Hiking The Hood

Hiking the Hood
Story By Dan White

We stood under the cross and looked down on the ruins of Jerusalem.

Holy Land is a decaying religious amusement park. Busloads of tourists used to come here. Not anymore. Now it was just us. Herod’s palace leaned against a rock. The manger was a mess. We climbed up past a warren of walkways and miniature buildings stacked on top of each other. A replica of Jerusalem surrounded us. We could see the chicken wire and the inner framing.

The 28.8-square-mile city surrounded me as I looked up at the sculpted Jesus on the cross, his right arm missing. Someone tore off the figures from the crosses to his right and left, or maybe they just fell off by themselves.

This theme park was a fitting place to stop and reflect. Holy Land, like the city below it and all around it, once had glory. It faced heaven and the highway. Now it flounders.

Still, Holy Land and Waterbury have patches of greatness if you know where to dig. Our day in Waterbury was a total adventure. It was a strange strew with a lot of squalor and a little beauty, firefighters, a drug counselor, police, vacant lots, a beautiful old theater and a hanging crucifix, looking down on all of it from a lonely hillside. I’ve seen it at night, lit up from below, looking like a ghost.

That was the purpose of our unlikely and absurd-sounding journey – to hike Waterbury as though its smokestacks were mountains and its city streets were trails. Here on vacation from my home in Santa Cruz, California, and fresh from a 2,700 mile walk from Mexico to Canada, I looked at the city with new eyes.

We just stomped aimlessly in a journey that started in Hopeville and ended in a block of Walnut Street where bullet holes in the houses and the wariness on the faces suggested danger.

Our walk started on Baldwin Street in Hopeville where I met a Portuguese man with ancient eyes and a floppy hat. I spoke no Portuguese and he spoke no English but we somehow communicated in Spanish. I was astonished that this 70-year-old man, Antonio Barros, didn’t think I was a complete weirdo for accosting him on the corner and wanting to chat about my “hike across Waterbury.” His friends regarded me with caution.

But he said he liked it here, that he’s spent 30 years in town. But why does he enjoy Waterbury? “My family’s here, that’s all,” he said. What else? What was I missing about Waterbury? He just lifted up his hands. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just like all of it.” As we kept talking, Barrios suddenly spoke English. “I speak only a pokeet of English,” he said. “Only leetle beet.”

I realized that Barrios wasn’t going to tell me the secret, so I thanked him and left.

Out we walked down Baldwin Street, admiring some of the old brick homes but wondering who ripped off all the letters from the store front signs. Shops without signs were anonymous places. I passed under a billboard of a beautiful woman with a come-hither glance. But then my eyes drifted to the fat bottle of Old English malt liquor next to her face on the sign.

Odd. I’ve never seen a gorgeous woman drinking swill beer before but I’ve sure seen a lot of bums chugging it out of brown bags. I passed a tavern. “I.D. required, proper attire, no soliciting, no gang colors,” the sign out front read.

The signs made me detect a certain tension in this neighborhood, something I couldn’t see on the surface. That same implied danger was in the air at the fire house, where the men were wary. It was freezing outside, and people in rentals without central heating were blasting kerosene heaters. “People bring in little fuel heaters,” said Donald Greaney, a firefighter. “”People don’t understand. You can run it a week, and nothing happens, but then one night …” I imagined an old four-family house bursting into flames like a match head.

Jeff Trota knows what it’s like to enter a building so dark inside that his flashlight can do little more than poke holes in the darkness. He is a firefighter who moved here from Chicago 20 years ago. He remembers spending 3 1/2 hours on the scene of a Jewelry Street fire that tore through a three family house and left 27 homeless. “It was so black where we were in the hallway, and the heat was so built up,” he said. “I couldn’t see one foot in front of me.”

It irks him that kids playing with matches, and people improperly using “alternate heating sources” start blazes that cut down houses. “That hurts me the most,” he said, shaking his head. “I have kids of my own. And these buildings in this city are so old. Many of them have a balloon construction. The walls are all open, the floors are open, and it allows heat and fire to get inside the walls. It makes it doubly difficult to put out a fire.”

As we continued our hike we entered an urban block where the only greenery was a seven-foot-tall weed. I saw no trespassing signs on places where no one would want to go. A vacant lot full of broken glass and old shoes suggested a party where people got drunk and stripped naked. Just beyond it was an undisturbed patch of earth, a piece of attractive greenery with a beautiful view of the city’s hills and churches. Did someone leave this spot alone out of respect, or was it so isolated that no one had found it?

