Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Taming my unrealized (until now) egotistical, holier-than-thou way

It's been a rough week in The Hood; it's been one of those weeks that has me questioning why the hell we stay. That line of questioning is reasonably rare, because I'm usually pretty comfortable with my decisions. But what makes it more depressing, is that after this last week, I also am questioning my motives, and my attitude, and just about everything else, too.

When we're very young, many of us hope to be rich and/or famous, right? As we get older, if we are reasonably sensible, we realize rich and/or famous is not necessarily all it's cracked up to be, and just can't happen for everyone. We realize it, and we internalize it, and we find other ways to live satisfying lives, nonetheless. And satisfying is different for everyone, and is impacted by other forces like money, and the environment around us, and traits like determination and resourcefulness.

For me, I thought it would be deeply fulfilling to dig our heels in, and work to improve our neighborhood. As we approach our 5 year anniversary in this neighborhood, and after a ridiculous, and kinda only-in-Trenton bullshit week, I cannot help but wonder what the hell is wrong with me? Maybe I AM a pompous ass, for judging the suburbanites who eat White Flight Pizza at the DeLorenzo's in Robbinsville; for hating the able-bodied who live in gated communities; for feeling annoyance by heterosexual suburbanites who buy designer dog chow.

But, the sad truth of it is, I hate almost everyone around me here in my neighborhood, too. Not everyone. But MOST everyone; at least the people I see frequently. I just can't figure out if I hate them more or less vigorously than I hate than the well-to-do, pale-faced suburban McMansion dwellers, on an average day. Certainly, this week, I do hate the locals far more than I hate the people on the outside. It's a lot of hate to be carrying, and it probably means I need to exercise to work it out. Or find better hobbies. And, for good measure, I should get more sleep (which probably won't happen any time soon). In the meantime, I'll vent.

Last Monday was fairly uneventful, but by Tuesday, the notable began ramping up. By itself, Tuesday was kind of amusing. It was a day of overheard snippets of conversation, and in my neighborhood, often that can be pretty damn hilarious.

I've written about Julian before, the sociopath who lives across the street. Julian has a tendency to throw himself out of the back door of the house and scream "WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU LOOKING AT?? WHAT?? WHAT??? WHAT?? FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCCCCCCCKKKKK!! FUUUUUUUUUCCCCCCCKKK ALL YOU MUTHAFUCKIN' BITCHES! FUCCKKKKKK FUUUUUCCCCCK." He did, in fact do that, twice this week, including once on Tuesday. I know I sport some serious character flaws, because I delight in Julian's psychotic episodes, even though it frightens me too; maybe I love the fear. I don't know. But when he launched out of the house on Tuesday, he hit the railing of the porch, and he let out an angry, primeval scream, and was facing my approximate location in my backyard. I was CERTAIN he was screaming at me. Glen was sitting outside with me, and he thought the same thing; Glen stood up, preparing a defense against a potential attack from Julian.

I stood there, eyes wide, and paralyzed with fear, except that I was laughing, too, and trying to downplay the smile that was growing across my face. That's when I saw the couple walking outside of my fence; they were the unfortunate target of Julian's rage. I say unfortunate, but I'm sure they were far from innocent, as I've come to conclude, there's no one who walks by my house — not a soul — who is innocent. These two just didn't do anything to spark Julian's latest freak-out; even though he screamed "WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU LOOKING AT" directly at them, he allowed them to pass without further incident.

Glen and I were still in the yard when a young girl walked by a short time later, talking on her cellphone. I have lamented the casual use of the word "bitch" before, particularly when a man uses it at a woman. I have lamented the way my neighbors talk about such damning and/or heartbreaking things, so loudly on speaker phone while walking past my house. I have lamented the casual use of the word "nigger," because in my heart, I do not think using it — and other negative words — so commonly will ever truly negate the power, or the terrible history associated with it. I am, perhaps, an old, uptight, white lady.

Despite the fact I hear these words so frequently, and often with such force that the tchotchkes on my walls and shelves rattle, I get my fair share of amusement out of it too. On Tuesday, while Glen and I were still sitting in the yard, that young girl walked by, and as young girls in Trenton tend to do, she was complaining about another young girl, who, in some way, offended her. She said, "...so I tole the bitch to suck my muthafuckin dick. She can suck my muthafuckin dick."

Glen and I were laughing so hard that we couldn't make out the details of the rest of what she said as she walked down our block, but by her tone, we could tell it was more of the very Trenton typical and relatively meaningless he said/she said "disrespek" stuff.

