Open Lines of Communication

There’s an elderly South Asian woman in my building who doesn’t speak English. I see her in the lobby, in the elevator. And sometimes I see her at the building entrance as she is just arriving or just about to leave. I have carried packages for her from the door to the elevator, or held the door for her as she makes her slow way inside. She is, most times, in the company of a younger, somewhat stern-seeming woman who thanks me if I’m helping or just nods and carries on if we’re passing in the hall.

When I communicate with the older woman, I use gestures and pointing — to ask if she is carrying her packages inside, for example — but I also talk. I use my gestures and pointing as I ask, “Do you need help? Do you want these over by the elevator?” I talk even though I know she doesn’t speak my language. I do it because maybe the younger woman is nearby and will hear me and answer, but I also do it because it would feel strange to remain silent while grabbing her packages and walking away with them, so I hope my sweet, clearly-ending-with-a-question voice will assure her that I am trying to be helpful.

I speak to her, an I make my hand gestures … and she responds. Always. Sometimes, it’s just a nod, but most of the time she talks to me. In a language I don’t understand a single word of. I understand so little about her language, I cannot tell you what language she is speaking. What I can tell you is that sometimes we will go back and forth in our non-communicative communication. I will ask a question and she will answer. I’ll say more, or repeat my question, and she will answer.

It makes no sense at all that we do this. We are accomplishing exactly nothing, but there we are. Stranger still is that, as illogical as those non-conversations are, they are also entirely familiar to me … because I’ve done this before.

My two favorite examples: About ten thousand years ago when I was 20, I hitchhiked around parts of Europe. For most of that hitch, I was with a friend. One late afternoon, we found ourselves in Brussels. We needed to get our bearings, find the youth hostel. We were standing on a street corner when a bus pulled up across from us. I called to the driver to ask if he spoke English. He answered me — maybe in Dutch? maybe in … Flemish? So I asked him about the youth hostel … and he answered. Using my words and my hand signals, I indicated that we had no idea where to go, and he answered again. At that point, my friend asked what the hell I was doing, which was the first moment I processed that the driver and I weren’t actually making sense to one another. The light changed, the driver waved and continued his route, my friend and I were still hostel-less on that street corner.

Fast forward to my last job when I was running an adult education program. When I started there, an elderly Russian woman was in the ESOL program. Tatiana was always dressed semi-formally, her white-yellow hair teased and sprayed into a perfect, spun-sugar beehive. I found her adorable. She saw something in me that she liked, too, always coming by my office to talk to me. Except that she would come by and talk to me in Russian, a language I don’t speak. In Russian, I can give you a solid, “My name is Stacie,” and an equally confident, “I know nothing,” and a somewhat shakier, “I understand a little Russian.” The end. But Tatiana came to talk with me regardless.

One afternoon, I got a call from a social service agency. Tatiana was there, trying to apply for whatever services they offered, but they didn’t have a Russian speaker on staff and were struggling. Apparently, frustrated by their inability to speak with her, Tatiana gave them my number. “Stacie speaks Russian,” she told them.

So my “conversations” with my neighbor are comical but aren’t anything out of the ordinary for me. But really — what is this complete weirdness?

I’ve had curious language experiences before. In Budapest, I sat at parties listening to people around me chatting in Hungarian and waving off my friends when they offered to interpret because I understood what they’d been discussing. Making conversation with a man in Veracruz, surprising myself with my ease in a language I’d only just begun to learn … only to have him stare blankly at me and ask what language I was speaking and realize that my brain had been pulling from French and Italian to fill in the gaps in my Spanish vocabulary. And done that without pause, weaving the three languages together as if they were intended to be spoken that way.

I say all of that to be clear, what happened with Tatiana and that Belgian bus driver, what’s happening with my neighbor is something else entirely. Those other experiences have made me understand that there’s something wacky about my brain and languages. I like the wackiness, and I’m happy when it manifests, although I don’t pretend to understand it at all. But this thing with my neighbor, it’s just odd. Because here is another person participating in the wackiness.

