With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I grew up in a simple, one-story white frame house with dark green shutters, in a quiet suburban neighborhood of Jackson, Mississippi. Our half-acre lot was dotted with large pine trees and shrubs. In the springtime, the mimosa trees sprouted feathery pink blossoms, and daffodils and narcissus grew alongside the fence.
My life back then, in the fifties, was simple: playing touch football with my cousins on the plump St. Augustine grass; whittling sticks on the front steps; rolling in the yard with our cocker spaniel’s new puppies; riding down the hill in my little red wagon. On summer evenings, the kids on our block would emerge to escape the stifling heat and humidity that built up indoors each day. We’d play kick-the-can or freeze tag, and sometimes catch fireflies and put them in a jar to make a magic lantern.
One spring, a major sewer problem turned our street into a terrain of dirt hills for several weeks. We climbed tirelessly up and down the huge mounds, sending dust flying through the air. Then a mid-May downpour transformed the hills into mud, and we rolled in it until there was scarcely a clean patch of skin among us.
One of the highlights of summer occurred when the mosquito population reached its peak. A truck would come through our neighborhood and spray to kill the pests, leaving in its wake a thick, enveloping white mist. Word would quickly spread that the “mosquito-spray man” was here, and all of us kids would hit the street and run behind the truck, frolicking in the white clouds of DDT.
I live in a neighborhood that is virtually crime-free. Nestled against some woods, our block of homogeneous townhouses is peaceful and clean. There is no unemployment, poverty, or homelessness, or even much disparity between the haves and the have-nots. People of different races and religions harmoniously share the somewhat cramped common yards. We are all generally polite (though not all friends), and know each other’s names, and look out for one another. Every basic convenience is provided within walking distance. Aside from an occasional childish act of vandalism, our block is immune to the crime in the surrounding neighborhoods.
We owe our security to our landlord, the United States Marine Corps, and it comes at a price. Though our block is heavily policed, the rules are often selectively enforced. The corps mandates neighborhood-cleanup days and inspections. Every fixture, planting, modification, or repair must be approved. We can be fined for leaving a porch light on. Complaints about dogs or children, even if motivated by revenge, can result in an eviction, and one misplaced accusation of misconduct can ruin a security clearance and, thus, a career.
As a young idealist, I would have found this environment unacceptably restrictive and controlling. As a parent, I find it comforting, because my children are safe. I don’t know whether to feel relieved or frightened.
Jessica P. Rodela
Across the alley — a gravel strip that served as playground, compost pile, and place where dads could pour used motor oil — lived the Nelson brothers, all five of them. Each of their names started with the letter R: Randy, Ricky, Rod, and so on. Next door to the Nelson brothers lived the Wright sisters. There were five of them, too. Add my brother and me, and the pair of aloof, blond German sisters who lived next door to us, and that made fourteen kids, almost all of whom were usually up for fun and mischief on those hot summer evenings in central Montana.
Just before dusk (which came deliciously late in July), the block was alive with kids. Occasionally, we would see the dancing green ghosts in the northern sky. It was during those sultry evenings that I learned how to make a Molotov cocktail, saw my first real breasts (illuminated by a carefully trained flashlight), and smoked part of a ping-pong ball (the Nelsons claimed it was what guys did to get high in prison). Some nights we slept under the stars in the back yard, where I learned the constellations — and how to light a fart.
That block is now a distant memory, but because of it my idea of fun, even today, is somewhat insidious.
When I was eleven, I and the other boys on my block would race each other home from school on our bikes. The last one back to the clubhouse we’d made in Billy’s garage would be the “chicken,” consigned to doing favors for the others all afternoon. We pitched pennies and flipped baseball cards and played handball against the curb till our moms called us home for dinner. The six of us were “friends for life,” having sworn a blood oath over a can of beer one of us had found.
That summer, a neighborhood girl named Kathy began to follow us around. We ignored her until, one day, she shyly asked if she could come into our clubhouse. One of us (I don’t remember who) told her there was an initiation: she would have to expose herself to us. I remember the tears in her eyes as she stood there with her panties around her knees, completely vulnerable. I remember her small voice saying that God would punish us.
Perhaps this memory is God’s punishment.
Leaping out our front doors at practically the same moment, we kids run and meet on the street, our holy place. We play hard. Once, I slid into third base on the asphalt; I like to win.
Louisa comes out to play kickball with us. She’s good. She stands next to me at the Good Humor truck, with her long black hair, and smiles at me. As we unwrap our toasted-almond bars, I breathe in her smell.
