I was standing in the darkening garden next to Jose from down the street as Michael projected our garden videos, one after another, for the three dozen or so neighbors who had come to the party. A few of the kids were still playing on the swing that Marco’s family hung from one of the branches of the mulberry tree, and their squeals interrupted the strains of Jean Goldkette & Orchestra’s 1927 recording of “I’m Looking over a Four-Leaf Clover” playing in the background of one of the videos. I looked over at Jose and said, “It’s really been quiet lately.” He nodded.
“Of course, they might come back,” I went on, not wanting to seem foolish to a man who has lived in the neighborhood longer than I have and has had to raise a son here.
He looked over at me and said, “How long have you lived here?”
“It’s never been like this before. I’ve been here since 1996. It’s never been like this before.”
. . . . . . . . . .
Yesterday, I was taking the Fullerton bus back from a chiropractor’s appointment. Four Latino boys of fourteen or fifteen were sitting near me, laughing and joking with each other, passing chips back and forth, and generally having a good time. They weren’t loud, just happy. Beside one of them sat a middle-aged woman who looked a great deal like African American presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm. She was beaming at the boys for blocks and then miles. At Kedzie, she stood up to leave the bus. But first, she turned in the aisle to face the boys.
“I have been listening to you, and you have not used any vulgar language. Good job. Keep up the good work.” Still beaming, she got off at her stop.
One of the boys turned to another and said, “What did she mean?”
“She meant we weren’t cursing.”
“We’re too smart,” said the first boy, laughing. And it occurred to me that he was absolutely right. The understanding that cursing on the bus is not cool is a major survival tool.
. . . . . . . . . .
It was Tuesday afternoon a week ago, I think, when four of the garden kids, boys between the ages of five and ten, came to our door. They told me with considerable concern that some guys were smoking in the garden. I have to admit that this didn’t seem all that terrible to me, but the boys practically pulled me to the garden. When we got there, I saw two young gangbangers about fourteen years old, sitting on the stumps under our magnolia tree. They were both familiar to me, and I actually knew one of them from when he very occasionally came for books several years ago.
I began my explanation of why it was important to keep the garden a safe place, but Florian broke in. He is a serious, sturdy boy of nine years whose father moved to South Dakota to get away from his own gang involvement. Florian spoke directly to the boy I knew a little.
“Our mom won’t let us come down here if anything bad happens here. And we’ve worked really hard on this garden. We need to be able to come here. Do you understand?”
Sean, Florian’s equally sturdy and serious seven year-old brother, spoke then. “Yeah, Alexander. We worked really hard.”
As he talked, Sean patted Alexander’s shoulder, comforting him as he told him that he had to get out of the garden. Then Florian, Sean and I went back to my house, where LeDaryl and Damian were waiting on the stoop. They all started talking and suddenly I heard the word marijuana.”
“They were smoking weed?” I asked. The boys looked at me as though I was a little slow, which I clearly was. Then they assured me that what the gangbangers had been smoking was not a tobacco product.
I lit out back to the garden and there they were, Alexander passing a Swisher Sweet to his fellow banger. (That’s how marijuana is smoked in our neighborhood. The guys use tweezers to pull out a good part of the tobacco and then put in the weed.)
“Get out of the garden,” I said. “Now. Get out of the garden. You heard what the boys said, and now you do this. Go on. Get out.”
They got up, moving slowly, as only two teenaged boys saving face could move, walked their bikes out of the garden and rode off. They haven’t been in there since, but Florian made me promise that, if they come back, I’ll call the cops. I’d rather put my hand in a bucket of hot lead, so I talked to Mabel and Juan. They’re both former gangbangers who continue to have friends in the gangs. Both of them assured me that they would take care of it. When I saw Alexander a couple of days later, he smiled and waved . . . from outside the garden. Let’s just hope.