Characters From My Inner-City Childhood

For some reason or another, I grew up in the inner city.  Long before I was born, my parents bought a house in a neighborhood of elderly Italian people. This makes sense: they were only about 4 years out of law school and grad school at the time, and it was inexpensive. Other young families had the same idea, so your main demographics were crazy-old people and families with kids. Except for the octogenarians, it looked like Sesame Street, all happy and diverse. Then, the elderly Italian people started dying, as really ridiculously old people are wont to do, and the houses were bought up by slum landlords. With low rent and zero landlord supervision, the “wrong element” was attracted to the neighborhood. The wrong element, of course, is drug dealers. There was a dealer across the street from me and one next door, and that’s just what I could see from my bedroom. Gang activity skyrocketed.  Did you know that, according to the graffiti I saw there a few years back, there is an Upstate NY branch of the Crips? I don’t know if there’s reciprocal admission with the West Coast Crips or if you have to apply and get re-jumped in.

By the time I was a sophomore in high school, my parents had decided it was time to move. It was a shame, because except for the people engaged in a life of crime, some of the best people I’ve ever known were ones I met on that street. It was a good life, don’t get me wrong.

The reason I tell all of you this is just to set the stage. Here are the characters.

Princess

“Princess” was not really named Princess, but I don’t know how this girl is with Google these days, so I felt a pseudonym would be appropriate. If you want to know her real name, it is based on the novel Push by Sapphire, if you know what I’m saying (and I think you do). Anyway, Princess had only one leg. Or two, but one was plastic. She was also absolutely indomitable. She rode her bike and played tag with the rest of us, and since we were all just kids, her plastic leg was just one thing about her, like my freckles or her sister’s green eyes. Sometimes she had the prosthesis on backwards, but what do you expect, I couldn’t even tie my shoes at that age! You know how everyone complains that band-aids aren’t really flesh colored? Well, Princess’s leg wasn’t either. It was white. Not the band-aid approximation of a Caucasian person’s skin, but ivory-colored plastic. While it never occurred to my five-year-old self to think that Princess’s missing leg was unfair, I thought the fact that they couldn’t make prostheses for people of color was pretty much the most unjust thing I could think of.

The best thing ever? One of my friends spent the first years of his life a few blocks from me, though we didn’t know each other as kids. We got to talking about the neighborhood, and he knew Princess too! You don’t really forget something like that, after all. We tried to look her up, but apparently there is no “Princess” in our hometown with “having one leg” as an interest, so that one died in the water.

The would-be kidnappers

One day, I was biking down the street when a group of men sitting on their porch pestered me to come into their house. I threw down my bike and ran. I brought it up as a very casual aside in an unrelated conversation with my mom, probably a week or two later. She was pretty upset that I hadn’t mentioned anything. Thing was, do you remember elementary school? They prep you like crazy for what to do if a stranger tries to take you somewhere. That’s a good thing, but it also made abductions seem like a commonplace event. Oh, an attempted kidnapping? Happens all the time, I thought! I mean they talk about it on, like, Reading Rainbow. Anyway it wasn’t really a big deal, and I practically forgot about it until I was writing this. That’s probably because it was the most half-assed would-be kidnapping ever. Seriously, have a little pride! Put some effort out there! What an embarrassingly awful kidnapping attempt for everyone involved.

The warrior for Christ

A teenage boy down the street was really into Jesus, and started a children’s Vacation Bible School all by himself. A jaded six-year-old, I thought it sounded really lame. There were puppets, I remember that much. However, all of my neighborhood friends were going, so I kind of wanted to. My mom wouldn’t allow it. Apparently she had this crazy notion that people were trying to kidnap little girls. I don’t know.

The Smelly Boy

I don’t even think you understand. My brothers went to Smelly’s house one time and said there wasn’t even toilet paper. That may have been some childhood hyperbole, because that’s probably one of the grossest things you can think of when you’re 8. One time, Smelly was going to sleep over at our house. My mom made him take a bath if he was going to stay, because she was worried about the transfer of smell otherwise. As an adult, this all reads as being very sad, and I feel terrible for the kid. But as a kid, all I know was that he stunk.

