In the mid 1970s my parents, then with two young children and pregnant with me, decided they didn’t want to raise their kids in the homogeneous (read all-white) suburbs. And, for some reason, they thought it a good idea to move into a house two doors down from where my father was helping investigate a murder. My Mom told me that Maw (her Mom) cried and cried about our moving to such a terrible part of town. I can just imagine that conversation!
The house cost $9,000, but the banks had redlined the neighborhood so you couldn’t get a loan for more than $5000 to support any renovations. There was a hole in the floor in the dining room, the one room that was actually lived in, that the sole resident had cut to let the water from the leaky roof drain out. There were no sidewalks. There were no stop signs. And, we had a phone booth in the front yard primarily managed by pimps and prostitutes.
Just a short time into their renovations, my parents saw a young, local reporter named Oprah Winfrey and a camera crew in the park across the street apparently reporting on something for the local news station. Excited and hoping to hear a story about the revitalization starting to happen in this part of the city, they tuned in that night to hear something like this:
“Oprah Winfrey reporting: I am standing here today on the most dangerous street in the city of Nashville. Home to crimes ranging from car theft to drug deals, from simple burglary to cold-blooded murder. Today is no different. At approximately 1 PM in broad daylight, a man was shot to death just down the street from where I am standing. Witnesses say that two men, a middle aged, white man with tattoos on each forearm, a large scar on his cheek and a young black male wearing a black trench coat and black stocking cap began fighting. The young black man pulled a gun and shot the other three times in the chest. The confrontation appears to have been drug related. Police are looking for a black male, age 25-35, last seen wearing a black trench coat and running south on eighth toward the James Cayce Homes.”
Ahh, the same stories we would hear for the next 20 years. At one point, we had to change our route coming home from school because of several murders that had happened along it. We could not drive down the street a block from our home because there were crack houses, prostitution, dangerous vacant lots, and people hanging out in the streets.
At one point during their long process of renovation, for which my Dad actually stopped working (and he provided the primary family income which meant we were also broke), my parents returned to the house after several weeks away to find an extension cord running from our house to the neighbors where it was fueling the window unit air conditioning of a 7 apartment slum, with all the windows open, in 90 degree weather.
Residents of these 7 apartments included a Pentecostal preacher and just across the hall a prostitute.
The man in the house across the street would climb up to his third floor attic window and howl like a wolf at anyone walking down the street.
The nursing home a block behind us was closed, but was full of homeless people, and particularly junkies. Theirs were the needles and bottles I avoided when mowing my yard.
Boots lived in the house on the other side of the alley and spent much of his time walking around the neighborhood.
“Hey Boots!” I shouted as I always did despite never receiving a response.
It was OK. Boots was busy. He walked the street with the focus of a CEO working on a deal. Hammering out details, arguing his point, determined to be heard. His worn khaki left pant leg rolled to the knee, once explained to my Mom as being in preparation for a flood, his Tom Landry-style hat perched carefully on his head, and a worn, white button-up recalling a day when Boots was not so thin and frail. I really don’t ever recall laughing or making fun, I just somehow understood that yeah, Boots is talking to his elbow, his left elbow specifically.
He walked in short but determined steps, his heavy black shoes perhaps explaining the nickname and offering a timeline for just how long Boots had been walking the streets and talking to his elbow. His skin camouflaged in the muddled and muted tones of his now off-white shirt and his faded pants. His pulled-up black sock describing the shape of a left leg that was otherwise almost transparent. His face thin and gaunt with wrinkles tight and sharp was more a story of the shadow of his hat than a determining genetic tale.
I knew him by his clothes and his posture in the setting of the sidewalk across the street from my house. I don’t know much more.
If Boots is the earliest “street friend” that I remember, Walter and Flavio are two of the best. Walter and Flavio were drinking buds. Walter was an illiterate WWII veteran who brought his mail to our house for my parents to help him read. I have no idea where his mail was delivered. Flavio was the friendliest, floppiest, drunk you have ever met, and his speech flowed fluidly between Spanish and English.
One Fourth of July, I was shooting fireworks in the park across the street. (The Fourth of July and New Years were always an interesting time as it became a favorite past-time of mine during these seasons to challenge myself to decipher gun fire from M-80’s.) I was shooting bottle rockets that day with a friend from school, one of the few whose parents actually would allow him to spend the night in our neighborhood, and I heard the familiar jingle of Walter’s shopping cart coming up the street. Walter strolled up, his cigarette appeared more stuck in a wrinkle in his face than in his mouth, and parked the cart on the edge of the street.
I wondered if Walter had just grabbed any old cart or if he had done some shopping around. His was one of the shiniest carts that I had seen, no rust, few dents, no remnant cola spills. It did, however, have the textbook front wheel that never touched the ground. It just hovered there, revolving seemingly of its own initiative, never a part of the rest of the cart.
As Walter approached alone, I noticed that Flavio was already passed out cold, sitting up on the wall on the opposite corner from our house. His head sagged like a medicine ball as if his body had just collapsed under its weight. I think if he had been left there long enough, the softness of his broken down leathery skin, the boneless mass of his body would have ultimately melted together leaving some sort of amorphous spillage. But that’s why Walter was there. I think it was his unspoken goal to keep Flavio from dissolving.
“Hey!” Walter squeezed out in a gruff whisper. “Hey, Anderson. Let me see one of those.”
