Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Enforcement

I've heard an annoying buzz a couple of times today, and realized it was the fire alarm at Hedgepeth-Williams. The second time must have meant business because within a few seconds of hearing the sound, fire trucks came screaming up Cuyler, and kids came screaming out into the streets. I'm not sure what school procedure is, but many students — it seemed to me — decided to make a break for it on this lovely spring day. So, middle school-aged kids began milling about the neighborhood starting at 1:45 this afternoon. My fence is far more likely to get graffiti'd on days like today, when the kids are randomly walking around, so I made sure I kept an ear to the street. I sent out my dog into the yard periodically, too, for good measure, since he's a yapper and does not abide by people hanging (or even walking) by our fence. Forgive him, for he knows not what he does. During this "listen and let the dog out spell," I overheard the conversation of a group of girls, and to my surprise, I did not hear a single swear word, or any of the usual emotionally heightened "he said/she said" stuff. They were calmly talking about the fire at the school.* There was no smoke, no visible flames, and while the kids were out in the street, it seemed at least from here (I didn't stray far because Matty was taking a nap), the emergency vehicles were all gone.

Today there are kids everywhere, and tomorrow, the state law mandates that motorists stop for pedestrians in crosswalks and intersections. I wonder how the law will impact Trenton, since so few people here actually use the sidewalk, and when they walk across the street, they do so as slowly as possible, essentially stopping traffic, anyway. But then again, this city — and my neighborhood, in particular — is full of some of the lousiest and speed-loving drivers I have encountered. So, the new law, if followed and enforced, could add decency to the community. Maybe. As long as there aren't a couple hundred school kids wandering about in the street because of a fire drill.

With the new law in mind, I think about Mayor Douglas Palmer's impassioned speech yesterday, about how hard the governor is dissing Trenton. And the governor is dissing Trenton, but I also know that if Palmer had run this city every day with half the passion he used during yesterday's speech, we just might not be in this bind. If it had been a priority to enforce the laws here, maybe the city would not have deteriorated the way it has, and maybe there would be the revenue from collected fines in the budget to help keep us running properly now that the economy is in the toilet. When people are allowed to sell drugs with impunity, and litter without worry of fines they might incur elsewhere, and speed without the slightest concern of tickets (or pedestrians), I don't have much hope that pedestrians in Trenton will suddenly be safer tomorrow.

_____________________

* It is odd that a fire is boring compared to the thought of getting disrespected by one's peers.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Gardening and drugs

We don't have much of a front or side yard, and over the last few years, I've been trying to turn those "yards" into pretty little city gardens, with relatively disappointing results. Sure, there are some show stoppers: an azalea and stargazer rhododendron that were here when we moved in; some great irises which were given to me by my mother a few years ago, which finally started to bloom two years ago. Between those three items, we have a nice show for a couple of weeks in the spring, and then the property looks ratty. When we first moved in, we were accosted by a number of entrepreneurs who wanted to mow our lawn — if you can call it "lawn" — but as I've mentioned before, it's a cheap labor force here, and it feels really icky to find your landscaping guy slumped over from an OD behind your garage. So the goal was to fill the "lawn" with tons of plants, especially those that would spread quickly, and erase our lawn and, more importantly, the need for a landscaper, or even a lawnmower.

We have one lawn/bed along the side of the house that's been particularly troubling because of a large root system tangled throughout it, the hook-up for our oil tank, and the lousy northern sun it gets. Our house and the tree with the aforementioned root system, block most of the sun from this spot, and when the sun does get through, it's a scorching late afternoon exposure. Not very many plants do well in those conditions, and thus far, the ones that work are on the boring side.

