East Lake, For all my Life.

Haymakers. Love it hate it degrade it ignore it all you can, but when I write I’m throwing haymakers. I want to write like I’m standing in a minefield, like there’s a knife to my throat, and bullets in my spine. Writing this brought out the Jekyll and Hyde good and bad in me. It made me clench fists and look for something to destroy, it made me want to run away to Portland and Seattle, it made me want to burn this world down in ashes. And then there were the bad thoughts…

Haymakers. I’m throwing haymakers here.)

I changed some names.

Ronnie leaned out the window with the shotgun in his hands, I drove slowly down an East Lake alley. It was a weekday night, it was something to do in 1989, it was revenge against a man and a gun that’d been aimed at us a few moments earlier. He drew down on us and I spun out the tires of my Dad’s hand-me-down Malibu, in the trash and mud on the dividing line of East Lake and Woodlawn. We raced down West Boulevard, no time to think things through, no point in trying. Ronnie retrieved the pistol grip shotgun he kept under his bed. His grandparents asked what we were doing, we did not reply.

Terri still sleeps under the overpass near 81st. His American flag is usually up, and he’s always reading. This morning he was sitting in a beach chair underneath the southbound and northbound bridges of I-59. His shirt was off in the early May heat and I couldn’t read the title of the book he had in his hands.

See that lady? She waved to the Engine, I waved back. She killed one and shot the other two, the owner of a walk-in closet boutique next to the church where I went to boy scout meetings once upon a time. I thought of the pocket change in the register the day three boys opened the door, pistols in hand, none of them walking away, one of them never walking again.

East Lake kids cover the streets and sidewalks, the vacant lots and all the wrong spots, all night all day. Black boys walk pitbulls on homemade leashes with silver spike collars. The airport is buying up homes in it’s shadow for runway space but there are houses with families in them right now, airport babies just weeks old, their front door a piece of plywood, even more plywood covering the windows. Arthur stood over the first murdered body I’d ever seen in an East Lake alley and said something under his breath to the corpse. The flies had found him before anyone else, it was 8am in a July. He was younger than me, he was a lot younger than me and I stared at him, the other firefighters staring at me for any crack in emotion. I did not give them one.

The lady cop with the tattoos up and down her arms is still working out East. She and I hugged in the middle of I-59 at a wreck just this morning, Ruffner Mountain still shadowing the pavement.

The abandoned Elks Lodge is right outside Station 19’s bay doors and that’s where the firefighters rallied during the strike of ‘79. They asked permission to bring in black firefighters because it was 1979 and that’s how things were in East Lake in 1979. Dumpster fires and burning abandoned cars terrorized the city during the strike, the National Guard soldiers proving a poor substitute for smoke eaters. A fire officer boarded himself up in Station 23 and got drunk, the National Guard unable to do anything but watch him through the windows. Unrelated to the strike, but on the night of, a firefighter shot and killed a man in a Northside juke joint.

Listen to the radio. Listen for Engine 19...

I was in Dollar’s Barbershop on 1st Avenue the day of the Minor High riots. Old Man Dollar, at least 90, butchered my hair and I listened to the men talk of their time and their lifetimes. I never said a word, why would I? I was only 16. Across the street was an Exxon, and a classmates’ brother was executed one night for using the payphone on a weekday after sunset. I watched her cry away the rest of the semester, I never said a word, what could I say? I was only 17. And that Exxon is a Shell now and Dollar’s Barbershop is long gone, but the payphone is inexplicably still there.

Tara was a lesbian drug dealer and that’s why we were in an alley on the dividing line of Woodlawn and East Lake. I crept through with the headlights dim and circled back around the Corvette dealership, Ronnie still halfway out the window. His hands were scarred from punching out airport trash windows over news he was going to be a father at 16. We circled the dividing line…

Cinema City 8, you will always be a part of me.

As well as the Anchor Motel and the family that lived in the janitor’s closet-turned monthly room rental. There was one mattress on the floor and the couple were both HIV+, and he was a bounty hunter wearing all camouflage. Their 12-year-old son was having problems breathing and I hate it when kids don’t get a chance. The Bama Motel too, it’s bright neon red lights and I was only 15 and snuck out on a Friday to get a $40 room, next door to pretty white hookers who leaned against the door frames and propositioned and/or insulted everyone that walked by.

The women’s shelter defeats me every time. A woman touched my arm in the lobby and said “George, right?” or maybe it was “George, it’s me Cindy…” and I knew who she was and I remember seeing her in a Southside bar a decade ago, and I knew her from having cheap sex with a friend and I knew she had just had a job working a grocery graveyard shift and she told me over skim milk and peanut butter purchases at 2am that her husband had given her the black eye she wore and that he was a Nazi skinhead, and she could never leave him. I remember paying my tab and telling her how much I hate Nazi skinheads.

