It's strange in the mornings, quiet and fresh, but not clean. No, never clean. Not even in the early light of a new day. The clinic lights go on and mostly stay that way, flickering, vaguely threatening. The buzzing of the lights intermixes with the scuttling of roaches. They know that not being seen or heard is their best chance at survival. That's how they have been here for so long.
This is a forgotten place, and it's more than that, too. It's a place where you are reminded that no one has bothered to think about you. Not even long enough to forget. They do not care. They, with a capital T. The reality is that you were never supposed to be anywhere else. Failing high schools giving way to failing primary schools, preceded by endless afternoons at grandma's house, so many hours watching TV. Nights in the projects where you chewed window ledges, ingesting sweet lead paint. That's why it's so dangerous: it's sweet. The hospital where you were born hasn't been updated for fifty years, and now it's the same for your children, too. You made it to adulthood, unlike so many others, so we say that the rest is on you.
There is an epidemic of able-bodied men in wheelchairs. They are young and they are healthy, but they cannot walk, they will never walk. You see them everywhere, crouched over cell phones outside of hospitals, fresh snapbacks pulled low, acne on their faces, white Forces on their feet. Casualties in a war zone like this one. But what more do you want? Don't be so greedy. Work harder.
This is one of the poorest neighborhoods, in one of the poorest cities, in one of the poorest states in the country. Lives here are impossibly short, generations even shorter. Fifteen years, thirteen, twelve. Children die here and that is a fact. They are hit by cars in the street; they fall from windows, choke in high chairs, victims of violence; they go to sleep face down and never wake up. They go into the hospital in their mother's bellies and they never come out. Spindled rib cages, exposed necks and tissue-paper skulls are crushed by the weight of the world. Freak accidents, when strung together, become normal. Become expected. Even if you cannot predict when, or how, you know that they will come.
The math is different here than it is in The Real America that we see on TV. It's an old world here, belied by year and by continent. It's smart to have more children, because many—most? Can it be most? Sometimes it feels like most—won't make it to adulthood. These children are not "at-risk". They are under constant, unending, unimaginable, crushing risk. Most won't make it to adulthood in one piece. Stunted in stature, a tired army of twenty-pound two-year-olds. Frail from malnutrition, anemic and asthmatic, impossibly small. Accidents happen, disease and sickness happens, violence happens. You see it and you feel it and you know it. Because it doesn't happen to other people. It happens to you. You don't see the statistics because you are too busy walking Second Lines, avoiding crowds, trying to stay out of the heat. Statistics don't matter when you're trying to stay alive.
On days when it rains no one comes. The water fills the streets, swamp fulfilling its destiny, filling in, sinking downward. Everything is dragged down, asphalt melting, bitter moods and muddy attitudes. The stray cats and dogs are gone, God knows where, under or inside somewhere. Low trees and thick vines and bright green dinosaur leaves crane their stalks upwards, growing large overnight. They stretch over roadways, blotting out the sky. A jungle reclaiming what belongs to it.
Nothing is clean about this rain. The clouds are low and angry, hanging over the road, end of the Mississippi bridge disappearing into the fog. The air is heavy, dripping, and your hair sticks to the back of your neck because of something. Sweat, humidity, rain, last night's restless sleep...something.
There are no puddles, just water that tends to pooling, becoming still and stagnant the instant it hits the pavement. Roadkill becoming flush, swollen with water, unrecognizable as something warm and living just a day or week ago. Mosquitoes breed with quiet fierceness, preparing their stores, readying armies to hit you in full force once the sun returns. It's cold and strange and stagnant and warm, all at the same time. The universe is totally and completely gray, and seems like it might go on forever. There is no world beyond the swamp, and there is no way out. Not today.
The building is both busy and quiet, everyone poised in the hallway, waiting to crush each other at the moment that the security guard stirs into action. On days like today, the world seems so much older, beaten down, and the clients do too. New mothers and their wrinkly babies are tucked away somewhere, hopefully safe, hopefully in bed, hopefully warm and away from the harshness of this world.
