Sunday, November 4, 2007

NaBloPoMo Day 4: Life on the Other Side of the Tracks

When we moved to the D.C. area three years ago, we had one goal: to find an affordable apartment with a washer and dryer, as close as possible to Dan's new job. It made sense at the time: he was the only one who had a job.

What we found cost $1000 a month, had a barely functioning washer and a dryer that had to have a "rest" between loads or it would stop working altogether, and was located in what was by far the worst neighborhood that I had ever lived in. I was upper-middle class by birth and had grown up on a tree-lined street with white clapboard houses in a liberal University town. White-bread Democrat land.

Oxon Hill wasn't even that bad. Granted, I lived in a better part of Oxon Hill. But in the three years we lived on Livingston Road, I got to witness my first domestic assault. A man jumped out of the passenger side of a black Escalade with spinner rims, marched with great purpose over to his wife/girlfriend/accquaintence, who was walking down the sidewalk in front of her apartment with her son, who I would estimate to have been around four, and knocked her to the ground with one punch square to the face. With equal purpose he marched back to his car and got back in, and whoever was driving the car drove off. The little boy helped his mother off the ground without a word, as if he'd seen it every day for his whole life, and they went back into their apartment. I was nearly nine months pregnant at the time, and I was so petrified by the entire experience I can't believe that I didn't go into labor on the spot. It was the same month that a local woman and her ex-husband made the national news when he walked into the store where she worked, doused her with gasoline from a 20-ounce bottle of Sprite, and lit her on fire in front of a store full of customers. She eventually recovered from the third-degree burns on her face, upper body, and arms and went on Oprah. He received a life sentence for attempted murder.

Oxon Hill isn't really that bad, not when you compare it to the parts of Southeast Washington D.C. that it butts up against. But we live in Laurel now. It is up in the top corner of Prince George's County, wedged between the Howard and Montgomery County line. The median house price in Laurel is $640,000. There are restaurants, real restaurants, where you don't shout your order at a little Asian woman through three inches of plexiglass and push your money through a little drawer. Same with the gas stations: real people take your money. People here are less concerned with bus schedules: no real need for them here, where fewer people depend on public transportation.

It is clean and polished here in Laurel. I am not afraid to fill up my car with gas after dark here, like I was in Oxon Hill. The neighborhood kids don't look and act like they've been eating lead paint chips--and in fact, there are real neighborhood kids, not kids who will only be around for a month or two because their parents are unreliable and they are staying with an aunt or a grandmother or a friend until they're shuffled off to someone else. There are real neighborhoods, not just a bunch of apartment complexes.

The most ironic thing about it: we are actually priced out of buying in Oxon Hill, except in the worst areas, neighborhoods where I would actually fear for our safety. The National Harbor project is driving prices up so fast that a three-bedroom condo is going for $249,000, and a single-family home is considerably more.

But this condo in Laurel is $200 a month less than our old apartment. It is small--boy is it small--and it is at the top of a positively brutal set of stairs that made moving in feel like the Bataan Death March. But it is also quiet, populated with pleasant and considerate neighbors, and well-maintained, all things that set it apart from our old apartment complex.

Our last attempt to buy a house went horribly awry in every conceivable way, so much so that I am not really willing to try it again. We have a short-term lease with a really lovely woman who is the daughter of a woman I work with, who got married, built a house in Richmond, and moved there, and I can't imagine staying here a long time. I'm sure in the next few weeks, I'll be ready to start looking for something that is really ours. We won't be able to afford Laurel when we do,
and it's a forty-minute commute for Dan to get to work, which makes him just crazy.

But I will probably not see a woman get punched in the face in front of her son here. It's just not that kind of a place--not that domestic abuse doesn't occur everywhere, but this isn't the sort of place where it's likely to happen right in front of me. It's nice here, so nice that I'm forgetting from time to time that all we did was drive half an hour up the county.

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