My father, down in Maryland, has recently retired, and my mom has been gone for almost two years now (hard to believe), and he's making some changes to his property, as well. So, last week, he brought up three buckets of irises and day lilies. He placed them in my backyard and my goal was to get some of them in that challenging side yard over the weekend.

~~~

My dad and I hung out here at the house for a few hours, and when Glen got home from work, we headed over to Rossi's for dinner. My father and Glen both ordered burgers; "rare, but warm" were my father's instructions to the waitress, and I recoiled a bit as he devoured his cow on a bun. It was worth it, though; afterward, my father proclaimed it to be the best burger he's ever had. "Perfect," he said.

We got home just as the sun was going down. As we parked the car, the young drug dealer who lives up the street sauntered down the alley, and sold drugs to the person waiting in a nearby car. My father gave me "the look." You may know it: it's concern, and dread, and disapproval all rolled into one economical look. Our nice visit and "perfect" meal were now tainted by the knucklehead. Frustrating.

It is deeply embarrassing to me to bring loved ones to my home, to have them witness drug dealing en plein air. Many of our friends and family tell us to move, which is easier said than done. We love our home, and we've made some nice friends here; we don't want to move. But we hate what's going on around us. I am not exaggerating when I say that nearly every time I look out the window, or pull up next to the house, there's a drug deal going on. Maybe I have great timing, and just catch it each time it happens, but logically, I'm inclined to believe that I'm not seeing the half of it. We know of several drug houses near us, and the police know about them too. These sorts of problems are slow to develop, and apparently, slow to clean up, but it's exhausting and irritating to me, all the same. When we think about how long we have endured the drug dealing in our neighborhood, and taking into account the fairly sensational (and not in a good way) news going on with the school system last week (the possibility of 200+ kids not graduating, schools closing, layoffs, along with the usual stories of violence and underachieving), I can't help but wonder if we are totally delusional for staying here, as difficult it is to move.

~~~

It is hard to garden with Matthew, but at least our back yard is fenced, so I've been able to tinker here and there out back; but I can't take on any larger projects, and I wouldn't even try to work in our problematic side or front yards, where the street is just a few feet from our door. Glen took Matty out for errands on Saturday morning, and I figured I'd spend some time in the "Northeastern Lawn" and get some of my mother's lilies and irises into the earth. If I can make my corner look more appealing, it may have an affect on the mindset of both the dealers and the buyers. Plus, if I'm out there, maybe it would force them to use another spot to conduct business.

So I thought.

Within 15 minutes of digging and rearranging my plants, a beat-up Mustang pulled up, incredulously, right alongside me. There was a young white kid in the driver's seat. Forgive me if this sounds racist, but we only have one other white person in our immediate vicinity, and no one — of any color — visits him. So if there's a white person parked along the house, there are two reasons: I know him/her or he/she is buying drugs.

I was raking right next to his car, and I could see the cell phone in his hand, the wad of cash in the other. I opted to stay right there, and raked at fantom twigs and leaves, just to see what the jerk would do. He made a phone call. I BURNED, terrified and filled with anger. I thought about asking him to move along. Instead, I held my ground, raking at my little patch of dirt.

Within a minute, one of our local dealers came around the corner; he actually said hello to me, and kept walking. I looked at the kid in the car: he was confused. Impulsively, he leapt out of his car and chased after the dealer.

I can only imagine how that exchange would have gone. The dealer had enough sense or manners (or whatever) to know not to make a deal right in front of me, so he must have been thrilled to have a white frat boy chasing after him up Cuyler Avenue.

I continued to rake, dumbly and with agitation. I had better things to do closer to the house, but I suppose was itching for some kind of exchange with the buyer, and didn't want him to sneak away. I moved my pile of debris from here to there. A few minutes later, the white kid came back, and he gave me a little bit of a smirk. I was infuriated, and was half inclined to grab my shovel and beat the bejesus out of him and his dilapidated Mustang.

Instead, I said, "I don't care what you do with your life, but I'd appreciate it if you didn't do it near my house."

He said, "I don't know what you're talking about," with a big smile on his face.

"Yes, you do," I said, through my teeth.

He began to say something else, but I was growing more irritated, so I said, "You better go. Now."

