Sunday, July 27, 2008

Giving to My Street.

In this city I have always been a gentrifier, the young(ish) white person moving into ethnically diverse neighborhoods to take advantage of the lower rent. From Williamsburg to Fort Green to Bushwick and now Red Hook, I've chosen to live in places where caution when walking home at 2 a.m. and locking your windows is strongly advised. I've had more problems in some places than others.

In Williamsburg a homeless person (I suppose) took to shitting on my front stoop - I actually called the cops when I got tired of it and asked if they could take the evidence with them; in Fort Green my bicycle was stolen out of the second floor hallway of my building; in Bushwick the kids on the block removed the light bulbs from the rear lights of my truck, screwing the plastic covers back on when they were finished. My garden tools slowly disappeared from the back yard and once I nearly escaped getting hit by a full paint can that was lobbed off the roof of the four story building as I was bent below, pulling weeds.
Here in Red Hook, someone found the need to steal my truck antennae and the following week scratch "shoo whoo" into the paint of my passenger door.

Ah city life. And then there is the challenge of how to deal with requests for loans. Daniel, a local Vietnam Vet who lives in a parked van in a nearby vacant lot, helped me move all my stuff from a Uhaul to my second floor apartment in February for $20, heavy boxes of books and records included. I was certain I was funding his alcoholism but was thankful for the help. He's safe enough a neighbor, always saying hi when I see him and never pestering me for money. Except for the $5 I gave him for dinner in March. He asked for the money saying he would get paid the next day and would return it to me. He knew that I knew that he wouldn't pay it back but I played along. It takes courage to ask for money.

Tonight as I was sitting here checking my email, I heard a knock on the door. One of the women in the section 8 housing across the street waved to me through my peep hole. I see her on the street nearly every day and we usually exchange a few words about the weather. I pulled on a dress and opened the door to her; as she stepped over the threshold I backed up to avoid her pushing into me, assuming that for some reason she wanted to see my apartment, then she closed the door behind her.

"Very nice," she said giving my kitchen a cursory survey. "I no see you on fire escape today. It rains." I replied that yes, I have not been sitting on the fire escape today because of the rain.

"You loan me $20" she said. It was a statement and not a question. "My daughter give me tomorrow and I give to you." I paused for a beat, noticing the smell of alcohol on her breath. Why the closed door? Why me when we have never even exchanged names?

"$20?" I repeated, including the question mark. What could I say? I reached for my wallet two steps away and pulled out a twenty for her.

I remembered the time when Matthias and I had just moved into a new apartment in the Naval Yard area and had a few months there where money was so thin, I was eating dollar hot dogs on my lunch break from a temp job in Jersey City. I only had a dollar most days, counting up dimes and nickels each morning. I would have liked a $20 bill right then.

Because I know I'm gentrifying, I always try to get to know my neighbors so that they don't think I'm just some white person moving in to drive up the rent. I want them to know me and I want to know them. Great relationships have grown out of my living on the edges. And there's a great sense of "in this together" that comes from knowing your neighbors. There are times when my neighbors' just being neighborly has meant so much. Like when my neighbor, Charlie, reminds me to move my truck because of street cleaning and saves me a $60 ticket. Neighbors have let me into the building when I took out the trash without my key. The UPS guy once delivered my package to me in the deli on the corner so I could wait for my sandwich to be made. This is what neighbors do, take care of each other.

It is embarrassing and degrading to be broke in this country. And it is hell in this city where so many seem to drip wealth and every corner offers the candy of some new desirable.

I know that this could go one of two ways: Either the woman from across the street will be good to her word and bring back the money tomorrow, as promised. Or she will now avoid me - and maybe dislike me - for that $20. Regardless, I am of course wary of becoming the Coffey Street ATM. This will probably be the last time I loan money - I'll be prepared next time.

The other aspect of this is that she invaded my space. I don't know if that should bother me or not. I don't know how she got into the building and when she shoved the bill into the front pocket of her jeans and opened the door to leave, I felt invaded or taken advantage of. Outside my door stood little Nellie, the daughter of Charlie and Nellie who live upstairs. They're a boisterous family who yell from the street to the open window on the fourth floor to get into the building. They're sweet and friendly but loud as hell - and they know everything that's going on on the block. I suspect that she knew Nellie was in the hallway and asking me for money took some guts; she didn't want the whole building to know what she was doing.

When Charlie came home this evening, I told him what happened and asked him what he thought. He's the one who told me Daniel would be good help with moving and he and his family have been great neighbors, helping me find my way around the neighborhood when I first moved in. He's a big burly guy who drives a tow truck, one of the tough family men you find around here who says to his wife when he drops her off outside, "I love you too, now get outta the truck."
"That's not right," he said. "You'll get the money back but it's just not nice that she got into the building and asked you." Well, that's what I thought. And I was happy to hear that I'll probably get the $20 back.

And then there's my guilt, my white guilt. I'm spending a year working on this book and working only part time because I can. I am privileged and I know it. I want to complain about the woman across the street making assumptions about me because I'm white, but because I am white, she is justified in those assumptions. My error would be to treat her differently than I would the white girl downstairs or to forget my privilege. Maybe I should look at her asking me for money as a sign that this is my street too.


Quick History.

Here's a video that shows the empires that have imperialized the Middle East since 3000 BCE. It's only 90 seconds long but worth each. Found via

This reminds me of the creepy taxi driver in Albania who told me that his country's woes came from its location. "Everybody imperializes Albania. Now Europe imperializes Albania. They have to have a country to launder their money and sell their drugs in."

It also reminds me of the extraordinarily ancient and eclectic history of Alexandria, Egypt, where churches, mosques, and synagogues all dot the city.

It is easy to admire the cultural richness that such a long imperialized history brings to these cities and places, that is until you encounter the armoured trucks outside Alexandria's synagogues or spot the domed, circular bomb shelters that intermittently cover Albania's countryside like the pox. Some of these shelters still serve as homes to Albania's poor.

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