The Long and Winding Road to Radical Resilience
I have always had a wanderlust and a hunger for novelty and difference. Growing up in the Lakeview Terrace public housing project didn't leave much room for novelty. In the projects everybody has the same size kitchen. Hundreds of families live in beehive apartments with the same appliances and balconies, the same everything. I was bored. So I left. This was actually a bit of a clear challenge, because from 100 yards away, the entire project is invisible to the outside world. There is a raised freeway, made of metal and concrete that can be viewed from my old bedroom window. To get into the projects you would need to walk through a concrete underpass, almost a tunnel, beyond which there was nothing that anybody wanted or needed to know about over there; just the railroad tracks, the gravel heaps and salt mounds, the sound of the monstrous cranes at the loading docks on Lake Erie with their dinosaur groans, the regular “shoop-shoop” of traffic making its way along the shoreway overpass. There were the railroad tracks and frequent freight traffic that passed through and often rested two minutes from my front door. Freeway. Train tracks. Loading docks. Projects. All hidden from the rest of the world. So hidden in fact, that on my first solo trip home from my 5 and final elementary school, I stood only about 100 yards from my apartment, but could not see it, beyond the wall of commuter thoroughfare that blotted it from view. I cried with fear and embarrassment because I thought that it would be easy to find my way home, but I literally looked down my street, through that almost tunnel-thingie and I couldn't see anything like a sign of life. Just concrete. The invisibility effect of my neighborhood was enhanced by the fact that all of the buildings are built on a downward slope, with the “tunnel” at the highest elevation. I couldn't see my neighborhood because it was either hidden behind a raised concrete freeway that functioned as a 30 foot wall, or it was actually visually below the horizon. Anyway, I was bored. And, I would do anything not to be bored. Avoid and Evade boredom at all costs. That was my personal rule.
One Saturday, when I was 13 going on 14, I wandered out of the projects, through the tunnel, up and out into the world of white people. West 25 Street and Detroit Avenue. This was the first outpost of civilization and one of two main reasons that we ever left the projects: to go to White Castle for a 6-pack of sliders or to go to the liquor store close by. One weekends, we would go to a series of big national stores like Woolworths, A and P supermarket, the landmark West Side Market (cooler than any specialty food shop I've seen in the bay area. All of the stores that we went to were within a 6 square block area. Unless we were going to school or the police office, we always made a beeline from the projects to those 6 blocks and back to the projects. For the 5 years that I lived in Lakeview Terrace, there were no white people living INSIDE the projects, and no black people OUTSIDE the projects, except for one local grocery owner. I just decided to follow the path to my junior high school, William Dean Howell Jr. High. Then, I just kept on walking. I walked to where no black person that I knew had ever walked. But, I was bored, dammit. I needed input. Maybe 4 blocks past my school, most black students didn't even exit the building except through the doors that faced the projects—we knew intuitively to get out of school and take our black asses home. It was a gauntlet of white, laced with a smattering of Puerto Ricans throughout the white neighborhood. I was to learn that day that I could pass as Puerto Rican. A short wirey brown man, darker than me approached me, gesturing up and down the street and pointing to various street signs, and unloading on me with rapid-fire Spanish. I gathered that he thought because I was young that I might be able to help him find his bearings and figure out directions to wherever he was going. Instead, I felt a flush of embarrassment and mumbled something tragically confused and apologetic and walked away. Within 5 seconds after the end of this encounter, I felt a rush of adrenaline with an exultant glow through my whole body. “I look Puerto Rican!” I loved Puerto Ricans anyway, I thought. I liked looking Puerto Rican. What this meant was I could walk without fear as long as I could avoid conversation, at least with white people. I learned how to walk and move my head “puerto rican,” to enhance my camouflage. Then I looked across the street and saw a greek temple in the midst of a big grassy plaza area. The building and the grass and benches around ti covered an entire small “city block,” which was more of a triangle, where Fulton intersects Lorain Avenue at an oblique angle (my city geographical memory may not be perfect here.). Drawn by curiosity, I crossed over to see what it was, and came to the foot of what seemed like a whole lot of steps , 15 in total, to get to the front door. The building itself was 3 stories high, with a facade sporting 8 massive columns and 3 pair of front-facing window panes 2 stories high to complete the effect.
I remembering scaling those steps, not being certain if I would be allowed in. When I pressed my face to the gigantic door to this building, again with plenty of glass for the light to stream in I saw what looked to me like a cathedral. The room was so BIG, open and bright. And it was completely completely full of books. Every kind of book and o so many. I was working my lips like goldfish probably. “oh my god. So many books!” I whispered inside. On the outside I stood near to the closest stack that was fully inside the library. Inside myself I took in the spines of hundreds of books at once and felt soul-touching explosions in my knowledge-hungry front-body. I felt as raw and open and full of desire as a newborn baby sensing its impending moment of bonding on her mother's belly. As I swooned in this trance, a pretty white lady with glasses and short dark brown hair approached and asked me if she could help me. I explained that I was just “looking.” She smiled and said I cold look as much as I wanted and then take home two or three of the one's I liked. I remember reading a wall of book titles that day. I thought, “how am I going to know what I want to read, if I don't do an inventory?” I didn't have the word inventory in my head, but the concept was strong in me. I wanted to touch and read every title in order to have a sense of where to direct my curiosity. My previous book source was the Rexall drug store, from which I once shoplifted a 25 cent “Dell Pocketbook on Self-Hypnosis.” I was 13, at the time. Now I could read everything. On that very day, I became to first black kid in the history of the projects to practice yoga. I borrowed a book on it, went right home and started doing asanas and meditiations.