by Ruth Gila Berger
Month One: It is September 2020, fourteen weeks, eleven blocks, and one neighborhood away from where George Floyd was murdered.
The three kids with their skateboards, scooters, and bikes don’t realize I can hear them on the corner where they gossip and laugh.
I am the white lady in my corner house. The sunroom has been resurrected from a shell of stucco, the rotten wood replaced to form a bright space with a daybed, one that doesn’t yet have curtains to hide our lives. I have been in this house since 2003. Up until this renovation that sunroom had devolved from an office to an unheated junk drawer. One of the windows before then had a beaded curtain with Klimt’s The Kiss printed on it, from an ex but too big a hassle to remove. It fell into the trash with a satisfying tinkle-thunk.
“You don’t wanna mess with a pit bull.”
That’s my dog named Kitten they’re discussing, who may or may not be a pit bull. Her bark is motherfucker beware and she’s brindle with a huge chest and an iron neck and she comes from a neighborhood in Tulsa, maybe with GI Bill houses that were never added-on to, three generations deep in do-not-fuck-with-me yard dogs who aren’t fixed.
Somewhere in Tulsa, Kitten’s mother was knocked-up on the street for three weeks before C’s uncle took her in and unironically named her Lady, gentle neurotic that she was. In non-profit language we’d say she was food insecure and perhaps the ions of that experience flowed inter-placentally to create a damaged flower of her litter’s RNA; inherited trauma, we’d say.
Lady, Lady, Lady, Lady…
Fierce about her babies. All twelve of them lived; from three daddies by the looks of them, their collective pudginess stemmed from worms rather than overfeeding. I fell in love with the runt of Lady’s litter and named her Kitten from her picture.
Speculation was that Lady’s father was The Gazelle, so called for his ability to erase the fence and get with ladies. But sire unknown three generations deep, my Kitten is loud, fast and babygirl too strong; she is what she is. We’re not going to pay the fortune required to have someone conclude our dog still may or may not be a pit bull. The kids think she is.
Month Two: It is September 2020 and the iterative tense is to discern if May’s helicopters have returned. They have. There is something about this police presence that compels me to dig in and tell secrets I should keep until my mother is dead. What exactly I seek in the telling of these stories isn’t entirely clear to me. Perhaps to find where I fit within this community in crisis, my role and how I got to it, whatever that role actually is. Or maybe the community is what it is, and everyone’s crisis is a personal wall of concrete—an Antigone’s tomb of grief. I don’t think that is it—the state of things, this neighborhood and the people in it; there is something in the air that affects us together, in this fucking pandemic, a logic in the word together.
Part of the etymology of together, from Old English togædere “so as to be present in one place, in a group, in an accumulated mass.” Logic is the study of the principles of reasoning, especially of the structure of propositions as distinguished from their content and of method and validity in deductive reasoning. It is not that we are in this together, all things being equal, because nothing is equal. What we have are moments of awkward intersection.
Month Three: It is September 2020 and the kids who come up on my window are not interested in Kitten. She’s fearful and makes a racket, “reactive” in dog trainer language. To the kids she’s something familiar. Or I assume she is, as such dogs confetti the neighborhood. The kids want to say hello to Monkey, C’s fat tabby who is not afraid of them. They come right to the window, up the tiny hill from the sidewalk and stand, their feet shadowed under the ledge Monkey sits on.
“Is that your cat?” the one I designate Spokeskid asks.
He wears a purple shirt. His chest moves under it as the weather is still hot and they’ve been running.
There is a radiator between me and the window that doubles the divide in our silence. I try to arrange my white body in such a way so as not to cue them to leave; I scan myself for defensive posturing: crossed arms, hostile hands or brows, tension, let it go; I nod.
Monkey purrs. His heft pushes fur through the screen in squares. He’s unconcerned with the children. Not the usual for cats. Not by reputation. But I’m not going to bring him outside, and at least for now I’m not going to bring the kids in, because Kitten isn’t kidding with her snarl. (Let’s just assume she’s a pit bull.) And there’s COVID. I’m not that kind of stupid.
