I nearly broke my nose, swatting at the stench, irritating as a fly making an end run in my nostrils. “Damn, somebody’s rude,” muttering to the guy across from me on the commuter ride from Chicago.
“Wasn’t me,” he chuckled. A side eye out the window confirmed the stench was from Hammond, Indiana; home of the unforgettable putrid burn off from the steel mills, the Purina Dog Chow factory, Lever Bros Soap, the old Falstaff Brewery and the Standard Oil refinery. Funny-the factories are no more. As frightening-area residents believed this area would be “great again” from an onslaught of casinos. The economy hasn’t grown, but the weeds have, tickling grown men in the hindquarters. Rusted playground swings are where we once played. Why did my daddy LOVE ‘the Region’? A mystery.
Fifty minutes passes quickly. “Gary Metro,” the conductor yells. The train stops. I exit with other commuters. Looking around, nothing is “Metro” here. North, beyond the rails, turquoise and rusted colored tin roofs line what should be beachfront property on Lake Michigan; U.S. Steel…STILL. My daddy worked…no…labored there for 36 years. Daddy said rats the size of dogs were iron yard residents. I look around making sure no “canines” have escaped. Nearby abandoned houses lean like dominoes in mid-fall. Looking east, the dilapidated Land Company building displays the history of the city’s blight, rather than the historical treasures of a proud people once housed there. Thank God, I got outta here. Why I think coming back is a good idea-another mystery.
The skeletal remains of buildings with a gangsta lean are remnants of a once bustling downtown; reminiscent of the church I attended, further south on Broadway. Atop the motor of his van, I always rode with daddy to church. Seatbelts be damned. His hands strong enough to protect me if he stopped suddenly, delicate enough to pick me up, like a china doll and gently place me on the sidewalk once we arrived. Last I was here, 10 years ago, “God’s House” was standing only by the grace of God. A far cry from the message on the cross, “The Church Built By Faith.” There, the foundation of my spiritual faith was laid. The church dwellers poured into a youngin’, encouragement as I discovered what they called a “God given gift, not to be hid under a bushel.” Mama knew I had a penchant for writing; probably because my imaginary friends, “the little people,” were the lead characters in the stories I told. Daddy was not convinced. Waiting until the last minute to write stories about my Granny to enter essay contents wore his last nerve. Still, daddy was my biggest supporter. The freedom of creative expression was spiritual. Yet, there was nothing Holy about my folks beating my ass and the congregants crawling up the collective asses of the Four Muskateers, my three best friends and I, when we tore open greasy bags of French fries drenched in ketchup and Louisiana Red Hot and cracked open pop cans in a non-mellifluous melody rivaling the choir. I rebelled weekly. I still bristle at rules that stifle my creative expression. Nonetheless master craftsmen-they built the structural support once serving as my foundational fortitude to weather life. Why it is weakened-also a mystery.
Then, the congregation was simply old folks to me…full of wrinkles like the faces of the people alongside the railway stop. They bore a particular pain…like 12 miles of rough road-the hardened look of having seen too much and experiencing too little in equal measure. It’s what comes from living in Gary, Indiana. The steel mill stacks, like the people in the station are weatherworn, yet, they stand. Those stacks represent the financial lives made while expelling, up in smoke, the dreams deferred of thousands of men of Local #1041. Daddy was a less than proud card-carrying member. No mystery for his disdain.
Strangers to me, the stories in the bloodshot, jaundiced eyes of these people made my bones shiver under the warm sun. Theirs is my father’s story and in some small measure, mine. One such story still inspires me. Daddy said he used to compete with men, bending hot steel ingots with their bare hands. Oftentimes, daddy won. His secret--mind over matter. He taught by example. This high school educated guy with burly, calloused hands, designed and built his dream home, paycheck by paycheck until the day he died. Unfinished, another dream deferred. Daddy never lived one day in the house, but mama saw to it becoming inhabitable. I believe that through us, his spirit of determination inhabited that space for nearly ten years.
