On the wrong side of the tracks.

I never get tired of seeing the trains cross where I live. I know others get annoyed and irritated by the delay, but I appreciate the required stop to watch and listen. It also provides a unique opportunity that others who live where there are no trains may not have when conversing with their children. When my boys were younger, it was magical to them. As an exasperated and exhausted mother, the train would come and the gratitude I felt in those moments is hard to grasp. It was as if the books we read came to life right in front of them and they’d sit quietly in awe of these magnificent feats of engineering huffing and clunking past them. Now, as they read and experience more with age, the idiom “wrong side of the tracks” is visible and understandable to them in the literal metaphor it originated from, so common in our language and culture that finding any lone origination story is a challenge I’ll leave to someone with the means and time to uncover. As we drive parallel to the tracks, it’s clear that the houses near them are in various states of disrepair. There is garbage hanging from the fences, providing the appearance of separation and not much else. There are families playing behind those fences and dogs howling warnings against the offensive metal beasts intruding into their territory. Because our city was once a mill town and still has rock mining and factories, tracks run in multiple spots throughout. I wouldn’t say we have just one wrong side, but several. Some of these sides might arguably be a little more “wrong” than the others. The undeniable truth is that people live everywhere and they deserve respect, regardless of the work they do or whether their alarm clock is a train at 4 am. When the boys were just starting to count, I would drive by one factory in particular and point out the sign noting how many days since an injury had occurred. We talked about how some work is more dangerous than others and days with no band-aids or hospital visits were successes we should be excited about. The kids would cheer from the back as the number moved to double digits and sometimes even triple. They would frown when the number dropped back down to zero, understanding that someone in the building had been harmed. Now, when the moment presents itself, we talk about how some employers don’t protect workers as well as they could and should. We talk about how all jobs matter and that we benefit from the efforts of those we don’t see, working odd hours in cramped quarters in giant buildings on the outskirts of town or sometimes, right in the middle of town, just well-hidden by other more desirable structures. I will continue to talk with them about how some people weren’t allowed to purchase homes anywhere but near trains, that the “wrong” side was created in an effort to keep people segregated and that this segregation still exists. I’ll remind them that we can change what “wrong” is by remembering the people who live there first and choosing carefully how we speak. I’ve intentionally never used the phrase “wrong side of the tracks” when driving with them, because not using the words is how I know I can help them learn not to use them too. That being said, I will answer honestly if they ask directly about this phrase, because pretending it’s not a real thing is one of the reasons why it remains as real as it is. The paint is peeling from my windows and there is garbage in my front yard, overlooked after weeks of little bits, here and there, falling out as my kids learn to take out the trash. Stray cats roam and dogs bark. Kids play and vehicles are parked along the curbs in the streets of our neighborhood. Sometimes, someone comes home drunk and we can hear the yelling from somewhere nearby. There are even a few homeless people who move through the woods separating our neighborhood from the next. People smile and wave from their porches if they’re out sitting and the summers are filled with the sounds of lawn mowers and the smell of bug repellent and sweat. If a train ran behind our house, we probably wouldn’t look that different from the families who really do have trains for neighbors. What is right and wrong is often a matter of perspective and choice, specifically of those with the privilege to decide.

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