The reason a human being can live in a Bombay slum and not lose his sanity is that his dream life is bigger than his squalid quarters. It occupies a palace.
--Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
Hopeless proud-aunt bias aside, I've always known my nephew Allen, now 13, is special. He tells me, "All the other kids want to play video games but I want to be outside!" On a trip to Newfoundland he collected hundred of crab shells, brought them home in a dingy cardboard box, and spent hours arranging and re-arranging them according to color, size and type. When Hurricane Irene threatened to hit, he made a series of hand-crafted “DANGER” signs and posted them around his Nashua, New Hampshire neighborhood. An amateur cartographer (“What’s that called, a person who likes maps, a cardiologist?”), he walks the streets and draws detailed plans of wherever he happens to be. He’s rallied a group of kids around him, many of them younger, who he refers to as his “crew.”
Allen's mother died when he was four. He lives with his father--my brother Ross, a currently woefully under-employed teacher (The Depression) to whom the lion's share of credit must go for this amazing offspring; Ross's second wife (i.e. Allen's step-mother), a lovely woman of Colombian descent named Edilia; Edilia's mother, Gladys; and Edilia's college-age daughter Laura in an apartment complex--Amherst Park--through which every joy and every ill of our cultures apparently passes.
When I called recently, he launched into a stream-of-consciousness description of his neighborhood, his community, and his place in it that IMHO should be put in every Social Studies curriculum in the U.S.
I know this place like the back of my hand—hey, what’s that mole doing there, get it? I know the lay of the land, I know every parking lot, every bike rack, every exterior light, every interior light, who lives in every apartment. I know where the Puerto Ricans hang out, the Dominicans, every patch of poison ivy, I know how many trees there are and what kinds. Red pine, white pine, maple, um, there’s one other kind…I know the creek, I know the woods*, I know the pond, I know every kind of frog…There’s the green hamel-backed, there's the…
Hamel-backed? How do you spell it?
Oh I just made that one up [giggles]. Then there’s the turquoise frog I call it cause it has a yellow-greenish-blue belly, and the brown bull. Toads, bullfrogs. We don’t allow poachers. We used to allow kids to kill one frog each, but then we realized, nah, even one’s no good. So now no poaching, no killing, did I tell you about my tadpoles? I have four tadpoles in a jar and they have these big black eyes they look at you with and they’re so cute!
What’s the name of your organization?
We don’t really have a name. We’re just kind of here.**
Well, what is it that you guys do?
Forest patrol. We pick up bottles and maintain the swamp. We're able to regulate how much water goes down the swamp. I made this log bridge with sticks on either side and a whole bunch of bright pieces of paper I stapled on so people won’t fall in.We try to break up fights and stuff, little kids getting in fights. We work on the fort.
What’s the fort made of?
Sticks and leaves and pieces of wood, plywood and stuff we found lying around. We have trees, too, which is kind of cool cause we climb 'em and when we see someone coming, we attach ropes and then we jump down, slide down and attack or arrest people.
Yeah, if I have enough men, we tackle the guy and then we sit on him.
So it’s not violent?
No, no, no.
What does an arrest consist of?
That’s like when a kid has caused a lot of crimes and what we do is we’ll go and arrest him like if he has a warrant. Like if he’s done so many wrong things he has a warrant we have to tell him if he does it again he’ll be in trouble.
What might the crime have been?
Destroying property, beating up little kids, resisting arrest…some of these kids get violent, they try to get you in your private parts...It’s really cool, my friend Jorge [not his real name] has a pair of handcuffs…
Handcuffs! Do you have a jail?
Well we’re working on that but right now we have some difficulties, I talked to
Who’s we? Do you have your own little police force or what?
Well, me and Savannah are kind of like co-captains…[Savannah is his 10-year-old cousin who lives an hour and a half away in Portsmouth]. We don’t…we don’t boss anyone around, it’s not like that…But a lot of violence around here, every night there’s a cop at someone’s house, so we try to protect. What happens is people get provoked, kids’ll call you a raper or a pedophile or—
They call you rapers? They call kids PEDOPHILES?
[giggles]. Oh yeah, all the time, you just have to ignore ‘em, but so anyway some of the kids’ll get provoked and they start fighting, this one girl, Tanya [not her real name], she’d punch anybody, another girl, plus she started using drugs. But she started to figure out that people didn’t want to be around her, and we were just nice to her and and so now she’s not using drugs anymore.
Here's another thing, at school they have indecent exposure. Like the guys they wear their pants around their ankles or the girls’ll show too much boobage or their thong. So one time, you get a warning, two times you get suspended, and three times they’ll arrest you.
Good Lord! Who’ll arrest you—the cops?
Yeah, indecent exposure, they call it. Most of the kids, you know, they dress okay, but a few…
What’s INSIDE the fort?
Gunsticks. Sand bombs. Bottles filled with sand. Cans are only for real war. Spiky pine cones. Eric once got a pine cone stuck in his cheek...
No wonder he retired…Now are all these kids white or are they different races?
White, Spanish, and Egyptian. Mexican, too.
