I sat at my small dinette table within a shabby apartment watching my almost one year old, Karen, toddle from one object to the next and my almost three year old son, Tom, playing with some toy cars.
This wasn't the bottom, but pretty damn close. I had enough money for food and milk for the kids. I seemed to find money just in time for books. There just wasn't enough for new clothes, car repairs or even a hair cut. The car had deteriorated so badly, I sold it to a local mechanic for parts. The G.I. bill was putting me through school, St. Louis University. But there was not any extra money to be raising a family. I received some disability, but again it wasn't enough to raise a couple of kids. I had used up all of my savings the past two years living in a small apartment near campus. Now? This.
My ex had left when Karen was three months, exactly one year after leaving Nam with a busted up foot and ankle. She took the little money we had in our checking account. Thanks goodness she couldn't get at my savings account. We had not heard from her since. The Legal aid society helped me get a divorce with full custody of the kids. But who was arguing.
I was doing pretty good physically, healing nicely, but mentally I was a mess. With the two little ones, it was necessary to keep a happy face and be cheerful as much as possible. Actually they were my life. Everything that I was doing was to make it better for them some day.
I couldn't afford an apartment close to the school any longer so I had applied for public housing. My application was accepted immediately for a third floor apartment in a living tomb that was called Pruitt-Igo. This place had been built as the panacea for low income and the poor. In just a couple of short years it had been open, it had become an instant slum, a dangerous crime ridden self-contained ghetto. I had begged the housing authority to find me something closer to school and in a better neighborhood to raise my babies. They were not helpful, just telling me that's what we have, that's what you get.
There were 800 apartments on eight floors in ten buildings that were connected by covered, suspended walk-ways between each building and each floor. It looked a little like a giant motel from the outside. One of the disconcerting things that caused me some apprehension was the race thing. This was 1969 and there was a lot of racial tension throughout the country to go along with attitudes toward Nam vets, especially limping Nam vets and the war. My family was one of five white families among eight-hundred.
So far I had not had a lot of problems with the tough guys and gang kids that wandered the parking lots. I left them alone; they left me alone. I did buy a used colt .45. The military taught me how to use it and I felt comfortable with it. I applied for a carry permit but was turned down because of my address. I went down to the local police precinct where I talked to the captain about it. He was an ex G.I. who knew how hard it was when you first get out trying to make it in civilian life. He had a solution. I had to do three weekends of training and even received a couple of bucks for the time. He made me a neighborhood watch reserve police officer. The piece made a difference in how secure I felt, when I had to go out, I put the piece in my belt at the back of my pants and felt a hell of lot more comfortable.
While I was at school, my kids stayed with an older lady next door that kept five or six little ones while their parents worked or whatever. Mrs. Williams was always helping me out, fixing me something special for a snack, always doting over my babies. Matty Williams was pretty good with hair clippers and kept my head trimmed. She was pretty good at cutting a flat-top too. She had a couple of young teenaged grandkids living with her that were trying to stay out of the bad groups at the complex. I became the tutor for helping with math or their other homework. Her fourteen-year-old boy and I were the gofers when it came to groceries or the occasional Chinese take-out. We usually went together so he wouldn't be harassed and I wouldn't be too out of place.
We were coming back from the little grocery store up the street when it happened. The elevators were broken, which was usual so we were starting up the stairs. At the landing between the first and second floor, four Afro-haired toughs had a girl down on the hard concrete landing. At first I thought it was just the some kids doing the nasty but realized the girl was in trouble when I saw one of the guys was holding her arms and two guys were holding her legs apart while the fourth guy was on his knees between her legs. She couldn't yell because she had a scarf tied across her mouth.
I yelled at the toughs while pulling my piece from the back of my pants, "Hey! Stop! Get off her. Let her go! I'm a police officer. Do it now."
The guy on his knees jerked his head around and stood while he fumbled around in his pants to come up with a pretty good sized folding knife. "I'll cut your balls off honky." He said thrusting it at me.
I brought the .45 up to point between his eyes and said, "Try it."
His eyes got big and one of the larger guys holding the girls legs stood up. He was [robably 6'3", close to 300 lbs., intimidating. He said, "What you gonna do, cap us all?"
"Hope I don't have to do that. Stand slowly, all of you. Drop the knife. Let the girl go. Marty, go hit the call-box quick. (They used to have little red boxes on light poles that would summon the police.)