My neighbor now talks to me when she sees me. She uses hand gestures, too, but I’m not sure what she means by them (just as she probably was never understanding my hand gestures in our meetings leading up to now). Mostly she looks and sounds as if she’s scolding me. She talks to me, and I respond — sometimes to remind her that I don’t speak her language, sometimes with general small talk: “I don’t know what you’re saying, but aren’t you glad the elevator’s working again? It was such a pain when it was out.” When other neighbors see us interact, they look at us as if we’re nuts, which we may well be. But as weird as the whole thing it, it also really amuses me.

I want a way to understand what’s happening. After my experience in Budapest, I read Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, and I thought maybe my brain was somehow doing whatever it is Aboriginal Australian’s brains were doing in his description of how people on walkabout were able to communicate verbally with people they encountered. (I’m not describing that at all or well, and Goodreads will tell you the book is about something else entirely. Never mind. I hope this way they communicate is still a thing Aboriginal Australians are able to do. It remains one of my favorite things I have ever learned. It connects so many of my fascinations about language, about creativity, about possibility.)

When I’ve thought and written about this in the past, I’ve connected it to The Songlines, but also to a random experimental language workshop I participated in in college. The instructor called it “Super Learning,” and the trick was that we weren’t actually being taught the language. We were, instead, lounging on pillows, drinking vodka and eating poppy-seed cake and listening to music. And yet we learned some basic phrases in Russian (a few of which I can still say, as I noted above).

The idea was that being completely relaxed and not trying to learn Russian would open our minds and let the words slip in. I loved the idea, but since I only learned a few sentences, I wasn’t convinced that Super Learning would be the secret to my Russian fluency.

But whether it’s Super Learning or Songlines, how do our brains do that? And why? And why haven’t I ever heard that everyone’s brain does that? And, if that could explain Budapest, it wouldn’t explain Veracruz — a language mash-up that has repeated itself in Spanish classes I’ve taken since then and more recently when I was trying to brush up on my French. I imagine those are cases of my brain knowing I’m trying to speak a language other than English and just reaching for what it has at hand.

And none of that would explain my neighbor. People on walkabout were able to make meaning and comprehension with the people they encountered. My neighbor and I aren’t understanding each other. We’re communicating … something, but it’s definitely not being done verbally.

And why is my brain so strange with language? And is there a way to tap into this weirdness at will? It always sneaks up and surprises me. It would be nice to be able to call it up when I need it. And can it work for any language? The Songlines thing has only happened with Hungarian and Russian. Why not any other language? And what other forms of communication and comprehension is it capable of that I just haven’t discovered yet? And how can I discover them?

Yeah, a lot of questions I can’t answer. I feel a research project coming on! Well … or at least some feverish Googling. Surely someone has studied this thing and figured out parts or all of it by now.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

To be or not to be … a person who stops.

It’s Tuesday, Slice of Life day, and I posted this “slice” on FB earlier (CW for language):

Went out to pick up some lunch. My plan was to buy something then walk over to Poet’s House to eat and write and stare at the water. I turned the corner and saw an elderly Black man on the ground, half rolled up in a carpet. He didn’t respond when I tried to rouse him, and I couldn’t tell if he was breathing. I called 911. 911 wanted to send the police, but I kept asking for medical help. Finally she connected me to EMS at the fire department. While I was on with EMS, the man moved his leg, slightly. That dispatcher said she’d have a truck out as quickly as possible. A young woman asked if I was calling 911, and said she’d wait with me for the ambulance.

We waited and fairly quickly a fire truck arrived. We thanked them for coming so fast. All the pretty young men poured out and surrounded the man on the ground. They roused him and it turned out that he was drunk and most likely homeless, not sick or injured. One of the firemen teased me for calling 911. “Are you from here?” he asked. “You don’t seem like you’re from here.”

I thanked them again for coming quickly and said I was glad I’d been able to have them come and not the police. “They protect you, too, you know,” one of the firemen said. And I said yes, that was sometimes true but that there was no denying the good reason for my reluctance to call them. (I mean, seriously? Are we going to pretend that there’s no reason for Black folks to think twice about calling the cops? Are we?)