She kicks the red rubber ball over my head; it rolls and I follow it under the tulip trees and along the curb, all the way down the block where everyone knows me. Thirty years from now, I will come back here almost every night in my dreams.
In 1959, my older brother received a shiny red bicycle for his seventh birthday, and I, four years younger, inherited his old brown tricycle with the rusty hand bell. It was run/down, but I didn’t mind. I had always coveted that trike, and now I could pedal it madly up and down the driveway for hours, ringing the bell and singing to myself.
In time I became more adventuresome, and made the journey with my brother to the corner variety store a block away. There, I could trade my pennies for Lik-M-Aid, blackballs, or bags of icing sugar with licorice straws. Sometimes I hadn’t a penny to my name, but would make the trip anyway. Once, we found a quarter and, in a fit of extravagance, bought twenty-five Lik-M-Aids to mix together in a pitcher of water.
On the way back my brother would race home to enjoy his treats, but I would pedal slowly, savoring every inch of the journey. Now and then I would stop to examine my treats, and just feel happy.
Today I live in a neighborhood much like the one where I grew up. There is even a variety store on the corner. But I don’t let my two young children go there by themselves.
J. H. Korda
On my block, the older kids ruled us younger ones with fear and manipulation. My closest friend, Karen, was no exception. She had incredible power over me, though I would never have admitted it. She used to tell me about things my parents sheltered me from, such as the Manson-family murders. News of that particular event destroyed any feeling of safety I might have had in the world. After that I felt certain I’d eventually be snatched up and murdered on my way to school. Karen also told me stories about how hippies liked to kidnap little kids, force them to take pills, and make them their slaves.
When I was eight, Karen told me about sex, and taught me how to play S&M Barbies. One day, she tied my hands and feet, blindfolded me, and put a gag in my mouth. Then she told me to pretend she had a gun, and she pulled up my clothes and rubbed between my legs until I had an orgasm.
Susan and I were not allowed to cross the street, so we walked endlessly around the block, our bare feet slapping the rough concrete. We walked past the Lawters’, their son Richard’s parachute airing on the lawn and his motorcycle leaning against his mother’s prize roses; then past Susan’s house, with the mimosa trees under which we pretended to be pioneer women. Next door to Susan lived Taylor, the weedy boy who constantly spied on us. Then came Mrs. Herman, who wore her hair in a bun and gave us art lessons on her screened-in back porch. We hurried past the house with the dog that had bitten my brother, and never stopped at Sheryl’s, where kids were not allowed to come in the front door because of the white carpet. Finally, we reached the vacant lot, where the trees spread their welcoming arms wide.
Every crack in the sidewalk, every bike and ball lolling on the lawns, was all-too-familiar territory. We walked by like foreign princesses, waiting for some well-read prince to appear and spirit us away from this dreary block. When we grew up, we would never live in an ordinary place like this — never.
Prairie Village, Kansas
My block is a stretch of two-story, middle-class row homes just outside Philadelphia’s University City area. Nearby are a corner drugstore, three small groceries, a bar, a pizzeria, an insurance agency, and a restaurant serving Ivory Coast cuisine. My street is lined with large, gracious trees that provide welcome shade in the summer, and topics of heated debate for the block association year-round: leaf sweeping, tree pruning, root-induced sidewalk upheaval, and even possible tree removal. My neighbors are a mix of mostly middle-class African and European Americans, homeowners and renters, with and without children. Gardens bloom cheerfully throughout the summer, and the sidewalk stays shoveled in the winter. I love living here.
Last October, however, someone was robbed at knifepoint half a block away, around midnight. And then in November, only one block farther away, a graduate student was stabbed to death in a purse-snatching at 11 P.M. And last month, a would-be robber was shot to death in the early morning hours at the nearby bar. In news reports, these events feel distant, like something that happened somewhere else. The violence seems surreal. This is my block.
Around three o’clock the neighborhood kids tumbled off the school bus, anxious to see who was moving into the vacant house on the block, which our family had just bought. I remember four of them walking in a row up the street, like cowboys in an old western. There was going to be trouble, but my brother and I were ready. We stood at the top of our hill, waiting for them to make the first move. We glared at them; they peered at us. Then the biggest one hollered something, but his voice was muffled by a scarf. He repeated his challenge, declaring this to be their sledding hill. We looked at each other in amazement: how dare they call it their hill! With that, the first snowball was launched.
My parents might have bought the land, but we would have to earn the rights to it.
