Weekly Writing Challenge: Blog Your Block: The Hill After Sunset

It’s getting dark. It’ll be another half an hour before the sun sets below the Bay Area’s horizon, but it’s already vanished behind the hill of my neighborhood. A few remnants of daylight peek between the trees up the street, but it won’t last long. The streetlamp just beyond my driveway flickers to life, bathing a small circle of sidewalk in pale yellow. It’s not enough.

This will have to be quick.

I shuffle down the brick steps, swatting a cloud of gnats out of my way. The wooden railing on the stairs is chipped on one end, and there’s a fresh spiderweb on it. I wish our front walk could produce as many flowers as insects. The only things growing right now are small patch of wildflowers by the sidewalk. They’re tiny, but look beautiful close up. Most have shriveled in the last week or so; the heat hasn’t been kind. The weeds don’t seem to mind, though. Most of the pavement on this street is cracked or warped, and green leaves are sprouting everywhere. The breeze kicks in for a moment, and a plastic bag drifts down the sidewalk like a tumbleweed. I quickly grab and drop it into a nearby garbage can. Good thing pickup is tomorrow.

I turn left and stride up the hill at a steady pace. It’s an easy, familiar climb; if I’m home and have some free time on Sundays, I do 10-20 laps up and around it. This time is different, though; I’m doing this without the benefit of sunlight, and that makes a world of difference. I’ve written before about how dangerous my neighborhood is at night, and even now I’m mentally kicking myself for going out at this hour. No one else is out right now. All of the neighbors are home, but the shades are drawn and the porch lights are off. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the buildings are all abandoned. When I was a child, I imagined houses as living creatures, with the windows and doors as eyes and mouths respectively. But now? Each of these Victorian-era behemoths stand dark and quiet, like massive tombs of a bygone civilization. Shadowy entryways, unkempt grounds, and unnatural stillness. Houses are reflections of our own mortality; some age with dignity and grandeur, and others rot and fade into obscurity.

A hundred years ago, this area used to be a high-end neighborhood. These sprawling, wonderfully lavish homes were a far cry from the relatively low-budget places built after the end of World War II. I’m not sure what happened in the last sixty years, but the decline has been evident. I’ve seen old reel footage from what this place used to look like in the 50s; it was still safe enough to have street parades without having to worry about drive-bys. What changed? Was it the influx of people who couldn’t afford to live in Oakland or San Francisco? Was it corruption? Poor planning? All of the above? Whatever it was, this place has been perpetually broke since the turn of the century. This side of town has borne the brunt of it; all the modern establishments are far off in the hills. The schools here have a 30% dropout rate, crime is common, and even Starbucks won’t dare come within three miles of this area. The old Main Street is just a couple of blocks away, but aside from the local tavern, most of its storefronts are abandoned. It’s not safe – both physically and financially – to have a business in an area like this.

I pass by a rusted pickup truck and look at a neighbor’s window. The shades are drawn, but the sound of baseball on TV barely filters through. A police siren fades off into the distance, and I quicken my pace. The night is still young, after all. The top of the hill is there in a few seconds, and I lean against a decorative rock wall. Three trees grew for decades on this corner, but now there are only two. About a month ago, one was toppled in a storm, cutting off the street from two directions and nearly flattening the stop sign. It took almost a week for all the wood to be chopped and cleared out, leaving only a gargantuan stump in its wake. As I stare and reminisce, a cacophony of barks and howls brings me back to the present. A neighbor across the street has three dobermans, all locked up behind high and thickly-veiled fences. No one can walk by that house without getting an earful of snarls and yaps.

Not wanting to be mistaken for a prowler, I make an about face and head for the alleyway that runs back down the hill. I spare a glance down the adjacent street and freeze. There’s a seedy drugstore and adult novelty shop on the far corner, illuminated by a single streetlight. I can see the silhouette of someone leaning against the building in the shadows. Could be waiting for an escort, could be getting high. Maybe both. No one just stands out there idly at this hour. Not long ago, a man was killed in broad daylight in the middle of the street here. Hoping that I wasn’t seen, I duck into the alley and start circling back to my neck of the woods. The areas back here are in even worse shape than the front. Faded green paint chips away from an abandoned house, and weeds have consumed a backyard and part of a chain link fence. A window was broken recently, but it was boarded up and left unfixed. There were wisterias blooming here months ago, but they’re long gone. As I pass by a thicket, I notice a trash bag, empty bottles, and a single, muddy shoe. Those weren’t there last week; a homeless person must have camped out. I take the time to inspect the back fences that connect our properties. The barricades and boarded sections are still undisturbed.

Good.

I practically jog the rest of the way down the hill and round the corner. Weathered sedans and jeeps roar by on the main drag, radios blaring and headlights already on. I pass by my block’s lone palm tree, a odd landmark that was originally planted sometime around 1900. If anything of this place will survive, it’ll be that. The few remaining blackberry bushes are still months away from producing anything, though. The wooden fence running alongside the pavement is starting to sag under its own weight; if the trees and shrubbery are removed, the entire thing will likely collapse. The paint has long faded into a murky, curdled white, peeling away one tiny strand at a time. It needs to be fixed. Everything needs to be fixed.