The young woman and I started to leave and an older woman came up and asked if we had called. She said she’d run home for her phone and was coming back to see if she should call.

Because 911 had been called, the firemen said, the man would have to move. This displeased him enormously. He started to get up and started cursing me. Please know that there are three of us now standing there: me, the older woman who is white, and the young woman who is white Latinx. The only one singled out for abuse is me.

He called me a stupid whore, called me an ugly cow, called me a dumb nigger bitch. I was already walking away, so I didn’t hear what else he had to say, though I could hear that he kept going. I’ve been called out of my name before, but this felt uglier. I didn’t turn back and look at him, mostly because I didn’t know how volatile he might be and didn’t want to inspire him to come after me … but also because I didn’t want to see the firemen, see them not doing anything to stop that, see them maybe even laughing at the thanks I got for doing what I thought was the right thing to do.

The older woman told me to forget about it. “The important thing is that you cared enough to stop and do something.” Is that the important thing? I want to think so, but I’m not so sure.

I bought my lunch then went back to my desk feeling deflated, conflicted, overly-sensitive, sad.

#sigh

__________

But here’s the thing. I posted this on FB because of course. And I got a lot of loving responses from my loving friends. Also of course. My friends are kind and beautiful people who don’t enjoy seeing me upset about things.

Yes, I was grateful for their kind responses because I really was feeling sad as I walked back to my office, couldn’t even magic up a fake smile for my favorite security guard. But mostly … I am a fraud.

Trust me that this isn’t La Impostora, this is for realz. I pass people on the street all the time, people who maybe need the help this man didn’t. Sometimes I call, but mostly I don’t. And there’s no logic to my decisions about when to call, about who really needs to interact with first responders or the healthcare system and who should be left in peace. Sometimes I call, but mostly I don’t.

And today, the whole time I was on the phone and then waiting for EMS, I was thinking uncharitable thoughts about the sea of people who just kept walking, who barely shifted their steps so as not to step on the man, who walked on the carpet as if they couldn’t see that a person was rolled up in it.

But I am those people. Just about every day of my life I am those people. How dare I act all holier than thou because this one time I decided to stop.

In truth, I’m not surprised by what happened today. I’ve seen this happen to other people, and I’ve had it happen to me. Maybe I was particularly hurt by this man simply because I wasn’t prepared. Because I’d been dreaming myself into the library at Poet’s House, already letting my mind wander, already choosing which of the four fountain pens in my bag I’d choose to write with.

And the man on the street makes sense to me. I can understand where he was coming from. How much abuse does he face on a daily basis? How difficult must it be for him to have one lousy interaction with strangers after another? And how frightening and disorienting must it be to wake up and see five large uniformed men standing over you and talking loudly into your face, touching you without your permission? Were that me, my first reaction might be to lash out, too. Sure, I would probably not lash out in the way he did, not with those precise words, but still.

None of that makes what happened today any less unpleasant. It makes me think about my own choices, however. I chose to stop today and see about that man. Why did I stop? Why don’t I stop every time? I usually try to see if the person is breathing, if there is a clear visible ailment or wound, if someone else is already stopping to see about them.

Which makes me think about that young Latinx woman. When I confirmed that I was on the phone with 911, she immediately said, “Well, I will wait with you.” I thought that was lovely. She didn’t need to do that, for him or for me. I appreciated having her there, especially when the firemen seemed to question why I would bother calling 911 for the man on the ground. (“You call about every person you see on the street? In this city?” one of the fire fighters asked me.)

So she was also a person who stops. I wonder if she always stops, or if she is like me and employs some random-ish set of criteria to determine whether she will stop.

*

Will I continue to be a person who stops? I will. Of course. Nothing that happened today makes me think I shouldn’t stop. Will today actually make me stop more? Maybe now I’ll see that my ridiculous calculus of when to stop is just that: ridiculous.