Across the street were healthy looking chickens and roosters, with no fence preventing them from running into the road and getting run over. But they didn’t run off. They stayed in the yard as if an invisible wall kept them there.

Down the street, Denise Feliciano sat at the counter of JE’s Auto Accessories, which sells air fresheners, silver-colored truck decorations shaped like naked women, and even a glowing neon gear shifter with blue, pink, green and red stripes. “It’s not hard to install,” Feliciano said. “It just takes a couple of screws.”. The flashiness of the items were out of place in the drab city block. “It’s for people who want to get noticed,” Feliciano said cheerfully. “It’s mainly Hispanic. They look good if the car looks good. ”

This shop cheered me up after all the run-down buildings. I see some hope here. It takes a certain amount of dedication and chutzpah to drive around in a car with all these flashing, crazy-looking things. In a city where some people are afraid of crime and would just as soon keep a low profile, a few people are driving around in cars that say “look at me.” “The first thing they install is the security system,” Feliciano told us. “And then they build up from there.”

It was nearing lunch time as we neared the St. Vincent DePaul soup kitchen and we ducked inside for a visit. Within 10 seconds we were whisked inside on a carpet of hospitality and seated for lunch.

“You have to account to God for the time you wasted on earth,” read the message hanging above the table where we ate turkey stew. Steve, who had almost no voice left, and barely enunciated his words, sat next to us. He told us that a police officer throttled him around the neck and now he spoke with a hoarse whisper, which was difficult to understand. Most of his teeth were gone too. He opened his mouth wide to show us the creases and indentations where they used to be. He’s staying indoors now but he and his friend, Ann, just spent a long time sleeping on a mattress outside.

“You just have to be a light sleeper,” Ann told me. “That’s me. I keep one eye open.”
Maybe I’m overly sheltered in resort-ish Santa Cruz but the sadness in the people’s faces and the cheerful stoicism of the workers there unnerved me. I lost my appetite even as John lost himself in the scene, relishing the camaraderie, the people, and the turkey soup I couldn’t bring myself to eat. I felt oddly removed from it all. While John chatted and smiled, I slithered off into a corner to chat up a pretty volunteer who took my blood pressure. “Your blood pressure is excellent,” she said as John threw me a “what the hell are you doing over there, Dan?” kind of look.

After the soup kitchen the road steepened. Holy Land lay above us, looking like a cemetery. It is one of those disheveled roadside attractions like the Hollywood sign. Up close, I realized the HOLY LAND letters were toppled over. Not one of them stood straight.

The park itself is what Munchkinland would look like if munchkins were pious. We were the only visitors. A nun let us walk around but she was too sick to give us a tour.
All around us were little crumbling villages, turrets, the palace of King Herod, a manger of rubble, little grottoes in the woods offering renewal and happiness. They didn’t look vandalized so much as they looked forgotten. “Every day is Christmas,” one inscription read. Another sign read: “Jesus, what made you come from above and be born in a cave? Silence answers love.”

We entered the catacombs, representations of ancient Christian burial places. It was so dark we could barely see. Suddenly light streamed through a green plastic flap. It lit up a head lying on the ground. It looked like the face of a prophet. Chunks of insulation hung from the ceiling and the walls.

How did it get this way? The people who built it must have thought it would last forever but we could see the plaster and the wooden frames holding up the little towers. Did people give up on religion, or is the bridge between God and amusement parks too flimsy to hold up? Even on the lit-up giant cross, someone has painted messages. “Lisa and Jim Jim were here.” I was disturbed to see that thrill-seekers had even scrawled satanic messages and a sentence about “white power” near the crucifix’s base.

It was time to go back down. Below me were the highways, the trucks trundling past, and a vast banana-shaped space where developers were clearing the way for an enormous mall. I hear it will change the face of Waterbury, that it will redeem the place. I even hear there are plans to rejuvenate Holy Land, make it great again. I vowed to come back here and hike again in a few years, and see if either prediction came true.

We hiked across a bridge over I-84 where three teenagers looked through us. We stopped for a moment and I stared through the grille at the river of eighteen wheeler rigs underneath me, hauling industry from one town to another. The city bubbled up in front of me, in layers, in hills, fire escapes zig zagging down red brick buildings, high rocks and traces of forests. Fog hung low and the sky was the color of a battleship. It all struck me as beautiful and sad in a left-handed way, like an old cemetery. Ahead lay the Palace Theater. It used to be a rocking place. Vaudevillians softshoed across the stage. Now it’s empty. A banner read “grand opening 1995” but it wasn’t true. We knocked on the door for a guided tour but no one was there.

