—written by Regina (Butler Street was my first piece of writing)
Still dazed by what had transpired before me, I leaned over the kitchen sink and ran cool water over the rags I had gathered while I asked the woman to be seated. Under the circumstances, I was amazed at how calm I felt and suppose I may have been in shock. But there was little time to think of myself as I stared at the woman in the dining room, crying, her faced streaked with tears and blood asking, “Why is this happening?”
I could not answer her and recalled just three months prior asking myself the same question about my own life.
It was the end of May when I pulled up to the curb and caught my first glimpse of Butler Street. I had separated from my husband and in my decision found myself homeless.
Fortunately a local minister and his wife offered their transitional home to me for the summer, which I accepted graciously with little hesitation. Having never been alone or completely on my own at the age of forty I was terrified of the uncertainties I might encounter in my new environment. Some had deemed the area “the bad part of town” and even referred to it as evil; a place where chaos, devastation, and daily destruction was the norm. I realized there was truth in what was being said, but along with that truth I also wondered if there might be good there also.
The majority of people living on Butler are African American. Coming from a small coal-mining town in Southwestern Pennsylvania left me with little experience or knowledge of the culture or how they might react or respond to my presence there. My circumstances looked bleak, but a part of me was intrigued by learning about the people I would be living among.
At first I thought I would just stay in the house much like a prisoner. Remembering I had just left a closed system one that drained me of my energy and zest for life, I was not willing to enter back into that world.
Butler Street consisted of a row of six-houses with my bungalow on the corner. I was surprised and comforted when I noticed the little home was protected from the outside world by natural barriers. Hedges lined the front lawn and connected to a row of Maples stretching out to the back with a row of shrubs leading to the end of the property. Five feet away the neighboring house completed the illusion of safety creating a wall to my fortress. The outside of the home was still in decent shape with the exception of the masking tape left to rot and peel on the windows after the last painting. But I imagined a fresh coat of paint over the frames, several potted plants, and a rocker on the front porch would make the place quite cozy and a bit more attractive.
Turning the key and opening the door, I wrinkled up my nose in disgust as the stagnating odor of nicotine filled the air, an indication to me that the last renters had little concern for cleanliness and clearly did not mind the windows being thick with yellow sticky, film. The bathroom wreaked of urine, and discouraged by the amount of work I was now faced with I walked back to the porch to sit on the stoop and cry. I laid my head in my hands and asked myself, “Why is this happening?” For a moment I regretted my earlier decision to leave my home and all that was familiar to me, but I knew there was no turning back. I calmed myself, gathered my strength, and walked back into the house while mentally preparing a list of items necessary to clean and repair my new environment. I wondered how my life had come to this point and what purpose it could possibly serve.
Three months and ten gallon of paint later as I sat journaling on the porch beside my rocker and newly planted Hydrangea, I heard what I believed to be a group of women screaming obscenities nearby. Screeching tires, people shouting, firecrackers sounding similar to small artillery, and screaming was common on Butler, so I paid little attention and kept to my writing.
Moments went by when I heard the sound growing louder and closer, but I was a temporary tenant and not an integral part of the dynamics there, so again, I went back to jotting down the events of my day on paper. I outgrew my boundaries not more than a minute later when I heard someone being hit. I jumped from the stoop to walk to the edge of the sidewalk and peer around the hedges.
On the ground just ten feet away lay a woman curled up in the fetal position her hands over her head crying while eight women stood around watching another beat her. I knew the risk of being involved in such a risky situation, but I do not recall pausing to think about myself before I started walking toward her.
The group of women scattered as I drew near and bent down to ask her name. She was crying uncontrollably and would not answer my query. I wanted her to trust me enough to help her, but my attempts to persuade her proved unsuccessful and I finally explained to her that I would have to return to my home where I would be safe. I could not understand why she would enter into a group knowing they would harm her and refuse me a woman who wanted to help her.
Finally, I gave up trying to persuade her and started walking back to my home. Then I heard the woman behind me screaming, “Wait, do not leave me!” By the time we reached my front stoop she had calmed down enough to tell me her name and I said, “Okay Sherry, I think a band-aid and a cup of coffee might help.”
I walked to her side and gently begun the task of shifting her blood-soaked hair away from her head. The two-inch gash was not a surprise to me, but the row of staples running down the left of her scalp was. Obviously, Sherry was no stranger to severe woundings. She began crying again when I asked her if she wanted to press charges. She declined her rights and for a moment I was filled with a sense of injustice for her. At that moment a young girl came to the front door and asked if she could enter to see Sherry. I allowed her to come in and be seated. She sat quietly watching, listening while I spoke with Sherry then said to me, “Are you half?” I did not understand what she was asking and felt a divide that I could not describe. I asked her if she could explain what she meant by half . She conveyed to me that the people in the project nearby had been talking and wondered if I was half Black. I giggled and told her it was merely my tan and my Indian heritage.
I finished cleaning Sherry’s wound then asked her to stay away from the neighborhood explaining that she was not wanted there and she would surely be hurt if she were to come back. Knowing there was nothing more I could do, I sent Sherry back out into the street. I have never felt as helpless as I did at that moment, but I knew I had to allow her to make her own choices. As Sherry stopped at the edge of the sidewalk and tossed her hair like a school girl, I knew she was going back to her world of destruction.
Later that evening, I spoke with the local police patrolling the area. My belief was confirmed that Sherry was a prostitute who frequented the area. Strange, I saw her as a woman; a human with worth and value. Sherry represented a part of myself as well as every other woman. But what did she represent to those women who were beating her?
Immediately I realized Sherry and I had a common bond. I did not belong on Butler Street. Sitting in my dining room, bleeding, Sherry had asked me, “Why is this happening?” I learned that a part of that connection was Sherry could not take herself into a new environment where she could have a chance at a new life, a better life. I could. My stay on Butler Street had come to an end.
My new apartment was ready across town. I phoned a friend and he said I could move in several days after the Sherry incident. As I packed the last of my luggage to the car I thought of Sherry.
Even though I could not convince her to save herself by acting like the woman of worth that she inherently is, I was ready to follow my own advice to her by taking the next step in my independent life. I wondered if it was really I who had been placed on Butler Street to help Sherry, or if Sherry had been placed there to help me. Had I been given a few moments to behold and lift her to a place where she, all women, and men should be held? Sherry is no longer non-existent and now has a voice; recognition for being a woman of worth and value. And although she could not accomplish this for herself, I could, for both of us.
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