Under a Fearless Sky
You own two shops,
And you run back and forth.
Try to close the one that’s a fearful trap,
Getting always smaller. Checkmate,
This way Checkmate that.
Keep open the shop
Where you’re not selling fishhooks anymore.
You are the free-swimming fish.
About half way down the block, the sidewalk has turned to a crumbly mixture of asphalt and gravel. A scrap metal truck is parked in front of a clapboard house sided with disintegrating asphalt shingles. The driver of the truck is standing in the wide driveway where once another house stood. Smiling unabashed and toothless, he tells me that when the house was torn down he bought the lot for four hundred dollars. He is gregarious, but not imposing; he reminds me of my grandfather who spent most of his life peddling apples. Pointing to the shabby two-story structure behind him, he tells me he has lived in this house for forty years, that the building on the corner used to be a bakery but that the children of the original owners didn’t want anything to do with the business, so it had closed.
He offers more: he has a tenant upstairs, a woman with three children who pays him two-fifty a month in rent. She can’t afford anything more, he says. I look at the roof, which has been repaired with a variety of materials (roll roofing, shingles of different colors, patches of tar) and wonder if it leaks into the second floor apartment. I dread the thought of the lead paint on the old windows and how it might color the future dreams of the three children living there: make them aggressive, slow their learning, taint their blood. The windows are covered with makeshift curtains. The asphalt shingles on the side of the house are well worn. He says that he is thinking of moving some of the ones from the back to the front to cover up the places where the clapboard is showing. He wants it to look better from the street.
I ask him if anyone uses the park a few doors down from him. “There used to be a house there. Now kids hang out--sell drugs. Once the cops came so fast that no one had a chance to run away, and they bagged them,” he grinned as he spoke. I ask him if he feels safe in the neighborhood. Without hesitating, he says “Sure, I’ve been here since before everybody else; no one bothers me.” I like him. He is poor, but he has self-confidence that defies anyone to judge his circumstances. He is comfortable and at ease in this place where he makes his home and his living collecting rent and selling scrap metal. Our conversation closes easily and he turns his attention to his partner; they go back to loading his truck with a defunct furnace. How much for that? I wonder.
I need to walk, especially when my mind is filled up and tired, and my eyes ache from reading for too long. My friends think I’ve gone mad. They don’t understand how I could have left my career as a city planner, age 36, to begin medical school. I explained that I think medicine is too focused on the molecular level and that I could make a difference as a physician focused on the larger picture, especially living conditions. I respect the search for cures, but it is a shame that so little is done to prevent illness. I decided to learn to speak the language of medicine, starting with science. My tongue still trips against my teeth and lips trying to pronounce these foreign words. Medicine has a word for everything. Even for the sound your stomach makes when it’s grumbling with hunger. Borborygmi. Am I serious? Borborygmi? Yes. Try saying it out loud. It could easily be a word from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. Delightful. Absurd. Frightening. I knew it would be challenging, but I still find that I resent the machine-like dedication necessary to memorize details that at this point, anyway, seem irrelevant. When I feel discouraged, I go out and walk just to feel my body moving through the dense and palpable world. In full swing every cell in me is jangled to alertness by the rhythm of my movement. My mind responds to the strange beauty it finds, the subtle changes of lighting and color, like the reflection of a tree in a dusty window when the sun breaks through the clouds.
The decision to leave Albany and attend medical school in Syracuse was the most difficult I’ve ever made. It meant leaving behind the familiarity of place and the community of friends that supported my endeavor. I was sad to change my son’s preschool, where I was confident in the teachers. I was even sadder to change by daughter’s school. I made a thousand small goodbyes -- to our neighbors, Sal and Teresa, a retired couple on one side; to Pat, a bachelor and a black belt, on the other, and the three generations of Italians living in the house abutting our back yard. They let us pick the fruit from their sour cherry tree every year. Goodbyes were also made to the school principal and the karate instructor, the family doctor, the dentist, and the dance instructor—all part of a meshwork of relationships that had moved beyond mere acquaintances. A fresh start in a new place with a new purpose, becoming a doctor, was both exciting and anxiety provoking—anxiety like nothing I’d ever felt in my life. I lived with a fish in my stomach, turning this way and that for weeks, months. Finally moving day came, a jumble of train sets and microscopes, houseplants and physiology textbooks, we landed in Syracuse to begin again the process of rooting into place.
I sometimes walk around places close to my house and sometimes I go across town to places less familiar, those places where people less privileged than I generally live, packed into a handful of census tracts, along with some frightening statistics. At first I didn’t know what guided my exploration, or what I hoped to learn. I simply set out on foot with a camera to see this neighborhood at slow speed. I counted as I walked down the block. It takes between 5 and 7 seconds to walk past a house on foot. It takes a minute to walk past 12 houses if you don’t stop to look at anything.