The hallways of the clinic are filled with old-timers, waiting for the food bank, crossing their papery fingers that they'll make the cut. Only the first twenty-five will be rewarded with old cereals, expired baked goods and bruised white potatoes rejected by the local Rouse's Grocery. Down-on-their-luck seniors, Vietnam and Korea vets with heads down. Old black men busily filling in crosswords, church ladies with hats and carts, staring straight forward. As you file through, it's a chorus of greetings, of Good Morning, Babys. Everyone wanting to make eye contact, while furiously avoiding it at the same time. Vacillating between acknowledgement and willful ignorance. You know that whatever you do, it won't be quite right.
The clerks got here early and made coffee, so it's going to be a good day. All we can find is Biscotti-flavored Folger's, rejected by the food bank. So when the chicory runs out, that's what we drink. It's like we've signed a solidarity pact, to get through the big box together. The sickly-sweet, strange burned almond smell coats every surface of the clinic. It tastes like flavored motor oil, but it does the job, and we'll be running through the hallways by 10 AM.
When it rains, the clinic waiting room stands large and deserted. The phones don't even ring. We know that no one will call, even though there's an extra generator, and phones will work come hell or high water. We hear that old generator kick on during tropical storms and the high winds of hurricane season, lights buzzing. On these gray slow days, the front desk clerk relaxes, lets the golf club fall from her lap. She gets so cold on these days, pulls her black lab coat tight around her body, even though it's dizzyingly warm and impossibly humid. Can you believe this cold? Does it get like this in Seattle? For true? I just don't know about this cold.
We worry most about the boys. You would think the girls would take our thoughts. They come to clinic so delicate and unprotected, hair in fresh braids or twists, dirty pink jackets and white bell-bottoms. But they seem unaware of the dangers around them. They're wide-eyed, asking, wondering. Reach for your hand, climb onto your lap, bang on your keyboard, pick up your phone. They ask, they babble, they want to help. Placing chubby hands on baby brother's hair, rearranging his blankets, asking if you know Santa. The girls are inquisitive, interested and engaged and excited about the world. Ready to see things and meet strangers. Jumping out of car seats and skipping to and from clinic. So we don't worry about them. It's the boys that we worry about.
Some nights clinic ends early, the deserted pews of the waiting room standing stoic and empty like church on a Thursday. On those days, we talk about the boys. Already carrying heavy burdens, chips on their shoulders when they're still in diapers. Getting lectured about not being needy or spoiled, not crying, staying quiet, when they are still lying limp in baby carriers. Toddling slowly, pulled by their arms, missing mittens, snot-nosed and silent.
It's comforting when they're wild-eyed in the waiting room. And occasionally, one will be. It's normal to scream and cry, to wiggle in the pews, to be curious and climbing on the TV table, sticking Elmo stickers on the floor, throwing raisins in the air and running laps around weary mothers. When they are quiet, it is strange. Staring at you in silence, or worse, refusing to look up from the floor. And this is how they usually are.
It would be a mistake to confuse common with normal. You have never before seen children who act like this. Like they have already seen too much. Disconnected from mothers and grandmothers, flinching when they enter the room. Only showing emotion when it's time to leave the clinic. The clinic, a place for finger-prick iron tests, being weighed on a cold table, those damn wooden pews. But they only show emotion when it's time to go. And that's when they cry. Sometimes they beg to stay.
On those days when the clinic is quiet, we roll our chairs close and talk in tight tones. Those boys are so haunting, their presence lingering, tiny ghosts. Autism? Lead paint ingestion? Emotional detachment? PTSD? We try to quantify it, to talk it out, but the reality is that we don't know how to define it. The only label we can agree on is Not Normal. And we shake our heads, because this is all we see. No playing, no laughing, no asking, why? Just quiet, vacant stares. This isn't how it's supposed to be. Sometimes, children forget what you do; they forgive what they see; and sometimes, they do not. Their silence, in our ears, is a cry for help. But we can't call CPS, and plead on the phone that the kids just aren't alright. But we know that they aren't.
"Tell me the names that you hear! The names must be aaamazinnng." At first it seems funny, the names. Word aerobics, apostrophes dancing back and forth, too many vowels or none at all. Fathers' names spelled backwards, y's and La's and ea's added to feminize, flourishes and punctuation of all kinds tacked on for emphasis. And you go home to your uptown house, gleefully report each day's haul, letting forth like you're depositing diamonds. It works every time, everyone laughing and smiling and content. Reminded that you live in a world far from your dirty, dangerous day job.
