Thursday, October 26, 2006

Mattie versus Etta

In The Women of Brewster Place, the first chapter "Mattie Michael" reminded me a lot of a conversation we had during our discussions over Calvino's book, Invisible Cities. I remember we talked about what cities mean for different people, and how certain cities become traps to an individual. Some people are capable and allowed to leave cities and others are trapped, either by their ties to the past, by poverty, or various other issues. The opposite individuals who move freely through cities, see cities as opportunities, and stay only for as long as they wish. I saw the embodiment of these two opposing individuals in Mattie and her friend Etta. As Mattie was leaving her family on the Greyhound, Naylor writes, "Mattie sat in an aisle seat and tried to ignore the melting of familiar landscapes. She didn't want to think about the strange city that lay ahead or even of her friend Etta...And she didn't want to think about the home that had been lost to her...But just then the baby moved, and she put her hands on her stomach and knew that she was nurturing within her what had gone before and would come after. The child would tie her to that past and future as inextricably as it was now tied to her every heartbeat" (pg 24, 25). For Mattie a city represents something foreign, something she dreads because it is unknown. She is a young girl coming from a country and so the idea of a city was probably very foreign to her. Moving to the same city could be seen as an opportunity for anyone else, but for Mattie it was more like a punishment from her father. After her son Basil is born she frequently longs for home, because her apartment in the city is so cold and rundown. I thought it was interesting that Mattie thinks of her baby as the tie that binds the past and the future together. I can see with so much baggage that Mattie could only view her entry into the city as negative – a binding trap.

Mattie’s friend Etta on the other hand seeks out cities, for their opportunities, hopping from city to city in search of the hot spot place. Etta says, "Honey, New York is the place to be! All those soldier boys are just pullin' up to the docks with pocketfuls of combat pay and lookin' for someone to help 'em invest it. And there's a place called Harlem with nothing but wall-to-wall colored doctors...With all them possibilities, you bound to find Basil a rich daddy" (pg 26). Mattie goes on to lightly criticize Etta saying she was always moving to new cities from New York, to Chicago, to St. Louis in search of something she hasn’t yet found. Etta has no responsibilities, but Mattie is bound to her son. Because of this difference Etta is able to fully embrace the excitements of city life, and she can move from city to city as she pleases.
This made me curious to the idea of what a city’s purpose is. If someone has no responsibilities what is the point of seeking out opportunities? Maybe this is why Etta is constantly moving to different cities. Although if you are bound to your responsibilities as Mattie is, then you become limited to the opportunities you can seize, thus establishing the city as a trap. In thinking more of the city as a trap, I can connect to the people at Beans and Bread. So many of their stories share a common pattern of attempting to better their situation, only to fall deeper into poverty because of the city’s limited opportunities. I remember last semester when I volunteered at My Sister’s Place, the homeless women were able to set up personal mail addresses in the building, so if they went on interviews they could receive mail. Many of these letters, piles upon piles, were never properly distributed to the homeless women because of limited staff at My Sister’s Place. The women were stuck in the same place without room to make much improvement in their lives. I found the concept noble, but because it was not executed the city remained a trap for those who could not help themselves.