If you watched my first video blog or if you’ve seen me do stand-up, you know that I talk about Portsmouth a lot. Portsmouth as a city, isn’t completely crappy. There’s actually a few nice blocks in the downtown “Old-Town” area that are less full of crack and poverty. It’s as if the crack epidemic of the 80’s was a zombie uprising and the uninfected set up a perimeter that held some office buildings and the The Bier Garden (seriously one of my favorite places in the entire universe that I strongly recommend you check out if you ever do find yourself in Portsmouth). But aside from Old Town, Portsmouth is a grimy place that has the continuous feeling that something you shouldn’t know about is happening just around the corner, and trying to figure out exactly what that is could kill you.
That being said, you’re likely wondering why I would spend time in such a place. In what now seems like a past life, I led the life of a beer distributor salesman. What that mostly entailed was visiting five or six grocery stores and about a hundred convenience stores in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Suffolk and lastly, Portsmouth; and write down what they needed delivered the next day. Now, convenience stores, in general, are not good places to be. The entire business model is set up on the premise that usury is okay if instead of interest on loans, one makes an exorbitant profit on household items in the name of convenience/easy access to products that help you get intoxicated. If you’re from another country, it’s a great way to make quick money. In addition to this, convenience stores always have large fluid reserves of cash on premises, which make their mere presence a certain kind of security risk. Put all of that in a neighborhood where people are struggling with drug addiction, drug sales and food stamps, and things can get really interesting.
My first entry into Portsmouth’s rougher neighborhoods made me very uncomfortable, for a variety of reasons. The most obvious reason was that I stood out. Like a white thumb. Portsmouth’s largest racial demographic is African Americans, and again, if you know me, you know that I’ll never be confused for being African American (credit score notwithstanding). Essentially, if you were to look up Caucasian in the dictionary, you would find a picture of me with an innocently ignorant smile on my face, drinking a glass of milk, doing something that unwittingly seems offensive to other ethnicities. And so, I was worried. I don’t know why I was worried. In retrospect, it’s not as though I seriously expected that, upon making visual confirmation of my presence, a signal would be given and I would be mandatorily stabbed, or called cracker, or something silly like that. Yet still, I was tense. It was a tension I had internalized and taken for granted, up until the moment we were about to get out of the car.
I was being trained by a veteran of these neighborhoods named Ray. Ray was about 6’4, and also black. We parked in front of Save and Save. Save and Save was a small grocery store directly across from some low income housing, and bordered by two vacant lots that seemed to be good for not much else besides storing random chunks of concrete. As I turned the key off to my car, I likely exhibited the same energy that is given off in the moment of self doubt that make it clear some men will become other men’s girlfriends in prison. Ray leaned over to me and whispered.
“You’re not the first white person these people have ever seen.”
“Cool. No mandatory racial violence,” I said in my head. Just in case, though, I figured I’d put on my war face. A carapace through which no fear could be seen. I put on a face that, to me said “don’t mess with this guy… it’s just not worth it.” Tough guy face on, head high up, chest out, swagger down pat… I came up to the front door and those who loitered around it. One of the locals began eyeing me.
“What you look so pissed off for man?”
Great. In trying to look unfuckwithable, I apparently still came across as just looking like I needed to change my tampon. Also, that day, I realized that the great majority of people are good folks, just trying to make the best out of a shitty situation. Even the convenience owners. The great majority of them had come from around the world, trying to find a better life. A great majority of them had come from Palestine, India and Korea, but they’d also come from places as familiar to people from the Hampton Roads area as the Philipines. All in search of the American dream, though if one were to look at parts of US history and some new immigrants’ interactions in convenience stores, they might just think the American dream was just in fact being dickish as hell to black folks.
See, despite the fact that these folks came from around the world to end up where they did, after some time, they’d absorb the local culture. Just as “you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy,” if you’re in Portsmouth long enough, it becomes part of you. All convenience store owners present a certain swagger and absolute unwillingness to back down from any fight. Every now and then though, one goes above and beyond and begins incorporating the dialect into their own use of English. A great example of this was Jimmy, who runs a One Stop on Turnpike Blvd. I walked in one day, and saw Jimmy, who that day, had wetted down his black Indian hair and combed it straight. I told Jimmy, “you’re looking slick today, buddy.’
Jimmy replied, through an accent as thick as curry, “you know how I do.”
The locals were always full of surprises as well. One day, I went to my scariest convenience store of them all, Freddy’s, the place where those who, by some mistake made earlier in life, found themselves living in Portsmouth’s Lincoln Park projects, located at Deep Creek and Frederick. According to one cashier, it was where both “the sellers and the buyers” came to get their beer and blunt wraps. Even my supervisor, Ray, veteran of the streets, felt uncomfortable hanging out at Freddy’s too long. Freddy’s has that ghetto vibe where, if the cops drive by, the place empties out, but it is otherwise, a combination diner, grocery store and watering hole. After going in one day to write their weekly order, two girls began an argument.
The root cause of the disagreement was that, one girl had engaged in a tryst with the man of the other girl, though the man had been involved in a relationship with the second girl. It very nearly came to blows, and everyone felt uncomfortable, as there’s no easy way of breaking up a fight between two women. One girl, deciding that violence was inappropriate, decided to threaten the girl in a different way.
“You fucked someone I fucked, so I’m’a fuck someone you fucked!” While I deeply respect the use of the F word, that’s not a very creative sentence. Like half the words in there are “fuck.” Also, I have this mental image sometimes that this argument will end up causing a pyramid scheme-like effect in which after this fight, there are literally hundreds of men who have gotten laid due to a blood fued via intercourse.
The thing about ghetto things in Portsmouth, is that they always happened by surprise. You would never expect it to happen, and then you round a corner, and Wow. I once went into one of my stores to write an order. I had been at this store, probably hundreds of times. It wasn’t a great neighborhood. Crack sales happened there with little shyness. Well, either that, or most people love looking over their shoulders frequently before shaking hands, and they both always have somewhere to be quickly afterward.
At any rate, I walked into the store, walked out of the store, and then thought I saw someone looking into my car. She caught my eye, and as she did, I realized she was also pulling up her pants at the same time. It turned out she had actually stopped to pee, and hid behind my car and just happened to be pulling her pants up as I walked past. How did I deduce this? As we eventually made eye contact, she said to me “Oh, I’m sorry, I just had to take a piss.” And in your head, when you imagine someone taking a piss next to your car, you have this mental image that you’re going to say “NO! DON’T URINATE NEXT TO MY CAR! WE’RE HUMAN BEINGS FOR CHRIST’S SAKE!” In reality, when someone urinates next to your car… you just want to get away as fast as possible. It was moments like these, or a crackhead screwing up the words of the hook for “my neck, my back” as “my neck, my back, my pussy set up just like that,”that made my days the most interesting for better or for worse.
All in all, I was lucky that I never got hassled too much. To be fair, a great deal of the real violence happened at night, and people usually had some reason to worry before they got hurt. And sometimes, I miss some of the people I got to interact with. At the same time, I’m happy I don’t have to go out there.