In the kind of neighborhood where everyone carries a lighter, kids pass by barbecues and ask for some, unabashed, and ladies of the night walk by in the same strand as Mormon missionaries, both preying upon people whose future ended somewhere in the past. And kids who in nice neighborhoods would have been called “free-range” as an upper-middle class back-to-earth movement are here the products of neglect, with untied shoes and un-wiped noses and a lack of fear and boldness beyond the cartoon characters on their Wal-Mart t-shirts. People with concerned family members put notes on front doors, saying, “don’t bring meth in here,” because they think they are going to get off it somehow, someday, that maybe if no one brings it in they won’t get high anymore. And the people whose families are only an eclectic mix of society’s rejects get high on benches by the barbecues and talk like they forgot what words they need, make guttural sounds and look like death.
In these neighborhoods everyone is lighting up and you wonder, when you walk through, how long it has been since each person has been out of jail, how long until they go back again. The kind of people who are nice, a friendliness you can touch, a willingness to talk to strangers you don’t find on the east side. They’re the kind of people who’ll join you at your barbecue and bring the salsa and some beer, and some friends who must be high, then steal your phone, your bike, your car, but bring you flowers they can’t afford when your dog dies. Your senses take it all in in these neighborhoods, lighters on cigars, on cigarettes, on hand-rolled joints, on worse. And you can smell it on the Salvation Army clothes of your neighbor and in the processed hair of the whore next door.
It’s a place where life is lived day by day, high by high, where intact teeth are a rarity and intact families even more scarce. Where the smell of cooking tamales awakens your hunger but the stench of garbage bags piling up on a second floor balcony makes you ill. It’s a place to leave self-consciousness locked up in your car, double-checked, windows rolled up all the way, to get drunk without fear of reprisal and dance as if you’re a child again. Just keep your purse tucked up tight under your arm as you do so. Dance like a child and cling to everything you own like an adult who has realized the folly of trust. It’s a place where garbage is dumped by the bagful by the playground, dirty tissues, used condoms, bags of chips. Water bottles filled with cloudy urine. Needles. Unattended children play and learn that the whole world is both a garbage can and a toilet, speaking to strangers either because they have never been taught not to or because they are desperate enough for attention that they no longer care. You wonder where their dinner is. You wonder what has brought you here.
It’s the kind of neighborhood where you learn that face tattoos don’t always mean a person is merely a criminal. You learn about how abuse in early childhood becomes imprinted on a person’s face in ink, in criminal records, in illiteracy, in poverty. You learn that the Mormons only talk to people who will convert, and won’t take pity on the lonely if they are devoted to another belief. You learn that half your beer left on a picnic table will have strangers taking sips from it shortly. Don’t turn your back. Don’t drop your bag. Double-check for your phone, your credit cards, your car keys. Get the kind of drunk that east side people wouldn’t tolerate, but not lose-your-shit-drunk, because you will lose your shit.
You meet teenagers with teeth so bad they turn away from you to answer a question and smile with their mouth closed, but their single mom doesn’t have the money to get those teeth fixed because dad’s in prison and there’s been no child support since before they hit puberty. Pretend you don’t notice. Don’t think about how close this place is to the prison and don’t wonder how many years it will be before this kid with sparse facial hair self-consciously concealing his teeth will be in there. Because he will be in there.