Lost In The Ghetto
I had to go somewhere today that I don’t usually go. Unfortunately, this place happened to be downtown. I wasn’t so worried about that until I got lost.
I am Queen at getting lost. Really, really lost. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I can follow directions extraordinarily well. The trouble is that the roads don’t always match the directions. I mean, I can’t even count the number of times I have been given really good directions to getting somewhere unfamiliar only to find halfway there that one of the main roads I’ve been directed to take is under construction or has, for one reason (or a thousand), been “detoured.” I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been given really good directions to some new, unfamiliar place only to get halfway there before reaching a complete stand-still on the interstate and deciding to try and be “smart” by getting off an exit other than that which I was directed to so that I could “find a different route.” I’ve lived in this town on and off my entire life—some 32 odd years–and I surprise myself at all the places to which I can get to unaided. I really do. I find myself surprised whenever I successfully manage to reach a new destination, no matter with how familiar the area in which the destination sits I am, because I am the Queen at getting lost. Really. No one gets lost as well as I do. Even in a town I’ve known–and driven–my whole life, I manage to somehow get lost. I mean, I am so good at getting lost that I even created a game called Lost that I play with my girls in the car when I am feeling brave. You see, once, we were lost (like normal), and my little ones were getting scared because Mommy didn’t know where in the world we were. So, to calm their fears, I spontaneously said: “Let’s play a game called Lost. Okay? When I get to this red light up here, Breathe, you’re going to tell me which way to turn. Then, when we get to another red light, or a stop sign, Alight, it will be your turn to tell me which way to go. We’ll keep it up until we get really, really lost.”
“How will we get back?” My oh-so-smart three year old (at the time) asked.
“Easy peesy. We’ll stop somewhere and ask for directions.”
So, we did. And it was lots of fun. We made getting lost fun. Because we already were lost. People, that’s how good I am at getting lost. Don’t get me wrong—if I can find an interstate, then I get back home, because my mother told me once upon a time when I first started driving that I-440 makes a really big loop. You can get on I-440 and, if you just keep staying on 4-40, you will eventually find an exit you know. I’m at home on the interstate—perfectly comfortable. The trouble happens when I am not on the interstate. I mean, in downtown Nashville, you can take one wrong turn and then find yourself facing a whole bunch of “one way” streets until you are truly lost. My sister is a geographical wizard. She can tell where we are no matter where we are. She has an innate sense of direction. Like I said, she is a wizard. I am not. So I get lost. It is a running joke in my family that, twenty percent of the time when I call my sister, it is so that she can help get me un-lost. One other thing: whenever I get lost, I usually wound up travelling through the very heart of the ghetto. Not just a bad part of town but the very heart and soul of the ghetto, the kind of place that gives you the heebie jeebies just driving through in broad daylight. Yeah, that would be where I usually wind up.
Hey, guess what?
I got lost today.
Hey, guess what?
I wound up in the heart and soul of the ghetto today.
This post is about the lessons I learned during that twenty-thirty minute time. It’s easier to do this via the thoughts that ran through my head as they ran through my head. I’ll explain it later. I usually don’t try to jot down exactly what I’m thinking, because it scares people, but since I know that nothing is scarier than what I did while in the ghetto, I’m going to go ahead and jot them down. This is what I was thinking.
Oh maaaan, that’s the ghetto coming up. Just over that bridge is the ghetto. I can’t go over that bridge.
Darn, that was the last side street to turn around. I have to go over the bridge. Darn.
Ding. Uh-oh, that’s the gas alarm. I forgot to put gas in again. Triple darn. Oh, please Lord, let me get out of the ghetto. The ghetto! I’m here! I’m back! Funny, I’ve been through these streets so many times in my adult life it should feel like home. But it doesn’t. No, no it definitely doesn’t. Wonder if this is where Julia Roberts would have been hanging out at? At night, of course. I wouldn’t see any “Pretty Woman” out during the day time. I’m glad it’s daylight right now. Oh, look at that rainbow colored, abandoned bus. What’s it say? “Free! Call us (insert name of bail bondsman) at (insert phone number) and you’ll be free, free at last!” Oh good. Bail bondsman. I bet that’s here because lots of people here need bail bondsman; I mean, it’s gotta be so, right, cause we don’t have those advertisements around home. Shoot. I have GOT to get GAS, or I’m going to run out and then I’m going to have to walk. Alone. In the ghetto. Must. Get. GAS. Oh, that apartment building has bars on it. I wonder why. No, no actually, I don’t really want to know. What was that story I just read about somebody getting paralyzed from the waist down and nearly dying the other day from gang related violence—didn’t that happen on — THAT street! It happened on THAT street, the one I am just now passing. Oh, please, please Lord, get me out of here. GAS STATION!!!!!!! I pull in, and my heart is racing the entire time. Lovely. There are bars on this store too. I wonder how many times they’ve been robbed at gunpoint? I walk in. As I do so, I hear the checkout lady say to this girl with whom she was conversing: “I know, honey, I mean, you know what I say? I say the name of the game is survival.” I feel my heart stop, and the breath get absolutely knocked out of the lungs for a good five seconds before I feel air refilling them again. The cashier lady calls me sweetie, takes my money and I walk out of the barred gas station. I pump my gas, every few seconds looking around me, consciously, because last night I watched this story on I Survived where a lady was at a payphone at a gas station (probably in the ghetto) and got blindsided by a man who first raped, then attempted to kill, her. I ignore the whistles and I studiously avoid looking the guy in the beat up car across from me that keeps watching me in the face. My head is swirling. Finally, I get back in, lock the doors. I start the engine, watch with relief as the gas line goes up significantly, and then stare straight out the windshield without moving. I can’t go anywhere, because I can’t see, because tears are in my eyes.