I don’t know if I’m a “good person” for stopping, for calling 911. Because what does that mean, really, anyway? I mean, sure, I’m okay enough (depending on the day) but that’s not the point of any of this. Stopping is the right thing to do … the right thing for me. Calling 911 isn’t always the right second move, but stopping and taking a moment to assess in more than a cursory way that still sounds right.

Assessing in more than a cursory way. That’s what I wanted the firemen to do. I said the man on the ground turned out to be drunk and maybe homeless, but I don’t know that. I only know that he was able to sit up, able to talk, able to get up with difficulty and start walking away (while cursing me). But the EMTs didn’t examine him at all, not even a quick once-over, and that’s what the situation seemed to warrant. Why was it enough for them to show up and rouse him but not actually tend to him? Granted, he was in no mood for accepting much of anything, but does that automatically mean he didn’t need anything?

So my title isn’t a real question at all. I know full well that I will continue to stop (we’ll have to wait and see if, as I said, I stop more than I have in the past). Here’s hoping today was the worst of the responses to my nosy-body, good-neighbor behavior.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

__________

original-slicer-girlgriot

And yes, as I said up top: It’s Slice of Life Tuesday.
Click over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the other slicers have going on.

A Place to Write

I spent a chunk of time over the weekend sorting my receipts and getting everything in order for my upcoming sit-down with my tax guy. One of the things that stood out for me was the number of receipts from a particular coffee shop.

I wouldn’t say the place is my favorite coffee shop of all time, but it’s a good spot, and I have always been able to get work done there. A writer friend introduced me 5 years ago, and I’ve had scores of writing dates there as well as plenty of solo writing time.

I’ll surely find my way back to that place every now and then, but I realized that it can’t be my place anymore, not my go-to coffee spot. It’s much too far from my new apartment for that.

So I need to find another place. I’ve checked out a couple of the spots between my house and the subway, but neither works. Both are very clearly designed for a grab-and-go crowd rather than a sit-for-hours-staring-at-the-blank-page group.

Exploring my new neighborhood is tops on my to-do list for spring, and finding my new go-to coffee shop is definitely part of the reason for that. Curious to see what I’ll find …


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me.

(I haven’t thought of that song in about forever, but it seemed fitting for this post. I just looked it up on YouTube and watched Tony Orlando sing while Dawn sleep-danced their way through the backing vocals, all of them standing in what looks like a courtyard of the New York Botanic Garden conservatory. Weird, pre-music-video days!)

I haven’t lived in an apartment building in ten years. And haven’t lived in a building where I heard much from my neighbors since … maybe 1988? I’m unaccustomed to this level of audio familiarity with strangers. A sampling:

One of my neighbors enjoys ping pong. I have twice been in the hall and heard a mother and child in the midst of an epic, take-no-prisoners table tennis battle.

One neighbor has two small, yappy dogs who clearly disapprove of everything they encounter, yipping angrily from the moment they enter the hall until they disappear into their apartment or the elevator.

One neighbor who tries valiantly to rap along with his faves … but who doesn’t really know the words and is always just a little bit off rhythm.

One neighbor has a singularly inconsolable baby who is decidedly not a morning person.

Another neighbor who is often in loud conversation with whatever he’s watching on TV.

It’s not awful, no. It’s just unfamiliar, hearing this much sound from people who aren’t actually in my home. One night I had the comical experience of hearing the music accompanying the scary movie one neighbor was watching. Just the creepy music. It was unnerving, made me feel as if I was in a scary movie and whatever the Big Bad was, it was coming for me.

On Superbowl Sunday, I had the surprise of discovering that this unexpected intimacy is about more than sound. Not only did I hear the very loud responses to whatever happened on the field, my apartment filled with the unpleasant smell of unbelievably skunky weed.

Yet, even with all these little incursions on my quiet, I was surprised to wake up one night to a sound I couldn’t place. I lay in bed trying to figure out what I was hearing. And then I realized that, yes, that would be my neighbors having … ahem … relations. Oy.