In a city where nearly everyone stayed inside, behind locked doors and barred windows, my block teemed with people. Kids were always playing in the street while mothers watched them from front steps. The men were always fixing their cars or chatting over a beer on the sidewalk. In the summer, the guy across the street would bring his barbecue grill out on the sidewalk and cook up carne asada for his family and neighbors. Though my neighborhood was widely considered dangerous, I always felt safe. There was a sense of community, of people watching out for each other. Anytime I had car trouble, all I had to do was open the hood and look worried, and within seconds a couple of young men from the block would appear, eager to help out.
But, after many years, I got tired of living there: tired of hearing the woman next door yelling at her kids; tired of hearing my neighbors play the only three cassettes they owned over and over again at full volume; tired of squeezing past the cars parked on the sidewalk and slipping in the oily mess left behind. But most of all I got tired of the stares that would follow me every time I left my house, as the men on my block took note of how I was dressed, whom I was with, and in which direction I was headed.
So I moved to a “nicer” part of San Francisco, white and middle-class. Here, no one parks on the sidewalk, or hangs out on the street, or yells at their kids — I don’t think I’ve even seen any kids — or plays their stereo loud enough for me to hear it. And when I go out into the clean, quiet street, no one here notices or cares where I’m going, or how I’m dressed, or whom I’m with. It’s just what I thought I wanted.
Between the ages of one and ten, I lived in a big, old four-family house at the end of our block. We shared a front porch with the family next door, which had two boys older than I. One Easter I was given two baby chicks that I adored, and which the boys beat to death. I loved the chicks so much I would not give them up and, instead of burying them, wrapped them in cloth and put them in the bottom of my doll trunk. (We never were able to get the smell out of that trunk.)
My best friend, Louise, lived halfway down the block. Her father was a doctor, so her family had all the niceties of life: a dog, a skating rink in the back yard, and a large Cadillac that they took with them on trips to Europe.
At the other end of the block was a vacant lot where we children played. When work began there on a building, a pile of bricks beckoned us to play king-of-the-mountain. When it was my turn to stand atop the red-brick mountain, I became mad with power, determined to fend off all comers, including Louise’s little, red-headed, four-year-old sister, Betty. I began wildly tossing bricks in all directions, and one of them hit Betty in the forehead, drawing blood. “You killed my sister!” Louise screamed. I wanted to die.
It turned out to have been a glancing blow that caused no serious damage, and Louise and I became friends again. But my heart broke soon afterward when her family — the one I wished I had been born into — moved to a fancier part of the city, and my parents would not let me visit her. My mother feared I would be unhappy if I saw the now-even-greater disparity between our ways of life. She was probably right.
Santa Barbara, California
I fell in love with this place the moment I first saw it: the lawn was neat, the house well kept, and the neighborhood quiet. Most of all, it was affordable. The realtor had said we’d never find a house in this area, because no one ever moved away. I guess we got lucky. The neighbors on the left don’t speak to us, but that’s all right. I don’t have much time for neighbors. I work a lot, and value the moments I get to spend with my husband. I don’t want to borrow anyone’s sugar, or have anyone dropping by unexpectedly to borrow mine.
Last year, the kid across the street called me a nigger. It was all I could do not to fly across the yard and beat him to a pulp. Thank God I thought about how it would look for a forty-year-old woman to hammer the crap out of a ten-year-old boy. I would surely have been hauled off to jail.
When my husband, who is white, came home, I told him what had happened, and he asked why I hadn’t confronted the boy. I couldn’t explain how just one step in that boy’s direction would have ended in death for him and “life” for me.
Now the boy’s father tries to stare us down whenever we’re outside. My husband waves to him in a friendly manner. I just turn the other way.
The only time I’ve seen the boy up close was last Halloween. I wouldn’t have recognized him — he wore red face makeup and a long wig in a sad attempt to imitate a Native American — but the pure fear in his voice gave him away when he said, “Trick or treat.” He was literally shaking. I wondered why he had come to my door if he was so frightened. Then, looking past his shoulder, I saw his father standing on tiptoe down at the street, trying to peer in. He was itching for a fight, and willing to use his son as bait.
I dropped two candy sticks into the kid’s bag and closed the door behind me.
The electricity is out on my block tonight, which is not unusual here in Haiti. My wealthy next-door neighbors have turned on their generator so they can continue watching TV; their huge satellite dish looms like an alien spacecraft over the high wall between our houses. Below, along the rutted dirt track that is our road, the poor have lit candles and oil lamps by which to continue their dice games and gossip. Dogs bark and children cry; Creole voices with strong African cadences argue passionately; car horns honk in the distance; and the small tree frogs momentarily fall silent before continuing their ragged chorus.
