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My own ephemeral Milwaukee

I grew up — thirty-five years ago — in the neighborhood in Milwaukee recently beset by what the press calls “riots” or “clashes”.

The neighborhood was majority-white at the time, though I would say it was “somewhat integrated”, very integrated by Milwaukee standards: Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the US (Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit have traded this dubious crown over the decades since the Great Migration began). I had white friends, black friends. Immigrant Vietnamese friends. Jewish friends and Jehovah’s Witness friends. Friends with professional parents and friends whose parents were in the working class trades. I did not appreciate at the time that this was abnormal and was only becoming more so.

We were Jewish and aspirationally bourgeois, though the kind of aspirational bourgeois that when we won $100 of groceries in a raffle, it was a big deal and a big relief. There was (is?) an Orthodox temple and small yeshiva nearby: we attended neither, but I saw my confessional compatriots walking to shul every Friday.

I walked to school; I walked to my friends’ houses, I walked down to the Blue Boy and got frozen custard on a cone with a chocolate shell. On a few occasions a mean kid followed me home. He was a black boy named Romeik. But he was the kind of mean kid that, some other weeks, we were friends. Sometimes I feared him and sometimes I took a swing at him and sometimes I played with him, and out of all the complex feelings I had for him that he was Black didn’t enter into it. And I didn’t know how strange that was.

But can I trust my memory? Do I have this right? I can’t be sure. So much has happened since, to distort what I think I recall. And I understood so little at that age. My school was integrated, but how much, really? I don’t know what the experiences of my Black fellow students or my Black neighbors were really like. How much did it matter to them that I was white? 

I had a ten-year-old’s crush on a girl named Roberta who thought the way I said the word “archaeology” was hilarious. Her hair was twisted in braids with those elastic bands with large clear plastic balls on the ends, each with an air bubble in the center. 

It was 1980.

One summer, a few years earlier, the neighborhood was transformed: Dutch Elm disease killed all the stately elm trees that lined 53rd Street and turned it into a shrouded arbor even on a bright day. The city trucks came and cut them all down, and that day I looked out after all the noise was finished and there were just a dozen stumps, broad as dinner tables to my child’s eyes. After that, my dad planted bushes on the blasted strip of lawn, and they made a wall between our yard and the sidewalk, and I remember finding that strange. We kids were always in and out of each other’s yards.

It’s all different now. The houses are just the same but the white working class has gone, mostly ceased to exist — and the white professionals have all fled. I see on Google Maps that 53rd Street School is bigger; the original part is now dwarfed by new wings. I have no idea what it’s like to attend it today. The little corner market isn’t there anymore, where my mother would stop just to run in and buy bread. Same with the small deli that sold the sugar cookies with a smiley face in frosting on them. The Blue Boy is gone.

What I experienced as a child, while I was growing up, was, to the City of Milwaukee, only an ephemeral imbrication between two regimes of racial segregation. The area was segregated and all white before, segregated and almost all Black afterward. There was a short time, between, on the cusp of this tide, when it was neither. That’s the time I remember. 

Then we left, too.

And now a man is dead, shot by the police, and the park I used to walk to is bitter with tear gas.

Sheets’ Lot

The Yard Man was here giving us an estimate for clearing the backyard. He bills hourly, but he spoke not in hours but in days.

I need to take some pictures of the backyard so it is apparent how completely overgrown it is. I would compare it to Sheets’ Lot, but none of you know what Sheets’ Lot was, except my cousins from Indiana.

Sheets was a doctor – Doctor Sheets. He owned the empty lot next to the property owned by my grandmother: a couple of acres of rural pastoral in Rush County Indiana. Sheets’ Lot was the couple acres next door. Pastoral is a wasting asset if you aren’t willing, George W Bush-like, to devote a considerable part of your energy and mental space to that most intensive human pursuits, Clearing Brush. Doctor Sheets did not do this, and Sheets’ Lot became overgrown. Then impenetrable. Then scary. And finally, it became a potential tort.

Sheets’ Lot could hurt you. At least, that’s what, as kids, we were told. Avoid Sheets’ Lot. There are snakes and hornets. Rusty nails to step on. Whiplike branches encrusted with thorns, ready to put out whatever part of you came near.

Sheets’ Lot was a terror of my young childhood that enlivened my summer visits to Grandmother’s House. If we saw a bee, it came from Sheets’ Lot. If anyone fell itchy with poison ivy, they strayed too near Sheets’ Lot. Sheets’ Lot threw off curses the way your s’mores fire threw sparks. It was our Mordor.

