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Joe Hirsch

I haven’t left my house in three years. After the first year I forgot some elementary things. Maybe you can help me.

When you go to a convenience store, do you accept your change in your hand, take it from the cashier’s hand, or wait for it to be placed on the counter?

Things like that.

I have a surplus store of foodstuffs and I still get running water. For exercise I jog around the La-Z Boy in my living room and do sit-ups in the bathtub. When curiosity eats away at me and I feel like I’m missing out on something happening out there, I tell myself the world has been destroyed and that I am the sole survivor. The idea is romantic and can keep me busy for hours.

I imagine haunting ice-cream parlors, lying prostrate on the counter, and smearing the glass front with 32 flavors. Going into peoples’ houses, trying on their clothes, reading their diary entries, and sleeping in their beds. I would collect photographs from school yearbooks, vacation memorabilia albums, and movie stills. I would separate them into two piles, sitting in judgment of all mankind.

All this to kill time.

And whether you believe it or not I am healthy. Just studying the pamphlet makes me glad to be on the in instead of out. And I feel I made the right choice. As did millions of others when they walled off their air-conditioned castles.

Page five of the pamphlet, which was printed with public subsidy at public pressure, reads: The Ghettos in your city have been color coordinated according to risk factor. Pine-green denotes a ghetto chased with public works, such as libraries and courthouses. The ghetto and the public works exist together uneasily, but are the safest combination.

Fringe-yellow denotes a ghetto that coexists with a middle-class neighborhood. These should be flirted with, at most (since the authority of a publics works like a Courthouse is not present, nor is there the distraction of a public works, like a library).

Critical-red indicates a ghetto where harm would be assured as much as gravity.

From one lay to another, Green would be one where you and the passerby would be too busy to notice the ghetto, since you are on your way to a museum exhibit or a baseball game. Yellow would be one where you and another passer-by might make guilty eye contact like you were caught doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing (provided the passer-by, like yourself, didn’t live there). In Red you would find no one. They would find you.

Now the reason I found this shocking and chose to remain inside for the rest of my life.

Actually two reasons: The pamphlet was assembled by people in managerial positions, slick as any of the best and brightest (and sometimes the youngest) in PR firms across the country. In the key at the side-margin $ denotes the concentration in a given ghetto. Red $ means critical poverty. RED $ = Desperation.

For the most part within the US stats seem to be broken down by race (remember, I’ve been in my house for three years which means I’ve done a lot of reading, charts and graphs not excluded). So when people in managerial positions are desperate enough to break from the routine at the risk of accidentally being honest, it’s time to panic.

But this honesty on the part of the PR slicks wasn’t the only thing that bothered me. These pamphlets, with complicated martial arts (and martial law) moves to be applied to people made dangerous by poverty, were distributed at post offices, libraries, and on street corners. And they went like hotcakes.

Admittedly, they were printed on enviable manila cotton-weight, but so were the pamphlets on Cancer, Alcoholism, and Adult Illiteracy. And this pamphlet outsold them all (although you couldn’t say sold, because they were free). But the fact that the Instant Ghetto pamphlet bin was always empty bothered me, not because it proved that people feared and maybe didn’t understand the ghetto, but because no one seemed to be talking about it.

People found freedom from their isolation only through the pamphlet, not through other people. And this led me to believe B. Jordan when he said “From Amsterdam to Amarillo……….. the world is a ghetto.”

Although not necessarily in a physical ghetto, the people who avidly devoured the pamphlet (myself included) lived in some kind of ghetto.

Because I don’t live in neglect, I fear people living in neglect because it’s easier than dealing with the problem. I tried to ignore it my last day out and about in the world. I pulled into a convenience store, a mini-mart, into the parking lot that reeked of robbery a day away, robbery in progress, and on a bad day both. The fluorescent over the counter was there to act as a spotlight when the guy in the fatigues and the ski mask blew away the clerk about to press the alarm.

Litter had been strategically airdropped across the sidewalk. Tenements hovered to heights that promised stature but couldn’t deliver. The Kools ad with the skiing couple that remained behind the metal grating had been planted by an alien culture. In their parkas and downs they seemed to be laughing at everyone in line. I went inside.

I stood in line behind a man wearing a Boston Red socks hat. No one in line seemed as fazed as I was, so I kept silent. I felt embarrassed and paranoid. Until I got a look at the clerk’s face. He had a look like his number was up. And when all the other customers were gone, I said in an aside sort of way, “Aren’t you scared?”

