I have found a place in the heart of this decayed city that is quiet, full of promise, wide-open and all mine. Well, I don’t actually own the property deed, but I live here free of charge. Even though I’m surrounded by ruined buildings and debris-strewn vacant lots, they simply serve as a fence to maintain my privacy.
The last inhabitants of the remaining buildings were heroin addicts, junkies looking for some place to shoot up. Their plastic syringes and rusted needles remain. Stained mattresses that have been soaked in bodily fluids and now sprout fresh blooms of black and green mold which are punctured by shards of glass. Vandals have broken all the windows. There is nothing of value in those places to be salvaged.
I have built my own home, a shack made from lumber I have dragged from the periphery. Because my little half-acre fronts onto no road, I am never troubled by visitors. Sometimes a dog will venture onto my homestead, but once he sees there is no one here, he turns back to civilization. My shack is very small and I spend as little time in there as possible. I don’t keep food, so there’s no reason for any creature to break in.
It turns out I don’t need to wash my clothes, because the world is overflowing with used clothing that is given away for free at certain sites. Charities are overwhelmed with the vast amount of cheap clothing tossed away by Americans every week. Rather than label and sort it, they either give it away locally or pack it into huge bales of compressed and highly wrinkled clothing which they put on cargo ships and take overseas. There it is sold for low prices to the poor.
It is quiet here most of the day and all of the night. Sometimes I like to imagine that I am at Ground Zero after an atomic blast. Large portions of Detroit and most of East St. Louis resemble this. There are hundreds of square blocks in Chicago, Cleveland and St. Louis that come close. Instead of a nuclear weapon, they were brought down by racism. The problem is very real, but nobody wants to admit to be racist themselves, and when asked to attribute such urban decay to simple racial discrimination, most would rather obfuscate, stating that it’s a complex problem with multiple sources and therefore multiple solutions.
This city, and I’m not really sure of which city it is, for it’s just another urban/suburban fungus that once showed promise it could not keep. The main feature of my neighborhood is a giant Wal-Mart, one of those new ones that seems like a tumor growing out of an enormous parking lot. A few bland apartment complexes lurk nearby, but other than these developments, there is nothing to call a place. No place at all.
But it’s racism, pure and simple that reduced large parts of our cities to rubble. However, when you have no neighbors, it’s hard to imagine racism playing such a big part. I feel more like Robinson Crusoe than James Baldwin. When I’m not sitting in a coffee shop pecking away at my laptop, or cruising church basements look for a free lunch, I’m weeding my garden, which is too big to tend. All this free land got me going crazy with my hoe. My rows are thirty meters long! Carrots, beets and lettuce. I’ve got plans for green beans, but have to come up with a trellis. Don’t want to attract too much attention in case anyone is looking behind the ruined houses and through the vacant lots.
Beans are actually quite lovely and flower at some point in their growth cycle. Maybe I’ll find something ugly to place in front of them, so that no one will become charmed by their beauty. First they’ll come around to look at my beans, next thing I know they’ll be robbing me of the little I have. I don’t have much, but I’d rather not have them take it. My drawing supplies. My sketchbook. It’s hard enough to keep it dry in my haphazard shack with the sometimes leaky roof.
I keep the little money I have on me at all times. I no longer have a phone, computer or camera. Everyone else has those things and they’re constantly using them, so the world is not suffering for my lack of selfies or social media posts. It took me a while to wean myself off that illusion of connection, and now that I’m free of it, I’m not tempted to go back.
Am I lonely living alone in a vacant lot? Not in the least. If I want companionship, all I have to do is walk a few blocks. Even in inner-city America we have coffee shops. Of course, if you’re black they may ask you to leave after a few minutes, because even up North, it’s still America.
I’m white. People don’t lock they’re car doors when I approach stopped traffic. I noticed that when a black man my age and size did the same, you could hear the car door locks pop shut like popcorn. Pop pop pop! I’m told I sometimes could pass for a hobo. Something about my clothes, hair, the way I seem to have just crawled out from bed. I could also pass as a college professor from a liberal arts school where they let you create your own major field of study. Lesbian pottery.
I remember what it was like to try to pretend to be someone I’m not. For years I sought to fit in to places that didn’t want me and where I would have been miserable if they’d made the mistake of hiring me. Thank God those days are behind me.