For the first couple of years we lived here, the gangbangers were at the corner. They seldom came to the middle of the block, where our house is. But they were a constant presence, affecting our lives in many ways beyond the obvious. My friend and collaborator, Mac Austin, didn’t feel completely comfortable walking to and from our house in the evening. There was often a cloud of marijuana smoke between us and the corner store. And then there were the kids.
For a time, the kids in the neighborhood came running into our backyard when they heard us there, showing off their latest skills or looking for praying mantids (Michael attached an egg sac to one of our bushes). A friend threw a bridal shower in our backyard and the children invaded it. After being fed petit fours, they ran away and then reappeared with notes and pictures for the bride-to-be. When one of the boys, Julian, found a wounded bird, he brought it to our yard to recover. From time to time, one of the kids would just come in and sit.
Sometimes they drove us crazy. I liked to have an occasional cigarette with my friend Mac, but I was completely unwilling for the kids to see the booklady smoking, so I crushed more than one three-inch butt into the sod as I heard kid feet in the gangway. Michael yearned for a little more peace but never had the heart to shoo the kids away. All in all, though, they were our main connection to the neighborhood, and we enjoyed them.
And then we figured out that our gangway was the only escape route on the block for gangbangers fleeing the police. Everyone else had a fence or a locked gate, so the bangers ran down our gangway and through our backyard to the alley, usually in the middle of the night. If we didn’t want to abet the gang, we needed to put in a locked gate. We did, and life changed. The kids lost the freedom of the garden, we lost the kids in the garden, and the gang may have had a little more trouble getting away from the cops. Hard to tell.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Michael and I experienced the same range of shock and horror that the rest of the country did. Since both of us are free-lancers and didn’t have an office to go to, we went to LifeSource blood center. Many, many others had the same impulse. The parking lot was full of people lined up to give blood. I bought a disposable camera at the Walgreen’s across the street. Black and white. It seemed right to me to record history with a black and white camera. I took pictures of the college students, old hippies, and others who didn’t know whether their blood would be needed or not but who had to do something. We stayed there all day, waiting to give, and then we went back to the neighborhood.
I had the camera in my hand when the kids ran up to our porch, laughing and wanting me to come up with a game for them. At that moment I could think of nothing I wanted more than watching them play circus animals. As the elephants swung their trunks and the lions roared, I took pictures of them. This was the real historical moment, the last evening these children would have before they went to school and were told that the world had changed forever. I didn’t know that’s what it was until the next day. They came home from school with solemn faces and all used the same words. “The world will never be the same.” That evening I just held onto their innocence as to a lifeline.
Somewhere along the way–I think it was 2003–the police finally got the gang off the corner. When winter came that year, we sank with relief into the quietness. When summer came, and the gang was not on the corner, we believed they were gone. But we soon found out otherwise. They had moved into a house four doors east of us, off the street and into a house. We entered a new stage.