I am currently researching a quality white-noise machine to place beside my bed.

Lest I give the wrong impression, I’m no silent sister over here. I send my own little audio postcards. When I’m not laughing loudly while listening to my favorite podcasts, my neighbors have to suffer through my repeated renditions of “Shiny” from the Moana soundtrack or whatever else I’m singing as I get ready for work in the mornings. So far no petitions have been started to force me to shut up.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

The Trouble with Columbus

Still playing catch-up, posting things I’ve written over the last few weeks but couldn’t post because of my internet-less home. I’m mobile hotspotting it tonight, so I’m taking advantage and trying to catch up with my essay count for the year. This essay is one I wrote after a trip back to Crown Heights near the end of January. I went to see my old landlords and collect the last of my things from the old apartment.


I know a fair amount of white people. And I like and even love a sizable subset of those people. They are coworkers, friends, made family. They are people I would trust — have trusted — with my health, my safety. They are people I’ve turned to for emotional and financial support. When I say, “some of my best friends are white,” it makes me laugh, but it’s also true.

But white people — the monolithic grindstone that is white people — break my heart daily, enrage me daily. white people force me, daily, to wonder how it is I am able to maintain relationships with any of their number.

I spent my Saturday in Crown Heights, my old neighborhood, the community I left a few weeks ago. The particular part of Crown Heights where I lived is one of the places in the city that has gentrified at breakneck speed. In the ten years I was there, the rapid-fire turnover of residents from mostly Black to more and more and more white was shocking and distressing to watch. When my landlords told me in the fall that I’d have to move, I knew that staying in the area would be a near impossibility.

Because, of course, with white people come higher and higher rents. And in my ten years of tenancy, rents had raced to dizzying highs well beyond what I was paying for my gorgeous, large, storage-rich apartment with washer and dryer and back garden.

And when I looked at apartments in the neighborhood in my price range they were a) half the size of my place (or smaller), b) badly kept up and clearly not as livable as my place, c) devoid of closets or cooking space or both, d) cut into strange shapes to carve as many apartments out of a formerly single-family home as possible, or e) all or a combination of the above. So it’s no surprise that my new apartment is not in Crown Heights.

Walking around the neighborhood on Saturday, I passed the new Nagle’s Bagels on Nostrand and Dean, saw an even newer Tribeca Pediatrics office on Nostrand and Bergen. There’s a lot of new on and around Nostrand — cute bars, over-priced sandwich shops, gourmet markets.

There are still plenty of Black businesses in the neighborhood, still plenty of Black folks in the neighborhood, but for how long? How many of those businesses will be able to meet the rent demands of landlords who want to cash in on the neighborhood’s new, white popularity? How many of those Black residents, like me, will be pushed out when the need to move arises and the rents around them are so much higher than they’ve been paying that they can’t afford to stay?

There are a lot of reasons why neighborhoods gentrify. Crown Heights was surely an easy target because it has amazing housing stock and it’s beautiful: well-kept brownstones, ornate apartment buildings with courtyards and gardens, small pretty parks, close to major subway lines. And the bonuses: a good number of older homeowners looking to leave the city who don’t have family to come and take on a large home in Brooklyn, and a lot of lower-middle income and low-income renters who could be swapped out for folks able to pay more.

I’m not surprised that white people started moving to Crown Heights. I just question why white people have to live everywhere. Yes, a neighborhood may be nice. Does that mean it needs to be overtaken by white folks? There are plenty of nice neighborhoods that are already full of white folks. Yes, they’re more costly than the majority brown and Black communities, but that makes sense as Black and brown folks, on average, earn far less and therefore have less money than white folks.

Can we just live? Can we just have nice neighborhoods in which we can continue to live and thrive? Why do white people have to live every-damn-where? Why do brown and Black folks have to be pushed out of every place we’ve called home?

My old neighborhood is beautiful … because the Black folks who’ve lived there for decades made it beautiful, kept it beautiful, valued living in a beautiful community. No one was feeling house-proud with the hope that one day white people would move in and make the neighborhood “worth” something. The neighborhood was already worth something. It was home. And it was lovely.

