Pride and Prejudice: Living in Roseville

by Elison Alcovendaz

I have a secret to tell you. It embarrasses me to say it, but…

I have never lived in Elk Grove.

I know, I know. When we first met and you asked me where I lived, I said Elk Grove. I told Patty this when we first met. The truth is, where I called home for most of my childhood sat just blocks away from the Elk Grove/Sacramento border, but technically in South Sac. Outside of the house, I spent most of my time where my friends lived and where my schools were - on Fruitridge, where I witnessed a kid on his bike get jumped by a gang and get nearly beaten to death by aluminum bats; on Florin, where a 30-year-old-man in the arcade at old Florin Mall wanted to beat my 10-year-old self for "looking at his girl," who happened to be a cashier at the mall hot dog stand where I'd just ordered a corn dog; on Stockton, where a party I was at got shot up and I got pepper sprayed in the face because the police decided everyone was a suspect, even though I'd never touched a gun in my life; on Elder Creek, where a kid I tutored and who taught me origami got killed in a drive-by.

So yeah, whenever I met people I never wanted to say I was from South Sac. I was always from Elk Grove. I was always from the suburbs. I was always from a place where prostitutes didn't prance openly in the streets, where you could play basketball in a park without having to run when someone talked too much smack and the other guy ran straight for his car to grab who knows what from under the driver's seat, where guys didn't reach into the waistline of their pants to demonstrate their toughness when you shaved your head and wore the wrong color to the wrong party. I didn't want South Sac to define me because I didn't want to start out at a disadvantage.

Now, I live in Roseville, nearly as far away from South Sac I can be while still being within driving distance of my family. When I tell people I grew up with that I moved to Roseville, many of them smirk and make faces and think that I must think I'm better than them. "Don't become one of those stuck-up d-bags" I've heard on more than one occasion. I've heard jokes about being white-washed. I've heard how uncomfortable they feel as minorities when they go to The Fountains. They say it as though I've now become one of "them." I've been asked why wouldn't I have chosen to be around my family? My friends? Questions sometimes true, sometimes veiled as an accusation. Telling them about property values and schools and starting an independent life only makes me seem more like that white-washed d-bag. When I tell people who I've come to know more recently about living in Roseville, I don't need to say anything. They nod their heads and say things about houses keeping their value during the recession and safety statistics. What they don't talk about is how your scenery, your environment, changes you. 

It happened so quickly. A couple of months ago, I happened to be at the Goodwill Superstore on Franklin and Florin. I hadn't been at that shopping center in a decade but remembered the shopping center clearly. The anchor used to be a Mervyn's, where I'd go with my mother when it was time to buy Christmas gifts. There used to be a Mexican restaurant there, too. Costa Azul. I remember seeing it as we drove by, hearing the drumbeats spilling onto the street at night when it transformed into a club. I always said I'd go there when I was older but I never did. Across the street there used to be a thriving Auto Mall, and now there's an empty lot, surrounded by a chain-link fence. The adult store, Suzie's, is still going strong, though. 

I'd been at a nearby family party and decided to stop in to look for some books. But everything else distracted me, even just parking the car. Gum and dead cigarette butts and empty soda cans littered the parking lot. The shattered remains of a smashed beer bottle glinted feebly near a tree that looked like it hadn't been watered since I was a kid. The oily handprints all over the glass entrance doors. The dirty tile floors. The boxers of teenage boys who wore their pants too low. The general malaise of the shoppers' facial expressions. The sloppiness of many of their outfits. The ease with which strangers cursed in public. 

In Roseville, we spend some of our free time at The Fountains, a somewhat "upscale" (but not really) shopping center across the street from the Roseville Galleria. There's a Mikuni's there that we love, and a Zocalo's, and on the cooler summer nights they have bands that play hits from the 50's and crooners that sing Sinatra. My first impression of The Fountains was: this is exactly why third world countries hate us. At the entrance, a large fountain sprays water into the air 24/7. At the main crossing, there's yet another fountain that shoots water to music, like a mini-Bellagio or something. My first trip there I felt misplaced. I didn't see many people with my skin color. I didn't hear anyone using the slang language I had grown up with. 

It reminded me of the first time I set foot in El Dorado Hills, which is where Patty grew up. I'm still astonished when I think about how Patty's graduating high school class was 95% white. Seriously? I couldn't believe there were actually places like that because it wasn't my reality. On our way to her mom's, we stopped at the supermarket to pick up some bread and I, once again, felt immediately Other. No Filipinos, no Mexicans, no African-Americans. I was certain people were staring at me. They knew I'd come from somewhere else and didn't belong. Later dinner parties where people joked about the cultural tendencies of their Filipina hairdressers only served to confirm this bias, as did the way matter-of-fact way people spoke about the lives of those in the lower socioeconomic classes, as though they actually knew what living like that meant like.

