Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Slumlord


Four years back the word had never passed my lips. It didn't register as part of my worldview.
It existed only in the context of cities like Chicago, or Detroit.

Its image fell from the big screen in high definition and landed fixed in my mind.

I saw a sinister young man, growling, leering, tight as a wire.
I pictured high rise apartments with bars bent back from busted-out panes.

Our local version was infamous among the select few who stopped long enough to even consider the existence of "slums" anywhere in the vicinity of our tidy, contained, mostly-churched community. He trolled and lurked and robbed desperate people blind. Or that's what I was told. Or that's what I heard.

This man with all his has-been, jacked-up properties was one more hash mark in the column that should have made us just stay home. 

It didn't take long for us to realize that many of the crumbling houses lining our street belong to him, though most people around here prefer to call him by his given name.

I choked on clean air when I discovered he lived just two blocks down.

Then I stood across the room from him, and couldn't stop staring and his gray work pants, his tucked-in button-down, the way the lines around eyes creased in what almost looked like kindness.

Maybe that was the day I knew I might never make sense of our life here.
Or maybe it was tonight, with an extra face around the table, cheeks grubby, teeth filmy, heart so wild with the longing to be cared for and seen.

There's so much we don't know yet about this neighborhood, so much we're too scared or selfish to learn.

But we live among these fragile people and watch as all the ways we've wrongly labeled ourselves split along the seams and fall in a heap around our feet. We aren't so strong and sturdy. We weren't made to be self-reliant or independent. Our middle-class wisdom and responsibility often cause more harm than good.

I love it so much here. I keep searching all the crags and around every blind corner but I can't paint my contentment with one clean reason. It scares me sometimes to feel so at home here. I worry about loving it too much.

Where does it leave me when the shaky ground settles into a new kind of comfort zone?
What am I supposed to do when the gears shift down and I discover I'm taking more from this community than I'm giving?

How can I make sense of  any of this when I stand across the street in my aviator shades and watch as a "slumlord" shuffles up to the door of an elderly lady's splintered home carrying a package of Depends with a 3 Musketeers balanced between his teeth?

If the point of me being here is to understand all the ways I fumble and fail, all the ways I've misjudged, all the times I've chosen fear before hope, I'm inclined to say it's working.

But I know I've got miles to go.
So I'd probably better stay a little longer.

**

Here's the vote link for the #StyleForJustice trip to Rwanda. Just a few days left. Thank you!!