Philadelphia Metropolis


Fitting In

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By Natasha Kingston

"Are you sure you want to look at houses in that area?" Mark asked, one eyebrow raised. "I'm not sure that you would... fit in there."

James and I looked at one another uncertainly. I am sure Mark, our real estate agent, thought we were reconsidering the area, but the truth was that we were reconsidering hiring him.

"We won't know until we see it," I said finally. "I don't want to rule anything out this soon; it's a five-hour drive from Connecticut, so we should see as many houses as possible while here in Philly."

"Fair enough," Mark agreed reluctantly. He climbed into his car, and James and I got back into ours. We had no sooner shut the door when James blurted out, "What the hell was that? Was he saying what I thought he was saying?"

"Yeah. I'm pretty sure he was," I replied heavily. "Whatever, we're here now; we just have to make the best of it."

As we left Center City and headed up to Germantown Avenue, James started to shift uneasily in his seat. "I don't know, babe," he muttered. "Maybe he wasn't saying what we thought. This just doesn't look like that great an area in general. I don't know. I don't know."

We got out of the car in front of a beautiful red brick twin. As we climbed the steps, I caught sight of a sign on the adjoining front door and stopped short. Danger: This property has been condemned and is scheduled to be demolished.

"Oh, hell no." James turned right around and walked back to the car, Mark smirking smugly behind him.

The next property was rather cute, though small, and I told James that I liked it. Mark winced. "You should come back after dark before you make a decision," he said dryly. "Trust me." James and I exchanged looks as we walked back to the car.

"Excuse me! Excuse me!' I turned to see a black woman, no taller than five feet and wrinkled beyond reckoning, gesturing us over to where she stood on her front porch.

"Yes, ma'am?" James asked politely as we came within hearing distance.

"Are ya'll buying that house?" she asked bluntly. James grinned.

"We're thinking about it," he replied.

"Well, I sure hope you do. It'd do the neighborhood good to have some white folks living here, drive up the property value."

James stared at me, open-mouthed. "Well...," he said uncertainly as I spluttered incoherently, "I'm sure it will all work out for the best." We shuffled awkwardly back to the car.

"I don't get it," I whispered as we headed to the next property. "Look at this, three blocks over and it's hipster central; it's as if black people didn't exist. But go three blocks back, and there's not a white person to be seen. I've never seen anything like it."

"I know," James agreed, mystified. "This is really weird. I mean, you're mixed race, so where do you fit in? Which neighborhood would you rather live in?"

"Neither," I said petulantly. "I thought it would be like home, with everyone sort of mixed together. I don't like this. It's like 1960 out here."

After seeing at least 10 other houses, Mark said, "Look, there's one that I just found out about today that you might like. It's not the best area, but it's kind of an up-and-comer." James and I, frustrated and exhausted, agreed on seeing one last house.

It was a little twin in Frankford that had been completely redone after a fire. When Mark first opened the door, I was thrilled. The kitchen was beautiful, the yard far larger than average. But I still worried. Which side of the invisible line did this neighborhood fall on? Would we be welcome? Would I be welcome anywhere in Philly?

We decided to make an offer. James needed to live in Philly for work, and our lease in Connecticut would be up in two months, so we were under the gun. We went with Mark and submitted the paperwork and then headed to a diner on Aramingo Avenue for a quick bite before getting back on the road.

"What can I get you folks?" asked the waitress, a pretty, pregnant brunette.

"A bucket of coffee," James said, grinning. "I'm going to need to stay awake for the ride home."

"Long way back home, huh?" she asked.

"Yeah, we're moving out here from Connecticut and put an offer in on a house down the road," I replied. "We're heading back East tonight."

"Well, good for you!" she said brightly. "That's great news!" Then she leaned in and whispered, "It's great to see folks like you coming into the neighborhood. We've been getting a lot of the wrong sort the past few years." She gave the table next to us, where a black family was eating dinner, a significant look, then nodded knowingly at us. "I'll be right back with your coffee!" Then she walked briskly off.

James stared at me. "Holy shit," he said, his eye round with disbelief. "Holy shit."

I was speechless for a moment. When words finally returned to me, I said, "I guess I look whiter than I thought, if she assumed we would agree with her." I shook my head. "That's a big risk to take, though."
"Well, she's obviously not the brightest," James replied.  He reached across the table and squeezed my hand. "We're doing the right thing, moving here. The more people like us cross that line, the more it just becomes a blur."

I smiled halfheartedly. "Don't you get it, babe? I am the blur." 

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