliest and what I call compliant, to their dogma and ways, she was frequently invited by the “people with cars” to events at other churches and even to events and happenings in downstate Illinois for conferences and such. We were invited to people homes and it was all so unfamiliar, the décor, the smells and the stares from their neighbors when my mother and I stepped out of the car. You see, but this time, lots of white were starting to move to the nicer suburbs where there were no blacks save for the ones that were allowed there to perform service work. This was stressful for me as people always stared and the kids asked me stupid questions about me that shouldn’t even been spoken. I took all of this since I was being taught to be compliant and to get along. There were nice Sunday chicken dinners, new foods that I had not tasted and certainly some sweet and fattening traditional dessert. But no matter how nice the dinner and dessert were, it did nothing to circumvent the ever present air condescension in every word and action. And this was just at the dinner table. If there were children there that was a whole new set of humiliating bullshit. I was subjected to being snubbed, touched, my hair repeatedly rubbed because it felt funny, and the questions were relentless. Why is your hair curly was usually how it started, then why is your nose so wide and the ignorance just went down hill from there. I was scared, no terrified, that if I wavered or became openly annoyed with them, I would be in big trouble with my mother let alone the fact that these people would think I was a sinner. The worst part of all of this is that I had no back up, that is to say, in all of these events when I was subjected to questioning in those unfamiliar situations. The mothers in my neighborhood were not interested in allowing themselves or their children becoming curiosities. I think for many of them it was a way of getting the kids out of the house on Sunday morning so that they could sleep in and have some peace especially since some of them had as many as ten children and no man in sight to take up the slack. And lets not forget to mention the fact that if you were a reasonably good kid, attended Sunday School on a fairly regular basis or at best forged through the grinding torturous two weeks of vacation bible school, then you got to participate in the Fresh Air program which consisted of two long weeks with a Mennonite farm family and a shitload of humiliation.
This Fresh Air program they had created was a way to allow inner city unfortunates like myself to spend two weeks on a farm with a Mennonite family. Now, I can’t tell you what the original idea for this was and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t look forward to it like many of my friends did. It was a way to get out of the city and train rides were epic. Hoards of us were shipped to farms in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. This consisted of all the intergrated Mennonite churches in Chicago so in the early years there were as many as a few hundred kids being herded to Union Station in Chicago with their shoebox lunches and packed installed in a designated train care with a harried chaperone for the trip to “the farm” as we fondly called it.
The first year that I became an unsuspecting participant in this folly, I was four years old. I was told that they want to send me away when I was three but my mother felt that I was too young. So at the tender age of four, I was shipped off to a nice farm in West Chester, Iowa, for my first farm experience. The daughter of my Sunday school teacher who was several years older that I was, went to the same farm. There are a few pictures that exist and the memories are just snippets like shadows. For the next six or seven years I went to an older couple in Kalona, Iowa. I think that when I started going there that their youngest daughter was either in high school or college because I remember her being around some. One year when I went their son and his wife were living in a trailer behind the house. This was fascinating to me since I had never seen a mobile home before and wondered how they could get all the stuff like in a house on wheels. I don’t remember the son’s wife but I remember he had kind of a hee haw twangy voice that always sounded on the edge of peril. But for the most part, I spent a lot of time alone since there were no longer children my age in the home.
This particular couple were grandparents in an age when generally grandparents were of considerable age. To this day I have no idea what the hell their motives for having me come to their home for so many years. I was scared a lot of the time since I was alone and their grandchildren were not the kindest kids I had ever met. One of their married daughters was one of the scarriest women I had met at that point. Just the mention of her name could cause a seismic event. She always seemed abrupt barking orders and snatching arms. She had three children with two boy, one about the same age as me the other a little older and a little sister that was snooty and spoiled, she seemed to be the apple of her mothers’ eye. Now, the boy that was a few years older was a mean little fucker. I remember being told or made to understand that he was an asshole because he had had some childhood malady that caused him to be tired causing him to misbehave…right. This meant when their car rolled up, his brother and I would try and find a shady spot where we could minimize the damage when he came to beat us up. You could say we were a bit scared of him. The mother seemed to always spring to his defense. Sometimes I would just view it as, at least I’m getting pummeled under a beautiful apricot tree instead of in the dirt behind my house in Chicago.
