Brian Broome | True Story | August 2017 | 26 minutes (7,034 words)
The last bus to the East Hills leaves Wilkinsburg Station at exactly 12:28 a.m. on weeknights, and I am always the last one on it by the time it reaches Park Hill Drive, where I live. The street is midnight dark apart from the headlights of the bus. The ramshackle homes are set a bit back from the road, behind overhanging trees. Anywhere else, this street would be charming. But poor makes everything ugly.
The irritated bus driver and I sit in silence under the flickering fluorescent lights, which blanch everything an odd shade of greenish blue. I am coming off a late shift at work and the both of us, the driver and I, are impatient to be back in our normally lit homes. We can just about taste the freedom. But tonight, our quiet time together is interrupted by a rumbling in the distance. A shouting that grows progressively louder as the bus shuffles slowly up narrow Park Hill Drive. And when the rumbling reaches its peak, we are set upon by a horde of drunken children, unruly and shrieking, who have come out of seemingly nowhere. They shout and bang at the sides of the bus with open hands, fists, bottles, and all their energy. They are trying to rock my coach off its wheels and overturn it with me and my terrified white coachman inside. He leans on the horn and, as is frequently the case with such miscreants, this show of weakness serves only to incite them further, fueling their attack. Bottles are thrown. Some shatter against the windows.
I hold fast to the seat in front of me and wonder where their parents are, as if they could do anything to stop the onslaught. Their failure to properly raise their children is the reason I’m caught in the tide of this ocean of bloodthirsty, cackling hooligans bent on the wreaking of havoc. I can only assume my death is imminent. We are at their mercy. The driver, frantic, fumbles with the radio, which crackles and sputters with truncated, static-ridden words as he tries to explain what’s happening to some incredulous and disembodied voice at the other end. And then, as quickly as it began, it is over. The banging subsides, and the melee disappears into the darkness. The excitement can’t have lasted for more than a minute or so, but it felt like an eternity, and the bus quietly ambles up the road to the stop outside my home, where it heaves a sigh of relief and spits me out under a flickering streetlamp. It speeds away noisily, and I stand there until its engine fades, leaving me to the sound of crickets.
The 79. Your tour bus for the East Hills neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s a bus that exists only to ferry people to the busway that links our little village to the rest of the city. A loop bus that encircles the projects like a noose.
If you look at the area on a map, the loop resembles the Eye of Horus, an ancient Egyptian symbol I once saw in a book about witchcraft. It symbolizes protection, royal power, and good health, and in the East Hills, this is the cruelest of all ironies. I live at the corner of the eye, the very caruncle of the Eye of Horus, but protection and good health are in rare supply here.
Sin, however, is abundant. You can walk around this neighborhood and pick mortal sins off every branch of the overhanging trees. The 79 makes seven stops. I’ve counted them.
Through sloth the roof sinks in and through indolence, the house leaks.
Someone is ringing my doorbell at 8 a.m. on a Sunday, and before I even fully open my eyes I know who it is. He will keep ringing until I get out of bed to answer, so it’s best just to get it over with. My vision is blurry, and my body is heavy with all the sleep I didn’t get. I throw on an old bathrobe and lumber heavy-footed down the stairs, holding on to the railing for dear life. I close one eye to look into the peephole. There’s his face, distorted in the tiny fun-house-mirror glass, which makes his bug eyes bulge all the more comically. They are run through with blood-red spiderwebs. He is sorry again. I can feel his shame even before I open the door and when I do, a frigid blast of stale, sick, sweet liquor smell almost knocks me over.
I am so sorry, sir.
I know these are the words he’ll lead with. My next-door neighbor has never called me anything but sir even though he is easily a decade older than I am. His eyes are leaking, with either the cold or the sting of being cripplingly hung over. Wrapped in dirty clothes and as thin as a chicken bone, he is sorry. Riddled with contrition. But he doesn’t remember fully what happened last night. Only the flashing of police lights in the wee hours and that men in blue uniforms came to his house. As we stand there, both shivering in the winter chill, I take the opportunity to refresh his memory of the previous evening. Because I remember.
