Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Corner of Washington and Grant: A Confession

I'd like to think that people are incapable of scaring me. I'd like to think I'm untouchable, immune to the plaguing fears of the common man. I'd like to think that nobody's out to get me.

Two winters ago, I lived with my girlfriend in one unfurnished room of a half-shotgun house on Washington Avenue near Tchoupitoulas Street, in the Garden District of New Orleans, Louisiana. They're called shotgun houses because one could feasibly shoot a 12-gauge round through the front door, straight through the rooms, and out the back door.

We slept on an air-mattress insistently sinking into a linoleum floor, constantly cold and surrounded by cockroaches seeking warmth. I jury rigged the broken heater with a bent bottlecap. We acquired two filthy chairs from a pile of evicted furniture sitting on the curb across the street, and strung dollar-store Christmas lights for ambiance.

An early 90's Ford Explorer decayed on the curb outside our shotgun, flat tires, rubber rotting away, at least a year's worth of leaves collected under its rusting frame. The immense duplex across the street was long abandoned and boarded up, an orphan of Hurricane Katrina.

On Washington, we all lived in ruin.

Our flatmate was white, our neighbors in the other half of the shotgun were white, and combined we formed the only Caucasian household for two blocks in any direction. Coming from a rural all-white community in Pennsylvania, I was severely out of my element. My girlfriend grew up in South Carolina, with a distinct Southern mindset of how one lives among people of color.

"I love black people!" she exclaimed, on more than one occasion. "They know what respect is."

They. That word haunts me. The concept of The Other personified in actual, relatable beings: Shawn, whose courteous street greetings made me excited to know Southerners, and the always curler'd Miss Sylvia, who invited us to her birthday party only because we happened to be on her walk home.

A few days before Christmas, sitting in our ratty chairs and drinking three-dollar wine, the soundscape broke with a sudden pop-pop-pop. My girlfriend looked up at me, worried.
"Don't worry, baby," I reassured her, "It's just firecrackers."
We kept on playing cards, and then Shawn ran by the window, and then all Miss Sylvia's babies, the innumerable teens who live in-and-out of her house, flooded by like the levees had crumbled again.
"Lil Remo got shot!" was all we heard. Our street was cordoned off for days. I've checked, since then, to see who exactly took a bullet that day. No Google search reveals the police report, no mention of a shooting on Washington Ave that night. We didn't imagine it; it simply went unnoticed.

In the ghetto bordering the Mighty Brown River, a fistful of blocks from where Mardi Gras krewes prep their floats and Tipitina's continues to host incredible music, where Washington Ave is an eyesore in the midst of Magazine Street's boutique shopping and hipsters eating organic eggs on hungover Sundays, nobody fucking cares. Because they don't live there.

We live on Grant Boulevard, which sounds fancy in name, but it's a paltry approximation of post-Katrina avenues. It's post-industrial central New York, bleak houses gilt with hardwood floors and glass doorknobs cut like crystal, exteriors charcoaled with exhaust fumes, built in the hundreds for Irish and Italian factory workers. The boulevard is shabby but not chic. Rent is cheap. Sidewalks crumble, winter snow and snowplow salt eat away at fundamental structures, and everybody keeps their head down.

It's gross to smoke inside, so we sit on our porch. Catercorner to the northeast, a grizzled Italian in coveralls accepts the hand-off of a puppy through the window of a decrepit Chevy van. Those folks yell a lot, and they pass an awful lot of puppies from house to vehicle. We watch kids walk by, oblivious to the cold. They are black, and they are white, and they don't see The Other. They're just them, tromping through the unshoveled spans, cursing everybody and singing along to whatever's playing through earbuds under woolen caps.

The walkway in front of my house is clear. Bare pavement, and snowbanks on either side up to your hips. I tried to shovel it, but I got trumped by the guy next door with his growling snowblower, early in the morning, before anybody goes to work. I don't know if he works; the bro upstairs says our neighbor is a wannabe drug kingpin.
I don't care, that was awfully nice.

I'm in this neighborhood because I'm poor. That makes me statistically just as likely to rob a stranger on Syracuse streets as anyone of any race. I know, logically, that socioeconomic status is the primary factor in crime rates. I know, reasonably, that race is secondary to class, that folks around here have little hope of breaking out of our debt-ridden rut, and that creates an atmosphere of desperation. Rationally, I have nothing to fear because I have nothing worth stealing.
Expectations are rarely rational.

But when I sit on my porch, a white man in a black neighborhood, I watch. I tense.
I wish I wouldn't.
When the sirens roll by, I peek out between Venetian blinds to see what drama is unfolding on my street. I'm afraid Lil Remo followed us to Syracuse and got shot again, just to freak us out. I'm that white guy, peering from his perceived safe space thinking I'll probably be okay.

And I hate myself for it.

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