Junior’s sunflower had brown petals and a yellow center. Lizette’s red tulips stood in a row like sentries. Laura painted a white rose with full, open petals. Michelle contributed the Mexican flag and a rainbow, even though we had specified flowers only on our garage mural. This is how, when we first moved into the neighborhood, I decided to deal with the Almighty Imperial Gangstas.
We became aware of the drug dealing on the corner of St. Louis and McLean almost as soon as we were moved in. It quickly took the bloom off the first, and so far only, house we have ever owned.We didn’t have a clue what a gang neighborhood was like. We simply assumed that there would be a higher level of crime than we experienced in Andersonville and Edgewater and that some of it might easily be directed towards us, as white interlopers. I think we imagined rocks through our windows and gang signs on the sides of our house.
It did not occur to either Michael or me that we would ever actually engage with the gangbangers, that we would actively battle, alongside our neighbors, for the soul of our community. Long nights of 911 calls and watching drug deals go down in front of our house were still in the future and not something we could conceive at the time. So I decided to go about protecting ourselves in a different way. We would engage with the neighborhood. If we carved out a place for ourselves and actually came to belong here, perhaps we would not be a target for hostility and, possibly, violence. Since many of the adults in the neighborhood did not speak much English, and we spoke absolutely no Spanish, I decided to start with the children. Besides, I’m more comfortable with children.
Michael had little faith in this approach. All right, he had no faith in it. But we’re a partnership and we back each other up.
My first move was to go out onto our front porch with some paper and magic markers and start drawing. It was near Halloween, so I drew a scary face. I had scarcely taped it to the front door when I had three kids looking at me from my stairs. Our door was covered with drawings in a hour or so. From then on, any time I wanted to draw a crowd of kids, I went onto the porch with art supplies.
Then, my friend Mac told me about a man in Boston or Philadelphia who gave away books. He had a basement full of them and just gave them to people. I was pretty sure I couldn’t pull that off, but I decided I could buy books in thrift shops and give them away to the neighborhood kids. A theory began to form in my head.
My theory was that children who live with poverty, crime and violence can make a different future for themselves only if they can imagine a different future. Reading is what allowed me to imagine a future outside Oklahoma City, a future as a writer. So perhaps, if could encourage these children to read, I could help them imagine good futures for themselves. Let me be clear on one point. There were and are a lot of kids in my neighborhood whose families provide them with plenty of books and faith in the future. They come to the “booklady’s house” anyway, because they just like books. Others, though, are clearly in danger, including the children of the gangbangers themselves.
So I bought books at nearby thrift shops for a dime or a quarter and began handing them out–one book per kid per day. No snatching books from each other. No hitting. No swearing. No skates on the porch. I soon had a batch of kids who came by regularly. My friend Mac joined us often. Michael passed out books when I wasn’t around.
And then, at the beginning of the first summer in our new house, the gangs got louder and more threatening, something we would become accustomed to with the first warm days each year. We had moved into the house in October, and the gangs had been much quieter then.We talked about whether to stay, but we knew we couldn’t face another move. (I won’t tell you how many boxes of books and audiotapes and accumulated treasures we still had in the basement, not yet unpacked.) That’s when I had another idea. I told Michael I wanted the kids in the neighborhood to paint a mural on our garage.
He had some qualms.
You see, Michael was about to transform a flat, empty stretch of grass into his first real garden, where he could do anything he wanted and plant anything he wanted. It was a blank canvas with sun. (The garden Michael was allowed to plant at our last rental had what he called”3-flat shade,” or “can’t see my trowel in front of my face shade.” He craved sun, although he would eventually plant six trees in our new yard and create a woodland fantasy.)
In the meantime, Michael wasn’t sure he wanted the backdrop for his dream garden to be paint slapped on a garage by a bunch of strange kids, but I explained that we could always paint it over when the garden began to take shape.
So my idea might be silly, naive, and ultimately futile–“The gangs are getting louder, so let’s paint a mural”–but at least it was an idea. I put the word out, and nine kids showed up to paint.
And this is the mural a few years later, right before we began painting it over. We did frame a number of flowers and paint around them, including Junior’s sunflower.
As for the kids, Jennifer’s parents sent her and her brother back to Mexico a year or so later, to keep them safe. Lizette’s family moved to the suburbs, as did Michelle and Junior’s. Carolina was kidnapped, taken to Mexico and impregnated. I don’t know what happened to the others.