Let me preface the following piece with my current observation that although I’ve moved into a larger place in the same neighborhood and the characters (my neighbors) have changed names, the situations are as accurate now as they were then. There are several personal experience notes about myself that I included to show just how someone like me got into this situation. I do not write it with hopes of pity or a firm case of I’m-glad-it’s-not-me’s but to demonstrate how easy it is to fall between the cracks.
I have since been able to secure health insurance which has allowed me to take care of myself better, but the deductibles from my unemployed standpoint are just as daunting as knowing I have heaps of medical bills left over from when I didn’t have it. I am still looking for employment that I’m able to do and I feel confident that I will achieve this even after 5 years of unemployment.
Potential Dead People
An essay on living in a poverty ridden community
Under the guise of Southern hospitality, with honeysuckle blossoms haunting the air, I drift the night. My feet thump the sidewalk broken by misuse; years of neglect punctuated by my footfalls. My neighborhood is one that demands ten year old cars. It is scary when the people fight around here because of the plight they find themselves an unfortunate part of because of dreams and potential unfulfilled. My neighborhood has the underlying unpleasant odor of beer, weed, and other illegal activities.
Yards fall slack without pride. A few sparks of well tended flower gardens shine. Not because of their beauty but because they are shrines to hope. They are shrines that will eventually be abandoned as hands are thrown up in the air. Hands that once tended the colorful petals as lovingly as a mother to a child. There are a few homes on my lane that try to fight back the tides of a dying plot of city; a shade of its former glory. Only a few of us arriving in the nick of time to protect others from themselves. Humility has no place in Highland View. There are too many with tirades against the injustices of our living conditions.
Still, I walk without fear I should have. I see echoes of laughter glimmering from the past. I glimpse it in abandoned windows that no longer warm families. The empty souls stare back with unblinking eyes. The grounding of community lost to history. A history built on lies and destruction that the world had never known before this city built it. A city duped into believing that they had a common enemy. An entire world sealed within gated walls, forbidden entry enforced with weapons and paperwork badges of freedom ringing with atomic bombs.
I walk my neighborhood that decays before my eyes. I see “This planet sucks!” spray-painted before the stop sign. Perhaps in homage, perhaps the truth, but still yet another defacement of the place where I live among the chronically poor who possess apathetic landlords. People whom, if better choices had been made in their lives, would never have chosen to live where litter clogs the gutters whenever the rain falls. They would never have chosen to embrace the cracks of sudden gunfire that sometimes escalate in frequency throughout the night. They would not allow the prostitution to run rampant or the induction of child-drug-addicts infusing into our schools like violent swords clashing publicly.
My feet witness a dead carcass that, after sunbathing rudely naked with guts exposed in the road all afternoon, has finally been moved to the sidewalk. There is a sign nearby that proudly announces that you’ve now entered Historic Highland View Neighborhood. What it really confesses is the boundaries of the “War Zone.” Tell me that the scream of sirens blaring through the night or the hovering helicopters with the spotlights allow you to sleep without multiple locks upon your doors. I can’t say that. I live with it.
Pretend that the drug dealers don’t matter with their shady clientele driving past my walking sneakers. On evenings, just like this one, I watch cars and trucks that don’t belong here piss in my yard. Tell me that they have my best interests at heart. If you can, I will show you what it’s like to hate the broken streetlight at the end of my driveway that no longer provides its security. The long dark stretches in between the twilight-like illuminations make my feet move faster, though I bid them to hold steady to show I am without fear while walking in my neighborhood.
Sometimes, unbidden, the night reveals dark secrets. The kind of secrets that glare angrily when they are recognized. The secrets that, when seen in the daylight, are so ugly that they are an eyesore to humanity. I inhale the despair deeply while I witness them surrender to primal urges of violence. Intolerance sings death mettle. The bodies fly so fast that the air only budges three minutes after the landing of the first blow. I am terrified as I wait for the combat to erupt from the doors and windows scattering physical shrapnel into the streets.
The weather is warm with a hint of future rainbows. The dark clouds, even on the clearest of days, hang heavy like black velvet paintings of dogs playing poker. As I step into my driveway, returning from my slum stroll, I turn a blind eye to the horrors I see around me. If I didn’t, I may submit to the subtle enticement of permanent stagnation just as the majority of my neighbors have.
As I enjoy my freshly raked back yard, I listen to the world calling for its mates. I can hear the cars driving by on the road just beyond my rear neighbor’s home. The cars disregard the speed limits. Their absent mufflers pronounce the presence of the different vehicles. Some blare music with a high treble voice into the air with cussing and body parts displayed like bad tattoos on scrawny underfed young men and women. The kids are covered in sores with Mountain Dew meth teeth rattling their very skeletons. They all pretend that nobody knows, but everybody does.
