Paris is shaped like a snail; Brasília is like a bird, or an airplane. My hometown of Boise, Idaho, is an onion.
Idaho is known for its potatoes, of course, but onions are a major crop in the state where I was born and raised. “The Snake River Valley area in Idaho and Eastern Oregon is the largest onion growing region in the U.S.,” as an industry website claims, generously allowing “largest” to refer to geographic sprawl rather than total tonnage. But the claim feels true. Every summer, my dad’s garage floor is covered with onions harvested from his garden, radiating a mellow gold hue as they dry.
If Boise is an onion, it’s also because of the layers that extend outward from the downtown. In the city center, historic craftsman homes sit on lots not far from apartments housing impoverished white people, as well as Syrian, Iraqi, and Liberian refugees; further out of town in prosperous cul-de-sacs, security systems guard front lawns adorned with benches on which no one will ever sit; and further still are the suburbs where mariachi music phases in and out of cars driving by trailer parks, like the one where my cousin lives.
To the north of my cousin, where the city stops, sage and wild horses cover the foothills of the Rocky Mountains; to her east, they grow sugar beets, barley, and cherry trees. When I graduated from high school, she handed me a card: “Don’t grow moss,” it read. She’d seen too many people get stuck in one place. Her son would join the army and go to Colorado; our other cousin would join the Air Force, and he’s now in Kuwait. I went to college out of state.
As we were leaving, others were coming in. In recent years, Idahoans have worked to frame the state as a “global home for refugees,” as a 2016 National Geographic headline puts it (in no small part to counteract the state’s decades-long reputation for fostering white nationalists). In 1975, the US State Department designated Boise a Refugee Resettlement Community, and until 2018, around a thousand refugees arrived annually to the state. I wonder how hospitable Boise feels, how true the bumper stickers that say “Refugees Welcome Here” are. But if you’d expect that National Geographic feature to answer that question, the real story turns out to be the white photographer’s saga, from her initial “inability to gain access to the [refugee] communities” to her eventual overcoming. The photographer—now a resident of California—speaks as though entitled to her subjects’ stories, as though the only obstacle is the subjects themselves.
Returning to Boise last month for a friend’s wedding, I felt the routine, familiar culture shock. I was flustered, and a little frustrated, by random strangers who expected me to stop for a lengthy chat. “Air’s pretty smoky,” someone would plaintively note, about the forest fires; I found myself searching for words. At a café, the young barista began telling me a story about her car, which was at the shop; “Anyway, how’s your day?” she concluded, cheerfully. When she saw me struggle with the internet, she reached over and took my tablet, typing the password herself. Once I was online, the algorithms detected my location and began recruiting me to enlist in the military.
After 10 years living in Washington, Indiana, and New York, I found these gestures intrusive, even if 18 years in Idaho would tell me that they were expressions of care. But intrusive care is everywhere. At a nearby table, I heard a young man speaking with his mentor about a recent church “service trip” to Africa, one of the ways that Idahoans leave the state. “We knew we had to take ownership of the situation,” I heard him declare, a familiar phrasing that gave me pause. I wanted to intervene myself. I wanted to lend him a good decolonial theory reader, or just give him one.
That tone conveyed an ethos of service, one that pervades white life in Boise: sports, school, the military, religion. It can mean letting the kids down the street use your basketball hoop or paying a needy family’s rent. It can also turn into unsolicited preaching.
In college, I read dense texts on colonialism and dependence; Immanuel Wallerstein’s “world-systems theory” tried to take the whole world into account, critiquing international development. I began to see Boise as a devious actor in that network, a beneficiary of exploitation that branded itself gracious and neighborly. I started to see the ways that white supremacy and patriarchy reinforce each other in the name of “service,” the way it was the missionary’s duty to go and his wife’s to take care of the details. I remember sharing a news article about Mormon church leaders once, a few years after leaving Boise, an article about how leadership manipulated kids with homophobic messaging. I hoped it might reach somebody looking for a hand; I told myself it was more effective to intervene on controversial issues from a distance than to engage in person. From afar, an old high school friend quickly sent me a private appeal: I’m not brainwashed by old men, she insisted. I believe that stuff.
Speaking up in Idaho has rarely gone well, in my experience. Beyond the feeling of futility, the costs are high. When I was a teenager, my friends would repeat cruel rape jokes for my benefit; the more I protested, the more I was “offended,” the more they would repeat them. My elementary school friend had warned me that boys don’t like smart girls, but as a child, I hadn’t noticed the bruises on her mom’s face when she dropped her off. My mom did; it wasn’t the first mean drunk she’d caught traces of. I’ve often wondered what we should have done. Surely not nothing, but which something?
After our friend’s wedding, I went with some of my old friends to catch up downtown. We had known each other for years, despite living in different places, and it was good to see them. Unlike me, they still had their fingers on the pulse of the city.
We ended up at a club called Tom Grainey’s, where I’d never been. The gathered crowd was more interesting than any image of Boise “itself”: Rasta kids, decrepit punks, elegant queens. Just like a little Berghain, I found myself thinking, the venue’s two-tiered setup reminding me of the Berlin club where one floor plays house music and the other techno. Grainey’s scene wasn’t so nuanced or exclusive, but I wasn’t finding it so bad, until I went to the restroom. “Always give him head,” read the stall’s most legible graffiti, in a girlish script that blossomed around the vowels.
I wasn’t offended, but I wondered whether the men’s room was etched in kind. In trying to imagine the impulse to write that, of all things, as a bathroom dispatch, I didn’t find it as hard as I’d like. I knew the voice leaping from the wall, this obliging, wild-hearted mountain girl. She was every barista in Boise with a broke-down car and a shitty boyfriend; she was also a former me. I didn’t have my pen, or my pocketknife, but I had an urge to scratch out that graffiti.
Back in the main room, what at 10 p.m. had been dead was ecstatic by midnight: booming, tense, dilated, with broken glass strewn across the crowded dance floor and people lifted up on their partners’ laps. Our group danced near the outside corner, enjoying ourselves but feeling a little like wallflowers or chaperones. We weren’t the oldest people out by any means, but, pushing 30, we joked that our knees hurt.
And then, I saw a friend’s dance partner rubbing some drug on her gums while he moved in closer. A moment later, I brought her a cup of water from the bar. I didn’t know her well, but I’d met her at the wedding and felt a bond. “Oh, I don’t drink water,” she laughed, not too sadly, her way of saying she knew just what was going on. She looked tired, as though she’d told herself she was going to party and couldn’t back out now. She drank the water, not too slowly, before moving back in time. Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” burst through the DJ’s speakers, addressing us from the other coast: “Honestly, don’t give a fuck / about who ain’t fond of me.” If her voice rang out like wishful thinking in this context, the rhythm felt real as hell.
Whether resigned to dependence or at peace with it is a matter of emphasis. Maybe the smartest find a satisfying frame. My friend bent her head back, beats coursing across her neck, so open to everything, and I wondered about the bruise on her arm. I didn’t expect anything in return for my gesture, but as I left, she blew me a kiss.
I felt glad for a minute, like our exchange had resolved something. But then I went outside. The smoke had cleared; the summer sky was crowded with stars that, despite my efforts, won’t be moved by me.