In the neighborhoods of Schenectady
“I don’t feel safe living in this neighborhood because there is a lot of fights, accidents, needles, shooting, stabbings and more. I feel like QUEST should not be in this kind of neighborhood. But if QUEST was in another neighborhood none of the street kids would come anymore. QUEST is a very good after school program.” —Written by a 12-year-old who has been coming to QUEST most of her life.
No one seems to mention the kids who grow up in the neighborhood. We quote area activists, pastors, social workers, law enforcers, teachers, politicians. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a panel made up of kids 10 and older? Yet most of their parents would not want their children to participate.
One child’s mother made her child write and say how wonderful the Hill and Vale area are. She had given her a cheat sheet with smarmy language on how safe and beautiful the neighborhoods are. Another one keeps saying — cousins, brothers, etc. — whenever her kids are inappropriately touched by men, older men, 25 and up. I see the girls stick their heads in the car windows of all the new BMW’s and Mercedes, and Lexus, lining Grove Place. These cars spend the days just sitting there, engines idling, and one window down on the driver side. I see the young women being patted on the rear, being tickled, throwing their arms around male necks, legs around male waists. “Cousins," is the response, "brothers." Never uncles, always cousins! It seems every male over 20 is a cousin. And in my mind it still doesn’t make it right. Most sexual abuse is committed by family or friends of family. Most of us know that. But that’s the excuse and hue and cry of the neighborhood. “Cousins. They are only cousins.” And the cars full of sleek young men in suits just sit there waiting.
I have one young boy of 13 who doesn’t come to QUEST anymore because of family issues. Like a level three sexual predator living in the house with his mom. Two sisters, one a paranoid schizophrenic at the age of 11, and a sweet 7-year-old. The building is disgusting, the front and inner stairway covered with garbage. The front door is always open, so driving by I can look right in and see up the stairs to the apartment. I see the children often; they run to my car and hang on, and beg to come back. I make sure they have clothes, and blankets, and a turkey for Thanksgiving and presents for Christmas. Sometimes we sit in the car and talk. The child with severe mental illness has been coerced into a cult-like bible study group, where all the attendees are waiting for a miracle, a cure for severe mental illness, and a life of poverty.
And in the midst of this is Tony, trying desperately to die. He tried to drown himself with a hose, tried to strangle himself with a rope, last week he had a large kitchen knife and he was in running the street screaming he wanted to die. A neighbor called the police who came and took him, his mom refused to go with him, as he left for the children’s wing of Ellis Hospital. He was, I am sorry to say, back on the streets three days later. I am sure the school has called CPS. Just as I am positive the police noted the squalor in which he lived, his mom does not want CPS involvement. And the religious group is not interested in invoking the law either. This is Van Vranken Avenue, one of our newer havens for drugs and violence.
And the area is crowded with homes breathing lights. Yes I know it is art. Art in abandoned neighborhoods, breathing slowly, timed to an adult heartbeat. But the houses have no heart, no life, they are abandoned, empty, faceless, squatting like an evil animal in a Tim Burton movie. This helps not one single person who is living on the streets, or in the area. Toys for the wealthy who drive through for a night of viewing and then leave. It does, however, let every drug dealer, prostitute and homeless person know where the empty houses are. It does nothing, offers nothing, just a group of dying houses in a dying neighborhood, breathing their last.
“Let them eat cake.” Marie Antoinette said that just before the French Revolution, when there was no longer any bread for the poor and hungry.
But what is truly ironic are the complaints from various non-profits in the QUEST neighborhood citing that a 12-by-12 treehouse will invite drug use and prostitution. Go figure.
“Wait, maybe the lit-up breathing houses can take the place of all the street lights that are not working in the ghettos of our city. Let’s see if crime goes down. Oh yes, Schenectady is not the only city doing this. It is part of a $1 million grant for Albany, Schenectady and Troy.”
Let them all eat cake indeed.
