Out front there are two white pickup trucks, the kind that in Georgia have gun racks in the back. There is also a green TR-7 and a tan Trans-Am. Out back, next to the dumpster these last two years, is a Cadillac up on jacks. Some of the windows are gone and it’s draped in plastic sheets. Momma Cat had her litter underneath the back end one rainy night last fall. There is also a faded van with the bumpersticker: Honey lovers stick together. On weekends a pickup comes slowly honking, with an old fat black man on the tailgate selling greens and turnips. This is Georgia’s richest county’s finest housing project.
Next door lives Ross, a world class Frisbee champ. He also runs Atlanta’s best natural bakery. On the other side lives Harry, a craftsman in the old sense, handcarving trophies with inlaid ebony and gold. He too has a national reputation.
Across the way there is a building filled with people who have no legs. Come sunny days, they all get rolled out to soak it up and watch the world. They line up there, all except one scrappy fellow. He straps on wooden stumps where knees should be and makes his way with elbows pumping, balancing all about the place. The gas company digs up the street and he’s out directing traffic. His obscenity is so spirited.
In this neighborhood husbands tend to beat up on their wives, always in the night, always shocking me awake. That’s not to say this place is unsafe. I prefer to call it interesting. There is a Spanish-speaking Chinese couple. She’s a bullet of a woman with a classic foot-bound waddle and a penchant for standing on her porch clad only in tight white long-johns. Her husband seems to have a thing for laundry and when my writing won’t come I like to pace and watch him. He’ll hang out dozens of white skivvies as Pat Boone sings on the stereo, “On a Day Like Today.”
His neighbor, a young black woman, sits silently sipping a beer and eyeing him too. Pat must be too much for her, because soon she goes inside and puts some soul on. Loud. It’s always loud. She owns the biggest speakers in the project with sisters lining up, clapping and singing into the night. The mechanic on the end has big speakers too, though somehow Jimmy Buffet and Urban Cowboy are easier to take. But why complain? Where else could I get such a medley plus a two bedroom townhouse for $63 a month.
The Housing Authority enclosed a letter with last December’s bill:
Happy Holiday Season
We sincerely hope that you have a happy holiday and enjoy the cool weather. In the past some residents have let their rent go by to buy warm clothing and Christmas for their children . . . if you plan to be a resident here after the holidays, remember your rent is due the first day of the month. IT WON’T WAIT. . . .
Yes, we are looked after, with a twist that almost slits the throat.
Out my back door is another world, one of fields and woods. There’s a great old oak tree and I’ve built a bird feeder. I’ve counted thirty-two different species, a wonder no one seems to appreciate; four different woodpeckers, assorted warblers, titmouse, towhee, chickadee. Two minutes through the woods takes you up a path to an all-night store selling Haagen-Dazs ice cream. It’s a late night treat with old movies on TV. The deal is: you pay for the ice cream and I’ll run and get it. Then it’s quiet times with candles, warm drinks and best friends.
I come and go through this back door mostly. One evening, I was leaving and found two small boys sitting cross-legged on the walk, obviously enthralled. I thought they were watching Ross practicing with his Frisbee in the field. I felt elated that two kids from the “ghetto” could enjoy such excellence. But as I approached, the younger one pointed to the sky and I realized they hadn’t been watching Ross at all. It was the sun that silenced them. It was setting behind thunderheads and great beams of light, and as I gasped, a soft voice explained, “Look, it’s heaven.”
