Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Those were my Footprints

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In 2010 I wrote and published my fourth book "Are those my Footprints?" a collection of reflections and comparisons of life in South Columbus from the 1950s through present times.

While writing that book I spent a great deal of time wandering through familiar neighborhoods that once upon a time was like a huge playground for those of us who grew up attending schools within walking distance of our homes and where most neighbors not only knew one another, it mattered. They respected each other even if they didn't like one another.

I wrote that book to show the differences in not only the landscape but in the attitudes and behavior of some of the people who brought changes that none of us could have imagined when
most of our mothers didn't have to work for strangers like our fathers did.

When they could choose to stay home and always be there when we needed them and where they were the ones that kept the landscape beautiful and made sure that we respected everyone and everything around us. They were also the ones who made sure we took full advantage of those nearby schools by being in them when we were supposed to be so we could learn the other things we would someday need to continue living and working in a polite society.

While walking the streets and alleys of my old neighborhood nearly sixty years after we moved into it I was reminded constantly that it was foolish of me to be in such a hurry to see the future when I was a kid. What I probably imagined back then was an environment that would be better, one that would look better and be populated by amazing people doing amazing things.

I knew when I began that project that I would be risking a measure of personal safety but I never imagined that it would also leave me more at peace with the thought that my time on earth is getting closer to being over. The fact is, I am packed and ready to go even if 2011 would be my last year. Not that I hope to die anytime soon, but even if today is that day I think I am okay with it.

When I look around at where we have been and think about where we are as a community, not only here but everywhere, I know that I lived in an era and in a place that will never again be as good as it was. There will never again be people nearby who resemble in any way those that used to surround me and who cared about more than just themselves.

It is not that I have given up hope, It is that I no longer expect much more from others than what they demonstrate every day. On the Southside of Columbus there seems to be no middle ground, or like the rest of the country if there is such a thing as a middle class society it is becoming more and more difficult to find. In the area I have known all my life there exists just two kinds of people, those who have more than they need and those who have nothing. And the latter are people who will stop at nothing to prove that observation.

The fact that the home my family has lived in for more than a half century still has lights on inside and has all of its windows, a fence around the yard and hasn't yet been spray painted with vulgar graffiti leaves it vulnerable to those who have nothing. Like a beacon drawing the attention of those who have no respect for anyone else, no sense of pride in who they are and seemingly no ambition other than to wreak havoc on others so they can maintain their miserable existence. The one they accept as the only way they know how to exist.

Writing "Are those my Footprints?" brought into focus for me how much I miss that era when every home within walking distance of mine was occupied, even by some that I may not have cared much for but had no reason to disdain or fear. I wrote that book using language that wouldn't be suitable for anyone offended by words that described my emotions when I saw vacant burned out houses and buildings that once flourished as businesses.

I used words that although vulgar in terms of social acceptance were words that are used every day by the people I encountered, even when engaging in casual conversation or when trying to get something for nothing. I described people who thought nothing of exposing themselves either in an attempt to make a buck or to relive themselves in public. Men masturbating, prostitutes lifting their shirts and even an incident where two teenagers were urinating on a man sleeping on a bench. I shared a conversation I had with another man who was squatting and defecating in an alley in full view of an in session elementary school.

The words I used to tell those stories were the only ones I could think of to describe my anger and my disappointment in what we have come to accept and even expect from those who weren't here fifty years ago. The people who transformed the streets and sidewalks that used to be thoroughfares that took us from one safe block to another into battlefields and landfills. Where I tripped over trash and walked through broken glass left on the ground from broken car windows.

"Are those my Footprints?" was named because as I walked around the area that has been home all of these years I was repulsed daily by not just the people who replaced those who used to be here, but saddened and left sickened by the number of structures that stand like tombs, only reminders of what they once represented. That is, an area that was also home for people who were as proud as I of where they lived.

Even the buildings still standing and still occupied, be they residences or places where people worked and shopped have fallen into disrepair, and by the attitudes of those in them and around them that's okay. It is as if that is all they know and that it is enough. People who are content to exist in filth and squallier and whose idea of recreation is taunting or hurting one another. People who are so used to the sirens of police cars and fire trucks that they barely look up when they pass by.

So the question that is the book's title isn't just a tongue-in-cheek metaphor, it is more of an expression of disbelief that I have remained grounded somewhere where so many others have been forced to leave. Yes, forced to leave, either because they feared what they saw coming more than thirty years ago or because they weren't willing to fight back to keep the riff-raff out.

The riff-raff that was forced on this and other communities in inner cities when our judges ordered barriers that kept them out removed. The acts of desegregation in the name of civil rights. Of government deciding for all of us what is best for us. Oh really?


Not what is best for us, but what we must tolerate in the name of being a society that accepts someone else's interpretation of documents written and signed hundreds of years ago before our forefathers could have imagined what they were signing off on. Our very constitution that guarantees certain liberties even to people who may not be deserving of them. When I laid the blame on those responsible for allowing us to become a dumb-downed society in how we live and what we expect from others I expected more criticism than I received.

I expected some to call my opinions racist in nature and I expected others to cringe at the thought that I would write in such blunt terms. However I haven't experienced any of that yet and in contrast I have heard from many who share my thoughts. Especially some who were here before things changed. People who have said they would come back, even long to do so but can't.

What is most gratifying to me as a writer is when someone tells me that my work incites fond memories for them, even if the stories that tell of a different environment now breaks their heart. But that is precisely my mission and was with every step and every diary notation that became "Are those my Footprints?"

I wanted to document what was and still is good about South Columbus. What it took to make it great then and the preservation that goes on still today to ensure that some of it will always be here. If only to visit for some, but where I hope to take my last breath.

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