What some will do to get an education.
Another Day in the Inner City
I’ve been watching with great dismay the events in Ferguson, MO, the shooting, the looting, the accusations, the demonization of the police, the finger pointing, and the handwringing. And I keep thinking there’s another side to this.
Let’s follow a typical day in another inner city and see…
The dogs were barking, all seven lined up against the back fence, hackles raised. “I’ll bet someone is going after my bricks,” said my sister, so we shot out of the house and rounded the corner. Sure enough, a man had backed his pickup up against the barrier made of logs and fencing, climbed over the massive sign that read Please don’t take the bricks, and was handing the cement blocks to someone standing in the pickup bed, despite the fact that they had been spray-painted pink and green so my sister could instantly spot who had stolen them.
“What are you doing?” my sister asked.
He didn’t answer.
“Those are my bricks,” she said.
Instantly, he launched into a verbal attack, swearing and cursing, jumping over the fence and advancing on her. I pulled out my cellphone and rashly (this can get you shot in Detroit) began filming the exchange. Anne Marie whipped out her own phone and called Mona who lived around the corner. Within seconds, Mona appeared with two of her hulking sons and her gun. The man climbed into his truck and sped away.
Ho hum, another ordinary day in inner city Detroit.
That skirmish won, we returned to Anne Marie’s house while she lectured me on my folly of filming the exchange, then drove around the corner to the boarded up house we were rehabbing and started to unload the ceiling lights Anne Marie was planning to have installed, but as we did, a young man came out of the house across the street and stood on the porch smoking. Never mind. “It’s better not to let anyone know what you’re doing,” she remarked. We loaded them back into the car. Maybe he was just standing there innocently, but time and time again, the minute someone has seen something worth stealing – lights, carpets, sinks, stoves, dog food, even the mailbox – they’ve broken in and taken it.
Up the street a large F150 was idling, equipped with a large hydraulic carjack; it’s very easy to back up to someone’s car, lift it and drive away without a trace. We cruised by slowly, staring pointedly into the windows at the two men sitting there doing nothing, and I ostentatiously wrote down the license number.
Malcolm, who worked on her houses, had not appeared, nor did he answer his phone. Maybe he was at another one of her houses. On our way to check, we drove past block after block of sad little homes, obviously dearly loved at one time, that had been stripped of all copper wiring, plumbing, furnaces and appliances, lighting fixtures, the doors kicked in, the ceilings smashed, now beyond any hope of repair and slated for demolition. No Malcolm. By now it was early afternoon and Anne Marie was getting nervous. “We need to do everything in the morning before the hood starts to wake up,” she said. “Once they start walking the streets, it gets dangerous.”
But as we passed an empty house down the street, we noticed that the little pink mailbox was missing. This house had been owned by an elderly lady who had fallen and broken her hip, so the family moved her out against her will, put her in a home, and let the house go back to the bank. The lawn was mowed—an untidy, bedraggled lawn is the first sign a house is empty, and the first step down the road to demolition. Anne Marie pays the neighborhood boys to keep the property up, but people are watching. So far the outdoor grill had disappeared, the car had been dragged out of the garage and towed away, and the stainless steel sink was sitting by the back door waiting for removal.
We went inside to investigate. Two days ago, everything had been thrown around, debris everywhere, but now it had been cleaned, swept, all junk stuffed into closets.
We called Mona and waited for her to come with her gun before we ventured upstairs. The last time they’d checked, the full-sized mattress had been upright, leaning against the wall. Now it was lying flat, neatly made, with candles on the little bedside “tables” that had been rigged on either side of the bed. Someone was already squatting. Anne Marie knew who it was: a woman who was living in a basement in a house whose property backed onto this one, and her boyfriend who was probably the one who took the car.
So we debated what to do. Calling the bank wasn’t one of them: the banks don’t care about the house or the neighborhood, they only care about the title. So our options were to just let them do it because at least that meant it wouldn’t be stripped further, change the locks on the house, or put a couple of the dogs in there every night. Mona had just the dogs: Tee Tee, who barks loudly and deeply, and Kabu who simply attacks. No warning, just lunges for the throat.
There was a slight sound. They were probably hiding in the closet. We scuttled out. So much for having the gun.
Is this state of affairs an anomaly? No. Twenty-five years, nearly a generation ago, when Anne Marie moved into the neighborhood, her lawn mower was stolen out of the driveway. Our teenaged brother peeked into the house next door, saw at least ten of them, hers included, sitting in the living room, and asked for it back. The man came at my brother with a tire iron, knocked him out and he had fourteen stitches in his head. Welcome to Detroit.
Shortly after Anne Marie moved into this neighborhood in the center of the blight, she began buying up the houses on her street just so she could control the neighborhood. Now she owns thirteen, and several empty lots where the houses have already been burned and demolished. She has spent thousands of dollars rehabbing, and rents the finished ones out to lower income people. She dumps packages of dog food over the neighbor’s fence because he’s struggling. She rescues any stray dog because otherwise they’re destined for the dog fight ring that’s being run in the abandoned elementary school, and buys up unwanted puppies to save them from becoming bait for the fights. She pays the neighborhood boys to mow, to paint, to haul away trash, to power wash houses that have been covered with graffiti. She battles constantly with people who routinely dump their garbage onto her property, or pull stolen cars behind one of her houses to strip. Recently we drove past a beautiful art deco home that was sliding toward ruin, but she said it was too far away from her house “to defend.”