“Can she come outside?”
I’m all other kinds of stupid as I continue to talk through the screen.
“He. No, he’d run away. I’m sorry. It’s not like I can put him on a leash. He’s. No. Cats don’t like that.”
And in that second, me and Monkey are no longer interesting. The kids turn back to their sidewalk entertainment.
I pace the living room. A drink of water and several deep breaths later, the kids are still playing across the street, the Spokeskid just beyond the length of A’s house. (A, for maybe five years, the only neighbor I knew.) I cross to them.
“Hi. Um. I hope the dog didn’t scare you. I mean, not that you’re scared. But. I just. I mean I guess it’s that I didn’t scare you. I…”
The child shakes his head. To expel water is what I think. I’m water. No. I’m weird. Just a weird, white lady nattering on. The other two circle back to him, one on bike and then the other, stepping off the scooter, on foot.
“Is something wrong?” they ask him.
“No,” I say. “I wanted to say. Hi. So hi, I’m Ruth. I live,” I gesture at my house. “You know. The cat.”
We’re all just staring.
“Okay, well. Have a good evening. Be safe.”
I wave at them and step back.
The kids have no reason to trust me. Perhaps it will be my work to turn that distrust into something more collegial. It seems unlikely we’ll all be friends, as I have no fucking idea how to interact with children, let alone these specifically beautiful children who know more about white supremacy than I do because it hasn’t hurt me, not in the ways it has deeply hurt them, already.
So, this is my work, I think. I’ll wave when I see them. Try to learn how to behave from another neighbor who seems easy with kids. I’m not going to talk to them about how I’ve read White Fragility or Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor or whatever else because they don’t give a shit. They haven’t given me another thought since they turned back to their games.
Note to Self: you will need to learn to validate your own fight against racism internally. Don’t look to friends to be a spokesperson of forgiveness or acknowledgement or any of the branches off that conceptual tree. Your friends give their friendship based on the postulation you are always doing this work so their conversations with you can be about beloved pets, family, and stories, beautiful and celebratory, or fraught, about how a broken ankle healed, how to lift a heavy weight, how therapy helped or didn’t, and the harm a bad therapist can do, food, weather, a color of paint, our current rage, anything.
The word dog, aside from referring to the animal, means to track or trail with persistence and the intent to catch. Will I remember to pay attention, to get myself outside, to watch for the three kids zipping by? What do these children have to gain from my attention anyway? I’d like to think what we all need respect, kindness, to be heard and be seen, the assumption that the person with the smile and wave offers them all, that this causal acknowledgement and a communal safety is possible.
Month Four: It is September 2020 and A and R have finished their remodeling and cleared the contractors’ signs from the boulevard. House done. While I understand my neighbors would move, I have not found the right moment to catch either of them to chat, to say congratulations and wish them well on their journey. The stones that are each of our encounters tumble in my brain, resisting polish. I mostly see A during the day, when I’m downstairs on a quick break from the job that has become a wind-tunnel, where my voice is only an echo. The job from which I can’t seem to take a long-enough break to go outside and have a conversation with someone who is mostly, but not entirely, a stranger.
Month Five: It is September 2020 and they say crime is up in my neighborhood. I don’t know who they is but they are into apps like Nextdoor where people get busy all up in it, to know the score. Is this really a forum for us to get closer? To connect and get to know who lives here, whose kids are whose, to realize the people who come often to visit? All I can see is miles of stuff for sale and people bitching about dog shit. I bitch about dog shit, but about my own dog. Dogs shit altogether too much. I mean really, you’re going to complain about the people who clean up after theirs and put those bags in your trash?
When did crime ever go down? I do not remember that it did.
A’s son was knifed two blocks away from his father’s, New Year’s Eve. 2020’s first murder. How the group around A stood hallow-eyed, in suits— that I remember.
“My son. Died. Stabbed.”
A almost raised a hand.
“At a party down the street.”
I took a step back then forward. My mouth moved.
“Is there something I can get you? Anything you need?”
