Sunday, February 10, 2008

the pink palace


i wrote another story about my youth. since i barely ever post any more, ill post it here. it was hastily written, but whatever, beggers cant be choosers. its long [for a blog post], so be warned. i shoehorned in the ending, for no other reason than to say i "shoehorned" something.

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We had a typical San Francisco apartment, a railroad flat on the top floor of a four-story walk up. It was mainly a long hallway with two large rooms as bookends and a kitchen attached to the back one. This was on Oak in between Fillmore and Webster and of all the apartments I lived in with my mom, this one we stayed at the longest. Oak Street was a thoroughfare that, just a few blocks from my house, bled onto an entrance for the Bay Bridge, so there was always traffic roaring down it. Because of this, Oak wasn’t the ideal place for kids to play, so we would go around the corner to Page street when our parents wanted us out of the house

Page street was quieter than Oak. Instead of stoplights it had stop signs and the cars came one at a time instead of in herds. It was also flat, instead of on a hill, and it was there we would start up games of touch football and hide and seek and, when it was all the rage, lay down cardboard and have breakdance contest. Except for me and my best friend Dion, most of the kids we knew lived on Page street, either in flats similar to ours or in the projects, which overwhelmed the block in between Webster and Buchannan. Our parents called them The Pink Palace, because of the ironic color the tenements were painted, but us kids simply called them the Projects. From the outside, there was nothing palatial about them.

Most of the kids we knew from the projects seemed to have other agendas, and it wasn’t often they play with us. This could have been a result of our own prejudices, when we did play with kids from the projects, we were visibly anxious. Project kids carried and air of violence with them, and it wasn’t uncommon for a fight to break out when they were around or for a ball or toy to come up missing when the day was coming to a close. When playing with project kids, we would brace ourselves for a loss in one way or another, but we still played with them. Just not in the projects.

These particular projects though, were rather kind in architecture. They weren’t the normal high-rise buildings with dark stairwells and broken elevators. They were a small maze of two story structures, with a large, open entrance, as if you were entering not low income housing, but an exclusive campus of private residencies, covered in graffiti and always buzzing with movement. It was never quiet or still there, at any given time of day there were men holding brown paper bags, leaning on the guardrails or girls huddled in groups barking loudly, playing with their hair. Someone was always running from one place to another, chasing something or escaping from something else. Kids of all ages paraded around 24 hours a day. It seemed they lived by a different set of laws than us.

When I met Harold I would have never guessed he lived in the projects if Dion hadn’t told me, and even then, it seemed hard to believe. Harold was our age, nine or possibly ten, and had a soft, kind demeanor about him. There was no edge of danger to his movements, no hint of threat in his tone, He had a gentle set of eyes and the corners of his mouth were perpetually on the brink of a smile. He had good hands when we played football and when he knocked me down and I scraped my elbow he helped me up and, with genuine concern, asked if I was alright. He had a younger brother that he helped his parents take care of, and when we all started making fun of each other, even delving into the forbidden territory of parental insults, he didn’t get angry or ashamed, he just rolled with the slander, laughing along with the rest of us. Harold was a nice guy. He didn’t, as most kids from the projects did, approach us as if he had a chip on his shoulder. So when he invited me and Dion to his house to ask his mother if he could stay out a little later than usual, we had no problem tagging along.

I didn’t go into the projects much. There was a sense of encroachment involved every time I did. If you did not live in the projects, there was little reason to be there. Everyone knew everyone else and unfamiliar faces were suspect, even the young ones. But walking through the large entrance that day, watching the residents eyes fall upon me as we made our way past the half dead shrubbery and overflowing trashcans, I felt comfortable and unafraid. We had been invited, we almost belonged. Harold led us to his apartment and when we got to his door instead of using a key to enter or a doorbell to alert his mom to our presence, he simply hollered through the window until someone came to let us in.