I spent most of my evening on my knees in my bed, banging on the wall that separates our bedrooms. The walls around here are like rice paper, and whatever your neighbor does on his side may as well be done right in front of you. But even if the walls were made of Kryptonite, I would still hear my neighbor’s insanity clear as gunshots. Like me, he is a drunk, although a far less responsible one. I work for a living, but he cannot be bothered to take up such intrusions. The bottle requires all his time and energy. I take this opportunity not to invite him in as I have been stupid enough to do in the past. I allow him to shiver on my doorstep while I pull my dirty bathrobe tighter around my neck and recount every detail of his previous evening’s antics. The same antics he’s performed almost every night since I’ve been unfortunate enough to move to this place. He braces for my verbal assault. He bows his head and winces; bows his head, unable to meet my seething gaze. I am furious with lack of sleep and righteousness. He and I have been here so many times before.
Last night, you began your screaming through the walls at ghosts, and as you stand there in clothes that you’ve been wearing for a week, I need to, once again, fill in your memory while you cover your face and feign regret. You are just like every other no-good, do-nothing drunk in this neighborhood, and underneath it all, I can tell that you are perfectly healthy. Able-bodied.
I tell him proudly that I was the one who called the police, and he whimpers with shame. He creaks out another I’m so sorry, sir.
The fact of the matter is that no one visits you and you have no family because you cannot be bothered to get your act together. Your life is one long, comfortable nap on the couch, watching your life fall to pieces around you. I have seen you, day in and day out, sitting and staring into space in the driver’s seat of that stationary junk heap you call a car, getting drunk, and then I have to deal with the fallout. And yes: I called the police. They came again to laugh at you openly, just like the last time I called the police on you due to the constant noise just on the other side of my wall. But this was the first time they’ve had to scoop you up from outside in the snow. This is a new milestone for you. A whole new low.
He still has not met my eyes. When he finally opens his mouth to speak again, I am foolishly waiting to hear something new come from his lips. He just stammers and, in a voice brittle as kindling, stutters out another I’m so sorry, sir. His sick-sweet breath cuts through the cold. I can tell he’s already thinking about how his precious liquor will smooth over the rough edges of my harsh words.
Last night, I watched him fight an invisible assassin in the snow, a ghost that apparently didn’t fight fair. I sat at the window and watched him fight it alone under the lazy overhead light of the courtyard. I watched for a long time. A crazy man in the middle of the night, wrapped up in the kind of silence available to the world only in the wee hours after a snowfall. His ghost must have moved quickly. He never seemed to be able to land a punch. His kicks didn’t connect, and his slaps went wildly airborne. Flailing. The ice and snow didn’t help, putting him on his back frequently, and his shouts were muffled by the snowdrifts and the pane of my window. His apparition didn’t fight fair because it knew no one could see it except him and me at the window with my forehead on the cold glass, doing nothing. We were the only two people to bear witness to its existence, and I was afraid of the kind of contact that would be required to make the pain stop for this man. I was afraid to throw open the window and call to him. And then my fear turned to resentment and my resentment turned to anger and then I made the call, waiting at the window until the courtyard was bathed in red and blue lights.
I am not ashamed of calling the police in this neighborhood even though no one else will. I don’t know why they won’t. The people around here know that I’m the one who calls, and I don’t care. That’s what they’re for, the police. My neighbor drinks himself to the point of dementia and thinks the world owes him something. This is who he screams at every night through the walls. This is who he is fighting. He is fighting the world, and the world doesn’t fight fair. The world will always win if you don’t keep your wits about you. I plan never again to be as pathetic as he is. I was once. But never again. I work for a living.
He continues standing at my door like a cautionary tale. He tells me through foul liquor breath that he’ll never do it again, and vomit hitches in my throat. I know this is a lie. He turns to walk slowly through the snow, not to his apartment but to his hideous purple paperweight of a car. His oasis. I tell him he might want to consider getting a damn job. He gets inside the car, where he’ll sit all day in the cold, trying to change reality by looking at it through the bottom of a bottle. I have work in a few hours. I need some sleep. I won’t get it. In the East Hills of Pittsburgh, there is truly no rest for the weary.
