It was Christmas Eve, I guess technically Christmas because it was past midnight. We are, in fact, die-hard, committed Catholics, and on the Southside of Chicago on Christmas Eve, you are always found in your home parish, and my mother and I were no different. St. Ambrose was in full performance, even though the dilapidated church was hanging on by the threads, the parishioners rejoiced the coming of Christ anyway.
I sat for three hours in the cold church, watching my mother sing in the choir. The church was literally crumbling before our eyes, and even though it was not my home parish, I felt sad for it. I also felt cold. Shivering actually. The heat wasn’t on, I wasn’t sure if it even worked.
The old school church was covered in marble, and the doors beside the pulpit were drafting cold air across all of the feet under the pews. By the time we shuffled out the door at 1am, all I wanted was a warm drink and bed. It was always a tradition that when we left St. Ambrose after Midnight Mass, we stopped at the McDonalds at 55th and LaFayette to get a snack for the short drive home.
I drove my mom’s dying minivan, pushing it to the limits. The cold wasn’t forgiving to that old powder blue Toyota, and neither were the Chicago potholes. I pressed the accelerator and the van groaned, but I pushed on wanting a hot chocolate and didn’t care if it fell apart in transit.
I pulled into the parking lot, and I saw you behind the counter taking drive-thru orders. You were wearing a neon blue sweatshirt with YALE across the chest. It immediately struck my curiosity. That in itself should have been a red flag for me – that my curiosity spiked. My curiosity has gotten me backhanded into walls because I couldn’t remember time, place, manner, or tact. Stupid curiosity.
It was the Southside of Chicago – Hyde Park. Washington Park is divided with the richness of the Obamas and the University of Chicago on one side while the other side…well, your heart breaks when you drive past the homeless under the El on cold December nights. Guess which side the McDonald’s was on? The side with unattended potholes older than my 24-year-old body. The side that you rolled down the street on, in fear of accidentally hitting a panhandler begging for pennies off the curb. Where police posted signs and arrested people for loitering. It was the Southside, but it was home. Home, where opportunities were spread thin. A Black kid making something of themself from one of those blocks is something to triumph but often is not celebrated. It’s questioned.
And even I, a woman who is a product of a different Southside, who watched kids like you play while I waited for the bus to private school, should have known better than to ask the question I did. Or how I did.
When you handed me my peach and mango smoothie and my mom’s strawberry banana smoothie (what the fuck happened to me getting a hot chocolate?), I stared at the letters on your chest and asked, “Do you go to Yale?”
You answered a very low, “Yes.”
It was a painful yes. A yes that stabbed my heart for asking such a careless question. I tried to mumble something else, but you had already turned away. I knew that I had upset you, possibly even offended you.
I drove off, disappointed. Ashamed almost.
I did not intend to make it seem that I was surprised that you attended Yale. As a kid from the Southside myself, I know our secret: resiliency. If we want to go to Yale, we go to fucking Yale. If we want to open a Harold’s Chicken Shack, we open a Harold’s Chicken Shack! Sure, we may fail, but we figure it out. There aren’t kids like us anywhere else. We watch our friends get murdered on the 103rd bus and know that we still have to ride it to school the next day. We are strong.
I did not intend to make it seem like someone working at a McDonald’s, or in a service profession, wouldn’t apply to or attend Yale University. I did not intend to make it seem that you couldn’t go there. You belong there. I’m positive that you are educating those New Havenians about what hard work looks like. Chicago style.
What I did intend was to convey that you are a badass. A badass who knows what hard work, intelligence, and resiliency do. I admire you. I admire what you have accomplished. I admire the example you are setting for the other kids eating Flaming Hot Cheetos for breakfast. People like you deliver the message that we are better and we should demand better.
I wish that I had asked your name, because I know it’s going to be a name everyone knows in ten years. You’re brave to proudly announce all that you have accomplished. You embody who you are and who we strive to be: real people working hard to be who we were intended to be.
My apologies if it came off differently than what I intended.
So, young woman in the Yale sweatshirt, I am so sorry.
The Girl in the Powder Blue Van.
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