What’s your funnest thing that you do in Amherst Park? What would be your perfect day there?
I usually work on the fort, go out around noon on a Saturday and start working on the fort. Recently me and Eric found a bike in the pond and we cleaned it off. It actually works. If you look on the ground, you can find lots of tools cause everyone here is always working on their cars. So I found an Allen wrench set, I found a screwdriver. I got my own storage space cause the landlord gave it to me cause it has mold in it. I used to fix kids’ bikes in there, I made almost forty dollars, but ever since the economy turned bad there hasn’t been as much business. I still have my toolbox, though, and I'm gonna start up again when it gets warmer.
So you don’t have trouble in the forest every day?
No, we haven’t had war for about a year.
You go out there in winter, even though it’s freezing cold?
Sometimes, but then other times we stay inside and drink hot cocoa. Hey yunno how I had to go to the emergency room for my stomach awhile ago? I don’t mind needles, I say bring ‘em on, whatever they have to do. At the free place, though, the clinic the other day, they’re kind of big. I guess they can’t afford skinny needles, so they hurt a little going in…
Oh geez...that's no good...Now back up a minute, how did Savannah come to be co-caption?
No, she’s captain.
Oh, she’s captain? So what are you?
Savannah’s even above you!
How did she achieve that position? Did you appoint her?
Yeah. She’s pretty smart about this stuff. It’s really hard to do. Personalities, how you deal with people. She’s given me some pretty good tips. Like she told us to build a decoy fort so if the enemy comes to destroy they’ll destroy the decoy.
Do you talk to her every night?
Well right now no, cause her mom’s not there, she’s in Vegas or wherever so the phone's gone. But yeah, she’s the one…plus we also have badges for everyone. Ranger patrol, public water protection, there’s computer and technical, there’s equipment and building, there’s vehicle and repair, there’s modifying and stuff like that.
And she’s the captain?
Yeah, yeah, she’s the captain. I’m not in charge.
That is so cool!
I love that! And you made her the captain?
Yeah. I’m not kind of like judgmental of people. I have two friends in eighth grade [Allen’s in seventh] and then I have friends who are boys and friends who are girls.
What’s your stance toward grownups? Respect them and work with them, or stay away from them or what?
Well...basically stay away cause a lot of the adults here are kind of crazy, they’re either on pot or they’re getting arrested every night. Really loud screamers. They get nervous if the kids are touched, they’ll go crazy on the other parents. Lots of fights.
So the grownups are not…
Yeah, these are not mature grownups. These are kind of like stupid drinkers and cigarette people. But a lot of my crew their parents mostly don’t smoke and if they do smoke they’re still really like nice and everything…
Well that's good cause smoking in and of itself doesn't make a person...What’s the thing you’re most proud of? Can you point to one thing you feel has been most helpful in your role as, uh...public guardian?
I was really proud of our co-captain Eric who retired, cause he once saved this kid’s life cause he was drowning. The kid fell through thin ice and Eric went in and saved him.
Oh wow, that's incredible! But what about you? What’s something you’ve done that you’re proud of?
[Hems and haws]. Nah, I can’t single out anything. Oh here’s another thing we do, though, we have training for little kids: we show ‘em what they have to do. Like if you come here, a lot of the little kids are actually very smart. They’re not dumb. Like if they see someone coming toward them, they’re not going to run at them, they’re probably going to hide from them. So we train in self-defense, in what we do. I’m kind of like Savannah’s assistant so I have to write everything out. Savannah will tell me what fort she wants to assign this kid to or if this kid’s gonna be fired or whatever. She always does a background check to make sure, you know, they’re not bad kids. Me and Eric study the kid for awhile and then once we get to know ‘em, we tell Savannah. We also teach ‘em different signals to use in the forest. One of the bigger kids’ll be the advisor to the little ones.The youngest kid we’ll take is five and six all the way up to thirteen. We tell them our model, our routines, what we stand for.
And how would you describe what it is exactly that you stand for?
Serve, protect, and…and...rescue...
*Note from Ross: “I often feel bad that Allen didn't grow up, as did we, in a place with lots of open space, but he and his friends still manage to find delight in the thin strip of trees that border the apartments and the community college next door. He calls it ‘the forest’ and it reminds me of Chile, very long and very thin.
**Note from Ross: "Ask him, by the way about (cousin) Savannah's involvement--I think Allen has selected her to play an important role in their guarding of the forest. I think she is a de facto general. I'm not sure, but it's worth asking him about it.”
[END OF INTERVIEW]
I will not gild the lily by enumerating the myriad virtues here displayed except to say that they are not civic qualities so much as knightly qualities. I will say that they are the mark not so much of the statesman or the politician or the soldier but rather of the pilgrim who bends his knee to a queen and sets out on a life-long search for the Holy Grail. I will say that as he spoke, his ostensibly run-of-the-mill neighborhood became imbued with a kind of mythic nobility. I will say that I would take this kid as the first line of defense over the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps combined any day of the week.
Pray for him, and more like him—The King of Amherst Park.
|AT A NEIGHBORING REALM;|
THE EVERGLADES, FLORIDA