Roses and Gunshots: A Tale of My City

The move to the Pacific Northwest from the Detroit metropolitan area was one I had put off for a good twenty years. Now we were headed to the piney-aired, sweeping embrace of the City of Roses. I felt ready for such a momentous alteration of my life, even days negotiating variable weather and terrain, pulling a cumbersome U-Haul. Give me mountains, give me wilderness, give me the wherewithal to welcome the unknowns ahead!

I wasn’t a complete newbie to the area. I had visited Oregon. I had also lived in a town outside of Seattle, Washington when I was eighteen for a year or so with an older sister. In a log cabin on a beautiful lake. It was paradise to me, but a paradise charged with and marred by an excess of youthful adventures and mishaps. It was then back to Michigan. But the mountain peaks, rain forest all about us, that vibrant pioneering city, the hearty, open-minded people stayed with me. A creeping homesickness for that geography and way of life distracted, even haunted me over the following years. It was a part of the country I had to be again, my Shangri-La. If it wasn’t to be Washington, then neighboring Oregon would do just fine.

Every time I drove anywhere down the flat roads of mid-Michigan, I would look at the clouds on the horizon and imagine they were mountains rising up. When I visited northern Michigan along the vast Great Lakes–the best place in the state–I was taken back to evergreen forests of the Northwest, the lake I knew and the wild Pacific Ocean beyond.

When I was 42, I had a chance at last to leave behind a Midwestern landscape and suburban lifestyle of seven years that had left their marks on me. It was a time of transition for me and two of my children, the other three having left home already. I had undergone a divorce and an impulsive remarriage. The new marriage did not last long after the move. But the relocation to Portland, Oregon was to become the joy I had hoped it would be. “Become” is the operative word. The change was not without several other glitches, lean times and homesickness despite my best hopes and efforts. There were moments I believed I had also fallen for an elusive romantic dream of “place”, but made another poor decision. Was it too late to hope for much better, to redirect my derailed life?

It was not nearly too late. And if it was the wrong choice of a mate–charismatic and capable but devious, controlling–it was the right place to flourish. I kept telling my children that as well as myself as I sought better jobs, attended college again off and on. My eighteen year old son took to Portland as if he’d been born to the Northwest but my twelve year old daughter took time sizing things up. She did love the street fashion and creative mix of people, the energetic urban atmosphere. I liked having two siblings here. Countryside that soothed and inspired me, weather I loved. I felt, too, that houses and buildings reached farther in design, painted brighter colors, and people dressed more casually as well as uniquely. What a far cry from fast paced, homogeneous suburbia, from a culture where people were pressured to conform and not question, not color outside the lines. It was wonderful yet jarring to finally take up a spot in this freer environment amid majestic natural habitats.

We initially lived in a roomy, two-story house that was one of a few belonging to my sister. It was a gift to move from a house to a house, since I had no job awaiting. But the first day I saw it I wondered if she’d lost her mind. Wasn’t it supposed to be in a more orderly, a trimmed-lawn-and-hedges sort of area similar to one we’d left? Wasn’t it a bit…well, bland, a bit ramshackle?

“You’re living in the real city now,” sister Allanya informed me.

“What do you mean, the real city?” I asked. “We just moved from Detroit, Michigan!” Meaning: that madly aggressive and industrious and rather dirty, spread out city of millions; the automotive capitol of the world (still, in 1992)!

“You’ve lived in a fairly tony suburb,” she reminded me, “not inner city Detroit.”

“Well, we lived on a more modest street in a one square mile village. I guess it considered a good suburb–it was certainly picturesque,” I agreed.

Now you live in the city with diversity of many sorts. This is close-in NE, meaning close to city center. Our downtown area is not like Detroit’s, if you recall; it’s generally safe. This neighborhood is variable block by block, perhaps, but this block is great. The area is improving a lot; it’s a great investment. I hope you’ll love it inside.”

Allanya bought houses and often renovated them; they were kept a few short years as rentals, then sold. I was getting a discount on rent and was deeply grateful for a readied house. I was only feeling the newcomer, unaccustomed to the ways and means of our new hometown.

The house itself was nondescript outside but, as promised, indoors it was spacious, light-flooded, attractive. It had a living room fireplace, a feature not in our last home. It had an enclosed porch/ sunroom I could use to write. Also a partially-finished basement with one bedroom and bathroom; huge kitchen with french doors and three bedrooms upstairs with bathroom. There was a vase full of cheery, fresh cut flowers on the table. We felt so welcomed. What more could we possibly want? So we lugged our suitcases up the stairs and unloaded the U Haul.

The back yard was good-sized with a garage. It had a weathered picnic table. Was that an alley back there? I peered over a fence, wondering how busy that got. My daughter and I took a walk the next day, down the block and to a busy intersection. We located the stop where she’d get the bus to school if she couldn’t be driven (she’d always been driven to school by me). Not a school bus. A regular city bus, unheard of in MI. as school transport and thus strange to us. I had been told by my sister that most kids took city buses by middle school; public transportation was so ubiquitous that youth and a great many adults went everywhere via bus system. I vowed to get a job that allowed me to drive her. I half promised to learn the bus system.

