Small, fragile six-year-old Chontate laid her eyes on a big, white, raggedy building — the Stateway Gardens projects. Apartment 1306 — smelly, congested and roach-infested — was now called home.
Though reluctant to go inside, the presence of my mother and brothers assured me it would be okay. As I walked toward this strange looking building, I thought it looked like people living in a cage. It was definitely a sight I had never seen before. I could see the residents walking across the porch ramp and the onlookers watching as we approached the building. I was terrified. I wished we had stayed at the shelter. I might have been young, but I was not stupid. When we got on this thing they called an elevator, the smell was horrible – like the stench from hell. It was as if someone took a piss bath seven days ago.
Can you imagine trying to hold your breath all the way up to the 13th floor? Not only did these contraptions take all day to come down, going up was not any damn cool breeze either. We finally made it to our floor and when we got off the elevator it was like a maze to me, going either to left side or to the right side of the building. We went to the right and some double doors led us to our so-called home.
There it was — apartment 1306, but something was not right at all. The door to our home was wide open. With a concerned look on my mother’s face as we walked into the place, a strange man surprised us in our damn bathroom shaving his face with all of his things scattered throughout the apartment. Really, dude? Are you freaking serious? Are you telling us the Chicago Housing Authority people gave my mother keys to this apartment without a walk through? That was the first sign telling us to get the hell out of that place.
Vivian, being brave as a lioness as she stood guard in front of her children, asked the stranger “What are you doing in here? This is my place and I am going to need you to leave now.” I was thinking he should stay and we should leave, get back on the train and ride back to the west side. It was the first time I saw a black man with reddish-color hair. He had a short afro with red freckles all over his face –he was just red. The man said he didn’t want any problems, grabbed his belongings and left as if nothing had happened. Once he was gone, we settled in and became as comfortable as we could. This was going to be the place we called home for the next seven months.
This place had three bedrooms, one full bathroom, a living room and a small kitchen. Everything from the walls and cabinets was a dull white. The floors were all black tile. The radiators were attached to the walls and that was where thousands of those nasty cockroaches lived. Roaches were everywhere — in the cabinets, crawling on the walls, just all over the place. I had seen spiders, bees, ants and lightning bugs. But roaches? Hell, no! These roaches were gangsters too. They didn’t have a care in the world. It was as if they were saying, “We were here first, you live here, and we live here too.”
We went to the store to get some cleaning supplies and something to eat. My mother bought some roach spray called Raid and sprayed every room, cabinet, drawer, and especially those nasty infested radiators. Then she made us take a nap while she was cleaning and getting dinner ready. The house already didn’t have a pleasant odor from the beginning and that Raid roach spray definitely did not make it any better.
When we woke up from our nap and I walked into that living room and saw all those dead roaches piled up, some still trying to flee for their dear lives, I almost lost my damn mind. The crying and screaming had begun. This was just too much for a child to bear. I did not want to be there anymore. Where was my daddy? Why, of all places to live, did we have to move into this hellhole?
My mother tried her best to assure my brothers and me that everything was just temporary. I do not care how much that woman sprayed the place the roaches were still invading our home. Family visits to our house were not frequent any more, and I didn’t blame them, though my favorite aunt, Denise, would visit from time to time. I will never forget when she bought me a lovely red trench coat for my school trip to see The Princess Swan. Even though my mother was receiving public assistance, it still was not enough to provide for all three children. She would sell half of her food stamps to her sister to be able to provide clothing and shoes for us.
It was going into one month of us living there, when one night someone began banging on the door to our apartment. We were all sleeping with our mom on the floor in the living room because we didn’t have any beds to sleep in at the time. The banging became louder and Vivian grabbed us close to her as she yelled, “Who is it?” Men’s voices yelled back demanding that she open the door. She yelled back with a strong voice, “Get away from my damn door! Get away! Go away from my damn door!” Whoever the men at the door were, they left, and we never heard from them again. To this very day I wonder if it was that man with the red hair and his friends. Was this place a drug house? How was it being managed? I still wonder today.
Pierre and I were now attending Corpus Christi, the elementary school right across from the building where we lived. Pierre was in the fifth grade and I was in the first grade. School was kind of fun for me. I don’t recall my teacher’s name, but I do remember her as a white young woman who had disabilities. She wore one of those metal leg braces that helped her walk, but at the end of the day, she was a very nice teacher.
Each day seemed to be a constant challenge for my eldest brother Pierre. The handsome ten-year-old was constantly teased by his peers, simply because he was the new kid on the block and popular among the girls. It seemed that almost daily the neighborhood bullies were jumping on him. Vivian could hardly send him to the store without him being robbed before he got home. The only thing that gave me peace of mind was when I colored in my coloring book. I loved to color and I was great at it too. I was always very neat and took my time when it came to coloring and writing. Pierre grew frustrated and the living situation was taking a toll on the rest of us.
The torture from the school kids continued as Pierre and I walked home from school. I remember one winter day Chicago had a big snow fall and as we were walking toward the building, I wondered why we just kept falling with our faces in the snow. In actuality, these project ass kids were tripping us with their feet and causing us to fall. We were too fearful to tell them to stop tormenting us and were just happy we made it home to tell our mom about the altercation.
I can still feel the tears coming to my eyes as I recall the bullying from the other children. I understood that our mother was growing weary. The money was running out, family had stopped visiting and times were hard. Vivian had done all she knew to do to protect her children and to keep them together, but her efforts were not enough. My mom would send my brother Pierre to the store, but he never came back with any of the items because he always got robbed before he made it home. She had to send him anyway so that she could stay with my baby brother Raffeal and me.
One day the weather was bad, but my mom had to send Pierre to the store to get cereal and milk for us to eat. I believe that day she sent him with the very last of her money and he came back without the groceries once again. This time our mother was fed up when Pierre told her the boy downstairs had taken the milk. My mother went downstairs to find this young man who had taken our milk to take back what belonged to us. That boy had the nerve to still be downstairs with the milk still in his hands and I know she fought for it, because the gallon carton was dirty and had grass all over it. Vivian later explained that she remembered tackling the boy to get back the milk.
After that incident Vivian began to get depressed. It seemed to have been her breaking point because she began talking to herself and started writing on the walls. Vivian began letting strange people come into the house, but my brother and I did not want to say anything was wrong with our mom — we loved her too much.
After a while, though, things got out of hand.
I remember August 27, 1978, when strangers came into our house and robbed my mother of $354.00. My mother was screaming and yelling, “Get away from my family and leave us alone.” I saw my brother Pierre crying and fighting with the kids, trying to protect our mother. I was just standing there looking at all the craziness that was going on before my eyes.
Next thing I knew, Raffeal and I were in some woman’s house. My brother Pierre got a chance to call our mother’s sister who came with her brother and took us over to the family house on the south side at 68th and Wood. This is where we would be staying; well, where I thought we would be staying. The siblings took Vivian to Madden Hospital. The grandmother stayed across the street from my aunt, and one of my uncles lived on 56th and Seeley.
By the way, remember these street addresses — they are going to blow your mind! No one ever sat us down and explained anything to us or updated us about our mother’s condition. Then again, I wasn’t worried because I thought I was safe and secure with her family. I cannot speak for my brother, Pierre, but I couldn’t imagine him not worrying about our mother, because he was the oldest child. But I’d bet you a million bucks he never expected that our own family would do the unexpected. Raffeal was still too much a baby for him to understand what was going on.
Passed Around By Man But Not Passed Over By God Chontate Brown Copyright ©2013 All rights reserved.