Wednesday, March 18, 2009
In North I bring my kids out onto the front porch where they can play and watch the usual activities of the neighborhood; it is a very busy neighborhood. There are kids running everywhere, a continuous stream of cars, and a constant trickle of pedestrians, as our house is on the way to the bus stop. On any given afternoon I can look out my front door and see a football game commencing in the largest area of free space available for activities: the street. There are clusters of children everywhere, all interacting, all joining together in one big unsupervised play-date.
In North people actually use their front porches a lot. We have a grill on ours that we use regularly. Our five-year-old neighbor Jonathan has tried to buy steak and hamburger dinners from us. Sometimes, if we see him playing outside before we start cooking, we will add extra for him.
In North I was sitting out on my front porch one day when I met Kelly. She was waiting for her kindergartner to get off the bus. We started chatting and she told me how she had just moved into the neighborhood from Northeast, she didn’t really like North because it was too violent. She is 25 years old and she has seven kids, the oldest is eleven and her youngest is two weeks older than my seven-month-old. She had her first baby in eighth grade and she is proud of the fact that she has just one baby daddy. She has been with him more than half her life and he was eighteen years older than her when they met. We talk several times a week now while she is waiting at the bus stop, and we’ve been invited to her birthday party.
In North my daughter asks, in two-year-old fashion, “What are them doing?” when she hears people conversing through shouts from opposite ends of the block. I say, “They are talking to each other.” She tries to copy them, yelling out unintelligible noises. I try to tell her that it is not nice to shout at people like that, but to her it is just what people do. It’s just another way to have a conversation.
In North I am starting to recognize homeless faces. My neighbor knows several of their names and though I don’t yet, I will someday. For now I give them cash and feel sad when the nights get colder and colder because they are the same faces that I saw standing out there the last time the nights got colder and colder. I wonder how they keep hope. If I don’t have cash, at least I offer them a smile, just to say, “Hey, I notice you.”
In North a snowy afternoon might bring several different groups of elementary entrepreneurs to our door, asking if they can shovel our sidewalks. If we have cash we say yes, even if that means we usually need to shovel again after they are done. If we have cookies we pass them out, but we don’t invite them in for hot chocolate and I am not sure why.
In North the police, fire trucks, and ambulance can arrive on the scene at lightning speed. When my baby was born in the backseat of the car last February, I could hear sirens in the distance before my husband even hung up his 911 call. Amidst all the standard crazy day-to-day activity, the quick arrival time makes me feel safer.
In North it is not every parent’s dream to have a park just two short blocks away from home. My husband was at the park with the girls one day and heard gun shots on the other side of the community center, less than 50 yards away from where my babies were playing. When I put my daughter to bed that night she described to me, “Them cars caught them. Cars wif lights. They went up the hill. The kids were runnin’. Them cars caught them. Why did them do that?” I didn’t have an answer for her.
In North there are times I don’t bring my daughters outside in the middle of the afternoon because I don’t want them to see that the neighbors across the street have gotten so angry they are throwing punches. I don’t want them to see one neighbor holding the other neighbor against the wall, fists pounding, until the cop car races up.
In North nighttime can be even more eventful than daytime. One night I awoke at 2:00am during a raging thunderstorm, while still lying in bed I looked out the window and saw the back of two little heads about 20 inches from my face. A dad and his five kids, their ages about three to eleven years old, were camped out on our lawn chairs on our porch under a No Trespassing sign. The police did not believe this man and his children had walked from an impossibly long distance away. They said they were waiting for Grandma to come and pick them up, as Mom was too drunk for them to go home. After calling Grandma, to re-explain the whole situation and remind her why she was picking them up, she arrived five minutes later. The six of them piled into a five-passenger car with Grandma, and the police watched them drive away.
In North gunshots woke me up around 5:00am. I looked out my bedroom window to see three men pacing back and forth on the sidewalk in front of our house. One of them was on the phone, agitated, and I was glad that someone was calling 911. A car screeched to a halt at the corner. It seems, instead, they were mad because their ride was late. One of the men pulled a gun out of his pocket and they got into the car. He unloaded his weapon into the air before they squealed away. I am not sure what he was trying to say, but I heard him loud and clear.
In North we were also woken up a week before Christmas at 4:00am by someone pounding on the door. When we didn’t answer immediately, we heard, “Police! Open up!” The cops wanted to know if we had heard or seen anything unusual in the past few hours. Yellow crime tape stretched from the corner of our front porch and to the stop sign on the other side of the street. We found out later that a man was shot and killed a couple of houses down the block. We didn’t hear a thing.
In North the next time someone was shot and killed on our street it happened before 10:00pm, while we were still awake. We were sitting at the kitchen table when it suddenly seemed like there was an overly decorated Christmas display on the other side of our drapes. We looked out our kitchen window to see an entire fleet of emergency vehicles appear within two or three minutes. We went outside and overheard someone say they saw a body lying in the street less than half a block away. It was dark and we couldn’t see anything. Our entire intersection was soon blocked off with the yellow crime tape. Two kids, trying to get home, crossed it and got thrown onto the hood of a police car and patted down. Most of the neighborhood showed up. Detectives followed, along with a news crew. People gathered on our front lawn and when they heard the news of who had died some fell to the ground, screaming and wailing. We listened to it while we lay in bed and tried to fall asleep. The next day when we looked out our kitchen window we could see balloons and flowers marking the spot where our neighbor had fallen and died.
In North we are surrounded by empty houses. Five of the six houses directly surrounding our corner are vacant. They are boarded up and condemned. Soon after we moved in we took a walk down the block and counted the houses on our street that we could tell were vacant. From our corner down to the other end of the block were 16 boarded-up houses. Now these houses are falling down around us. The city has decided to bring in cranes and trucks and knock them down. This rocks my daughter’s world. She keeps asking me, “Where did it go? What happened?” We woke her up early one morning so that she could watch as the house across the street was reduced to a pile of boards and bricks; we hoped it would help her understand. Honestly, though, the bizarreness of it all rocks my world too. Especially when it’s the next day, when people scrounging through the massive pile of rubble, pulling out the aluminum siding to sell. It looks like scene from a third world country. Now I don’t know if I want my daughter to see and understand, to think this is normal. There is nothing normal about it.
In North you can hear on the new about a man getting shot and killed on a sidewalk in the middle of the afternoon, and that might mean something to you. It means something else to see a little 10 year old girl strip down to her t-shirt and jeans on the street when the weather is below zero so that she can teach her friend how to win a fist fight. While bouncing around with her fists in the air she says, “You don’t ever wear no hood. They can grab onto that so fast and pull you down. Make sure you don’t wear no hoods.”
In North we have a fire bowl out on our 8x16 piece of lawn. This is where we hang out with friends and meet our neighbors. We met Rob, who sat down to bum a smoke from one of our friends and ended up staying for a couple of hours. Our next encounter with Rob was when he stopped by to see if he could do some yard work for us to make five dollars. We said sure and gave him ten. He was really excited that he could not only buy cigarettes, but toilet paper as well. A few weeks later he knocked on our door at 11:00pm to tell us that he had just been in the hospital with a bleeding stomach ulcer. He wanted to know if my husband would sit on the porch with him and drink a beer. My husband said, “Sure, let me get dressed first.” I went back to bed.