The Two Deaf Families

Two families with deaf parents lived next door to each other. I was friends with a few of the kids (who were hearing), and the fact that the parents were deaf was honestly not that interesting. The interesting thing is that these families were my introduction to hardcore fundamentalist Christianity. I went to church with them on “friend day” and ooooh boy, that was some serious business. Like, there were prayer boards asking for prayers because a member’s family was Jewish. The horror! The girls could only wear dresses, and they had to ask their father’s permission to cut their hair (often denied). I know you’re probably wondering why we were friends. When you’re 10, neighborhood friends just need to be kids who play nice and like playing the same things as you. You aren’t exactly comparing world outlooks and socio-religious viewpoints. Plus, they taught me some cool sign language.

The House of Hookers

It wasn’t a brothel, per se, but I’m pretty sure several prostitutes lived together in a house. They were fine, really. Friendly, threw back the basketball if it landed in their driveway. I must have been going off of things the adults said, because I still wouldn’t know a whorehouse unless I was living in it, probably.

FRANCES

FRANCES gets her name in all caps because she was SO AWFUL. Although I’ve mentioned drug dealers, slumlords, and prostitutes, we all knew who the real villains were in the neighborhood: tiny, stern Italian women. The old ladies died piecemeal during my first decade or so of life, and Frances was the WORST. She once called the cops on my family because my brothers were “shooting BBs through her window.” The police officer knocked on my mother’s door and asked to see her sons. “Really? I guess so…”, my mom said. “Do you want me to get them up from their naps?” The police officer looked a little confused as to why these little hellions were napping mid-day, but probably figured that delinquency takes a lot out of a kid. So, my mom went upstairs and carried down my sleepy-eyed older brothers, then ages one and three.

FRANCES. They’re babies. Even in the inner city, babies don’t have BB guns. Really everywhere that’s not the 1950s, babies don’t have BB guns. Dammit, Frances.

The Kids Who Were Allowed To Go To The Playground

There was a playground right at the end of my street. How great is that?! There were swing-sets, a jungle gym, even a weird giant turtle you could climb on, and I suppose also some stray hypodermics. Yeah, evidently it was like The Hob for our neighborhood gangs. I wasn’t allowed to go there. However, sometimes we’d drive by it in our ’88 Dodge Caravan, and I’d stare longingly at the children who were allowed to play inside. Who were they? What did they do there? I’ll never know, because I wasn’t allowed to go to the playground.

The Thieves

One time our house was broken into, which is pretty unremarkable. We didn’t have an alarm system or metal door until after that, and our dog was so sweet she probably followed them around. The burglars had greasy hands, so when they were digging through my mom and older sister’s underwear drawers, they left grease prints on everything. “Oh my gosh!” my sister exclaimed. “What if they TRIED THEM ON?”

It was one of those moments where the big-picture catastrophe (burglary) takes a back seat to the little, terrible details (WHAT IF THEY TRIED ON THE UNDERWEAR). It’s like when I was taking a shower, and the ceiling below started leaking. My roommates all yelled for me to get out, then afterwards one of them said that I could have fallen through the ceiling. “And you would have been NAKED!”, another added. See, it’s all in the little, terrible details.

I once left my bike in the front yard, and my father came upstairs and told me that he had just watched a little girl walk away with my bike. I ran downstairs, only to find my bike strewn on the front grass, where it had been before. He just wanted to scare me into putting my things away, I suppose. I was 5. When my brother’s bike did get stolen a year or so later, it was safely stored in the garage, so take that, Dad.

If you grew up in the suburbs, you might think it’s silly to have to put your bike away immediately. But you have to understand, bitches stole everything. Everything. My mom had to bring her hanging baskets in off the front porch because they kept getting stolen. Was someone trying to spruce up their drug house with a few double impatiens? Possibly. The drug house next door had a beautiful, vibrant American flag hanging from their stoop. It was so customers could see the house easily. By the by, the busiest night at the drug houses? Prom. Minivans by the dozen. So you can judge city folks all you want, but I blame the suburbs for keeping the drug business alive.

The Farm Truck Guy and The Soda Truck Guy

Because I also apparently grew up in the 1920s, there was an elderly farmer who used to drive his truck full of produce to our street after he was done at the Public Market. The old Italian ladies and I loved him, and that’s how I started to learn about cooking. He sold whatever was in season, as well as milk in glass bottles and eggs that had been hatched that morning. The Soda Truck Guy came every Sunday with glass bottles full of soda. You could drink them during the week then exchange your bottles the next week. Yes, there may have been Crips and hookers, but at times, it was also like living in Newsies or Ragtime.

No wonder FRANCES thought my brothers had BB guns.

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