2022 Nonfiction First Prize Winner

Problem Solving

By M.K. Christian

I am aware I have a problem. A big one. The way I see it, I have two options. The first is to ignore it but then the problem just gets bigger. The second is to face it. And that’s what I’m going to do. Not sure what that looks like yet, but I’m determined to do something different. And not just do something different but be someone different.

Here’s my problem. It’s big. I’m prejudiced. There. Just admitting it releases some tension. It’s coming up now because I just moved into a new neighborhood and it’s kickin’ shit up I thought I’d left behind. Guess I didn’t.

Six months ago, March of 1997, at the age of forty-two, I bought my first home. It’s an 1891 two-story grand Victorian, worn, weary and severely neglected until Jeff, the man who fixed and flipped it, worked his miracles. He had stories. Pigeons flying down the chimney. The used syringes and moldy pizza boxes in the kitchen sink before he gutted the whole thing. And then there were the renters who walked off with the beautiful stained-glass window in the living room, replacing it with a section of purple rippled Plexi-glass. It resembles a giant misplaced Lay’s potato chip. Being the optimist I sometimes am, I bought it because it had good bones and I could come up with a down payment and make my monthly mortgage. When I first moved in, I drove up and down the nearby streets, exploring. And what I saw was a neighborhood ripe for change—fewer rentals, more homeowners moving in. Or so I hoped. Now, not so much. Now I’m mostly scared.

I moved to Denver from The Bronx, so maybe I should be less scared, but I’m not. In the past six months, I’ve witnessed drive-bys, heard the gunshots, and learned to stay clear of the crack dealers up on the corner. On the weekends I tolerate the men playing football on the street in front of my house in their boxer shorts at four a.m. I can’t afford a security door at the rear entrance of my house, so I take my black sharpie and write a note on neon green poster board and tape it to the outside of the door: ‘If you are here to steal something, don’t bother. There is nothing here worth stealing. P.S. Hope you can read’.

So I’m scared a lot. But I’m also finding reasons to be hopeful. I’ve met some delightful characters here-colorful, vibrant, and different from me. I got no problem with my next-door neighbor, Charnice, aka Charles, who has a penchant for pink feathered boa wraps. He/she was crowned runner up in Ms. Gay America and takes in lost souls who need refuge from life’s storms. Nor do I have a problem with George and Irene, the foul-mouthed professional clowns who once a week wave to me as he pushes her up the street in her wheelchair, both singing, “I did it my Way’ on their weekly trip to what we in the ‘hood call the Un-Safeway. Or Alison and Rich, who own the coffee shop, squeezed in between a church and a liquor store. I’m OK with all of them and herein lies my problem. This is when I poke the wound, feel its poison erupt, smell its stench. Charnice, George and Irene, Allison and Rich, are all white. I’m avoiding black people when I have to mow my lawn, or when I take out the garbage. When a black person passes by, my heart goes crazy, and thumps in my throat. I lower my eyes and sometimes I even forget to breathe.

I have my reasons. And they’re all real. I can justify them. I spent eighteen months in a state funded drug rehabilitation center in Jamaica Queens, N.Y. recovering from a nasty heroin and crack addiction. Wasn’t pretty. Barely made it out alive. Survived an attempted rape while putting away cleaning supplies in a closet. Turned the mop on him, nailed him where it counts. Then there were the five women who cornered me in the shower room taunting me, threatening to throw peroxide on my bush to make me a real blonde. All my attackers were black.

So I stay inside a lot. But that means my past trauma is winning. I don’t like me, this choice I’ve made. Time to change things up, get me un-stuck. I read the quote I’ve posted on my kitchen door: COURAGE = FEAR + ACTION. It gives me permission to be afraid but reminds me I must keep moving. Staying inside and pretending that everything’s just fine is no longer acceptable. That’s being a coward. I don’t want to be a coward. So time to problem solve. I come up with a plan. It’s a very hard plan. I can think of a thousand reasons not to do it. Not reasons. Excuses. I veto them all. I want to be a different me.