My porch is tidy with seating for myself and another. As I sit in my green wing-back folding chair, I hear the alarm of yelling coming from the same house it normally does. They just moved in from out of state in hopes of a better life. They, like most that live around here, are baffled how they ended up here. They don’t remember being loved by one another any more. They do believe in “Better The Devil You Know” with all of their hearts. Verbal abuse screams without repercussions throughout their family tree. It’s all they know. It’s how they were raised. There are a thousand reasons or excuses but the real reason is because they depend on each other like they depend on their own unhappiness.
A firecracker gunshot slaps my ears with its suddenness. Reflexively, I flinch. Yet another child comes knocking on my door asking for food as their stomachs growl in protest. They never leave my house without my rectifying their situation. I don’t have much, but clearly I have more than they. I give freely from my garden, cupboards, and fridge as the needs arise. I err at times and find myself unable to feed my own family. I walk out from under the kerosene soaked blanket that awaits ignition and hangs over my neighborhood into the places that barely hide the looks of contempt that drips from their upturned noses. I accept food from the food banks when I need to. In return, I help them fold clothing into neat piles of unwanted/outdated/stained/worn/or otherwise damaged clothing. Periodically I get lucky and win a find that they share with me for free. I don’t feel so discouraged on those days.
The air conditioner behind my neighbor’s house, beyond my backyard fence grumbles then screams to life. Any conversations have to be raised in volume to compensate for the intrusion. Those neighbors are unaware, or pretend to be, of the noises that they pollute our neighborhood with. They are the same neighbors that used to tie up their dog to the porch by their side door, but the dog barked and whined too much. Their solution was to purchase a large kennel over which they strapped a common blue tarp. They moved that to back of their yard closest to mine. Now I experience their ignorance and abandonment first hand through my open second story windows. My torn screens mock back towards the yearnings of the lonely puppy.
The little girl that lives in that house has a heart filled with song. On afternoons, just like this, she opens her mouth and mimics the radio with unusual accuracy. When she allows it, she carries on quite the free concert behind a curtain of overgrown underbrush that keeps my own secrets from running around naked on the streets with the other misfits and results of bad or absent parenting while they were growing up.
I hear drunken revelers blowing air-horns like air raid sirens. Cops rarely patrol here. As I explained, this is a war zone. The people here live in imminent danger of becoming homeless or starving (The American Way). The only relief, the only thing that seems to erase the fears and uncertainties are found in little plastic baggies willed with tiny pieces of what looks like large salt crystals or sticky green buds the size of dimes that would kill most of an hour if it’s right. I had to research that. I don’t see it, but I know it exists. Its testament more obvious than I love Jesus stickers found on nearly every vehicle parked nearby on the streets.
If I get overwhelmed by The War Zone that surrounds me daily, I need only walk a mile and a half to the east, a mile and a half to the south, two and a half miles to the west, and only a mere 500 feet to the north to get relief. This is a very high concentration of depression. It will pollute the rest of the city if not kept in check.
My neighborhood mirrors the ugliness back to the surrounding places. Where I live serves a valuable purpose with its grotesque vulgarity. It exposes gaping holes in the system that so many cling to so gratefully blind to the issues at hand. They have tidy bug-free kitchens that can run more than one appliance at a time. They don’t want to see the invisible sore-covered humans living in squalor in homes not fit for rats.
The people in my neighborhood are easy to deny. They are easy to cut from welfare when many depend on it for food their minimum wage jobs can’t provide. They are easy to remove from health care because nobody misses someone they can’t see. It’s easy to deny civil and human rights to people who don’t matter. Not a single person exists in this war zone until they pull a knife or shoot up a movie theater. Then, and only then, can the comfortable people sitting in front of their 72″ televisions look at one another and comment wryly about the state of things with un-witty quips like, “I told you so.”
Being poor and living in this neighborhood war does not make any of us less human. If anything, it exaggerates it to the point of total comprehension. It brings itself forth like a bloody head of an aborted fetus whom was saved from a life of disregard. It presents itself like the eleven o’clock news at 10; off-kilter, disturbing, unbalanced, with prejudice and biased opinions towards people they can’t even see.
Come on, Middle America! Look out into your own backyards. Open your eyes and see what I am showing you. Step out of your cushy jobs that shuffle papers all day. Roll up your sleeves, step into the trenches where character is ripped from the soul like a vulture at a tasty buffet of rotted flesh. Come away with me where the bastardized virgins are escaping from infant wombs at an incredible rate. Step into The War Zone with me and declare a cease fire.
