This past Saturday morning, the weather put Marichelle in a mood that led me to wonder if she had just read The God of Small Things in a dark corner next to a rain-dotted window. I mean, GLOOMY.
So I suggested thrift shopping and she perked right up. Reluctantly, I suggested my favorite thrift shop of all time, Second Chances*, which is tucked away in an industrial park within the shitty neighborhood I grew up in: Nowhere, NJ.
“If we go, we’re not going near my old house. But we WILL go to one of the many Wawas in the area because hoagies.”
Now, these phrases are strange: Old house. The house I grew up in. My hometown. Home.
None of it fits for me. It never has and maybe it never really will given how I was built. Actually, that sort of fits: The house where I was built because that’s where my blueprint was lodged into my psyche.
That blueprint included neglect, abuse, rape and fear. For a lot of kids that are built in these houses, the foundation is full of fissures, the engineers seem to be set on creating levees that will most certainly break and it really is up to the kid to do the repair work. But first, the cobbled pieces have to be collected and hopefully mended at a later date. This is hardly a unique story.
Pure survival and the animalistic pull to negotiate harm vs. minimal resources was a constant equation to solve with no consistent results. It was a fucking gamble. After school, walking home from the bus stop felt like a death march to a den of ferocious animals that were hopefully docile if I treaded very lightly. And at night, who knows what was in store and either way, proved to be restless. Then came morning when I’d go to school to a different set of predators. Over and over and over. Again, hardly a unique story.
So I was built in Nowhere, NJ and fittingly in the middle of the Pine Barrens where Nirvana’s rendition of “In the Pines” was on heavy rotation at the peak of my teen angst. Pinelake, the large man-made body of water in town, has been polluted for well over 40 years from the geese that feed on the landfill up the street and then shit and die in the water. The soil is still toxic from an epoxy factory dumping chemicals in the well water in the 80’s and the opioid crisis never showed up because heroin has always been cheaper. And it’s all nestled in the reddest county of NJ.
Needless to say, also not a great place to be Queer. So when I had my first girlfriend at 15, we didn’t hide it well enough because soon after we were outed, she was gang raped and I had to testify in court as a witness. Which in turn meant I had to tell my mother and was promptly kicked out of the house, where I was built, and had to contend with a growing number of queerphobic enemies elsewhere.
And then I found places to call home where I grew up. This wasn’t easy but it was so fucking relieving to be free that I genuinley did feel at home being on my own. I got into a lot of bad shit, obtained massively poor coping skills, schemed and scammed to make do, dodged social services and if you would have told teenage Kels she would eventually become a Social Worker, she would have laughed, lit a cigarette and explain that her career path was being in a punk band called Toxic Shock Syndrome. And I was broke as hell BUT I got some of the BEST fucking clothes from Second Chances for very low prices including on my own personal holiday, $2 bag sale day.
So when Marichelle and I paid the best thrift shop on Earth a visit, my memory jogged. Just the smell of that thrift shop I hadn’t been to in 20 years threw me back in time when I was a teen scrambling around, going house to house in that neighborhood, sleeping near that polluted lake on warm nights and I just couldn’t resist the urge to see that old piece of shit house. The last I had seen it, my mother was dying in her bed and my brother began his own rotting process of passive suicide. I somehow pictured the house with multiple wounds, not just disintegrating; I wondered if it did what I did as a kid and eventually learned how to coagulate.
Naw, after it went into foreclosure and the bank sold it, some poor sucker bought it and put up new siding, maybe reset its bones and its Maplewood trees are still there, massive and making the yard look like a collection of tangled roots. And holy shit, David Koresh still lives across the street! Some dude moved into the house when I was about 12 after the Waco, Texas ordeal and I theorized that it was him. Ah the imagination of children. Or it really is him because that would be pretty on point.
Anyway, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. To see it again.
But the concept of home, no matter where I am, is still very abstract. Even now nestled in a wonderful neighborhood with like, neighborly neighbors. This is some Mr. Rogers shit right here and I don’t know how to settle in comfortably.
Especially when it feels precarious. I’ve been meeting people that have lived around here for decades and seem resigned to the fact that they’ll be priced out. And no shade to the well-to-do, but I don’t have the sort of income that secures me as someone that can stick around that long either. Social Workers are notoriously underpaid because, well, we have little to no cis white men in the field and those that we serve are little to no cis white men, so you can do the capitalistic math.
And Marichelle is a small business owner, Asian, Queer and divorced with three kids. We as a unit have some things stacked against us when it comes to not meeting the status quo checklist that is a requirement more times than not to receive an income in order to thrive in one of the most expensive counties in the country.
Recently, Marichelle shared this with me when she was trying to write a caption for a photo of our home to post on Instagram:
I’ve noticed a common thread that’s been running through many of my chance-encounters lately. Movement. Some took advantage of the housing market boom and sold their homes only to realize that they are now priced out of their own community - unable to compete with bids from eager city dwellers looking for a new beginning. Others find themselves outgrowing their current home, while some are now empty nesters grappling with paying the notoriously high Essex-county taxes and weighing options to downsize. I’m feeling a strong communal energy around homes and more importantly, feeling unsettled.
I myself have been through this… once my divorce was finalized we sold our home. I saw a listing for a rental in a nearby town and instantly felt a strong pull. I walked around for less than 5 minutes and put in my application. I just knew. At the time it was a gift, not knowing where life would take me next, this tiny house was the perfect transition home for me and the kiddos. We outgrew that home faster than I imagined and after only one year we moved again. Like the tiny home, I truly believe that this house was gifted to me by the universe. We all love this house SO MUCH. I get stricken with fear, anxiety and sadness at the thought of our landlord deciding to sell the house one day. I don’t have to imagine the feeling of being in limbo and feeling unsettled. I have been through it.
…she ended there, stuck and couldn’t write a conclusion which in turn compelled me to write on this topic of Home. Because it’s very difficult to not be pessimistic and conclude that we’re screwed. Or maybe I’m just speaking for myself given my unpredictable housing history. It’s hard to be present and just enjoy where we are right now. To be fully grateful because when it feels too good to be true, and having a complicated relationship to your roots (Marichelle too, who immigrated to Queens from the Philippines at 7 years old), it’s tough to remain positive and know when attachment issues are rearing its head or if the reality truly is that there isn’t a place for us here.
And that’s heartbreaking. For so many around here. I can feel that and felt it deeply when I met our neighbor the other day walking her dog and kindly shared that as an empty nester that has been in the community for 60 years and worked for the town for 30, she's now faced with retirement and by extension, losing her home. She's unsure of what’s in store for her as she enters late adulthood.
So here’s a question: How do I stay where, for the first time, feels like a place I can actually set roots? A place that’s done that for MANY.
What do we do?
How do we stay home?
*Second Chances is a pseudonym to protect my thrift shop stash.
Ok, so that was some heavy shit and I promise I won’t ride a bike around town singing This Use to Be My Playground at the top of my lungs.
Let’s pivot to some fun stuff.
Selling Sunset is this weird garbage heap filmed with a heavy filter but damn if I didn’t watch the entire recent season. And holy hell, when Chrishell revealed she is dating the Queer, teenage version of Kid Rock, otherwise known as G Flip, I immediately went into fetal position and decided to go on a juice cleanse.
Honestly, I’m all over the place with this one and would love suggestions. Like ANY suggestions. Send me a mix tape of reads!!!
Currently Listening (music):
G Flip. Hahahahaha, holy shit, no I’m not. But I am loving Kendrick Lamar’s The Heart Part 5. I mean, this line:
In the land where hurt people hurt more people
Fuck callin' it culture