This must have been his cue, because at this he poured out his soul like an Olde English 40 two glass cases away. He confessed that his nightly nightmare ran as follows: He would arrive at the mini-mart five minutes before opening, reverse the open sign and hail down the Holmes ice truck. He would make his way over to the driver’s side and discover that there was no one in the cab. He would return to the rear, taking the initiative and opening the sliding metal door. There would be a platoon of men in ski masks, stacking ice like sandbags.

When Eddie (the clerk) asked them what they were doing, they would continue stacking the ice in an impenetrable pyramid formation. Eddie would ask again and then one minion would answer, “We intend to rob and kill you, rob and kill you. Rob and kill the next clerk, rob and kill the next clerk. And the next. Rob and kill.”

The ice was there to ensure that the bodies did not give off much of a smell.

At last I had someone to share my fear with. It beat the cotton-weight pamphlet I have in my hand now. I could see the convenience store outside my window now, but peeking would be cheating. Even though I fear for Eddie, I can’t bring myself to open the shades. ****

Whatever awareness I saw in Eddie registered nowhere else. Things were definitely falling apart on Lionel Street and in the surrounding neighborhood. Eddie and I sat on the corner in front of the mini-mart after he flipped the ‘Open’ sign and turned off the neon Coors advertisement. We were in awe of the people passing up and down the street. There was something dubious about their lack of interest in their surroundings. It would have taken tunnel vision to ignore the transformation.

Take the liquor store for instance. Or what was 24 hours ago a winery that had received high praise from a local magazine. And, admittedly, acclaim from a local magazine without much clout doesn’t go far, but all the same it was a shame to see it go through the conversion. After the changeover connoisseurs couldn’t pontificate so easily about their vintage, the bulletproof pane/plate now between the cashier and the customer.

The outer-frame pulsed and fluxed like the lettuce-veined wing of an insect and we could hear an unnamable rattling from within.

Eddie explained: “I’ve seen it before. The bottles are bubbling. The parley vooo francaise stuff will be Schlitz Malt liquor in a few hours.” When I asked him how he knew this he said, “A few hours ago the mini-mart was an antique shop.”

And even the clients who had entered a winery and left a liquor store saw nothing changed, nothing strange. And the contrast in the two clienteles went unnoticed.

“The people who live here aren’t responsible for this, are they?”

I put this question to Eddie and he answered it. He told me that the people who owned all the businesses up and down Lionel Avenue were hardly ever present, despite the fact that they were making all the money. That they were laughing at us. It made sense.

On the awning of the mini-mart, white-lettering states, “We love your smile.”

Now if someone, a stranger, approached me on a street, say Lionel, and said “I love your smile,” I would be suspicious and rightly so. As you know, people don’t just come up to you and say things like that. But I never questioned it when I saw it on my way into the mini-mart. Every time I went in I saw it.

Although it couldn’t be ignored its meaning could. What “I love your smile” really says is this:

“I can see you. You can’t see me. Want me to prove it? Okay. I’m going to lie to you and you’re not going to do anything about it. Ready? ‘I love your smile.’ There, I said it. Now go into that mini-mart, stand in line, and shut the fuck up.”

I waited on Lionel, at the corner outside the mini-mart all night. I wanted to see men in white suits with gas-masks file out of milk trucks with shady satellites attached to their tops. I wanted to watch them drill, bore holes into the sides of respectable buildings and extract a sap, leaving the building a sallow skeleton in the projects, among the tenements in the ghetto.

I wanted to see them store the phials in the back of a refrigerated truck. I wanted to covertly hitch a ride on the back of a truck headed for Central Base of Operations, where the carts of sap were unloaded and placed on an assembly line. I wanted a man overseeing the production to come to the floor with a clipboard.

He would wear a hard hat and hold rolled-up blueprints in his left hand. He would guide around potential investors and excuse himself for a moment. He would have a word with the foreman, telling him where the concentration should go, to which neighborhood or private individual it was being shipped.

If it were that simple.

I waited for someone to say something, anything about the transformation in the neighborhood but nobody said anything. This is the first time I’ve said anything and it feels good. But because it came to what it came to, I’ve boarded my windows, locked my door, and crawled under my bed…………………

Maybe others have built moats or filled vats with boiling oil, ready to pour out their contents onto any that dare disturb their peace.


But how the hell should I know? I haven’t left my house in three years.


Joseph Hirsch was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is currently a student, living and working in Columbia, SC.

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