A ghetto love story
Several years ago I had to let go some long-standing staff at QUEST, whose personal habits and work ethics were not in the best interests of QUEST and themselves. They had started out brilliantly but as I paid them more and more and as they got comfortable with their jobs, things deteriorated terribly. Nothing worked, and this was one of the most difficult decisions I had to make as a boss. As time went by, we began to talk and then one day we met for lunch and talked some more. This came about right after the murder of “M,” because we all had known her, she had been a Questor for many, many years. As we met at Civitellos for lunch, tears were shed and truths were told.
Tee told me that being fired was one of the better things that happened to her and her family. “We had gotten complacent,” she said, “we were used to that check coming in.” And Jay, her boyfriend of many years, kept getting into minor skirmishes with the law, and one day with a con game that involved food stamps, on a local store on Albany Street, much like the old con game at the cheese store on State Street. Well Tee was called by the police and by the time she got there, Jay was leaving in handcuffs, and S, their 12-year-old son, was sitting in the middle of the floor weeping. Jay went to prison, CPS became involved and Tee almost lost her three children.
And things had to change. Tee got a job working with a developmentally challenged young girl after school, and Jay went to prison. When he got out he got a job, a real job at a hotel in Saratoga, moving up to become a sous chef (he had attended SCCC). He is very proud of his work. Tee, well, she is holding her breath and praying that things will continue on a positive note. And as for her son S, he is in high school now, and on the football team. And somewhat of a star player to boot. She tells me with a touch of tears and wonder, that she goes to the games where her sons name is being shouted by the fans in the stands, hundreds of them, and that he has a solid B average in school, with a few A’s thrown in.
You can’t make this stuff up. And me, well, I can’t stop smiling.
You never know what the future will hold. And as you know I desperately want to do a mural project at QUEST. A community project to bring people together. And Tee says she wants a piece of that and so does D.C. Dunkel, son of Gloria Nelligan, a wall of peace and understanding bringing some of us together. To remember Jay Street, and our many fallen friends and neighbors, a memorial of hope for the future. As Tee says, “I want a piece of that wall.” And oh yes, you can have a piece of that wall, donate time or paint, or hands on work. Moving forward together, much better than a house breathing its last.
Then there’s Shawn. I am not giving away any secrets, as he was in the Daily Gazette story about violence, picture and all. He spoke of his own life as well as the issues needed to be met on the street. He spoke of having done time in prison, and coming out from a half-way house. He talked of having been straight and sober for one year now. He speaks of being at QUEST for his children. He speaks to me often of how much he likes his present life. Of having a real relationship with his 12-year-old son. Of actually having a decent place to live.
“I used to be homeless,” he tells me. “I used to have nice stuff, but I sold it all to buy drugs. But now, I have a nice place to live, I have nice stuff, I have a real home, I have work, and I like it. I like having a good life, I like to work regularly. I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize it. Next step is getting my drivers license back.” He grins. “And then it's time a car. I have time; I can wait. I am satisfied and enjoying everything. No hurry, everything happens when it is time, and I have a lot of time.”
And so he does. A good man, a quiet man, a man who knows where he is going. A remarkable father and a keeper of faith. “We gonna be huge,” he says speaking of QUEST. “HUGE!”
Also in that article on the front page was Merle. Merle who had spent next to 20 years in prison. A contractor now and a builder of tree houses, and a writer of books and a dreamer of dreams. “I want to make this place beautiful," he says of QUEST. And he is so proud of being able to give time and even money to bring us forward. He hires men of the community to work for him, men with pasts, men much like himself, and he pays them decent wages. And I am proud to be part of his plan. His plan of bettering the community where he lives. I met him one day at QUEST mowing our overgrown lawn. Never saw him before in my life. He goes around on Sunday in his riding mower and does clean up work, mowing and picking up trash and pruning bushes. It's his religion, taking care of where he lives. Making sure his son helps. Giving back, cleaning up and never looking for recognition.
