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

"Which house is selling the drugs?" I asked, already fantasizing about organizing the community and taking back the neighborhood. She shifted her gaze to look at me for the first time. "Keep your eyes open," she advised. "You'll figure it out."

Back at the house, I stood in the second bedroom, surveying boxes and piles of clothing. Suddenly a young man leapt into the neighbor's yard. A sly smile on his face, he pressed his body against the peeling white door at the back of their house and rapped on the wood. Nothing happened. He lunged from the door to the chainlink fence bordering our property and jumped over, his foot resting for a moment in the depression created by many feet fleeing before him. He rattled the steel door at the back of our house, ran through our yard, then leapt the opposite fence into Anthony and Claire's lot. From there he jumped over their back fence into the enormous dirt parking lot surrounding the abandoned apartment building behind us and ran down the street.

That was the first of 42 days we spent in the pink house, and the first of many days when we would see strangers making their way to the back door of the house next door. One morning we saw the chubby brown girl knock, wait, and then disappear around the other side of that house. On other mornings and evenings, the coughing woman would stand there knocking, before making her way to the other side. Sometimes we would see street celebrities, like the tall white woman with a crew cut, sinewy muscles, and a sunken chest who panhandles most afternoons on the corner of Biscayne Boulevard and 79th Street. She holds up a sign on the street corner, asking for money to feed her seven children, but we never saw any kids with her in our neighborhood. Then there was the old white man with long natty hair and a gray beard who rolls his shopping cart up and down the Boulevard, collecting cans. Some nights he would sleep behind the vacant house two doors down. Other nights he slept inside the broken-down car on the elderly couple's lot, catty-corner from us. Every once in a while, the old man would hobble along the chainlink fence and stand expectantly at the neighbor's back door. No matter who knocked, the door never opened.

Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Photos by Steve Satterwhite

Two dogs were tied up in front of the back-door house, but they only barked at taunting children. The guard dogs whimpered whenever we approached, begging for affection. Tied at opposite sides of the yard, they could not even reach each other for consolation, so they desperately offered their heads to be patted by the long line of characters that filed past. The dogs had long since scratched away the grass out front, and Dwayne, the man who lived in the house, could sometimes be seen scooping up the prodigious poop they left behind. He would dump the poop into a shallow ditch between his house and ours. Flies swirled around the shit pit, further nurtured by the discards of the homeless, hookers, dealers, and neighbor kids.

An unassuming man in his thirties, Dwayne otherwise was not much in the street. With droopy eyes and a low-slung paunch, he did not look particularly tough or prosperous. Whenever I approached him, to ask which day recycling came or how much water and sewage cost, he answered with a pained look. He lived with a woman five or so years younger, whose two little children who would waddle behind her in a line like ducklings. The entire family would weave past the vintage muscle cars parked on trailers in front of their house and climb into the oversize glossy pickup with racing stripes that Dwayne would wedge alongside the cars. None of the vehicles, not even the truck, had license plates.

The prostitutes who work Biscayne Boulevard would walk jerkily along 54th Street to our street from early morning through late night. Most were white women with straggly hair who wore threadbare Lycra workout wear. Overstimulated by crack cocaine or jonesing for it, they made for a bizarre circus parade. They walked shakily with their shoulders pinched together, their chests jutting out, arms flailing wildly above their heads. In high times the coughing woman would lead a gaggle of young black men, trailing braids, dreadlocks, and bandannas behind them.

The prettier young women would arrive in cars, dropped off by white, black, and Latino men. They would then file into the back yard of the house next door or head to the vacant house around the corner. When they finished there, they would sit on a low brick wall that runs along one corner, hanging with the young drug runners and homeless hangers-on, like my tour guide Charles, until the men in cars returned to pick them up. Sometimes they would pass the time buying sweets, gum, or cigarettes at the informal convenience store a Haitian woman had set up on a folding table on her front lawn on the next block.

Not many of the men and women who came to the street looking for drugs lived in the neighborhood. Apart from Dwayne, few of the neighbors sold drugs either. In spite of the bustling trade, the majority of our neighbors held legitimate jobs, took their kids to school during the week, and went to church Sunday morning. Anthony worked in a hospital, and Claire cooked part-time at a Haitian restaurant. Her ten-year-old son played under the tree in his front yard with two little boys from the duplex across the street. Their father was an evangelical minister, and every Sunday a van stopped at their house to pick up the family and returned to drop them off again. Sharing the duplex was a retired woman with a grown son. He often was visited by the most striking woman on the block. A cinnamon-skinned beauty from Haiti, she came to call wearing a long black linen dress cinched at the waist, with a puff at each shoulder. Making her way past the women in spandex with runny mascara, she held her head high and elbows bent, carrying her Bible aloft.

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