Yes, I sound bitter. I am bitter. Gentrification has driven me out of nearly every neighborhood I’ve lived in since moving to New York 30 years ago.

I am lucky. I know that. I am lucky because a) I make a decent salary and b) I have only myself to take care of. Yes, I have my mountain of baby-making debt, but even with that, I am able to have some options when it comes to choosing where I live. But even though I am lucky, my options were still too slim to enable me to stay in Crown Heights or any of the neighborhoods that came before Crown Heights: Cobble Hill, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene. I am lucky, and still the white tide has once again swept me out of my home. How much worse is this situation for people with children, for people with lower salaries than mine?

I am still lucky. I was able to move into a majority-brown neighborhood. My rent is higher than what I was paying, but I will be able to make it work (please God!). I am further away from some of the comforts I’d grown accustomed to — a good grocery store, for one. But I have a beautiful apartment that already makes me happy and into which I am (slowly) unpacking and settling. I am lucky.

But for how long? Gentrification has already begun here — which is why my rent is so high. There are already plenty of white folks living here, and it’s surely only a matter of time before a Connecticut Muffin opens somewhere nearby, ringing the death knell for my tenure here.

And I just have to ask why, white people, why? Why can’t you leave some parts of the city alone, leave them for the folks you’ve already priced out of the rest of the city? Why do you have to live everywhere?

 

As I do for so many things, I blame Columbus, the first gentrifier, the man I hold responsible for planting the idea that white folks get to claim whatever land they see if they like it. Never mind that someone else is living there. Never mind that someone else has cultivated that land and made it a desirable spot. If white folks see something they covet, they simply claim it. And to hell with anyone else and their pre-existing claim.

The trouble with Columbus is that white folks have never stopped being Columbus. And the structures at the foundation of this society, the structures that continue to be strengthened every day, ensure that there will always be white folks with the means to Columbus whatever they covet, ensure that it will always be difficult if not impossible for someone like me to hold her ground. I have no ground, nothing to hold. I live wherever I live at the pleasure of white people. The moment they begin to covet what I have, I’ll have to be looking for the next place because I don’t have any ability to compete.

There was a moment in the late 90s when I was maybe in a position to buy an apartment. I didn’t know enough about money, credit, or real estate to recognize that moment, however, and it passed. Without my fertility debt, I’d be in a position to buy something now, but that’s not where I am, and this could be the last moment or one of the last. And realizing that makes me feel even more strongly the fetid, Columbusing breath of gentrification on the back of my neck. Makes Arrested Development’s lyrics play that much more loudly in the back of my head.

Got land to stand on, then you can stand up
stand up for your rights — as a woman, as a man.
Man, oh man, my choices expand
ain’t got me no money, but I got me some land.

Got some land to stand on
no more achin’ for the acres
no beggin’ for leftovers
got some space of my own.
Got some grounds to raise on
no more achin’ for the acres
no givin’ to the takers
got some land to leave on.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

A House Full of Grandpas

Not too long ago, a lot of people in my community were angry. The City was renovating a small building with plans to turn it into a 110-bed homeless shelter. People were angry because the City seems to think the nickname for this community is “home for the homeless.” We have a disproportionate number of shelters here. This is especially glaring when viewed in comparison with the number of shelters being added in our Mayor’s home nabe: ZERO.

I understood my neighbors’ concern and—because the new shelter was being set up less than a block from my house—I understood the heightened concern of my most immediate neighbors. And to a degree, I shared their worries.

Almost 30 years ago, I worked at a homeless shelter. By interesting coincidence, it was in this neighborhood—Crown Heights, Brooklyn—not too far from where I now live. It was a large facility and was what is called a Tier 2 shelter, which meant it was for families and provided apartments rather than barracks- or dorm-style accommodations. I was there to teach a GED class.

