Growing up in Wilmington Delaware I had one neighborhood friend. We should have gotten along well because we were just alike. But like everyone else, I didn’t understand her. She was tall and scary, but she embodied the elegance of no other. For a while I took her for granted, then I feared her, sometimes I felt embarrassed by her. She’d always been the most beautiful on the block, almost incomparable. Her biggest problem became the fact that she hung around two completely different crowds and never quite fit into either. I felt ashamed of her. No matter which crowd I hung around, she’d always be there and in the way. It took a 400 miles move for me to realize she and I were just the same, touching two worlds but somehow not fitting into either.
Delaware is the second smallest state in America. Wilmington, though, is the key point of the state. The small city has both the nicknames of “North America’s Versailles” and “Murder Town.” She sat between the two. She was my first house, and my one neighborhood friend.
In one of her worlds, you’ll find beautiful flower gardens.
In this world, even the president of the country is proud of her.
In her other world if you’re a young person your risk of getting killed is higher than any other person dying from virtually anything else.
902 stands tall between the two of these areas.
At the age of 9-years-old, I finally realized her uniqueness. I joined my mom in the family room to watch television. On the news, a reporter stood in front of long neon caution tape and police cars. She stated in her intimidating broadcast tone that a boy had gotten killed there last night. It shocked me that someone would ever kill a young boy. I shook my head and returned to my Barbie Youtube videos, remembering why I never watched the news. The next day on my way home from school, with my dad, I sang songs with him on the radio. My obnoxious singing halted when I looked out the window at the familiar scene in front of me. Long neon tape and police cars. Here stood the place where someone killed the boy. And we were only a couple blocks from being home. I pondered this incident often. I looked up at the ceilings of my friend as I drifted off that night; thinking of how terribly close she and I were to scenes of murder. At times like these, I’d ask her questions like ”does death scare you too?” She never answered me. Instead, the walls would close in comfortably, the lights would dim, and we’d fall asleep together; scared but at home.
Once I finally turned ten, I got a later bedtime. I was beyond excited to earn the power of staying up later so that I could watch an episode of Fresh Prince of Belair in the kitchen. Of course, I pushed the limits a bit too often. “Please let me finish one more episode! Uncle Phil was about to kick Will’s friend out!” I’d plead. The later I stayed up, the more things I heard outside. I heard the groans of drunk men stumbling out of corner stores. I heard obnoxiously loud parties down the block. I heard emergency vehicles wailing down the street so often, I just stopped acknowledging them. These things brought entertainment when the TV couldn’t. My mom and I would turn all the lights out and peek through the windows at the crazy man falling over the sidewalk. I had fun until I started hearing gunshots. I had no idea how far or close they were but I heard them. I desperately wished I could move and live in neighborhoods like my friends when I heard these things. I hated the house. How could she be so beautiful in a place like this?! I wish you had feet so we could walk to another town!
All these rattling things were behind her. Literally. On the backside of the house, the ghetto part of Wilmington roared proudly. But the front looked different. Ahead of her were beautiful churches, a children’s theater, a playground, and our award-winning garden with the pretty cherry blossom tree that my grandpa planted for me. My mom told me I should take pride in the front. And soon I did. I took pride in my award-winning garden. I took pride in the Adopt-A-Block sign on our street that said “Graham Family Block.” I took pride in the front when President Obama and Vice President Biden rode past my house in sleek black limos followed by U.S. Military tanks and secret service cars. I took even more pride when they held a memorial at my PreK.
In the second grade, excitement overwhelmed me when I finally introduced my school friends to her. We dressed in pretty, poofy dresses and drank tea in the big shiny dining room. Excitement overwhelmed me for the moment when my friends could meet my one neighborhood friend. They’d love her! How could they not? She was so pretty. Everything felt great until Samantha had just needed to run her big mouth. Her dad was a police officer, which meant he was all too familiar with my neighborhood. He said that they’d have to park blocks and blocks up the street so they’d avoid their car getting broken into. It didn’t matter that my house was touching the nice side of town anymore. All that mattered was that Samatha told everyone that if they parked on my street their car would get robbed! I wanted to say “No that’s not true! It only happens sometimes. And only at night. This is a day party. Besides, they’ll only steal your car radio. My dad can tell you. They stole his.” But instead, I stayed quiet and resented my beautiful friend for hanging around the wrong crowd. Why do you hang around thieves and embarrass me at my party!?