For the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags. (Proverbs 23:21)
I used to be my neighbor. I was exactly like him. If you let me take a drink, you’d almost immediately regret it. I can guarantee it. When I imbibed, it was an all-day affair and into the night until my body couldn’t take any more. I wouldn’t stop until someone pried the bottle from my hands and then locked me up. I loved alcohol and would have bathed in it given half a chance. There was a time when I would have bypassed the circuitous route of the mouth if I could have and injected it directly into my bloodstream to perform its magical workings with even more expeditious mercy. In my fantasies, every vending machine was stocked with delicious brown liquors and little plastic baggies full of powdered goodies, and there would be one on every street corner. In short, I am an addict. I am the poor, innocent, blameless victim of an extended adolescence and an arrested development. I have drunk and drugged so much so as not to remember my own name on some nights, and then I would wake up in agonizing pain and do it all over again the next day and the next. I am a glutton for punishment. But, firstly and more importantly, I am a glutton for intoxicants of all kinds. This is why I live in the East Hills. I live here as punishment.
Life on the outside is expensive, and the East Hills falls perfectly within my price range. Cheap. I am here because I have drunk my opportunities in life. I have drunk away a good job. I have drugged away my vacations; I have snorted my future. I have filled myself to bursting with pharmaceutical delusion, and my punishment for having all that fun is to live here surrounded on all sides by sin. I have sacrificed the privilege of living in the nicer neighborhoods in the city. I live where I can afford, and I will tough it out until I make better things happen for myself. I am not a garden-variety Negro. I don’t belong here. I am not like my neighbors, content to live off scraps. I have just temporarily lost my way.
I am clean now and seeing things clearly. I am almost four years clean, and I’ve learned my lesson. The element who live here continue to flounder inside their own endlessly repeated mistakes, convinced they are society’s victims. This is why they don’t talk to me. They ignore me because they know not just that I am unafraid to call the police, but also that I am not one of them. I refuse to be an injured Negro. I have made no friends here and try to keep a low profile. I have tried many times to talk to these people and am met with only blank stares every time. Shunned because I am ill-equipped to talk about doing time in jail the way that most people talk about going to the grocery store. It’s not my fault they continue to snub me. The problem with being a glutton and recognizing it as I do is that you know that there is always a price to pay in the end. Dues. For me, the East Hills is dues, and once I’ve paid my debt, I’ll stand on tiptoe and wait for the wind to lift me off this hill.
Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.
I stand at my corner every day waiting for the 79 as it ferries people between low-paying jobs and court dates and the grocery store. The projects are the pupil of the Eye of Horus, and whoever built them made sure to make them colorful this time. The units are painted purple and blue and red and, to me, the end result looks like a dysfunctional Candy Land sitting atop a hill. The 79 circles it all day.
My shoe has a hole in it. It’s raining today and I have no umbrella, and now my sock is dampening from a puddle I stumbled into. I look up in minor annoyance at the sound of a too-loud engine and notice that the woman who always parks her car right in front of my bus stop is wearing red today. Her car shines silver like new sixpence. It positively gleams. I don’t know what kind of car it is, but it doesn’t belong here. It should belong to a celebrity or a doctor or a lawyer—the kind of person I was told I could be if only I had applied myself. The woman stops by to visit my other, younger neighbor a few times a week. Today, the vehicle smells of coconut air freshener and some expensive, flower-based perfume that wafts out when she opens the car door. She emerges from the vehicle, haughty and well-dressed, and the rhythmic thump from rap music that was muffled before booms at top volume from her extravagant carriage. She is in a red dress and high heels. I smile big at her and wave, but no return smile is offered. Instead, she fixes me with elevator eyes that start at the top floor of my nappy hair and end at my now waterlogged basement of a shoe with a sock growing soggier and slimier by the second. She moves past me, wordless and lofty, flipping newly done box braids and throwing an expensive shawl over her shoulder in a grandiose motion, and rushes through the rain to my neighbor’s house. I am in no position to be acknowledged. She and my neighbor greet one another jubilantly, and they proceed with some sort of hushed business inside his home before she emerges a few moments later and struts past me. Then, she climbs back behind the wheel of her brilliant blingwagon and speeds off to park its majesty in the ramshackle driveway of her ramshackle apartment, just a few blocks up the street. She lives here too. I will never cease to be amazed by the great pains people who live in this ghetto will take to try to make it look like they don’t live in this ghetto. The number of dilapidated huts around here with brand-new cars sitting in front of them is confounding, and what people from this neighborhood can spend on clothes and shoes alone could most likely settle the national debt with change left over.