He did.

~~~

Glen and Matthew returned home a few minutes later; Matty was asleep in the back seat of the car. I was shaken from the conversation with the drug buyer, and debated whether or not to tell Glen, because I expected him to be upset with me. But there was the more immediate task of unloading groceries and baby, so I waited to tell him until we got inside. To my surprise, Glen wasn't worried or disappointed. I'd like to say that with Glen's support, I felt bolstered and encouraged to engage directly with the drug buyers in the future, but I don't. I feel unfocused and a little crazy. Also, I'm irritated that my little side yard is full of my mother's flowering plants, but still looks like hell.

I know that it's still very early in the season; the plants will fill out, and there's still time to get a few more things into the ground, and in a few months, the garden should look different, if not much better. I hope that's the case with the blatant drug dealing on my corner as well. I guess we'll see.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Mummers


This morning, I overheard a couple of knuckleheads talking about how white people were "pussies," and "weak." A lot of them are, but then again, so are a lot knuckleheads, with their misguided sense of bravado and antisocial antics.

Glen, Matty, and I walked up to the St. Patrick's Parade, and stood on the corner of Cuyler and Hamilton, among a diverse group of parade-goers; by diverse, I do not mean "racially," specifically, but rather, "sensibility-wise." Believe me, there are dummies in every shape, size, and color. We stood behind a suburban mom and her entitled daughter, who had placed an old bedspread on the corner, and took up way too space for the two of them; the rest of us near them did not want to step on the bedspread, so we were pushed off to the side and rear of the corner. The suburban daughter insisted that the mother turn over her fancy hat to the daughter, because the daughter wanted to wear the "more expensive one." The mother obliged.

To my left was a scraggily older woman who talked to me as if we had been friends for years. A Snow White float went by, and she informed me that there was no one white on that float. Ha ha ha, she said. It always floors me when a complete stranger offers commentary like that. Who does that? She quickly changed the subject, and pointed out that she had brought her parakeet with her, and gestured to a cage about 10 feet from the corner, next to her car. I didn't ask why; after all, why wouldn't this woman bring her parakeet to a very loud and terrifying (to a bird, anyway) parade? The bird, in case you're interested, is 2 months old, and appropriately, mostly green. Also, he was resting in a little hand knitted hammock, made of fun, multicolored yarn; the woman told me how much Eugene liked his hammock, and she was planning to visit all of the pet stores to market her idea, since all birds would love such a thing.

Eugene the Parakeet was in this cage, somewhere. Also in this cage was a fluffy yarn hammock, which will soon take the bird world by storm!

A gruff man with a shopping cart full of Irish and pop culture do-dads went by; he accused a 3-year old boy of stealing a long, green plastic horn from his cart; the boy's mother understandably went ballistic on the peddler, and showed him how old and chewed up the boy's horn was; something even an ambitious oral-learner could not have done in such a short period of time.

There was no horn in this cart to steal.

Every year we've been to the parade, we've been sidetracked by a group of religious zealots who offer "tickets to heaven," and this year was no exception. The zealots descended on the parade this year with a fierceness I've never seen before, and obstructed everyone's view at some point. I'm sure there are zillions of tickets to heaven littering the street, right now.

"Oh hi! I know I'm blocking your view of the parade, but I just HAVE to hand you this Ticket To Heaven, even if it — and all the others in my hand — winds up on the street. It's my calling."

The political candidates were out in full force, and I'd like to think they would have done a better job screening their campaign workers who were mingling with the crowd, but alas, that was not the case. Most notably, George Muschal released the Cracken on us, and the gals walking around for Eric "Mr. Jackson If You're Nasty" Jackson were SO disinterested in the crowd. They were all on their cell phones, and their "Jackson" signs were flopped over to such a degree I had to crane my head to see who they were working for.

Doug Palmer couldn't make it to the parade (again), but sent his truck, and his cousin Jeff to perform some Lynyrd Skynyrd for the St. Patrick's crowd.

The woman who brought Eugene, the 2-month-old parakeet, was sitting about 10 feet back from the crowd, on a small chair, in front of her car, next to Eugene's cage. It was a good-sized crowd, and most people were at the edge of the sidewalk or standing in the street; or, if they were right near us, they were only 4 feet back, behind the entitled girl and her mom on the bedspread, so we all could get the best view possible. Eugene's owner asked the women in front of her, with their two small children, to move over, so she could see the parade from the comfort of her chair, 10 feet further away. They chose to ignore her, and, so, she started yelling at them. A younger man who was with her, possibly her grown son, confronted them, and called them ignorant. I was pleased to see they ignored him, too, and held their ground. A float offering beads and candy came by and tossed their goods into the crowd, and then some Irish setters trotted by, and everyone around me was happy again.

