This short story on Big Words Authors comes from my hometown of Buffalo, NY. It involves something that most everyone who has grown up in the inner city has experienced. Sometimes situations in life come find you, even when you are not looking for them.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley in the shadows of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Psalms 23:4
The last time I walked on the eastside of Buffalo after dark was in the late 1990s. It was definitely after high school and it was before I started graduate school. I was an undergraduate in my late teens and early twenties. Like Detroit, my hometown of Buffalo, NY had started developing its own reputation for violence and deviant behavior, a hallmark of many of the deindustrialized cities in the United States. If you’re curious about such things, a good book to read would be “The Code of The Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City” by Dr. Elijah Anderson who describes this phenomenon in Philadelphia.
Hanging Out on Chuck’s Street
It was a summer night like so many I’d experienced growing up in my beloved hometown. I was on my friend Chuck’s street, Martha, which was near the Suffolk Street intersection and the 33 (Kensington) Expressway. It was the summertime, the sun had set and the streetlights came on after 8 pm. I was no longer a child so I could technically hang out as long as I wanted to with no recourse from my mother. We’d started doing that in high school anyway. I was home on summer break, and was living unsupervised most of the year now already because I was attending school down south.
Chuck was one of many ‘class clowns’ at Hutchinson Central Technical High School (Hutch-Tech) while I was there. He just happened to be one from my graduating class. We befriended one another in our freshman year and were tight ever since, along with another friend by the name of Hestin. Our friendships lasted long after we received our diplomas in the mid-1990s. Starting in high school, it was nothing for me to wander over to Chuck’s house from my own and come back after dark as it was only a 10–15-minute walk.
While at Chuck’s house we’d hang out on his porch, shooting the breeze with the other kids on his street. We would indulge in ‘ribbing’ on each other and talk about all kinds of things in the sports and hip-hop worlds, people we knew around town, girls we wanted to get with – everything. There were always lots and lots of laughs and jokes, some of which Chuck authored and some at his expense. It was always a good time.
A Buffalo Summer Night Unlike Any Other
One night after dark I left Chuck’s porch, I headed for home but this time with a different outcome than previous nights. It was a night I would never forget. That particular night I turned up Millicent Avenue and planned to walk down Orleans Street back to my mother’s street. As I strolled carefree up the street, not far from the corner a car pulled up alongside me, starting events that would forever change my life.
“WERE YOU TRYING TO BREAK INTO MY CAR, MAN?” The driver of the car was a menacing-looking black man who could have been in his twenties. If my memory serves me correctly, he wore a short afro and was brown skinned. He might have been wearing all black and maybe not. At nighttime, most dark colors look the same. It was one of those instances which triggers your “Fight or Flight Response” because you know there is imminent danger. It all happened so fast that I didn’t ponder trying to run. Had I tried, he had a clear advantage. By default, I chose trying to reason with him.
“WERE YOU TRYING TO BREAK INTO MY CAR MAN?” He stopped his car and got out, crossed the street, and approached me. I felt my chest pounding and my breath shortening in anticipation of whatever was going to happen next.
“NO, I WASN’T. IT WASN’T ME,” I said holding my hands up in surrender hoping that he would recognize that I was the last person who would try to do such a thing to his car.
“WERE YOU TRYING TO BREAK INTO MY CAR MAN?” I felt something hard collide with the side of my head, knocking me back. Is this really happening to me? My mind raced is the situation continued unfolding.
“WERE YOU TRYING TO BREAK INTO MY CAR MAN?” Something else collided with the side of my head further disorienting me. I looked around for help on the street, but this was the one night no one seemed to be out on their porches. Even if they were out, would someone have helped? To the casual onlooker, me and my assailant could have been a drug dealer and junkie, a bookie and someone who owed him money, or a man seeking revenge on someone who sought to break into his car. We could have been any one of the now ubiquitous statistics involving violence and young black men in the United States’ inner cities.
I turned and ran at first out into the street hoping that someone would see us. A car speeding down the street slammed on its breaks and honked, and then kept going. Again, this could have been an altercation taking place for any number of reasons and why would someone else look to get involved?