Pride is complicated. And money can buy many things. But here it mostly buys impracticality. Intricate hairdos whose upkeep makes it impossible to pay electric bills on time, for example, and ridiculously expensive bottles of liquor from the conveniently located liquor store. The kind of liquor the rappers drink, though presumably the rappers also have money for groceries. The bill of goods on sale is that you are what you drive and wear and drink, but I, with my soaking-wet sock and rain-dripping forehead, am not buying. I won’t fall prey to the stereotype that society has laid out for me and be trapped here in a state of perpetual adolescence. It’s a modest life that is the key to success, and I won’t forget that. Being bested every day by your own pride will keep you struggling. One must learn to adjust to one’s circumstances, and you’ll get nowhere by trying to show off at the club every weekend. I should tell the woman this, but I won’t. I bite my tongue. She has made her decision, and who am I to judge anybody? I know what my priorities are, and pride comes only after you’ve accomplished something. So I narrow my eyes and assure myself that the Lady in Red’s fancy car will be taken from her one day owing to her irresponsibility. Repossessed. Someday, I imagine, I will see her on the 79, laid low, and I’ll just politely nod in such a way so that she knows that I know. With no words from me, she will know that I’ve recognized her fall from ersatz grace and that she should have taken a lesson from me. She’ll remember this day when I stood steeping in my own shoe and she barely acknowledged my existence. She will be unable to meet my eyes. It is my humility that will one day lift me out of this place. Slow and steady will win the race, I just know it. I go out of my way to be friendly to the people around here, but they’ll have none of it. Too proud to talk to the outsider because he looks poor. Poor is the way you should look when you are. Humble. There is no place for pride in the East Hills.
I have seen the fool taking root, but suddenly I cursed his dwelling.
Community Crime Update: 10/4/2015 Burglary/Assault 2400 Block of Bracey Drive, 7:30 a.m.
A 36-year-old female victim reported that a known female suspect of East Pittsburgh broke into her house by forcing open the front door. The suspect stole a frozen chicken, then pulled a knife and began swinging it at the victim like a woman possessed. Officers arrived on the scene and detained the suspect, whom they found shouting obscenities in front of the residence. The frozen chicken was located roosting in the suspect’s purse. The suspect told officers that she and the victim were both romantically involved with the same man. While officers were attempting to get the full story from this ostensibly grown woman, a male, also of East Hills, emerged from the residence and tried to interfere with the arrest. The male shoved one officer and then took a swing at another. Witnessing this, a third officer deployed his Taser, shocking the shit out of the male actor and immediately stopping his assault of the officers. The male was then taken into custody. Both suspects were taken to the Allegheny County Jail. The female was charged with burglary and simple assault while the male was charged with obstructing the administration of law and aggravated assault. When queried, neighbors chalked this incident up to just another instance of supposedly grown women jealous of each other over the attentions of a no-account man. Many people in the neighborhood remain confused, however, as to why a person would express envy toward a romantic rival by breaking into her house and stealing a frozen chicken at 7:30 in the morning. All have dismissed the event as just the latest in a series of ghetto dramas that have made the neighborhood look foolish on the local news. One local resident, standing at the bus stop with a hole in his shoe and suffering from obvious sleep deprivation, who wished to remain anonymous, rolled his eyes at the news of yet another domestic disturbance in the area, saying, “It happens every day because these people have nothing better to do.” At the time of this printing, the whereabouts of the frozen chicken are unknown.
They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.
The 79 is an enormous baby stroller. Never in all my days have I seen so many little babies slung over the hips of young girls. Some have two, three, or even four babies in tow, each one smaller than the next, like Russian nesting dolls. Often, the mother is on the phone in an argument with some unseen boyfather. Variations on the word fuck are her favorite way to communicate. The children listen and drink in every obscene word. Her beautiful baby girls with beads in their hair, each one unique as a Tiffany lamp.