Doggies make everyone happy!

I thought about the knucklehead who claimed that white people were weak, and I hate to even address that claim, because to do so may seem stupid at best, and racist as well, especially as I write about a parade that features some of the whitest people on the planet. I just feel the need to respond to the statement I heard this morning, issued by a kid who happens to be black, but is, more importantly, a knucklehead, a label which transcends race. Anyway, some of my neighborhood knuckleheads came up to the parade, and on one hand, I think some community-building might be helpful in getting these young men back on the right track. But on the other, I know the likelihood of them joining the ranks of the non-knuckleheads are slim. And, to drive that point home, the knucklehead-in-charge started yelling across the street at some of their knucklehead friends, and the knuckleheads on my side of the street, crossed over, impulsively and rudely, through a group of 7 foot tall white dudes in skirts, who were playing pipes. On my computer screen, the words "skirts" and"pipes" may not sound particularly masculine, but I am quite certain these men could readily kick some ass, if necessary. The knuckleheads, and even their cliché pit bull, instantly realized they should have waited a few minutes for the skirt-wearing, pipe-playing giants to pass. I think, too, even the Mummers, who seems smaller in stature than the pipe playing men, should be avoided by knuckleheads. Why would anyone want to mess with dudes brave enough to wear feathers and sequins in public?

It may sound like more of annoying afternoon than a fun one, and I apologize for that. It was way too warm for March 20th, and perhaps people were overdressed and uncomfortable; and it seemed there were more open bottles of booze than usual, too. But, it was a beautiful day, and the floats and groups were great, and most everyone was really glad to be at the parade.

Dan The Man


The Living Flag

Matthew had his first Tootsie Roll today, tossed from a float, and he loved it. He fell asleep not long after finishing it, his lower lip smeared a bit with chocolate; he drifted off amid the Civil War reenactors' gunfire, on Glen's shoulder. And he stayed asleep, despite the volume of the bagpipes, and the exuberance of the various Mummers groups. I hate to admit this, as a Jersey girl who associates with the New York City-influenced part of the state, but after many years confused and somewhat frightened by what the Philadelphians do on New Year's Day in their city, I really am thrilled to have the Mummers come to Trenton for our St. Patrick's parade. We kept planning to leave the parade today, since Matty was asleep on Glen's shoulder, but each time we made the turn to go home, one of us would spot the wild colors and sequins a block ahead, coming our way. We needed to get our fill of Mummers before heading back to the homestead. Don't get me wrong, I am a sucker for bagpipes and burly men in skirts, but the bright colors and shiny sequins of the Mummers, along with their banjos and playfulness — in contrast to the leafless trees and somewhat dilapidated backdrop of Hamilton Avenue — are happy reminders that there is always hope: spring is here, and soon the leaves and flowers will be back. The Mummers offer cultural hope, as well: if various Philadelphian groups will come to Trenton to march in the parade, maybe this city can turn itself around.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Gettin' my Samoa on

I hated my brief stint with the Girl Scouts of America, thanks to a sadistic troop leader, and because of that, it would be easy for me to ban their products from my home. I have banned and boycotted products and businesses for less than what I endured at the hands of Mrs. Wad and a few misguided, yet cruel, fifth graders. However, I am a big fan of cookies in general, and it is my sincere belief that the Girl Scouts might be enriching the lives of most of its participants, somewhere.

So, in the decades since the unfortunate scout meetings in my grade school cafeteria, and more importantly, that seemingly never-ending overnight at Camp Sacajawea, I have dutifully ordered cookies when it's that time of year. It's been harder since I left corporate America, as I no longer have coworkers who peddle them for their daughters, or neighbors who go door-to-door. In fact, I have not seen a single scout in my neighborhood, and am pretty sure there are none here in all of East Trenton. So, these days, we get our cookies through Glen's coworkers; I've had a hankering for some Samoas (aka Caramel deLites), and have come this close to getting my grubby little hands on some, but alas, my efforts are continually thwarted. I love the Tagalong as well; after all, what's not to love about peanut butter and chocolate piled on a buttery cookie? Glen brings home these, and I am not disappointed, but I still would love a Samoa. A lot.


