I spent a summer in New York during college living in a neighborhood called Borough Park, in Brooklyn. That's when I had the immense pleasure of getting my first (so far only, but let's not jinx it) urinary-tract infection. As far as I understand it, you get a UTI from not peeing after sex or not drinking enough cranberry juice, which made it absurd that I would get one, because I've done those two things simultaneously. I was furious at my urinary tract, and it was furious at me. This angry standoff went on for days. Not even a friend's insistence on calling me a "cutie with a 'uti" helped to improve my sour mood. After a fifth night of agony, I headed down to the emergency room.
The emergency room was a nightmare on a level that would've made Dante go "holy shit." Maybe almost a hundred people in a big open room. Beds were pushed so close together I could hear the woman next to me quietly praying in what I think was Armenian. I waited six hours to get painkillers or antibiotics, during which time my phone died and I learned far too much intimate detail about my neighbor's small intestine.
And then it got worse. When I finally got the routine antibiotics I needed, gathered my hospital-issued bag, and started to trundle off to the bathroom to change out of my paper gown, a man sitting near the bed next to mine got up and snatched the bag out of my hand. My own clothes. Out of my own hand. My own black hand.
I was stunned for a moment while he rifled through it. Apparently, the hospital issued us all the same bag for our clothes, a fact you could easily look around and see because we were all trapped together in this windowless hellhole. Yet he was convinced I had stolen his sick grandmother's clothing. Satisfied after picking through my undergarments, he muttered an apology before thrusting my clothes back at me. I went into the bathroom and promptly burst into tears.
What made that experience the particular worst was not having space or any ownership. I was half-naked, stacked nearly on top of other people in a strange part of town. I was stripped of everything that I owned and then when I finally managed to collect my stuff, someone immediately assumed I stole it. I felt personally humiliated on a level that took me back to the not-so-distant past.
I have strong feelings about space and things. At the worst times in my life, I haven't had a lot of either, and I think that's true for most people. People need space. People need to feel like they have some semblance of control over their environment. People need a place to belong.
I've often found myself in places where my presence is unusual, unwelcome, and occasionally even unprecedented. There's Wisconsin, where I was born and where I grew up excelling in math and science, which often made me "the fly in the milk" of all my lily-white advanced STEM classes. Not to mention that I was/am a girl. Have you ever had a male teacher kiss you on the head for getting a good grade? I have! It's about as fun and totally appropriate as it sounds. On top of that, my family moved around a lot, which made me feel rootless and insecure wherever I was, hyperaware of my surroundings, constantly putting my back against the wall so nothing and no one could sneak up on me.
Then came Harvard. No sweat, right? Time to get my back off the wall! I'll walk in there like I own it! Put my feet up on the couch where Mark Zuckerberg sat! Debate famous professors! Pretend I know what anthropology is! Act like a fuckin' Obama, damn it!