We went inside to prepare dinner; I opened up the doors, to get a breeze flowing through the house, and saw that Julian's less volatile, but wholly less savory uncle, had stopped by to visit his family. We call him, among other things, Uncle Fancy Car, because he has a couple of fancy cars. He was parked outside our side door, and was engaged in a self-aggrandizing conversation, about, of all things, the local stray cats. Again, maybe we're the old stupid white people on the corner, but the local stray cats have pretty much changed our lives. Neither of us had anything against cats prior to moving to Trenton; and while we owned two kitties when got here, we were a far cry from "cat people." We have spent much time and money in the last 5 years adopting and/or finding homes for the local cats; feeding them; and getting them sterilized, in an attempt to keep the population under control. Our efforts, in a big picture sense, have been a huge waste of time; our experience with the cats has been, on several occasions, gut-wrenching, when we find one missing an eye; or positive for some terrible cat disease; or dead under the neighbor's porch; or so severely maimed from fighting, or a birth defect, or poisoning, or a collision with a vehicle, that we are at a total loss for what to do, since they are so hard to catch. We have felt, perhaps in our own unrealized (until now) egotistical, holier-than-thou way, a sense of obligation to these creatures who cross our path, since we — as a species — created them, but many members of our species, including way too many who live near us, have fallen down on the stewardship/caring part of the deal. In the big picture sense, for every one we save, there's another one we lose. For every one we get off the street, another one shows up to fill the void. We will never be able to fix this problem, but I suppose that should not prevent us from trying to do what we can. I try to remind myself of Angus, or Platooski — you know, individual beings — for whom our failing big picture efforts have meant the difference between life and death; in their cases, our efforts have meant everything, and a wonderful life, at that. These are small success stories, in the feline disaster outside our doors, I suppose; but small successes are important too.

Anyway, Uncle Fancy Car has a brother who lives in that house across the street, with crazy Julian. We refer to him as Uncle Peter, since his name is Peter, and most of the kids refer to him as Uncle Peter. Creative, huh? Anyway, Uncle Peter also cares for the cats, much to the dismay of his family. He spends his evenings edging his lawn and washing his aging, but still sporty-but-modest early 1990s model car, after feeding and talking with some of the friendlier strays. Uncle Peter is a gentle, compassionate soul, and we like him very much.

Uncle Fancy Car was near my side steps, describing his recent encounter with one of the friendlier strays, on his cellphone. "So, my brother Peter, you know the one with the black car...no, it's not as nice as MY car, but it's okay, I guess...came home with a bag of cat food last night and fed those damn cats today. I got here to see my mom, and walked up the steps, and one of those muthafuckers was finishing up his free fuckin meal, and he looked at ME, like I should move outta HIS way. I ain't yieldin to no fuckin cat, so we just stared at each other, but that fucker wouldn't move. So I grabbed my mom's mop, which was out on the porch, and I hit that fuckin' cat right in the head. You shoulda seen him move then (laughter)....what, are you some sort of cat advocate or somethin? No, I don't know if he was hurt bad, but he ran off, so I guess not. Fuck those stupid cats."

It takes a big man to beat a trusting cat with a mop. Asshole.

Taken by itself, most of Tuesday's overheard stuff was funny, but when taken in context with the rest of the week, serves as a painful reminder of just how little we have in common with our neighbors.

On Wednesday, I was working in my home office, and looked out the window; I have a pretty good view of some of the alley, most of the garage, and part of the street. In the warmer months, the leaves obstruct the view right outside our garage and fence, which is a drag, since that's what I care the most about, as far as what I can see from that window; but I like trees, so generally speaking, it's not a bad deal. Three middle school kids came out of the alley, and lingered by my garage doors. I couldn't see them, but I could hear them talking. The wind was blowing the tree limbs, and occasionally, I could make out a shirt or a knapsack, on one of the kids or another below me. They were waiting for one of their friends; they were all headed to the library around the corner, based on what I could make out. They hung around for about three minutes, when I saw a similarly aged kid pop out of the alley, and then they were all off, meandering toward the library. Glen got home from work a few minutes later and said he was going to change because he had to paint over the graffiti on the garage.

"S.O.C." can mean just about everything, including a justifiable, retribution shooting. Not sure if the graffiti on our garage means it would be justified for us to get shot, or if the one that happened last week was justified. Or maybe it's the stupid kid's initials. "FBG" was on the other side, and I'm guessing that means "Fat Bottomed Girl." Because, you know, they make the rockin' world go round.

I was floored. I have a tendency to be suspicious of anyone who hangs for more than 10 seconds near our property; I seldom give anyone the benefit of the doubt. But I heard those little knuckleheads talking about the library, and figured they were just waiting for their friend to catch up, so they could all walk together. I assumed they were eager to open their minds at the Briggs branch of library, but chances are, they were probably waiting for their last friend to finish spraying some other garage down the alley, so they could all vandalized the library together. This is the third time in five years our garage has been tagged, by the way.