I make it back home and lock the door behind me, not looking back once. It’s time for dinner, and for some reason I really need some food and a Giants game right now. I just got back from my vacation this week; it’s time to settle in and return to the daily grind.

I can’t wait to leave this place again.

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You Wouldn’t Like To Be My Neighbor

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about the neighborhood. I’ve actually written quite a bit about my neighborhood before, and I haven’t exaggerated much. There’s the weird assumption that Bay Area residents live in one of the most affluent, progressive parts of the United States. Anyone that actually lives in the Bay Area knows better. Oh sure, we’re in this huge melting pot of international culture and history, but the whole wealth thing? Yeah, that doesn’t go so far. Unless you’re living in Silicon Valley, Marin County, or own a vineyard in Napa. Even San Francisco, for all its technology and splendor, has a huge homeless population. If you walk even just a couple blocks away from say, Union Square, you’ll notice that the Tenderloin looks and feels very different from Nob Hill. All cities have poverty, but San Francisco lets you see it up close and personal. I hate treating the Tenderloin like a modern Mordor, because there’s probably a lot of stuff worth seeing. Yes, there are strip clubs and prostitutes, but the food is cheap and buildings are decorated with murals! Not to mention it’s the only way to reach Japantown and the San Francisco Public Library from the north on foot…

Anyways.

I don’t live in San Francisco, though. I live in a smaller, but no less dangerous city about 40 minutes away. No, I’m not going to say which one it is (sorry, e-stalkers!), but I will say it’s one of the worst parts of the Bay Area. Not Oakland, but pretty close. I’m talking about a city that’s been mired in perpetual debt even before the economy crashed in 2008. It’s much like the Wild West out here; crime is rampant, and the police force is so underfunded, it’s not even funny. Someone tried to burn down the courthouse not long ago. No, seriously. The school system here is probably one of the worst in California, and that’s saying something. The other end of town has been developed into a modern urban sprawl, leaving this end perpetually stuck in crappy-1970s-crime-drama mode. This part of town is definitely working class…for those people that actually work. My neighborhood used to be one of the greatest districts in the city, but it’s long been forgotten about; the century-old buildings are in disrepair, and the former main street is a deserted husk of boarded-up shops. All the major chain retailers are, of course, at the opposite end of town. The closest business to the house is an adult bookstore, a yoga place, and a seedy corner drugstore. It is not safe to walk around at night, and it’s not much better during the day. A man was murdered in the street in broad daylight about three houses away. Police sirens are common at night, and gunshots only occasionally. I’ve heard screams a few times. That story I wrote about a drug deal going down in front of my driveway?

Yeah, that happened.

So, why do I still live here? Family. The house I live in has been part of my family since it was built about a hundred years ago, and it’s been my pseudo-base of operations for my entire life. The neighborhood has just gotten worse over the decades, but the house is still quite liveable. The recession hit my family hard, so a little banding together was needed to make sure we got through it. I’ve been saving up, but it’s hard when you have to take care of the disabled and elderly. Now that I’m unemployed, I can’t just strike out and look for an apartment. It’s expensive to live in the Bay Area, and I’d need something way better than minimum wage to maintain a decent standard of living. It just feels…I don’t know. Like I’m stuck in a trap. I know I’m smart and capable enough to find something better, but how? Where? No wonder I like traveling to the city so much; it takes me two miles to get to the nearest bus stop, but at least it’s an escape from all of this.

Walking Home In The Dark: Part 2

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/weekly-writing-challenge-cliffhanger/

So there I am, standing at the bottom of the hill in the dark. I can’t be more than 200 feet away from the cars, but the drivers haven’t noticed me yet. Good. That’s very good. The cruddy streetlamp is a mixed blessing; as long as I stay out of its dull glow, I should be able to stay hidden. But I can’t stay out here forever. It’s too cold. There’s no way to get in besides the front, either. I have to head into the light…What about a distraction? Maybe I can call the house and have someone turn on the porch lights. The dealers might take it as a sign that someone’s coming out and leave. It’s worth a shot, right? I quietly take out my phone and begin dialing…

Only to discover that the battery is dead. Damn it.

Okay, so much for Plan B. I don’t have any weapons aside from my fists, feet, and teeth. Confrontation is out. What could possibly go wrong if I just walk up there? It’s a small-time neighborhood drug deal, so it’s not like they’re going to shoot me right out front. It’d be too loud and messy. They’d have to dispose the body, the bullet casings…unless they simply abduct me at gunpoint, take me to a warehouse somewhere and do things more methodically. Or maybe they just don’t care and have no qualms about leaving a body count. I’m not afraid of death – I’ve faced it enough before – but there are worse things. What about living through torture and mutilation? The human body is capable of surviving phenomenal punishment…

I’m over-thinking this.