The girl scrambled up, pulled her dress down then hurried up the stairs pulling the scarf from her mouth. She stopped on the second floor landing looking down at the scene.
"You really think I'm afraid of you?" The knife holder said to me starting to come at me.
I stepped down a step but leveling the gun at the threatening guys chest. When he lunged at me, I fired. The force of the gun blast pushed him back, dropping him instantly. The big guy roared in anger and rushed me. I had no choice, I fired three times rapidly. The first staggered him, the second stopped him, and the third knocked him down. I had to side step as the big guy rolled down the stairs. I moved the pistol back to cover the other two and told them to sit down on the stairs with their hands on their heads. Their eyes were as big around as quarters.
Marty hollered, asking me if I was okay. I answered back and told him to take the groceries up to his grandmother using another stairway.
A couple of gawkers had come to see what the commotion was. Several just looked at the big guy laying there bleeding, turned up their nose and walked away. A man had come out and was standing next to the girl that had been attacked. He was looking down at the dead tough on the landing shaking his head.
Almost a half-hour after the gun shots, a police car screeched to a stop near the stairway. A couple of uniforms ran up with guns out yelling for me to put mine down. I popped the clip while putting it down and ejected the chambered round catching it in one hand while laying my piece on the step.
I told the officers I was a neighborhood watch officer and had a badge in my pocket. One of the uniforms pointed his .38 special at me and said, "Very slowly, get it out."
Once he saw the badge he asked what had happened. I told the guy the story and was told he had to take my gun in as evidence. While one officer cuffed the two guys sitting, the other went upstairs to talk to the girl. Another couple of units came rushing up to park next to the first. A Sargent took one look at the dead guy at the base of the stairs and went back to his unit. He came back advising the other officers he had called for the coroner and a crime scene group.
The Sargent came up to me and stared at me for a few seconds. "You the kid they made a neighborhood watch officer?"
"Thought you left this shit back in Nam didn't ya," he said still staring at me.
Again I nodded.
"You ever do this before? See the guy you shot?"
I nodded again.
"You talk? Or just wag your head?" He said smiling gently without any confrontation in his voice.
"Let's get your statement. You got kids right? Where they at?" He asked.
I answered, "My neighbor Mrs. Williams has them. Her son and I went to the store. That's why we were out."
"That girl's lucky. These guys may be the ones who have raped and killed several other ladies and girls from the complex. You may have done the place a favor," the Sargent continued.
A bunch of people came to photograph the scene, interview people and finally haul off the corpses. They had quizzed Marty extensively. I had given my statement to the Sargent then to a homicide detective. They were shaking my hand getting ready to leave when the detective said, "You did a good thing. The two guys you left alive admitted they were part of the group that had been raping women around here. They said they didn't know about killing any though. They'll hang for it anyway."
"By the way, what in the hell are you living here for?" He asked.
"All I can afford right now. One more year in school and I'll be able to get a decent job. I'll be out of here then," I said.
"You be careful. You're gonna be popular with some of these folks but you're gonna be a target for some others. Watch yourself," he said leaving. He went to his unmarked car, opened the trunk, took something out and came back to me.
"Here, keep this till you get yours back," He said as he handed me a snub-nosed .38 special and a box of shells. "This is a piece I haven't had time to turn in yet. It should do for right now."
I thanked him as he once again turned to leave. "Thanks, I'll bring it back when I get mine back."
Wearily I climbed the stairs. The girl or as I could see now, young lady victim, thanked me for saving her. She said the toughs had told her they wouldn't kill her if she didn't fight but she felt they were going to kill her anyway. I told her that I was glad to have been able to help and started up to the third floor to go to Mrs. Williams for my kids. She followed me. I went to Mrs. Williams door and knocked. The lady was still next to me. I went inside and she came along. Spooky.
"Sarah Lee, are you all right honey?" Asked Mrs. Williams.
"Yes Matty, thanks to this white boy here. He saved me, he kept me from being killed," the girl Mrs. Williams called Sarah Lee said.
The girl or young lady was hugging a little boy and little girl saying how happy she was to see them.
Mrs. Williams said to me. "Sarah Lee just dropped her kids off so she could go to the store too. She didn't even get down the stairs before those ruffians caught her. Steve, you saved her, and probably saved several more ladies around here."
My kids were oblivious to the excitement. Marty's little sister, 12 year old Keesha, was playing with the kids.