Cindy touched my arm in an East Lake women’s shelter, and smiled, and it all makes sense now, but not really.

My mom and I sat in the parking lot of Burger King and ate in the car. The row of porn shops were catty-corner to us, and we laughed at the men sneaking in to the Cinema Blue, the way they parked so far down the Avenue. The Cinema Blue used to be the “College Theatre” and the college in question was nearby Howard which packed up and moved to Homewood and changed it’s name to Samford. I was a student of Samford for one day, and hated it so much, and I excused myself from my counselor’s office and found a water fountain and I never went back. In 1981 Burger King gave away Empire Strikes Back glassware, and I had an unhealthy obsession with Star Wars, one that I’ve never gotten rid of.

They closed the Go-kart repair shop this winter.

Johnny T dealt drugs out of his one-room flat in the top level of an old East Lake mansion. A teenage beauty queen client went missing and her father and brothers held Johnny T, and a roomful of Outsiders, hostage with hunting rifles. Anger-raged tears and fueled on Southern-violence, the beauty queen’s family cooked up Johnny T’s cocaine and tied off each other’s veins. She surfaced a week later in one of those surrounding little towns that you only hear about in references to high school football or the weather. Johnny T tried to be a firefighter for a few years, and quit when they started drug testing.

I took LSD on three different occasions in ’86. We ate the paper and skated over scary dark streets and hid in Rugby Avenue corners. On New Years Day 1987 I decided to never smoke, drink or do drugs again. A few months later I discovered a band called Minor Threat and learned the word “straightedge”.

But then Harold met that girl on the Panama City Strip and her name really was Chaos and they split time living in an old house, in the heart of it all, and a Fultondale hotel room. He left her for a pregnant 14-year-old bleach blonde and they are still together to the day, their kids all grown up.

Cinema Blue is still… Cinema Blue, recently making national news in a glory hole sting operation. Rows and rows of abandoned stores face off against 1st Avenue and the porn shop strip mall, their shelves and stock left behind with the cracks in the sidewalk, and the weeds growing in them, and small business doom. This is my hometown Springsteen, this is my hometown.

The next night in the same women’s shelter and another woman called out my name, a fabled tension all its own. She and I spoke for a few seconds but I don’t remember anything said. I couldn’t get over the children in the lobby and in the dorm rooms, eating cheap pizza and their superhero bed sheets. The shelter wasn’t always exclusive to women and children, but the director said having men on site created too many problems. I told her I understood. I didn’t tell her that I saw a man hang himself there once, because I understood the problems she alluded to were a far different matter.

East Lake save my soul.

The next murdered gangster was pressed against a wooden fence, the rain thinning out the blood and guts of his face, soaking his cliché bandanna. It was cold and I’m sure he was freezing on the ground, the seconds he spent there before he died.

The first house fire in my return to East Lake and the first Birmingham cop to show was once in a high school basement when I got “jumped in” to the Black Gangster Disciples. There were five of them and just me and I took my licks like any 16-year-old was supposed to do. Mitch was there too, and in charge, and he’s dead now. The BGD later brawled with a rival gang, friends of mine from the Southtown Projects, boys I knew from East Lake that would get high with the Outsiders and watch us bleed up our knees on skateboards. Nate is blind now from a machine gun drug deal gone awry and Lewis… he’s in a wheelchair from a similar bad situation.

“Ladies and gentleman, please direct your attention to the loser in waiting. The savior of nothing, and protector of the already-lost.” I had the nightmare again. I couldn’t breathe, there was fire and black. I woke up afraid and screaming, sucking air. I woke up, the loser left behind to clean up the junkyard neighborhood that he grew up trying to get away from. “Ladies and gentlemen, listen for the radio, listen to the tones for Engine 19”. The stabbing deaths and collapsing houses, nonsense assaults, cars burning and overdoses. Just listen.

Listen for the goddam radio.

Ronnie sat back down in my Dad’s hand-me-down Malibu, he put the shotgun under the seat and lit a cigarette. There was no revenge on the dividing line that evening. Ronnie’s son… he’s out there at 18 or 19 now. Living proof of nights that couldn’t end and lifetimes without a chance. And Cinema City 8 is so long gone, and Terri is under the bridge with his books and American flag. And Ruffner Mountain even burned down once or twice, or tried to.

And I’m out here too. Scarred proof of nights gone wrong and one lifetime to make things right, or at the very least…

Go down trying.

“After all the loving and the losing, for the heroes and the pioneers, the only thing that’s left to do is get another round in at the bar.”– Frank Turner