Carmen Rios is the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. magazine, host of Bitch Media's "Popaganda" podcast and co-host of the weekly web series Trigger Happy. She is also the co-founder of the Webby-nominated Argot Magazine. You can learn more about her at carmenfuckingrios.com.
I was raised at the laundromat in the Preakness shopping plaza in Wayne, New Jersey, with my legs dangling from the seat of a plastic chair bolted to a thick metal beam and my neck craned up to see the television set on top of the vending machine.
Down the strip mall was a movie theater where we went for matinees, a Dress Barn where I got my prom dresses, a pet store where, through glass, I looked at tiny dogs that my landlord wouldn’t let us have, a small hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant where my mother and I would get soup and fried wontons for dinner while the laundry tumbled in a dryer down the road. In the middle of a parking lot there was an IHOP, a blue roof calling out from a sea of cars, where I would pick up flyers for Cats and beg my mother to get us tickets. That IHOP caught fire and closed before I went to high school. They never tore it down, and no business ever took over the building. That blue roof is still screaming. This year, at age 28, I saw Cats for the first time, but in Los Angeles at Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.
During my first three years in Los Angeles, I planned my days around the availability of washing machines in three different spots—on York near Eagle Rock Boulevard, where, if I was lucky, there were enough working to empty my quarters before heading to U Pick Cafe next door for a wrap and lentil soup; on York closer to Figueroa, where across the street I bought donuts and lottery tickets at Christy’s Donuts; or on Monte Vista, down the street from Tierra Mia, which is next to that cash-only Mexican restaurant, La Fuente, where Rory threw up in the bathroom and I took Molly for breakfast after calling in sick from work.
That first year in Los Angeles when I was underemployed and over-emotional, sometimes I got in my car and drove to Rosemead, to a massive Walmart Super Center near an Olive Garden and a Petco that could trick me into thinking I was home at the Walmart that was closest to our house, where my mother would buy cheap household supplies while I tried on jeans with pre-sewn patches on the thighs.
Until recently, I never knew where to take my friends when they come to Los Angeles. It isn’t that my life never collides with the myth of Los Angeles—I’ve brunched next to celebrities, walked Rodeo Drive and insisted on going inside a Chanel boutique, stood on both sides of a step-and-repeat. But those moments were aspirational, not comfortable. Those moments were about squeezing myself into a proscribed narrative. Those moments were tiny glimpses into massive myths.
Since I arrived, I’ve been hungry to unearth another version of the city—one obscured by the tourist guides to LA’s historic steps or maps of Charles Bukowski’s favorite bars. I looked endlessly for books about women of color in Los Angeles; books about queer, working-class people in Los Angeles; books about anyone who looked like me, felt like me, loved like me, longed like me, in Los Angeles.
Then I read Native Country of the Heart.
Cherríe Moraga’s memoir, released in April, is set in a not-so-distant past, in San Gabriel on the distinctly Chicana, Latinx Las Tunas Drive; in an Echo Park that queer, female bodies populated and popularized. Nestled in that beautiful book are quick references to restaurants where Moraga and her family ate dinner; short descriptions of places that hold her memories at coordinates I could vividly see in the map of my city I’d drawn in my mind.
Hers was also a book that unabashedly asserted that this place belongs to her—that its story is hers, that its history is Native and Brown and working class. These are also the sorts of landmarks that redraw the map of New Orleans in Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House, released Tuesday, which recounts the author’s childhood in New Orleans East in that house—and the sociopolitical warfare that displaced her family, friends, and neighbors after Hurricane Katrina. Broom’s perspective as a black woman who grew up in an impoverished and under-resourced part of the city is pivotal to understanding the storm and its disproportionate effect on families like hers.
Broom and Moraga bring to the fore new tales of storied cities, restoring reality in the middle of folklore. It’s possible that the laundromat landmarks that define my own experiences across years and across cities might not be on their own maps, and that Wayne, New Jersey, might not be on their radar. But Native Country and The Yellow House venerate these kinds of experiences and the places where they occur, elevating and amplifying them as if to assert that the people who live, love, and have lost in these obscured coordinates are just as important, valuable, human as the iconic figures and events that created these cities’ popular legend.
Broom’s New Orleans does not place the famed French Quarter at the center; instead, she takes readers seven miles east—first down Interstate 10, where black-owned businesses along Claiborne Avenue once boomed; past the signs warning you that the highway is ending and four miles after its final exit, to the High Rise bridge and the four-lane Chef Menteur Highway. Right off of Chef was the K&B drugstore where Broom’s father, Simon, rented a carpet cleaner when the rugs in the Yellow House got dirty.
Eddie, Michael, and Darryl—Broom’s siblings from her mother’s first husband—went to private school on Chef, at St. Paul the Apostle; she crossed it, as a young girl, to get to Jefferson Davis Elementary. Chef is the street where Broom’s sister, Karen, was hit and dragged by a car, but survived.
One mile down that highway, if you’re driving in the far-right lane toward a Chevron gas station, an auto parts store, some run-down apartments, Causey’s Country Kitchen, Natal’s Supermarket and the tire shop that used to be a laundromat, is Wilson Avenue, where the Yellow House once sat. It’s where Broom grew up, at 4121, and where her mother married her father, at 4803.
Near the short end of Wilson, on Old Gentilly Road, where boys fished for crawfish, is where her mother, Ivory, went with Simon each Friday to Schwegmann’s Super Market—one of the author’s “favorite places to act a fool” as a child.
These are not the places where tourists revel and guidebooks dwell. These are the places where life unfolds for the families at the edge of marginalization. These are the places where city life actually transpires—for women, for workers, for queers stuck in silence. These are the places where the invisible underclasses who breathe life into cities, but so often receive no recognition in return, go through the motions of daily life that imbue their own stories with deep meaning.
New Orleans East is the place described by pamphlets and books in the ’80s and ’90s as the “true land of no return.” Yet Broom’s entire family didn’t just come from there—they also came back to there. Even years after the water, thousands of days after he swam through it, her brother Carl still returns to the short end of Wilson. He paces the plot of land where the Yellow House once was, stares out at the space where their family once made their home, cuts grass that was once a yard.
When she was growing up, Broom avoided inviting friends back to her house in New Orleans East. Her mother always cautioned that the Yellow House, which was perpetually “in progress” and suffering structural strife, wasn’t “all that comfortable for other people.” But now, in the wake of a natural disaster which knocked it off of its foundation, split it in two, and gave the city blanket permission to bulldoze it, Broom is hellbent on bringing it back to life.
Broom’s new map of New Orleans is one that requires us to abandon the myth of one city; Moraga’s illustration of Los Angeles requires us to take notice of the communities that built it. The landmarks Broom preserves are sites of familial dreaming, of community suffering, of government failure and institutional racism—but they are also the places where she navigated shame, sought safety and fell in love. The memories Moraga divulges are reminders that Los Angeles has been home to stories still untold in Hollywood and in history books.
For these women to re-inhabit these places, for these authors to write them into memory, compels us to contemplate their destruction and dismissal. For me to bear witness to the reckoning and remembering was an honor—and the closest I’ve come thus far to my own literary homecoming.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing editor, one section of this post gave the wrong middle initial for the author of The Yellow House. It is Sarah M. Broom.