My Little Mexicali Shack
I have a friend from Dallas who referred to my current place of residence as my little Mexicali shack. In truth, this is not a bad description of my home. It’s a little better than a shack. It’s a duplex in a low-income neighborhood in Northeast Austin.
One of my friends from my Dallas days recently asked me how I came to live in the Mexicali shack, and so I will tell the tale of how I moved in and why I choose to continue to live there. Well, the short answer is that at the time I moved in I couldn’t afford to pay much in rent. Also, because of some rental debt I had on my credit report, caused by a former deadbeat roommate of mine, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to qualify to live in any kind of “decent” apartment. I’ve since paid off the rental debt, but at that time it severely limited my options in terms of living arrangements.
I could go into the whole story about the treachery and betrayal of said former roommate, but then your eyes would glaze over and you would most likely quit reading this blog. Suffice it to say that my pseudo friend the Train Wreck then became my next, and ultimately, my last roommate. (If you haven’t heard of Train Wreck, I encourage you to catch up by reading about her in my four part series about The Rat Bastard).
Train Wreck was living in a 2/1 duplex in a less than desirable area of Northeast Austin. I had never been there to see it. Her landlord lived on the other side of the duplex from her, and she had been sharing her half of the landlord’s duplex with the landlord’s sister.
The landlord was a graduate student at University of Texas, studying Urdu (Yeah, I didn’t know what that was, either – they speak it in Pakistan. Pakistanis don’t speak Pakistanian anymore than Iranians speak Iranian. Who knew?). Naturally, being a poor graduate student, he couldn’t afford all his bills and his sister’s, too. So, when Mr. Landlord confronted his sister about her freeloading and she moved out, Train Wreck recruited me to be her next roommate. I think it was the summer of 2003 when I moved in.
I moved in one weekend when the landlord was away. Turns out he was in Africa visiting his future wife on a cruise ship where she was doing voluntary missionary work as a registered nurse. He proposed to this woman on a subsequent visit. So, by December of 2003 I had not one landlord, but two.
At first, when my landlord found out that I had moved in, I think he was shocked. I think he thought he had talked about the possibility of Train Wreck moving in a new roommate but that the issue had not, ultimately, been decided. However, he was won over by the fact that I paid my rent on time and that my credit allowed for the utilities to be transferred into my name. When Train Wreck lived by herself and with the landlord’s sister, they had paid their utilities to the landlord instead of directly to the electric and gas companies.
The duplex itself was actually pretty cute, and the rent was super cheap. There was a front and back yard, huge, mature trees, a pretty little courtyard, and a carport. It was on a dead end street with just two duplexes facing each other, a cul-de-sac without the circle. The immediate neighbors were really nice. I’ve been very fortunate on that front and have remained so.
All in all, it was a pretty sweet deal. I was working my obligatory stint at Dell at the time I moved in, contracting through Spherion. (I call it the obligatory stint because everyone in Austin is obligated to work in some capacity on the Dell campus until they quit in disgust, get fired and/or laid off. I, myself, quit in disgust).
I was working weird ass hours selling home computers to customers over the telephone. I would get home very late at night, just before midnight. I would usually look for a convenience store to buy some wine and cigarettes to sit in the courtyard and smoke. I would drink and read a book before retiring for the night and getting up to do the whole pointless rat race again.
The first time I was aware of living in the midst of drugs and prostitution I was on one of these late night excursions for alcohol and cigarettes when I saw a man and a prostitute strike a deal on the corner of St. Johns & I-35 and then head for the weekly rate efficiency motel that used to be located there, across the street from what used to be the Home Depot. At first, I wasn’t sure that was what I was seeing; I had to confirm it the next day with Train Wreck. Unlike in an episode of T.J. Hooker, for example, real street prostitution is pretty ugly. For one thing, you wonder why any man would actually pay money to have sex with THAT, even if it is only $10.
After a while I got used to these sights. I knew, for instance, that when you saw the same woman sit at the bus stop for an hour while three Capital Metro buses went by, that that woman was not waiting on the bus. The guy who looked so sweet walking his baby around the entire neighborhood all day long was not just out to exercise or bond with his child.
Eventually, I still noticed this stuff but it kind of became a part of the natural background, and today, I notice a lot less of it because I actually think that the neighborhood has improved. The Austin Police got a grant and really expanded their presence in the neighborhood. I’m sure the drugs and gangs and prostitutes are still there, but they’re less blatant and visible. Drugs and prostitutes are everywhere; they just hide better in the gated communities and the ‘burbs.
The neighborhood is still a poor neighborhood. There’s a lot of poverty and a lot of immigrants, many of whom are almost certainly illegal. It’s a historically African American neighborhood, so there’s a strong and proud African American presence.
When I moved in, that first summer, I went shopping at the City Market on Cameron Road and Highway 290 and got hit on a by a young black man who was actually trying to look like Snoop. He was yelling to me from the soda aisle to the breads and chips, that, “White boys don’t ‘preciate that booty,” and detailing for me his preferred sexual position. It suddenly occurred to me that I was the only white person in the entire store. Not the only white woman, the only white person.
I’m not a racist. I don’t think anyone would ever have characterized me as being one. However, until that point in my life I had been very careful about following all the rules. I didn’t talk to strangers. I didn’t walk alone late at night or in “bad” neighborhoods. I lived in “good” neighborhoods, all my adult life. When I lived in Dallas, if I had to so much as drive down Harry Hines Boulevard, I did it in the day. I didn’t stop, and I kept my car doors locked and my eyes straight ahead on the road at all times.
Now when I walk down the street in my neighborhood if I see a hooker I can talk with her like the human being that she is, no better or worse than myself. I know what it’s like to be the minority in society for a change, what it’s like to have the color of your skin make you different from everyone else in the room. I think it’s an experience that everyone should have.
Mr. and Mrs. Landlord had a couple children and committed themselves to doing missionary work in their very own backyard. They aren’t the only ones. There are several people, Christian and not, who are helping to improve lives here. I have an odd feeling that I was meant to be in this neighborhood and that my help may yet be required and that someday, if God is willing, I may get the opportunity to do something important that will be of real significance to someone’s life. I don’t know what yet, but I have faith.
And the real reason why, when Shy Guy dropped me off outside my home once and said, “When are you moving out of here?” and I failed to comment except to say that I had no immediate plans, is that even though I’ve done absolutely nothing of consequence in my life thus far, if nothing else I am “proud” of the humility that my little Mexicali shack has taught me. (Yes, I realize the irony of that statement; yuck it up if you want).
All the experiences in my life have helped to shape me into the person that I am today. A girlfriend from Dallas was commenting on my last two blog entries when she wrote that she didn’t seem to recognize me anymore but that she liked this person better. I like her better, too.