After twenty-five years, she’s finally getting tired of it. Is there any wonder? She’s been beaten and robbed and terrorized, been shaken down for tens of thousands of dollars under threat of our mother’s life. She’s finally talking about moving to the west side of the state where you don’t have to carry a gun, where you don’t have to have bars on all your windows, where you don’t have to own seven dogs, where you aren’t mugged on your own front porch for the contents of your purse, where you don’t have to lie flat on the floor until the gunfire subsides, where the police come when you call.
Many of her neighbors here are nice young men who want to work, who don’t want to fall into the cycle of drugs and crime. Except for someone like Anne Marie, they have few options. They can’t find jobs. They can’t buy a car to get to the job they do find. They might have been stupid, gotten arrested, and now, with a record are forever shut out of society. These young men watch over her, so she goes about more or less freely, but it’s a fluid neighborhood, with squatters and crackheads constantly moving in an out. And here’s the $64,000 question: unless you live in the hood and know who’s who, how can you distinguish? Maybe the guy taking the bricks couldn’t read. Maybe that young man on the porch was simply smoking. Maybe those two idling in the truck were just taking a break. But in the face of the overwhelming crime, isn’t it a default to simply expect that what you encounter is going to be more of the same?
We can list all the same excuses for this abhorrent state of affairs.
Let’s add another: appalling parenting. Who raises their children to think that it’s okay to simply walk in and take, just because it’s there? This total lack of a moral compass, the singular ethical vacuum that allows someone to justify their actions simply because someone owes it to them, can only be traced back to never being taught that there’s a right and a wrong.
In the outrage following the shooting death of just one more young man, there’s the usual frenzy about the media’s coverage and police profiling of black men. There is no justification or excuse for shooting an unarmed young man. However, in the face of what occurs every day, is it any wonder that policemen are on high alert at all times, and when one becomes engaged in an altercation, he immediately perceives the worst?
We never did find Malcolm. He was mowing a lawn over in a beautiful but rough part of town when a couple punks came up and tried to steal his wallet, but it was on a chain so they couldn’t get it. He started fighting with them so one of them shot him. Shot him in the left thigh and took out the big artery that supplies the leg below the knee. His blood spurted out so fast he lost consciousness, fell on his face and knocked his front teeth out. The cops took him to the hospital in their car because they couldn’t wait for the ambulance. What really saved his life was that a stranger came out of nowhere and, in the driveway, tied a belt around Malcolm’s leg like a tourniquet, stopping him from bleeding out completely right there in the street.
No one has tried to find and arrest the two young men. The police are engaged in more urgent issues. This is life in the inner city where crime is endemic. Michael Brown had robbed a store prior to the confrontation. He was not a model citizen. Did he deserve to get gunned down in the street? No. Did he play any part in how things unfolded? Yes. So why aren’t we discussing that?
Not sure how to deal with this. I know my Christian friends have fled or are trying to flee.
Anyone interested in submitting to a middle grade contest?
They call them “rolling blackouts” in California and they’re cause for great outcry and uproar. Or maybe it’s upcry and outroar. Actually I think that’s closer to the reality. But in much of the world, that’s just life, there’s not much you can do about it but complain, and you’d better get used to it. By this time of year in Kathmandu, the power cuts are up to 19 hours a day some days, and it seems that the only time the power is on is from 1 am to 5 am. You live your life around the load shedding schedule: I can do my laundry on Monday between ten and two, I’d better wash my hair before 7 am if I want to use the hairdryer, etc. When the backup battery went out in January one year, we got along fine by candle light. It was just hard to play Rummikub, because we couldn’t tell the blue tiles from the black ones, and the lights would come on and we’d accuse each other of cheating when we could actually see the tile combinations.
I looked up the term online: the deliberate shutdown of electric power in a part or parts of a power-distribution system, generally to prevent the failure of the entire system when the demand strains the capacity of the system.
I’ve been considering loadshedding metaphorically.
I learned that I did’t get a single teaching assignment for the summer, which left me 4 months without an income and no chance at unemployment. The reason: full-timers get to choose overload first, and they took all the courses. They get a very high salary, plus benefits, plus retirement, and they still want more. One in particular, Jim, teaches 5 extra courses in the summer, which puts him into 6 figures. Why? He likes the money. Who cares about the part-timers who depend on that income just to get by?
I was speechless,especially because there was nothing I could do about it. If I said something it might irritate the person who schedules classes and there just might be none for me in the fall.
So it occurs to me that “load shedding” is a pretty good philosophy of life. Just shrug off the load and get on with living. If you can’t change it, then you have to find a way to get by in another manner, right?
Prayers go out to the families of the climbers that were killed and injured on Everest.