Cherry Hill Dreaming

pic2Success, the intended outcome of all I do. It’s all I allow myself to achieve.  Actually, it’s all my parents have allowed me to attain. Growing up the youngest of five children, I was designated the over-achieving younger sister. The one who consistently surprised my parents with my wit and knowledge. The one who did everyone’s homework for monetary gain. I was what my mother coined her “ticket out of the ghetto.”

Typically, my report card boasted A’s, a few B’s and, due to a teacher who despised me (or the words that came out of my smart mouth), an occasional C.  I would walk into the house with my head and eyes fixed on the floor, as I foresaw my impending doom.  My dad would utter his disappointment at my ‘C,’ having me believe I would be banished from school and the town altogether.

Report card day was always biased in my household.  C’s were applauded for my brothers and sister but for me, they were unacceptable.  I felt report card judgment day was my punishment for being an over-achiever in an area where children like me didn’t come too often.

I was born and raised in Camden, NJ., a small city nestled on the outskirts of Philadelphia.  There isn’t much in Camden. A city full of has-beens and have-nots with a small glimmer of hope, Camden is a town where the infrastructure deteriorated years ago.   During the 1970s, race riots broke out, much as they did across the country.  As a result, businesses up and left, virtually leaving the city to collapse.  On Broadway Ave. where most of these businesses once boomed, there are now boarded up empty buildings mimicking ones seen in a horror flick.  Trash, fiends and rodents infiltrate the alley ways, making them busier than New York City on a Saturday night. A place where financial and social deficiencies are mainstays and the school system discourages students from even attending, that, my friends, is Camden in a nutshell.

Somehow, my parents guarded us from the lifestyle of the underprivileged.  It never dawned on me that my family and I had been living in one of the most poverty and crime-ridden cities in America.  That was my parents’ intent.

map_of_cherry_hill_njMy mother and father had what I like to call “Cherry Hill dreams.” Cherry Hill, NJ., is a wealthy town just 15 minutes from the heart of Camden.  Being a town of privilege and comfort, Cherry Hill has as much in common with Camden as night does with day. In Cherry Hill it wasn’t abnormal for people to run up a tree-lined, picturesque street as a means of exercise.  Actually, that wasn’t abnormal in Camden either.  However, if someone were running up the street, it surely was for every reason other than a workout.

My parents knew a lot of people in Cherry Hill. Their Cherry Hill acquaintances threw extravagant gatherings in their colonial style homes equipped with spiraling staircases that had at least four bedrooms and two bathrooms and enough space to house an army. And for these reasons, I always felt we didn’t belong.  Frankly, we were from the other side of the tracks, the city, the ghetto. We had no business mingling with people who ran for exercise and not from forthcoming danger.

I could never fathom why my parents adored Cherry Hill.  To my dismay, my mom’s smiles were more frequent and I just couldn’t get my dad to stop talking no matter how hard I tried when we went to these parties.  I didn’t like this at all.

At a summer barbecue in West Cherry Hill, when I was a snappy 12-year-old, a family friend asked, “Hey honey, would you like some soda?” I, in my usual politeness replied, “does it look like I want some?” I was determined to counter my parents’ Cherry Hill dreams because we were not from there and should not have rendezvoused as if we were.

My parents made it their duty to introduce me and my siblings to worlds that were not ours. We always did and saw things and were constantly on the go.  Back in middle school, our trip to Disney World, for instance, was an experience no one around me had ever had. If Cherry Hill and Camden were day and night, Disney World and Camden were Earth and Jupiter.

Everyone was just so damn happy there.  I gawked at families waltzing up pathways hand in hand, sporting smiles as wide as the horizon. The laughter of children and even adults polluted the air like exhaust fumes from an 18 wheeler.  Man, were they infectious.  My sternness made me again feel displaced – at first.  But with its magic and whimsicalness and fireworks and bliss, Disney World implanted the seed for me to want, be and dream.  How could one not be affected?  I wasn’t an ogre for Christ’s sake!  It couldn’t be my parents’ Cherry Hill dreams rubbing off on me, could it?

