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Just Enough For The Inner City

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I don’t live in the worst neighborhood in the world, but I do live along the edge of a gang-ridden, inner city ‘hood. Crime and the forces that are supposed to keep them under control here are so dysfunctional — and have been for a long time — that the Federal government is slated to take over management of the Oakland Police Department any day now.

Since I moved here some 3+ years ago I’ve complained non-stop—but  then, I’ve always complained. I went from being raised as a 1950s middle class kid, married slightly up, left that life in part for political reasons, and began moving gradually downward ‘til I landed here.  At 66, I won’t be purposely moving any further down if I can help it. Should the Republicans come into full power again I could easily end up homeless–but I’m no longer moving, even subconsciously, in a downward direction. Yes, it’s true: the long slide down was in large part intentional.

I wanted to experience life, and since I couldn’t afford to experience the high life I went for the low. I wanted to learn things, and that I have. Problem is, when things get tough I forget that I chose the road less traveled, so I whine and blame the political structure for how hard my life is. Glimpsing the truth means I’ve stopped resisting it. You cannot learn when you’re resisting. Doris Lessing says you  learn nothing until you work through “what you’re landed with.” I think it’s the same sort of idea.

And I’m learning–have been learning all this time—the way poverty can be a central and integrated part of a human being, whether one is born or grows into it. I’m not observing or reading about it either: I’m learning it on a cellular level.

My neighbors complain about the smallest thing anyone does that might infringe the least little bit on their mental or physical space. “When you ain’t got nuthin’ you got nuthin’ to lose” seems to be a truth they resist, refusing to admit they have nothing to lose anymore. Neighbors yell at me when I let out a cheer during a ball game. They shout insults through the open windows if I sing a song while cooking dinner. I can’t shake out my dust mop: from one window the dust allegedly flies into the apartment under mine; on the fire escape it hits the allegedly “clean” cars in the parking lot; and the hall window overlooks a narrow alley shared with the building next door, whose residents told me to stop dirtying their space. We’re talking about dust on a mop, floating up towards the sky, drifting over sidewalks full of candy wrappers, cigarette butts, and used condoms. Turf. Doesn’t matter if it’s dirty, it’s still someone’s turf.

When a person outside the train station asks me for 63 cents exactly, just 63 cents to get them on the train, I no longer dismiss it as a cock-and-bull story: I have occasionally needed 63 cents—or 26, or 85–for bus fare to reach my bank so I can withdraw from the Social Security check just deposited that morning, buy a little food and a ride home, maybe even a cuppa coffee.

The inferior health care and the lifestyle that brings greater health problems is more than political theory. I had COPD for five years without it worsening in the least, until I moved here, lived and walked every day on hot dusty streets that have very few trees, near the freeway overpass I cross on my way to the nearest dumpy, ill-equipped—but cheap—supermarket. Four months after quitting smoking my breath still hasn’t rebounded, what with my lungs inhaling vehicle smoke on normally hot days and fireplace smoke on cooler Bad Air Days. I did a little research and found out how to get the city to plant more trees in a ‘hood—individual homeowners must agree to care for a tree planted in front of their house, and I just can’t imagine the homeowners around here going for it.  I mean, if residents leave plastic bags full of old clothes piled up on sidewalks and in yards for weeks, are they going to promise to water trees on schedule? Besides, the information flyers would have to be in too many languages—Spanish of course, but also several different Asian dialects. I tried telling someone who was planting flowers in her yard about the trees—but she didn’t understand English, or even want to try. Am I being racist? I ask myself anxiously …

Hell, I can’t stand to live on this friggin’ planet any longer, much less in my own damn neighborhood!

But if I weren’t here I’d miss Marc Maron…


While I’m here spewing I’m reminding myself of Mark Maron…If you’ve never heard his podcast WTF, I envy you madly: you’re in for a world-class treat. Maron’s a standup comic in his late 40’s who’s apparently been searching for years to find his niche, and a couple of years ago he did. Twice a week he interviews quirky or famous or talented or lunatic people, most of them comics but sometimes singers or writers, mostly not famous but sometimes as big as Jimmy Fallon or Robin Williams.

The big appeal though isn’t the interview subjects; it’s Maron himself. This is a comic who doesn’t “tell jokes” but who raps, mostly about himself, with little plan or foresight, digging and scratching until he reaches universal truths. I am not too embarrassed to admit I’m in love with him—unfortunately he’s in a committed relationship (his third) and I’m too old for him anyway. I’m sure most of his listeners, both men and women, feel the same. It’s because we feel so connected to him: you can’t help it, when someone places his finger exactly on that spot that aches so badly, that place that’s been longing for a human touch, and he pushes and twists until pain floods your consciousness, much the way a masseur hits a sore and knotted muscle and kneads it smooth. That’s the way Maron operates: he’s a genius. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and/or visit the website at WTF .

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