Chicken Dinner Sunday, 12 Dollar Water Bills and a City on Fire

How does it happen? How does a city burn itself down in a rage and despair so rampant that it destroys what it also loves?

I heard the black minister say in anger and hurt to the television interviewer, ‘It’s about institutional poverty and poor education. It’s about decades long deprivation and it’s about police violence and killing our young men.’

I heard white people say over and over, “There is no excuse.”

All this talk while Baltimore burns. Is that true? Is there no excuse?

On Sunday afternoons in my grandmother’s pink kitchen the smell of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and apple pie covered me like an American quilt. I helped her cut the beans at the kitchen table and sucked on little lemon candies she kept in a glass dish. My mother, my brothers and I all squished into the station wagon every Sunday and made the roughly one hour drive from our rural, old house to grandmothers urban apartment for Sunday supper. She sang gospel songs, quoted the Bible sometimes and often said without provocation, “God is good to me.”

She had a small,one bedroom apartment. The furniture was threadbare, police sirens echoed through the alleyway behind her place where the trash piled up next to the men who drank too much. She didn’t want us to play outside and she never said why but mom said it was because of the “bad boys who hang around the corner.”

Grandmother owned one pair of shoes and four or five dresses. She kept her hair short so she could do it herself. She was rarely sad and kept what she had in perfect order. She took city buses across town sometimes stopping at four or five stores to use her coupons.

On one Sunday my brother came hurriedly into the kitchen, he was always running, hands dirty from playing outside and looked at the food as grandmother cooked, “That chicken is rotten. It’s too old. I’m not eating that.” My other two brothers followed to wash up in the kitchen sink. They nodded their young heads in agreement, “That’s disgusting. We’ll get sick.”

She dropped the kitchen towel she offered for my brother’s  hands and dropped her head while she let out a long sigh. Her voice cracked, then filled with anger and finally outrage,”Get out! Get out of my kitchen. I wouldn’t feed you if you were starving. Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to find the money to buy this food? Sometimes I don’t eat for days to save enough money so I can feed you.” Her eyes were wet behind thick glasses, her face red. I saw her. I saw that she had dressed in a flowered dress, fixed her hair, wore red lipstick and that one pair of shoes, black high heels. My brothers ran out of the room and I heard one whisper, “crazy” under his breath.

She took off her glasses and wiped her eyes, ” I cleaned a woman’s house up the street, on my hands and knees for the entire day. I’m seventy years old. Now I guess I’ll just throw it out or give it to the neighbor’s cat.”

We never went back for Sunday supper at Grandmother’s house. Sometimes being poor will cost you everything.

Reasons, excuses have a way of piling up. Poverty piles thing on thing until even the simplest of pleasures become too hard to come by. Add to that generations of poverty stacking up so that grandmother, mother and you are all hungry. Now throw in that the kid down the street you used to play with got shot and the place where you live has no water because that twelve dollar bill is too high. A choice had to be made between food and water that month. You are fifteen and you don’t want anyone to know that you can barely read. You’re ashamed even though you know your classroom had thirty five kids in it and half of them were so jacked up on hunger and neglect they couldn’t sit still long enough for the teacher to answer your question about sounding out and that happened from the second grade to now. Finally you go out in the street to walk it off because on this muggy day in May you smell bad from not getting a shower, another thing which shames you, and your friend may let you use his but it’s taking a long time to get there because the cops are out in full force and keep stopping you while your neighborhood is on fire. People are yelling. Someone runs by you and shoves you. You pick up a rock.

There are hundreds of excuses for poverty, for my grandmother’s grinding, daily hunger living in a world without a man and trying to be a strong woman on her own through the Great Depression all the way through the sixties. If I had a rock to throw or a match to burn down a system that did that to her I might have used it. But I wasn’t hungry at home, I was being educated. I felt awful for my grandmother but it didn’t feel to me like the whole world was that way because my world, my white world was not. But what if it was?

There are as many excuses as matches why a young, black kid in Baltimore has to live in fear and famine while the table is set for everyone else– there’s not enough money, the police are just doing their job, if he tried harder, if he was more peaceful. There are so many excuses why for decades his family has been juggling food or water yet we are told there are no excuses for picking up a rock.

Are we so sure that’s true?


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