My assailant caught me, and I waited for him to present a weapon in that early Buffalo twilight. Something else slammed into the side of my head, this time dropping me to the ground. I waited for what I thought was certain death. I laid still on the ground as the world went silent, waiting for my fate which I just knew was going to involve a gun. After moments of silence, I looked up slowly, and my assailant was gone. I got myself together and then hurried back home.
As I scurried up Millicent to Orleans and then my mother’s street, I turned and looked around every corner. My hands burned slightly from some scrapes on my skin. I probably got them when I fell on the ground. My mind continued racing. Is he still out here? Is he going to come back for me? Why is this happening?
As I entered the house, Mom was in her bedroom praying, just getting up from her bedside if my memory is accurate. In those stages of our lives, she had progressed on her spiritual journey. She told me that she was praying around the time that I described my altercation. It was the second time, she experienced one of her sons coming home after a near life and death experience. The first was my brother’s second or third year of high school when he and some buddies went to a party on the westside of Buffalo where they didn’t know anyone. I remember that night vividly as well.
In the aftermath of it all, I was a bit shaken up mentally. It was my first time learning that trouble can come find you, even when you haven’t done anything to stir it. All you have to do is look like someone else. This is what’s called a crime of mistaken identity, and I recall my Dad telling me a similar story from his youth in the New York City subway system. I suddenly didn’t feel safe in my neighborhood or my city. What if I ran into this guy again?
One of Mom’s approaches to help me get past the incident was to physically walk with me down Millicent Avenue so that I could mentally confront the incident and get closure on it. I recall feeling a sense of resentment and not wanting to go back there. She was right and it was for the best, to at least get past the fear that was dominating my soul.
“I’ve been walking these streets for years and nothing ever happened to me,” Chucky said afterwards when I told him what happened. I didn’t hear any compassion or sympathy in his voice. I didn’t know if he was just saying that to be a smartass or just making an observation. In hindsight it could have been either, but it sounded like because he’d never experienced it, what happened to me was somehow invalid.
“Well Bro, it’s no secret that some folks in the family question your toughness.” In what was one of many such declarations throughout our lives, my brother put his gift of delivery and counsel on display. It was my first ever visit to see him in “Sin City” (Las Vegas), a lively visit in which our best friend left within one night over some silly spat with my brother.
We ended up in a spat too, and in my case, I resented my brother for a while after he made his judgement on me and the remainder of that trip was ruined. I remember getting on my flight and making eye contact with him as I walked into the jetway with everyone else. I felt bad about being angry with him. He looked back at me wondering what he’d said wrong. My visit to the desert shouldn’t have finished that way. We were brothers and we were all we had as Mom often said then and years later. Over time I got passed it.
Walking The Eastside of Buffalo After Dark
“I walk the streets of Buffalo at night and have been doing so for a while,” my then stepfather said. “I see some streets and when I look down them, they might look dangerous and I don’t go down them. If some trouble comes towards me, I feel confident that I can get out of it or handle it, but I’ve never been discouraged from walking the eastside at nighttime.” He was an older man and a Vietnam veteran, so I imagine he’d seen much worse than the eastside of Buffalo after dark.
In any case, that was the last time I walked the eastside of Buffalo after dark. Would I do it if I absolutely had to today? Sure. But like so many inner cities described in the above-mentioned book by Dr. Elijah Anderson, I won’t do it if unnecessary. If I do, I’ll follow my father’s sage wisdom. A child of upper Manhattan, at some point he started telling us to, “Keep your eyes moving at all times!”
If I had to walk the eastside of Buffalo after dark today, I most certainly would. I’d walk it knowing that trouble may come to find me, even I’m not looking for it. I would know that there’s the threat of violence, and potentially death for me or someone else.
Post Story Reflections/Thoughts
Some experiences permanently become a part of us. This experience is one that I will never forget. We may gain closure and heal from the negative experiences in our lives, but some things you never forget. Furthermore, in the United States’ inner cities, for everyone there is the threat of violence. Dr. Elijah Anderson covered this in his book “Code of The Street”. Finally, to this day when I visit Buffalo, my mother reminds me every time I go out to, “Be careful out there!” I likewise try to get in and out of the city without anything bad happening whenever I visit.