Day 21: The Maze

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It was a really cute neighborhood when we moved in.

It was the summer before I started kindergarten. I remember sitting on our couch with my two brothers on our new lawn. I remember watching as our furniture and belongings were moved into our new home.

I remember it being a very hot August day in New England. It was humid. The stickiness of the air trapped you in your shirt.

It was a four room condo, 2 bedroom, 1.5 baths, with a partially finished basement. It was an end unit, so we had an extra window in both main level rooms: living room and kitchen.

Mom gave the three of us the master bedroom to share. It was just big enough for our three beds and three dressers. She took the other bedroom on the top level.

We were moving from the east side of Waterbury. On Alma Street we occupied the bottom level of a three-family house. I remember being really excited to have stairs.

What was great about this new neighborhood was the amount of kids to play outside with. It seemed like every apartment building had at least one family with kids my age. Saturdays and Sundays were spent outside from sun up to sun down.

After a couple years, the kids I was used to playing outside with had all moved out. That didn’t bother me. New kids were moving in all the time. Twice as many at least.

We’d nail a bottomed-out milk crate to the tree in our yard and play basketball. We’d use any round ball we could find.

The best days were the ones when someone found a football. We’d line up 5 on 5 right in the street. The end zones were marked by the speed bumps on opposite ends of the street.

We had to watch for cars. Drivers really weren’t watching for the kids in the street. Late ’80’s Camrys and Corollas, a few Accords and Civics, dropped low on their axels. Police cars were the only ones who would slow down.

We’d play home run derby down the street when I was like 11 or 12, maybe 13. Older kids, usually. Dave, Ralphie, Paco I remember.

My older brother was better friends with these guys than I was. All I did with them was play home run derby. The extent of their interaction and friendship was not clear to me at the time. I was mostly kept in the dark until I connected the dots years later. I was protected from it by my brother.

Ralphie was really cool. Tall kid, black and Dominican. Afro. Always had a pick in it. Big smile.

Dave was his younger brother, probably 17 or 18 at the time. He was skinnier than Ralphie, usually wore a fitted New Era over a du-rag. He’d wear his glasses sometimes, but usually not.

Paco lived up the street from us. He was a shorter, heavier Hispanic guy. Really funny guy. Always laughing.

We’d pitch a tennis ball to each other and take massive swings with my aluminum bat to hit it as far as we could. The batter would stand between two bushes in front of adjacent condos where a small pine tree once stood. I’m not sure why the condo association had them all chopped down.

We’d use the stump as the “plate.” It was perfect. It was right in the middle of the two bushes with enough room on either side for a lefty or a righty batter. All you had to do was clear the batter’s box of soda bottles, beer cans, empty bags of chips and other debris and you were good to go.

You’d get 10 outs. An “out” constituted any hit that wasn’t deemed a home run. It was all a judgment call. When you got a hold of one, you could hit it right off the corner store, Blondie’s. It may have changed names by then, but that’s what all the kids from the neighborhood called it.

When I moved to college, the first thing I noticed about going to sleep at the end of the day was how infrequently I heard sirens.

Once a week at least growing up. During weirder weeks, it’d be every night.

Dozens of cop cars would fill our street in the middle of the night. The sirens would turn off after a while, but the lights would remain on. I remember seeing the blue and red flashing through our windows on to our bedroom ceiling at all hours.

I’d ask my mother about it in the morning, but she hadn’t seen the lights or heard the sirens, she said. Her bedroom was on the opposite end of the top level, facing the woods in the back of our condo.

Our neighborhood was a maze.

Blondie’s marked the beginning of the neighborhood. In the photo at the top of this, it’s the building on the far right. Beneath the street sign was an angel made out of white plastic. I’ve come to really appreciate the irony it represented.

As you passed Blondie’s on your left, on your right is a driveway that went behind 12 condos divided into two buildings of six.

Drive by that and your next right would take you down the street in front of these condo units.

Drive up a little bit further, there was another right. This went behind the abandoned house with cardboarded-out windows across from where we played baseball. Next to that unit was a 2×2 apartment building and the neighborhood’s mailboxes.

If you took that right and passed both buildings, you hit a fork. A right brought you to the the street in front of our home where we’d play football. You could go left up the hill which spilled out – after a few more apartment buildings – into the middle class houses just outside of our neighborhood. A right spilled you back out to Blondie’s.

A left at that fork by the mailboxes wound you through the center of our neighborhood. Another fork. A right brought you to our street, up the hill a bit, where you could take a left and escape out on to the middle class street. A right brought you down the hill back to Blondie’s. A left at the fork brought you to the neighborhood’s dumpsters, which had an exit back on to the main road out of the neighborhood.

If  you passed that third right, you’d have another driveway on the right that brought you to the back of the abandoned building.

Continuing up the street, you’d pass 5 or 6 apartment buildings on each side before hitting the middle class street, just past the dumpster escape route.

It was all our neighborhood.