On Patty's first trip to South Sac, she didn't speak at all, and those of you who know her know how ridiculous that is. We drove down Florin to get her car serviced and I wanted to show her some spots from my childhood. She'd never stepped foot on Sacramento land south of Sac City. There was no reason to. I rolled down the windows, blasting Dr. Dre from the speakers, and I saw the sudden Otherness in her face. She didn't belong here. It was the same face I had when I was walking through that supermarket in El Dorado Hills, wondering if I'd see brown skin. 

Both of our visits to our childhood neighborhoods were colored by things we'd heard in our own environments. Everyone in El Dorado Hills was white and racist. Don't go to South Sac because you'll get shot. Since that's what our environment said, that's what we saw. 

When Time Magazine declared Sacramento America's most diverse city in 2002, South Sac would've been a perfect microcosm of that (though I certainly recall that our white neighbors weren't the same white people I'd seen on TV). El Dorado Hills might've been the antithesis. But if you walked outside my childhood home on an early summer day, you'd see kids of all races running and biking up and down the streets or playing ball on the neighborhood basketball court. You'd smell the flavorful odors of world foods and you'd hear the unique rhythms of foreign languages and you'd see families in different shades of skin and different cultural clothes and you'd think absolutely nothing of it. But still, as you got older, you grew cautious. To hear Patty tell it, they could go anywhere they wanted without fear. They played Midnight Flashlight Tag, running around the cul-de-sac and hiding in people's property until a flashlight shone on their bodies. They didn't lock their doors to their cars or their homes, no matter what valuables were held inside. There were no minorities in her neighborhood (though there are now). 

This is all to say that our environments often trickle into who we are, which might've been what the friends and family I'd grown up with were so worried about happening because, hey, it did happen. After living in Roseville and going to South Sac, I always saw how dirty it was. I saw the homeless people. I found myself becoming more fearful around the people I'd grown up around. It was so amazing at how quickly Roseville became home, how quickly I became so proud to say, "We bought a house in Roseville" when people asked where we lived. It meant something. Like I'd graduated to something better. 

I was wrong. We both were. 

Sure, Patty understands that South Sac isn't the safest place to live (I certainly understand that). But she's been there enough to know that she can be comfortable. Not everyone is looking at her just because she's white. There's diversity there, a realness (for lack of a better word), that we might not find in El Dorado Hills or Roseville. All the stuff I said in the beginning of this blog? Yeah, those things happened, but great things happened, too. That's where my family grew up and where most still live, filled with success stories. College degrees, strong relationships, great jobs, a close family. Most of my closest friends are people I grew up with. South Sac is a place where the phrase "giving the shirt of your back" is literally not a cliche. People just help people there without having to be asked. And the diversity, can I mention that again? There might not be another place in the world that will teach you better about empathy, about learning to live in someone else's shoes.

And I know that El Dorado Hills isn't the most diverse place on the planet. But I also know that most folks there aren't looking at me just because I'm brown. And there are loving people there, too. People who care, people whose wealth hasn't transformed them into the elite snobs we like to think they are. We think of these affluent suburbs and think of cookie cutter stereotypes because almost none of us have ever gotten to know them. We often think so much about the barriers that, in essence, we help create and reinforce those barriers instead of bringing them down. Yes, there are other differences - socioeconomic class difference will do that. But we often get mired down in what we don't have have that we forget about the individual. We tend to judge people as groups - by how much money they make, how low they wear their pants, by where they live. If they live in El Dorado Hills they must be part of The Man! They must be racist! If they live in South Sac they must be uneducated! They must be "ghetto"! Any day on Facebook will show you people being judged for being a Democrat or Republican, a Catholic or Mormon or atheist, a feminist, a homosexual. We always forget that people are individuals, that people are people.

Having this understanding has made me view things differently. How quickly I noticed the Hmong, Filipino, Mexican, Indian, and Korean families just on my street. How quickly I noticed the minorities in the supermarkets at El Dorado Hills. How quickly I became proud again to say "South Sac" when people ask where I'm from. I visited that same Goodwill store two days ago and was astonished on what I'd noticed - the flowers near the trees, the small businesses nearby owned by local residents, the geniality of the guy with gold teeth who smiled as he held the door open for me. There's nothing inherently better about Roseville or South Sac or El Dorado Hills, just differences. But we decide how to privilege those differences, if we privilege them at all. We decide what to embrace, what to discard, what to allow to become a part of who we are. While our environments can have the ability to shape us, if two people from as disparate environments as South Sac and El Dorado Hills can be together, then maybe, in the end, it's about the people after all. 

