Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Old factory buildings, their cracked and dirty windows the ancient eyes of progress dormant; rail spurs grown over with weeds where steel wheels once carried precious cargo; a sun-beaten loading dock, hangout now for indolent juvenile delinquent pigeons, but formerly where fathers and grandfathers dripped sweat while dreaming of something better for their children.
Across the potholed street, a shopping center, the latest thing - two generations past - in 1960's space-age architecture (triangularly-shaped logos with sharp, motion-suggestive typeface.) Now an ancient ironic relic, it borders a self-serve gas station/convenience store doing a brisk business in instant lottery tickets (which litter the ground in mute testimony to the futility of the advertised hope.) No one under the age of 50 enters the forlorn supermarket (and, it seems, even fewer exit.)
Two nail salons vie for business with three bars and a Chinese take-away. Where once a bakery filled the neighborhood with delicious aromas of fresh-baked breads, Mickey D serves tasty grease and heart attacks.
An old man with four-day gray stubble shuffles down the street carrying a shopping bag full of broken dreams, destination unknown even to him, his too-long corduroy trousers, with baggy and worn seat, sweeping the sidewalk. He moves past a gang of boys whose parents have deluded themselves into thinking they are attending school. They laugh at the old man (who doesn't hear their insults in his world) unaware that it is their future walking by them trailing a faint odor of piss.
A block away, plywood fills the spaces where there used to be windows in the first floor of an apartment building. Inside, on the third floor, a woman watches Days Of Our Lives and drinks instant coffee laced with Old Granddad. She desperately tries to avoid calculating if the bottle will run dry before her next government check arrives. The second floor is empty except for a few cockroaches too stupid to move someplace better. Behind the first floor plywood, two emaciated junkies doze on linoleum littered with cigarette butts and small empty packets of powdered temporary happiness.
A bus rumbles by on the main street, delivering diesel exhaust to complement the overwhelming smells of defeat, despair, desperation, and denial. The riders pass through poverty on their way from lower-middle-class dwellings to jobs with upper-middle-class dreams. They hope the bus makes no stops in this neighborhood. No one they wish to associate with ever gets on here. The driver, who once lived in the second floor apartment (but escaped via virtue of hard work, long hours, and luck) keeps his eyes on the road and his foot on the accelerator. He also hopes to make no stops here. He has no desire to strike up old acquaintances.
A police cruiser makes a desultory tour of side streets. The two officers inside know, from years of duty in the area, that randomly stopping at any three or four residences will likely result in their uncovering some small crime or another, but they save their energies for the inevitable something bigger which will cry out for their full attentions later. Drug usage and petty theft pale in comparison to rape and murder. They willfully ignore minor details in favor of keeping an eye on the bigger picture.
The local politicians - none of them quite this local - make a grand show of hand wringing about the neighborhood, but do nothing more than make sure it doesn't entirely burn to the ground before the next election. When someone with brains enough to challenge them shows up on these streets, they gladhand him and put him on-staff before he becomes too dangerous.
And there is always a baby crying, a dog barking, and the faint sound of tires squealing in the background.
Question worth asking: Is this my old neighborhood? Did I live there?
Yes and no. My old neighborhood came close, sometimes, in the year or two before I left, but I only encountered the totality of it while I was on drugs and associating with folks who lived in these sorts of surroundings full-time. A couple of bad breaks and I would have taken up residence.
The neighborhood exists in every big city in America. The routinely lucky never live there. The truly blessed live there once and get out. If they understand what they escaped, they remain eternally aware of their good fortune.
Point? None other than what you take from it. Or give to it, as the case may be.
Soon, with more better stuff.