Like most blancs in this country, I live behind an iron gate that locks me in and Haiti out. My driver picks me up in the morning and delivers me to the private school where I teach. Through the windows of the van I feel the curious but distant stares of my neighbors. Rich and poor alike eye me with suspicion.
My block belongs entirely to no single class. The rich live in walled fortresses. Their servants live in small, cinder-block houses without windows or plumbing. The very poor live in shacks and shanties that lean against the walls around the homes of the wealthy. The road — narrow, rutted, unpaved, and full of rocks and holes — winds through the neighborhood and is traveled by everything from donkeys to late-model Range Rovers. Hibiscus, bougainvillea, and plumbago spill over high rock walls, their fragrances eclipsed by other smells: freshly slaughtered meat, brazier fires, and raw sewage.
Sometimes at night I sit out on the terrace, sipping rum and listening to the life of my block: the arguing, the gossip, the generators, the dogs, the children rolling hoops down the darkened road. Crickets and frogs sing in the trees. Some nights, like tonight, I can hear the voodoo drums in the distance, their insistent beat and the chanting that accompanies them drifting up from the dry riverbed below.
I live in an urban neighborhood where the only thing between my front door and a very public thoroughfare is the sidewalk. To me, that anonymous stretch of concrete is my front yard. I spend a lot of time out there picking up trash, sweeping, and planting flowers around the trees or in pots large enough to discourage casual thieves. In the process, I’ve discovered that a person pulling weeds and cleaning off graffiti appears, by nature, non-threatening and decent, and therefore invites conversation from neighbors. Whenever I am out picking up litter, people walking dogs or waiting for the bus come over to chat, and sometimes join me in picking up. When smokers see me meticulously stooping to retrieve stray butts, they take care to grind out their cigarettes and put the butts in the nearby trash can. Children, instead of just dropping their gum wrappers, walk over and throw them in the trash. People clean up after their dogs. Every year, it seems more of my neighbors are taking the time to plant a few blooming plants around their trees, and to clean the sidewalks in front of their houses.
The message such efforts send is simple: This is not just an anonymous urban bus stop and sidewalk; this is an area to which someone is paying attention. This is someone’s home.
People frequently complain about the depersonalized feel of urban neighborhoods, where residents live side by side for years without knowing one another. What they don’t seem to realize is that feelings of neighborliness don’t just happen: you have to do something to make them happen.
Sometimes, even though the traffic noise can be deafening, I take my coffee and newspaper out onto the front steps. Hundreds of people pass by while I sit there, and all get to witness this middle-aged guy reading the paper, having a cup of coffee, acting as if he’s enjoying his home and his neighborhood. It’s no act.
Mark A. Hetts
San Francisco, California
What makes my block come alive are the kids: whizzing up and down the street on their bikes or roller blades; hanging from the fig tree (though they’ve been told not to); accosting and making friends with susceptible grown-ups (like me).
A couple of months ago I had five little neighbor girls between the ages of seven and ten in my living room. They were “entertaining me” by playing dress-up with my clothes, jewelry, and makeup. There was Lizzie, my heart-child, and her big sister Mahalia, and their cousins Serena and Olivia, and a little girl named Nadine from outside the neighborhood. After they’d gone home, I realized a beautiful crystal necklace that I’d bought at the flea market for only ten dollars had disappeared with them.
When I asked for it back I got five different versions of the same garbled story: Nadine had taken it, because she “didn’t know if she liked white people.” Lizzie was going to give the necklace back, but Nadine had either thrown it away or given it to her mother for Mother’s Day, because she didn’t have any money for a present. So my necklace was either at Nadine’s mother’s house (wherever that was) or in a landfill somewhere.
I was mad, and hurt by the comment about white people. Why hadn’t Lizzie and Serena and Mahalia and Olivia stuck up for me when Nadine had said that? It was naive of me to think such thoughts about the kids, but I felt wronged. I asked how they would feel if I went to their house and took something and didn’t give it back. They kept saying, “The necklace is lost, Ali. We don’t know where it is.”
It took me a while to let the necklace go, and even longer to get over the Nadine-doesn’t-like-white-people comment. (Did that mean it was OK to steal from me?) At first I was cool and distant toward the children, and wouldn’t let them into my house. And when I finally did let them in, I watched them carefully. I was sad, however, because the kids weren’t around as much.
Then one day Lizzie and Mahalia came by, and I agreed to take them to the beach. We had fun; they laughed and played and threw themselves into the water. It was like old times. Afterward I took them to McDonald’s and fed them cheeseburgers, and Mahalia said, “You don’t have to spend your money on us.”
