A Day in the Ghetto
Living in the ghetto can be inspirational, nerve racking, and at times, frightening. This neighborhood wasn’t born to be a ghetto, at one time when the mills were in operation it was a beautiful area with corner markets, gorgeous churches, and downtown shopping a short ride or walk away. The world changes, though, and as shopping moved from downtown, and awkward highways cut through and loomed overhead, the terrain and the livelihood changed. Pulling into this area from any direction can be daunting as one simply can’t help but see homeless people, drug dealers, and prostitutes lingering on corners.
My husband and I are not rich people, and the thing with artists is that we often find the act of creation far more important and satisfying than a new car, fancy house, nice clothes, or expensive vacations. We live as inexpensively as we are able, and value time to create over money for extras. My husband is a musician who has put out eight albums in nearly as many years, and as you know, I’m a writer, publishing my work as the muse allows. We don’t have agents or record deals or publishers, we just feel the need to put out our work and leave our own legacy, whether or not the world cares. Due to this internal drive we’ve made choices and try to live cheaply as we can. Ours vehicles are old and long paid off, we plant gardens and keep chickens, when our hair gets cut we do it ourselves, we buy our clothes in thrift shops, and if a big purchase is made we do a lot of research before we commit. It’s not bad for an artist’s life; we’re close to town where he can play gigs, and where I can sell homemade goods at the local market or go to a book signing at the local bookstore.
I remember the first time Chris took me to Boston when we were dating. “Don’t smile at strangers on the subway,” he warned, noticing that I often smile at people. I listened to him and didn’t, as I was in an unfamiliar place, and he reminded me of that today when I found myself in an uncomfortable situation.
A man cutting my neighbor’s grass offered to cut ours and I accepted. Now usually I love cutting grass, but I have found in this neighborhood it’s not always the best thing to be on the street. It only took me a few offers from men for a date when I was raking or out with the lawnmower to make me shy away from the front of the house.
Before the man started on the yard he asked me for a sandwich, I looked at the rope holding up his pants, and said, “I have peanut butter.”
He acted as though I insulted him and commented that all folks in our community had money, and peanut butter made him itch.
“We’re just poor folks here, artists and musicians,” I said stupidly.
“You’re musicians?” His eyes sparked.
“No, our landlord is a musician,” I dodged. “We’re just poor people and all I have is peanut butter.”
He looked me up and down, making me uncomfortable, and then shook his head, walking over to his lawnmower. He took his time, stopping for many rests for such a small yard, and most of his breaks were spent talking to the ladies passing the house or yelling at cars driving by or answering his cell phone. Finally, I stepped across the street to speak to my neighbor, Kathy.
I don’t know much about Kathy except that her family has lived in this neighborhood for more than sixty years and she knows everyone on the street, she loves animals, and her yard is always pristine. I asked if she knew the guy cutting my grass as I’ve seen many different people working in her yard. She said she didn’t know him and that he had asked her for a sandwich and a belt and had mentioned he’d just gotten out of jail.
“Well, that makes me a little nervous,” I said.
She looked over my shoulder, at him looking at me, and nodded her head.
“Chris has a gig in just a bit.”
“You have my number?” she said, watching him.
“You call if you need me and I or my husband or my son or someone will be there,” she said, watching him.
I thanked her and stepped back across the street, paying the man, but he didn’t leave. He was waiting for my neighbor to come home to pay him and he was in the street, stopping cars, I suppose of the people he recognized, and talking to the ladies.
Funny thing happened then… now I long for a place in the country, where I can stand in the yard and not see another house or hear another human voice, and I often lament of living so close to people, but then I saw my neighbors suddenly find a reason to be outside. I saw two neighbors playing basketball with one of those portable nets that can be set on the street, big guys I’ve literally never seen before, and Kathy’s son decided to blow her lawn with his American bulldog barking inside the fence. Another group of neighbors come out and sat on their porch talking and laughing, but I felt keeping their eye out.
My neighbor returned, loading the man and his lawnmower in his truck and taking him away, and as they drove off I watched my other neighbors slowly finish their outdoor business and step back in their houses. I think I was both awed and humbled at the same time. I barely know these people, keeping inside the fence with my chickens and cats, trying to be a nice person, and only really getting involved when there is an accident at the crossroad outside my door. To see so many people suddenly appear on what I felt was my behalf was a humbling message for me.
Sometimes I grow impatient with the world and circumstances, sometimes I don’t always realize that I am where I am until God decides the next path, sometimes I just want to push forward to what I see is the next place, without appreciating where I am. I’m a big believer in self-motivation, changing the future, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, but I am also humbly realizing that there is a plan for each of us that we don’t always control.
Patience has never been a virtue of mine, I have my gifts, but patience is simply not one of them. Sometimes I want what I want when I want it, and most times it’s not as simple as a new pair of shoes or an outfit. I have lamented over living in the ghetto, the fear of stepping out of the front of the house lest some fool stops and asks me for a date, I have bemoaned the noise, but I am beginning to understand I haven’t been taking in the blessing.
No, I don’t actually know my neighbors, but I do know I’ve helped a couple of their kids hit in the street. No, I don’t always like their noise, but they don’t complain when the band comes over to practice. No, I don’t appreciate their family get-togethers that can last long into the night, but I certainly appreciate when those same families come out to keep an eye on me.
So here I sit, humbled and feeling safe.