 

 

 

 

 

An Untitled Writer

by Elison Alcovendaz

In my first creative writing class, back in the summer of 2008, Professor Stanley began the class with BHAGs - "Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals."  We went around the classroom - very amateur writers, all of us - and talked about the stories we wanted published, the writing careers we wanted to establish, the books we wanted to see on the shelves of Barnes and Noble. Not one of us had researched the odds of any of these things happening, not one of us had any idea what trying to make it as a writer in America actually meant. We wanted to write our fantasy and sci-fi novels and get published and make money and never have to work a "real" job ever again. 

A few months before, in the middle of a home poker game, my aunt arrived with a gift for my cousin - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows . I hadn't read any of the previous books - in fact, I hadn't read much of anything - but I fell in love right away and decided, right then, that writing was something I wanted to do. Deep inside, I felt it was something I actually needed to do, a warm, growing sensation that maybe, in those pages, I had discovered   who I was supposed to be.

It's a strange thing to say, even now, but true nonetheless. While sitting at the poker table, I read three chapters; later that night, I stayed up with my light on, eyes fighting this new activity, reading until I fell asleep. That was a Sunday. On Monday, I faced my life until that point - a corporate sales management job, working 60 hours a week in my off-colored white shirt, discount bin ties, dealing with the public, floundering purposelessly in a sea of profit margins, ringing phones, and customer service scores. Yup, super exciting. I'd been there for five years, knowing I was on my way - to what? I couldn't tell you. A house, a wife, some kids, a dog - the American Dream, I guess? 

We are indoctrinated to this once we are born. Our TV shows glorify those in big houses and nice suits, our schools measure success by test scores instead of curiosity, college degrees are for "jobs" and not for "knowledge". Even more so for a first generation American whose family moved here specifically for this reason - success, yes, but success measured by financial viability.

Until that summer, for the first 28 years of my life, I had been surrounded by business people. My parents and each one of my aunts and uncles had earned accounting degrees in the Philippines and moved here shortly thereafter. In my family, all 80 of us who lived within three miles of each other, there hadn't been one person who had become, or even dreamed of becoming, a musician, a painter, an actor, a writer. I'm sure this is the similar situation for a lot of people. It's just America. It's just what we're supposed to do - participate in industries that American capitalism has defined as worthy; there's a reason a lawyer makes 2 to 3 times that of a teacher, a reason why real estate is a more financially viable profession than, say, the musician playing gigs in local, sweaty bars for 50 years. You get a job that America says is worthy enough so you can buy a house, have kids, maybe send them to college, raise them so they can find a job that provides enough stability so they can buy a house, have kids, maybe send them to college, raise them so they can find a job that provides enough stability so they can buy a house, have kids, send them to college... 

Overwhelming desperation filled me. I couldn't name it. I didn't understand it. I just kept thinking, There has to be something more than this. If this was all there was, getting the paycheck, putting money into retirement, doing this for half of your awake adult life, just so your kids could live the same systemic existence... I just needed there to be something more. I'd heard too many stories of elderly people who had this epiphany too late, of those who had found God in their later years because they wanted their life to be part of something greater. So I did something which, at the time, seemed extremely courageous. A knockout punch to The Man. One month after reading that Harry Potter book, I walked into my Area Manager's office and handed him my resignation letter.

No one understood. Not the Vice President who came a day later to show me how much money I would be making in the next two years, not the friends who had been there for the parties in Vegas, not the family. How could they? I didn't even understand myself. It turned out not to be courageous, but stupid. Idiotic. Probably insane. I had bills to pay. Rent. Instead, I moved back in with my parents, sat at their kitchen table, and for the next six months wrote nearly 200,000 words of the terrible, terrible, terrible first draft of The Jack of Heartland , the novel that now, after eight more drafts and four years, I'm finally trying to get published.

I eventually found myself in the graduate creative writing program at Sacramento State. Very different, to say the least, from the BS in business I had already earned. No one wore ties or dress shoes, no one talked about balance sheets; in fact, the only time the writing students and faculty talked about money was when they complained about how little of it they had. Faculty had no problem talking about the miniscule amount of money they made; classmates embodied the "writer's" stereotype  - glorifying the miserly life, getting in touch with nature, railing against capitalism at all costs (even as we hoarded books and commodified them neatly into our shelves), as we sat in desks built for middle schoolers and discussed words and theories made up by people like ourselves, not realizing that specialized language is often a marker of capitalism and industry. I didn't fit in. Not with my new Calvin Klein shirts and DKNY peacoats. For the most part, I hid my past - I felt like a leftover piece of the "system" that we were so intent on "deconstructing."