Late that night, around 11:30, I was sitting at home reading a novel that made me cry, and thinking of how lonely we can be, even around those we love the most, when a knock came at my door. I was scared because of the hour. Then I heard the kids on the other side saying, “Open up, Ali; it’s us!” I opened the door, and there were Mahalia and Lizzie holding my necklace. Lizzie was in her underpants with just a sheet wrapped around her; they must have gotten out of bed to come over. She was grinning so hard I thought her face would split. “It fell behind the TV!” she cried. I knew from their expressions they were telling the truth.
When they’d left I closed the door and sat down to ponder the incident. All those months I’d been angry and suspicious, and the necklace had remained lost. But as soon as I’d opened my heart to the kids again, the necklace had reappeared. I sat there, turning it over in my hand. It was even more beautiful than I remembered.
Until I was seven my yard consisted of a small cement patio in back and the alleyway between our three-family house and the one next door. When I looked through our fence, all of the yards as far as I could see were paved (to cut down on maintenance) and divided by chain-link.
There were seven kids in my house, and the games we played required only rubber balls and broomsticks: stickball, bounce, catch, bang-you’re-dead. We played hard, and the violence of our family lives surfaced in fantasies of escape, and in make-believe games in which we hired each other to “break legs” (the broomsticks became our splints and crutches). At the end of the alley was a monstrous black fence, its gate too heavy to swing open without adult assistance. Beyond the fence was a world so big and dangerous that I didn’t care ever to enter it.
Behind our house lived Mrs. Schiffer, an Orthodox Jew who always pulled her sleeve over the number tattooed on her arm, as if we didn’t know it was there. On Fridays, at sundown, she’d call one of us kids over to do her “a little favor.” We’d each fight to be the “Shabbat goy” who turned on the one lamp and the single burner that would get Mrs. Schiffer through the next day. For this, she would give us a quarter.
There was a cavernous echo in the alley, and noise of our rough play would bounce up to my grandmother’s window. When she’d had enough, she’d yell, “Hey, you kids, shut up!” and we’d press against the walls to avoid the clothespins or cigar butts on their way down. “Grandma’s bullets,” we called them. Later, she’d tell us to bring the pins back to her, and we would.
On the street by our house was a large maple tree. I only got to look at it from inside the apartment, as I wasn’t allowed to play out front. I remember once retreating to the small front room where my mother folded laundry, so I could be alone. It was a sunny summer late afternoon, and the house was unusually quiet. I climbed up onto the windowsill and, legs dangling free, sat entranced by the sound of the wind moving through the maple’s leaves, the soft shush and gentle sway of green. Never before had I seen or heard anything so comforting.
West Hartford, Connecticut
When I was fourteen, I had an after-school job at a Cities Service gas station on the corner of my block. I pumped gas (eight gallons for a dollar), washed cars, and kept the place clean.
My family’s financial resources were limited, and my parents, trying to save money wherever they could, trained me not to flush the toilet after I peed. “We need to save on the water bill,” my father said. “Anyway, it’s just colored water.” Out of habit, I never flushed when I peed at work, either. Anton Erickson, the owner, asked me about it. I explained my father’s reasoning, and Anton replied, “At work, always flush. That ‘colored water’ doesn’t smell like lemonade.”
Anton and his wife and his two brothers lived next door to us. They were all engineering students at the University of Oklahoma, and were working their way through college operating the service station. They’d turned one of the bedrooms in their house into a ham-radio station: W-5-DIN. The room was full of radio transmitters, receivers, and equipment, and a forty-foot antenna stuck up from the roof. W-5-DIN broadcast only late at night. During the summer, when all the windows were open, we would hear a voice loud and clear from next door: “This is W-5-DIN — Denver, Iowa, Nebraska — calling. . . .” Occasionally, we’d hear an answer from some faraway place, like Sydney, Australia.
Curtis Bryan ran a Mobil station on the southeast corner of the block. My friend Gordon Hopper lived next door to it, and he and I often hung out there. The Mobil station sold condoms, and one summer day, when things were slow, Curtis said, “Let’s blow up some rubbers.” Gordon and I watched while Curtis detached the fuel line from a space heater and inflated a dozen condoms with natural gas. Once inflated, the condoms were bigger than basketballs. Curtis tied them together into two impressive clusters of six and launched them into the sky, where they became unidentified flying objects, floating away on the summer breeze. Gordon and I chased after them on our bicycles, shouting, “Look! Look! UFOs!” and leaving in our wake a trail of people staring upward and pointing.
The flying objects were soon identified, as the condoms began to leak gas and come loose from their clusters.
Rubbers fell from the sky all over town.