I can’t guarantee success because most people I know don’t even realize that they are in need of assistance. Most are so blinded by their own fight for survival that they become invisible to one another. It’s easy, you see, to forget that not everybody got fairy-tale bedtime stories. Many, you see, had different things taught to them inappropriately by those commissioned by birth to love and protect them. Failure reeks the rooms they enter like the overbearing cologne on a woman that smells of pennies and death barely concealed under funeral sweet floral perfumes.
Among all of this, I have a place. It is an oasis in the midst of all the destruction. It exists because I created it as a spot of joy within The War Zone. It is found within the confines of my neighbor’s lonely dog’s cries coming from the north, the assassinating ninja raccoons to the east, the garbage strewn gutters to the south, and the raped hedges (now growing back thicker) with non-blooming roses of Sharon and the dominant kudzu that twines blankets over anything stupid enough to remain stationary.
A couple of summers ago, while I was walking Waddell Circle, I noticed a pile of mail on a porch. Not a few pieces of mail, but a pile. The green VW Bug that was parked on the street out front looked abandoned. Upon further inspection, driven by curiosity, I checked the doors. The back door, not visible from the street, was wide open. A little dog stared back at me as he sat among the remains of a torn up bag of dog food. Laying in the floor of the barely furnished apartment in front of a television that babbled about cute architecture, lay the body of a woman I didn’t know. I hurried home and called for a wellness check on her. She had been dead for nearly two months. Her body was suspended in mummification. Sadly, nobody noticed. Another person out of the competition for survival. I don’t know what happened to her. I don’t know why she died, but the same thing could happen to any who live in my neighborhood. All who live here are like her; disregarded, unimportant, forgotten as human beings. That hangs in the air here like her unreported death.
It is a parasitic film that hangs like a multitude of ticks on each disabled or unstable adult. It doesn’t lie and offer rainbows. It only allows the release into death. A final resting place of certainty in this unforgiving and uncertain place in which we live. It is a cesspool of sickness. Most of the people I know have some sort of disease and spend countless hours seeking relief for their pain, regrets, fears, and financial stability. They know that what they are experiencing will kill them. They are right to believe it.
Without access to medical care, without access to education that they more than likely can’t afford, without proper legal representation this despair is thick with disposable people. I’ve heard people with comfortable pockets mock the people that live in my neighborhood. “If they’d just get off their lazy asses and get a job.” Or, “You don’t look sick to me.” Or, “You can find the answer in God’s word.” It’s disheartening to think that these people who have money can take it for granted when most people in The War Zone wish nothing more than to be valued.
On my birthday in 2009 I had a mini-stroke. I was, at the time, working in a legal office processing court petitions. I was very good at my job and commonly received praise for accuracy and efficiency. For three months I couldn’t walk a straight line if you paid me money. I could no longer drive because I had no depth perception. The pain in my head was so strong and so constant that I couldn’t get much rest. Pain pills, anti-nausea and anti-dizzy medications had little to no effect. I was told by my job to not come back until I got better because my productivity had fallen so low. I couldn’t concentrate enough to hold my head up most of the time. A week before my doctor deemed me healthy enough to return to work, I was “laid-off” because I was too sick. They couldn’t say it, but that’s why.
Without work, I applied at every job opportunity I could find in the Oak Ridge area. I primarily worked in office settings and commonly excelled wherever I was placed. I couldn’t find anything and nobody returned calls of inquiry.
In March of 2010, I was granted emergency custody of my nephew who I call and consider to be my son. The living conditions from which he came were worse than even my neighborhood’s War Zone. He was very emotionally and mentally ill. Then began a battle to get him the services he required. He was placed in therapy, out-patient drug programs, taken to court dates from the trouble he’d gotten into, and basically completely redid everything to get a baseline of his condition.
In March of 2011 after a mental snap, he was finally placed in a residential facility to stabilize his psychosis, PTSD, and Depression. He remained there for 9 months. In the mean time, another troubled child came to live in my home.
I again flooded the market with resumes and applications. I put in a minimum of five a weekday for three weeks straight. I had no income and two kids to feed when my son would come home for weekend visits. My estranged husband took the transportation to go to his job which severely limited my potential income. Of all the places I applied, what came of it? Nothing. That’s what happened. Nothing. Not even a response to these inquiry calls either.
