Tales of the Hood

When our intrepid reporter moved into a house on the wrong side of the tracks, the ghetto came knocking, night after night

The day we moved into our new house in Little Haiti, a thin white woman with sallow skin walked along the sidewalk past our gate, head bowed and shoulders hunched, coughing as she passed. A white man in an expensive car had dropped her off and then driven out of sight. She was almost pretty, her features drawn, her expression worn. Her wispy hair was tied in a loose ponytail at the nape of her neck. "Sorry," she said after she coughed, without looking up, in a voice that was barely audible.

We were making the move in our compact cars, driving back and forth across the 79th Street Causeway with futons and chairs poking out of the windows. On one of the last runs, my partner arrived before I did. When I pulled up, he rushed to the curb. "Call 911," he yelled. "There are two prostitutes smoking crack on our back porch."

As I dialed the police on my cell phone, the coughing woman emerged from behind our house. She was upright now, her face lit by a defiant smile. "What are you doing?" my partner demanded. "Nothing," she shot back, her mild manner transformed into superhero bravado. Behind her followed an African-American woman in her late thirties. Knots of short hair stood up on her head, and the Mickey Mouse T-shirt she wore hung down to her knees. As I tried to convince an officer to send a patrol car, my partner trailed the two women out of our yard, threatening them with the things that he would do if he ever found them on our property again. The coughing woman laughed and strutted down the street. The woman in the Mickey Mouse shirt stood in front of me on the sidewalk, calmly insisting that she had not been smoking crack. "It was the other two," she said, referring to her companion and some man we had not seen. "I had to follow them because they stole my bag."

Steve Satterwhite

She explained that thieves routinely leap the fence into our yard and then leap out again on the other side with stolen goods. "I had to follow them," she repeated in English and then in a Spanish that sounded neither Latin nor Anglo. "My parents came from Aruba," she offered, ignoring my partner's yelling as though we were chatting at a cocktail party. Her tale told, she walked away.

Overhearing this exchange, the officer on the phone asked if we still needed help. When I pleaded, she told me in a tone used to indulge spoiled children that she would send a cruiser over shortly. We carried furniture and boxes from the cars to the house while we waited, pausing now and then to talk to our new neighbor Anthony and his wife, Claire (not their real names; all names in this story have been changed to protect identities). "That woman is always back there," said Claire. "We've been telling her to stay out." Her husband added: "Drugs is not all they do back there. People have no respect for themselves. We're glad you're here."

A police car arrived as we carried the last load into the house. I told the officer about the two women, and he explained how I could file a report that would allow police to arrest anyone on our property, even when we were not there to file a complaint. "There has to be a victim for there to be a crime," he said. With a report on file, we would be prefab victims. "Every patrol car will pass by three times every shift," he said reassuringly. After filing our complaint at the Liberty City NET (Neighborhood Enhancement Team) office, we stopped at the local Walgreen's to buy the "No Trespassing" sign the officer suggested. Putting the sign into a brown paper bag, the cashier observed, "I don't think anyone pays any attention to these."

We did not want to believe her. We loved our new little house, and we wanted to stay there.

I first saw the house on the way home from my Haitian Kreyol class. I pulled over to take a better look at the "For Sale" sign strapped to the chainlink fence: two bedrooms, large bath, brand-new kitchen, all for only $800 down. I called the number on the sign and waited for the owner to show me the property. Bright pink with an almost perfectly square façade, the tiny structure looked like a confection. A single palm tree arched over the trim front yard. Tidy steps led to a sea-blue door. Leaning over the handrails on the front landing, I could peer through the windows into the narrow living room: white walls, white tile floor. The windows along the side of the house were too high for me to see inside, even as I jumped and tried to pull myself up by the iron security bars.

As I hung, feet dangling from the bars, an amiable African-American man in his late twenties approached. Introducing himself as Charles, he offered to give me a tour of the grounds while I waited. "I'm showing her the back yard," Charles said to an older African-American man who had just opened his screen door one house down. "Well, you oughta know," said the man warily. "You spend enough time back there."

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