Several years ago, while I was speaking at Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, a lovely woman approached me. She didn’t give me her name at first but she said we knew each other.
Don’t you remember me? she asked.
I studied her face for a moment. She seemed like somebody I would want to know, somebody I would want to be friends with, but I simply couldn’t place her.
I can’t believe you don’t recognize me, she said.
I could tell she was disappointed. I was disappointed, too. I hate it when I can’t place a name with a face.
“Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it.” Gilead
Then she said her name.
And it all came rushing back to me in a moment’s notice.
Mary Jane is not her real name but is the name I use for her in the memoir I wrote about growing up in Georgia (After the Flag has been Folded, Wm. Morrow).
We had been childhood friends.
The last time I saw Mary Jane, we were both 16.
Now here we were all grown up.
Grown-up seemed like a far and distant land when we were young girls trying to survive life in the trailer park.
Our friendship was formed during a very tumultuous time for the both of us. We were the older sisters taking on responsibilities that our mothers had abdicated to us, either through necessity or insanity or a bit of both. We girls ran the sandy streets of Lake Forest Trailer Park in Columbus, Ga., getting introduced to a world of sex, alcohol, drugs, at a much too young age.
Mary Jane and I rarely talked about our future. I suspect that’s because we were all too busy trying to survive the present to dream about what might be. I can tell you without hesitation I never imagined I’d be living in Oregon and working as a writer. And I never thought for a minute that Mary Jane would become an attorney at one of the largest and most successful companies in Seattle, and in the world.
But we did. We did it. We got out of that trailer park. Today we both live in fine homes. Mine in Oregon. Her’s in Washington State. By the standards we grew up in, we both are stepping in high cotton. We have been blessed, yes. But we also both also worked very hard to get to where we are. I don’t think of all this so much as the American Dream – like I said, neither of us was much for dreaming of the “what ifs” when we were dealing with the “right nows” – but I do think that we are both living the life God created us for. At least I know that’s been a consistent prayer throughout our lives.
There were moments in my life when I was embarrassed to be known as a trailer park kid, but all that changed for me one humid night in Mississippi.
I was at a literary event at Ole Miss. An event where I was one of the invited speakers at the Conference on the Book, along with many far more notable authors – John Green, Sebastian Junger, Brad Watson, Tom Franklin, Julia Reed, and a lovely, lovely woman and fabulous writer named Tayari A. Jones. The reception inside had grown crowded, noisy and hot. Tayari and I were outside on the front stoop talking about writing and growing up in Georgia, when she said something I have never forgotten. She said I ought to be proud that at least my mama owned that trailer that we kept moving over hell and half of Georgia.
I thought of that moment again today while reading an article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Trailer Parks.”
I understand things as an adult that I did not understand as a child, things like how difficult it is to obtain affordable housing, and how vast is the widening wealth-gap that has helped create a soaring homeless population nationwide.
Says The Atlantic: “The average sales price for a manufactured home in 2013 was $64,000, according to the Census Bureau, while the average sales price for a single-family home was $324,000. The single-family site-built home includes the land, though,while owners of manufactured homes often have to still grapple with landlords and leasing issues. But the structure itself is nevertheless significantly cheaper: New manufactured homes cost around $43 per square foot; site-built homes cost $93 per square foot.”
My parents grew up in a part of the country during a time when hardly anyone they knew owned their own home. My grandparents never owned their own homes. My parents never owned a home. My mother bought our first home – that 12 x 60 – with insurance money from the military. She bought our second home, a brick-and-mortar home on Johnson Avenue in Columbus, Ga. when I was a sophomore in high school. My husband and I bought our first home when our children were in their early elementary years.
Of course, the manufactured homes of today aren’t the trailers of yesteryear. Government regulations put into place upgraded trailers to manufactured homes. Says The Atlantic: “This type of residence used to be known as a mobile home, and was often poorly built and inexpensive, a refuge for those on the outskirts of society who couldn’t afford anything better. Then, in 1976, HUD building codes went into effect regulating design and construction of the units, and in 1980, Congress changed the name from “mobile home” to “manufactured home.”
But the aggravating thing about manufactured homes as a means to affordable housing, as the article notes, is that the way the loans are currently structured – the people who can’t afford a brick-and-mortar home are charged a much higher interest rate to obtain a manufactured home. So the person who can afford a home that costs a quarter-of-a-million dollars is going to be paying a much lower interest rate on their loan than the person who can only afford a $90,000 (manufactured) home. How does that make any sense?
The American Dream, it seems, works best when it is taking advantage of the poorest among us.
I am thankful for the experiences I had in my youth. I am proud to have grown up a trailer park girl. I learned an awful lot about what it means to belong living in those trailer parks. I was never without friends. We didn’t run to the store when we ran out of sugar or eggs, we ran to each other’s house and borrowed what we needed. Whenever somebody was in trouble – there was always somebody in trouble – we all turned out to help as best we could. We survived hard things together. We didn’t talk about our crazy harsh lives as much as we just watched the implosions together and sat in silence with one another, nodding in a way that said to each other: I understand.
Because we did.
The important thing living in a trailer park gave us was a sense of community. A place where we mattered to one another. It was that knowing, that sense that we mattered that I think enabled Mary Jane and me to accomplish what we have. Cinder blocks may not seem like the firmest of foundations for a home but as it turned out, it was a pretty good start in life. I wish every child could have the security of belonging, of the permanence of home, even one on wheels.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain, Weatherford Award for Best in Appalachian fiction.