It is a new neighborhood; it is a sad neighborhood. Block and brick, aluminum fences and siding, evenly spaced mailboxes (of which I’m always suspicious), empty yards with one small tree, near the airport near the railroad tracks. It is exactly Anywhere, USA, Modern Suburbia. My landlord built most of these houses, on what was his cedar-pasture land. This one’s five years old. So many houses look alike I wonder what his architectural imagination is made up of, beside square houses, modern bungaloids, wall-to-wall. Very middle class. Blue collar. Some redneck down the block. Hardworking, young and middle-aged couples raising families. You hardly ever see anyone walking down the street. Mostly cars, and dogs, oh the dogs. Most of the people I’ve seen around here are fat. One of our teenage neighbor’s Ford Torino has a Dixie horn. Pretty neat. Another neighbor likes to park in his front yard. Even in the spring and nice winter days like today everyone has their windows closed. The only kind of birds are grackles, starlings, mockingbirds, robins, bluejays and cardinals, in order of frequency. It’s because there aren’t any trees. No one seems interested in them. Or in bushes. In shrubs. In landscaping generally. Right below us, along the railroad tracks, is a big trailer court. How I pity them, especially at night. You wonder how they picked some of the street names around here: Artelia, Hawaiian Court, Aeolia, Xavier, Fanning. Lots of courts, circles and drives. So all the houses can be crammed in. Lovely. Like you knew I’d say it, we have some nice, helpful neighbors and we even get high with a couple or two and drink together. They watch our house when we’re gone. We look out for each other. Since I’m here, I wish we had a fireplace and a sauna. I have planted beeches, oaks, let sassafras trees grow up and planted bulbs. We have a large flower garden out back. A vegie garden too. Some people don’t have anything. At night the street lights go on and a blue tint of TV light comes out of all the houses. Lots of people are already at work by the time I get up in the morning. And everything is so new and without character; so bare and without feeling; so lonely it makes me want to cry.
What is this neighborhood? Is it my body? My friends? My front lawn? My neighbors? My city? My world? These limits define me as much as my surroundings. Can I include the nameless minstrel whose guitar songs I hear from down the street? Or the child who just glided by on skateboard?
In one sense my neighborhood is brothers and sisters with whom I can share my thoughts, my dreams, my quietest moments. This is the neighborhood that keeps me going with reassuring love, in a world of shared vision, of possibility. Some of these people live nearby, but this is not a neighborhood definable in distance or time. Wandering sorts, our paths cross when they will, when they should. When they do we share what time we have, learn together, and try to buoy our hearts for the harder individual journeys. When they don’t the simple knowledge of the unshaken bond is enough.
There are always more brothers and sisters to be met, even those right around me that I haven’t yet learned to acknowledge: new faces in which to recognize that sparkle of light, that mirrored image of myself laughing back at me. With each person we let touch us the veil lifts slightly and our neighborhood grows.
In some lucid moments, this neighborhood extends even further. I can feel a kinship that stretches far across the artificial distinctions and encompasses all in a feeling of neighborhood. These moments bring peace, for in accepting others I accept myself. When I build fences around myself, my distorted images separate me from the real people before me. As a society we can lose sight of whole groups of people behind our labels, forgetting the sense in which the earth is our large interrelated neighborhood.
When I can look at someone I dislike and have excluded from my personal neighborhood, I often find in him precisely those parts of myself that I haven’t yet made peace with.
We expand our inner neighborhood as we allow ourselves to understand more of the infinite faces that lie within. The god, the devil, and all the faces that we criticize when they appear in others are our own, awaiting recognition. The more we are able to accept them in ourselves, the freer we become to reach out and understand others. I begin to define my neighborhood not by physical boundaries but by my ability to find my self in others, and others in myself.
Howard Jay Rubin
My neighborhood is very snug, close-packed houses and apartments, snug up to the railroad tracks on one side and the freeway and the Bay, what’s left of it, on the other, primarily nonwhite, the type of area Uptown Berkeley Whites call The Jungle. After hearing out these fancy Uptowners, I usually futilely try to tell them about how we use our streets and yards, parks and trees, we have so few, but we enjoy our way down here in the Berkeley Flatlands. You never see anybody on the porches or in the yards of the Uptown districts or up in the hills. Maybe some folks are threatened by the close day-to-day presence of nonwhites. I’m not. I enjoy it. Except for a stretch or two in Carrboro and Austin, I’ve lived in similar areas for the past 20 years. It’s vivid, bouncy and alive, but it is true the theft rate is high.
