hello to all that.

On neighborhoods.
October 19, 2009, 7:22 am
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There’s something that’s been stuck in my head since before I moved here, but the other night it came back and settled into the pit of my stomach when a glass and a half of wine gave me the courage to fight for it a little, but not enough. And it feels like something needs to be put to bed, or at least needs to be a read a story before I shut the door, hold my  breath for a second, and hope for the best, for now.

One of my last pre-Brooklyn days in the Buff, I spent a couple hours helping Whit canvass on Massachusetts and it was that time of day. The time I can’t write about or talk about or gulp down enough. “Magic hour:” the end of a summer evening when the sun leans back and says Here, you there, take it. Look around. It’s yours. Right where it should be.

We wandered down opposite sides of the block to tell people about PUSH’s tree planting and I was nervous at first, to amble right up strangers’ walks and knock on their doors with no pretense but the little orange flyer in my hand. But like I have so many times before, I found my footing in Whitney’s. I watched her gait, any hesitance squashed by confidence, and her smile, with no beginning or end. So too I found my groove. And so we walked and we walked and some of the porches sagged and the wrought iron railings of front steps leaned to one side like a laugh that requires more than your mouth. Sometimes the houses were empty, windowless, and inside clouded windows you could see dried paint cans and so you shrugged, turned, kept going. And when you did  there was too much life in the way too remember the empty rooms.

Here people sit in little staggered pyramids, spilling out from the porch to the lawn, braiding hair and eating bowls of pasta and shrieking with laughter and drinking from beer cans dwarfed by so many hands. The playgrounds are full and so are the doorways. Everyone wants to know who we are, why we are there, and in exchange we always get a little of them. And it only takes a little of this to start to feel grounded in a kind of mutual knowing that feels comfortably weathered, easy. Whit and I make a lot promises as white teeth and hat brims tilt towards us to see if each of us are going to the event that weekend. “But what about you? You gonna be there?” We get smiles and questions and handshakes and we get very hungry. So we head into Allentown and devour grilled sandwiches served to us on thick wood boards and drink draft beers and one part of the night slides into another, drifting like only September days do.

I do not think what I did–what we, though Whit gets to go on baller West Side adventures all the time–should be seen as strange or brave or noteworthy, but there were certain truths I could not ignore that day, truths that reveal themselves over and over.  That the list of those who would not willingly spend two hours that way is long, that I would get more raised eyebrows than informed questions or even small talk-level interest if I told anyone I spent part of the afternoon wandering Massachusetts Avenue. Most would insist that that day was some kind of exception, and I’m sick at the thought of to what? Because when it became certain I was moving to Brooklyn, I was grilled by everyone—oh how the experts REVEAL themselves when you make a LifeChoice!–on which neighborhood, where. Two words are used there:



Oh good, they say. That’s a good neighborhood. And Can you imagine? Thank god you didn’t end up there. Everyone squishes their mouth around to fit the weight of it, We were living in a BAD neighborhood then, remember? The goal is to always get out of the bad and into the good. If you are moving or running or lost. The answer is always to face your back to the street, and leave. The cop pulls up, looks at you over sunglasses in which you see yourself, only smaller, and says What are you doing HERE anyway? Listen, just don’t ever come back this way, and you’ll be fine, OK? And you are relieved, and run into the long arms of blocks with storefronts selling coffee and flowers and live to tell the tale. Who is immune to it, the story that ends in we ended up in a BAD part of town? It’s a common trope; an accepted, celebrated one that embraces the teller back into the good. What is left never matters.

It’s the “bad” part that gets me. That the “neighborhood” is what is bad. There are bad circumstances, bad structures, bad policies, bad cycles and habits and choices and chances and no I will not say bad people. (Call it naivete, but I’m going with it.) But if there is a place somewhere: where the doors spill out into a sidewalk because doors are for people to enter and leave in a way that pushes them into one another, that backs up their stories like the lawn into the driveway where folding chairs are circled on Sundays sometimes, if there is a line of long-legged kids who run past and yell into open windows and know the corners that mark the borders of their worlds, if you can hear, on warm nights, the murmur of the lives next to you if only for proof that they are there, breathing, and if you know what the people across the street look like only by their eyes because when the snow came they stuck their shovels under your car until the icy yowl of your tires stopped, then this is not what is bad. This will never be bad.

“But if you, OK, if you had them, if you had crime statistics for a list of neighborhoods, wouldn’t you choose to live in the one with less?” He says. He’s wearing my estate sale-d floral apron, and what’s supposed to be the waistline stretches over the top of his growing beer gut, and he’s smirking, as if he’s already arrived at the punch line, already won.

See the thing is, those aren’t the only numbers that work for me. They’ll never work like the ones on the front of a house that glow when the streetlights go on just to say, We’re still here. You can’t know those numbers when you live in blank houses, on inscrutable dead end streets that end in sparse trees, planted three years ago, five years after the woods went down. So you cut whole places off of your maps until you one day you are lost. “Let’s go home,” you say. And you park you car on a dark street, never knowing.