On the way back we noticed a small box of a nondescript store simply named “J’s Market.” It was a quick-stop sort of place; we were thirsty so went in search of sodas. It seemed a good sign that there was a place so close in case we needed a can of soup or a gallon of milk. We entered  and found the usual fare though it seemed dingier than expected. We browsed and were immediately watched by a hawkeyed older Asian store clerk, who simply nodded at me when I smiled and greeted him. As we checked out, I tried to be friendly.

“We’re new in the neighborhood. Nice to find a store so close.”

“Okay, good,” he said, taking my money.

“We’re from Michigan.”

“People coming all over.” He hadn’t looked up yet.

“I imagine so, it is a beautiful city.”

“Okay, have good day, thank you.”

We gave a little wave as we exited and he finally smiled ever so slightly, nodded again.

“What do you think so far?” I asked Alexandra.

That felt sort of weird. It sure is different here. But I think I like it.”

“Well, new places and people are good. We’re not in the ‘burbs, anymore.”

“That’s for sure!”

“You have a great view from your room onto the front yard. Big trees, too, like home.”

“Yeah,” she said and looked around at the street, stores, other houses, as if looking for something that could become her new inner magnetic North.

The truth was, it felt far more like a city than our sheltered suburb despite living within reach of a major megapolis for years. But day by day we began to adapt. Alexandra felt alright taking the bus soon and met a couple of nice girls. Josh made instant friends within the skateboarding world and got work right away as a commercial painter. I found a first job, then a better job, then was laid off, then found a position at a youth residential alcohol and drug treatment center that would be a springboard for a whole new career as a counselor. But there were things that worried me, too. It wasn’t the alienated, wounded, angry kids with whom I intensely interacted during long hours at work. It wasn’t the brief marriage ending. It was what happened on the streets about us.

We had made our lives comfortable after about a year. Everyone had their routine;  life was navigable again. We were decidedly happy with Portland’s variety of offerings and each of us made some connection to the community and developed promising friendships.

One early morning I was awakened by loud noises, one and then two sudden bangs close together that sliced through the silence. Maybe fireworks? I lifted my head from bed, heard nothing more, got up and ready for work. Odd that someone would be setting those off then. I forgot about it for an hour.

Josh came into the kitchen. “You hear those, Mom?”

“Yes, why?”

“I think they were gunshots.”

Alexandra looked up, eyes wide, then resumed eating.

“I seriously doubt it, we’ve felt safe enough here, haven’t we?”

“Yeah, but keep an eye out. Things can be sketchy at times, that’s what I’ve noticed.”

“Sure, I will.”

“I’ll see what I can find out. Be careful out there.”

I called in late to work and took her to school that day and a few after, eyeing houses and streets, driving with hands clutching the wheel. It wasn’t quite the first time I had heard alarming shots in my life, but it was so incongruous to hear in the morning that it hadn’t occurred to me it was a gun. Where were we, back in Detroit where you couldn’t venture safely past Eight Mile even in your car because scary things can happen in just a split second? I refused to believe it. We loved the house. My daughter’s school was very good, my son had good work and I was back on my feet.

Josh and I talked more than night.

“There’s lately been more gang activity around here, ” he said. “Better stay alert.”

“What? More activity lately? I haven’t seen anything, not really.”

“Maybe because we don’t know what to look for. Someone said there’s a house down at the next corner…” He pointed north. “Stay on our block or just south.”

I thought about it overnight and decided to take a casual drive around the area. I was not going to live on high alert all the time or be scared or teach my daughter to live afraid. But I wanted to know what was going on. The house my son had mentioned could pass as any house yet all  windows were curtained. On the porch were a couple of men with red bandanas around their heads, bare arms densely tattooed, with what I couldn’t make out in a fast glance. But since many youth I worked with were gang-members or peripherally associated, I knew what Crips and Bloods were; the lounging men were likely Bloods.

My heart rate rose. Sunglasses on, I kept my head forward and moved on. When I got a few houses down, I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw the men go inside. I turned the corner and went around another block and then back home. Sitting in the driveway, I wondered if the shots had come from there or if I was making something of what might be very little. I knew that it was not a good sign to see young men–and women–wearing bandanas of red or blue or yellow or a few other colors with other signifying clothing, depending on the part of the city you were in. Wearing of colors: a bold and direct statement, a warning, a clear sign of inclusion in a way of life, for life.

A neighbor lady with whom I’d  become friendly knew of it all already. “Ignore them or whatever goes on, that’s the best thing, just go about your business,” she advised–or cautioned.

Over the next few weeks there was no unusual activity, though occasionally a random gunshot might be heard ringing out in farther distance. Then one evening on a week-end when I was alone: the unmatchable roar of a muscle car was heard as it streaked past the house and neared the next corner. Shots punctuated the air multiple times; return fire occurred. It was loud enough that my ears recoiled. I moved into the back of our home, adrenalin surging, disoriented. Wasn’t the gang house at the northern corner? What did they have to do with our quiet, family-friendly block? Would the police be called? Shortly I heard sirens and tires screeching and more shots and more sirens. And then that silence which falls all around when something bad has happened. No one came out, nothing was said loud enough for others to hear. I crept up to a living room window, saw the blue and white flashing lights of police vehicles.