Fine, then. Let’s just keep this nice and simple. I start walking up the hill at a steady pace. I face forward, but keep the dealers in my sight. Fifty feet. Thirty. Ten. I’m crossing in front of the driveway, and I spare a glance at the truck. A crusty blue Dodge, a few dents in the fender. Can’t make out the plate. The stench of cigarette smoke. As I pass the passenger side door, both men stop talking and look directly at me. I don’t even skip a beat; I turn my back to them and wearily trudge up the steps to house’s front walk. I’m moving on autopliot. I’ve done this hundreds of times, after all. I live here, unlike these people. I get inside the house and slam the door shut, then promptly turn on every light I can reach. A few seconds later, the truck rumbles to life and vanishes into the darkness.

And then I start breathing again.

Walking Home In The Dark

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/weekly-writing-challenge-cliffhanger/

I’m late. It’s already dark. I didn’t mean stay out for so long. Trips to San Francisco are the highlight of my week, but they’re measured by the daylight. The city itself is fine – it’s got the splendor and filth of any major city – but it’s the commute back home that’s the problem. An hour on the BART train system, getting off almost at the end of the line. Waiting for the next bus to arrive for up to thirty minutes, depending on traffic, delays, or if it even shows up at all. It’s ridiculously hit-or-miss, especially on the weekends. Getting off at the closest remaining bus stop to my house (the city shut down the one just down the street, of course), and walking nearly two miles from the outskirts of town. One marshland/construction zone to pass, two hills to climb, three stoplights to cross. Dozens of minutes, thousands of steps, all while keeping an eye on the setting sun and silently praying I make it back before the light disappears. Those minutes add up fast, and I can’t afford waste a single one.

It’s not safe here at night.

The thing is, it’s actually better than riding all the way into town. Most of the buildings on the old main street are boarded up and riddled with graffiti. Only the seedy lounge, an adult novelty shop, and a grimy convenience store on the corner are active at this hour. The rest know better than to keep their doors unlocked for too long. Most businesses packed up and left when the city declared bankruptcy years ago, opting instead to seek fortunes on the other, still-developing side of town. Drunks and drug dealers reign supreme over the remnants. A man was murdered in broad daylight not a year ago, his body splayed and bleeding in the street about four houses up from mine. Thievery is practically a given. The police only show up in extreme circumstances; their budget has been recently slashed. They don’t have the resources to stem the flow of daily crime. In the deepest, darkest hours before dawn, you can hear sirens and alarms on the wind. Sometimes gunshots.

And rarely, a scream.

So, I take the slightly less dangerous route. It’s longer, but there’s less of a chance of me running into someone or something unpleasant. But now that the sun’s gone, all bets are off. It’s okay, just have to focus and keep a low profile. I get off the bus, shove my hands in my pockets, and start walking. There’s a homeless man reclining in one of the construction site tubes, and I hope he won’t try anything as I pass. The street running alongside the former marshland is lined with lights, but there’s a narrow sidewalk on only one side. I have to walk against speeding traffic, shielding my eyes from the glaring headlights of passing cars. It’s too dark for them to notice me. Good, that means less chance of catcalls and muggings.

I reach the first light, punch the signal button, and wait. It’s freezing out here. I can just make out the vapors of my breath in the pale light. But I’m burning up; I can feel the sweat coming off arms, and the blood pulsing in my ears. A guy pushing a shopping cart full of odds and ends passes the other side of the intersection and vanishes into the shadows. The signal beckons me forth, and I practically leap into the crosswalk. I stride briskly to the other side, feeling the eyes of the drivers on my back. Don’t turn around. Don’t turn around, it’s okay, just keep going. I make it to the second intersection and do it all over again. I turn right and start climbing the hill.

Now that I’m off the main drag, it’s much quieter. But somehow, it makes things even worse. This neighborhood is one of the oldest in the entire city. The pavement is uneven, cracked, and weedy. Its houses are grand, rotting relics…and so are its streetlamps. There’s a sickly yellow glow coming from each lamp, but they’re way too far apart. There are long stretches of dark in between, abysses that seem to devour everything that gets too close. There could be anyone – anything – in those pockets of nothing.

And there’s no way around them.

I take a few deep breaths and sprint up the hill. I spare a glance at the old, hollowed furniture shop as I pass by – someone cracked its front window recently – and hope there’s no one lurking inside. None of the houses on this street have their lights on. Not a single sign of life. The other side of the hill is much more inviting. Brighter streetlights! Cars! One last intersection! And…Mexican music playing somewhere up the street? Fine, I’ll take anything over the silence.

I shuffle down the slope and make it past the final crosswalk. I stride past the rumbling vehicles without a second glance. I pass by a house with a fenced yard, and a little white dog yaps at me from the shadows. Someone left a couch on the corner; it’s laying on its side, stuffing bulging out and cushions faded with dirt. It’ll be gone by morning. It’s okay, doesn’t matter. I’m too close to care. I turn left and start making the final climb up the hill. My house is only a few hundred feet away. I look up the street in eager anticipation…

And freeze.

There is only one old streetlamp on my block. It’s halfway up the hill, right in front of my house. And in its splash of muted light, I can see two cars parked with their engines running. A blue pickup truck and a brown, rusty sedan. Neither of them belong to anyone in this neighborhood. There’s a guy sitting in the pickup, and he’s talking with the guy leaning against his window. Most likely a drug exchange.

And they’re parked right in front of my house.

To Be Continued