Diapers and Dragons

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Where Even The Shopping Carts Aren't Free

Yesterday I drove down to the Save-A-Lot for the first time since I've moved into Detroit. Usually I make large grocery trips to a Meijer fifteen minutes away, but that seemed a bit much for peanut butter, graham crackers, and cookies. The front of the store was barred by a bizarre arrangement of metal poles behind which the grocery carts were lined, and as I slipped through a two-foot space I glanced down the corridor, wondering where the carts could exit. I was relieved I only needed a basket.

The customers wandering the aisles, shelves stocked haphazardly to my shopper's eye, seemed broken down. They shuffled, bent by invisible weights heaped upon crooked shoulders. They clung to the bars of their carts like walkers. Even the mother with her two small children looked aged, withered somehow from the full bloom of youth.

I exited with my purchases clutched in my arms, no bags offered or available that I could see. A man ahead of me had his cart full of groceries, painstakingly boxed by his own hands in the various produce cartons laid by the exit for customers' use. I watched as he wheeled the cart into the barred corridor, down to the lanes of the other imprisoned carts, and then began pulling the boxes out one by one to slide through the bars and into the back of his waiting car.

It struck me then: there was no exit for the carts. They were locked in so that no one would steal them.

My parents have lived in the inner city of Detroit for years now. I have visited them frequently; I have lived here myself for five months. As many times as I have had the typical Detroit experiences--the bums asking for change as I fill my car with gas, gas stations and fast food joints sheltered behind bullet-proof fiberglass, the elderly man coming around asking for $10 to mow the lawn, the young men racketing down the street with bass booming in their low slung riders--it was not until yesterday that I felt that I fully grasped the inner city reality.

Shopping carts cannot be allowed free because the many homeless will take them.

I live on a street filled with people who, for the most part, take pride in their homes. You can tell the difference between the homeowners and the renters by the degree of care, but the lawns are mowed and the bushes trimmed and the garbage dragged to the curb on Fridays rather than left to pile about the yards and porches. Children play on the street all day and into the evening. They leave their toys and bikes scattered about the sidewalk, only removing them into shelter when dark finally falls.

The ice cream truck meanders slowly up and down the neighborhoods, the incessant tinkling of its music ("Fur Elise", "Sweet Clementine", "La Cucaracha") interrupted occasionally by a recorded female voice calling out Hello! On its side is a painting of Obama's head, quite skillfully done but nevertheless managing to make him somehow unattractive, which is quite a feat really. Men, women, and children alike materialize from the cooler shade of porches to buy the sweet creamy treats, then return to sit on steps and chairs and gaze out at the slow life of the street.

They are not wealthy, these people. They are not even middle-class. But neither are they poor in the broken-down, caring-about-nothing, do-nothing way that some people are. These are people who work hard and take care of their houses and their cars and their babies, who sit on the porch and wave to people walking by, who have built a neighborhood where yes, we all have alarms and lock our doors, but there aren't gunshots and police and gangs and crack dealers spreading their fear and darkness to shadow their lives.

I am not one of them. Not yet. I'm still learning to sit out on the porch. I'm still learning to wave and nod hello without being self-conscious. I still get slightly puzzled glances from the neighbors who don't really know me--look, there's another of those weird white people who decided to live here--but they are not unfriendly.

There is a little boy who lives across the street, Javon, who is fascinated by my two children and watches closely when I drive up. If the boys are with me, he wheels his bicycle over to greet them and me and ask if they can play. I haven't said yes yet. He is a bit older; he rides a bike; he goes freely up and down the sidewalk and both sides of the street. I'm not quite ready for that freedom for my children. I'm not quite ready for them to be part of this neighborhood too.

One of these days I will say Yes, but you need to stay in the yard here because they are much smaller than you. One day I will take my children for a walk down the street, nodding and calling out greetings to the people we pass. One day I will let my children know that we are, for this time at least, part of this neighborhood, part of these people who are living strong and resilient despite broken dreams, broken lives, in a broken city, in a broken world.

4 bits of love:

mom said...

You're a "toubabou" in a new place, finally moving in more than physically. I applaud you. Thank you for caring for our troubled city, and for "getting it." Wish I could sit on the porch with you, and introduce you to the few that I know. Just being there is making a difference, showing them that fear and alienation are not insurmountable boundaries, even in that place. Shine!

Kathleen said...

Love the image you've so skillfully painted here with your words!

merideth said...

i can't decide if i feel sad or uplifted...

Arby said...

I know this neighborhood. I grew in one similar to it in inner city Chicago. It is filled with many good people. It is filled with a few bad ones. There are more good than bad. The suburbs have kids playing, sometimes, and toys left out, sometimes, but no real neighborhoods. You can't have a neighborhood when the houses don't have front porches. There's no one to say "hi" to when everyone is hiding in their air conditioned homes. Enjoy the 'hood. Enjoy your porch.

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