It was a long night. I did not tell Alexandra the next day. I did tell Josh and we determined that we should start looking for another place to live even though it might be hard financially. I then found out day from neighbors that every single day my children and I–and so many more—had been walking right by another gang house on our own corner. A dispute had turned virulent. I scoured the rental ads and looked at places but had less luck that anticipated. I took more shifts at work to save more money.

A couple of weeks later my daughter and I were sleeping soundly after a game of Scrabble. Josh was gone as he more often was, nineteen and having fallen in love. It was the voices at first that I heard, muted shouts outside my bedroom window which faced the back yard and alley. Initially I thought little of it though annoyed, turned over and tried to sleep. But the voices got louder and then came thundering feet on the dirt and gravel alleyway, and then came gunshots, two, three four. Then from the front of the house, gunshots, poppoppoppop! Then another back and front.

“Alexandra!” I called out her name through thick, alive darkness.

“Mom!” she shouted back, so frightened I could even feel her heart beating a million beats a minute. Like mine.

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

Nothing. I lay paralyzed a second as I heard more scurrying and voices giving directions of some sort outside. I began to slip off the bed, inch my way toward her room  when suddenly I realized Alexandra was rapidly crawling along the hallway and then across my floor. Was reaching for me.

“Mom, the gunshots! They went by my window!” She was yelling in a hoarse whisper.”Are they out back now?”

I pulled her down. We lay on the floor, my arm clamping her to the rug.

“Shhh…be still,” I said, lying close.”Don’t talk now.”

I could hear her trying not to cry, trying to not hyperventilate. I felt my own throat constrict, my chest thud as we waited for a long while, what seemed like hours. There was a rumble of sounds and then silence and then more silence, and then babble of hushed voices but it was people out in the street talking, I imagined. I told her to lay still and I’d be right back. I crawled into her room. The front windows overlooked the street, so I peeked around the edge of a curtain. There was a handful of neighbors in a yard across from us and then sirens wailed and police cars. I was tempted to go into the street to find out more but my daughter was shivering on the floor in my room so back I went.

“It’s all over,” I said, praying it was true.

She slept restlessly in my bed that night, a first in many years. We talked about it, how one stray bullet could have hit her from the front street or me from the alley gunfire. We were horrified by the possibility. We remained shaken by our new reality for weeks: we now lived in a place where guns were readily used in the city’s warfare and criminal activity, where what was a beautiful place could be changed to one of fear and trembling. We had left Detroit but had come to this. I felt depressed that I had made this decision. I had brought my children there with promises of good things, happier times.

We moved her bed far away from the windows. But it hadn’t been gang-related. J’s Market had been robbed, and people in the store ran after the guys. It was not the first time and some said would likely not be the last. But the owner would not give up.

We loved that high-ceilinged, spacious house; it was close to my job and most neighbors were kindly. But I started seriously looking for an accommodating apartment in a safer part of the city still close to her school. Josh found his own way after I located a good place roughly twenty blocks away but a whole new world and before long, we were gone. My sister had decided to sell her house, anyway.

That was twenty-five years ago. The old neighborhood is so different from what we knew that as I drove past the old place it seemed I’d made a wrong turn. There are pricey big stores where small crusty shops stood. The streets look sharper, brighter, repaired in all the most right ways. Gentrification is happening all over the city as more people move here and greater services are in demand. I can’t say I like it much; somehow it seems unreal to me, almost like the suburban life seems to me now. I know it has pushed plenty of people far out of their comfort zones, and also their very homes.

But J’s Market is still there, a little freshened but still and worn, busy as ever. I’ve stopped there a couple times and recognize no one, of course.  The Asian owner had ended up being more chatty with us, as we stopped there frequently, and had wished us well when we moved. I wonder who owns it now. I wonder over the fortitude or stubbornness of business owners who have refused to let gang wars or robbers shut them down. Who now won’t be bought easily and thus lose their toehold I on their neighborhood. And it is not lost on me that many who might want to leave a certain place cannot and there are those who would not ever consider it if they could only find a way ro stay. This is only my story; I did what worked for me, and it was not easy financially those years.

I have to be honest, though. We yet do occasionally hear fainter and even closer gunshots from this vantage point, within boundaries of one of several gracious historical neighborhoods. It’s still a densely packed area, “close-in”, and there will always be sirens and lots of traffic nearby and random disputes on the streets even while one admires Portland’s quirky attractions, surprising wonders and the beauties of the Northwest. It’s the actual city, as my sister once emphasized, even if it is smaller than some others I’ve admired. Lots of entrepreneurial energy is apparent, a trademark of our town. The arts and sciences flourish in fascinating forms and nature goes wild even within city limits.

But then I am yanked from deep of night and dreamy slumber: there is a familiar bambambambam, the echoing retort of a gun or two and I wonder what’s happening, what’s next, what should I do. Slowly I release taut breath, wait for emptied silence, turn over. Go to sleep once more. I wouldn’t want to live any place else, at least for the time being. Which is what I say every year.

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