When I pause to take a picture of one long house with multiple additions on the back, each a different color, like train cars, a young white guy with dark hair sticks his head out the window of his truck. “Whatcha’ doin?” he asks with a hint of a growl. My stomach lurches in response to the reproach in his voice. He sounds irritated that I am taking a photo. I lower my camera and say, dumbly, “I like the colors the house is painted.” From the way he looks at me, I know that this is not a plausible excuse for my existence on the spot. “The house is for sale,” he grumbles, “it could be yours.” I liked the colors because they were so unlikely not because the house was attractive or one that I would want. I mumble something about not needing a place right now and then walk with makeshift purpose further down the block.
I feel out of place, even vulnerable because I do not live in this neighborhood and have no business here. What if someone doesn’t like that I am here? Is this a dangerous place to be? It is cold enough in late October that there aren’t many people outside on the street and mostly I am alone in my meandering walk in the southwest of Syracuse.
The colors of the paint on the next house are more believable; they reflect another era, one in which the houses were ornately decorated with carefully chosen complementary colors. On this block there is the occasional house with a fresh coat of paint, but mostly the paint is puffed and peeling like a snake shedding its skin. Taken in by the fragments of history, I can overlook the grim reality of this place. According to some of the people I have talked to here, this neighborhood is one of the poorest in the city, and its children have the highest incidence of lead poisoning. A couple of times passersby or people sitting on their porches ask me what I am doing. I feel skittish and say something about taking a photography class. I must look as out of place as I feel taking pictures of scenes that are not really remarkable singly, but that altogether tell a story about this sliver of human habitat.
There’s a house with the windows covered in newspaper. There’s another that is covered with splats of paintball paint from the foundation to the third-floor windows. What was going on that day? Someone had a wildly fun time aiming and pulling the trigger on that paint-gun, first orange, then dusky blue, then neon green—splat, splat, splat, I can hear the gentle thud as the balls burst on the crusty siding of that once genteel house. Now it looks like a drawing by a third-grader using bingo ink dotters, the kind my grandmother bought when she took me to play on Saturday nights.
Here’s one that caught fire. There’s another one that caught fire. Who sets the fires? Who watches as they burn? Who puts them out? There’s one with the door pried open. I climb the charred stairs and stand in the open doorway. I can see the marbled green linoleum of the kitchen floor in the dim light that slants through the dirty windows. The cupboard hangs open, empty. It is dark inside. I do not go in, but wonder who does and what happens there.
There’s one house filled with gallon milk jugs; you can see a dozen of those hazy plastic containers pressed against the glass of the mullioned windows. Next comes an old school with every window broken and every wooden frame warped and threatening to fall out. There’s a patch of grass between two houses where a house once stood. There’s another and another bit of green. There’s the adult learning center, a low wooden structure with a faded sign. It looks as if it were once a car garage. It’s empty now. There’s grass coming up through cracks in the swath of the pavement out front. The faded green house next to it is boarded up with graying-plywood. There’s no one here. I stand alone on the sidewalk and contemplate the painfully slow erasure happening here.
This is not my habitat, the discomfort that I feel as I walk down the street tells me. The first time I came over this way, I was pretty nervous, especially when I saw people hanging out on their porches or looking at me as I walked by. Then the second time and the third time I began to feel more comfortable. When the old man told me he felt safe here, it tore another corner from the edge of my fear. Since my conversation with him I have asked other people who live and work near here how they feel about this neighborhood. The ones that live here and work here for the most part don’t feel afraid. But they have stories of other folks not coming.
The director of the Spanish Action League says the other Little League teams won’t come to play ball in this neighborhood because someone got shot near the playground last summer. The lifeguard at the Southwest Community Center says not many people come to swim at the pool because of the neighborhood. Her assistant is studying at Bryant and Stratton to be a police officer, but she isn’t one yet. She says she feels safe in the neighborhood, but doesn’t want to be called a cop out in the open for fear of—well, she doesn’t know exactly, but just in case.
The landscape, to me, has another kind or warning inscribed in it--all over the place. Beware of the fire, beware of the flood, beware of the cranes that will come and knock your house down. Beware of the hammers that will board up your windows. Beware of the tricksters in the night that will desecrate your home. Beware of being poor; you will live in a place that is subject to slow and painful erasure. Go and live elsewhere if you can. This place is a big toothless grin—a disappearing act with an invisible magician. A place passing out while waiting to exhale.