And it's a natural impulse. The names are jewels glimmering from dark coal mines, the slog of each day producing nothing you can share. The names are funny, foreign, un-American. They laugh and ask about babies named Beyonce and Terreneesha and Barack. Not because they are racist! They just love to laugh at these silly people because they are just so funny and so ghetto. These poor, uneducated people! They just don't know any better! If they did, they would make it easier for themselves. Name their kids Caitlin or Lauren or Michael or Benjamin, like normal people do.
But the truth is that these names represent the very heart of America. A country built on self-determination, where there are no rules, where you can name your child whatever you want. So we let you, and you do, then we make fun of you for it. Discriminate against it, shake our heads and whisper about "those people". These poor black people who do nothing for themselves by naming their children superlatives and made-up combinations of vowels and consonants. They don't know how to help themselves and name their children good white Christian names. That's the subtext.
When you call things ghetto, we all hear it. And we laugh. But do you really hear it? Say the word aloud, roll it, let it rest gently on your ears. What does it mean? Who does it serve? Listen to your tone. Is it a joke? Or do you sound disgusted? Is it an easy way to demean and dehumanize an entire swath of unsavory and undesirable people? Can you honestly untangle the idea of ghetto from its unwanted-ness, from the idea of blackness and the idea of poverty? It's not your fault. You have been trained to hate, and not to question or to think. But you deserve better. We all do.
Today is not the day for this. They have misread, taken your slumped shoulders as an invitation for unburdening. Really it is meant to project: Leave me the fuck alone. Your racism has no place with me. I am not an ally, and I refuse to meet you on what you think is common ground. Bound tightly by HIPAA, with the plaintive, kitten cries of drug-addicted babies echoing in your ears. But you have a card to play. You look them straight in the eye, head high, clear as you can.
"The name I heard today? The name I hear most? Trayvon. Traevon and Tray'vonn and Trayvaughn." You let it sit, variations on a necessary theme. Let it reverberate. The words become larger, TRAYVON! in all caps, screaming out over the back porch, echoing into the evening light. "That's the name. It's Trayvon."
So many tiny Trayvons are born into this world each day, brown palms reaching toward the sky, opening and closing small wet mouths, impossibly perfect wrinkled fingers stretching toward the light. Hearts beat as an act of defiance. Blood pumps through miniature veins out of fight and pure unadulterated courage and out of anger, too. They are too new to comprehend who they are; to know that they are named in the hope of a just and a better world. Cannot understand that their very birth is a political act, placing an incomprehensible burden on newly-formed shoulders. They lie still, swaddled tight in cheap doll strollers, sleeping or blinking. Too young and fresh to suck on a pacifier. When they wake, they give the distinctive gaping cry of a newborn animal, born too small and too soon, into a world filled with harsh lights and sharp corners.
With every new Trayvon, his mother shouts at the world her rallying cry. She beats her heart on the outside of her body, holding her head up high and proud. She screams at us into the darkness of the night. My son will not be killed for historic feuds, or over the fears of monsters among us. Demons represented by fifteen-year-olds in hoodies with black faces and earphones. My Trayvon will survive. He will thrive in a world that is designed for his failure. A world which refuses to acknowledge his humanity. My Trayvon will grow tall and proud, stand strong among people breeding hate and fear. Even as it continues, and stretches out through time. He will meet those who hold dispassion for him because of the color of his skin, and he will hold his head up and walk among giants who blazed his trail. My Trayvon will live.
Every time a chart marked "Trayvon" slides its way across your desk, it brings a long pause. Yanked from drudgery, from the comforting shelter of the check-boxes of bureaucracy. Suddenly you find yourself tangled in the warp and weft of a dense social tapestry, fighting and struggling between twin tensions. You have this response every time, and it happens so often.
It scares you and saddens you. It's too heavy for the celebration of fresh birth, the lightness of new life. You wish you could send each Trayvon out into the wild wild world with a white tracker band slipped around a tiny ankle. To show the world that these are rare and special birds, and worthy of protection. You want to show that someone is tracking them, following their movements, worrying about the possibilities. That there is an opposing force, stronger than those which will interrupt their growth, hack their wings, hinder their ability to flourish to adulthood. You want to make visible that someone, hopefully many someones, are tracking these Trayvons, thinking of them when they go out into the street. Paying special heed when they travel alone, apart from the safety of a flock. You want to make this visible to the world. So that Trayvons are never alone, and never easy targets, never shot for practice.
