On our last night living in Buckeye, we throw a party in the Possibilitarian Garden.
The occasion? To thank all our temporary neighbors for welcoming us into their lives, at least for a short time, and sharing their stories with us.
It’s also to celebrate Reggie’s birthday. The Mayor of E. 117th Street is turning 64 in a few days.
About 15 people come altogether. Liz is there, and she’s brought a layered salad topped with a mix of mayonnaise, vegetable dip and bacon bits - a concoction she says she invented herself.
Reggie comes too, of course, and so does his daughter, Shonee (short for LaShonya), who lives in the same house as her dad but in a different unit. She wears a cheerful headband of plastic yellow flowers.
A couple boys from across the backyard fence ask if they can join us. They want Sprite and Coke - and some of Liz’s salad, but only the top layer, please.
Mostly, the talk isn’t about anything serious. Shonee complains about a five-year-old boy on her bus route who curses her out every morning when he boards (she drives a bus for a special education school in Willoughby).
Everyone raves about a banana pudding whipped up by our neighbor Nancy - a 30-year resident of the street whom we’ve just met, and who’s married to Blue, Larry’s friend. She’s retired from a long career as an office worker at the U.S. Postal Service.
But there’s also talk, as usual, about the crime that plagues the neighborhood. Nancy has a theory about why E. 117th Street has become a favorite spot for drug dealing: Our area is one of the few spots along Buckeye where there’s still a critical mass of operating storefronts. They provide an easy refuge when police come around.
Liz shouts and jumps up when she sees swarms of flies attacking the potato salad and chicken parmesan. I help her cover everything with Saran Wrap and napkins.
We light Diana’s candles and sing a couple rounds of “Happy Birthday” to Reggie. He tells me he’s feeling mellow tonight, staying put in one chair and talking about how nice it is just to be outside.
The next morning is our last day on E. 117th Street.
Though we’ll be back in August to engage artists from the Passport Project storefront on Buckeye Road, I feel a lot of complicated emotions as I haul my bags downstairs.
I’m grateful for the acquaintances and friendships I’ve made - yet sad to be distancing myself from them, at least geographically. I’m proud of the work Seth, D’Angelo, Dawn, Julia and I did in our month here, yet aware of how many people and stories we didn’t reach. I can only hope we’ll get to more of them in our storefront phase, beginning in August.
I feel a “stickiness” about the experience, an awareness of the complex issues of race and class and crime that we touched on but just barely began to explore. I know we can do a better job crossing the digital divide, so that we are reaching and encouraging dialogue among the people who live here instead of just our own networks.
As I stuff my bags into the trunk of my car, I see Liz pulling into her drive. I wave and we stop to chat. She’s just back from a workout with friends.
Under her arm is an empty Tupperware container that had carried the salad she made for last night’s party. She and her friends finished it off after they were done exercising.
I try to convey to her some of what I’m feeling - mostly gratitude about how she invited us into her life to some degree, and accepted our invitation in return. I say I hope we managed to convey the complexity of life on this single street, with its real troubles and real joys.
She probably senses me becoming maudlin, because her response is reassuring.
“I think you experienced this place for what it was,” she says. “You were out and about, you didn’t hide inside. You saw a lot.”
She tells me she’s going to spend some time cleaning up litter from the street. I join her, and we clear the southern part of the block in about 15 minutes, filling half a trash can. We find all kinds of things: Metal forks, clothing, a pair of smashed eyeglasses.
“People throw all kinds of stuff out their window when they’re just passing through,” she says. “When they don’t live here, they don’t care.”
A few minutes later, when I’m actually driving away, I’m stopped twice. The first time is by Liz, who invites me and Seth to a cookout she’s hosting in August.
It’s a small thing, but it tells me that in some way the connections we’ve made here, even during this brief time, can continue. That we were perceived not only to have observed, but to have participated.
The second time is by Larry, who’s standing in his tree lawn.
“Leaving the ghetto, huh?” he calls.
I know he’s half-teasing, but the remark still stings. It’s true: I’m returning to my comfortable apartment in comparatively affluent Tremont, while he and everyone else I met here will stay behind, whether by choice or not.
I babble something about how I don’t think of Buckeye as the ghetto, how I’ll be returning...
“Every place has its good and its bad,” he says, waving his hand. “People forget that. But it’s true.”