MAXWELL:  When old haunts turn into an urban nightmare

7/30/1995– Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Whenever I return here to the neighborhood where I was born and spent much of my childhood, I feel like I have landed on an alien planet in a faraway galaxy.

I do not recognize the buildings: The corner stores where we bought Sugar Babies and jawbone breakers, the cafes where we ate delicious greens, chitlins and sweet potato pies, the clubhouse where we dreamed of being rich _ all are dilapidated or abandoned or torn down now.

Nor do I recognize the landscape: The parks where we played touch football and the once-manicured back yards where we shot marbles are now strewn withdebris. Even the vacant lots have no grass, wildflowers or fruit trees.

And the laughter of children has disappeared; so have the old men who “shot the breeze,” played checkers, picked their guitars, blew their harmonicas and sang the blues under the city-block-wide banyans.

Worst of all _ and here is the central point of this writing _ I no longer have much in common with the people, especially the young ones: Their words and their behavior dismay me. Their values are altogether unlike those I learned as a child.

On my most recent trip here, for example, I was first in a line of seven shoppers in the grocery store near my mother’s apartment. A young male, dressed in his generation’s signature butt-dragging pants and high-tops, barged in front of me and placed a can of Pepsi on the counter.

Surprised, I looked around at the other customers. All of them, older than I, stared either straight ahead or at the ceiling or at the floor. Their faces wore the blankness of perpetual fear. The cashier, a polite Haitian woman, looked away from me in embarrassment and reached for the boy’s money. I could not believe she would wait on him first. Nor could I believe that he, perhaps a 13-year-old, would break in front of a group of adults.

Apparently mistaking my surprise for fear, he said: “Whuzup, ol’ nigga? Whuzup? Whuzup?”

Now, I was angry. The courtesy that I am accustomed to _ the respect that individuals give to others in public places _ was suddenly turned on its head. Pushed beyond tolerance and risking arrest, I grabbed the boy and flung him head-first onto a row of watermelons near the exit. He was too shocked to move immediately. I paid for his Pepsi and handed it to him where he lay.

“Learn to get in line like everybody else,” I said.

The other customers cheered. But I wondered who would stand up for them the next time a young tough discounts them or is about to crack their skulls or blow them away for their Social Security money.

Nearly everywhere I went, lawlessness, disrespect, intentional cruelty and self-destruction prevailed. This, I thought, is a world of chaos, an urban black hole. Most cops, even those born and reared here, have stopped pretending to give a damn.

According to “street” wisdom, the “real deal,” or unwritten policy, is containment: Let those people do what they want _ sell their drugs, beat their women, abuse their children, steal from one another, kill one another. Just keep them on their side of the tracks.

I see evidence of such benign neglect all over. One morning, as I sat in my car at Northwest 14th Avenue and First Street _ across from the police department _ five males, none older than 14, were selling crack and pot.

How could such illegal activity go down fewer than 100 yards from police headquarters? Because it occurred on the other side of Broward Boulevard _ on the black side, where the only free people are the criminals who terrorize the innocent.

Over here, innocence is a liability.

Some blocks away, as I drove to a gas station, four teenage girls blocked my path. Cars were parked on the other side of the street, creating a narrow lane for oncoming traffic. The girls sat on the curb, their legs extending into my side of the street. Had I driven around them, I would have struck the cars on the other side. Had I driven ahead, I would have run over their legs. I stopped. The girls were laughing. Two of them stood, did a vulgar dance and sat again.

I put my car in reverse and took another route.

Sure, I could have asked them to move; they would have refused. I could have argued with them. But I may have gotten shot or cut. Or I could have driven over them and gone to jail. Instead, I drove away, knowing that in this neighborhood, the girls’ rules are law _ a law that does not favor the polite, the law-abiding, the normal.

That night, my mother told me that she is afraid to go beyond her apartment complex. “The teenagers are dangerous,” she said. “They’ll kill you just for looking at them the wrong way.”

A few hours later, I heard two gunshots. They were nearby. I was about to go to bed when sirens screamed and police and emergency vehicle lights flashed through my mother’s bedroom window. I stayed inside. Bone-jarring rap music kept me awake most of the night. My mother complained, too, but warned me: “Don’t say nothing to these fools ’round here. They’ll shoot you over that damned rap mess. The police can’t do nothing. Nobody can.”

I learned the next morning what had occurred the night before: A teenage boy had shot and killed another over a foul call in a basketball game played two days earlier. When I walked to my car that afternoon to drive back to St. Petersburg, I saw some of the dead boy’s dried blood on the hot asphalt behind the Dumpster.

I do not belong here, I thought, driving along filthy Sistrunk Boulevard, the street that had been central to my life as a child. It had been a clean, prosperous strip, where I had wandered without a care, where a generous old man had sold the “sweetest homemade ice cream in the world.” These were the words scrawled on the wooden sign beside his hand churn.

He even kept his money in an open King Edward cigar box next to cones and silver scoops.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.