Downtown was our next stop but where was it? I live in Santa Cruz, where the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake wrecked most of downtown and killed several people. Just after the quake, downtown Santa Cruz looked disgusting with all kinds of tents set up for stores, and panhandlers everywhere. It’s nice now, and more bustling every year. So why can’t Waterbury do the same? In Waterbury I couldn’t find a real anchor to pull me in, to make me want to make a special shopping trip here. The mall just might beef up the job market here, but how will it affect downtown?

We ran into J.A. Vassallo on the outskirts of downtown. He’s lived here all his life and has great affection for it. Still, it seemed to me that he criticized Waterbury sadly, the way you might criticize a long-suffering friend or relative who can’t take care of himself, who can’t help but mess up. “I’ve always lived here. I’m a city person. I just don’t think Waterbury has enough to keep its people,” he said sadly as he got into his car. “I went to Europe and I saw downtowns there with people still living above stores. It was considered good to live downtown. Here if you live downtown, it means poor fool.”

We asked if he was proud to be here. Why not? No place is perfect. Look at Albany, NY. It’s a total dump on the outside, but author William Kennedy immortalized it in his “Albany trilogy” books, making its gangsters and political bosses, its squalor and beauty, come alive. At last, Vassallo came up with some places that make him proud. “Head up toward Hillside avenue up to Fulton Park, up to Columbia Boulevard,” he said. “Go to Town Plot. The old neighborhood is still alive.”

We thanked him for his advice, but we didn’t go, there wasn’t time.

A woman passed me on the street and noticed a sign on a storefront, saying it was shutting down soon. “Oh, going out of business,” she said, with more acceptance than sadness. “So what else is new?”

We stopped for a delicious lunch at Dominick and Pia Downtown Pizzeria, where I mopped up the cheese sweat with a napkin and shoveled down my food. We were thirsty so we popped into Sully’s Clover Club for a pint. I asked what they had on tap. “Budweiser, Budweiser, and Budweiser,” said Tina, the bartender. John and I, being smart-asses, order the second and third Budweisers.

Frank Mahon, 53, sat drinking with us for a while. I really wanted Mr. Mahon to tell me what he found special about the city. “That’s a tough question,” he said, and took another fizzy sip of beer. “I never saw anything that was really distinguished.” Then he thought for a moment about Holy Land and how it used to be. Mahon smiled, all of a sudden. “It had manger lights,” he said. “It used to be beautiful. Oh, Jesus, that was one of the places to go.”

What else? What about the present? “Waterbury’s OK,” said Mahon, a retired postal worker. “My job kept me here.”

The bumper stickers on the walls say “England get out of Ireland” and “Proud to be Irish-American.” Mahon is Irish but he admitted you can’t distinguish between Irish and Italian or any other kind of bar anymore. “Waterbury’s changing,” he said.

It was time to leave Mr. Mahon and Tina behind. We told him we were going up to the north end to poke around a bit. Mahon’s face darkened a little. “I don’t know where you are going next,” he said. “”But if you start going up Walnut Street, watch yourself. Just walk to the top of the hill and look at that neighborhood. You better not take your camera with you because it might get stolen. You are headed into a battle zone.”

We left Mahon there and walked out past a house where someone had drawn an angel of death in white chalk. Above us was the gray cross of Holy Land, high above the street lamps, the city blocks and the dead bolted doorways.

The faces were all black. People watched us. We passed a yellow-brick smokestack and Gabe’s Tyre Factory. “This isn’t so bad,” I thought. Then we came to a brick wall packed with murals. “Pride’s on the warpath,” someone had written. “Ice, coke, crack, is out. All drugs are out! We will be drug free.”

This was the outside wall of the Pride NAACP Youth Center, where Kay Wyrick counsels young and often troubled people. “They call me the drug lady because I say don’t do drugs, don’t do sex, stay away from alcohol,” she said, laughing.

She walked us over to a mural that showed a personified hypodermic needle with Satan’s face, chaining itself to a struggling and muscular black man. Another mural showed a burning marijuana cigarette. The smoke turned into ghosts with evil laughing faces. I asked Wyrick what she thought about the move to legalize marijuana. She frowned deeply. “There is a whole list of doctors, lawyers and undertakers saying it’s good so they can make more money.”