I make myself walk a minimum of three blocks in the daytime on weekends when people are working in their yards, out on their porches. That doesn’t mean one block. Or two. It means three whole blocks. I force myself to make eye contact, say hello, stop, ask questions. My words come out trembly. My hands, clammy. But still, my neighbors want to know about me—the crazy white woman who bought the big, haunted house. I meet Dave and Deb, both schoolteachers, who take their three sons to karate class, keeping them busy and off the street. I meet the elderly John Brown (really, that’s his name), the first Afro-American history teacher in the Denver Public Schools, while he’s watering his front yard. He turns off his oxygen tank so he can smoke a cigarette. And then there is Eubie who lives in the house on the corner and is addicted to collecting junk in his old powder blue pickup truck. On one of my walks, I see his backyard, piled high with rusted out bicycles, lawnmowers, pipes, old sinks and stoves. He shrugs, tells me he’s helping out his neighbors carting away stuff they don’t want. He shares how he got himself off alcohol by drinking sassafras tea his daughter sent up from Alabama.

On Sunday mornings, he comes out stylin’. Walks down his front steps, dressed to the nines. His fedora sits just right, his starched white shirt fits perfectly under his suit coat, and his tie shimmers in the morning sun. From his garage, he pulls his pristine canary yellow Cadillac to the curb preparing to escort my next-door neighbor, Dorthea, to church. She, in her lace gloves, matching hat and shoes, accepts his arm as he leads her down her front steps, then holding open the Caddy door to let her in. I watch, call over to them. They turn and wave. I give the thumbs up sign. Eubie nods, exuding confidence. Dorthea smiles, bright red lips, radiating beauty.

I lucked out with Dorthea as my neighbor. When she prunes her roses, we talk over the wire fence that separates our properties. I learn she’s raised five children and that her husband, now passed, worked for the railroad. She tells me when they had leftovers from dinner, she’d send her kids over to what is now my house to help feed ‘the hobos’ squatting there who were looking for work during the depression. She drives a beat-up dark green Volvo station wagon and I watch her inch it very carefully, very slowly, into her garage, sometimes bangs into stuff inside. I tell her someday I’d like to have a garage. She chuckles and tells me if I do, don’t ever tell your family. I tell her I think she’s wise. She nods in agreement and continues her pruning.

So it seems my plan is working. At least I’m breathing again. Going outside more often. Do I still avoid the crack dealers on the corner?  Sure, but that’s whether they’re black or white. I’m learning. I’m growing. Settling in.  New discoveries. Colorful, real people. In the ‘hood. My ‘hood.

After work one day, I throw my backpack on the kitchen table and decide to take a quick walk. Dusk is my favorite time of day. The transitioning light, the shifting of color, is simply spectacular. I take my now familiar route, head up the flagstone sidewalks. That’s when I see him. A big black man, I mean six foot, two eighty, made of muscle. Maybe in his thirties, early forties, coming out his front door. I know. I just know it. Gauging his footsteps, gauging mine, we will be in the same place at the same time. We’re gonna meet on the sidewalk. I get hiccups, swallow, try to breathe. Oh my God. I continue on. I don’t let me run or cross the street. I just won’t let me. Sure enough, he falls into step with me. There are a couple moments of silence. All I hear are our footsteps on the flagstone. My heart starts galloping away from me.

And then he says looking straight ahead, keeping his voice steady. “I bet you’re really afraid right now.”

I make myself look at him. He continues looking forward. I swallow, clear my throat. “Yes. I’m really really really afraid!”  Sweat beads gather on my forehead. My legs feel like Jell-O. I think I’m gonna pass out. Instead, I make myself breathe and keep walking. My hiccups stop.

He nods, as we walk, and only then does he look over at me, still keeping his distance. “It’s OK,” he says, “I’m not gonna hurt you.”

I nod back. I don’t make small talk to cover up my discomfort. I sit with it. I walk with it. When we arrive at the corner, he prepares to turn right, me left. Any place he’s not going.

I think to myself this is so who I don’t want to be. I turn to face him, extend my hand. “Hi. my name is MK and I live on the next block over. Just moved here six months ago.”

He takes my hand, shakes it. “I’m Jerry. Welcome to the ‘hood.”

When I arrive home, I wonder just how many times that big black man has experienced being the recipient of that fear.  He has a name. Jerry. Hope to see him again.