Chapter One: Our Ledge chapter one Our Ledge
I often think about my sister and my best friend. Not every minute. Not even every day. I mostly think of them when I am experiencing something I would have wanted to share. Some moment that would allow us to tug on a line, thin as a filament, that begins “Remember when…” and draws a seemingly ever-present past nearer.
When I imagine us, we come into focus at our beginning—three young girls walking through our neighborhood under a prickly summer sun. I am nine years old, tall and lanky with long, ropy braids. Debra, my best friend, is shorter than me and, at eight and a half, is already prom-queen pretty. And then there’s my sister, Kim, three years my junior. She’s stealthily trailing us, even though I’ve bribed her with our mother’s secret stash of lemon drops to stay away.
Mom is watching us from our eleventh-floor apartment window. She has told us to go outside and play.
“You two are the nosiest children God ever gave breath to,” she always says. “Get out from under grown folks’ business.”
Later, she will ask me why I didn’t hold Kim’s hand, why I allowed her to hang so far behind. But right now, Debra and I are walking through our apartment complex on our way to our special place. We are Thing-Finders, two Black girls who have little in common with the popular children’s book character Pippi Longstocking, an orphaned white girl with red hair and freckles. But we admire the way she spends her day collecting castoffs for her “Thing-Finders Club.” We live in a neighborhood that has specialized in the broken, the halved—so in the tradition of this little white girl, we traverse our community, sifting through the past, searching for discarded items that we believe can be made new again. We call our hideout our “love spot,” and it’s a couple of blocks away. It’s where we’ve stashed a rusty metal tin we stole from the janitor’s closet. We’ve seeded it with the artifacts of our lives: my father’s fake gold cuff link and a knob from her father’s CB radio; a couple of dried pomegranate seeds; the obituary of our third-grade teacher’s daughter; a scarred flashcube from an Instamatic; the shoehorn we lifted off the grocery store bagger who has gnarled hands and likes to pat us kids on our heads. We allow him when we’re trying to show how brave we are.
To understand Debra, Kim, and me—to understand what will happen to us—you have to know the place that has begun to shape us. We live in Chicago’s historic Bronzeville community. At three square miles, it’s the cradle of the city’s Great Migration, the epicenter of Black business and culture. Over the decades, it’s been home to some of the country’s most esteemed Black folks: journalist and antilynching activist Ida B. Wells, cardiac surgeon Daniel Hale Williams, jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, novelist Richard Wright, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Kim and I are beginning to understand Bronzeville’s storied past because our mother, grandmother, and aunt grew up here in this corner of Bronzeville that hugs the lakefront. Kim and I are the fourth generation of our family to live here. Anything you can imagine, or want, or hope for is here. The good life, made evident by Black politicians, doctors, lawyers, judges, and professors. A good time, as offered by prostitutes, street vendors, and drug dealers. It’s all here, not on the other side of the tracks or the other side of a river or even the next “L” stop. It’s just across the street. For generations, Bronzeville has been a place where all that was good and bad is simultaneously at your fingertips yet a walled-off world away.
We girls are coming of age at a time when the country is just beyond the civil rights movement and at the threshold of what our parents hope is a new, postracial era for Blacks. A country that finally seems amenable to giving us the opportunities it has denied generations. But that dream will soon be dashed.
Debra’s family and mine have just moved into the privately owned Theodore K. Lawless Gardens apartment complex. Like us, it is still young and unblemished, brimming with promise. The twenty-four-story buildings, three of them in a row, are gleaming concrete monuments to upward mobility and are still pristine. A tall chain-link fence encases the property, forming a barrier along Rhodes Avenue from the Ida B. Wells Homes, a once-idyllic public housing project where my mother grew up. But by the 1970s it’s crumbling from misbegotten policies and abandonment, the despair of drugs and gangs. Two decades later, an adjacent housing project will draw national attention after two boys, ages ten and eleven, dangle and then drop five-year-old Eric Morse from a fourteenth-floor window for refusing to steal candy. The country will think it knows everything about our neighborhood and us, but it won’t. It can’t possibly know.
On this summer afternoon, all of that is far in the distance. As we walk—sometimes skipping, sometimes jogging—I am acutely aware that my sister is gaining on us. I can feel Kim without even turning around. That will never change. But Debra is unaware. She’s too busy talking, planning today’s adventure, gesturing vigorously. We reach the main street and wait for an opening in the traffic. When the coast is clear, Debra grabs my hand and we run as fast as we can across four lanes to the other side.