A’s answer was no. The men around him were see-through in their grief; their edges blurred into the road. I didn’t know where to put my eyes. A’s voice, again.
“Actually, I’d love something green. To eat something green.”
The world rights itself momentarily when you feel you can do something about its sorrow.
“That’s, yes, I got that. A salad. Be right back with it.”
A wasn’t there upon my return, so I handed the salad to one of the men.
“His cousin,” they told me.
The cousin returned my bowl within the week.
A more nuanced answer to the question of crime; it is up. The intersection of 38th and Chicago is blockaded along with the demand for justice. As I understand it, there is nothing like consensus on what a solution would be, just that gunshots are more frequent. Different community leaders have diverging ideas. My role in that conversation isn’t one. Listen. Just listen.
Month Six: It is September 2020 and my entire neighborhood has avoided a collective heart attack. We all came out when we heard a boy running, bomb-footed, screaming his sister’s name. The boy was tall and skinny, a Latinx preteen. He’d been watching his baby sister but lost her when he had momentarily turned away. There wasn’t a second any of us thought it would be appropriate to call the police—I don’t think. Just the gutting notion we shared that a toddler couldn’t get far unless she was taken. We spread out looking, maybe ten of us. More people came out as we went.
The corner where I live presents as a rainbow on a website that shows the 2010 census by race. By extension it reveals the redlining in our city, this small area is one of few that are not majority white, and also not homogenous. This corner and a few blocks around it.
The toddler was found but we kept walking around, telling each person we saw that it was okay, baby girl was okay. I told a man in his car in an alley. His eyes settled, back towards life; I could see it.
“I need to get home to my kids.”
The rest of us stood in our heavy breathing. I stood by where I had talked to the three kids, already an eon ago, in September. I stood by the stop sign and bins at the corner of A’s house. A was out and he called to his wife.
“Girl’s okay. She’s safe, honey. She’s safe.”
He showed me pictures of the new baby in his family. I didn’t catch the relationship so I hovered for a second. A put his phone away. It didn’t hurt to breathe. The street dust had a different taste, not rain, not heat.
Month Seven: It is September 2020 and they say there’s a crime wave but I can only name the horrible things that happened before this. 2008 was a double homicide in the house next to A’s. The news vans had barely moved away before a girl on the southwest corner had her throat cut. That wasn’t fatal, but the shooting in the alley half a block from that was.
To see your neighbor’s house on TV, to see the tree in your yard in the shot, makes it unfamiliar. You’ll go several breaths before the details are no longer abstracted shapes. That first day some crew guy sat in a lawn chair with a tallboy. I couldn’t shake how he put it in a koozie. In front of my house. I hissed.
“Get the fuck off my property. Get the fuck off.”
In 2008 Robert, the murdered child, was ten, a round-faced baby, not an early teen, walking on the heels of his jeans when he borrowed our lawn mower from C. His mother, also dead. Her boyfriend came home from a nightshift to find his infant daughter sitting in her mother and brother’s blood and he ran to A’s door; in those seconds he lost everything.
There were helicopters every night until they caught two boys. Not much older, maybe fifteen and sixteen. Babies who committed their monstrosity—did they even know why? An older family member in Chicago knew them. It turns out very little is random, except accidents when your car is hit. The whole neighborhood was pulled to the street. We marched for Robert. People on the block had memorial signs in their yards. We walked the block, maybe further. Did a local politician speak? What would justice even be? All of them babies.
The helicopters left; the news vans stayed.
C didn’t attend the neighborhood meeting with me—her diagnosis, schizophrenia, incompatible with such things. Watching people means they are watching you. That half block away might have been a million miles. All of us at the meeting were white where the homicide victims were Black. Three couples, younger, from one block further away with better jobs than me, and a restaurant owner whose food I didn’t like. I left without giving my contact information. I wasn’t going to patrol. What would that mean? Aside from A and R, I didn’t know who was rightfully tied to each house. None of us did.