What I saw when the door opened completely bowled me over. Nothing could have prepared me for it. The interior was large, there must have been three good sized bedrooms and a living room double the size of mine. The furniture not only looked in good shape, but it matched in pattern and aside from the L shaped couch in front of the large television, there was a huge chair off to the side that not only rocked, but reclined as well. On top of the TV was a VCR, and on top of that a cable box. In the kitchen, which extended out from the living room, was an open cupboard and in it were boxes of brand name food. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Skippy Peanut Butter. Actual Honey Nut Cheerios. I couldn’t believe it, I had been under the impression that people in the projects lived poor, spare, unruly lives. Harold lived like a prince, this was a palace

On the way home that evening I made a list of the pros and cons of living in the projects. Pro: The apartments were good size. Con: They were in the projects. Pro: The cheaper rent clearly allowed for you to enjoy the luxuries that middle class families afforded, like cable TV and brand name cereal. Con: You would have to live in the projects. Pro: if you lived in the projects you were part of the projects, like being part of some exclusive club where food stamps held no shame and all other members shared the same history. Con: if you lived in the projects, you lived in the projects. After mulling it over I settled it in my head: I wanted to live in the Page Street Projects, it was cheaper, in the same neighborhood, and ironically enough, somewhat safer than not living in them.

That night I proposed my plan to my mother. Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t too keen on the idea. I pleaded with her, trying to explain how, financially, we would be much better off. As it was we lived in a decent apartment, but our quality of life was below that of those in the projects. Our furniture was tattered and ratty, our food was generic and there was barely ever enough of it, our television was black and white and the reception it got was spotty at best. Our house was a mess and if we moved to the projects, I argued, we could live like royalty. My mother was, justifiably, appalled at my suggestion, and didn’t even put up much of a fight. She just let me plea my case and then, with a stern finality in her voice, assured me that never, ever, under any circumstances, would we be moving to the Pink Palace.

The next day I told Dion of my failed attempts at convincing my mother to move us into the projects. He sympathized with me but I think he found the idea as absurd as my mother had. Still curious though, I wondered how one went about moving there and later that day, asked Harold how he came to live in such majestic circumstances.

“My mother already lived there,” he explained, “I moved down here from my aunts house in Fresno.”

I didn’t ask him why he would move to the projects in the city from a house in the suburbs. Even though his project apartment seemed regal on the inside, I couldn’t imagine that it was better than living on a safe, quiet, tree lined street in the suburbs. Harold seemed a little shy though, and I was familiar with the shame of having to explain how one came to be where they were, so I let the subject go. But my curiosity was still burning later that day, and while playing video games in his living room, I asked Dion if he knew why Harold moved from Fresno.

“He had to leave,” Dion said.

“Why?”

“He cut off somebody’s arm.”

“What?” I gasped. There are some things that, when you hear them, don’t quite register right. Information that seems so unbelievable that you have to hear it twice just to make sure you heard the right thing, and even then, you don’t trust its true.

“Yeah,” he said, “somebody was messing with his brother so he got a knife and cut off his arm. That’s why he had to come down here.” He said all this without any urgency, which to me, was even more alarming. He pulled and pushed at the joystick he was holding, punching buttons the whole time, not even looking up from the screen.

“Did he kill him?” I asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.

“I don’t know,” he said, “I think he just cut off his arm.”

I didn’t want to discuss it more after that. I had known a lot of kids to do a lot of criminal things, but nothing as brutal and violent as severing a limb. That was something that you saw in movies, our watched about on the news, or heard about in whispers on the schoolyard but never really believed. For some reason, maybe it was because Harold was unnaturally nice, or because I recognized immediately how protective of his brother he was, I knew Dion wasn’t lying or over exaggerating. Harold, after that, was painted with a different brush. We still played football every now and then, and he was still the same nice kid, but he had a secret I knew, something private I was afraid of. My desire to move into the projects waned almost immediately. My mother was right, it wasn’t a good idea.

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:gray matters: by jkg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at downtownalleys.blogspot.com.