Some people live here. Some people feel safe, but I have been warned now not to walk here, especially not alone, especially after dark. I skirt the edges of these warnings. I feel that I too am inching towards invisibility—what do I have that anyone could want? a digital camera, a warm winter coat, the jeans I wear all week and then wash on the weekends. My life in my skin and my camera are the two valuables that I have. The camera I would give up gladly to anyone who asked for it, so I have only my life to lose. There’s no one that looks particularly eager to take either. So, why the warnings? Is it really so dangerous, or are the people that warn me, people safely on the other side of this harsh economic and political reality, simply knee-jerk nervous about habitats like this one—that are unfamiliar, that are run down, that don’t look safe--to them.
On one corner there is a poorly lit store without any windows; the signs outside advertising items for sale and services are spray-painted and flap insecurely in the wind. I consider going in to buy something, but because I can’t see inside I don’t know what to expect. I feel aversion, anxiety; I don’t go in. I am surprised by my reaction. I can’t tell what part of this scene evokes such strong feelings. I am not immune to the fear. I scan the landscape with the same trained eye as those who warn me, but I am willing to feel this, the discomfort of being in an unfamiliar place. Again, I have a fish in my stomach. It challenges me to understand what allows places like this to persist and what it would mean to be a doctor here.
Perhaps the warnings are warranted, but I suspect the biggest threat of these places may be something else, something that is not ready to be acknowledged: the sheer fact of their existence in contrast to other places just a few blocks, a mile, two miles, ten miles away. The contrast is what is killing people, and it makes us sick because it isolates and divides us.
The ease with which I can leave this place makes me an outsider. I can come, remark, and go. I am edgy that my good intentions will cause offence, that taking an interest in it might not be enough. The director of the southwest community center said as much of medical students and the medical school. “You folks come around and talk and then you don’t come back,” he said. I wonder what might come of my vagabonding about this side of town—loitering, touristing, visiting and picture-taking. Could I…Might I come for an extended stay? I have not tested the depth of my commitment. There are other languages to learn. I stumble inside, wondering where to begin.
Even in this neighborhood where there is too much ugliness, I can find beauty and signs of hope. I can use my imagination to see a better place, one built from networks of relationships that transcend fear. I have picked out a house that I could like to live in with my family. The house has large vacant lots to either side. It’s on Furman Street. I went back there to take pictures of it just today—the second of January, the last day of our too short winter break. It’s a striking house with a square cupola on the third floor with windows facing in every direction It is an old house predating the era of suburban flight. The windows are big to let in the light and the exterior woodwork is ornate and painted in Victorian hues. There is a young maple growing next to the house, something that blew in on the wind. The lot to the east has a sidewalk leading to where the front steps of another house once stood. I can see a crazy mixed up vegetable and flower garden here and maybe a sour cherry tree too.
Moving to this house and living here would change me, change my family. It would make our lives into part of story this landscape tells. I wonder how our decision would be narrated in the urban history. Would we be invaders. Could we be friends? Might I be a physician to this place? As a physician, would my intentions matter to the outcome? Could I make it a better place to live by choosing to live here with my family?
What drove me to medical school from my career in urban planning was the context of illness, I saw so much illness directly linked to how neighborhoods, communities, cities, and towns are developed. People live in neighborhoods like this and emerge from them to seek care, or they live in them in ill health because they can’t afford to get it. If they could, their neighborhoods would not be pockmarked with vacant and burned houses.
We can drift and settle here, and root into place—and then by our very determination to live under a fearless sky begin to heal these places and ourselves. With each visit to this neighborhood, I become more comfortable. I recognize buildings. I have associations with places and people. My feelings have changed. My eyes see differently. I am not afraid. I am not the same. As I have small encounters with these places, as a I venture into the stores and have conversations with the shop owners, with the customers, with the people who work here and live near here, this place becomes less of a stereotype of a bad neighborhood and more a particular place with a particular set of people, houses, and shops. It has become peculiar and distinct. It is not just a place full of problems—the stereotypical problems that can be rattled off with an accompanying litany or directives: lead poisoning, STDS, AIDS, teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness, poverty, illegal immigrants, entrenched poverty, low-birth weight babies.
Instead, it is the Ghanian shop owner who used to work in Albany landscaping for the state, and the scrap metal collector with his upstairs tenant, and the lifeguard studying to become a police officer. It is the beautiful old bones of houses and the vacant lots that grow weeds in the meantime, while whispering to passersby that they could be more than a patch of green. They whisper to me, “something more could grow here--much more. I was once something else. I can grow wild, unnoticed things for now, but I could be more. See me, know me, imagine me into something again, something fine.”