To further illustrate the lack of respect for personal property is Thursday's bullshit. I was drinking my coffee in the backyard, with Matthew and Steve, when I saw a couple walking down the street toward me. It was early, but they were gussied up in their finest ghetto apparel: a red shirt and matching red ball cap, with saggy pants for him; and skin tight shorts and a pink baby t-shirt, accessorized by gigantic, heavy, gold hoop earrings, for her. They stopped for five seconds or so near my gate. It wasn't a long enough pause for me to become suspicious, but when they got closer to me, I saw the whore had a flower in her hand; she bent into it to smell it. It was red, and papery looking.

I planted a poppy plant last fall, and in the last couple of weeks, it sent up two buds: large, heavy, bulbous buds on skinny, hairy stalks: so improbable and freakish looking. I have never seen a real poppy up close and personal, so I was pretty excited. I knew it was a matter of days before the buds opened. When I saw the knucklehead and whore walk by — with a flower in her hand — I knew that I missed the bloom. My heart sank. I peeked on the other side of my fence, to my little side garden, where I saw only one bud, and a broken stalk.

We've witnessed/endured our fair share of shit here on our corner in the last 5 years: a couple of murders, some vandalism, a mugging, tons of drug-dealing, monthly car accidents in the intersection, a blow-job in a car (which I interrupted), so much littering, and way too much assholery, to even process. Despite all of this, I know that most days are uneventful; just regular days like you may be having in your neighborhood, even in your White Flight McMansion, or in your cool, relatively asshole-free neighborhood in a city somewhere. But many days ARE different from yours; and they are occasionally entertaining to the point that there really is no reason to pay for cable television; but more often, what we see happening, is just so outside our world view, that we are left confused, and kind of victimized. With time, we often have been able to make sense of some of the events; we believe that we are not only reasonably safe here at the eye of the hurricane, but also mostly invisible to many of our less upstanding neighbors. They aren't trying to punish us; they just commit their crimes and idiocy because their lives, priorities, and goals are so totally different from ours. We are all human, we all share a neighborhood, but we have nothing else in common. So I can usually talk myself down from a shitty day with that "well, we're the ones who are different in this neighborhood" kind of thinking, and can even convince myself to keep on trying, because maybe — here comes the holier-than-thou crap again — we can find some common ground; maybe — just maybe — we can swing some of those undecided city kids to our way of thinking, before the knuckleheads get a hold of them. Maybe our efforts will encourage our neighbors to strive, as well.

I feel as though I've been deluded, though, after seeing that broken poppy stalk. Sure, flowers get stolen from the best of neighborhoods. I know in some places, they even get dug up. I suppose I got off easy with my one stolen poppy this year; a poppy I was so looking forward to, and never got to see. I do enjoy taking some risks, however pathetic; one of them is to plant nice flowers on my property within reach of passersby; I thought it sent a message to the community that we care; we trust; we believe. Plus, I love the way my garden beds are starting to look against the old brick of our home. But mostly, now, I think the message is "look at the sucka who lives here! free fuckin flowers!" The poppy theft enraged me, in a way I have not been enraged by much of the other, more serious crimes here. Perhaps, that too, is a character flaw. Unlike the other crimes here, the theft — even though it's just a flower — is against me. It also makes me feel stupid for wanting to trust people in my neighborhood, and it sucks to have that trust broken. There's a sense of entitlement among people — particularly those here in Trenton — that I will never, ever understand. In some very basic human sense, I suppose I can see how it might be thrilling to scribble on a blank canvas of a garage. I don't understand cruelty to animals (or people), so I don't personally see the joy in beating on a cat, but I suppose we still have hunter-gatherer DNA in us, and it might be enjoyable to chase an animal — a competitor for the back porch — away and win entrance. I'm not a advocate of violence, but could see how, in the heat of the moment, especially when a weapon is within reach, someone might get stupid enough to hurt over some important cause (though, not "respeck," which seems to be a more common motivation for violence, here). I don't understand addiction, but am sympathetic enough to know that some people have them; I also know work is hard to find in this economy; and I know it is harder, so much harder, for young black kids to find gainful employment, than it is for their non-black counterparts. Yep, some of these kids do make stupid and terrible choices and I always believe we're responsible for our own successes and failures. But you cannot tell me that it's easy for black kid trying to escape his shitty childhood, filled with limitations I cannot even imagine, to get a legitimate job. That said, it doesn't excuse the drug dealing and the prostitution and the robbery; I just see the cycle, is all.

I do not, however, understand the "something for nothing" mentality. I do not understand how one dirtbag and his whore can walk past my side door and see a solitary cheerful poppy, and decide that it's okay for them to take it. Fuck THEM. I hope it was the same couple Julian exploded at earlier in the week.

