Thursday, May 12, 2005

Diary of a Gentrifier

It would be easy to mistake Joe's famous digs for a charnel house. His house crouches on its foundation at 10th and U as if somebody dropped it there from the sky and it never bothered to straighten itself up. Remember back in your early education days, when you had to learn to write a how-to paper, and a persuasive paper, and then they'd give you a picture and you had to write a descriptive paper? Joe's house would make the most awesome descriptive paper ever, if it weren't for public education's reluctance to promote crack houses.

But I'll give it a shot.

The skinny rowhouse looks for all the world abandoned and condemned. If you suspected that somebody lived there, you'd assume a squatter. The yard is a small square of dirt with a decrepit and utterly useless, or perhaps fully victorious lawnmower chained to the gate. There's one barred window in the front, on which hangs the upper torso of a Ken doll, his arms above his head, bound together and tied to the bars. Next to double-amputee bondage/ritual sacrifice Ken is a ratty, matted, once-purple? stuffed bunny that has one of its arms pulled off. Bunny is shoved sideways between the bars. Sitting on the ledge below the barred window is a pair of what appear to be jackalope horns. Whenever friends visit from out of town I stop and point at the psycho diorama and laugh, and they keep walking and acting like they don't know me.

We first learned Joe's name from Joe's many, many friends. Joe's friends are devoted and visit him often, and insistently. Why, they will bang on his door at all hours of the night, bellowing "Joe! Joe man, you gotta help me! Joe!!!" So eager are they to see their friend Joe! Joe's friends are also very generous and leave him offerings in the dirt yard next to the victorious lawn mower. Joe has been left, by my reckoning: a broken television, a tape deck, an eight-track player, a destroyed espresso machine, a grocery cart, and a little red wagon chock full of lettuce heads. For the man who has everything. Lettuce.

And then there's Joe himself. How to say. Okay, you know if you leave a cigarette smoldering propped on a tray and it develops that long trail of ash that seems as though it should disintegrate into millions of fibers but remains impossibly cohesive? That's Joe. When the weather's nice he'll prop open his door (so you can see the walls caving in, the ceiling bowing to meet the floor, the trash carpet) and sit on the stoop, crazy gray Don King hair up to the ceiling and wildebeest eyes and a body shaped like a question mark when he tries to stumble out for a stroll.

But Joe? Aw, he's just a big spoonful of sugar. The man minds his business, and more to the point, his customers many devoted friends mind theirs. Nobody's ever given us a second of bother. He's a neighborhood institution. Tommy, once strolling up to visit Kriston at 10th and U happened into a conversation with a street man who was trying to give Tommy massage oils for Catherine. When Tommy told him that he was heading up to 10th and U, the man told him that he had a friend up there, Joe, but he's cleaning up his act and doesn't visit Joe so much these days.

The neighborhood is changing rapidly, and all the old rowhouses on 10th are being snatched up and renovated and churned out to white people at exorbitant rents. Several owners have tried to buy Joe's place from under him, but the place is owned by his realtor sister in North Carolina and she put on some sort of clause so that he can't sell the place just to earn more crack funds. He's essentially a homeless guy strapped with a home, and he's trying to make it disintegrate.

You'd think that the gentrification of U St. would spell bad things for Joe. That he'd resent the intrusion and disruption of his way of life and want the neighborhood back the way it was, when he ruled the block. But last night, Kriston happened to stop and chat with Joe, for reasons surpassing my understanding. (I thought we had a tacit agreement to all mutually ignore each other). Kriston confirmed, yes, he'd moved out of the house on 10th and U, but really he was only around the corner on V. "Well we can't have all the nice white people moving out of the neighborhood," Joe opined. "Then all the mean folks move back in."

U St. Joe. A voice for moderate gentrification. Did you hear that, white people? Mount up!


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