Sunday, July 17, 2011

Amazing Things


Two amazing things happened today. First, the neighborhood association meeting. Until today, all the neighborhood meetings I have attended have been held in various churches, in vinyl tiled multi-purpose rooms with cheap folding chairs, or more frequently, in the community house of one specific church. The community house is a little building around the corner from me, not too different from my place prior to remodeling. The ceilings are low, the walls thick with paint, once white, now tinged with brown. The carpet is dark, matted and bald in spots. The floor slopes to the east. The windows are barred, and covered with thick curtains. Half of them do not open. The bare light bulbs don't really illuminate the living room, which smells musty. Recovery pamphlets about various drug are displayed prominently on wire shelves: What You Should Know About Methamphetamines. Overcoming Crack. Heroin Addiction. There is a Bible on the otherwise empty bookshelf, and no other reading material on display. Despite the positive name, the community house doesn't offer any false promises.

I think a lot about false promises these days. I was listening to "Walk On The Wild Side" by Lou Reed a few weeks ago, and it was a minute before I remembered that he was singing about junkies. "Wild" is the furthest thing from my mind when I see James, a neighborhood addict. He stands on his corner, head bobbing anxiously, craning his neck, looking down the street. His features are made sharp by the taughtness of his skin, stretched across his bones. His pants are stained, his shirt, open. He doesn't have full control of his jaw when he talks, his mouth often hangs agape. When I drive by him at night, he stares hard at my car. Hoping, he raises his hand to wave and then drops it quickly when he recognizes me. He swings his long arms in frustration. He's not waiting for me.

Michael, whose family lives around the corner, is another addict. When he got out of prison a while back, two neighbors came by specifically to warn me about his history of stealing anything not nailed down. Soon I began to notice the increase in traffic to his house. Skinny, skinny women who tiptoed to his back door, avoiding eye contact with neighbors, hoping to be invisible. Doors slamming at all hours, cars coming and going. I asked his son, Anthony, what was going on. He looked me straight in the eye. "I have a problem," he said. "My father is a crack addict." He brought me into the house, and showed me how he had put a padlock on the back bedroom, to prevent Michael from entering the rest of the house. "He steals my dishes, my clothes. I can't cook because he sold the pots and pans," Anthony said. Anthony restricted his father to the rear of the house, and made his father's friends enter through the back porch. To avoid Anthony, they would cut through my yard to access the property. I confronted Michael the next day, told him I didn't want any more of this trespassing.
"You can't stop me from partying!" he retorted. Over the next few months, he lost weight. His skin sagged around his jaw, and he aged quickly. One day he was caught stealing computers from a neighborhood after school program, and was subsequently sent back to prison. Party over.

In contrast to all this, our neighborhood meeting tonight was held at an art gallery and studio space on the fringe of the neighborhood. A far cry from the community house, it is a modern space, kind of industrial, but in a clean way. Ceilings are high, walls are bright, and there is a lot of exposed metal and wood. The art is unusual, postmodern, and it is not clear what it means. A performance piece was to happen in the parking lot later that evening, and young artists in costume paraded around. The neighborhood association meeting was well attended, we ran out of chairs, even, and about 1/3 of the residents were young newcomers to the neighborhood. Walking home afterward with a friend, I took a fresh look at the streets. One house I'd never noticed before had its front door open, and inside I could see a bright, modern kitchen where two men were cooking dinner. A few houses down, a woman stood in front of a newly built house, talking to a friend on a cell phone, the house next door, also new, had striking native plant landscaping. "A gay guy just bought that place," my friend said. "He did all the yard work himself." She gestured to the agaves and salvia and laughed. "There goes the neighborhood!"

Back at home, I sat on my stoop and looked out into the park. From the direction of the art gallery, I could hear dance music. Next door, Bobbie was staying late at her salon, and the laughter of her last customer rode on the breeze. This month I will celebrate my third Halloween in this house. I looked around at all the flowers I'd planted in front of the house, the thick grass that now covers the front yard, the year old crepe myrtles in the park. It was hard to remember what the block had looked like when I first moved in, and I struggled to recapture the feelings of fear and loneliness I used to have so often when I sat out on the porch at night. James has been gone for a few weeks now, caught in a drug sting. His corner is empty. How quickly things can change.

The second amazing thing that happened today is that I trapped the cat. There are many feral cats on our block, their proliferation aided by our senile neighbor who feeds them daily, but will not spay or neuter. When pregnant, they come by our house more often, seeking extra food and a quiet place to rest. This particular cat had kittens over the summer. We found the first, a newborn, dead under our garbage can, and a few days later, found the mother with a second, alive and nursing, on our stoop. We fed both kitten and mama, hoping to socialize the pair and find them homes, but the week I planned to put an ad in the paper offering them for adoption, the kitten died. That Monday morning I came outside and found the kitten lying in the sun, bloated and stiff. There was no blood, no sign of stress, it just didn't make it. We buried it next to its sibling in the corner of the yard. Since then, we struggled to trap the mother to get her fixed. One week we succeeded in cornering her in the house, but she leapt out of the kitty carrier, scratched Jamey, and then became so panicked she threw her body against the closed front door, desperate to escape. Our friend lent us an actual trap, which I baited nightly, but the cat seemed to sense the danger and came around less often, until tonight. Tonight, it was easy. I put the food in the trap and was walking into the kitchen when I heard the cage door swing shut. At first, the cat was confused. She turned around and around in the metal cage. Then, she was distraught. She pawed at the door, struggling to pry it open. Eventually, she gave up, and crouched in a corner, waiting. I know she is scared about the uncertainty of what will happen next. When I look at her, I feel her contagious panic clench in the pit of my stomach. But I exhale, and tell myself that it really is for the best.

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