There was another grandchild that I need to mention since she was one of the key players that began as my sexual awareness. She was a year older than I. Her family didn’t visit the farm as often and when she did come it always felt to me as she would basically rather not play with me but since I was there why not. There was one particular time that I spent the night at her house. I don’t recall much of the evening before but I remember waking up early in the morning on our little pad they made of us on the living room floor. Now after so many years, I have no idea what the lead up to this event was but I remember this part as clear as day. This was the day that I learned to tickle my peter, as she called it. She showed me how to put my hand into my panties and “tickle” myself. I did my version of what I thought she was talking about mainly because I thought she would kick my ass if I didn’t. It didn’t feel right but I did it anyway. Years later when I started reading and trying to understand child molestation, I wondered who or what taught her to tickle her peter.
There was the year that they tore down the old farm house and lived in a refurbished turkey barn until the new house was ready. That summer their another daughter, who lived some lofty place like Oregon or something, came with her family of two boys close to my age and a new baby. I was fascinated with the baby because it seemed so transparent and frail. And as strange as it was at the time I felt that even the baby already had a better life than I had and even though he was subjected to being picked up coddled and kissed by strangers, they wouldn’t look at him like he was a circus monkey and ask his parents stupid questions. The forming of many false notions about these nice church people began at an early age as well. Many years later when I encountered these kids in high school and college, they had no interest in me at all which caused me a lot of pain since I didn’t understand. They would give me this look like, why are you talking to me. It really made me feel less than zero.
As if all of this was not enough when I would return to Kalona years later for high school, they decided that it was a good idea to place me in the home of this now really old couple since I was familiar with them. It was nothing short of a disaster. More on that later.
In the aforementioned Fresh Air program to Iowa, Illinois and Indiana I was not exempt to travel to other destination in the Midwest. Finally getting to courage to say to my mother that I would like to go somewhere else for those two weeks in the summer, the church made arrangements for me to go to a farm in what is referred to as downstate Illinois. And it was horrible. As usual the parents were rather cold but attentive and a tad suspicious. I was to be the colored girl companion for their little girl and their was even a little colored boy companion for their son too. Fraught with the usual questions and curiosities we had to deal with this horrible little boy that had come from one of the other churches since our church didn’t have a boy that met their specifications as a playmate for their son. So it was another fun time of running, hiding and getting beat up by this little creep. The family was not equipped to handle this at all and for the most part kinda let him run free to keep him from harassing the rest of us. Needless to say, I did not go back to that farm ever again. Initially, this made me feel like I had done something wrong but in later years it made me feel like after their curiosity was indulged my services were no longer needed. Of course it could be as simple as they decided they weren’t up to the challenge or wanted to explore other children. I will never know but the damage was already done.
By the time I started junior a lot of my friends were choosing not to go to church let alone to the farm and be out of the city for two weeks. Their parent(s) were less strict than mine and they were enjoying being children in an age where things were slowing changing blacks in Chicago. They wanted to stay home and just be kids, dance to the new Motown artists, go to Riverview Amusement Park and swim at Dvorak park only a few blocks away. We all loved to swim as this was a safe place for all the kids in the surrounding neighborhoods to go since there was only one beach at the time that the colored were allowed to swim without the threat of arrest or potential violence.
I had peers, familiars, that I was growing up with kids I went to elementary school with and was around for most of our early childhood had been distancing themselves form me for some time. I was the outcast, the one you beat up, the once you visit on Christmas because my more always gave me lots of really cool presents way better stuff than they got because there were too many kids and not dad around. It was alright to maybe steal or break some of Janice Batts’ toys cause she thinks she’s so much. After a while, my mom wouldn’t let any of the other kids in the house. Basically, I was the get along girl with the get along mom who went to the white church and hell I even talked like white folks. I was popular and got beat up often. Basically these kids were growing into their own in based on their environment good or bad, it was their environment, what they knew and understood, what they were comfortable with and where they fit in. The older they got they had no desire to be a curiosity or to be plucked out of they own comfort zone only to be ogled at. I guess I would have felt this way too but being at home was not the most pleasant place in my life for not only was I an outcast, my foster father was a raging alcoholic, my foster mother was codependent and my foster brother who was 12 years older didn’t have a grip on reality and after graduating from high school at the age of twenty, had to marry his girlfriend so his soon to arrive son would have a name. So now the pressure was really on me to do right with little to no help at all from the adults in my life.