We’re two blocks from a small park for kids, and two blocks off a main avenue that winds through at least six East Bay towns (San Pablo Ave.). In some towns it’s all prostitutes and/or auto showrooms or repair places, and we have some of the latter, but more of your general small businesses such as bakeries, groceries, delicatessens, cafes, Goodwill stores and the like. There’s also a small library branch, two-three folk music clubs and a brand-new bookstore. Small businesses are always folding here of course, but the fact is, new ones are always springing up too, and lately the survival rate seems to be improving. A neighborhood on the Upswing, it appears, which was formerly written off by the City Fathers as hopeless.
Among Berkeley’s other attractions (such as mucho bookstores, the University, etc.) are the fact that we have a Rent Control ordinance active now for over two years, a newly elected progressive black mayor and a divided City Council which on a swing vote votes Left as often as it does Right or moderate. Berkeley’s politically aware, in other words, and has lots of concerts, poetry readings and so on.
We’ve lived within a fifteen-block area for over three years, in three different places, finally settling into a two-bedroom place the main attraction of which is the inside space and arrangements. In the other two, I quickly developed a ten or twenty block favorite walk for sunsets or Sundays. Here I’m still working on it — only been here since August. Sure I’ll find it yet. And within three blocks of us is one poet, one sculptor and one ecologist.
It occurs to me that my oft-denigrated crude-manners might be partly the result of living amongst earthy folks for the last twenty years. On second thought, however, I better not put the blame off on them. You see, I made a pact with myself and the gods just about twenty years ago. It goes: manners are fine in social situations or any situations where the truth will not be compromised. In other words, there’s a place for manners on occasion, the same manners we all learned at home (mine in Durham and Raleigh), but if they threaten to get in the way of truth-telling, then truth must be served first, at home, at work, at church and school, on the street, on the bus, in short, Everywhere. Let this be a sign to any former or fairweather or erstwhile friends in Carolina or anywhere else for that matter who say or do different things in my regard when I’m in their presence and when I’m not. Just in case you wanted to know where I’m at on the matter, that is.
I would like to spin an ethereal line about how my neighborhood is the world, and how I Thoreauvianly traverse its innumerable wonders with a sense of awe that assures me that I am in some cosmic way a “child of the universe.” At the same time I am aware of a romantic inclination I have to express the question, in an air of spiritual authority that reveals my profundity, “Who is my neighbor(hood)?” I could then tell the parable of the “good Iranian” followed by the true life account of my great great grandfather’s epitaph, “He did what he could where he was.”
No! Let me skip the temptation to be profound and searchingly consider instead the honest borders of my neighborhood. In the classroom there is Lynn, Sandy, Larry, Nick, Terry, John, Ed, George, Vikki, Liz, Renna. Part of my neighborhood is the faculty. Bob, Marion, Judys, Gordon, Toms, Mikes, Linda, Terry, Sues, Juanita, Evelyn, Janes, Julie, Nancy, Karens, Jamie, Connee, John, Cherie, Pat, Dennis, Pete, Phyllis, Joe, Lynn, Diane, Diana, Sonja, Hays, Marcia, Ann, Stuart, Gary, Barbara, Myrna, Debbie, Martha, Gary. The flesh family neighborhood is Jack and Camilla, Marcia and Johns, Barb, John and Beth, Carol, Greg, Jessica, Nick, and Dave, Tome and Dawn. In the restaurant there is Scott and Gayle and Trish and Dr. T. At church there is Ardy and Ruby, Dolores, Leanna, Graeme and Avalon, Ruby, Ed and Mary, Minette, Ted, Ricardo, Cindy, Norm, John, the Vegas, Helen and Penny, Frank, Janet Eng and everyone else.
Topping off my neighborhood there is the Father, Son, and Spirit and the angels and EVERYONE I meet in the space-time continuum with which my life comes in contact.
I owe each of you everything (as I would have it done unto me). Who can handle that? I admit I am in deep debt to my neighborhood, so call when you need me. (But only the Messiah can even the score, I confess.)
Elk Grove, Illinois