My Side of Town

When my mother moved my brother and me to the 2400 block of Murray Street in 1975, absent were flaming crosses or white-sheeted cone heads greeting us. Surely, there was racism, as there always has been and will be, but my brother and I were blissfully ignorant of its raging effects. We roamed all about the neighborhood, freely, all hours of the day and night, and I don’t remember anyone shouting, “go home n****r.” See, on Murray Street, though we were the only black family for blocks around, we were at home. Anita Foods was just across the street, handy for my mother to send us with a note, to do her small grocery bidding. Halloween seasons came and went and we visited houses for hours into the night, without a chaperone, because everybody was looking out for us. My mother was unique, She was a giant, classy, caramel brown, voluptuous goddess of a woman, with a knack for singing and dancing, creating magical dishes and for comforting us during poignant “lights out” emergencies. As I grew up, I realized that she was hardly giant, standing just 5-foot-6. It might have been my child’s eyes, or perhaps it was her incredible “presence” that made her look like an Amazon to me. Our neighbor in the cottage behind our house was my mother’s first and fastest Murray Street friend; a wonderful hippie, with long straight “white” hair — as I called it to myself then. Now I understand it as blonde. She was the closest thing to Bo Derrick I’d ever seen and Judy was in my own mother’s house. I didn’t know why, but they were amazing to me, this white lady and this black lady, dancing fiercely in gypsy circles to Fleetwood Mac, getting burned with hot chicken grease, and gracefully swigging glasses of wine, which often accompanied them in their fast friendship. I wanted that. I knew when I grew up; I would dance in circles, with wine in tow, have white friends with white hair and laugh heartily till I cried. It took my brother and me a walk of two short blocks to get to school each morning. Mrs. Fischer, the crossing guard at Maryland Avenue School, greeted us enthusiastically. And for a split second, I wanted to be an old white lady with an orange belt on my chest and a whistle. She had such power. I learned to be a good citizen at Maryland Avenue, including walking a boy — Stephen — to the principal’s office. It seemed that day, Stephen, who was mildly retarded, was not able to make it to the restroom and “did it” all over himself. Who else braver, more gutsy and ready to please than me, amiable to be his pleasant smelling escort on this foul hallway trip? Because of my good deed, he took a liking to me and proceeded to show me in the only way he knew how – slurred smiles between drools and awkward hand movements. Kids made fun of me, caring for him. At first it mattered, but after a while, I relished the thought of being this special kid’s friend. For the first time, but definitely not the last, I realized that I didn’t fit in either. I was as misfit as was he — in the land of misfit toys, on the East Side at Maryland Avenue School. Those were the days. The Prospect Mall was really a mall, equipped with open stores, and willing servers of ice cream at the Chocolate Factory. An elevator chair for the handicapped was part of the landscape in the Mall. My brother and I used to ride it up and down for hours at a time. There weren’t any handicapped people around, so it seemed like an amusement park ride. It’s no wonder they took that out of there. We had our way with the Oriental Theater as well. We were enticed by the flashing lights going round and round the marquee. When we stepped out of our door, down the stairs of our house, we could see the theater. I thought it was Broadway or something, so we had to go. And somehow my brother and I were able to parlay our way into the Rocky Horror picture show, on more than one occasion. The umbrellas in the theater, lighters waving, and the rice throwing baffled us both to no end. Finally, we just accepted that all white people acted that way and it seemed fun at the time. We relied heavily on movies and television to gives us an idea of what the world was like. But the neighborhood also provided us with a live script for which we could watch our world unfold. Fortunately or unfortunately, my role models were all white women: neighbor Judy, Wonder Woman, the Bionic Woman and Mrs. Fischer the Crossing Guard. There just weren’t a lot of options for a little black girl, and though my mother was cool and all, she was my mother; therefore I didn’t see her as a role model until later when we left the safety of Murray Street for the projects of Westlawn. This was another culture shock. Prior to that, I’d really been limited in my experiences with my own people. Flip Wilson, Good Times and What’s Happening shaped my beliefs about us. See, if Murray Street was Oz, Westlawn was the land of the lost. It wasn’t unbearable though, but when I got there, I learned I was fat, pigeon-toed and ugly. No one on Murray Street had been so kind as to inform me of those qualities before. Nor had they told me, I “talked white and was goofy.” I suppose on Murray Street we all talked white and were a little “goofy.” These days though, I prefer the term “carefree” over goofy. I lived in Westlawn from 1978 to 1985. Long enough to learn that no matter what side of town you were on, you could have joy, heartache, fast friends and slow ones. I befriended more misfit toys and began to affirm my confounding blackness. My mother’s friends didn’t change much. In Westlawn, Judy came to visit and mother acquired a new friend, a foxy brown kinda lady named Beverly. She had an out of sight Afro, perfect and round; a sexy halter-top; pleated-waist, tapered-leg Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, an Olivia Newton-John figure and signature Candie’s pumps. I took to watching all three of them gather to cook or eat, drink wine, argue about politics, or share similar stories of good-for-nothing abusive men of all colors. I also watched them love their children throughout every twist and turn. That is when they became the most passionate, when the subject of their children arose. I knew that the medley of women had the fiercest companionship. And I wanted that. For me, the transition to Westlawn created a bit of a hard knock life, but I made it. I will go down in history as the only black girl in the projects who stood on the grass blocking imaginary bullets with my imaginary Wonder Woman bracelets, had Gene Simmons and Kiss posters lining her walls, and walked alone on Sundays to a sanctified spirit-filled church and who had been “culturized” first on Murray Street.