“Late August was always characterized by an increase in anxiety for young Afrocity.”
August symbolically heralded the end of summer. I did not care if the autumnal equinox was not until September 21, for most adolescents summer was over the day one returned to school.
Summer is something of a mixed blessing when you are living in squalor.
Summer represents days of relaxation, sunshine, time with mother, more television, waking up at the crack of noon with nothing to do but live. The darker side of summer also marked the beginning of days cooped up in an un-air conditioned bedroom with no running water or stove. Meals were served straight from the can or cooked on our Sunbeam electric hot plate.
It was 1982. My place of residence was 637 N. Central Avenue in Chicago’s Austin community. It was my uncle’s 6,000 square foot, four-story Victorian home. Large, painted white, with shingles, gorgeous wood work, crown moldings. Despite being run down, the house had its charms. There was a porch swing in desperate need of a paint job which could still swing but scratched the bottom your thighs with chipped paint and splinters if you wore shorts. A steeple roof was a round shaped room and had tiny windows all around it. My uncle purchased the home during the early 1970’s from an aging marijuana addicted hippie, the son of a wealthy man who never quite aspired to the same ambitions as his father. The hippie had turned the home into something of a boarding house which was quite understandable because it had 10 bedrooms.
Neglect made the home far too heavy of a burden for the hippie. The neighborhood was also getting darker by the year. My uncle got the fixer-upper for a song. Always a work in progress, the home would get sporadic attention. A kitchen updated here and there, a wall painted, a floor sanded. After some time my uncle’s wife who was blond and very Polish American wanted to return to her own neighborhood and the comfort of her parents. They would move, leaving the home to a starving artist named Al, their dog Gypsy, and my alcoholic uncle.
It was with passive obedience that I followed my mother to 637 N. Central after being homeless for 3 months. There was little doubt that it was better than living in the homeless shelters and depending upon the kindness and quirkiness of strangers. However, from my perspective it was free, dirty and a place where my mother could become too comfortable (lazy).
“How long will we be staying this time?” I asked her. I needed to ask because I never knew exactly where I would be from month to month.
My two shopping bags filled with my belongings were sitting in a corner of this bedroom. The room had two windows, smelled moldy and had cob webs. The floor was wood but looked like dirt from all of the dust. Noticeable was the absence of a bed.
“Until I get back on my feet,” she answered.
(Great that means never) “Can we find an apartment in Oak Park (Illinois) like before? I don’t understand why we can’t Ronnie found a place for her kids and she was homeless like us.”
“Ronnie” was a woman that mother and I had met at the homeless shelter. She was a battered wife with two kids who escaped from her husband in the middle of the night. Leaving all of her possessions behind. She boarded a Greyhound bus to Chicago. Her family wired her money from Arkansas to place a deposit on an apartment and start a new life. Within record time, Ronnie secured a job as a waitress and was out of the shelter in three weeks. Ronnie, was a different kind of mother. Not better, just different. Mother and I would never be so lucky.
“I can’t find a place without a job or co-signer you know that. We can stay here just fine. Your uncle says there is a used mattress emporium on Chicago Ave., we will get something there to sleep on. I need a place to think and rest. I could not do that in the shelter with all those chores and bible classes they made us go to.”
I needed her to focus. Her clear mental state was imperative to my survival. Lately, she had not been responsive to my pleas to find a job.
Her actions were suddenly marked by a certain lack of domesticity. She no longer washed my clothing, or cared about my meals –which concerned me. The homeless shelter gave me three squares a day Now I was worried about going hungry now that we were on our own again.
Considering that I had to steal to feed us in Oak Park before we became homeless, mother lapsing into the deep state of depression which got us here in the first place would not be beyond the pale of her normal behavior.
“What will we do for water?” I asked.
The pipes had frozen and burst the winter before.
“We will have to buy it in jugs, I guess.”
She shrugged her shoulders.
This movement denoted that she was “winging it”. “We can flush the toilet with water.”
Oh, I had not thought of that. I was only 12.
It was difficult to understand her mood. She almost seemed happy and that was a good change. Her attitude must have caught on. I began to understand but I needed her to understand me as well. I did not want to ever attend a Chicago Public School. As a “CPS” virgin, my peers would smell me out like fresh meat in the dessert.
“Promise me we will be out of here in time for me to start school…Okay?”
She looked guilty and only nodded.
It was not a lie if “Okay Afrocity” was never uttered from her lips.
And it was a lie.
Within a few weeks time, mother would enroll me in the Chicago Public School system for the first time.
I would remain in that Victorian home on Central Ave. for nearly 5 years.
My menstrual period would start there, my breasts would grow there and my self-esteem would end there.
That house watched me put on makeup for the first time, attend high school and would hear my nighttime tears more than any other,
Dusting off her jeans which were two sizes too big because they were given to her by the shelter, mother went to leave the room. “You know this is not permanent, right? Someday we will look back on this and laugh.”
“I know,” I said lowly, resigned. She lied to me again. I would never look back and laugh.
Sighing, I sat down on the floor. There was nothing I could do but make the best of this. At least there were no roaches, only silverfish from what I could see. No curfews like at the shelter. I took a small green Gideon bible out of my shopping bag. The shelter had given it to me. It only contained the New Testament and books of Psalms and Proverbs. I read Psalms 23 as mother found a broom from the basement and began to clean. Her thick black hair had become nappy from the summer sweat so she hid it under a red bandanna. The dust made her take the bandanna from her head and tie it around my mouth and nose. She did not want me to get the sneezes. Adjacent to my left was a closet door with a full length splotchy mirror. I looked like a bandit.
“I’m the bible thumping bandit,” I laughed. It would be the day’s only humorist dialogue and our collective sanity clung to that one God given moment.
Autographed Letter Signed,