lead me, guide me
I don't know whether it is awe or shock that strikes me as I walk down
the dust-blown, potholed New Orleans road that could be a main street of
Hades. Carried by a strong May wind, loose blown from a cross street that
seems never to have been paved, sand whips across my face, temporarily
blinding me as I pause then hurry on. I am on my way to Orye's. I thought
it would be easy to get off the streetcar at St. Charles Avenue and Rhine
Street and head up Rhine till I hit Krakow Street, for I love walking.
But as I pass through every block, each worse than the one before, I begin
praying for my life.
Each more dilapidated and menacing than the one before. Seven blocks
into my walk, I see a petite Victorian cottage that in better times would
be adorable spray-painted with obscenities, on the front, sides, stoop.
How anyone could be so brazen. Worse still, where are the owners? The signs
of protestation? The cottage branded on a spring morning. And the silence
of the morning, the helplessness (like the strays all around, starved,
fragile, beyond the reach of all protection), coupled with the acquiescence,
as if dust whirling about the sky paralyzes all outrage, are profanities
of their own.
I find Krakow and take a right, moving swiftly. I will find his place--in
the 2600 block--ring the bell, walk in, then not go by foot again. It is
nine in the morning but so hot sweat drips off me. In the next block, every
other house is boarded up. In one, a corner building, boards are nailed
across windows and in the few that are free of them all I see is broken
glass, jagged shards like sharp cat claws. The entrance is one left shutter
door, the empty hinges of the other allowing a clear view inside. I see
a hand move in the space beyond the missing shutter and suspect someone
still lives here. The clapboard walls are bare of paint, except for the
spray-painted "RIP Rashad." Vines creep and crawl across walls
to the tar-black roof above.
Farther down are equally squalid buildings, boarded up, burned to ashes,
one back yard nothing but amber weeds, tree stumps gold and eerie. I start
at a loud squawking and flapping. Only pigeons escaping from beneath a
house. My heart still pounding, I come upon a schoolyard and a student's
menacing glare. "Why you here? Whatcha doing!" an angry voice
bellows. It belongs to a stocky man yelling at the boy. The man turns his
gaze on me. For an instant, I feel like a criminal, then remember I'm a
middle-class white woman who's never done an illegal thing in her life.
And all I'm doing now is walking down a street, though there can be no
doubt I don't belong here. "You ain't suppose to be out here stupid
ass," the stocky man insists. "Get back in your classroom."
As I keep walking, I ponder his words and think I must have misunderstood.
No teacher would call a student "stupid ass". Maybe he's calling
out the boy's name, a name that sounds like stupid ass, then I try to think
of names that sound like stupid ass but can't for the life of me.
I think about what I told my husband one morning after scanning the
local paper. I'd read a story about a teacher who was suspended from a
public school for calling a student a slut, and I turned to my husband
Luke and said, "I've never called a student a slut," and Luke
turned from his breakfast cereal and feigned deep admiration. "That's
terribly professional of you," he proclaimed. "Knowing your students,
I'd say you've acted with commendable restraint."
I walk on, am startled once more. In the next block, a two-story giant
of a Greek Revival is covered in vines, crawling up the front and sides,
intertwining the columns and gallery, saturating every inch of the side
of a mammoth roof, crawling through second-story windows and invading inner
sanctums of high-ceilinged bedrooms. I can't stop staring.
Down below, two boys sit on a stoop. Eyes fixed in bored defiance, their
feet propped up and cigarettes lit, glancing about the neighborhood, hungry
for distraction. They spot a boy heading their way. The boy bangs a tree
branch against anything he can find: tree, junk car, trash can. Takes out
a knife from a pant pocket and hurls it at the ground. He dislodges it,
puts it back inside his pocket and joins his buddies on the stoop.