“Let me see one of those rockets.”
“Oh. Ok. Here you go.”
Walter took a bottle rocket from me and walked slowly over to the chain link fence that defined the boundaries of the park’s softball field. He carefully propped the rocket in its web. By the time he got over there, Walter was so tickled at himself that he could hardly set the rocket straight. I looked at my friend to see if he was all right and he just looked confused. Watching Walter that day was like watching a kid my age who was up to no good and was having a blast at it. He was just one of us.
It took a second, but I soon understood what he was up to. Walter was aiming the rocket at Flavio. He turned to me and winked, grinning a charming toothless half-smile as he held on to his cigarette in the other half. He took the cigarette from his mouth and lit the bottle rocket. It ignited and took off. Fortunately for Flavio, it took one of those unpredictable curves and exploded a good 20 feet from him. Walter tried again. The next one took off and exploded right next to Flavio, about five feet to his left. Walter was growing increasingly tickled, I was laughing but also worried about Flavio, and my friend was still silent and dumbfounded. Third time’s a charm. Walter lit the third rocket and it shot and exploded right between Flavio’s dangled legs, right between the wickets.
Flavio didn’t budge. He remained there with his head bending the trunk of his spine like a ripe fruit unwilling to drop. A body had never looked so heavy while actually remaining upright. It was a delicate balance of physics I couldn’t figure out. To this day, I am not sure that anyone can really be that drunk. I wonder sometimes if Flavio wasn’t just having his own good time with Walter by not letting him win.
There were still other neighbors like Lash who are part of the fabric of my upbringing but who I only knew as part of that fabric. I only knew as a child looking, seeing.
Lash lived on the block behind us. I have no idea if he went by Lash, if my parents just called him Lash or what, but he was as dependable as the morning sun. For the virgin ears, the crack of Lash’s bullwhip muddied the other neighborhood percussion: bass, backfiring cars, fireworks and gunfire. But to me, it simply said, “it’s a beautiful day.” Lash and his bullwhip told you the weather before you could even step outside. If you heard it, the weather must be clear and warm. He stayed wrapped safely behind a chain link fence, never veering more than a half step away from presumably where his parents or caretakers (I never saw them) had planted him early that morning. Or perhaps he planted himself. I don’t know. I never saw him come or go. He was just either there or not. I also never saw anyone else who lived there with him.
Lash had some sort of significant intellectual disability, and I would guess was in his twenties, thirties, forties, who knows. His body showed the signs of someone whose physical and mental limitations had created a structure that was sizable but only temporary. He stood in the yard with his dirtied blue-gray button-up shirt and gray Dickies, softened to the point of pajamas. Lash stood alone with his shoulders slung way back as a counterbalance to a bulging stomach. His black shoes, with only the soles and toes peaking out, appeared to be a good size-and-a-half too large, strings torqued and tied in a strangle hold hoping to maintain their hold on his feet. He stood in the front yard of his house and bull whipped the old hackberry roots bubbling from the ground. No one knew why. At least no one I knew knew why.
In the unknown of his world, the crack of the bullwhip must have been empowering. The energy generated from that raw leather strip, formed in his hand, Lash’s story, his word to the world. Action and reaction. Power. Production. It gave him an edginess, a danger, a virility. The sound of that bullwhip creating a sparkling explosion of color, of adrenaline. The vibration shooting through his body like an electrical shock. He felt every crack that we only heard. It must have been beautiful; he had been doing it for years.
Strangely, I haven’t seen Lash for decades and I still live in the same house. In fact, I haven’t seen anyone come in or out of that house for decades, and other than Lash 25 years ago, maybe ever! And yet, as I was writing this, a new neighbor who lives next door actually told me Lash still lives there with his family! His name is Billy. I am glad to at least know that now, but dumbfounded by the fact the he still lives there, that anyone lives there. Life is strange. (Update: Billy passed away in 2017.)
But, my neighbors like Billy weren’t always just eccentric or mentally challenged. There was a darker side in both perception and reality. The year I was born and the year after my parents bought their house, the Nashville Banner, one of the city’s leading newspapers, wrote the following about our neighborhood of Edgefield: “Out of the gutters, all you winos. Back in your raincoats, you perverts. Edgefield is going respectable.” Nice.
This was my community. These were my neighbors. Some were my friends. Others scared the shit out of me. And, there was no distance from which to stand and just look at them, much less judge them. I had to see them, I was taught to see them, by very diligent and patient parents. I had to see them for who they were to me and my family and my community, not as generic concepts of the poor, the vagrant, or as derelicts or statistics.
I am not trying to romanticize any of this or the brutal example of life that many of these people represented. It was tragic in many ways. The point is that as the white, middle-class, Christian-raised, heterosexual, mentally stable, educated male that I am, I was the odd ball. If you couldn’t see that, you weren’t looking.
I would come to understand years later after my Dad’s struggles with Depression and ultimate suicide that he, in fact, was more akin to our neighbors than I understood as a child. His empathy with their lives, pain, and circumstances was real, and reveals a lot about him and his own struggles.
So, I guess it’s perhaps not shocking that a kid cultivated in this environment would grow up thinking and seeing the world a little differently. So, it’s also probably not a shock that I would find my way to the world of visual art, or it would find its way to me.
Excerpted from: Creating Matters: Reflections on Art, Business, and Life (so far)