But these are humans. They are men, no matter how tiny, no matter how vulnerable. They cannot be an endangered species, even when they are tracked for systematic elimination by forces beyond their control. And we know that the only tag Trayvon Martin had was a toe tag, tied tight as he lay still and slack on a shelf in a Florida morgue.
Those thoughts are silly, because this is America, where we all have a chance if we want it and we work for it. This is just one clinic in a city where there are dozens, in a state where there are hundreds, in a country where there are thousands. And you are just one silly fussy little person. There are too many Trayvons out there in the world to worry about this one.
So you shuffle the pale rainbow of paperwork with Trayvon's ID sticker at the top. Staple them together and smile, adding this Trayvon to the "to be filed" stack. You say, "Congratulations, mama, he is so handsome. Such a good eater, such beautiful big eyes. You must be so proud." And Trayvon coos and kicks out, balancing his socks on the edges of his toes. Blinking under the fluorescent lights, overwhelmed by the world.
Sometimes, you place your palm on his mother's back. Ask her to call the clinic if she needs anything. Knowing that she won't. Because you've already given her all you can possibly hope to provide. You wrestle with the reality that tiny Trayvon is safe until his downy feathers fall away; until his limbs lengthen, his face sharpens, and he becomes menacing to those who already fear him.
That will come quickly, impossibly quickly, and far before he is ready. It will come before he is able to fully function, in a world that leaves him no room for error. A world that will demonize him for the clothes he wears, for his hoodies and Skittles, his music and slang and BB guns. For crossing the street, or not crossing the street. For standing his ground, or for running. And you let it go, because you have to, because there are other families waiting, because you can do nothing. You open the door, ushering them out into the glare of the parking lot. Caution them to be careful of rocks on the uneven pavement, lest the stroller lock up.
When you come home the house is full of happy chatter, cheap red wine, soft cheese on Target plates and arms wrapped in J. Crew cardigans. All of the trappings of Young White Liberal Adulthood. They ask you, they goad and egg you on, and when you respond, the room gets quiet. Trayvon's name skitters across the kitchen island, knocking down everything in its path, cutting through the shotgun house like a bullet. Lightness is sucked out. They nod quickly, and the tourists go home. A fleet of Priuses heading further uptown, shaking heads in self-righteousness.
Sometimes you stop at the store on the way home from work. You buy a can of beans, bananas or gum, it doesn't matter what. Pick a line behind a mother and her children, just to creep. Watch them interact. Staring on as mothers admonish to look, not to touch, to wait, to please put that down. Children chattering, climbing from the cart and singing, making connections, brains sparking. Mothers trying to reason, apologizing for the noise and the delay. You smile, and try not to be effusive. It's totally ok! I'm in no hurry! You just want to be near them. To remember that not every child is born haunted, but that there is real wonder and joy out there, somewhere. That when bellies are full and homes stable, when neighborhoods are safe, that children can laugh and relax, grow and just be. That they can live.
There are so many heavy days. Days that pull you down at the shoulder, hours impossibly long and heavy, eyes dried and neck aching. As if you've left land with concrete blocks on your feet, sinking to the bottom of an ocean of impossibility, unable to cry out lest your lungs fill with water. It's hard to escape the irony; you work all day in health, counseling on good eating habits and Taking Care of Yourself, Mom!, then creep home at night for a stiff drink or three and a cigarette on your back porch. The smoke helps you finally take a deep breath in. The first of the day. You need the lightness that comes with that initial inhale, the nicotine triggering a comforting murmur in your brain, fingertips deadening.
But there are light days too. Few and far between, yes, but they are there, begging to be noticed. Days when you get in your car with your heart open and chest alight. When you walk out of the clinic with a joy deep in your bones, feeling the hum of progress. There aren't many of these days, but when it's good, it's so sweet and delicious and delicate. These are the days when you drink coffee straight from the pot, your heart beating too quickly, blood buzzing in your ears. Those are the days when possibility seems to dance just on the edge of possible. When there is nowhere to go but up. You can see the light, reaching up through the mouth of the cave.