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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The New Insiders

(Originally published by The Shelbyville Free Press on 11-16-15 http://www.shelbyvillefreepress.org/the-new-insiders-11-16-15)




by Cass Van Gelder
“Next time we move, we’re hiring people,” my husband Hoss says as he stares into our new kitchen. Boxes crookedly piled on top each other, threatening to tip if we breathe too hard.

In seven months, we’ve moved several times – the first time almost 2,000 miles and the last time only 6 miles – while we attempted to sell one house, temporary-residency-to-own another, and eventually buy another. It felt like the old riddle – you have a fox, a chicken, and chicken feed. You have to get across the river in a boat that only holds you and two other things. What do you do?

Months turn into a year, we balanced my living in Tennessee, starting a fresh writing job while living with my Murfreesboro cousins. Hoss struggled to take care of our dogs, cats, children, my sister (Rachel), and selling our house.

Oh, and finishing his paralegal degree.

And coming back and forth across the country to visit me.

And searching for a job out here.

And using our unlimited data to FaceTime at the oddest hours so we didn’t become a statistic.

We ferried the animals to our new home in increasingly odd manners, especially since all airlines had ceased allowing any dog that could not fit under an airline seat to fly.

The kids and Rachel boarded a plane with our three non-cooperative cats, each was stuffed under a seat.

The dogs came individually by trailer, truck, and car.

In other words, we worked – hard – to be where we are.

Even after that, Hoss still returned to Las Vegas to live with friends while our house sat empty, being shown to prospective buyers looking for unrealistic deals.

For years after dot.com and housing crashes, our family rode devastating financial waves. We went from paying every bill in advance to paring down to pioneer-style, sans cell phones and cable.

To avoid our 14-year-old daughter being lured to quit school for a glamorous strip club life, Hoss and I opted for stability. We headed closer to home.

Having been raised in South Carolina and Arkansas, we knew our kids needed a life they could absorb and appreciate…eventually. We applied only for jobs in the South.

We made a few determinations before leaving: 1) pay off our debt when we sold the house, and 2) find a community where we could get involved.
Though my new job based me in Franklin, it didn’t take long to figure out that our money wasn’t going to go far there.

We drove farther and farther out, each time finding properties that just weren’t right.

Driving through the roads of Bell Buckle, Wartrace, and Shelbyville, we scanned for For Sale signs while flipping through Realtor.com listings. For every sweeping farm or pretty little house, we found gigantic power towers or on-property mausoleums.

Finally, we found an adorable house in a little dell.

Seeing as they had lived in the house since it was built, the owners waited a long time for the perfect new owners.

The small community yielded friends, sought after at the Shelbyville Central High School football games. Neighbors brought homemade soup when a loved one passed on. Even strangers caught your dog from running into traffic and brought him back to your house.

The day we moved in, a set of new neighbors came over with the biggest smiles and the moistest banana bread.  We pulled off pieces, eating as we unloaded, forgoing the formalities of plates and silverware, which we could not find anyway.

We felt we had walked back into a Norman Rockwell version of our past lives. We had come home again.

This lasted all of one week.

My social butterfly husband made quick friends with local businessmen, feeling out the situation for opening a sports bar, a dream he’d carried with him through four states.

One fellow shook his head.

“That won’t happen,” he lamented. “You’re new; you’ll always be new. And they don’t like that.”

Stunned, Hoss asked more, discouraged when he heard how the locals – and specifically the town council - pushed out new businesses and dissuaded growth.

“They lean on those horses, but they’re on their way out,” another said, a nod to the Tennessee Walking Horse industry that floundered in the light of animal cruelty charges.

Only months before, a major financial supporter reassigned funds meant to support the town’s main tourist attraction – the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration week. The festival is so large,; the county school district schedules a Fall break to accommodate the students who participate.
Every story worsened until one day, everything collapsed – literally.

A fast and furious storm passed through the county, overwhelming the large, antiquated flume collecting the town’s rain water, diverting it under several municipal buildings, and into Duck River.

Until it buckled.

Then it bent.

Then it swallowed a police car.

It wasn’t news that it would collapse. The town council had known about it for decades.

Even as the countdown clock ticked passed the year 2012 deadline to replace it, the town council made no plans, set aside no funds. Instead, they incurred more debt through lawsuits filed against the city.

The only bill sure to be paid was their salary.

The flume replacement and the lawsuit – paid by new taxes they passed onto the homeowners.

When Shelbyville’s city manager applied for FEMA help, they denied the request, saying that the town council’s bad planning wasn’t an emergency and could have been avoided.

We read stories in the Shelbyville Free Press, the Tennessean, and listened as town folks complained. The swell of outrage seemed to be rising, only to peter out after a few weeks, the feeling of pointlessness absorbing their outrage.

The original insiders told us nothing could be done. Indirectly, we were told our help would not be wanted. We were not from here, so it was not our business with which to be concerned.

Hoss and I wondered if we had chosen wrongly. We worried that the town would not let us or others grow. We stood to lose our investment – not just in money, but in what we had become and what we chosen to be a part of.

Lucky enough to be born here, these people, this town, all of you – you chose to stay. Lucky enough to live anywhere, we chose to come here.
All of us new insiders, we chose you. We chose here. We chose to be a part of this life, of this town, of our people.

We brought our children here to learn, to grow, and work together, much like we hope to do ourselves.

We came here because we see the same value and potential you do.

Now, we want to act on it.

We want to let this town blossom, to become the amazing place that visitors harken back to and dream of settling.

All of us – born here or moved here – we want to succeed, and we want to be proud.

We are – all of us – a part of this town.

All of us.

A cat jumps up on a box sending it crashing to the floor, breaking all our drinking glasses. Hoss and I look at each other. “I think we’re here for a while,” I smile and sigh.