It's funny how a new scene can change you. I became a little Marxist. I eschewed my Kenneth Coles for Vans and flip flops. I stopped using gel in my hair. I scoured thrift shops for cheap books. I judged my friends and family with their poster middle-class lives, with their mortgages and trimmed lawns and cute babies in their Polo Shirts and Air Jordan shoes. I wondered how anyone could succumb to the game like that, scraping by just so they could stay in the comfy confines of the ethereal prison of the American Dream.

Man, I judged. I analyzed. I criticized. We did it all day in class and it spilled out into my daily life. I couldn't watch a movie for fun anymore. People who thought Twilight was the best thing they'd ever read became idiots in my mind. My old friends who were still going to clubs instead of dive bars, other friends who were still working 50-60 hours a week instead of reading, my family who listened to the local pop stations instead of NPR - I felt bad for them; how could they not see? In the classroom, I learned the lingo - throw in "ideology" here, a little "social construction" over there, maybe call that thing "homosocial," and just for good measure, toss in some "hybridity." I threw in Foucault and Said into conversations outside of the classroom, and when people looked at me like I'd lost my damn mind I just laughed in my head and knew they would just never get it. 

In the midst of all that, I did learn something, a small thing that I now realize changed my life. It's the Golden Rule about the craft of writing - everything is a choice; every word, every sentence, every image, and every punctuation mark will dictate whether or not the larger work (the book, story, poem, etc.) is successful. And not success in terms of book sales, not whether your reader "gets" it, not whether your workshop says it's the greatest thing they've ever read, not whether or not it's published, but whether or not the story is actually "whole."

It's an easy analogy to make. Story. Life. Much like the choices we make in a story, the choices we make in life dictate whether or not we can be "whole." America doesn't make it easy. I started my life wanting to be in bed with the system, with business and money, only to find myself among a group of people who wanted to throw that bed out the window with the people still on it. By the end of the program, I felt more lost than I had before. I had found writing, I had found my passion, yes, but I didn't believe the people who said that should be enough. Much like I didn't believe that those who said raising your kids the right way and being financially stable and getting married was enough. As if either of those was all there was to life. All I knew was I wanted to write, I was tired of living in an apartment, I wanted to write, I was tired of living paycheck to paycheck, I wanted to write, I was tired of praying my car wouldn't break down.

It's a choice many artists in America have to make. Be the "commercial sell out" or be "true to the craft." We see it all the time. The "indie" band makes it big and all of a sudden they are sell outs. Conversely, the writer of genre fiction cannot be taken seriously when they write literary fiction. It's always one or the other. America says you cannot be both. You cannot work 40 hours a week, dealing with mundane business crap, and go home and be creative enough to write. You cannot, okay? You cannot.

Ah, but choice. Since graduating, I have reconnected with my old friends, rekindled relationships with family. I found a 40-hour a week job that pays decently enough to buy a house. I'm getting married to a woman who is too good and too beautiful for me. We plan on having nice furniture someday. We plan on buying new cars. We plan on having kids. We plan on sending them to college. We plan on having grandkids. But we are also committed to my writing, on not making excuses on why there's no time, on not falling into the mutually exclusive buckets America says we must fall in. All choices we have made. But will it work? Living here, in the middle? Who knows? But we are choosing to try, and it is in the choosing that makes us whole. 

 

So, here I am...

by Elison Alcovendaz

starting a blog. I hear there was once a time when all a writer had to do was write. I also hear unicorns and leprechauns once roamed the earth, mating and giving birth to humans. Those were the good old days. Now, if you talk to current day writers or Google how to become a writer, you'll hear and see words such as "market" and "platform." You'll read articles about what is normally an introverted group of people who must now step out from behind their laptops, from behind their stories, and go forth and connect, much like the unicorns and leprechauns did so many years before.

Here's part of the problem: writers starting out don't have the cash necessary to start professionally created blogs, to fund web advertisements, or even self-publish their books (for those who decide to go that route). I certainly don't. All I have are my eyes, my heart, and my words. That's what this is. This here, this first blog, is hopefully a way of connecting to a reader I've never met, a fellow author who wants to discuss the liminality of innocence in The Cat in the Hat (English majors, unite!), or just someone who had a thought they wanted to share. We don't kill dreams here, so maybe it'll eventually lead to finding someone who wants to publish one of my novels (I know, I know).

I plan on writing about the author's journey to publishing their first novel, about books I've read, discussions I've had, thoughts on anything. I hope this blog will be a crossing of intellect and creativity, progress and presence, sarcasm and love.

Let's see if I can keep this up. I certainly hope so. After all, if we did descend from unicorns and leprechauns, there's gotta be some Magic in there somewhere.