The young mother sitting across from me has children crawling all over her. She cannot be more than seventeen, and although the children are vying for her attention, she refuses to put down her cell phone. Her ability to ignore them is remarkable. Today, she is using social media like the teenager she is. Giggling at Facebook and sending messages because no one can just skip adolescence. You have to go through it even if, through your own misdeeds, you find yourself being a parent. Meanwhile, the children, left to their own devices, run around the moving bus, screaming. Not even the sound in my headphones can drown them out. She looks up only occasionally to curse at them, admonishing them for behavior that she will never properly correct. She is weary of them. They bounce around the speeding bus like gumballs free to come back bloody, but she cannot be bothered. When I catch her eye, I take the opportunity to shoot her a scornful look, which she shoots right back. Some may say that I should mind my own business, but I believe in addressing problems at the source. She continues to stare at her phone.
The news that sex can cause children has not reached the East Hills; the housing projects near my home are positively swarming with them. It’s certainly not my place to judge anyone, but they run around loose and hang out on the streets until after dark to get up to all manner of lasciviousness. The boys talk dirty and in harsh words about things they could hardly know about. I blame the rap music. Sex. That adult feeling in the hands of children. They have all the working parts and none of the knowledge, and the knowledge won’t become clear to them until it’s too late. I would never comment on how anyone raises their children, but I see their futures bold as the sunrise. I see the cycle, and if I were their parents, I would impose a strict curfew. I would introduce a comprehensive sexual education program. For their own good. Unbridled lust can never lead to anything positive, and that’s an irrefutable fact.
The girl on the bus is joined by a friend, who also has children in tow. They talk about boys, using dirty language. They talk about nonsense, as girls do. One of their children plops himself down in the seat right next to me. He is sticky with sugar, and I smile down at him. His mother, the one with the cell phone, calls him back to her angrily and shoots me yet another dirty look. I don’t know why. Maybe she knows that I know that her pattern of sex and children will continue. She will find out the ways of the world as she gets older. Her children will steal her youth and her opportunities. And money? That is something that will never come, though it will be slightly less elusive than escape. But this is her life and she can live it the way she wants to. It doesn’t affect me in the slightest, so I don’t care.
They pull the cord and exit the bus in a flurry of confusion. Strollers erected and toys gathered. Baby bottles and diaper bags. Children flying in all directions, holding up the rest of us, who actually have somewhere to be. They continue talking and move slowly as they gather their many belongings. They will make me late for work. They are never in a hurry. They finally exit, off to God knows where.
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.
I am standing beneath the bones of industry. Heavy equipment roars and jackhammers all around me, and workmen in fluorescent yellow vests and hard hats shout instructions at each other as they erect beams and walls. The cement-colored sky is littered with progress, and I’m standing underneath it all, noticing for the first time that everything around here is changing. The low-rent bodega is gone, where I bought my cigarettes from the Indian people, where you could buy illegal loosies when your money was low. The nuisance bar up the street is gone, and the complexions of the people all around me have started to dramatically change. Just above my head, just outside my field of vision, they are working on East Liberty, the neighborhood down the street from the East Hills. The club that used to play hip-hop music is gone, and the whole block has been spruced up with gourmet pizza shops. Artisanal cocktail bars are sprouting up, seemingly from nothing. The projects that were once here have been torn down and replaced by a shiny red-and-white Target, and there are white people taking a spin class in the building that used to house the Arabic bodega. I am there soaking it all in as if it all suddenly appeared by magic when a woman approaches and stands beside me.
She says, as if she and I were in the middle of a conversation, You know they gonna move us all outta here, right?
East Liberty is changing faster than anyone can keep up. It’s changing, slow but steady, exactly like Lawrenceville did before it, and the people who live in my neighborhood have definitely noticed.
They gonna move us outta here as soon as they need the space, the woman continues to no one in particular. Far enough out so they can’t see us.
I stand there with this elderly woman I’ve never met before, and we watch the transformation happening right before our eyes. I don’t live here, but I don’t tell her that. She’s looking up at the construction of a newer, shinier place and making frantic plans. I can see her mind working. She’s wondering where she’s going to go when all is said and done, and although I don’t want to believe her, I know she’s right. She is the kind of old, diminutive black lady who is always right. She has seen this kind of “neighborhood rejuvenation” a thousand times before. I pretend not to know what she’s talking about and we both stare up silent at the harbingers of her imminent displacement while newly transplanted white people go about their business all around us. She and I stand close enough to be lovers as her scarf flaps in the wind, and after I’ve steeped in enough of her reality, I turn on my heel and walk away, leaving her standing there looking up and wondering what on earth she’s going to do. I wish I had said something reassuring. I want to tell her that deep down, I don’t know what I’m going to do either. I want the two of us to commiserate together, standing there, looking up at all this progress. But instead, I comfort myself by deciding that I will never be her. I tell myself that she should have planned better. Then she would have options. She would have the kind of options that I will have. Options that are soon to present themselves to me. Soon.