I look from the platform at the old livery guy going about his routine, making his day’s pay.
“Need a lift, fifteen dollars, anywhere in the city,” he says. The original UBER man –no app needed.
He drives to my first childhood home. My lungs heave from the thick stench laced air that paints the picturesque blood orange sky.
“Please wait,” I ask.
I survey an oddly familiar vacant lot, recalling my parents leaving our apartment building daily to work toward their goals. I smile now through the tears flowing like the Little Calumet River, understanding what it felt like to be daddy-in life’s “middle earlies” facing an unknown ticking clock in realizing one’s dreams. That apartment building where I spent the first fifteen years of my life; the home that last held my daddy’s spirit; the building where he died; gone. Recognition feels like I swallowed my heart. I left the city twenty years ago, yet it feels like time stopped. Pain pierces my heart as it did the day I heard my daddy’s body hit the basement steps, void of breath. Unbeknownst to me, my soul died in the same instant. Cavernous. Void of my passion to write; void of what was evoked in the stride of my parents walk; void of what those stacks represent; void of what is STILL expressed in the eyes of the residents of the Steel City—steely determination.
Stevie Wonder’s ‘Sunny,’ emanates from a porch. As it had in 1969, the song swaddles me with hope of what can be. I am age four, again. Then, I fell in love with music and soon after, books. Anne Rice and Mary Higgins Clark were my honorary Muskateers. No surprise I loved mysteries. I loved puzzles. I loved examining moral satisfaction and dissatisfaction. I wanted to improve the human condition by writing. Treating words as puzzle pieces for stories, not once did it cross my mind that becoming a writer was not possible.
There are fewer apartment buildings now, many abandoned with missing windows, yet the street feels like a fortress, STILL. It was from those windows that eyes were on a youngster, from one end of the street to the other. I was safe then and I knew it; even alone, I wasn’t. As I stand peering through a broken window, I recall the eyes that watched me also were the ones beaming with support at those essay contests. The city supported its residents. If daddy wasn’t sketching houses at his drawing table as he peered out of a window, he visited construction sites to ask building questions. Everyone obliged him with answers and the city watched him build his dream home. Now I have only the reflection of the eyes that stare back in the mirror--time worn eyes that bear the look of hope and heartache; disappointment and desire; faith and fear-equally.
The innocence of my four-year-old self has escaped me. The reason is too, a mystery. It’s why I returned home. I had allowed the system to STEAL my joy.
Restless, the ole livery guy shouts, “I know you know about them street lights. I ain’t trying to let them catch me out here.”
I smile, asking, ‘just a few minutes more, please.’
I walk through the lot where my building once stood. Itching from the weeds irritating my arms and legs, my Granny’s phrase, “a lost ball in high weeds” comes to mind. It seems my life goal is just that. Truth be told, at home, comfort and discomfort, resides.
Now in the livery guy’s midnight blue deuce and a quarter, I hear from a window, “welcome back, girl!” With those words, I knew I was the suspect in my own mystery. My credible motive: a 30-year drought in remembering who I am and whose I am. My reasonable opportunity: a 30-year deluge of doubt. This trip re-initiated the journey I started at the very place I had to return, to remember; a journey to ignite the soul of the person who loves Gary as much as her daddy and with clear understanding of why.
Beyond the rusted stacks, the weeds and the abandoned buildings is the indomitable spirit of a city’s people, my people. The structural integrity of the city is a steadfast, faithful and colorful community of cool Black people who encourages me to tell stories reflective of the soul and pulse of the city that ignited my passion to change the condition; to become the writer I dream of being.
I, like Gary, Indiana, has changed in ways I could never imagine-for the better and not so much. Writers aren’t born. They are made through what resides in the eyes of the inhabitants of the city; what they recognized through the windows of my soul-steely determination to honor my passion, my gift; born in the crossroads of America…stoked like a fire at this, the crossroads of my life.