Limited Visibility



Sunday, waiting for a bus in the New York City Port Authority’s (poorly lit and oppressive) waiting area, a scruffy young man dragging a long-handled suitcase approached me to ask for money. I turned him down. “Happy Mother’s Day,” he sneered. “Thank you very much. Have a nice day.” And immediately walked over to another woman and went through the same routine; so did she.

After he’d moved on, a third bus traveler who sat next to the second woman—from her accent I’m guessing this third woman is Haitian—spoke up: “He only asked you two,” she noted. “He didn’t ask anybody else.”Just the two white women in the waiting area, she meant.

Reader: I hadn’t seen that.

Last night, as a potential ally,* I sat in on a parent meeting at Mystic Housing, a Somerville public housing complex, to listen as a racially diverse group of mothers grappled with the best way to begin recycling at their complex. (Single-stream recycling bins available to households throughout the rest of the city had not been distributed at public housing. After much pressure from Mystic residents, especially children from the Mystic Learning Center, the housing authority agreed to begin a pilot project there, starting this summer.)

Reader: I’d forgotten what it means to live in public housing ( For many years, back in the day, I’d taught GED classes at Mystic Housing’s community center). I’d forgotten how debilitating, how oppressive it could be if your neighbors scrawl graffiti onto freshly painted walls or defecate in the hallways—stories told last night. I’d not anticipated how a bright and shiny idea like “Let’s recycle!” might land on poor, overwhelmed, working-multiple-jobs mothers.

Sadly, how I “see” race and class sometimes looks a lot like last Friday at Brooklyn Botanic Garden: my daughter, two grandchildren and I sampling different scents from different lilac bushes on a pea-soup foggy and drizzly afternoon as La Guardia-bound jets flew right over our heads, close, loud—yet invisible.


* Somerville’s Mothers Out Front wish to connect with the women in public housing; I embodied that wish.


Join the Conversation


  1. Dear Patricia,
    Hi, there, Patricia! What a delightful and very insightful blog post article which you have written! It truly lifted me up in a very spiritual manner. I think it wise that you and the other lady didn’t give that man any money. It is very telling in my opinion that he only asked for money from the two of you as white women. It feels like he deliberately put you both on the spot which seems unfair to me. No telling what the money would have been used for even if the two of you had given him money.
    I so thoroughly loved this blog post article of yours, Patricia, as well as your other very fine blog post articles and your fantastic book! I also so enjoyed and learned from reading about your learning experiences at the Mystic public housing complex and community center in Somerville, and the great agency and empowerment of the women and other people and families and children at this great place of ingenuity and strength. I grew up as a black girl as black middle class. My immediate family and most of all of the relatives I knew of were also black middle class and some but not most were working class. My immediate family and other relatives were never poor and without a job. I have never lived in a public housing complex. I love my family so, so very much and so dearly yet I have been estranged from them since I was in my twenties. They are very heterosexist and homophobic, and even though my financial situation was excellent growing up as black middle class, for safety reasons I left Ohio in my twenties to create a safe distance from my family. There was a lot of severe dysfunction in my family and abuse in every way. Since I have been in Iowa I have not maintained contact with them although I will for always love them yet for safety’s sake I don’t maintain contact. Being away from my family and having multiple disabilities as a disabled person I now am no longer middle income because with my disability benefits I don’t have access to the money I had when I was still connected to my family. The super people at the Mystic public housing and community center are so incredibly brave. I have had a very hard adjustment learning how to deal with the system because I did not grow up as an indigent person, yet I have been forced to learn how to navigate that very system. I have been fortunate to not even have lived in a public housing system and to still have mainly lived in good neighborhoods even now being an indigent person with my disability benefits. I am learning even after all of these years! I still feel like that little black middle class girl growing up in a majority white suburb of mainly middle class but some affluent people in my very heart and soul still at the age of 52! Hearing you discuss about the great and strong people at the Mystic public housing center and community provides me with such comfort and admiration of them!
    Also, I loved how and what you shared about how you and your daughter and two grandchildren loved the pretty aromas of the pretty lilac flowers at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden! I love so all pretty flowers and their wonderful and beautiful scents!
    Patricia, your marvelous blog post articles and book provide such a joy to my day and great reading pleasure, and a wonderful learning experience for me! You please have a very nice, special, and a very blessed day!
    Very Sincerely Always,
    Sherry Gordon

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