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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Lessons in a Chitlin

by Carol D. Marsh

I’d had it.
No matter that I was the one who had dreamed of this place for years, had slogged through the building’s three-and-a-half year gut demolition and renovation using untold quantities of dogged determination and more yelling at the contractor than I’ll ever confess. I’d been ecstatic to move with my husband into our apartment on the second floor in December 1995 and prepare the building called Miriam’s House for its first residents—Washington, DC’s homeless women living with AIDS—in March 1996.
And no matter that I already had fifteen months as resident manager of a house for homeless pregnant women, where I’d been taught a series of painful lessons about the difficulties a middle-class suburban-raised white woman encounters when living with eleven street-wise black women. Why I underestimated the power of our differences after having learned it so painfully then, I couldn’t have told you. Perhaps I thought I had already discovered everything I’d need to know to live and work at Miriam’s House.
I hadn’t. And so, by June, I’d had it.
This resident hated the rules, all of them, and complained loudly every chance she got. That one snarled at my cheeriest greetings. And Tamara. Oh, goodness, Tamara. Who had walked up the front walkway, the first resident to move in on our first day, with a call that I knew immediately I’d remember forever. “I’m home!”
Home, a concept I’d formed while growing up in not-one-bit-integrated suburbia in the sixties and seventies, had become so fixed in my mind that there was little of the conceptual left in it. And though part of me knew this home would be very, very different from my pretty imaginings about how well we would all get along and how grateful they would all be, imagination dominated nonetheless.
Tamara—with what was to me a gleeful, sometimes spiteful, persistence that made a mockery of that cheery greeting on her first day—set about disabusing me of these notions and any others I might have had about myself and how I would be in Miriam’s House. And though most of the residents were friendly and willing to help me bridge our differences, I let Tamara’s combination of bold disrespect and sly baiting overshadow all that was going well.
At a house meeting: Why ain’t you piped purified water into the ice maker? Makes no sense to have good water to drink if we have to put that ice into it. You ain’t thinking.
In the dining room after dinner: You all shoulda heard Carol in the car on the way to the emergency room when I had that fever. (Taking on an overly sweet, childish voice) ‘I hope you’ll be okay. You know I’ll stay there for you.’
Before long, I was avoiding her. I’d slip away from the TV room or dining room when she came in. I’d brace myself for her onslaughts in house meetings and wait for her to be done, responding with just a few words if at all. I couldn’t figure out how to relate to her without incurring her contempt and getting my feelings hurt yet again. I gave up. Avoidance seemed the best policy.
But best policy or not, it simply was not sustainable in that small community.

I stop on my way down the stairs and sniff. Good lord, what stinks?
        What I’m smelling cannot possibly be food, at least, not in undigested form. So, in mystified ignorance, I follow my nose into the kitchen, where the nauseating odor seems to emanate from a pot on the stove. I lift the lid, take a whiff of the steam rising from the boiling mess, and gag.
        I look around and see Tamara, watching me and grinning. “Chitlins. My favorite.”
Oh. It is food. And that is Tamara, ever ready with the quick and slicing jibe. I rearrange the expression on my face. “Hmm. Chitlins. What are they?”
        “Insides of pigs. Don’t worry, I cleaned ‘em good. I ain’t triflin’.” She gives the pot a stir, sending another plume of noxious steam into the kitchen's humid air.
        Insides? I want to gag again. Watching me, Tamara's smile broadens. Something in me stiffens its spine against my too-easily hurt feelings and decides to try something new as she asks what I had for dinner.
        “Tofu stir fry,” I say.
        “Tofu? What the hell is that?”
        I risk a quick grin at her. Here’s my chance. “Sorta like fermented soy beans.”
        “And you think chitlins are bad? Fermented beans? Sounds disgusting.”
        “Not as disgusting as chitlins.”
I’m a bit shocked at myself for answering in kind, stiffened spine or no. This is not how I usually speak to the residents, especially not Tamara. I steal a wary glance at her to gauge her reaction: still grinning. Whew.
“No way my chitlins is worse than them beans.”
Once she has settled the lid back onto the pot, thank God, Tamara turns to send the spoon clattering into the sink and pivots back to me. “No way.”
        “You don’t know that. Have you ever tasted tofu?”
        Later, I realize this is what she’s been waiting for.
        “Okay, I’ll eat a tofu if you eat a chitlin.”
        Oops. This is not where I expected the conversation would go. But her knowing smile galvanizes my pride—it surely cannot be my stomach—into agreeing.  

