Sunday, July 17, 2011

Out of Africa


My parents' house in the suburbs of Washington D.C. was always cold in the summertime. Open windows and doors would let out the air conditioning and let in bugs, two intolerable possibilities. Fresh air and the sounds of nature, especially at night, were reserved for vacations at the beach, weekends spent at a friend's country house, or summer camp. Maybe it is because of this that I like to keep every window and door open as much as possible here, listening to the crickets chirping, an occasional stray cat howl or dog bark, and on Sunday evenings, the gatherings of the family around the corner, and the clink of the horseshoes they throw in their backyard.

Living on the edge of the park, bordered on one side by a vacant house, on the other side by a one room hair salon, gives me a lot of solitude at night. "I once owned a farm in Africa," begins Karen Blixen in her memoir, Out of Africa. As I tend to my plants, or clear weeds from the lot next door, or wander through the park picking up litter, I often feel that this is my little farm, my urban finca, my postage stamp sized ranch. I once owned a house on the Eastside. I say this because it will not be like this forever, and because melodrama and soft focus are crucial when writing a romance.

Each neighborhood has a life cycle of its own. This one has descended into infirmity over the past 40 years or so, beset by one illness after the other: racial segregation, divestment, poverty concentration, substance abuse, crime. But an infusion of funds from people like me has functioned as a new treatment, slowly working through the bloodstream, pumping life back into this area one property at a time.

I was gentrified out of my old apartment, located above a hair salon, next to a drug dealer. Around the corner was a cluster of tiny dilapidated houses, occupied by more people per dwelling than seemed possible. Afternoons would find the residents grouped on the corner in battered plastic chairs, drinking beer or playing cards, cursing at toddlers who inevitably rambled towards the street. It was picturesque sometimes, when I woke up on Saturday mid-mornings to the smell of meat smoking on the grill, party music and the rattle of my neighbors playing craps on their porch. My friends smile at those stories, and people who move over here recount the dominoes games they've witnessed. There is some pride in the exotic beauty of it.

Everyone likes a romance. They melt in the mouth, like cotton candy, carefully crafted with just the right amount of tears to diffuse the warmth that builds in places it shouldn't. This story, though, is not really a romance, even if sometimes I try to pretend that it is. In the old apartment, there were lots of fights. Fights between my neighbor and her boyfriend which would spill out of their apartment and into the street, her screaming at the top of her lungs, their two kids, around age 5 and 7, standing in the doorway, listening with pinched faces. The fights between another neighbor and his drug addicted wife, culminating one night in a stabbing, police cars and ambulance sirens. But by far the worse was the couple a few houses down, if they could even be called a couple. Their times staying together were brief and intermittent, their fights loud and ugly, laced not just with regular cursing but racial epithets from the Hispanic woman and misogynist diatribes from the Black man. These were not lovers quarrels; these two people hated each other. One night in particular they went at it ferociously, and as usual I could hear only enough of it through my open windows to know that I didn't want to hear any more. Suddenly there was a brief silence, then only the woman, yelling incoherently. Soon after an ambulance arrived, loaded the man in, but refused to take the woman, who was crying and begging to go to the hospital with him. The ambulance wailed away and left her standing on the sidewalk, where she stayed for over thirty minutes, crying out loud with self-pitying sobs that echoed in the otherwise still street.

But all of those buildings have been sold or torn down now, those residents dispersed. Now I am alone at night on my new block, quiet except on the busy nights, when cars drive by every few minutes, stopping at the less lit places on the street, waiting until I come outside and stare hard at them, urging them to move on. I prefer to be alone, with my newspapers, books, quiet music, computer and sometimes, tequila to keep me company. The air is soft, the pine floorboards worn smooth by bare feet, and when I step outside, the concrete front steps are still warm from the day's sun. The computer keyboard clicks delicately, "Clickety-clack," Jamey mimics, and calls it "the sound of loneliness." That may be true in a way. Even in this urban area, with small houses on tight lots, people are more self-contained than I expected. Partially I assume this is because I am an outsider, and for this reason, avoided by some neighbors. But I also think some measure of self containment, both physical and emotional, is a self protection measure on the part of those who live here. I read about a study of inner city single mothers in the 1990s where half of the women were moved out of their ghettoes and into the suburbs. The new suburban mothers complained of loneliness and isolation, but no more so than the urban mothers, who had stayed in their own familiar environments. The researcher concluded that the ghetto can also be emotionally isolating, despite the density of humanity.

On a quiet night like tonight, I don't feel lonely, or scared. I imagine myself as Karen Blixen, a stranger come to town, considered a positive force by some, a usurper by others. I didn't move to this neighborhood to win a popularity contest, I remind myself sometimes. I am here on the make, investing my money and time in this house, hoping that it will increase in value as the neighborhood changes. What that changed neighborhood will look like I can't fully imagine, or maybe I just don't want to know tonight. I plan the future in soft focus, when I will look back on these days, and remember not the challenges of crime and the frustrations of poverty, but the crisp smell of dirt in the garden, the exhale of a breeze over the trees in the park, the sound of horseshoes and soft laughter.

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