The Glorious Samoa.
I've been thinking about them so much that I've been scouring the web for a good Samoa recipe, and think I tracked one down. However, I am not the most ambitious baker, and Samoas are pretty involved, so I haven't attempted them yet. One of my friends made them, though, and she said they were wonderful. If you bake, give them a try, and let me know how it goes!

My sister Karen's friend, Gary, has a daughter in the scouting organization, and he asked Karen recently if she'd like to buy any cookies. Karen was with me when he called, so she asked me if I wanted any. Finally! The Samoas were in the light at the end of the tunnel.

Did I mention that Gary lives in Lincoln, Nebraska?

Gary was planning to send me some old school Electric Company DVDs, along with some stuff for Karen, so he said it wouldn't be a big deal to send along some Samoas, as well.

Karen received the package last week, and the cookies were completely smashed. The DVDs were just fine. If something had to smash, I'm glad it was the cookies, and not the DVDs, but still, my heart sank.

In the meantime, my sister-in-law Brenda came to visit, and she brought along a fantastic pile of Canadian Olympiana, including several of the much sought after pom-pon toques.



Brenda had a small cache of Olympic goods for Karen as well, and in return, Karen had a gift for Brenda. Brenda and I were summoned to Karen's place of work yesterday to pick up Brenda's gift, along with the Electric Company DVDs from Gary. I had it in my head that I would be getting my Samoas, too, even though they were smashed, since smashed cookies are still very much edible. It could be lack of sleep, or just that as I age, I grow more simple-minded, but I could not stop thinking about the cookies, and I kept talking about them, too. I was holding a very squirmy Matthew so he could not race through Karen's fancy and tightly-packed boutique, while I simultaneously tried to jam the DVDs into my gigantic sweatshirt pocket. So, when Karen handed Brenda a cookie-sized package with a Lincoln, NE postmark, retaped with painters tape, it never, for a second, occurred to me that it might be Brenda's gift. I thought Karen was handing Brenda my Samoas, since my hands were full. My girls are so helpful!

I could smell the cookies. I really could. And, I could not wait to tear into that package the second we got back into the car, and babbled incessantly about it. Sorry about that.

We got back into the car, and I strapped my boy into his seat, and Brenda started the car. She put the car in gear. I was confused. My cookies were in the door pocket of the car, unopened. The car began moving, and Brenda's hand did not reach down for the cookies. We pulled out of our parking spot, and it occurred to me that for all of my obvious hints about how much I was looking forward to eating some Samoas, I would not be eating them any time soon, unless I spoke up for myself.

"Hey! What the??" I bellowed at Brenda. "Open up that package of cookies!"

"What?" she said, utterly befuddled.

"The damn cookies! In the door pocket. Karen gave them to you."

"They're not cookies!"

"Yes they are! I can smell them!" I really could.

"It's the gift from Karen, you dummy!"

I didn't, couldn't, believe this, and forced Brenda open the package anyway, even though — I realize now — she probably wanted to wait until we at least got back to my place. Sorry about that, too. Brenda opened the package, and in it was a fancy little gift box, way too insultingly small to hold my cookies.

"Oh! She shouldn't have!" Brenda said, taken aback by the pretty little bracelet in the small gift box.

True, I thought. She should have given me my damn cookies. I was mean with hunger for Samoas.

It was a lovely bracelet, though.

If anyone knows of anyone selling Girl Scout cookies, can you order me some Samoas?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

School Kids Gone Wild

The man next to me at the CPAC meeting was complaining angrily about the kids at the Hedgepeth-Williams school. Let's call the angry man "Lou." Lou said the kids play ball in the street, and they have mouths on them that would put a ship of sailors to shame, and they threaten the neighborhood's senior citizens when they ask the kids to move along. He, too, has been threatened with guns and knives in his attempt to keep the peace on his street. Lou is very tired and implored the officers to intervene on the community's behalf.

"My seniors," Lou said, "like to take their walk around the block, and they can't do it anymore because of those kids. Something needs to be done!" Lou's voice was urgent.

A number of thoughts hit me simultaneously. First, I thought maybe I should have had a few drinks before the meeting, which was slow-moving and dry before Lou's passionate demand for police intervention with the kids. Also, I figured it's rare that the kids actually break any serious laws — and, if they do, they can run about 20 times as fast than it takes a law-abiding citizen to explain the problem to the police dispatcher — so, can the cops do much about the unruly kids just let out of school? Lou's talk about his seniors turned my thoughts to my own nana, who will be 92 on her next birthday. She enjoys things "just so," and "orderly," and it would never occur to her to take a stroll during school's rush hours. Unless you're a teacher, you have no desire to be around that many kids at once, anyway. So, why can't Lou's seniors just pick another time to walk around the block, maybe some other time when they won't encounter many mouthy, ball-throwing kids? Sure, it would seem that Trenton's schoolkids can come and go as they wish, the truth is, if you're looking to stroll during the day, you won't see many kids until afternoon, when the drop-outs and truants get out of bed.