        The women who taught me the most—about myself, about life at Miriam’s House and life in general—were the ones who fought me. Well, I saw it as fighting me, at the time. Averse to conflict and wanting to be liked, I wished we’d all just get along. Meaning, I realize now, I wished they’d all act like I needed them to act.
I came to see that women like Tamara, the ones who complained and resisted and stomped on my every frayed nerve, were waiting and watching. Too many well-meaning people had proved unreliable. Too many ill-meaning people had doled out injury. I believe those who struggled and pushed were those with the most to lose, precisely because they had lost so much already. And as the one with the power, with a lifetime of advantages they’d not had, it was for me to prove my trustworthiness to them. Not the other way around.
What finally worked, what finally broke through, was almost always some small, spontaneous gesture of mine that grew out of an otherwise mundane encounter in the course of a regular day. It was almost always something simple, yet that nonetheless set the stage for a moment of grace and generosity made possible because I relinquished a little bit of my desire for control.

Tamara happily goes to the cabinet for a plate as I leave, rather less happily, for my apartment upstairs to get “a tofu.” Belatedly suspicious of the alacrity with which she had proposed and been ready for the deal, I realize my sense of having the upper hand is an illusion. I look at the innocuous bit of tofu as I put it on a small plate. At worst, tofu is tasteless, but since my husband stir-fried it with soy sauce and a few spices, this has a pleasing flavor I couldn't imagine chitlins having. I’ve been had. But the tofu and I go downstairs to our fate.
        As soon as I enter the kitchen, Tamara grabs the tofu off the plate, pops it into her mouth and chews enthusiastically. Watching me. I stare at her, suspicious.
        “At the treatment center they only cooked vegan food. Never did get to like it, but I can eat it.”
        She swallows, turns to the stove and lifts the lid off the pot.
        “Okay, and now for the chitlin.”
        Dipping into the pot, she pulls out a pale, half-curled strip of something pale and limp. The now-familiar odor sidles toward me. She puts the thing on the plate. She holds the plate out. I put the chitlin into my mouth. My teeth close on it. Already anticipating the taste—as judged from that smell—I had firmly resolved not to allow my expression to reveal any disgust or, what was more likely, fear. But I had neglected to prepare for the texture, and it feels as though I've placed a slimy, hot rubber band in my mouth. My resolve, conquered by a chitlin, falters and flees.
        “Acccchhhh!” I spit out the offensive thing onto the plate. “It’s like rubber!”
        Brown eyes regard me slyly from beneath a wig's bangs. “You have to eat it. I ate the tofu.”
        She’s right. Very quickly, so as not to give my mind or stomach or taste buds a chance to protest, I throw the chitlin into my mouth, give a couple of ineffectual chews, and gag it down.
        Then we go into the dining room, Tamara and I, and we take chairs in front of the stereo where she fusses with the CD player so we can listen to some Yolanda Adams. The sun is setting, the room in dusk, but we turn on no light. It’s just the two of us, smelling of chitlins and finding the beat.

Carol D. Marsh is a recent graduate of Goucher College’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction program. Her master’s thesis, from which this piece is taken, is a memoir of seventeen years as Founding Executive Director of Miriam's House in Washington, DC. Her stories have been published in Soundings Review (awarded Runner-Up in the 2014 First Publication Contest), Jenny Magazine, and the Chronicle for the American Chronic Pain Association. Readers can find her blog here.

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