The Canyon

Scenes from the Scott Homes -- the mamas, the kids, the babies, the fight for dignity, the pall of despair

"I need to save me some money," she told Doris. "For the move."
Doris lived two units down. She received no Social Security, only food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Her apartment was empty of furniture, and she didn't have a phone. Her electricity and hot water were on and off, which meant that her twelve-year-old, Moses, didn't bathe as much as he should, which had helped contribute to problems in school. Moses's older brother had given up on school. He slept through the scorch of the day and went out at night. Her only daughter had attached herself to one of Doris's sisters a few years ago and left Scott.

Doris had a wandering eye and bubble lips and spoke in a kind of foul-tempered gurgle, as if her cheeks were stuffed with sourballs. She suffered from what she majestically referred to as "pressure," meaning high blood pressure, which did not stop her from smoking or inhaling a steady stream of junk food. Her thoughts and actions were marked by a jealousy directly related to her lack of money.

"How you supposed to save when they don't give you shit?" she said.
Tammy's portable rang, and after a while she took it from her lap.
"Who this is?" she demanded. "Mikey, come get this phone!"

Her fourteen-year-old came clunking down the stairs. Three small figures hovered behind him.

According to Tammy, her three youngest children were hyperactive, and she dealt with this by keeping them upstairs with Mikey assigned to watch them. For weeks Jacqui, who lived directly across from Tammy, didn't know these boys existed, until one day Mikey fell asleep and they sneaked downstairs and over to her place, where they knocked over everything within reach.

Now they were cautiously descending, their feet whispering on the dull linoleum. Tammy squinted through the screen. "You don't think I see you?"

The boys stumbled back upstairs to watch TV and to play a video game called Mortal Kombat, in which the winner of a street fight gets to tear the loser's heart out.

"It ain't fair that HUD punish parents for what they kids do," Tammy said. "It's not like we out there encouragin' them. I been out to that corner where Sherwood stand at, and I told him, 'What you doin' here? You know they sellin' drugs out here.' But I got four little kids to raise. I can't have HUD treatin' me like no kid."

Tammy chewed on her wing dreamily. "Georgia," she said. "Georgia."
Democracy, Part 1
On the day Metro Commissioner James Burke visited Scott, a fleet of folding chairs materialized on the scarred asphalt outside Ruby's door. Workers dispatched by county HUD were on hand to damage-control the event, to translate the native grief into manageable complaints, which could be nodded at, and talked around, and otherwise dispensed.

Presently a clutch of handlers arrived, yapping into cell phones. Shielded from an inhospitable sun, the residents watched from porches. A few plopped onto seats, mamas mostly, slapping their clutchy children silent and waiting to see what would happen. Tammy was there, grinning under new cornrows, and Doris.

Burke appeared, not in a suit as might have been expected, but a guayabera. A thick man with a salesman's smile and large sunglasses, he expressed himself in doubtful gusts while the residents arched their eyebrows and struggled to undo the painful knots of his rhetoric.

"We all are out here, here in Scott, to sort of discuss some of the issues and so forth that for you people as living come up in a certain context of concern for you and your children, and all of us, here in Scott."

The primary issue, for the residents, anyway, concerned the fences around their front yards, which county HUD wanted to remove in an effort to inspire a sense of community, and which the residents wanted to retain, in an effort to protect their property. This was a matter over which Burke held little to no sway.

He was more interested in discussing the teenage curfew law he had sponsored to much public hurrah, a measure to keep youngsters -- the men-children of Scott, basically -- from roaming the streets in search of tourists: That one most famous corpse, the innocent German mother, had been struck down a dozen blocks from where Burke now stood, hands clasped upon his paunch.

The assembled mamas, janitors of the violent young, fighting handguns with slaps to the head, said little, said nothing. Until rose from her seat one young mama with two babies and thighs spilling from her shorts. She clutched a piece of binder paper penciled with loopy letters, wrinkled by re-examination and the errant belief in democracy, and rehearsed at home in front of a fallen mirror in the hallway.

"We are all here and we want to have our own homes and feel like we ourselves has some dignity." She read on in awkward flourishes, like a stage-frightened actress. Burke, sensing a revisitation of the fence issue, thumped his belly impatiently, until one of his aides interrupted and a cellular phone rang and the meeting fell in upon itself, the young mama staring at her toes while those on their porches laughed gently.

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