Readers Report Back From… Neighborhood

By

Rumpus readers hang out in the ‘hood. Edited by Susan Clements.

In the desert Southwest, sprawling in the self-conscious posture of Los Angeles’ younger, uptight, less hip sister, sits Albuquerque, New Mexico: land mass 132.2 square miles, metro area approximately 1,000. With her beautiful watermelon-colored mountains to the east, her crowning glory, she is cut into various neighborhoods. They are not neighborhoods in the standard sense with a coffee shop, a corner store, a local watering hole. They are simply geographic designations, so that if one forgets that the mountains are always east they’ll be able to ground themselves on the planet. “I am in the Northeast Heights, the Far Northeast Heights, the South Valley, the North Valley, north of Paseo, the Westside,” the residents say.

Go to one of those neighborhoods and you’ll find yourself surrounded by people. Lots and lots of people. 840,000 people. People in their cars. People in their houses. Occasionally a bi-ped can be spotted walking quickly from their very large trucks across the parking lot of a big-box store, sitting in a booth at a big-box chain restaurant, or now and then, out in a yard behind a lawnmower—all keeping a wary eye out while minding their own damn business.

After two years’ residency, you can try sitting on your porch, which constitutes a breach of neighborhood etiquette, with a sign lettered: “Seeking friendship. Apply within.” The other option is more labor intensive and has a high risk of rejection.

Find the local indie bookstore, drive the fifteen miles to it, park in the very large lot. Walk in and case the place, like you would if you were planning to rob it. Make small talk with the clerk. You’ll most likely be the only person in the place. Buy a book. Go home. Return in a day or two. Repeat the process. Look as shifty as possible. It’ll make you intriguing. Annoy the clerk with a political or religious question. Have a stack of books in your hands. It’ll keep the clerk guessing about the relative size of your bad intentions vs. your wallet. Continue for two weeks, then take a six pack of beer with you, arriving at exactly closing time. Cigarettes are prison currency, beer is Albuquerque currency. Flash the beer, nod toward the back room. Drink the beer with your new friend and return home to your ‘hood where there is no neighbor to be seen.

— Sam Jasper

***

Start from the division of the city along Canal Street by a median strip called the neutral ground, one side Creole and the other American, the no-man’s land where the old New Orleans of the French and Spanish reluctantly mingled with the Yankee newcomers of two hundred years ago. Walk either direction from Canal more than a dozen blocks, downtown past the French Quarter or uptown through the Central Business District, and things begin to blur. The grand avenues of St. Charles and Esplanade are both lined with the grand old houses of the wealthy, built when the city could call itself Queen of the South, but a few blocks behind either stand the same square cottages and long shotguns of the working class.

This is where conventional demography breaks down and neighborhood begins: where you got that po-boy or snowball, where you went to school, which church’s bells wake you at six in the morning, the store your parents sent you to as a child for liquor or cigarettes because the owner knew you.  There are more than two cities here, not just the division of the old city into Creole and American but also the historic city and the post-war suburbs. Whether your boulevard is lined with grand mansions or strip malls, the back streets share an architectural homogeneity that makes the name of your corner store—not the Piggly Wiggly but the one with a family name—that much more important. This is neighborhood.

There is pride in neighborhood.  Is there another city in America where a ten year old can tell you which civil ward he lives in, might even break into a sing-song chant of  “First Ward, Second Ward, Third Ward: that’s Uptown!  Seventh Ward, Eighth Ward, Ninth Ward, that’s Downtown!”?  The Mardi Gras Indians of either side sew in different styles, one geometrically abstract and feather heavy, the other defined by detailed patchwork of primitive realism. These streets are where New Orleans’ iconic music is born, played not for the door but for pride; where the food is best not for Fodor’s but because your grandmother’s name is on the sign; where parades are not the lumbering floats of well-to-do Carnival but the high stepping second lines of century-old Social Aid and Pleasure clubs.

These neighborhoods are the villages we create to tame a place in the wild subtropical jungle that surrounds us.