“I say the name of the game is survival.”
I blink back more tears and make my way out of the gas station. I’m still lost, though, because I forgot to get directions, because I was too busy trying to get out of there. Now, one hand covers my mouth. I pass a ratty-looking red brick building that’s still in business with graffiti-laden sign: “Day Care: 12 Months and up.” Bars cover the windows and doors and much of the outdoor playground that’s required by the state to run a daycare is broken. I jerk my eyes away, shaking my head. But this time, my thoughts are suddenly different.
Mothers have to leave their babies in that place. Probably all day. They have to, because baby food and diapers are expensive, and they have no help. No family, no baby’s daddy, no nothing. Good women probably run that daycare. There were bars on the windows. I shake my head again. The community living space passes me by. Brick buildings, still with bars. A few of the doors are open, I see a few men sitting on plastic picnic-table style chairs in the doorways. I don’t see any children, but I know they are there. I don’t see any teenagers, either, but I know they are there. In a three mile zone, I pass four police officer cars. I’m no longer scared. But my stomach is nauseated, and my heart is breaking. As I drive, I pass a tiny green sign that says: “Downtown” with an area pointing in a certain direction. It will take me to Second Avenue, no doubt, or Broadway, or even twentieth — somewhere away from where I’m at. I put on my blinker to turn and a thought runs through my brain: “Don’t turn a blind eye.”
I deliberately pass the “Downtown” (read: “Safety”) sign.
Safe in my expensive SUV, into which I had just put gasoline, and armed with my iPhone 4s…. all I could think about now were the lives behind the bars. You see… I never lived in the ghetto. But I have been without a home. I’ve never lived in the ghetto. But, when we were kids, we did once stay in a tent on a campsite for about a month, trying to scrape together enough money to get a house. I’ve never lived in a ghetto…. but I have been one step away. I’ve never lived in the ghetto but, because my father was constantly running from them, I did live in fear of the police: indeed, it wasn’t until my daughter was born when I started consciously reminding myself that police officers were good, and that I could rely on them for help. Because, before, the cop car meant hiding and instant fear. I’m not so far removed from my childhood that I can’t remember what that’s like. I doubt I ever will be. Teenagers turn to gangs because no good role models believe in them; they turn to gangs because the illegal money helps their family get food on the table; they turn to gangs because their lives are hidden from the rest of the world, or exploited by Hollywood. There are success stories—but there are dozens more tragic ones. The tragedy doesn’t excuse the violence…. there are many, many people who go up in the ghetto and get out with a strong sense of morale. There are more who live their whole lives in it without resorting to gangs, drugs or violence. The environment does not excuse the behavior. But it does help explain it. And an explanation brings about the opportunity to develop a plan to get those endangered out. I don’t know the answers. But as I drove along today, I came upon an intersection. The sign for the interstate was ahead of me. I knew the way out now. But on the corner of the street was a woman, holding up a homeless sign, smiling and singing, “Hallelu-lu-jah!” She saw me looking at her. Instead of looking away, Joey, the man I am convinced from the depths of my soul was a bonafide angel disguised as a homeless man, came to mind. I smiled at the woman. “There it is!” she said and smiled back. She did not approach my cracked window to ask for money. I nodded. When the light turned green, I pulled over onto the side of the road. I took a deep breath and got out. I spent the next few minutes talking to the woman, who wasn’t sick or delusional, but was instead simply making the best of a really bad situation. I’ve spent my whole life trying to do the same thing. I gave her some money, and the phone number to my church before I left.
I don’t want to get lost in the ghetto again. I probably won’t be taking my children there, by the grace of God. For all intents and purposes, my life doesn’t have to touch theirs. The thing is, though, it already does, because my life mirrors their lives in fundamental ways. They try to safeguard their children. They try to get them clothes and food. They play games. They know how to bounce a ball just like my girls do. They work. They sleep. They cry. Many of them carry the same scars I do. I don’t know if it was work, luck, a combination of the two, or simply the grace of God that has allowed me to grow up and live my whole life on the bright side of that bridge. I don’t know. And, like I said, I don’t know how to fix it. What I do know is what it’s like to be hurting and ignored or, worse, simply overlooked. What I do know is that people are the same, no matter from which side of the bridge they come.
I can try to look away, lose myself in technology and pretend that the things that go on at night on that ghetto street don’t happen in my neighborhood. Except my heart is heavily burdened with the needs of sexually and physically abused children; I know too many statistics–I know that the same evil I fear so blatantly in the ghetto happens behind closed drapes in the most lavish of homes. The only thing that is different is the location. I cannot turn a blind eye to one but help the other. And what I do know for sure is that I can race on by, back to the security and comfort of my home, unaffected. Or I can breathe the fear of unfamiliarity out long enough to chat with a homeless woman who sings “hallelujah” and smiles brighter than I on the side of a busy street in the heart of the ghetto—and drive away with a richer and more meaningful life. So, even though it’s not Thankful Tuesday yet here in my corner of the world, tonight, I am whispering a quiet prayer of thanks that I have been given the chance to share a smile with the woman from the ghetto.