I smelled the ocean and got nostalgic today.
I lived in sun soaked Florida for twelve years of my life, and was always less than a half hour away from the ocean. From staring at the vast blue forever and having my toes specked with white sand. Sadly there wasn’t a single second I could recall actually appreciating it, or fully enjoying something that for so many is only a fantasy. Now I live in Portland Oregon, in the heart of the Northwest; and before today I hadn’t seen the ocean in almost three years, in a place where it rains 70% of the time during any season. With that knowledge, I’m sure you can imagine how looking out and seeing the ocean as I stood at the top of the hill leading toward the beach was quite the “moment” for me.
It’s not easy explaining how I felt about living in Florida for twelve years. On one hand, I was so full of appreciation and love for the sacrifice my parents had made to get me here. Our family’s entire move to Florida was in order to put me in the best position possible to receive a scholarship to college, and our move was never entirely stable. My mother and I came here on our own when I was 12 and for the first few weeks we only had one bed between the two of us, I’ll never be able to doubt the sacrifice my mother made to get me out of our old neighborhood in Philadelphia.
On another hand, my arrival to Florida was a crash course in disillusionment and racism. Being the chubby naïve 11 year-old I was at the time of my move, the mention of moving to Florida immediately conjured up images of long summer nights spent in Disney Channel-esque cul-de-sacs; stretching curfew to its limits and falling in love with every girl in the neighborhood one by one. I certainly had my fair share of sips from the chalice of childhood and youth while I was in Florida, but I quickly learned of the other, more realistic monsters that rested in bushes of those cul-de-sacs. Made aware of the prevalence of racism embedded into Florida’s culture.
I wasn’t entirely oblivious, I of course knew what racism was conceptually, and I had learned a lot about race relations via stories from my parents and grandparents; however it’s simply just not as real, especially to a young mind like mine at the time until you experience it first hand.
The proverbial straw that broke the black man’s back happened in Jacksonville Florida. After I graduated from college I spent my remaining time in town causing as much trouble as I could possibly manage without dying; and I pushed that philosophy to the absolute limit. My best friend at the time was a guy who got me involved in a lot of less than favorable situations with the wrong people in Jacksonville, particularly a group of bikers who sold us our “party favors”, but because I was 22 and addicted to a good time I stuck around.
One night I was with said friend at an after work party, sitting around a washing machine in a humid dank sunroom smoking that was now a de-facto laundry room. As my turn came to me in the rotation, one of the guys in question was using the shared moment as a an opportunity to launch into some of his homebrewed party jokes, which at turned out to be almost 99.9% racist, and heavily featuring wanton, liberal use of the N-word. Now being that I was a kid surrounded by a terrifying biker gang in a small room I sadly didn’t feel powerful enough to put a stop to it and had to sit there taking the onslaught; but I was still unable to hide my obvious disdain for this from my all-telling face. Our resident comedian noticed my displeasure, and immediately decided to take it up with me.
I wish I could say I remember the dialogue word for word that took place in there, but in moments like these the fine details sometimes get overshadowed by the intensity of the moment. Words were exchanged between the two of us, and before I knew it someone was holding a knife up to my neck joking about how easy it would be to “kill this nigger”. Even as I sit here today it’s hard to type that out, to have to admit that actually happened to me, and even worse, that I let it happen. I don’t think I was scared, particularly. I don’t think I really had time to be scared. I just remember thinking to myself in that moment how good my head feels on my pillow at home, and how nice it will feel to be at home later safe in my bed, and how badly I wanted to just go home in the moment. I hate to admit it, but I absolutely failed to stand up for myself in that moment. I stayed quiet, things died down, and as soon as I had the chance, my friend and I left.
When we got back to the car I was furious, livid. What the fuck just happened!? I was on fire, angry at myself, at the world, I wanted to go get a gun, go back and shoot all of those guys, I asked my friend how I could get a gun as quickly as possible; and I still remember his words to try and calm me down;
“What for? You want to go kill those dudes? What then? What happens, you shoot them, you go to jail, or you live the rest of your life in fear that their friends will find you and kill you in return. You want to kill them and then that’s it? Racism is over? I know it’s awful but that is the reality, disgusting racist people are out there, but I don’t want to see you throw your life away because of it. If you let that happen, and another promising black life is thrown away, then they won, their hateful words go the best of you. Don’t get back and them that way, get back at them by living a thriving beautiful life.”
Not long after that night, I decided to abruptly end my time in Florida. I quit my job, sold all my things; sub-leased my apartment, and was back in my parent’s home in Pennsylvania less than a month later. I had to find somewhere I could go to get away from such hateful racism. I truly, foolishly believed it was possible to move somewhere that would allow me to escape it all. Somewhere with understanding people, away from what I believed was conservative brand racism. I thought I could move somewhere “different”, somewhere blue.
I don’t admit it often, but I actually did believe that Oregon would be that place. As embarrassing as it is, I had the hope that I could feel at home here and live that beautiful life my friend and I talked about. For the first handful of months after I got here, I actually did feel somewhat satisfied. Slowly but surely though, my liberal fantasy was shattered; by the time I managed to move to Portland, I was once again met with harsh disillusionment. I didn’t escape racism; I just found a different flavor of it. Instead of feeling hated, I moved somewhere when I could really find out what it’s like to really feel invisible, what it’s like to feel unwanted.
“Son, they’re acting that way because they’re just as afraid of you as you are of them.”
This is something that was said to me originally to help me get over my fear of dogs. These days I find myself telling myself this to ease my fears while I walk through my neighborhood after sundown.
It’s funny, because the whole reason I back to the ocean is because of the need to escape Portland for a moment. The city itself is simply put, on fire with racism right now. Alt-right “free speech rallies”, KKK enthusiasts sending death threats to people of color, white supremacists teaming up with cops to arrest peaceful people, alt-right fliers posted in my own neighborhood, I had to get away, so some friends and I went out to the coast just to sit in peace for one moment and not having to be consumed by the fire. It turns out Oregon wasn’t my blue paradise… sitting there on a log I watched the sun show me millions of tiny diamonds it was giving to the surface of the sea. As the wind blew familiar smells hit my nose;
I smelled the sea and got nostalgic
Not for Florida,
Or for the Ocean,
But for the part of the me that had so much hope,
The part of me that still believed in somewhere blue.