Mrs. Williams said, "Sarah Lee didn't get to the store. She still needs to go. You go with her Steve, keep her safe. When you get back, I'll have something fixed for all of us.
I went into the bathroom and loaded the pistol. It was better than not having protection but I probably couldn't hit anything more than ten feet away. A little short barreled pistol like that was not very inaccurate. I tucked it in my back waistband and went out to gather Sarah Lee to go to the store.
It was only a couple of blocks to the store but it gave us some to time to visit. She said she had seen me and my kids often as Mrs. Williams kept her's too while she worked. She told me she worked at the nearby library and was taking one class a semester toward becoming a librarian. She planned on earning her degree one day and making enough to move away from the projects. She said she hated the thought of being dependant on ADC (Aid to dependant children) forever.
The walk gave me a chance to look her over as well. Sarah was five foot five or six, probably 110 to 115, pretty thin. Her hair was fairly kinky. It looked like she had started to iron it out but had not finished. Her dark brown eyes stared from a medium brown complexion. She wasn't heavy chested but she did have a remarkable backside. She had one of those rounded twin globe butts that roll deliciously when she walks making guys take a second or third look. What made her the most attractive was her positive attitude and the way she carried herself. She stood straight, proud and had an ever present very gentle smile.
When we got back, Mrs. Williams had some navy beans with pieces of pork in it and some great corn bread to sop up the bean juice. Even poor, you can eat pretty well.
That night I still had to hit the books after putting the kids down. We said our goodnights and Sarah was still thanking me. Before I left she gave me a big hug. She apologized for touching me but I told her that a hug was always welcome. I got a nice smile and hug from Mrs. Williams too.
The Saturday night following the attack, Mrs. Williams and I were talking about her church. She was extolling the values of her non-denominational church and how there was a racially mixed congregation. She really wanted my kids and I to go with her. She said her Keesha would stay with my little ones in the nursery if I wanted while we attended the service. How do you tell someone you really enjoy that you won't go to church with her.
That Sunday and every Sunday after, we went to church together. A couple of weeks after I had started to go with Mrs. Williams, Sarah Lee came with us and let Keesha help her with her kids too. We started a bit of a tradition. I bought a big roast on Saturday, Mrs. Williams would put it in her oven on Sunday morning, and when we returned from church the three families would eat Sunday dinner together. We poor folk sure knew how to eat.
Seemed like after the attack, I saw Sarah once or twice a day. Since the attack, Sarah had been giving herself a makeover. Her hair was always fixed nicely either in a round Afro or all ironed out. She even had a couple of wigs that looked nice on her. I would see her in the morning when I dropped the kids off, at night when Marty and I were going to make our store run, late evening when I was getting back from my night class, and Sunday going to church. Sarah was constantly around giving me a big smile and always a hug.
Most times Sarah would accompany Marty and I on our grocery store trips. She was cool about food stamps, never trying to buy junk food with them. She always bought the least cost items, getting the most food producing groceries including powdered milk and eggs. She helped me learn what to buy to get the most for my meager income. Like I said, we may have been pour but we all ate well.
The neighborhood gang types and toughs steered clear of me. I always nodded at whoever was standing around. I said hi when greeted but didn't try to be overly friendly. I was pretty much out of place around there. Several teens heard that I would help them with their homework so I became fairly popular with the studious group. Whenever I left or walked into the project, neighbors and acquaintances would always walk with me. They told me that if the bad guys saw us together, they might leave both of us alone.
When Christmas came around, I scrounged up decorations from a big department store where I had a part time seasonal job. I brought all the scrap and previous year's decorations home to divide up between the families that lived around us. That included Sarah Lee of course. Our little apartments looked pretty festive. My part time job was a real bonus as it gave me some money for gifts plus it allowed me to buy stuff at a discount, even including on-sale and clearance items. In early December my manager said he needed another temporary person. I got Sarah Lee to come in and she was hired for the final few weeks. She was ecstatic to have the chance to earn a couple ofextra dollars. It was nice to have someone for company riding the bus home with at night.
Two days before Christmas, a policeman came to the apartment door and told me to come down to his car. I told him I had to take the kids next door but he said to bring them along. His partner was standing next to the car on that cold afternoon with fog coming from his exhaust. He opened his trunk and pointed. They had a giant turkey, a large grocery bag full of canned and boxed goods plus a shopping bag full of presents.
