I am starting this blog with the experiment I didn’t know was happening.
When I first brought the Latin Kings to QUEST, actually they brought themselves to QUEST they pushed and shoved and wouldn’t take no for an answer. “We want to help,” they kept saying, “We want to do service for the community.” And did I believe them, not for one second. People are always coming by to QUEST, “Oh”, they say, “we can do such and such,” or “just tell us what you want us to do” even, “I have my own business, we will be over with paint and ladders- and all kinds of paraphernalia,” “you’ll see, we can help clean this place right up.” Used to be I would believe them, I would get all excited and think of all the neat stuff that was going to happen.
But, it never did, these people all disappeared just like snow during a heatwave. Not even the steam on the sidewalks was left. And they had no shame, “we are not like the others,” they would say, “we are going to do this. Word of God, on my honor,” or they would swear by their grandmother or their favorite saint. Words, these were just words and I was becoming more and more disillusioned.
So when this group of tattooed men showed up one day, I just said, “Oh sure, I’ll call you.” And I never did. Then about three weeks later one of the wives showed up. “You know,” she said, “Choice is really mad at you.” I stopped short, “Why,” is all I could think of to say. “You never called him,” she responded. “Well--.” Right then and there I picked up the phone and called, “When can you come,” I said, “Tomorrow at 4:00,” was the response. And the next day at 4pm down the street comes 12 men with tattoos and grilled teeth wearing black and yellow. “Who is that?” Said my boys and “Where are they going?” “They are coming here!” I answered. And they were and they did. And they started cleaning, they split into teams, and each group took a section and started altering the spot on which they stood. It’s been a year now, and still they come and still they clean.
But for the past six months our relationship began to evolve. They bought a movie projector, and a DVD player and some DVDs, they made Wednesday night into movie night. And put the sign up outside, “Free movies”. Wednesday night at 4:30, all welcome. They started bringing food for snacks. Initially the older kids stayed downstairs and the younger kids watched the movies. The screen by the way was two queen sized bed sheets sewn together and hung from the balconies. The sound system was humungous. The whole building rocked. Then we fine tuned, there was an intermission and everyone went downstairs to eat, the older kids helped serve. And sometimes there was some mentoring and homework happening.
About a month ago they asked if they could expand. I said, “Let’s try it.” And Friday’s happened. Dodge ball, basketball coaching- homework help, science classes, arts and crafts, bird house making, and love, lots of love. They come with their wives and girlfriends, their children and their neighbors children. They mostly walk over and they all call me “Ms. Judy.” They rise when I enter the room, they take my arm when I climb the stairs, and they talk to me. We talk of their life and their future. One day someone brought their grandmother in her wheelchair, and for the very first time our handicapped ramp was used. They held clothing drives, and bought toys and snacks! They showered these children with discipline and love.
“Seat belts on” and “no gang signs here,” to the teens, and “get your grade up" and even carrying in the man's own t-shirt, the three year old boy who peed on himself, so I could bring him home. “We look forward to coming here,” they say. No one comes drunk or high, “not it front of the children,” is a constant watch word. So now when kids ride their bikes someone stands at the edge of the parking lot and won’t let them ride out near the street. And when basketball gets too rough there is time out. Observed time out, with conversation. They eat dinner at the tables with the kids. Between 20 and 30 adults are coming up to three to nine times a week. Jamie says it’s because everyone gets their own child here. Everyone takes care. Everyone watches over children who have terrible needy lives with little or no joy. “We will stay as long as you need us,” they say. And their lives are changing too, calmer and more peaceful, more love, no violence. Yes really, no violence. What would the kids think if they got arrested? They are here to show another path, a better way, taught by people who have already been there, done that, and found it wanting. Anytime something breaks, or goes missing it’s always, “Call us, we can come, we can help.” Then they gave Ms. Judy her certificate for distinguished service to the community. Yellow and Black and framed, and written in at the bottom, “We Salute You.”
No I salute them, their patience, their effort to change, their joy in the children. People in this city screamed and yelled and carried on when I brought them in. “I was investing in gang culture, let them clean up their graffiti,” and so on and so forth. I responded with we will go out and clean up graffiti, if all the screamers and nay-sayers would come on over and clean QUEST on a weekly basis and run programs for the kids. Of course, you know the answer, there was no answer, it’s been a year and they are still going strong and no one else has come by.
Except for Laura and the lovely crew who came on Christmas and are still hanging on, the white caucasian group, who sewed the movie screen, and helped write the grants, and beg, borrow and sometimes lift the donations that they bring. Junior Leagues, Rotary Club, people mingling with the gang bangers, and popping the corn to hand out, while the kings and queens carry the donations in, up and down the stairs, and they all sit and discuss the kids and worry about the kids, and work together to help the kids.
In Africa there is a word UBUNTU, roughly translated it means, “I am because we are.” If there is one word that sums QUEST up it is Ubuntu. Since all these agencies have stolen our motto, “Community Unity” shamelessly and with no conscience, the words I have written in this blog and on grant applications for almost 2 years, remember imitation is the best form of flattery. But I will no longer use these two words except in passing. We are “UBUNTU” now.
And yes, the Kings and Queens have done such a good bragging job and sent so many posts to so many people, that the Kings World Wide now, know about QUEST and Schenectady and Ms. Judy and the lovely story put out by the Schenectady Gazette when this group first came to QUEST. They had faith in me and QUEST and knew this would work out, and wrote a wonderful story with wonderful pictures which now is being being sent via Latin Kings websites all over the world. If you go to Ecuador on your computer punch in Latin Kings the Gazette story pops right up. Because of this, the Urban Warriors (an Indian Eco-Group) has friended us and even a gentleman from Japan now writes to me. The Kings are so proud of what they are doing, they are telling the world. According to Jaime it is the first good publicity the Kings have received in over 15 years. And we are on the map, we are a swiftly moving force. Albeit a force with no money, we have put QUEST and Ms. Judy and the Kings and Queens and even Schenectady on the world page. Not downtown, or Proctors or Metroplex but a small grass roots group of raggle taggle people just trying to simply do the right thing and pay it forward and teach our kids the same thing. We stand together, but we cover a lot of ground.
“The smell of the church was never overwhelming, just undeniably there. The Jesuits figured that if “we can’t fix it, then we’ll feature it.” So we determined to address the discontent in our homilies one Sunday. One day I began with, “What’s the church smell like?”
People are mortified, eye contact ceases, women are searching inside their purses for they know not what.
“Come on now,” I throw my back at them, “What’s the church smell like?”
“Haele a patus,” (smells like feet) Don Rafael booms out. He was old and never cared what people thought.
“Excellent, but why does it smell like feet?”
“Cuz many homeless men slept here last night?” says a woman.
“Well why do we let that happen here?” “El nuestro compromiso.” (It’s what we’ve committed to do) says another.
Well why would anyone commit to do that?
“Porque es lo que haria Jesus.” (It’s what Jesus would do)
“Well then---What’s the church smell like now?”
A man stands and bellows “Huela nuestro compromiso.” (It smells like commitment)
The place cheers.”
-Gregory Boyle, "Tattoos On The Heart"
And then there’s the ever-present problem of Jerry Burrell Park. Last week yet again a massive brawl in a kids park owned by the dealers and the users. Remember several years ago when one police car was always parked at the park? It did keep things quieter and more kid friendly. And perhaps our graffiti program could be extended to have a presence in the park, or to make it to the headquarters of the program.
I was driving M home on Albany Street when I noticed cars being driven up and parked and many males of 30 or 40 years old getting out and giving each other the hug and handshake of solidarity. Then about 30 or 40 men walked up Albany St and turned right on Hulett St. Meanwhile up and down Albany St heads were popping out of windows, and people were settling down to view the proceedings.
While I was making my many alerting phone calls, six police cars came zooming up State, over Hulett, lights flashing and siren shrilling. I then proceeded to call several city council members with no luck. Betting zero seems to be my place at bat.
I drove home trying to put the worrisome scene behind me. The next day Ty Quan and three others came over to tell me that there had been an out and out brawl at the park. One minute it was empty except for a few kids shooting baskets, the next it was full of fighting, screaming kids, and then men and others of adult age, arriving and pitching in, and lastly the cops trying to make sense and quiet out of the whole mess.
Obviously the place, date and time had been previously arranged and someone saw the onset of the onslaught and called the cops. The interesting thing was this made the news nowhere. How do we manage to hush up so much evil? How many shootings at this park and how many deaths and maimings. There are many young men riding around the hill in wheelchairs and their physical issues come from street warfare. And we the Happy Face, Happy City now that Credit Donket say we are full of joy just to be living in Schenectady. Who is selling the Brooklyn Bridge to this city? How can we be so eager to be fooled with the “Good News?”
Crack pipes in our parking lot. Yes there is the QUEST Headline, actually it should read, crack pipes and needles in our parking lot, and they are so smug and so sure of not being arrested, they leave them in plain view, from the front lawn to the handicap ramp in the back. One foolish woman asked me, “but why are they leaving them?” We can only assume they are leaving them so they can reuse them, or not just showing off, or in the case of the used needles, an in your face I don’t give a damn tactic.
We have toddlers at QUEST, TODDLERS, the handicapped ramp is our jungle gym and it abuts the basketball court. Plus a small sheltered area, which the kids use as a playhouse is often added as a drug spot. We will be going to the next city council meeting bringing photos and testimony, lets see what happens.
Update on the Jerry Burrell hullabaloo, started at the King School and then moved onto the park. And on Monday a woman's fight of 25-30 on State St. right in front of the ambulance garage. When code tells us we are not zoned for wedding receptions etc. I have to laugh because apparently we are zoned for prostitution, addiction and illegal drug activity.
The good news is Milay wants to grow up and be a ballet dancer. Yes indeed! I showed her some phone pictures of the School for Dance Theater of Harlem, and she oohed and ahhed at the children taking class. And then she announced,”That’s what I want to do, I’m going to be a ballet dancer.” Little lady you make me sooo proud.
I am because we are.