I feel badly for the kids in Trenton, since so many of them have started life with so much less than I can imagine. And, the enduring cry of kids throughout the ages is that there's nothing to do. But for kids in Trenton, for a variety of reasons, there is even less to do (note: I did not say "nothing." There's always something to do). They can't even play ball easily because the parks aren't safe, the yards are small, and it's illegal to do so in the street.

Lou might want to suggest to his seniors that they take their walk at a different time of the day. And the police may not be able to do much about the problems caused by the school children, so it's very likely that Lou wasted his energy complaining at the CPAC meeting, but I didn't disagree with anything he said. We practically have martial law in the city schools, and kids are still finding ways to stab each other and the security guards inside the school buildings. For those of us along the school path, we absolutely see and hear our share of antisocial and inappropriate and occasionally, scary, behavior, as well.

The Trenton schools are some of the worst schools in the state. That's a fact. There are shining students who make it out and find success in the world, but it's not because of what the Trenton school district has to offer. Their successes are in spite of it. The bulk of Trenton kids, sadly, are very nearly an academic write-off. "She smell like garbage truck juice and vinegar!" we heard one girl say to another, last year. Generally speaking, these children are failing academically, but have a creativity — if utterly misguided — that has not been tapped properly.

I used to think I could tell the difference between "good" rowdy kid noise, and "bad" rowdy kid noise, but I've been burned a few too many times. Once, I could hear a few young voices outside my fence, talking about the library and a school project that was due later in the week, and they wondered aloud when their friend was going to catch up with them. I peeked out and saw one kid help another adjust his book bag where my garage and fence meet. "See," I thought, "there are some nice kids here."

My husband got home from work a half hour later, and he asked me, "Did you see anyone hanging out by the fence?"

"Yeah," I said, "a couple of kids on the way to the library stopped to adjust their backpacks out there."

"Well, the garage has been graffitied."

The problems caused by the school children are occasionally the police department's domain, but usually the responsibility is murkier than that. Kids will be kids. But they'll be even worse when they have parents who don't care, and live in a community where the members bury their heads in the sand whenever something bad happens, and/or don't want anyone to get in their "business." The icing on the cake is an inept school board, appointed by Mayor Douglas Palmer, rather than elected by the people. This board is not interested in public opinion, since they're accountable to the mayor, not the public; and the members of the board don't have children in school, so they have no vested interest in what happens there.

Disinterest on behalf of public officials in Trenton is pervasive. Not only are the officials not listening, but that disinterest trickles down: the same is true for many of the citizens of Trenton. If you have a complaint with how things are run in Trenton, there's a good chance the mayor will tell you to check yourself, or call you a hater. If you complain to your neighbor about her child, she'll tell you, more or less, the same thing. The rest of us, the good citizens of Trenton are too complacent. We let Palmer run the city as he wished; we let our neighbors, in some places, get away with murder.

But, there's a change coming soon. I'm not so naïve to think all our problems will be fixed once the new mayor and council are sworn in. But there's hope and potential. I'm hoping the new officials will agree we need a new school board as well, a board responsible to the people of the city; one that's willing to put their own egos aside, and explore what's working in other urban schools around the region, and implement those ideas. It's my hope the new government of this city will be able to rebuild after 20 years of decline, and bring some jobs back, which might help improve family life, which will have a positive impact on the schools. In the meantime, those of us in the community cannot continue to be so complacent. We need to open our doors and blinds and face — as kindly as possible — the kids walking to and from school every day. Kids need to know people care, and if we went out more to sweep our sidewalks and trim our hedges and look at each others' gardens, perhaps we can end the vicious cycle of decay. We have a lot of work to do.