The shelter wasn’t a great place. The building was well-kept, but the care and services provided were distracted and impersonal at best, disjointed and uncaring bordering on counterproductive and detrimental at worst.

The shelter was in a part of the neighborhood that was more than a little run down and not particularly inviting. My students were mostly women in their twenties and thirties with one or two or four small children. Most were made homeless when their relationships with men soured. Frances had lost her home to a fire. Carolyn had learned after her parents’ deaths that there was a massive lien against her family home and she had to vacate so it could be sold to pay that debt. Tiffany’s father had kicked her out when she could no longer hide her pregnancy, and Yohaira’s mother had put her in the street when she’d refused to put her baby up for adoption. Tonya was rumored to have a drinking problem—I will admit that I loved that the women who mentioned this to me actually said, “drinking problem,” so old-fashioned and prim. She was also rumored to have a man in the building next door. Tonya was as dramatic as we got in our group.

The renters and homeowners in the neighborhood seemed not to give the ladies and their kids a second thought—at least not in ways that I was likely to notice. And, too, I was only on site a few hours a day. Every once in a while, however, ugliness would bubble to the surface … or walk right up and smack me in the face.

As I walked to the train after class one day, a woman stopped me and expressed surprise at seeing me coming from the shelter: “You live here?” she asked.

I explained that I was teaching a GED class for the residents. More surprise.

“Whores need diploma nowadays?”

And then the surprise was mine.

It turned out that a lot of people in the community thought the shelter was a brothel of sorts. My students told me about daily harassment when they were on the street—interest from men, anger from women. “Even when I’m with my babies,” Florence said. “These people have no shame.”

Now, yes: there were those rumors about Tonya and the man from next door. And yes: it was certainly true that then (like now, to be honest) I could be entirely oblivious to things going on around me, I was pretty sure there was no truth behind that idea. But the residents of the neighborhood were faced with a building full of people they’d rather not have to welcome into the community. It is, unfortunately, somewhat natural, predictable, that anyone who disapproved of the shelter would imagine whatever they could imagine as the least desirable truth about the place. And that they’d work to spread that story to ensure the universal dislike of the shelter and its inhabitants. What easier conclusion to leap to when looking at a building full of young women? The brothel story shouldn’t have surprised me at all.

I heard a lot of stories about the shelter being built down the street from my house, too. It would be a shelter for young men, for young men with mental health problems, for young men in drug treatment, for men returning from prison, for young men with mental health problems who were returning from prison and dealing with addiction. You get the idea.

I get why the mix of descriptions would concern people. Young men, ex-offenders, the mentally ill, people dealing with addiction … they all come with any number of negative things we’ve been taught to believe and fear and distrust about them.

And I’m not saying I’m all saintly and above falling for that. I was concerned about who would be moving in. In my heart of hearts, I wanted the building to go back to being a daycare center, which it had been when I moved to the neighborhood ten years ago. Maybe some fun after school programs could be run from there. Maybe there’d be a nice indoor home for the adorable pre-adolescent drum corps and color guard who practiced on the roof next door. (Also, I don’t lock my front door, and having a building full of ex-offenders down the street made me worry that I’d have to start.)

As much as I love my homey, family-full neighborhood just as it is, as much as I think other communities should share the responsibility of housing the City’s homeless population, it was hard for me to be full-on anti shelter.

New York has an enormous homeless population. Our Mayor has promised to deal with it somehow and deal with it better than mayors past. But we’re talking about housing more than 60,000 people. That’s an entire town’s worth of people—it’s roughly the total population of Delray Beach or Utica, Palo Alto or Des Plaines. Finding housing for a whole city’s worth of people is a herculean task. And there aren’t, as far as I know, any neighborhoods anywhere in the city opening their arms wide and looking to embrace homeless New Yorkers. And we don’t have near enough affordable housing stock … and even if we did, people don’t usually go directly from homelessness to fully-independent apartment living. There are steps to stability that need to happen. And placement in a residential shelter is an important step (although I’ll admit that I am very much enamored of the Housing First model that has had a dramatic impact in places like Salt Lake City and Milwaukee).

