From “Street Life”
After the Mountains have Moved
They broke in again last night, wedging open the upstairs bathroom window with a crowbar or pipe. The last time they came through the garage while we were away, the parade of oily feet still visible on the livingroom rug. But this time, they had wandered through the upstairs when we were sleeping. They could have murdered us any time-- a fact that registered on each of our faces as the police went over the details.
"I want to move," Clara whispered to me, her hoarse voice full of terror and rage.
"I know," I said, having gone through the same conflict after the last crime. This time, however, I felt violated, too. Not because they'd stolen my valuable stamp collection-- it having come down to me from my father and from his father before him-- but rather as a last straw of things that had been going on for months, maybe years.
The police detective coughed politely. "That's about it," he said. "I'll file everything downtown. You can get copies for your insurance next week."
There was coolness in the detective's voice, not hostility, but distance, his sideward glances taking in the subtle luxury that a professor's salary had allowed me over the years, wall to wall carpetting, a colored TV. Things that anywhere else might not have seemed so luxurious. But here...
"Look, Mr. Hansen," the detective said. "Do you want some advice."
I had the feeling he was going to give it to me whether I wanted it or not, but I nodded, as did my wife.
"You people are crazy for staying down here. This isn't the kind of neighborhood where you can have nice things and keep them long. You know what I mean?"
"Which means we probably won't see any of our stuff back?" Clara asked.
"You're lucky they didn't kill you," the cop said. "They rob black families down here. They kill whites."
The anger bubbled up slowly from some deep recess thirty years unused, as if I was staring down the racist nose of a Southern Sheriff. But I nodded again and politely showed him the door, slamming and locking it before cursing outloud.
"Did you hear that, Clara?" I said indignantly. "He has nerve telling us that these days!"
"But he's right, dear," Clara said. "There are stories in the paper all the time about people getting killed."
"Other people," I said with an impatient wave of my hand. "People who stick their noses where they don't belong. Like Tom who wanders around down by River Street talking to junkies. I'm a teacher, remember, not an activist any more."
"Maybe we should call Tom," Clara said, her face thick with early wrinkles. "Maybe he could find out something..."
"No," I said. "Let's not dwell on this. The stamps are gone as well as the other things. Let's forget them."
But it didn't end there as I knew it wouldn't. Something fundamental had changed with this second burglary and the house seemed unsafe, even with us fully awake and the locks all secure. It was as if a wind could blow through the walls any time it wished, taking us with it.
Over supper several days later, I could take the dark looks no longer, from Clara or our two children.
"All right, all right. I'll see what I can do," I told them. From Clara, I'd expected the look of relief, but the children looked up hopefully, bright eyes intensely relieved.
Of course, they were going to junior high school next year. Many dark stories had reached me through my classes about white children surviving the city's secondary school system. I hadn't believed them until then.
"I'll go to the bank in the morning," I said. But I knew things weren't good and the house in which we presently lived wouldn't bring us much if we could sell it. Buying another might well be impossible.
"I'm sorry, Professor," Mr.Cummings said. "But you still owe too much on the other house. We can't float two loans. Once you sell the old house, I'm sure we can accomodate you."
But there was a negative note in his voice, something that said even that might not allow us enough to move. I made decent money, but not enough by today's standards and with the crisis the banks were in, loans were tight. I was lucky to have what I had through veterans benifits.
"We could talk to the state for you," the banker said with a dubvious note to his voice. "You teach at the college. It wouldn't be hard to register you as black on the application."
"Black?" I said, the tone in indignity straightening the man's shoulders.
"It's the only way you'll get help through the government these days, I'm afraid. But if your set against it, we can try anyway."
The sting of the banker's words were still fresh when I came out to my car and found its hood up, battery and radio gone, the windshield shattered on one side as if in vengence for something. No other reason would explain the act.
Of course the car would have to be towed, and anger came, that enraged anger I'd felt the first time discovering the oils stains on the rug of my house, rage that came to the rape victim hours after the attack when it was too late to strike back at the attacker. I wanted to find the first black face and scream at it. An unreasonable act considering the lack of certain knowledge that it was a black that had done this or the other crimes. I felt properly shamed, then hiked down to Main street to look for a phone.
