Thursday, December 18, 2014

That Christmas in the projects

December 24, 1980

My mother has always loved Christmas.
Even when we were down and out and living in the roughest housing projects in Paterson, she refused to give up on the tradition.
Unemployed after suffering intense eye strain sorting through electronic parts at a parts warehouse in West Paterson, my mother’s money dwindled, and yet, at nine, I still pestered her for presents that I generally got in the more plush times when we still lived in my grandfather’s house in Clifton.
We were dirt poor, and took refuge in the heart of the ghetto where my mother ran often in her effort to escape a family she feared and resented.
I still don’t completely comprehend all the issues, only it evolved out of her mental illness, and has she regressed, we often fled into places like the projects or drug-laden places like Carroll Street in Paterson.
I should have felt guilty wanting so much when we had so little, but I was too young to fully understand the depth of our poverty or the extent of my mother’s madness.
I knew enough to not spend too much time in the apartment with her and the voices she claimed she heard, instead seeking refuge in the ruined neighborhood that surrounded the projects. But I had to come back to the apartment to sleep or to fix up my face after being in some fight or another with neighborhood gangs – not a race thing so much although my white face stood out too much in a neighborhood that was mostly one of color – but a conflict over importance and how little any of us had in that part of time.
We had a tiny Christmas fake tree set up in one corner of a very large and largely barren living room. For the most part, the Christmas tree was the only thing in that room because we lacked money or desire to purchase furniture. We didn’t even have rugs to cover the titled floors and so the reflection of tiny tree’s lights and the over abundance of tinsel glittered on the scuffed tiles creating an amazing, if also disturbing effect whenever I came into that room.
Sometimes, I would stand on our balcony and stare out at the other balconies encircled with blinking, colored Christmas lights, realizing that this was indeed Christmas, and I watched the first snow flakes fall while standing there as well, transforming the world beyond the projects into mounds of what might have otherwise seemed like sand, these, too, taking on aspects of the seasonal lights in the buildings beyond. Even the flash of passing police and fire vehicles seemed festive.
But I felt lonely and isolated a remote being that had no place in my mother’s mad imagination or even the violence of the streets. In those moments, I felt like I was the only person alive in the world, or that had I barely existed.
Sometimes it was difficult for me to tell what was mad, and whether there was more sanity in my mother’s voices than in the screams and gunfire I sometimes heard, or the violence I saw, or the fights I barely survived.
But during that moment when the snow first came, when the scars of the half demolished buildings got smoothed over in shrouds of white, everything seemed perfect, yards filled with this magical stuff that had arrived just ahead of Christmas as if a perfect present for me.
In the morning, of course, all this would change as the white surface became marred with thousands of footprints. But even then, when I made my way down into the muck, and left my own mark, it felt good for the moment. Perhaps I didn’t think much about how soon that mark would fade.
All such markers do over time or lose significance.
I don’t think I actually believed in the existence of Santa Claus at that point, something that had last only for the few precious years when I lived at my grandfather’s house while my mother resided at Graystone.
Even if I had, we had no chimney in the projects for Santa to climb down, and the doors upstairs and downstairs were always locked.
But I do remember my mother calling me back inside that evening, her voice wavering not with madness but with love of me she would never lose.
I would not sleep well over Christmas Eve. I slept fitfully every night while living in that place, but on that night in particular, as if I hoped for some special present that would transform all the strange feelings I felt, all the madness inside me, inside my mother and outside in the world we had to live in.
I remember not turning back inside at first when my mother called, but staying there, shivering in my PJs on our 13th floor balcony and staring out at the other buildings, as snow swept across the face of them, obscuring them like smoke.
Later, one of my uncles would come and tell me that Santa had left presents for me at my grandfather’s house.
I missed the place – even though later I would run away from it often and eventually succeed. But at that moment, when the world expected Santa to arrive at any time, and my mother pleaded for me to get inside and sleep before he came, I wanted only to return to the sober if not quite sane existence of my grandfather’s house, where I had a yard to play in, and had snow ball fights with neighbors not fist fights with street gangs.
Maybe I knew I would eventually have to return there, that my mother’s madness would drive us back. Maybe I just hoped too much for a Santa to come who I already knew did not exist. But when I drifted off the night, I could almost hear the sleigh bells ringing, and perhaps I imagined him landing on our balcony, and so on Christmas morning searched the landing for signs of reindeer prints, finding only my own.

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