I’m not mad at my neighbors for their concerns, which—unfairly—are very NIMBY-sounding. How could I be angry with my neighbors? I totally understand where they’re coming from. But I’m also thinking about the possibility—the likelihood?—of my eventual homelessness. Yes, I’m sure that’s some over-dramatic catastrophizing. Brought on, no doubt, by the stress of learning that I have to leave my beautiful and beloved apartment and seeing how slim and distasteful the pickings are out there in Apartment Hunting Land.

Still. I think about how old I am and how I haven’t managed to accumulate really any wealth at all. I think about the fact that I will surely not have a pleasant retirement because I won’t have a retirement at all because I will be working until the day I die.

And then I think what neighborhood will welcome my tired, aging, broke ass when that time comes? How far away from the world will I be forced to live because no one wants destitute poor folks bedding down near their beautiful, expensive homes?

Yes, obviously that is crazy talk. I have a number of options before homelessness. Many options. But this is where my brain goes. It’s hard to down-talk the homeless when you think you’re going to join their ranks eventually.

Back in the real world, there were town hall meetings and protests. And when those were finished, the City moved right along with its original plan. The shelter opened a few months ago.

I don’t know if our new neighbors, the shelter residents, are dealing with drug addiction or if they have histories of mental illness or incarceration. What I do know is that they are all older men. Some are quite old. It’s early days, sure, but so far I’d say the net effect of the shelter’s opening has been to increase the population of grandfather-y men in the neighborhood. Most of them (like me) walk with or carry canes. I see them as I walk to the bus stop or the bakery, making their sometimes slow, sometimes shuffling way up the block.

Other neighborhoods should definitely take on more of the responsibility of providing housing for homeless people—Park Slope, for example, or maybe Cobble Hill and Kips Bay, Forest Hills and Yorkville …—but I also think my neighborhood has gotten lucky in this current arrangement. For me, anyway, it’s hard to stay mad at a house full of grandpas.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Q is for: Quotation

“Land is power.” Ruby McGee

Tonight I had the distinct pleasure of watching an amazing documentary, Dirt and Deeds in Mississippi. It tells another amazing “hidden figures” kind of story, some Black history that was rolled up in cotton wool and tucked way out of sight. In this case, the story of Black land-owning farmers and the role they played in the fight for rights — civil, voting, human — in Mississippi. It is an eye-opening, painful, powerful, important document of history. I could watch it on a loop for days.

Ruby McGee was the first Black person to be registered to vote in her county. Today, she owns and operates the family tree farm that gave her the freedom to take some of the chances she took as a young woman, that enabled her parents to run a Freedom School. She talks about what being a landowner gave her, says that it meant she didn’t have to work in white people’s kitchens. She talks about the idea of “knowledge is power” … and says no, “Land is power.”

And that resonated so deeply in my chest. I wanted to clap my hands and shout, “Yes!” It reminded me:

Got land to stand on,
then you can stand up,
stand up for your rights
as a woman, as a man.

“Achin’ for Acres” by Arrested Development was about exactly this, the power of owning where you live, owning the ground beneath your feet.

And it reminded me of my sadness, my personal heartache when family land has been lost, on my mother’s side, on my father’s. Those are pieces of ourselves we can never get back. I feel the empty spaces left by each even now, years later.

It reminded me of something I heard John Boyd Jr. say a while ago in an NPR profile piece: all of us are no more than two generations removed from somebody’s farm.

It reminded me of Constance Curry’s amazing book, Silver Rights, also about Mississipi.

This movie touched so many chords. And it spilled over into tonight’s chōka.

I have so much pride
seeing my ancestors fight
seeing them stand up
refusing to cave, to give.
This is what it means:
strength, power, faith, love, honor.
This is who we are,
fierce, unendingly stubborn
and sure. Sure of us,
sure of the fact we were right.
Sure that — live or die — we’d win.

My family isn’t from Mississippi — at least no one I’ve found yet — but Dirt and Deeds felt like home all the same.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.