Wyrick said she’s dedicated herself singularly to helping these people and fighting drugs. “One man told me if I tried to stop it all, I wouldn’t have a job,” she said. “I cussed his ass off.”

She is 72 years old. It’s scary to think about how much energy she must have had when she was my age. “I had a slight heart attack a year ago,” she said. “And now I’m back raising hell. They thought I was going to die. They said, oh God, there she is again. All those politicians wondering what’s she going to do now?”

John and I hated to break the flow of our walking trip by riding in a car but Wyrick offered us an unusual tour. She drove us up Cherry Street, onto Vine Street, Wood Street and to Walnut Street. “That’s where the kid got killed right by that fence in that gunfight they had the other week,” she said. Three teens stood at street corners, hopping around as if giddy with fear or excitement. “These guys are druggies right there,” she said. Later, up at a youth center, she said, “We’ve got to find some young leaders to carry the torch.

Where the hell are we going to find them?”

We drove up a massive hill on Walnut and cut left on Long Hill and pulled into a battle weary building on top of a big hill overlooking the east end of the city.

The Berkeley Warner Area Recreation Center offered hope, which is hard to come by in the neighborhood it overlooks. I watched as a group of boys played a raucous and high-flying game of basketball. Mattie Harris, the center’s coordinator, told us it helps keep kids off drugs. “It’s a different life other than standing on the street and making a certain number of dollars.” She said the allure of that life is strong for poor young people. “It’s a lot of money in a day,” she said. “The boys come here because this is home for a lot of them.”

John and I were determined to see the area we had just driven past, so we walked down Long Hill and onto Walnut Street and over to the spot where the gunfight took place. It wasn’t – I hope – any voyeuristic impulse that brought us there. We were collecting stories and impressions. “Do you want something?” said a young woman on the corner.

Her eyes looked cagey, and jerked back and forth. We headed down a side street to check out a burned-out building just in time to see two men crouched against a wall. Their heads were bowed as they huddled closely together as if praying. One looked up at me, not menacingly, not in fear, but just blankly. I looked away but John held his gaze. The men leaned down and snorted something off a flat surface. They looked up to us blankly and shuffled away. Soon they were gone behind the corner.

A few minutes later we encountered ??? Butler who agreed to talk to us about his neighborhood.

“This is one of the worst neighborhoods in Connecticut,” he said. His family came from Alabama to work in the city. Butler, who said he was recently laid off, thinks the mall will help some. “To turn this hood around, people need to upgrade themselves for the youth,” he said. “For youth when they come out of school, they need things to do. That would cut down on a whole lot. The kids just hang out on the street corner.”

The air smelled like burned building. Charcoal-colored shingles were strewn everywhere in the front lot. We ran straight into a group of these kids, all milling around. One teenager shouted at us wildly. His face was sullen and defiant. “You want to get the guy who burned the house down?” he said. “He did it. Right there. He did it.” He was pointing to someone on the other side of the street. John and I walked into a small grocery store packed with youths, all black, telling us that visitors are rare here in “the hood.”

The angry boy in sneakers, Guess jeans and a floppy sweatshirt, told us his name was Mark. He was either pumped up on life or was flying high from a blast of cocaine. His movements were exaggerated and he boomed his voice in our face like he was trying to send his message across town. We were only two feet away. He said he moved to the area a year ago from South Carolina. “Nobody comes up here but Jehovah’s witnesses,” he said. “They come and pray for us and give us pamphlets.”

I looked around nervously outside. We had become an attraction of sorts and more youths were gathering around. They were dressed in black knit caps, black jackets, black pants and black sneakers. Everything black. We think they were gang members. They were selling drugs on the corner where the guy was gunned down just a week ago. The sun was sinking low. I wanted to get the hell out of town soon, but Mark smiled like a tour guide and got right in my face. “You know where you are?” he said. “You’re in the middle of the hood. This is the main bigwee!”

We were playing with fire and it was starting to get uncomfortable. But we kept our cool and kept firing off questions.

I asked Mark what he meant by “bigwee” and if he wouldn’t mind spelling it for me. He laughed convulsively and ran outside to tell his friends, who also doubled up laughing at my apparent gaffe. Mark came back and told us the bigwee was the heart of the hood, the baddest part. He said he hated living here and it was dangerous, but he seemed to smile at and high-five all the people who came into the store. He knew them all. I commented on this and Mark snickered again. One of his friends walked in and said, “It’s all family here. It’s one big happy family.” The two exchanged knowing glances and snickered again. They were obviously playing with me but I ignored it. “You want to see some crazy shit? Stick around for a day here. You’ll see everything. Everything. It’s a good hood. Until the wrong people come around, until the niggas come and they want to beef. New York – that’s the main problem. People are jealous, you know what I’m saying? They disrespect the older people who just want to come in and shop. Society is screwed up here.”