Three vandalized phones later, I found one working-- though when Tom's voice came onto the other end, I could barely hear him.
"It's me, Tom. I'm stuck downtown. Could you give me a ride?"
"Certainly," Tom said and quickly took the details.
Road Service was a different matter. It took every every threat I could imagine to get the man to send a truck.
"Well, I'll send one," the man said. "But you'd better be right there by the car. I don't want anything happening to my driver."
"We're leaving town, Tom," I said, once the truck had come for my car and we were safely driving to the so-called "good" part of town.
Tom looked over. He was older than I was by a few years, but looked a decade older, her curly black hair now fringed with grey near the ears. Sun and worry had wrinkled his brow, folding it over his eyes into a perpetual squint. But the eyes themselves were the same grey and lively eyes I'd travelled with on buses in the south, gone to jail with, beaten beside-- watching the final glory after the 1964 Equal Rights Amendment passed in Washington.
"Just because someone broke into your car?" he said, his voice crisp like a lawyers.
"Yes," I said, feeling it all coming down on me again. I hadn't been certain before the break in on the car, going to the bank as a matter of passifying Clara. But now it was clear the world was changing here, for me, my kids, my wife and anyone else with white skin-- even Tom. "I don't spend my life being afraid."
"You could try changing it," Tom said.
"I have tried! I teach in the local college, don't I?"
But the words were hollow and we both knew it. I had settled into a faculty seat with the idea that my activist days were over, thinking I could just as easily change the world from behind a book. Yet, it was an isolated platform, one that really didn't see the city at all. I was five minutes from the interstate on-ramp and five minutes driving to the college. What I saw along the route was hardly representative, just rows of houses in a neighborhood marked on the ballot lists as "white."
"Look, there's no use arguing with me about it, Tom," I said. "I've made up my mind. My wife and kids are too important to risk them on some idiological stand."
"I wasn't arguing with you, Phil," Tom said, his voice squeeky, the way it got when he was angry.
The phone call to Clara's father was another matter altogether. Over the years the resentment had brewed into something close to hate, he, a county business and development magnet living in a luxury estate in Wayne, as conservative as the town was green, and thick with ill opinions about my Liberal leanings.
The coolness was in his voice when he acknowledged my existance on the phone.
"Yes?" he said, perhaps thinking there was some unavoidable social engagement his secretary had forgotten to warn him about.
"We're planning to move out of Paterson," I said, as light-heartedly as I could, trying to make it sound something less than outright surrender. And, I expected him to take full advantage of the defeat, treating me to a verbal barage of I told you so's.
But a moment of silence came and then a long, almost satisfied sigh. "Why don't you and Clara bring the kids up here for dinner tonight," he said, then hung up when I agreed.
It is not a long journey from Paterson to Wayne, just a short climb up a steep hill from the Great Falls. But the change is stark, from the extreme worst part of Paterson slums to the drawn out lawns of great estates, the Watcung mountains like a great gate somehow knowing who to admit and who not to. Wayne's police sit slyly in the cracks and side streets off the winding road, guarding each pass, staring at the color of the drivers as their cars huffed and puffed at the end of their climb.
They looked at me as I drove the rented hunk of junk up the final incline, leaving a trail of smoke behind that might have been the remains of my pride.
"I don't understand what made you call Daddy," Clara said, looking at me strangely, but obviously pleased. She'd been trying to bridge the gap between us for years, not quite able to understand the differences which seperated us in the first place.
"He was the only one I could think of that might help," I said. "He's offered before."
Though those offers were always edged with the trappings of a bribe, something like the sales pitch of Satan, looking for my soul along with my signiture.
Once into the green-lawned world, I saw the faces of my children in the back seat, their mouths set grimly like vistors to dreamland, eyeing younger children that rolled in the leaves on the wide lawns. It was the stuff of television. It was stuff they had missed when younger, locked in the grasp of a city where things outdoors always came with a risk.
"Would you like to live out here with you grandfather?" Clara asked them.
Clara looked at me, her eyes hard, saying: "If you disappoint them now, Phillip, I'll never forgive you."
"We'll see," I said.