But I can’t ignore the fact that her fear has uncovered my own. As I walk back to the busway, to the beginning of the 79 route, I can’t shake the knowledge that no one can prosper without taking something, and no one can prosper lavishly without taking lavishly. The word on the street in East Hills is that the white people are coming. People talk about it on the 79, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve seen the white men in casual slacks and dress shirts, surveying the neighborhood and measuring things. It’s just a matter of time. It’s never done in a forceful way. It’s always very subtle and always under the guise of progress. But those who live in the neighborhood know that we’re on borrowed time. There are many things that capitalism produces, and noble behavior on either end of the rich/poor spectrum is not one of them. But we admonish only the poor.
I admonish only the poor.
The white people will come and uproot the neighborhood because they want the space, and I will ignore that in favor of looking down my nose at the people who live around me. I am desperately trying to create some fictional line of demarcation to separate myself from my neighbors when I know that I am them in the eyes of the people who will come to take whatever they want from us. I have been confused, but my neighbors haven’t. They are not fooled by my air of superiority. It is remarkable what the powers that be can delude you into thinking without your permission and what they can trick you into ignoring. And they have fooled me into ignoring the obvious. That I bring home and disseminate every judgment that white people want me to make against the people with whom I have the most in common.
Greed is why the East Hills exists the way it does and why we always end up on some hack writer’s “Worst Pittsburgh Neighborhoods” list. Poverty and racism can leave you feeling like less. They skew the priorities and, on some days, make you so angry that you become confused as to where to aim that anger. Late at night, when everything appears to be quiet underneath the flickering streetlamps, there is an angry hum over the East Hills neighborhood. A tension. You can feel it, and you never know when it’s going to erupt.
We all know why we’re here. I’ve heard my neighbors talk about it sometimes. It’s because of greed. It is the greed of those who have decided they need more space, more gourmet coffee, more spin classes. The greed of those whose toilets we scrub and whose security we guard for a pittance and the promise of a better tomorrow that never seems to come. Someone has to do it, and it may as well be us. But the relationship between the haves and have-nots in America is anything but symbiotic. Often, the quiet around here is split wide open by the sound of gunshots. The anger around these parts is electric and alive, and it has to go somewhere. So we aim it at each other. And we rarely ever miss.
The stories of noble, robust, and hardworking poor people are cherry-picked to make the rest of us feel worthless under a system in which it is almost impossible to succeed, and perhaps I have ignored this system in favor of the easier task of judging those around me. I have left this old woman to her hand-wringing, only to begin my own. I reach the busway, where the 79 is waiting to take me back home. It is lit up and idling angrily. Puffing smoke as if it’s annoyed that I am late.
Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land.
The couch in my apartment is too close to the window. I don’t want to be sitting here one day and catch a stray bullet while I’m watching something I might be ashamed of on television. It happens. I giggle to myself as I’m moving it, thinking that the police would find me, bullet to the brain, mouth frozen open in a laugh, as reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show crank out canned laughter from my television set. I move the couch because it makes good sense to move the couch. I move the couch because wrath roams this neighborhood freely. It’s less visible in the daytime, but it’s still here. The murders in this neighborhood are no secret. When liquor and anger start to flow, so does blood down the sidewalk. I try not to watch the local news. I don’t really need to, anyway, because I can hear it all on the 79. And I move the couch, giggling at the knowledge that Mary Richards and the whole of the WJM-TV news team would never have to move their couches for such a reason. The next day, I stub my toe on the couch as I’m rushing to catch the bus.