I hurry down the block, hoping I'm getting close. Take out a scrap of
paper from my purse with Orye's address scrawled on it--2614 Krakow Street--and
know the house must be nearby. I pass a vacant lot with weeds as tall as
corn, and beyond it, see a roof, a single pigeon perched upon it. As I
walk farther on, I see the rest of it: A tall, towering building, well
over two hundred years old, derelict. Yet, it's the address Orye has given
me. Surely he'd written down the wrong address. Surely there's an explanation.
It is three stories--gigantic--vastly taller than anything surrounding
it. It reminds me of a great fortress, or a lone elephant, standing on
a vacant acreage of land. Most of the paint has been stripped off, and
what remains is greenish-yellow. Ten iron-black steps ascend to an elevated
green door and, above it, high upon the third level, another green door
opens onto a tiny platform. And there he stands, high upon the platform,
leaning forward against a rail. From there, he looks down. The same eager-friendly
face, eyes seemingly oblivious to the glare of hideous reality, ears deafened
to the screams of a tortured animal shrilling the air, pretending all is
right, only the merest glint of anxiety bubbling from beneath, signs of
his real intelligence.
He waves. I smile. He disappears. I know he is coming down to treat
me like British royalty. And we will both pretend. It is a pretense I can
live with. I have no second thoughts. I will not take back any moment of
what I know will be the most ridiculous role I will ever play. I pray no
harm will come. I do not belong here with the dead grass and jagged shards
for windows and shredded strips of cloth beyond panes like images of tiny
animals and criss-crossed vines encroaching on ghosted rooms. But he belongs
here less than I.
Apparently, he can't descend the steps and come out through the green
door, for I hear him calling from the side. He leans out a window on the
right side of the building, beckoning me. He disappears as I approach the
side door that faces a cross street named Sapphire, and, finally, stands
in the doorway, looking excited as I come nearer. So excited, he doesn't
see the horror: a black lump across the threshold, what appears to be a
dead animal. In his eagerness to greet me, he trips over the lump and lands
face down, his cane falling in front of him. In his rush to remedy his
embarrassment, he reaches for the cane, struggles to regain his footing,
but I recognize in his eyes a look I've seen before.
The first time I ever saw him when he came into my classroom, I saw
that look then. Orye stood about five-foot-nine-, a solidly built man with
a round face and bug-eyes. He looked to be about thirty-three, only a year
older than I. I remember calling his name from the roster of names and
thinking I could always remember him as the man with the bulging eyes.
I stumbled over his name, and he politely pronounced it for me--O and rye,
like rye bread--and the last name, Majeen. Orye Majeen. And after class,
he approached me and there was an aura about him of such haunted desperation
I knew he was frightened of something.
He indicated to me that he feared he would not pass my class. By whatever
means I knew, I was certain this was no minor matter but central to his
entire being. He asked if I could help him. I cannot recall his exact words.
I can recognize in someone's face the sense they've been consumed by an
insurmountable problem. And I wanted to help in any way I could. I tried
to reassure him everything would be fine-he would do fine-but the look
told me he didn't believe me. In my ignorance, I thought the fear had to
do with me-he had no confidence in my teaching-but now I know this was
not his thinking.
When was the first time I suspected? It wasn't even after I'd given
that first grammar quiz. He was the last to leave the room. He was not
only the last to leave, he stayed a full hour after the others had gone.
I sat at my desk watching as he wrote frantically, the frustration mounting,
and couldn't help but feel sorry for him, feel a respect for his efforts,
for he had no intention of giving up. It was getting late, going on ten,
for this was an evening class, and I was anxious to get home. Finally,
I told him to turn in his paper. And even with that extra hour, he got
almost every answer wrong. Even then, I didn't suspect. I guess I had confused
strength of character with something else. I thought he was one of those
students, normal in every way, who'd never been taught the basics in all
his years of schooling and now, in community college, found it impossible
to catch up. Most of my students fit into that category. This was the lowest
level remedial English class, filled with adults who'd been out of school
for years, who'd gone to the worst schools taught by the most indifferent
teachers and received the most reprehensible kind of education. Only when
he handed in his first essay did I realize the problem went deeper than
When I saw his paper, I couldn't believe it.