The officer handed me the turkey. "Here Steve, we thought you guys could use a big turkey. Have Mrs. Williams cook it up for all of you. Look, there are presents for you and your two kids, Mrs. Williams and her two, plus some for that girl who was attacked and her kids. Spread them out for us okay?"
Men don't cry right? I had a tear, that's for sure. Since I had my kids with me, they helped carry the stuff up to the apartment. I thanked the officers profusely wishing them a Merry Christmas.
As soon as they were gone, I hauled the kids next door and told Mrs. Williams to wait a second as I had a surprise. I went to my apartment and pulled out the presents for my kids and Sarah Lee and her kids then picked up the turkey, the big grocery bag plus the presents for the Williams clan, and carried them next door. Mrs. Williams couldn't believe the size of the turkey. She went through the stuff in the bag and kept exclaiming, "Oh Santa is being good to us this year."
She was still putting things away when Sarah Lee knocked on the door to get her kids. I told Sarah to wait a second and went next door for her presents. I found another bag and put the presents into it and carried them back next door. Sarah was almost crying. Neither one of the ladies could believe the police had given us so much.
Mrs. Williams said that all of us should come to her house on Christmas morning so we could open our presents together and we would all fix a big Christmas dinner.
Christmas was fun. I had lots of presents for my kids plus I had been able to get something for Mrs. Williams and her two plus something for Sarah Lee and her two. Mrs. Williams and Sarah Lee had both handmade something for my kids and me. I really treasured the scarf Sarah had knitted for me. We ate a ton but before we ate, Mrs. Williams had Sarah and I running to several other apartments with big plates of turkey and dressing. That one turkey fed everyone on our floor that day. The looks of thanks from the people who accepted the plates of food was startlingly grateful. We did eat well.
After dinner and clean up, the neighbors were coming to bring the plates back thanking Matty for being so generous. Sarah Lee and I were sitting on the couch watching the kids when Sarah put her hand on mine and squeezed it. With a warm smile she said, "Merry Christmas Steve. Thank you for being here. You've made a difference for all of us."
Not much you can say to that. I squeezed her hand in return and smiled.
I was standing up to get a cup of coffee when Mrs. Williams pushed me under the archway between the kitchen/dining area and the small living room area. There hanging ominously was small bunch of mistletoe. She gave me a bone-crunching hug then turned her face up for a kiss. Lips are lips regardless of the color of skin surrounding them. I gave her a gentle kiss. She didn't want just one little kiss she wanted a blazer. When she let me go, it took a second to catch my breath.
"Guess I still gots it. Always could take the breath away from my man with a kiss." Mrs. Williams bragged.
Keesha jumped up and said, "I get a Christmas kiss too Steve."
I gathered up the skinny little girl and gave her a big hug and kiss then put her down. If you don't think a black person doesn't blush, you're mistaken. Keesha blushed untill she was pink.
Sarah Lee was now standing beside me looking expectantly at me. Marty took Sarah's hand and pulled her under the mistletoe saying, "Merry Christmas." He gave a sweet kiss to Sarah then one to his Mom. When he let go of Sarah Lee, in a natural turn, she came into my arms and she held me and looked into my eyes. "For a white boy, you sure are dangerous."
Sarah closed her eyes and leaned into me for a soft, toe-curling kiss. I was panting this time. Sarah had some big, thick lips that were pure luxury to kiss. Still holding me she gave me a smile and another peck on the lips then went back to the couch.
Softly so no one else but me could hear, Mrs. Williams said with a warning grin, "You be careful with Miss Sarah Lee. You be careful or she'll be axin' for more ADC."
A blushing white boy is obvious. I was obvious.
Sarah and I got a nice bonus from the department store when New Years came. With it, we bought pop corn and Kool Aide plus we had some noise makers left over from the store party.
New Years eve found us all gathered at Mrs. Williams place as usual. We had black-eyed peas, with chunks of pork, collard greens and corn bread. We played some games with the kids then let the little ones fall asleep on the floor while we listened to a New Years Eve party on the radio. When midnight came, we yelled, softly, "Happy New Years" and hugged each other toasting the event with our Kool Aide.
A big hug and warm kiss from Mrs. Williams was followed by a sweet kiss from a blushing Keesha. Then Sarah Lee took my breath away with a kiss that was more, a lot more than a neighborly kiss. Whew!
Life coldly moved along through the bitterly cold January through March. April came along with beautiful green grass on lawns and in parks, warm breezes, and the smell of fresh flowers.