The town was segregated, not by laws but by economics. The lines were almost too stark. The northeast side of town was the “black side of town” while the southwest side of town, the farthest away from northeast, was the well-to-do, upper-middle-class “nice neighborhood.” The truly well off lived outside city limits in large homes built along cul-de-sacs in the middle of hardwood forests. I lived in the giant trailer park north of town, just across the railroad tracks from the NE housing projects.
It had nearly 400 trailers, a hamlet of tin cans. The trailers were singlewides, mostly from the 60s and 70s, and placed close together with small patches of grass between. They were set on concrete pads and anchored with “tornado straps,” metal bands bolted into the ground. It was a cheap place to live. A guy I worked with at Domino’s Pizza had lived there and sold his trailer to me and my friend Jon for $2,000. Lot rent was $100 a month, including water and trash.
One of our neighbors was a white man named Will. He was about 30 and lived with two women: his current wife and his ex-wife. They each had kids fathered by Will, and each had a kid fathered by someone else. Will had been in prison for selling cocaine and was now a born-again Christian who went to a church downtown called The Door. This church was known for having a float in the Christmas parade that had a man dressed as a bleeding Christ, hanging on a cross, while people dressed as clowns passed out flyers to the crowd that said, “If you died today do you know where you would go?” Will and his family were nice, and his wife was young, in her early 20s, and she always smiled and said hi, but if you made eye contact for too long, the sadness in her look was heartbreaking. She and the ex-wife seemed to be close, often running errands together in a baby blue 79 Trans-Am with a dented front fender and a plastic milk crate that stood in as a substitute for the passenger’s seat. Will worked as a maintenance man for another trailer park in town, and told me once he’d thought about moving up north again for a better job but that the Lord had told him to stay where he was, to give most of his income to the church and provide for his wife and ex-wife so they didn’t have to work (that wasn’t a woman’s place), while his children slept on the floor in piles of blankets, without a bed.
In the trailer across the street lived a man named Calvin. He was in his early 40s and would often talk to us when we parked our cars. Once, when we were sitting on the porch drinking beer, he came over and we offered him one, and we all sat together—a middle aged black man and two white college boys—talking and laughing and enjoying the warm afternoon. After that, he would come over almost every day, ask what we were up to, watch Beavis and Butthead or play video games, and tell us about his luck at the Teletrack, a bar that featured off-track horse-race betting. Once he came over and asked to borrow our tools because his electricity was shut off, and he knew how to turn the power back on himself. He did this every two or three weeks: would come over, borrow our tools, and turn his power back on, until one day he came back and said, “They took the whole damn meter.” By this time, it was November and cold outside. He still had gas to his place and tried heating his house by lighting all the burners on his stove. The next day he told us that they’d gone out in the night, and he woke up lightheaded, the whole place filled with the smell of rotten eggs.
There were others. Harley Man, a tattooed guy with a long white ponytail, who was retired and sat on his porch in only a pair of shorts most of the day. A man named King David Gates who would sometimes panhandle door to door, and once left his social security card as collateral (which is how I knew his name). Another time he sold me a TV for $5 so he could buy some beer, and then afterwards asked for a ride to the liquor store, which I gladly gave. There was the man who was always a kind neighbor until he was arrested as the head of a crack dealing operation. There was the man who went out every morning to start his Camaro and rev it loudly for 15 minutes but never went anywhere because the transmission was out. There was the woman who chased down and smacked a toddler wearing only a diaper. There was the frail old man who once asked for food because he hadn’t eaten in three days, and when I offered him lunch meat and bread, he said his stomach couldn’t take more than oatmeal, so I made him a big bowl, and he thanked me and said his son was coming soon to bring him groceries. I remember watching him walk down the street to his trailer and wanting to call out to him, but instead I just stood there until he disappeared through his front door.
There were the people who would ask for rides into town and pay you in food stamps rather than call a taxi; the people who would ask to use your phone and leave a quarter on the counter; the people who bummed a cigarette and were pleased that I smoked menthols, the night the trailer behind us caught fire and burned to nothing in just under 20 minutes, and neighbors gathered to watch from our porch while the ball of flames reached 30 feet into the sky and warmed the winter air like a furnace, all of us thinking that on any given night, that could be us.
James Alan Gill is the Dispatches Editor for The Common.