When I was 19, I moved into a house on East 13th street in Over-the-Rhine. It was not called OTR then. My rented row-house was a far, far cry from the semi-rural Kentucky subdivision I grew up in. Here, no one had their own washing machines using instead the laundromat down the block. The kids I met had never seen a cow and no one had any green space except for the abandoned postage stamp-sized lot next to my house.
You couldn’t count on the Thai-quickie mart to have fresh milk, and you’d have to get permission to go behind the bullet proof partition if you wanted to browse around anyway. Getting to a decent grocery store meant a trip to Clifton, and if you don't have a car (which means you probably can't really afford a cab), then you'd have to figure out how to get your groceries home on the bus. Daily conveniences that I had taken for granted became one irritating obstacle after another.
All of my neighbors were black and my house-mates and I were the only white people who lived on our block, maybe the street. Those were the opposite demographics of where I grew up. We were also coming from middle-class (what my mom would call lower-upper-middle) households and were basically playing around in the world before we started college: young, white, and good-looking. There was nothing middle class about this new neighborhood.
I didn't realize when we moved in, but after having lived there for about a week, I realized that the street was running a pretty efficient drug selling operation, crack to be specific. Cars, usually from KY, would get off I-471 and take the Liberty Street exit, which puts you right at the mouth of 13th. Cars would stop at the top of the block to give someone money, stop toward the middle to get the drugs, and then turn left to get back onto the expressway.
It was usually a very smooth operation. The older man who was in charge of the whole thing ran the whole street. He really liked us. His great-grand kids were adorable and they'd hang out on the stone wall by our house, and I'd read to them. I didn't realize how "well connected" my little friends were initially, but I learned soon enough, and it afforded us a protected status.
I was self-congratulatory at how well I was fitting in. And looking back, I have no idea what I was thinking. Maybe because people were nice. I worked at the coffee house down a few blocks on Main St., so I was a familiar face in the neighborhood.
I was able to drive to the grocery. We did our laundry for free in the suburbs, lived in a beautiful rehabbed two-family while most people on the street lived in cramped apartments in mid-sized apartment buildings. Not once did I invite anyone into my home nor was invited to someone else's. None of this dawned on me then. I just thought about how well I was getting along.
Other kids would ask me if I was the "Big Sister," from the Big Brother program when I'd walk down the street with the kids I read to. I still didn't get it. In fact, worse than "not getting it," it probably added an obnoxious false-feather to my moral superiority cap.
There was finally a crack that let some light into my awareness that this world was significantly different from mine in a way that was more than just laundromats and buses.
Two little boys were playing on the sidewalk when one of them hauled off and knocked the other with a closed fist. The little guy that got hit crumpled into tears. I almost went to go tell the offender to stop and apologize until I saw that there was a mom outside. The crying little boy went to his mom and hugged her legs and cried, "he hit me!"
"You hit him back," she yelled angrily.
She was livid. I was appalled. Well, no wonder there are drugs and crime all over this litter-covered neighborhood, I thought indignantly. Terrible parenting, terrible!
It was an absolutely beautiful morning. I bet I could get a near date because it was right after the "Dancing Baby" episode of "Alley McBeal," a show I never did watch. But everybody was talking about it.
The crying boy was replaced in my attention by my consideration of the dancing baby and how I thought it was weird. Or maybe it was in there right before, but my thoughts of the boy blew by as quickly as the cumulous clouds that sunny late-morning.
A few months later, I was sitting on the couch when I heard all at once, tires squealing, shouting, and then a sickening crack and a thud. I spun around on the couch and looked outside to see a man lying on the sidewalk and a car just past him trying to drive away. But there were people from the end of the block, people I had not noticed before, who were not going to let that happen.
I called the police, and they got there fast. The people from Kentucky were arrested, and the man on the sidewalk was taken away in an ambulance with a broken femur, or at least that is what his mangled leg would indicate. And later I went out to sweep away the glass and rinse off the bloody sidewalk.
The kids didn't hang out as much anymore after that. They'd be nice and wave in the street. So would their great-grandpa. I felt the new distance. I had called the police. I did not understand that place at all.
The boy's mom knew. She knew what her son would be living with the next 10 years or so, and she loves her son. She wants him to be ready and know what to do and how to act in a way that will keep him alive and help him swim to the top. She wants to keep him breathing.