C and I had been happy to be on a block where no one paid attention. Activity. Anyone looking closely at the parade of twenty-minute Audis in front of my house might’ve rightly assessed we were whoring. I know that’s a mic-drop occupation. Definitions vary: an individual considered to have compromised their principles for personal gain comes up before the trading of sex acts for money. The metaphor here comes before what’s real.
In 2020 I might mull the idea of white peoples’ performative allyship as a kind of whoring, but in 2008, in the aftermath of a double homicide next to our corner, my life had little room for metaphor or fancy thinking. We called a couple alarm system companies before picking one. We debated whether it was worth skipping a week’s advertising in the alt-weekly, given the news vans would keep C’s clients away. While the fantasy of getting caught doing something illicit might exist in our cultural landscape, none of those men wanted to be accidently captured in our neighborhood during the workday on TV. C had some interesting conversations about the safety of us being two ladies alone were we lived.
What the word lady means: Being an adult female but also, the triturating apparatus in the stomach of a lobster, consisting of calcareous plates; so-called for a fancied resemblance to the seated female figure. Triturate: To rub, crush, grind, or pound into fine particles or a powder; pulverize. You line the definitions up and get by principals of reason, with the intent to catch, to be a female human, to be a hand-job whore, albeit by the way of a crab. Triturate, to rub. As in working off one’s phone, renting a space for those “massage” clients. Trying to stay ahead of the linguistic trap of a sting, at that point a catch word of police, “erotic.” Tips are not required, but are appreciated. Hang up on the happy ending request or give an answer, more like: I’m sure you’ll be satisfied. There isn’t much to say about hand-jobs by the dozen, by the hundred, whatever, that hasn’t been said.
By the time I met C, she had paid her bills this way for years. The world’s oldest profession as they say. For a person with an interruptive psychotic illness that made full-time employment impossible, it was a way to stay independent; the most she was going to get paid for the time she worked. What happens when time, that of it spent sane, is the most precious thing. There’s a logic to this kind of whoring and the money in it. The nuances of how and why one gets into and not out of her profession are hers to shuffle and spread. Like the dumbass I was, I once asked if she was ever afraid.
“They’re the one naked on the table. Mostly I’m in the power position. Only thing is the cops.”
Of course, the cops. Was I supposed to judge? More like I stepped in to join her, to do a four-hands on occasion. No, no neighborhood watch for me. Organized by a bunch of white twenty-somethings from their “starter” houses— would it have been any better than an exercise in racial profiling?
Month Eight: It is September 2020 and it’s been years since I read David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives, where David watches a cop shoot a Black boy in the alley, just for the joy of it, the cop’s joy. How did we not know after Amadou Diallo and Rodney King that the idea of bad apple cop was not even close to a thing? Richard Pryor talked about it in the 70s, and before that was forever. How had we white people not absorbed that policing is a system designed to give lynching a legal veneer.
On Nextdoor there’s been stories of car-jackings and muggings, which always seem to be in the third person, a friend, like the rumor of gerbils in the ER, someone’s cousin said. But then of course, there is the news from a reliable source; someone was assaulted at the bakery on the corner.
Years ago, a friend was punched in the face in front of another coffee shop. That was on a busy street, broad day, very public.
Growing up in New York state, through the 70s and 80s there was always someone we knew in the city getting mugged. Even we suburban kids learned to put on our fierce and crazy to repel any such threat. It was weird how many of these incidents we heard of made a certain kind of sense: at night near a club but just a slight bit away, where people were heading out with the jewels to look good and carrying an excess of cash money. Near ATMs on the street. There was logic to it. Like blocks from Studio 54, or later The Limelight. There was always the idea that you were in a city, of course people get robbed, what the fuck did you think? This is all speculation. I’m not a criminologist or even someone with a passionate take on history. And I’m lucky, although I hate to say it and then jinx my fate.