We would gaze at its dark loomings, from the safety of the white-painted iron lawn furniture that surrounded the six-foot-deep, brick-lined, formerly illuminated, former fish pond that was now a great pool of algiferous drowning bait, the obvious child-killing danger among us, but which nobody thought about that way because it was on the lawful side of the border with Sheets’ Lot and it had always been there while we played around it.

Then I got too old for extended summer visits to Grandma’s House. I went off to college. I forgot all about Sheets’ Lot and the seam of contrast it represented, between the pastoral Us and the feral It.

The next time I was down at the house, my uncle, who had since inherited the house, had bought the lot from Sheets and cleared it with his back and his hands. It was now tidily returned to the pastoral: no hornets, snakes, nails, poison ivy, or thorns. The disused fish pond had been drained and bricked up. Neither ever claimed a victim.

Now I have my own Sheets’ Lot, and it’s not a metaphor but a huge pain in the ass that I’m paying a dude a bunch of money to cut down.

A Visible Darkness

Looking backward, I’m amazed I didn’t know. It was all so obvious.

I think I was touched by depression the whole time I was growing up, but I remember one day in particular. It was the day I was touring the State U campus before matriculating. I’d wanted to go somewhere else, but there’d been a last minute financial catastrophe in the family — ironically, due to my father’s depression, about which nobody had ever breathed so much as a word to me — and I couldn’t go there. I was walking the campus, and it was a grey, dull day, and quite frankly I felt above the place, like I was going to be wasting the next four years in a grubby hick backwater. (I was wrong about that, in many ways, but leave that aside.)

This was the moment: a cloud drifted across the sun, and it was as if this dark scum or membrane rose up out of the ground and slowly covered the sky, as though I were in the center of a vast glass dome that was being coated from the bottom up to the top by a pellicle of filth and grime. Eventually the scum met at the apex of the sky and everything was qualitatively darker and dimmer and blurrier after that.

The cloud eventually moved off the sun, but nothing brightened. It was if the sun had been replaced with a lesser, more pallid sun.

The sky didn’t brighten again for years and years.

This is a moment whose significance I’ve reconstructed retrospectively. At the time, I thought of it as just another bad day. But the dimming-out of the light is something that many depressives describe, and they often talk about the remission of their depression in opposite terms — a beam of light finally cracks through an endlessly grey sky. There is a brightened patch that slowly grows bigger, and as it grows bigger life seems possible to live.

But in college, in the next few years, I thought I was experiencing a perfectly rational self-hatred and self-disgust. I could rarely sleep well — particularly at night — and I would walk the campus in what I know now was utter psychic agony, but which then I thought was merely a natural regret. I can’t believe I thought that, now. I can’t believe that I thought the reason that in the middle of the night I’d sit for hour after hour in patches of deep shadow off the edges of paths, or lie curled behind furniture in dorm lounges on floors I didn’t live on, wanting to tear the skin off my body just to distract myself from the indescribable pain in my head, was because of how very clear-headed I was, how clearly I saw that I was a bad person.

It’s a question of experience. You go through certain kinds of pain for enough time and your scale is changed. It’s not, somehow, that a given level of pain is less painful. It’s that you’re thoroughly familiar with it. Your pain is a traveling companion. It’s always there, sometimes a little stronger or a little weaker, but always there. You plunge a hand into a pot of boiling water for the first time, and you’re disabled, as much from the shock. You do it every day…

Then I happened to read Darkness Visible by William Styron. I know, I know, it would be from a book. I’m sure people in my life tried to tell me. You know what? I don’t remember a single instance. Not a one. It just rolled off.

I remember once I was sitting on a landing in the student center, staring ahead, in so much pain that I was in a kind of dissociated fugue. I hadn’t been back to my dorm in a while. My girlfriend (and maybe some other people) finally came to find me. She asked me how I was. I told her, and whatever it was I said made her burst out crying and run away. I don’t remember what she said or what I said; I remember not being able to see or hear very well because the pain in my head had begun to eat away at my ability to process ordinary sensory information.

I know I wanted to die. Maybe that was it.

Anyway, there are passages in that book by Styron — it’s his memoir of depression — that captured perfectly how that felt. The identification was complete and immediate. And then I knew. It was a thing. I had a name for it.

The next day I made an appointment with a psychiatrist and shortly started my first antidepressant.

It’d round things off well to say “..and it’s been great since,” but, like many people — maybe even most people — who take antidepressants, the response is only partial. It’s a struggle. It always will be. Sometimes I’m still in a lot of pain.

At least now I have a way of separating depression from myself. Depression is no longer simply how I understand myself. We are separable. My foe and I. To attack my foe is not necessarily to destroy myself.

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