I am writing all of this not to ask for help but to explain that I am not the only one who lives under these conditions in the Highland View neighborhood. Most of the time I serve a small purpose by being a ray of hope for those around me. Other times it’s very difficult to see the absent silver lining that is in every cloud. I protect if I’m asked or see the immediate need arise. I feed them if they come to me hungry and ask. I transport them when I am able, but mostly they all just want their voices to be heard from behind the lines. It is sad that nobody else seems to want to stop and help the injured souls that abide here in my neighborhood. Nobody offers these things to the lost or the frightened anxious humans. Better than you is a common behavior I’ve observed in nearly every place I’ve gone, even on my lane.
At the local free clinic or the local food banks, I see people lining up 30+ deep at first bell of help. I see them shifting uncomfortably to get a bag of food because they are hungry. I see mostly people like me, middle-aged, waiting with their discouragement. They act awkward if I talk to them, engage them in conversations. They meet my eyes most often with defiance as if they know that this isn’t the life meant for them but the life they chose either because of circumstances or life events, or, yes, maybe because they didn’t want to see what they could make of their lives. I realize that this contradicts what I wrote about available resources before, but some of them could be given every resource with all new everything and it would still go to waste because they no longer believe in life, or hope, or love.
They, as do others, view themselves as pariahs unworthy of anything good. Paragons of the underworld, they put on a good show that is not at all entertaining. Reality television could not possibly ingratiate itself to making a chronicle of the anguish these people in my neighborhood experience every day. They become the very cracks they fell through by turning to illegal activities to survive the War Zone we live in. Nothing holds any sacredness, not even life. Nothing offers them redemption from their lives. Anger and gossip are easier and far more palatable than the alternatives of disappointment and responsibility.
This is a neighborhood where getting probation is a lucky break. This is a neighborhood where there are limited single parents but many blended families. This is a neighborhood that feels forgotten. This is a neighborhood that doesn’t get but a happy hand press at election time and a fuck you until next election. This is a neighborhood that’s given all it can and is still sadly lacking. This isn’t a neighborhood where a band-aid will do any good. A serious change has to be made in this neighborhood. This needs to be addressed so that a light can be shined into the darkest of our society’s secrets that live around me in my neighborhood. I am asking for a cease fire against the poor. This corruption that flourishes here needs to be redeemed. I need to feel safe again.
There is a man I know of who provides for his family of six by practicing Freeganism. If he can’t find what his family needs, he tries harder. He is in poor physical health. His neck has no cartilage between the vertebrae. He is in constant severe pain and it will remain that way because he can’t afford to get the surgery that would make his life better. He couldn’t afford to leave his family to go without so he continues onward. His wife was attending college to earn a degree in psychology but was forced to drop out, even though she was attending school on a grant, to get a job to supplement their Freegan lifestyle they are forced to live. He feels trapped and depressed most of the time while his family walks around on eggshells trying to offer peace that will never be enough until his body is healed and his emotional self can catch up. Failure is an unwelcome moniker I know he wears with disdain. Yet, the bills keep coming. Their family is commonly without utilities which becomes tragic in the winter when there isn’t any heat or a stove that works without them.
The programs that could help are sadly underfunded. They sometimes have to refuse all but the most desperate, usually with regret that their funds are being diluted just as quickly as those they serve. It’s so discouraging to realize that, although these are all First-World problems, enough people in my neighborhood are suffering on every level. This has to end.
There has to be a solution to the issues, problems and difficulties I’ve described. However, until the voices of the downtrodden are heard, until the people that need a hand up not a hand out are aided, until we can shake the label of unworthy from the public eyes; This tragedy will continue on American soil.
My first impression of the depressed economy in Tennessee did not stem from living in Oak Ridge. I admit that I’m jaded towards the entire state due to my experiences here. At first glance, it may just be culture shock having moved from a small Mormon filled town to a community plagued with the dregs of criminal activity.
I worked in a gas station in the community I first experienced after moving to Claxton which is just south of Clinton, Tennessee. Not all, but a lot of people spent their days buying beer as if it were water. A lot of the people played the fool’s game of the state lottery, but more than those were the people addicted to one kind of drug or the other. I witnessed people spending cash on cigarettes, beer, and junk food but refused their filthy child an apple. Three year-olds with sippy cups filled with Mountain Dew were pretty common as well. I watched young men who had no education steal beer which I made them promptly return. I nearly got in a fist fight because a man was trying to steal gas from two older ladies. I watched as young people with dreams in their hearts gave up and buckled down to a life they didn’t want. The list continues of things I’ve seen with my own two eyes.
I am not saying that all drug addicts, poor people, or criminals have less than stellar hygiene, but it is quite common to the people that I first observed. I am not passing any kind of judgment on the people I live nearby. My goal is to report as accurately as possible what I’ve seen, heard, and experienced here in East Tennessee.
