Author: Elizabeth Salaam
Neighborhood: City Heights
Occupation: Writer/program coordinator
I was training for a marathon when I found out I was pregnant. Back then, even my short runs were long enough to take me out of City Heights and into otherneighborhoods where houses are prettier and where services are a bit more desirable (decent coffee, a nice restaurant or two, maybe even a bar I wouldn’t have to cross the street to avoid). I felt stuck here, in this neighborhood, where the sidewalks are clogged with slow-moving families with too many children, where every other house has a dusty yard with a mean dog tied to a rickety tree. I felt…I don’t know…demeaned. Me, in my fancy running clothes, looking all fit and trim as I elbowed my way through throngs of frumpy women in housecoats. Four times a week I’d head out for a run, my fantasy brain working overtime to imagine myself living a better life somewhere else. As I ran I daydreamed about coming home to the serene quiet of Kensington, the earthy hipness of Hillcrest, or even (on my long weekend runs) the luxury of downtown harbor views.
And then suddenly the only running I was doing was from the couch to the toilet bowl. It took two months for the morning (or in my case, all-day) sickness to subside, two months before I felt well enough to run. By then my 18- and 20-mile training runs were a thing of the past, and my energy level allowed only for short, slow walks around City Heights.
I was on one of those walks when a neighbor I’d never seen before called to me from across the street.
“Guess you’re taking a break from running for a while.”
We spoke briefly, both staying on our own side of the street. Until then, the only neighbors I’d chatted with were the ones my husband had introduced me to, and even then we only spoke when he insisted we stop to chat. Every other time I just waved on my way through the neighborhood, heading for someplace else.
The bigger I got, the more I slowed down, and eventually I came to notice and appreciate how interesting it is here. Besides the international collection of storefronts (within just a few blocks on University there is an Albertsons, a Murphy’s Supermercado, a Minh Huong market, and a halal meat-and-produce store) and some unique decor (one house has at least 16 wind chimes hanging over the front porch, and another has a 12-foot statue of Buddha out front), it’s the people who make this neighborhood fascinating.
I’m intrigued by the groups of African men who gather for long hours of chit-chat outside the local Starbucks. What do they talk about, and why do most of them dress in jeans and button-up shirts when their wives and daughters (who are always waiting to cross the street just outside the building that advertises free English classes) dress from head to toe in layers of brilliantly colored cottons?
Then there are the Mexican soccer players (ranging in age from 2 to 72) in their shorts and shin-guards who fill the open field near the library during weekends and evenings in all seasons. Their wives and mothers and too-young-for-soccer siblings stand around on the other side of the fence eating orange curly things out of plastic bags and whatever else is available for purchase from the wheely-cart vendors.
On alternate days during the fall, the Mexicans on and around the field are replaced with black folks, and football is traded for soccer. Here and there, monks in orange robes glide up the sidewalk to who-knows-where. At various times of day, small groups of old Vietnamese men and women walk around and around the outside of the field, and in the last month of my pregnancy they zoomed past me.
I also became friendly with several of my neighbors. My favorites were the super-extra-friendly art-history professor with the standoffish wife; the baby-faced dude who’s been building an addition onto his house by hand for the past two years but can more often be found drinking beer and talking shop than holding a hammer; and the 76-year-old unmarried woman who claims to be in no rush to find a husband because as long as she’s a good girl, she’ll be resurrected as many times as she needs for a thousand years. (Um…okay.) Granted, it was always someone else who initiated the conversation — everyone curious about when the baby was due — but I enjoyed the attention and felt connected in a way I didn’t know mattered to me.
And so, as I lumbered through the neighborhood (now in my own version of frumpy voluminous clothing), City Heights ceased to be just an annoying stretch of loud yard-barbecues and too many strollers on the sidewalk, and I began to fall a little bit in love. I also wondered if the other nearby neighborhoods might feel a little too sterile, a little too hip.
This week my baby is eight weeks old. I take her out for walks in a baby carrier, and I think she likes it here. She has already met several of our neighbors. They love her. Everybody loves babies. Some days I leave her at home with her dad while I head out for a short two- or three-mile run around City Heights. I’m not strong enough to go much farther.
The other day, in the final stretch of my block, I attempted a brief sprint.
“She’s back in her running shoes!” I heard someone shout. “Way to go!”
I turned to see two of my neighbors standing on the sidewalk, clapping as I passed by. I smiled and waved.