Clara's father greeted us with a stiff wave of hand and his usual determined strut down the front steps to the circular drive. He was a large man with a top of grey that was meaningless, slowing none of the energies alive in his eyes. He was almost smiling when he opened the door-- yes he himself and not his doorman-- something which told me immediately I was making a mistake.
"A new car, Phillip?" he asked.
"A rented car, Mr. Olsen," I said, slamming the driver side door a little too hard, handing the keys to the doorman who drove it off to be parked.
"Yours being repaired?"
"You could say that. Shall we go in?"
The eyes were an inquesition, staring at me the whole time through dinner, making me wish for the after dinner man talk that would end the torture.
He led me to his den and offered me a cigar. I surprised him by accepting one-- the first time since my marriage.
"So?" he said, leaning back in his chair, the smell of leather as thick as the smoke in the room.
I explained the situation and he eyed me for a long time in silence, peering at me over the tips of his fingers-- his hands pressed together in a chruch steeple under his nose.
"I can do better than lend you money," he said after a time. "I have a buyer for your house-- No, don't ask me who. But I have someone. There is only one catch."
I took a deep breath. "Which is?"
"You relocate here in Wayne."
It seemed like such a small request, a minor detail that might easily have been passed off as concern for the welfare of his grandchildren, and the need to seem them somewhat regularly. But there were darker designs behind those eyes and he knew I knew about them. Details of the surrender. By accepting his location, he kept me from picking some other less depraved region of city where I might maintain my Liberal values. Here in Wayne, I would be surrounded by his kind, joining the anti-ethnic coolition of disgusied bigots that mowed their lawns with the deep satisfaction of knowing no black or hispanic would ever set foot on it, even by accident.
"All right," I said, and sucked slowly and guitily upon my cigar, eyeing the victorious grin of Clara's father through the smoke.
It was a longer drive back to the city, despite the downward incline, the insanity of slow deterioration that I'd not noticed in detail before, the sagging disgust of century old buildings never meant to stand longer than a decade, windows thick with drying laundry and wandering, dare-devil kids. It was like passing through a world in which every building contained a circus, but one in which the animals had taken charge, Orwell's predictions hardly capable of reflecting the reality. It scared me more than the break it did. It lacked any sense of hope.
Tom was waiting on the front stoop of the house, dressed in his usual dark clothing. It made him look priestly, though his nervousness seemed habitual, having grown out of the beatings of police in the south. He started up with the approach of our headlights and grinned only when I appeared.
"Phil, I have good news for you," he said, coming towards me with his large hand extended. "I've found a buyer for your house, and another house you might be interested in buying on the hill."
The hill, of course, was one of the last few liveable neighborhoods left in Paterson, near enough to Wayne and Haledon to be attractive, yet still in decline, a neighborhood maybe twenty years or less from extinction.
"I really appreciate all you've gone through, Tom," I said. "But we've already made arrangements with Clara's father. He has someone to buy our house."
"Him!" Tom moaned. "You're selling your house to one of his cronies."
"Thomas," I whispered, Clara just then climbing from the car. "Don't start with any of your politically correct trash with me. We've made up our minds."
"To leave town," Tom said, shaking his head. "To sell this fine old house to some developer, who'll take it off the market so he can jack up the prices on the rest of his houses. How could you do this, Phil? I mean after all we've been through..."
"Tom," I said. "Either you quit all this or leave. I'm not in the mood to argue with you."
"But your leaving amounts to nothing more than segregation," Tom said, turning me with a start from the door. I glared at him, my rightous indignity broadcasting from every pore.
"Are you calling me a racist?"
"I'm saying that you're throwing the civil rights movement out on its ear," Tom said. "If every white in every city did what you're doing now, we'd be back to Selma, Alabama, 1955 in no time."
"And maybe the south had the right idea all along," I said. "Maybe they saw all this coming and knew they had to control their blacks or wind up with things like this."
I was shouting. My voice carried into the street, echoing slightly off the storefronts and apartment buildings, raising faces of people on the corner.
"Do you hear what you're saying?" Tom asked, his voice strained and his eyes full of disbelief.
"Yes," I said. "And I mean it, too. I'm sick of living in other people's shit. I want to be the man with the big lawn and the lazy chairs and respectability."
"Respectability?" Tom spat. "That's not...."
"Go away and keep your speeches to yourself," I said and slammed the door in his face.