The women sitting behind me didn’t know the woman who was murdered, but they knew of her. They are speaking about the murder casually and not in the hushed tones that one might expect propriety would dictate for a discussion of such matters. They knew he was no good, the man who killed her. He is only twenty years old and she was twenty-eight. She should have known better, they say. I put my headphones on and pretend not to listen, but I am listening intently to their assessment of the situation. They wonder aloud what her children are going to do. She had six of them, they say, and she should have been more focused on them than she was on a twenty-year-old man. They sound like me. And as they speak of the dead in less than respectful terms, my whole body becomes heavy with the weight of it all. Six children left motherless. She was alive and she was loved and I have more than likely looked down upon this woman in passing on this very bus. I have probably watched her struggling with baby carriage, baby bottles, and diaper bags and haughtily decided that it was her poor decisions that landed her here. I turn to look out the window. My reflection in the glass is ugly, so I look down.
The women behind me gossip on. He shot her, they say. They were arguing over money for diapers, something so ridiculous that they are in disbelief, and now I’m thinking of her children and I wonder what I’m going to do besides sit here on the 79 bus judging people every day. How I’m going to cure the disease within myself that makes me so harsh and critical toward my own people. Where did I learn this? I have no answer other than that I will move the couch. Conditioned like a Pavlovian dog, I will move it every time I see red and blue lights. I will wait for the news crews to leave every time someone is killed in the East Hills, and then I will emerge from my apartment like a sultan to cast judgment. It will be my full-time job, as murder and violence are ever present around this Eye of Horus with its hum of anger.
The women behind me shift their babies from knee to knee as they gossip on, but I am no longer listening. Their voices have indistinguishably joined the rattle of the engine of the bus to create a cacophony inside my head as we roll through yesterday’s crime scene.
People from other neighborhoods look to us up here and believe that we somehow deserve to be here. Our bad decisions are what led us to this place. But if everyone made the right decisions all the time, there would be no one for everyone else to look down on, and it is in this way that America works. We live here so that others can convince themselves that the worst of human instincts reside here and here only. They can convince themselves that something like that would never happen where they live. They can convince themselves that there has never been a drunk in dire need of mental health care in their neighborhood. They can convince themselves that, in their neighborhood, a lovers’ quarrel has never led to ridiculous behavior and that people in their part of town never spend beyond their means in order to impress. Their young daughters are virginal and chaste while ours are irresponsible whores. They wonder aloud why our society can’t cast this play in hell and get angels for actors. They feature us on your local news before the blood on the sidewalk even dries. The last stop of the 79 is always Wrath.
There was a time, long before my arrival here, when the building down the street, the one with the enormous pockmarked parking lot, was a shopping center. Now it houses a single church where people go to worship a God who doesn’t ever seem to show himself. He’s never going to come for them. The only ones who are coming are the police.
Sometimes, I wake up in the early morning and find myself missing my neighbor. One night, the red and blue lights came, and I was confused because I hadn’t called the police on him. I heard a lot of men talking outside and then they drove away in an ambulance and everything next door went silent. New people moved in and told me that he died. I guess he finally got out.
But it is at this time of the morning that I know that I won’t sleep any longer. So I go outside and walk up to the enormous parking lot where they say a glorious shopping center used to stand. I go there so early that the sun is barely up and the neighborhood is silent as the grave and cannot dictate to me who I am. I stand here knowing full well who I am and I’m not fooling anyone. I am not special. I am a part of this neighborhood every bit as much as those I enjoy judging so much. I stare out at the empty church parking lot with the sun coming up all around me, and I try to imagine what it must have been like a long time ago, bustling with activity and commerce. I can’t really picture it. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Sometimes, I sit and watch my neighbors out the window and wonder what on earth they could be smiling about. I wonder how the young mothers have the stamina to raise children around here. I wonder how any happiness can exist here at all, and then I remember how flawed my thinking is. I want to talk to them. I don’t deserve to talk to them.
I will be sitting on my hands and moving away from the window on cue until they come to take the East Hills. And they will come to take it when they need more room. This, I believe, is certain. I don’t believe we’ll band together to stop it. I’m as guilty of inaction as anyone else up here and when they come to take it away, I will move just like everyone else. To where, I don’t know. And now, as I stand here feeling the sun’s first morning warmth on my back, I can hear the 79 beginning its first circle of the morning.
This essay first appeared under the title “79” in Issue 11 of True Story, a monthly mini-magazine published by the Creative Nonfiction Foundation. Our thanks to Brian Broome and the staff for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.