Mainly we thought of them as working to derail the kind of radical transformations we had in mind, dishonest agents of co-optation. They surveyed neighborhood people for a "community needs assessment" using a "scientifically" developed questionnaire that could be quantified to scale and rank. Dorothea Hill was, in their eyes, a vast collection of ills. She had dropped out of high school, become pregnant at nineteen, and was a single mother with three young children, one of whom needed expensive glasses. She had been arrested once as a teenager for shoplifting and had hung out at that time with a group of Lakeview Avenue youngsters who called themselves the Street Demons. Now she was on welfare, and she occasionally worked cleaning white people's houses while her oldest boy watched the children. She also took cash from the children's father, a long-distance truck driver who sometimes spent the night at her apartment. In other words, Dorothea Hill, by their account, represented the whole litany of behaviors that added up to a tangle of lower-class pathologies: welfare cheat, gang member, criminal, unwed mother, neglectful parent, pregnant teen, high school dropout. Dorothea Hill, they said, represented the culture of poverty, and they were fairly drooling over her.
Lakeview Avenue in Cleveland was a whole world, my world. The men on the corner every morning had names. Eddie Robbins was called Thunderbird, a bottle of cheap wine in his pocket, a friendly greeting each day—What's the word? Thunderbird. What's the price? Forty-four twice. James Thompson was Little Bit, four feet eleven in shoes, an oversized sports jacket bulging with scraps of material, needle and thread, bottle caps, and other found items he used to make dolls he sold to the mothers on the street. Willie Jones was now Ismael Akbar, but he allowed people to call him simply Bar. He was the father of three little girls with their own recent name changes—they were now Mali, Kenya, and Ghana.
The corner men were all street characters, all fixtures on our block, well known, reliable, and oddly reassuring each day. Their parleys were part news bulletins—Big Bob's rig's parked at Dorothea's; he's off to Baltimore later today—part scandal sheet—Louis saw Alice sneaking home at three A.M.—part debate, part Q and A, part bull session, part ongoing dominoes tournament. Soon they allowed me in; I paid for my admission by being the first teacher any of them knew who lived right here on the block with them, and because Akbar, who said that all white people are devils, said that nevertheless I was a good teacher for his girls. I gave myself an hour every morning to stand with the men, drinking coffee from a paper cup.
There was a whole education to be had on the corner: You hear Henry Allen beating up on that gal's been staying with him?
Yeah, it got plenty loud about midnight.
And when she was shrieking there at the end, and he threw her out the window?
Man, I saw her fall, don't know how she lived.
Yeah, and the cops was here in thirty minutes, ambulance took a hour, she could a died.
Black people don't mean a thing to them, man. Whenever you want them, you can't get them for a prayer, but when you don't want them, man, they're everywhere.