Outside, I noticed the walls are strafed with bullets. Mark pointed to an unmarked police car. “Look at that,” he said, pointing to the three officers, who broke up a gathering of kids on the street corner. Some of them broke away and headed down an alleyway.

“Welcome to Beirut,” said an TNT officer wearing a bullet proof vest . “This is a crazy neighborhood.”

“What about these bullet holes?” I asked him, looking at the dark indentations in one house. “Are they drive bys?”

“Drive bys?” he said and smiled like I’d set up the punch line of a good joke. “They’re walk ups.”

The police waved good-bye and urged us to get out of the neighborhood, fast. We headed on toward our last stop, Berte’s, a Jamaican restaurant. On the way I saw a shivering mongrel dog, all alone, slinking down the street. It stopped to look at headlights and hide in alleyways. We felt a bit like that dog in the Walnut Street neighborhood just five minutes ago. As John and I walked along North Main Street we passed four young men.

“You cops?” one said to me angrily. “Are you? You answer me, motherf….. or I’m gonna kill you.’” But we said nothing and just walked past. The menace hung in the air. It was an electric moment. All that adrenaline made me hungry.

What a day it was. Once inside Bertes the smell of oxtail, curried goat, cow feet, ackee and saltfish drifted through the room as we opened bottles of champagne-flavored soda from Jamaica. When we were finished, the boys were gone. We looked back on the cross, on Jesus with his one arm gone, on the catacombs like a religious chamber of horrors. I thought of the firefighters with their alternating periods of waiting, training, and fear, and the man at the soup kitchen who couldn’t speak. Tired and cloudy-headed, my stomach full of curried goat and rice, we headed past a vacant lot with a truck on it. Streetlights shined on a message written on the side of the truck.

“Salvation, deliverance, miracles” the sign said. “Reaching the lost at all costs.”

A few days have passed since I hiked Waterbury. I write this in a room in Santa Cruz, where a conclusion to my journey across the city finally comes to me. You may have noticed we didn’t seek out any of the conventionally attractive parts of the city. Where were the nice parts? What about the best of Waterbury? You may even conclude that we searched for the seamier side of things like a couple of slummers, sniffing for color and seediness like two pigs snorting for truffles.

But the best of Waterbury wasn’t our mission. Besides, all of the places I went – with the possible exception of the drug-plagued Walnut Street block – made me feel strangely comfortable. I miss it now. It is hard for me to think of a more honest place. Even people I strongly believe are drug dealers gave me their time generously. No one hid from our questions. They even sought us out. Then I look back on my strange day in Santa Cruz, where I’ve just returned after a week in Connecticut. I can recall walking down the Pacific Garden thoroughfare downtown, full of glitz, bright lights, teenagers with nose rings and pink hair and fashion that screams “look at me, look at me.”

Even the Santa Cruz neighborhood Irish bar is only a recreation, one more attraction in a city that is more like a theme park. Sure, it’s got authentic room-temperature Guinness Stout on tap. So what. It’s nothing but a pale reflection of the Waterbury bar that serves “Budweiser, Budweiser and Budweiser.”

The real humanity, the true personality of these west coast people lies buried so deeply that it’s lost, and I’m lost too. On every corner of Santa Cruz there is a self conscious vignette. People are lounging. Everything is a scene. Lazy hands are wrapped around steaming shot glasses of cappuccino. Not one person said hello to me today except for a shopkeeper who served me a bagel and a dancing derelict who hit me up for a donation.

Waterbury is not a scene. I didn’t meet a person there who wasn’t brutally honest with me. People are so simply themselves that is painful to watch when they unravel before you. I saw no glamour there, no cards held close to any chests, no heavy fronts I couldn’t penetrate. Waterbury looks worn out in places. I look back on dirty snow, on the hard-lined faces of people in the north end. I also look back on the quiet generosity, on the expansiveness of spirit that survives even though houses burn, even though there are bullet holes in the Walnut Street houses, even though the future could hold more pain.

Little Jerusalem may crumble, and maybe Waterbury’s best days are truly over. But Waterbury and Holy Land retain a certain bruised dignity. It’s hard to notice until you step away.