Heck, the bar I used to own only became available because one of the owners shot the other one to death inside the bar. He made it to the parking lot before submitting to his injuries. These are the people who have fallen. These are the people who, out of desperation, do horrible things to one another. I can’t point a finger and say that this or that is at fault, but I do know from experience that when there is no hope, there is rarely help.
In the building in which I live we had four families. Each deals daily with financial burdens that are negligible if suitable employment were to be had, but there isn’t. We grow gardens in our back yard in hopes of supplementing our groceries with wholesome foods. We stand by one another. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to go rescue one of them from disaster such as health issues, unable to drive, or because they got too scared and couldn’t get home. If I try to describe it to other people it’s as if they believe that those of us who live in the War Zone ask to get sick so we can collect government checks. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. The fact is, health issues seem to be the most dominant problem that anyone I know has to deal with. It’s depressing to know that proper medical care could actually do some good, but they, like me, can’t afford to get required medical care and have to resort to free-health clinics.
There used to be a family that lived down at the other end of my street. The dad worked as many hours as he could. He is a beanpole in stature with bad teeth and questionable judgment. Every bit of money that he earned and brought into his house went to bills. The SNAP benefits they received were so paltry, even with two teens living at home, that they were commonly gone within the first week of receipt. The matriarch, an overweight woman with a skewed view of herself as being sexy, wore slinky ill-fitting clothing, smoked like a chimney, and ate everything in sight leaving her children hungry and sharing my dinner.
I used to send food home with the kids (boxes of mac and cheese or soups) until they informed me that they weren’t getting any of it. The boy became a 7:30 PM staple at my dinner table to share our own meager meals. It became necessary.
Once, while I sat on my neighbor’s porch shooting the breeze, this mother arrived, uninvited, to hang out. I mean this literally. She was barely covered with a slit in her skirt that she’d put there and was higher than her lowest fat roll. Her boobs were unrestrained in their barely concealing top. We disregarded her attire until the conversation turned to her son. We were bragging to her about how wonderful her boy was and all of his good qualities that we saw on a regular basis. He piped up with, “See mom, I am a good person.”
Without warning, she punched him in the chest hard enough to hear meat against flesh. We sat there stunned while the boy blushed red and fell silent. I grabbed my neighbor’s leg to keep from pummeling the sad example of a poverty stricken woman trying so desperately to be somebody, ANYbody, other than who she had become to the detriment of her child. I asked her to leave.
The buildings on the east, west, and south of my own are maintained abandoned. I’ve never seen anyone living in either the east or west buildings but their grass gets mowed every once in a while. Upon occasion someone will come and check the interiors for squatters, but other than that they are abandoned.
The building to the south used to have a family that lived there until the roof leaked and health issues ate up the rest of the money they had socked away. The owner of the building bought it years ago to supplement his income. His kids are all grown now, his wife and he just don’t need it. They also send someone over to mow, although not as frequently as the other two.
There are many desperate people in my neighborhood doing desperate acts to stay afloat, but the tides of bounty always recede to reveal the tide pools of emptiness. There is never enough in my neighborhood except enough crime, enough hunger, enough drugs, enough poverty, enough mental illness, enough anger. Some live solely on the child support because they have no other income.
When neighborhoods like mine sit stagnant, as it has, for a while things become volatile and uncertain. It no longer feels safe to walk around even though I do it anyway. Call it stupidity, call it a warrior’s spirit, call it ignorance, but I don’t want to be hibernated by the shadiness of my neighborhood. I don’t want to be locked up in hopes that things won’t explode.
I acknowledge that my neighborhood may not be as bad as some, but it’s far worse than most. I live here. This is the place where I put my unwilling roots. This is the place where, at this time, I come from and don’t want to give up. There is little hope that this neighborhood under any regime will ever improve to a point of beauty again. I’ve seen all of this. I’ve experienced all of this. I hear the cries in the night with little or no punctuation. Last night I listened to a man yelling and cussing for hours on end. If the police do respond to a call, rarely is there something done.
Even rarer than the police patrols are the sounds of a normal, typical neighborhood. The steady groan of a lawnmower being pushed the length of the yard. The steady clack of flying walnuts and sticks imitate the key strokes of a manual typewriter. The ding is the metallic clank of yard debris on the turn before the next pass. In the summer, before the heat riles the ire, kids sometimes play in the few fenced yards. Maybe they splash in plastic pools or chase each other while playing tag, but the sounds they make create a sense of normal. Only this neighborhood isn’t. It is far from normal. If it is considered normal, then I have little hope for America.