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Trailer Chic

Move to a mobile home and you were on your way downhill, Dorothy Allison recalls of her Southern childhood. Then she saw Malibu's Paradise Cove, and it was uphill from there.

May 21, 2006|Dorothy Allison | Dorothy Allison is a writer living in Guerneville, Calif., whose work includes "Two or Three Things I Know for Sure," "Trash" and "Bastard Out of Carolina," which was a National Book Award finalist.

Across from the gated entrance to Paradise Cove, a private beach in Malibu, there sits a silver Airstream mobile home that catches the sunlight and reflects it right up the bluff to the spindly green and silver trees overlooking the ocean. The Airstream is perhaps 15 feet long and sealed up as tight as an unopened pack of cigarettes.

Standing across from it, I thought of my Southern childhood and the mobile homes my cousins would stream out of like so many circus clowns escaping impossibly small compartments.

"Keep your shoes on," Mama would tell my sisters and me when we visited one of our aunts in the trailer park. "And, no, you can't sleep over." Then she would turn to embrace her sister, knowing that soon enough we would be running barefoot with our cousins and begging to spend the weekend--and now and then she would relent and let us stay.

What Mama scorned, we admired. We envied our cousins, and dreamed of living in a home on wheels where nothing had to be packed up when you got the notion to move. There was the charm of sleeping in box beds stacked three high in the narrow space between the kitchen/living area and the tiny "master" bedroom at the back. There were clever little net shelves in the corners where flashlights or treasures could be tucked.

Drawers on the bottom held clothes and toys, and dried out peanut-butter sandwiches that could be retrieved with one hand.

Everything fitted tightly together; everything had a double use. The bathroom door when open sealed the hallway from the bedroom. And when you sat on the toilet, the sink was right at your elbow, so that you could brush your teeth or reach up and turn on the overhead shower.

"You can pee and wash your hair at the same time," my little sister announced in awe.

"Why would you want to do that?" Mama shook her head. We looked away. If she didn't understand, we could not explain.

The trailer park was where you went when you could no longer afford the cost of a house or an apartment. It was a way station with dusty paths, barking dogs and strings of Christmas lights strung from awnings and flung over ragged dogwoods or tacked to telephone poles. We loved playing hide-and-seek behind the propane tanks.

We pulled off our shoes in imitation of our cousins, wiggling our heels in the silky dirt or jumping from fence posts to garbage cans. We rummaged through the stinky dump at the end of the park for abandoned treasures or huddled under open windows to listen to the grownup talk that drifted in and around the radios that competed to drown out curse words we wanted to learn to use ourselves--or secrets we knew we must never admit we had heard.

Before Mama would let us climb back in the car to head home, she insisted on using a hose to rinse our feet and hands and a rough towel to scrub away the topmost layer of filth. The next morning she would inspect our ankles in despair, tracing the telltale spirals of ringworm, the incipient swellings that preceded boils and the itchy crusts left by chigger and flea bites. Alcohol and peroxide washes followed, and lectures about cleanliness and why you should never run barefoot in trailer parks.

Mama looked at the trailer park as a scary downward slope to be avoided. Every time a cousin gave up and moved into one, she kicked into a manic state trying to find an affordable alternative.

Even after we moved to florida, she kept that attitude, though the trailer parks there looked nothing like what we had known in South Carolina. In Florida there were paths made out of blinding white crushed shells and pastel awnings with cheerful colored appliques. Sand blew along the paths, but people kept their dogs on leashes and picked up behind them carefully. They strung lights up on their mosquito netting, but chose single-color strands of angelic silver or icy blue pinpoints.

Neat, bleached and as spare as piano solos, Florida trailer parks seemed a world away from where my cousins had shed teeth and dignity, where we had learned to chug beer and throw back burning shots of whiskey. But there too the stalled engine of poverty seemed to thump along beneath the metallic echo of air conditioners. The inhabitants sprawled on plastic lattice webs of sagging lawn chairs and blinked passively at passersby. What good were interlocking cabinet doors in tin-walled sheds that a hurricane could roll up the road like dust balls?

Standing in front of the Airstream, I thought of my cousins sleeping three high and remembered myself curling up there happily pressed to the sweaty wall paneling. I had never gotten over the realization that my cousins' trailers never moved--their tires flat and sunk in dirt, a trick to promise you freedom then trap you into rent on a place you were never going to own. People with resources bought land. It was the poor and the desperate who landed in trailer parks.

Or was it?

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