I spent a lot of time sitting in the window. Even though my mom told me I should take pride in my neighborhood, I wasn’t allowed to go outside. It was too dangerous. I watched the cars pass on the busy street. I watched people go in and out of the corner store at the end of the road. I watched sluggish old, drunk men stumble back and forth not knowing where they went. The front and elegant side were boring. But the back window was where the real fun happened. I’d discreetly prop the blinds open and watch the neighborhood kids play outside in our parking lot. They’d play kickball, sit on cars, laugh hard at jokes I couldn’t hear, chase stray cats, steal rocks from our garden, and best of all: they looked like me. I couldn’t relate to Samatha the way I did to these kids. We looked alike. These kids wouldn’t ask strange questions about my skin (theirs were the same shades of dark brown). These kids would park on my street and I wouldn’t feel embarrassed, I’d feel proud. I begged my mom to let me play with them. She’d rub my shoulders and say “baby it’s not safe for you.” So I’d watch intensely through my window and envy those kids.
I watched them so hard it was like I knew them. I never really met any of them but I knew them. I knew that Yasir was a ball hog. I knew that China liked whipping the beads in her hair. I knew that Mitchell had the worst shoes. I even knew that they’d all gotten in trouble one time for staying out past the time the street lights came on. I knew that Aniya hit one of my neighbors’ cars and broke the window. I knew she did it but I didn’t tell when they tried figuring it out. I didn’t tell them because I knew them; even though they had no idea that I existed. At least I had my one neighborhood friend. She couldn’t talk to them either. She didn’t talk at all, she couldn’t. Together we watched the kids and laughed at jokes we could never reply to.
The one year of middle school I spent in Delaware was a train wreck. My beautiful house and I experienced a literal identity crisis. I made tons of friends at school, a Greek charter school with an insane amount of diversity. There were kids who lived in my neighborhood, on both sides of it. There were kids who lived in fancy parts of town in huge brick mansions. There were kids who lived in parts of town I’d never go through because they were far too dangerous. Everyone was there. And it felt great. Best of all, now I was old enough to have real sleepovers!
My friends who lived like the backside of my house called me “rich girl.” They’d come over and look around at my house in awe. “Damn girl! I didn’t know there were houses like this up the street from my house” they’d say in amazement. I had grown in popularity with them because they all wanted to see my “rich girl house.” This should have been cool. But it seemed odd when Yasmine started calling me things like “white girl.” They’d say things like “Christina is an oreo. Black on the outside white on the inside.” Everyone loved that joke. I wanted to say “But you only live a couple of blocks away from me! I heard those gunshots last night too! I’m just like you guys.” I felt misunderstood. And my beautiful one neighborhood friend must have felt the same way. “Who are we?”
I made other friends though. These friends didn’t live in the city like me. They lived in real neighborhoods; the ones with pull-open mailboxes, one’s where I’d be able to play outside. I invited them over too. On two occasions my friend Makayla came over and we had a great time during the day. It wasn’t until night that I heard her crying on the phone in the bathroom. “Mom please pick me up. I can’t stay here. It’s too scary in this place at nightime.” I felt my heart sink, I was embarrassed. But I couldn’t blame her. Even I felt scared at home during the nighttime. Another time I invited my friend Cheyanne over. There is no story for how that went because her parents told her she wasn’t allowed to ever go to houses in my zip code. But should I take pride in this place? This place that made all my other friends judge me.
That next year I moved 400 miles away to North Carolina. In the four years that I’ve been here, I haven’t once seen my one neighborhood friend. I miss her like crazy some days, especially on days when I feel misunderstood. Despite being away from each other I know she’ll never have a friend like me. And I know I’ll never know anything like her again. She and I were just the same. We have this bright colorful splash of the backside of town. Ghetto, rectless, party going, and super loud. But we also have a polished and shiny splash of the front side of town. Professional, presidential, award-winning, and super loud. Having this mix of two very different worlds is exactly what makes us beautiful. For this, I’ll always remember my first house as my beautiful one neighborhood friend.