Keeping It (Un)Real In The Dirty Water

18 Feb

When people ask me where I come from and I answer, Waterbury, Connecticut, they often respond with, “Oh…”and then, silence. I read the down-turned frown on their faces, their lack of words the same as when I hear the more direct response, “Ewww, it’s not very nice there….”

I always make sure I don’t leave out Waterbury, because if you just say Connecticut, people think you’re rich and from one of the wealthy towns like Greenwich or Darien, or that you live out in the sticks, and then they say things, like, “Oh, it’s so pretty there…so quiet.”

My, “I’m from Waterbury” is so I gain street cred as coming from the gritty, industrial town, once known as The Brass Capital Of The World. But, like in many other American cities, the factories closed down in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and in the late 90’s, Waterbury was rated as one of the “Ten Worst Places to Live in America” in Places Rated Almanac.

I know the biggest aspect of telling people I’m from Waterbury is to show I come from a place of diversity. I want them to know I attended a high school with a student body that was forty-percent black, instead of one where there were only two or three black students in the entire school. I want people to think I’m cool like that; down like that.

On Facebook, I saw that some of my old high school friends referred to Waterbury as The Dirty Water. To try and find out where the nickname came from, and to ask a few questions to gain a black student’s perspective on going to our alma mater, Wilby High, back in the late 70’s, I called up an old high school friend who still lives in Waterbury, Jay Seay (I know I can’t make Jay “the black spokesperson” for Wilby, though—he was only one of 80 black students out of our senior class of 220 students). Jay was co-captain of Wilby’s basketball team, and is now a high school basketball coach.

Dirty Water? I think it’s after the Dirty South, like how Southern Rap started and they got that name, and I think a deejay on the radio here might have started it—using the name, The Dirty Water for Waterbury,” Jay offered up.

While I don’t go as far as to tell people I’m from The Dirty Water, I also don’t tell them that I happened to grow up on one of the nicer streets in town. When I asked Jay what he thought about the street I grew up on, he said, “I thought that’s where people that were more educated lived—that they were business owners—not factory workers…”

As I talked more with Jay about his time in high school, all the empathy in the world couldn’t allow me to experience what he would tell me about that night.

“I had a guidance counselor that told me I didn’t need to learn Latin,” Jay said, plainly, his flatness emphasizing, even more, the blow he took some 30 years ago. I felt the sting of the punch, too, as I recalled a similar story told to me by a mutual friend, Arthur “Yogi” Rose.

“Really? Oh no!,” I said, and then hurriedly continued, “Remember when Yogi’s guidance counselor (who was also black) told him that he was aiming too high to apply to Tisch School of the Arts at New York University? She said he might not get in, or get the dance scholarship he needed. And Yogi, told her he was applying, would get in, and would get the scholarship, and—that’s what he did.”

When Jay responded next, I realized I might have sounded like I was challenging him—like saying, why didn’t you do what Yogi did?

“Yes, I remember. And, I don’t know, some people can take things in, and keep going, and others its harder for. I didn’t tell my mother about what the guidance counselor said. She would’ve come down to the school and fought for me. But…I didn’t say anything. I just looked the other way.”

And, here I am, wanting to keep it real, telling everyone I’m from Waterbury, The Dirty Water, and I went to this really diverse high school, and I’m cool like that. But, I didn’t get told I didn’t need to learn Latin. How real is that?


10 Responses to “Keeping It (Un)Real In The Dirty Water”

  1. Myrna Griffith February 18, 2012 at 8:30 am #

    Good one, Wendy. What a great idea to set up a blog. Thinking about doing it, myself.

    • Wendy Jane February 18, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

      You should, Myrna:)

  2. Kelly February 18, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

    May I shed some light on the origIns of “Dirty Water?” I happen to know exactly how it began. My nephew, EB, was talking with some friends about the then Mayor of Waterbury, Giordano. This was before the information about his relationship with a prostitute, his fathering of her child and his subsequent rape of her other daughter and niece became public. The streets knew the deal with him. So EB says “There is something dirty in Waterbury… It’s the Dirty Water…”
    He and his boys used the term often and named their rap crew “The Dirty Water Navy.”
    DJ KG ( a Waterbury native) heard the term and used it on Hot 93.7 one day. It caught on.
    EB has, I believe, copyrighted the term. If you search “Dirty Water” on Urban Dictionary, you will find that it references Waterbury,CT.
    Those of us who grew there know that despite general opinion, our city was te greatest place to grow….

    • Wendy Jane February 18, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

      Kelly, Thanks so much for giving us The Dirty Water history. I love knowing this is how it came about. I agree, my sisters and I have always been proud of growing up in Waterbury. Again, thanks for sharing this.

  3. sg February 19, 2012 at 12:39 am #

    So what did your guidance counselor tell you? Did they still teach Latin at Wilby? I always felt that it was totally not fair taking Spanish with a class half full of Puerto Ricans, but I don’t remember Latin.

    I’m enjoying reading your posts. Keep it up, or maybe it should be, get down wid’it.

    • Wendy Jane February 19, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

      Hi sister! Actually, I was upset that my guidance counselor just seemed to go along with my plans to veer from College Prep classes to more business classes, and didn’t prod me to have more aspirations than to go to business or secretarial school. I didn’t have much faith in myself, even though I knew I could aspire to more, and so, though it was very passive of me, I had really wished the guidance counselor would have recognized I had some special qualities and should go for bigger goals.

      Thanks for the good wishes! 🙂 And, you did well in Spanish, even if you were at a disadvantage with your peers.

  4. Christopher Johnson February 20, 2012 at 9:25 pm #

    Wow. Thanks for sharing.

    • Wendy Jane February 20, 2012 at 9:43 pm #

      Thanks for reading, Christopher!

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Oh Great! Hometown Waterbury Teacher Calls Student, "Black Boy" | Wendy Jane's Soul Shake - June 9, 2012

    […] brag on my About page, and in a prior post,  Keeping It (Un)Real In The Dirty Water, about growing up in the diverse town of Waterbury, Connecticut.  About going to a high school […]

  2. Wendy Jane’s Weekend Sounds – Reader’s Choice Contest Winner: Fast Car by Tracy Chapman | Wendy Jane's Soul Shake - March 30, 2014

    […] I met Kelly Quinn on Facebook through mutual friends. Like me, Kelly’s from Waterbury–the H2O, the “Dirty Water”, the “Dirty,” but I didn’t know her growing up because she’s a little younger than me, and went to rival high school, Kennedy.  I was a Wilby girl. (Read more about growing up in Waterbury here in my past post, Keeping It (Un)Real In The “Dirty Water”). […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: