The first time I saw the buildings, before I'd ever read their name, I was on the bus waiting to turn the corner down the hill onto 125th. I'd just had my first day at work, and I was on the way to check out an apartment in Spanish Harlem. It was about 6 p.m and it was hot. From behind my field of view, and then into it, and then around the corner just ahead of the bus, walked a pretty young girl carrying a shotput. She was wearing a wife-beater and short cutoffs, and I watched her hold the ball indifferently to her ear and walk up to a fire hydrant that was spurting all around. There was a playground between two towers a few yards away, and a group of kids looked up at the girl from their sidewalk chalk drawings. Turning to the kids, she planted the shotput on top of the hydrant. The water stopped, now trickling down to the street without force. The last thing I saw before the bus pulled out of view was a fat little boy skip-jumping onto the drying sidewalk with two pieces of chalk in his hand. I never found out where she got the shotput.
I remembered it fondly for the next couple days. The girl knew that the guys at the fire station down the street weren't going to come by, so she worked things out with what she had lying around. I'm a sucker for problem-solvers, and in the week I'd spent in the city I'd started to notice all the urban ingenuity. When a man came begging onto the subway, imitating the two-note "doors closing" tone and the robotic voice that reads the stops, I thought of the shotput. When some Brooklyn backstreet had a sign for a combination barber, carpenter and locksmith in a shop only big enough for one employee, I thought of the shotput. That mental image became like a national flag for underdogs, and it showed up all over the city.
It lasted until the next time I passed the houses. Looking over at the hydrant and replaying the girl's path in my head, I glanced over to the office at the foot of one of the towers. I followed the stack of windows upward, but I still couldn't see the tops of the towers from inside the bus. Then I dropped back down to the office. I read the sign, in white lettering on green: "General Grant Houses."
I looked around for anyone to share an unbelieving eye-contact with. I had done a report on Grant in 3rd grade, with 3rd grade versions of all the presidential scandals, and even though I could barely remember it I started to get offended. Grant, the man who was tone-deaf and could never distinguish the marches that led his troops, who only started smoking after a reporter saw him with someone else's cigar, who only turned abolitionist when the Union won, hardly seemed responsible for everything he'd accomplished. And now he had a housing project named after him across the street from Harlem, as if to say "It's a good thing I came along, because you black folks were this close to slavery." In my memory, unchanged since 3rd grade, Grant hadn't contributed at all. He was an object. For all I knew, he'd had as much say about freeing the slaves as horses or muskets did. Suddenly angry, I thought of the War, and the cannons, and the shotput. Fifteen seconds ago, I'd been fine. My eyes began to throb with mutiny.
I put on Lauryn Hill, maybe to get angrier or maybe to calm down. As the bus crept across Harlem, I looked out the windows for creative panhandlers or handymen, but I didn't see any. Maybe they were on the other side of the street. On my side were nothing but little kids running around in front of the various banks. If they were having fun, it was because they'd never heard of Grant and didn't know he hadn't saved the world. If they looked healthy, it was because some of their fathers were construction workers and plumbers, suddenly employed with stimulus money to build more projects. Couldn't the city realize it was making things worse? I rubbed my fingers across my eyebrows. By the time the kids have grown up and moved into the new projects, they won't remember any stimulus, and they won't see it.
I cut myself off. The bus was crossing Malcolm X Boulevard. I didn't know anything about city planning and I wasn't going to file any petitions. All getting mad would do was ruin my day. It would be one thing if I had a scapegoat, but who would it be? The Housing Authority? The neighborhood association? General Grant? Columbus? I couldn't get mad at the city's incompetence because I have just as much trouble breaking habits. Sometimes a problem is too immediate to have the solution all planned out when you start working on it. It's like waking up with a hangover and curing it by hair of the dog. If you try to resist the headache and start planning a fatty breakfast and a shower, some voice in your mind, some little mental lobbyist, will start hollering that you're thinking too hard.
Uneasily, I tried to imagine the situation with my own unbreakable habits substituting for the blight in Harlem. I stopped feeling so powerless. It'd only been a few minutes since I last felt fine.