Month Nine: It is September 2020 and I can’t quite understand what Abolish the Police even means. I scream it at a rally and believe it. A speaker there asks white people to consider the times they’ve called the police on someone who’s Black. That given the way the system is set up even a noise complaint can wreck a young person’s life. White people don’t think about this because they don’t often experience the escalation. Could’ve the incitement to call been solved by communication? Is walking over to talk to someone really that frightening? The last time I called the cops was on three young men hanging around their car on my corner. They were dealing. Having watched years of such transactions it wasn’t an assumption; we knew. Was their presence really a threat? This is a place to see where that bedrock racism might have surfaced in me. Did race play a part in that action? How could it not? I grew up American. That mirror has grime. But the question of danger is also answered yes. There’s nuance to this shit. Our corner was disputed territory. Not days later C’s car got shot in a crossfire. Did either side include the same men? I don’t know; the cars were different. Were we Karens before Karen?
With even a limited understanding of our carceral state, the situation Black men face when confronted by police is still horrific. Spending time learning more is uncomfortable, The New Jim Crow doesn’t play. I know the system is broken. I’ve worked hard as hell against the fascist creep, but the reality is any result there is limited. Driving while Black is often deadly.
Month Ten: It is September 2020 and C and I look back to 2005 and talk about our former neighbor E. Over six feet, he stood out. He was friendly and spoke an easy English. His wife didn’t but we worked it. A couple times we got waved to come over for marinated barbeque they cooked on their grill. We watched their first son learn to walk, talk, and chase a stray cat. They came over to shower while their bathroom was being remodeled. C painted them a family portrait, but after running across a clip of The Munsters on YouTube, she couldn’t unsee a resemblance to her rendering and abandoned the project in horror.
At some point in our acquaintance, E ambled over to the car where we had just pulled up in front of our garage. I can’t get the choreography of this right. I think I was the one driving. The driver side window worked—the car couldn’t have been C’s. We spoke a few seconds, weather or whatever until he said something like would you enjoy some grass? The word was glass, I realized as he handed me a baggie. My response was something like ohmyfuckinggodno as I threw the meth back at him. E nodded. Smiled.
“But of course. I should have known you classy ladies would like the cocaine.”
Like magic he turned away. I banged my head on the steering wheel. Or maybe it was C driving who threw the baggie of crystals back at him as I banged my head on the dash moaning, this is a very, very bad, bad idea. My memory isn’t clear. Either way, E knocked on our back door hours later with an eight ball. Surprise cocaine on my kitchen counter. Hands held up E backed away. No money, he said, as we’re friends.
Puzzle pieces of the street came spinning together. E was no corner level dealer. He had a family. He had an auto detail and accessory business where people legitimately came and went all day. Men in sneakers hung out with him cleaning their trucks on Saturday mornings but came back with their families, wearing boots and belts you could count up by hundreds of dollars on Sundays. E was why the off-the-highway exchanges had all gone away.
We were invited to E’s birthday party. The Mariachi band there was amazing. C and I grabbed our plates, scarfed down the beautiful food and beat a hasty English-only-white-girl retreat.
It took beyond a season to realize E and his family disappeared.
Their porch door sticker stayed: a blue Madonna with the words across her yellow halo.
“No solicitations” underneath her feet. “We are a Catholic Family.”
Our neighborhood had its share of door knockers. There was one evangelist who C had an extended conversation with.
“Sure, come back but you have to know I’m a Buddhist and my girlfriend is a Jew.”
I open-mouth hissed at the Mormons before they could get their words in.
We were reminded of E’s position on the street when after so many months of his house sitting empty, there was a drive-by altercation between two Escalades on the block and C’s car took a bullet.
Month Eleven: It is September 2020 and time is taffy. It is Schrodinger’s cat. It is the mirage of heat shimmer ahead on the highway, except wrong, it isn’t that, because the highway by our house is a hot three-year mess of a project, and we haven’t gone anywhere, let alone anywhere driving fast enough to see that buzzing of air. But this is not the first time in my life that time has become tangled, become a bad game of hopscotch, a filthy ball of stasis. A friend of ours stopped over, hovers at a distance.
“Crime’s gotten really bad.”
His clients in Kenwood (read a wealthy area, mostly mansions) are talking about moving from the city to somewhere safe.