“No, Don. No!” my sister yells.
Mom says Kim sometimes speaks out of spite. Calls me “Don” instead of “Dawn,” says “Duperman” instead of “Superman.” She’s little and scrappy, scuffed about the knees like a footstool and unafraid of most things—except speeding cars. Ever since she almost got hit by one. “Don’t leave me!”
I pretend not to hear her. I pretend not to know that she will cross if I go back and hold her hand. I’m tired of being the big sister. I’m tired of her always sidling so close to me. I’m tired of sharing.
“Let her come, please,” Debra says, clasping her hands. I’m not surprised by her insistence. Like Kim, Debra is the younger of two siblings, two sisters. Though Debra and I are best friends, she and Kim are the true soul mates. Both hear but don’t hear. Both see the world through their wants. Mom says, “Kind takes to kind.”
“No,” I say. And now I’m the one walking ahead. “Maybe tomorrow.”
Reluctantly, Debra gives in. We leave Kim behind and continue to walk about a block. I’m thinking, We have the whole summer. We have a lifetime.
Debra and I are unencumbered when we pass the sign that reads, “Welcome to Lake Meadows.” It’s a high-rise apartment development neighboring ours, designed for Chicago’s Black elite. We play tennis and ice skate in Lake Meadows. There’s no fence, but clearly a divide. Even the air feels lighter as we make our way to a small utility building that’s built into a hill. We hike the short but steep incline to the roof, about twelve feet above an asphalt driveway, and walk out onto the ledge of the “love spot.” We settle amid pigeon droppings as, beneath us, the building’s gigantic boilers hum and breathe. We sit astride our world.
Weekend after weekend, summer after summer, we return to this place, later riding our ten-speeds. Kim joins us when she’s lost her fear of speeding cars. Conversations graduate from Debra’s growing brood of toy dinosaurs to training bras and tampons. We talk about how we plan to be doctors and live next door to each other in houses like the white folks have on the black-and-white television shows.
Although we are easily seen by passersby, we feel invisible to everyone but ourselves.
Every once in a while a security guard demands that we come down, and I get ready to run. But Debra doesn’t budge. Neither does Kim when she’s with us.
Debra yells, “You can’t tell us what to do!”
Kim follows with, “Try to make us!”
I remain quiet, chock-full of enough anxiety for the three of us.
By the time Debra and I are in the eighth grade and Kim is in the fifth, we have begun to go our separate ways. Debra is hanging out with a faster crowd. Kim is ditching school. My teachers are increasingly telling me how smart I am. The three of us growing up scares me, but not nearly as much as us growing apart. As children, we had moved freely around our world of low-slung public housing and gated high-rise developments. But right around adolescence we have to start making a choice. If we choose right, a promising future lies within our grasp. If we choose wrong, the path is unforgiving. The ground has already begun to harden around each of us, and soon it will be impossible to undo who we have become.
The summer before Debra and I start high school, we return to our ledge, not knowing it will be our last time.
“We should jump,” she says, out of nowhere. “You double dare me?”
The drop is only about twelve feet, but we’ve never talked about jumping before. Not when we were younger and used to go sockless in our high-top All Stars. The ones whose shoelaces we soaked in vinegar to make white. So, why now when it is our sandaled feet that hang over the ledge and gravity isn’t at all kind to tube tops?
“I’m not jumping,” I say and lean away from her.
“I’ll hold your hand if you’re scared,” Debra says. She spits down onto the asphalt to shush her own fear. And before another word is spoken, she scoots forward on the ledge, extending arms straight out in front of her like Frankenstein, and jumps, landing on her feet, then falling backward. We are both shocked by the way she takes flight and then more surprised by the fall. After a few seconds, I see her trying to laugh away the sting that travels up through the soles of her sandals. I realize that I have Frankenstein arms, too. Not because I’m going to jump. I am reaching for her. My instinct is to save her the same way she has saved me. Debra stands and brushes off her shorts. She looks up at me and says it isn’t so bad—to jump, then to fall and then hit the ground hard.
“I’ll do it again next time,” she says.
Only there is no next time. Not long after, she moves away.
Years later, when we are separated by much more than miles, I will think of our ledge and that jump. In my dreams, I will see Kim standing at that intersection, waving goodbye. And I will be haunted by the paths we each took.