An aside, the second poppy bloomed early Saturday morning. I went out to photograph it before bringing it inside, where I photographed it some more. It's probably the most photographed poppy in recent history. What sucks is that it very quickly dropped its petals; something, perhaps it wouldn't have done if allowed to remained on the plant, outside. I thought about the stolen poppy, figuring that the whore probably just tossed it aside. So, I overcompensated, perhaps, with the one in my home, and pressed the vibrant, red petals in between pages of my large dictionary.

I'm a dope. I know.

My poppy, while it was still outside. Note the headless stalk to the left.

Friday was a banner day, too. We have new neighbors across the way; even though I haven't been writing much, I've managed to bitch about them already. They're loud, and their turdbird associates suck just as badly; the friends of our neighbors are the guys who have been riding around on the ATVs, making everyone crazy. A couple of them deal drugs, right out in the open. I hope their sense of entitlement to do what they please will get them caught very soon, but I have my doubts. Six of them hung out on the corner across the street from my house — not in front of their friend's house, but rather, a different house — smoking pot and carrying on; one of them re-enacted a recent shooting in the city, though I have no idea if he was involved or just bullshitting. They were so comfortable, and had no concern for anything. The police did not even ride by; eventually, one of the neighbors bravely/boldly/crazily asked them to move along. They did. But they were back the next day, and the next, and the next. Screaming. Dealing. Riding ATVs.

I must note, there has been a significant drop in ATV riding around here; the police seem to have cracked down on it. The knuckleheads still get in the occasional spin around dusk, every few days, but they're usually just quick jaunts around the block, and that's it. I still hate them for it, but am able to enjoy a wee bit more peace and quiet around here.

Saturday night, there was a fight involving a mentally-challenged kid across the street. Some girl threatened to get her brother to "take care" of the kid. She screamed at the kid and then screamed into her phone in front of our house, for 40 minutes. Truth be told, the kid across the street pisses me off, too, but I wouldn't want anything to happen to him. Our street has seen too much violence; that family has suffered more loss than a family should; and brothers in Trenton have a tendency to be so very stupid. I hope that one does not listen to his sister. So far, so good.

Sunday, another family across the street, another good family, lit up the grill early in the morning to begin a slow cooking of something or another. They throw a good party, with fantastic food, and regarding the day-to-day stuff here in this neighborhood, they are not a problem. But there hasn't been a party on my street in recent memory that has not in some way, involved the po-po. And inexplicably, this delicious-smelling party had police on hand at least twice, after 4 p.m. Fighting over a girl, in the street. Just stupid, stupid stuff.

So, I'm disappointed. Disillusioned. More so that usual. Here we are on the eve of our fifth anniversary in this house, and really, despite this long, complaining essay, the more dangerous, violent stuff has improved in my neighborhood, but I feel more disconnected from my neighbors than ever. I've grown more attached to my house and yard, as it comes together (even though so much needs to be done, still), but I don't know if it's all just a waste of time. I don't know why we continue to do it. And I'm not sure anything will ever change, even though I want it to. I hope things improve. But I'm tired. So damn tired.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, you're probably fighting a losing battle. When the neighborhood starts going under, it doesn't turn around for many generations. The good people that can leave will because to stay and 'fight' (for what?) is fruitless. What are you hanging on for? God forbid you might think of yourselves as 'white flight' - heavens! There's a reason for that flight - people don't like living in crime ridden,loud and ugly places. If the good outways the bad, then stay. But guessing where you probably live from your posts I can't imagine the positive aspects are many. Especially when you have children, you will start thinking that you have to take care of your own; you can't fix the city or your neighborhood. Worry about your own family. By the way, nobody is going to give you guys a prize for trying to outstay all the other normal people in bad neighborhoods.

Once you move you'll wonder what took you so long.

It doesn't make you a bad person to want to live in peace where if you're going to pay outrageous prop. taxes, you might as well get a decent school system and crime-free living for it.

And not all non-trentonians live in McMansions. Sounds like a little chip on your shoulder there. Some of us live in small towns in small homes and in PEACE. Good luck.

Dan said...

Hey Ott, having spent my first 26 years in the hood, I have to tell you I don't miss it one bit. Tina and I have lived in Newtown for 11 years, and so far we've had zero murders, zero muggings and zero vomit in front of our apartment, and it's nice to not have to worry about those things on top of the million other things there are to worry about.

There are a wide range of choices between inner city Trenton and the McMansion-ville's. There are plenty of working class neighborhoods that could use, and would appreciate good neighbors.

I'm not trying to lecture, and honestly I have a great amount of respect for what you and Glen are trying to do; but my respect wouldn't lessen if you moved to a town with less vomiting, cat beating, ATV driving knuckleheads.