We were probably living there 6 or 7 years when they put them up. Two enormous cement blocks at the end of our drag, at the top of the hill, right in the way of the exit to the middle class street. Two more right at the entrance of that third right turn after Blondie’s. Another two at the next driveway.

They drove a stake into each end of the exit by the dumpsters and ran a thick, steel chain between them.

I don’t remember the explanation my mother gave for why they did this or if I had even asked for one. I was young, and when you’re young you just kind of take things as they come. You don’t question it.

Whenever our family had to go to church, or school, or a sporting event, we were limited to one route.

During the years I lived there before college – from age 5 to age 18 – there were dozens of domestic disputes, assaults and drug busts in the neighborhood. Battery charges, weapon charges, homicides – only one of which I heard.

It was just after I graduated high school. During the summer. I had a couple friends over to smoke that night after my mother had gone to sleep. My older brother had been gone for four years at that point and my little brother was out that night.

We were in my room. A fan in one window, blowing in. The other window open, where we lit. That’s when we heard the shot.

They were trapping us.

The roadblocks were put up intentionally. They couldn’t manage blocking each of the several routes out of the neighborhood the street design gave us. But they could pile several cars at one exit.

Aside from the one exit that remained, there were seemingly only two ways out of our neighborhood for the kids I grew up with: Handcuffs or death.

Ralphie, Dave and Paco were all gone by the time I left for college. Dozens of other friends fell victim to one fate or the other. My mother made sure my older brother wouldn’t be limited to those two options.

Most of the kids from the neighborhood didn’t graduate high school, some not even middle school. They were caught up in very unhidden drug dealing and gang activity at a very young age.  A lot of them would ask me how I was doing when they saw me walking to or from my condo. They’d ask about teachers in school, other kids, sports. Some of the smartest god damn people I’ve ever met.

I was dragged out of the neighborhood a couple times during high school and college. Deserved to be dragged out at least a dozen times more. Luck or good fortune helped me return time after time for another chance. Perhaps an angel was watching over me.

When I finally escaped, I vowed I’d never go back. Aside from an 18 month stint after college, I kept that promise to myself. I haven’t yet been able to come through on the promise I made to my mother years ago.

One day I will.

Throughout the years I lived there, I rarely invited friends from outside the neighborhood to my house. It wasn’t an embarrassment issue all the time, though I’d be lying to you if I said that it never was. Some of my friends were afraid to go there, and for good reason with the reputation our neighborhood had around town. I’d let them drop me off at Blondie’s instead of driving through the maze.

It would have been far too easy to get lost in there.

“I didn’t know you lived in the projects.”

I didn’t either. I didn’t know what “projects” were until high school, but I knew growing up that our “projects” weren’t nearly as bad as the “projects” past Blondie’s on the other side of Oakville Ave. I didn’t cross the street into that neighborhood.

No, this was just home. It was rough around the edges, down right terrifying at times and in parts, but it was home. People from our neighborhood always got a bad rap, but it wasn’t always so black and white (despite how being black and white it really was). Some of the most genuinely nice and caring people lived right next door. The cover of the book never tells the whole story.

Where and what you come from makes you who you are. The neighborhood made me who I am, for better and for worse.

I was never nervous walking down our street. Day, night. Didn’t matter. My mother and brothers weren’t either. We had been living there for years. People knew us. There was no fear of danger. There was a certain level of respect shown for familiar faces. Trusted faces. We could walk up and down every avenue our neighbor had. If we had to go to Blondie’s to get a half gallon of milk to make Kraft mac-n-cheese at 9 p.m., we walked confidently.

We were Angel Drive.

__

DAY 20: HALFWAY
DAY 18 AND 19: ON THE BIRDCAGE
DAY 17: WHEN I SEE THIS BAR
DAY 16: DEAR MOM
DAY 15: IF I WON THE LOTTERY
DAY 14: ON CATS AND DOGS
DAY 13: ANSWERING YOUR QUESTIONS (PART 1)
DAY 12: MAKING MY WAY BACK TO CLEVELAND
DAY 11: ON FIRE
DAY 10: ON CONNOTATION AND DENOTATION
DAY 9: ON THE TIME I BROKE MY RIBS
DAY 8: ON THE FOUR UNDERSTANDINGS FOR A HAPPY LIFE
DAY 7: DEAR ERIC
DAY 6: ON WHY YOU’RE HAVING TROUBLE DATING IN YOUR 20′S, LADIES
DAY 5: ON SUNRISES AND SUNSETS
DAY 4: ON PARADISE
DAY 3: ON SMOKE AND WHISKEY
DAY 2: ON HOW CLOSE I WAS TO NOT EVEN GOING TO COLLEGE
DAY 1: WHY I’M WRITING EVERY DAY FOR 40 DAYS
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2 comments

  1. I had always imagined as you three grew that you and your friends would hang out at the house and i would get to know all your friends that way…. I’m sorry it didn’t work out that way.

    1. I really didn’t get into that here, and you absolutely don’t need to apologize.

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