“They feel like someone is waiting for them. Car-jackings.”
I wish now I had asked for clarification because the area he describes is one where you often don’t see cars in the driveway. There’s a lot of properties where house and garage are connected. Though it’s not impossible to believe someone got jacked in their driveway. It’s not like criminals aren’t opportunistic or ballsy. A few years ago, C’s car was stolen from our driveway.
“I guess more people are desperate.”
It’s the least useless thing I can think to say. The need at food shelves has exploded and shelters are past capacity; they have to be following some sort of new space constraints with social distancing. Things were bad before that.
Carjacking seems like the dumbest of crimes to me. Seems like boredom and power. There’s a solid cost benefit analysis of how much of a ride stealing a car might net you. C’s car was used a month and a half before it was abandoned. We got it back with a baby seat in the back and I Love You written in nail polish on the wheel. Everyone has a life to live.
“It’s been groups of girls.”
Does my lack of specificity make me complicit? Is suggestion these are Black girls—implicit here? Or is this assumption of mine, based in phenomenon of white flight that came before our childhoods and has boomeranged in the forty years since then? Or an example of how racism seeps into my own thoughts?
In high school C was assaulted by a group of girls in the bathroom. I ask C about this experience and say Black girls. C corrects me.
“White. Three white girls. One had been a friend. Her brother got me pregnant. Bitch said I ruined her family. Right. I was suspended a week for that fight.”
Again, my mirror has grime. Why else would I have made that assumption other than because of the fucked-up trope that Black girls are loud? This isn’t really a question.
We are almost fifty. There are still so many connections to be made. Bathrooms. We loop around all the straight women who have entered the loo or exited a stall and stood like stunned pigs when they saw C.
“Oh, I… I thought. Is this the right? Are you…”
I’ve watched them all flee with dirty hands. Or return upon her leaving.
My wife is a Tomboy who stands five eight with broad shoulders, in men’s shirts and shoes. She long ago adopted Judd Nelson’s Breakfast Club swagger and stance and has more than minimal self-defense under her belt. Bathrooms in restaurants can deflate an evening. Her head cocks.
“I don’t know how they miss the tits.”
Either of us could have said that.
“I hate public bathrooms.”
“Seems like the assault would be more traumatizing.”
“Yeah. I don’t know if that’s it. Hadn’t thought of it. But. All of it, yeah.”
Month Twelve: It is September 2020 and Kitten watches the corner from her position on the sunroom daybed. She barks at both people and shadows. There’s a massive pit bull on the diagonal corner C and I joke is her boyfriend as she does this hysterical whine-twirl-jump thing I dub The Juliet. The pit bull is a full male and she laps him when they play.
“Yeah, Kitten’s having none of it. She’s fast as fuck. Try and catch it. Nope.”
I’ve been watching a young mother in A’s yard for some time now. I assume they are his daughter and grandbaby. I’ve waved from the window, which of course she didn’t see, probably couldn’t see, the light reflecting weirdly off screens in the distance. There was one time I thought we caught eyes, so I walked over and stood there and said something like “hi.” I should have said, “Your baby’s beautiful. Say hello to A,” but I didn’t. She’d stared right through me. It didn’t feel deliberate—more like why would I assume my hello would be relevant? My standing there didn’t mean anything. To acknowledge the impersonal centuries of skin behind her stare, or the nothing behind it—that is mine. Even as the world continues to spin and spin and spin, I find it hard to separate personal meaning. Sometimes it seems the better option to feel rejected rather than caught in a system. Yet of course the system remains, and people are not symbolic.
Watch for A, if it isn’t too late, if he hasn’t already moved away. Even if it is to say farewell, that is a moment of connection. There is a lot to acknowledge on the corner of this street. Honor it.
Ruth Gila Berger grew up queer in New York and lives in Minneapolis. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Arts & Letters and has also published nonfiction in Revolute, Fourth Genre, Slice and elsewhere.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 9 • November 2023
Header image by Lorie Shaull.