Many more Hispanics were moving into the surrounding neighborhood and all our lives were evolving in a way that would define us with a sense of belonging to a particular place and culture. Our little storefront church was undergoing changes as well. As I said, a lot of the families were moving to the suburbs they would commute for a polite amount of time but then they would just not show up at all but maybe once or twice a year. The street that the Mennonite Community Chapel was on had started to take a turn from poor families of European decent and bowing to the steady migration of families from Mexico, Puerto Rico and such looking for a better life. We all got along really well as compared to some of the stories from earlier times in other cities and race riots. I guess we figured we were all in the same boat and it was easier to get along and learn from each other. This was in the mid sixties with the was in Vietnam raging and so many American soldiers dying everyday, it was a scary time as well for those of draft age particularly young Mennonite men. And in case you don’t know, Mennonites are conscientious objectors, so, no war. The alternative was to go into voluntary service for the church which for us meant young men and women from the church would come and spend usually two years at our church working with the youth. This was the age of hippies, tree huggers, kum by yah and blowin’ in the fucking wind. Now it seemed the farm had come to us. For the most part many of them were true to the task of trying to make things fun for us. But now we began to feel like part of a college final or the subject of a thesis on the urban condition.
These young people, those of voluntary service were referred to commonly as VSers. For the most part these were nice kids but many of them were from the same types of families that participated in the Fresh Air program and still had a bit of an attitude about it. And there was at least one or two who were glad they were Mennonites so they didn’t have to run to Canada and treated the experience as sort of a dodge. They came in all shapes and sizes and there were couples as well that came as well sort of like chaperons to the unmarried volunteers. And how could a scenerio like this be complete without at least one or two bitter young women who knew that this was probably going to be the definition of their life since to date they had no prospect of a husband on the horizon so them it seemed to be a good idea to volunteer and exert their frustration on the unwashed masses. We were lucky, we had two bitter women at one time. The elder was our very own. I think she came with the church or possibly in a covered wagon. Her age was ambiguous with her hair pulled back so tight it looked as though she had used a wench. She was complete with the standard A-line dress and matching fabric belt with the expected hanky tucked in it at the side, thick, taupe colored stockings and shoes like the ones Elvira Gultch was wearing when she peddled her bicycle into the tornado. This old gal was sexual frustration at it’s worst and all of us kids had the bruises from her pinches to prove it. And as expected, she was the one put in charge of the kids. The younger version of the femme fatale of juvenile abuse was a bit bitter be yond her years with her own repertoire heathen inspired comebacks and a pinch that would make you want to shit yourself. I’m not sure if the other kids picked up on some of her underlying frustration but it ran deeper than anyone knew. She was found dead in her bedroom in her hometown and from the hushed tones and whispers, it may have been suicide. The older version of the bitter bag had an older sister that died and she married her brother-in-law. I think she was probably close to 65 or 70 at the time. I don’t know if she mellowed out or not after marriage and am a bit scared to even think about it.
Not meaning to get off of the subject of the evolution of the Fresh Air program rest assured the plot was thickening. Although many of us were in junior high by now many of them were developing stronger personalities while I was just scared to exist. Already a veteran to being molested by the foster uncle for years and the earlier tickling incident, I was about to enter a new realm of predator, the unassuming minister - courtesy of the program. It is important for me to explain that I in no way blame the church for the behavior of one individual when it comes to filthy child molestors and the faux uncle was not a Mennonite, the minister that made it his business over the next two summers to feel my up at will was from the Berean church, which again, should not reflect on that faith. I have no earthly idea as to how I managed to go to them when they weren’t part of their faith but after the first time he touched me, I felt like a kid for hire with no options. I am not implying or suggesting that money changed hands or anything but it just seemed to me that all you had to do was request for an inner city to come to your house for a couple of weeks for redemption and they show up by train or bus.
The preacher and his wife lived in a quiet little town in Indiana with a really long name that I would rather not mention here. He was the minister of a fairly large congregation and lived with his wife in the parsonage behind the church.