— Mark Folse

***

I live in the kind of neighborhood you only stumble across after taking a wrong turn. It’s of a class that takes familiar form across the country, each held together by the common language of billboards for Captain Jack, McDonald’s, and Planned Parenthood. No joggers come down our street, just a DWI drunk wobbling toward the strip mall liquor store on his sister’s bike. It’s two pre-WWI apartment buildings, a few crumbling houses, and factories. Our second-floor balcony overlooks an industrial river that is nevertheless beautiful in every light. A black-crowned night heron circles her nest every morning. In some of the trees, the plastic bags left by last year’s flood hang in the branches like Spanish moss. Four bodies were found in the river last summer, two of them connected to Palo Mayombe ritual. The funeral homes are busy with the bodies of young, gang-banged men. Last week a prostitute was found beaten to death in the middle of a street not far from here.

But here’s the thing. Bank robbers and car thieves make better neighbors than doctors, lawyers, and TV actresses, the sort of people I once called neighbor before fortune blasted me against the rocks. Those people never came out of their houses, and when they did never spoke to me, and when they spoke to me it was to tell me to keep my fucking dog out of their yard.

Now, when Bobby the car thief takes care of my dog he brings her inside and onto his bed because he can’t sleep knowing she’s alone and maybe afraid. John, the guy who did time for bank robbery, takes everyone’s garbage to the curb without asking. Jerry, who did time for something that involved whiskey, a gun, and his ex-wife, helps me lug heavy bags to my second floor apartment and never fails to ask me if I need help with my invalid husband. In turn we help them deal with our ruthless landlord and fix their computers.

We are neighbors in the best sense of the word, having been washed up onto this shore by our own bad choices. On weekends, their girlfriends stop by with cartons of cigarettes and warm laundry folded into bags. They build a fire on the bank and, after a few beers, we howl at the moon.

Joan Mathieu

***

I live on a small island off the coast of mainland Europe. The economy recently collapsed. It’s not Iceland but if you change one of the letters in that country you could probably guess it. It’s not Iceland but it feels like it could be. I drive across country through the heaviest snow we’ve ever had. I drive past jackknifed trucks,  a car on fire, and an airport full of people going nowhere. A four-hour journey takes ten. The car makes weird noises, jerks, skids occasionally. Halfway in the iPod battery dies, so I have to listen to the radio, talk of the worst weather ever, celebrity drug deaths, the fucked economy (they don’t use the word “fucked,” but you know they mean it). There is a song I like called “Horse Outside”, it makes me smile every time I hear it, I change the radio every couple of minutes to look for it, eventually pulling in to the frozen street where I grew up it comes on, I smile. My mother’s dog runs out, happy to see me, followed by my mother who looks me up and down and says: “Have you put on weight?”

— Seán Ó Cuireáin

***

Lately, we hear the barred owls more than we do the gunshots. The barred owls, we figure, are Freefall’s offspring—a fallen owlet rescued serendipitously by a neighbor, who handed it over to another neighbor, who is, serendipitously, an ornithologist. Freefall (the neighbor named the bird) was eventually repatriated to the trees from which he had fallen. The first night we heard the owl calls, my husband and I woke to what we thought were the frantic, rising calls of monkeys hooting. We live in Atlanta. The weather was in the forties. No way this hoo’ing and haw’ing was monkeys.

I consulted a bird book, and looked up owl calls on the Internet. The “monkey-owls” were evidently the rehabilitated Freefall and a second voice we dubbed “Mrs. Freefall.”

We kept the smallest cat inside.

Around the time the owls settled in the pine trees, the gunshots declined. We were more alarmed by the mysterious animal calls than the dull pops of small weapons fire. (This is, I realize, insight into growing up in a city.) As far as we could tell, the gunshots were festive. They sounded like falling stars.

The celebrants ignored gravity’s basic rule: that what goes up must come down. My husband and I lay in bed waiting for the ambulance sirens or police lights that never came. Neither, however, did we dress and walk the quarter mile to the source, ask to join the party, bring a six-pack of beer or perhaps our best attempt at a weapon—a kitchen knife.

I bought my house with money my grandfather left me twenty years ago. Fifteen years ago, the man who would become my husband came to pick me up for a date. “Nice girl, shitty neighborhood,” is what he was thinking. He told me this when he moved in eighteen months later.

What had been a cinder block Holiness Church is a vintage clothing store now. They sell the kinds of dresses the Holiness ladies wore. A store with a walk-up window sells gourmet ice cream; lavender, or salted caramel. We have fewer gunshots. We still have owls in the trees, insisting that they belong.

— Jessica Handler