Our trip to Disney World inclined me to write.  My first entries documented the illness carried by Disney tourists.  This illness was happiness.  I was sure my first-person accounts would be dug up centuries later and a utopia called Disney World would become known to the masses as having had a plague that infected all who visited.

I wrote about other things, as well.  I listed my stressors and demons, my goals for the week and for the distant future. Often I wrote about Jeron Hayes, the guy I was head over heels for in high school and I sighted as my be-all and end-all (As life would have it, I ended up hating Jeron and thank the heavens I have not seen him in four years).  Because of Disney World, writing became my hobby, my purpose, my passion.

Fast-forward to my college years. I declared myself a journalism major and began interacting with any and every one for personal and professional advancement.  This reminds me of an old saying, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. In my non-expert and humble opinion, journalism is, collectively, the lovechild of both.  I became cordial with everyone so that I could get the information I needed for a pending article as well as have people to party with on a Friday night.  Now that’s what I call a two-for-one deal.

In my junior year of college, I met a girl from Baltimore who I instantly clicked with and often cited in articles.  Much like me, she always had a lot to say and satisfied my two-for-one special.  This time, I was interviewing her about natural hair, as she had just decided to go natural.    We decided to meet at her house for a casual interview which was bound to turn into girl talk.  I entered a section of Baltimore that stopped me in my tracks, compelling me to go numb for a second, as the sights and smells stampeded my being.  They were quite familiar.

This section of Baltimore was called Cherry Hill and couldn’t possibly be the place my parents pushed me to want to be in.  This Cherry Hill brought back sensations I had only felt when gazing down Broadway Ave. in Camden. The same vacant and trash-ridden fields and dismal housing not far from un-manicured and bumpy streets all hit me with a vengeance.  Oddly enough, another memorable feeling came rushing to me as this environment set my brain into overdrive.  In Cherry Hill, NJ, I believed I did not belong; it was the same story here.  Confused and bombarded, I pondered. If I did not fit in in Cherry Hill, NJ or in Cherry Hill Baltimore, by all means, where would I ever feel comfortable at?

How could two places, bearing the same name, be so contrary? Why is it that fresh unpolluted air seldom lingered in Camden or Cherry Hill, Baltimore but flowed freely through the streets of suburbia? Juxtaposing the two Cherry Hills’, the conditions in Cherry Hill Baltimore seemed like a blighted neighborhood and hard to believe the buildings were inhabited. Altogether, Cherry Hill, NJ had a sense of hope, Cherry Hill Baltimore, didn’t.  In Cherry Hill, NJ, people laughed.  In Cherry Hill Baltimore, people laughed too, but their laughs weren’t as organic.  This Cherry Hill was much like Camden, a place I was trained to escape.

In an instance, much like an epiphany, my entire upbringing made sense. As I sat on my friend’s porch, saying little since my rapid cognitive activity did all the talking for me, the experiences my parents allowed me to have all led to this moment.  Oh how I hated them making decisions for me.

Our trips to Disney World and suburban gatherings all forced me to want more than life initially provided.  It was my parents’ intentions to push the overachieving younger sister into achieving more than she could have ever imagined.  I believed it was also their aim to make it uncomfortable for me to live and be in any environment that wasn’t like Cherry Hill – Cherry Hill, NJ, that is.

I finished the interview and gathered my belongings, ready to leave Cherry Hill, Baltimore with the swiftness of a track star.  As I drove off I passed a group of guys standing idly next to a stop sign with black spray paint overpowering the original white lettering. The group stared me down and I copied.  I could see every wrinkle and nook settled on their miserly faces.  They gazed at me like I was a citizen of Mars and not of Earth.  I didn’t know them but for that moment, I felt as if I did. We somehow connected and my soul ached for them.  I drove off as Cherry Hill’s bumpy streets pounded my tires allowing me to go but so fast, as if wanting me to stay longer.  I left and vowed to never look back.  I had inherited Cherry Hill dreams – Cherry Hill, NJ that is.

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