I came of age right in the middle of the crack era. Many of my friends, classmates, and neighbors fell victim to crack in one way or another. Some became addicts and kept chasing that first high, and others prospered and got rich off of the community. But there were some like me, who managed to survive while balancing on a proverbial tightrope. Never falling one way or the other. Living outside of the box because what was inside of it was much too dangerous.
Most of the time I felt like I was in the minority because the drug culture was so overwhelming at that time that it become almost normal to be involved in it. It wasn't easy having to ride buses and trains while other kids my age drove Mercedes and BMW's. These guys got all of the girls, and had tons of money. I used to wish that I could be just like them. I wanted to live that life. But it just wasn't me. Thank God.
Over the years I've heard the same narrative over and over again, tinged with an aire of inevitability. Tales of fallen young hood hustlers dying way before their time, and ghetto entrepreneur's going "up North" (prison in up state New York), for decades.
It never comes as a shock, and I am always relieved that I did not follow the crowd or give in to my urge to be like them, because it could have been me.
I rarely go back to my old neighborhood, but my father goes there every few months to check on some property that he owns. Every now and then he gives me a call when he gets back and gives me a neighborhood update.
On one occasion he actually gave me a call while he was still in New York, and said that there was somebody who wanted to speak to me. The voice on the other end sounded familiar but I had no idea who it was. He said that his name was Shawn from the next block. Growing up in Brooklyn there was no shortage of Shawn's. S e a n, S h a w n, the bottom line is, the fact that he lives on the next block meant absolutely nothing, but as we talked, I struggled to picture the face that belonged to the voice which began to sound more and more recognizable throughtout our brief conversation.
It was an awkward conversation to say the least. But as I listened to Shawn go on and on about times that we hung out and how he knows my sister and brother, there was one theme that seemed to repeat itself throughtout the conversation. He kept saying how glad he was that I was alive and well. But the tone of his voice was one of shock and surprise. I wondered why my survival was so amazing to him. Had he heard a rumor about me? Or was his expection predicated on experience?
I realized that I have no idea what it's like to live in Bushwick now.
Yes the neighborhood has gotten "better". The crime rate in New York is lower than it has been in years, and the crack era has slowly faded. But I can't imagine what it must be like to walk the familiar streets of my life long home being constantly reminded by the ghosts of years past like Shawn does. Having to relive the memories of what the block used to be, and dealing with it day in and day out can't be easy. By the time our conversation ended, I realized that Shawn wasn't surprised that I was still alive, he was surprised that I survived, and comforted by the fact that he wasn't the only one who is still out in the world.