About the Author

Cass Van Gelder
Cass Van Gelder’s spent most of her days convincing herself that writing is way more important than laundry, and failing miserably.

With an extensive background in journalism, English, opera, and theatre, she made her way through New York, San Francisco, and more recently Las Vegas; writing, singing, all the while imploring the use of the Oxford comma.

Locate more of her work on the ESPN Radio – Las Vegas site, along with www.PainInTheCass.blogspot.com.
Twitter: Pain_N_The_Cass
Facebook: Cassandra D. Van Gelder (PainInTheCass)
Email: cass_van_gelder@yahoo.com


copyright - All rights to the work posted on this site are retained by Cass Van Gelder. If you'd like to use some of my work, please ask. To do so, the permissions must be spelled out in writing...from me...I mean it. I have horribly mean cats; don't make me use them.

Absolutely American

(Originally published at http://www.shelbyvillefreepress.org/absolutely-american on December 19, 2015)


My editor wants to thunk my forehead. He asked me back in November to write about the Syrian refugees. I’m seeing him at a party in a few days and I can only dodge him so long, seeing as it’s his house.

I dragged my feet on this column because I didn’t want to be reactionary, which seems to be the achievement du jour in a world of click-and-burn comments and responses. 

As Thanksgiving week came and went, me alongside the sweetest Republican xenophobes (whom I adore in spite of my fears when I envision them in a voting booth,) my mind tumbled with what shutting these refugees out meant. 

So, follow me on this one

(Doodley-doo-doo, doodley –doo-doo… okay, just imagine those awesome wavy lines they do on TV when it’s a flashback…)

Back in Astoria in 1990, I waited, smiling patiently at my Greek dry cleaner, him not-so patiently waiting for me to respond to his question in his native tongue. He saw my first name on my ticket and when he looked at me, he convinced himself I was from the old country. He teasingly waved my suit in front of me. Finally, I say the only Greek word I know: “Ouzo.” He laughed, handing me my hangers.

Fast forward to my Little Italy visits that result in me conversing strictly in spaghetti jar names: Prego! A tiny Italian woman waddles over to me, hugs me, and then spews fast-paced, delighted lyrical language at me, none of which I understand. Her daughter politely tells me how excited she is to see someone from Naples, and her single nephew is my age. Just in case.

Even my sister-in-law Dawn’s lovely Oreo children – twins Edward and William, and little Noelle – are mistaken for my own though they are half European stew and the other half black. Basically, strangers must think I have a lot of money to have a Caucasian au pair. 

I’d liked to say this is new, but even the waiters at our own La Hacienda in town still try to get me to order in Spanish when we visit. I dust off my 4 years of high school Spanish only to tell them my name and ask where the school is.

For years, I’ve melted into the “brown crowd.” (Go ahead and look at my profile picture. See if you can figure out my ethnic makeup.) They welcome me into whatever culture they’ve come from. They smile, convinced I am hiding as much as they are, likely for similar reasons. 

It is a hassle to be brown; sometimes, it’s even dangerous.

We Americans love absolutes. 

We want black and white, not gray. 

We want happy or angry, not complacent. 

We want guilty or innocent, not justice.

We want safe and dangerous, not freedom. 

We want simple. 

We want the categories wide apart, thick lines separating them, so that there is nothing that could muddy them. We want them so far apart that no danger can touch us.

That’s the word of theory. We live in the world of reality. 

When the planes blew through the Twin Towers and through millions of people’s lives, the brown crowd shuddered – for the loss, yes; for the pain, even more; but also, for what was to come.

For as much as we brown people easily meld together in each other’s minds, those who are afraid cannot tell us apart. Korean looks like Chinese looks like Japanese looks like Filipino to many people. Iranian is Indian is Iraqi is Syrian, too. Our faces melt into one. 

With our dark skin, we take on the burdens of any infraction a small group or lone person who acts in isolation, in a vacuum. With machine gun accuracy, we are punished, innocent taken with guilty. The 1940’s filled cages with blameless people because fear was more important than fair.

My skin does not make me dangerous. Yet, in the winter, without my tan, you accept me. In the Summer, you move to another seat on the plane.

I have done nothing. Fear says I am not to be trusted.

But this is a choice: you choose to make it. You choose to let go and let Fear drive, running down innocent as well as guilty. We are the fallout, the collateral damage, a price you are willing to pay.

As Christmas comes upon us, those who follow the Christian teachings, remind yourself: the manager held a brown child. 

A few years back while getting help loading a Ready Vac into my Cabriolet, a driver sped past, yelling out at me. I didn’t catch what he said, but the fellow helping me seemed very uncomfortable. When I asked what the driver said, he wouldn’t repeat it. Finally, I drug it out of him.

“Ma’am, he said, ‘Go back to East L.A.,’” and he shut my trunk. “Wait, why are you laughing?”

“Because,” I said, catching my breath. “I’m Cherokee.”

(mic drop)

About the Author

Cass Van Gelder
Cass Van Gelder’s spent most of her days convincing herself that writing is way more important than laundry, and failing miserably.

With an extensive background in journalism, English, opera, and theatre, she made her way through New York, San Francisco, and more recently Las Vegas; writing, singing, all the while imploring the use of the Oxford comma.

Locate more of her work on the ESPN Radio – Las Vegas site, along with www.PainInTheCass.blogspot.com.
Twitter: Pain_N_The_Cass
Facebook: Cassandra D. Van Gelder (PainInTheCass)
Email: cass_van_gelder@yahoo.com


copyright - All rights to the work posted on this site are retained by Cass Van Gelder. If you'd like to use some of my work, please ask. To do so, the permissions must be spelled out in writing...from me...I mean it. I have horribly mean cats; don't make me use them.