That is how we stumbled across one another, and he told me of his vision of a tree house, and I said, go for it, we split the cost, and now proudly there it stands. Merle I salute you, and as he puts it, “We are so lucky we found each other.” Yes, we are Merle, yes we are.
And then there is Savannah — Savannah named for Savannah, Georgia. I have known her since she was 3, a head full of blonde curls, and a smile to make you forget all about your troubles. But an imp just the same. Her mom was sent to QUEST for community service. They had just moved up here from Georgia, and there were quite a few hours involved. Well they came the two of them and they stayed. And later on as a mom had more children they came too.
Savannah grew into a troubled teen with a good heart. She would honestly try but she hated school and would rather be home taking care of her new sibling. One infallible way to keep your child from getting pregnant is to keep having babies yourself. And getting your impressionable teen to help with diapers, and vomit, and screams in the night! Savannah’s grades got lower and lower and then she had to start repeating years and going to summer school. She wanted more she desperately wanted better, but she couldn’t seem to hold it together. She would bring home every teen in need, regardless of who or what they were. The neighborhood loved her but she didn’t love herself. Finally she said, “ENOUGH” and began making serious inroads to better choices. She looked at Youth Build, but they were restructuring at that time and had very little to offer. Cause once Savannah made up her mind to prosper, there was no holding her back. She wanted it now, right now. She looked at Corp, but she didn’t want to live away from home. She had never even ventured out into the world. But, as life would have it, there were other viable choices, so she joined up. And grew up!
She came running down the stairs Friday night yelling, “Miss Judy, Miss Judy!” And there we were hugging and laughing and yelling. She got her GED and would graduate the entire program in November. Getting a certificate in security. My sweet Savannah, being a security guard. She already has me down as a reference. And she wants to move, leave home and get her own place. Sometime, not to far away, she wants to move to Vermont. She wants to travel.
We laughed about her lip ring. I remember when she got it, I also remember I wasn’t thrilled with it either.
“They wouldn’t let me wear it,” she said. “You were all right!” And I was, but so was she, she made all the right decisions, she pushed her way through. She did not use drugs or get pregnant. She kept in touch with her family and me. She finished. Her first major success and may this be just the beginning. Go get them Savannah everyone who said no, for whatever reason. You did it. We are so proud!
If you have been paying attention through the years you already know we have reached out to every organization around. And been rewarded with no response. Not even the dignity of “not at this time.” Or people saying, Oh sure, make an appt. and not showing, or else picking a time that is entirely off the wall and I am left sitting alone in the dark in the parking lot for someone who neither calls or shows up. I have been omitted, snubbed, insulted, need I go on over and over and over. Now yet again I hear the word unity in the air, see this large gathering touted on Facebook, and even on my Facebook page. I guess we are good enough to use as publicity. I see people who say they are community and youth conscious, but who spends little or no time with any clients. No way-No How. But they do go to meetings two and four times a day. “Oh, I am so busy!” ” Where are you?” they ask. WORKING- with kids, with families, addicts, with ex-cons, and people with special needs, and the homeless. Need I go on? Scrubbing floors, delivering food, plunging toilets, picking up trash. Sitting and listening. That’s where I was cause that’s what its all about folks. Meeting never gets anything done as well as DOING.
We have a young man called Rafael who had corrected with one of our weekly providers. I don’t see him a lot. But we keep in touch. Last week Mary called and said she had a book about angels for Rafael and could she drop it off. “Sure,” I said, I haven’t seen him in a while but I would hold it for him. On a very bad day in his life-Subway Mary- as she is nicknamed explained to Raphael that she named after an angel, and so a friendship grew. Last Friday Mary dropped off about the book about angels and we talked and she left. I had extra business so I was just getting ready to leave at 8:30 when Raphael and Savannah showed up together to surprise me. And me, well, I hugged them and gave Raphael, who I hadn’t seen since August his book. Angels really. You can’t live without them. Their light is everywhere.