Everyone used the snarky nickname Casa 'nam for the ratty little shopping center at the end of my street. Its actual name was Casa View in accord with a patchy Mexican theme applied without logic throughout our 1950's neighborhood.
Twenty-eight years ago, when the boy and I first moved here, the area was variously populated with frail quivery oldsters, hardworking reticent Vietnamese families, some rowdy blue collar types, and and a few folks in film and TV production. The Vietnamese were definitely the majority here, and Casa 'nam was proof. Bright English/Vietnamese signs on the storefronts advertised an exciting blend of goods and services: Real Gold Jewelry, Videos, Money Orders, Notary Services, Passport Photos, Taxes, Leaded/Unleaded Gas, Magazines, Bill Pay plus Car Insurence Available. There was also a dim and awful spaghetti joint you tried just once and, across the street, two gabby dark-skinned brothers, variously classified as Lebanese, Nigra, or A-rab depending on who you talked to, had a round-the-clock gas, newspaper, and lottery place, and offered a passable chopped barbeque sandwich at lunchtime.
Myself, I rarely went to Casa 'nam. It reminded me of Washington DC's Chinatown, the one I knew from my childhood. Our family had ventured there only once and came home feeling sad and shunned, with our one tiny package of rice noodles, a sack of tiny evil-smelling dried shrimp, and the memory of glares and hisses directed towards our four whitebread selves. I didn't think I'd ever be treated like that in Casa 'nam, but the shopping center radiated a dense exotic vibe, and I was as whitebread as ever.
Then I started doing Zen meditation in an even lousier part of town. The meditations, while arduous and confusing, did me some good. The world always looked freshly scrubbed and more lively afterwards. I thought I might crank up my practice a bit more, maybe meditate in the mornings too, but realized I didn't have a Buddha figure. I didn't need one, of course, but I'd gotten used to the carved golden figure at the zendo. Surely Casa 'nam, had such a thing.
I went up to the center and chose a store at random, one advertising Videos, Money Orders, Notary Services, Passport Photos, Taxes Prepared and Real Gold Jewelry. It smelled overpoweringly of fish sauce, and blared loud wailing music. A skinny middle-aged man came towards me, from somewhere in the back."Yes?" he said. "I need a Buddha," I blurted. "Oh, yes," he said politely, and led me to a huge group of bins containing every sort of Asian god, stored according to type and size. I recognized some: Toaist gods, with their twisty beards, and Kwannon the goddess of boundless compassion. The man held a plastic scoop in his hand. "Just one Buddha?" he asked, and I nodded. He dug into a bin and brought out a gold-painted plaster figure. "Very nice," he announced, "ten dolla' ". I wanted to check out all his other Buddhas, but the store wasn't a browsing sort of place, so I fished out my money and bought the one he held.
I still have my Buddha but Casa 'nam is long gone now and with it, the gods, the fish sauce, and the delicate Real Gold Jewelry have vanished as well. The Vietnamese all moved north, joining the already sizeable Vietnamese community there. If you drive through the main drag, you'll see an endless fat array of prosperous Vietnamese restaurants, their Vegas-style neon signs burning through the hot Texas night.
In our neighborhood, the Vietnamese were steadily replaced by a spicy mixture of Mexican families, black families and some posturing ganstas along, with the usual freelance cholo assholes.
White people moved in too, buying up homes from retirees who wanted condo-life or just to get the fuck out of Dodge. One of them, a pudgy man with a bristly haircut, moved across from our house and caused some notice among the other neighbors, by digging out a sloppy koi pond in his yard, and producing a flood of muddy runoff. Koi ponds don't feature heavily in the landscaping here, but we could recognize a shitty job when we saw it.
He showed up on my doorstep one Memorial Day, holding a little bitty American flag and a stack of printed flyers reading, Take Back Our Neighborhood or Take Back the Night. I can't remember.
"I hope you'll join us for our first Crime Watch meeting up at Bryan Adams High School," he said abruptly. "Next week. Tuesday, at seven. Here. Take a flag. I'm givin' em out ta ever'one. Anyway, about this Crime Watch. We all gorta do somethin' ."
"How come?" I asked. I looked into his watery small eyes and sensed some kind of bullshit in the offing.
" 'Cause these little hard dick Messicans are gonna wreck the whole damn neighborhood," he said heavily. "Don't know if you knew it, but four cars was broken into last month."
I was unimpressed. Our own car, a nice BMW sedan, got stolen some years back, taken by a local boy who stood in the bushes and watched us come and go, then saw his chance. "Mmmm." I said.
He left, but not before pressing his card on me. I glanced down at it. Seems he was a realtor. It figured, I thought. Scare the old folks out of their homes and jack up the prices. What an asshole.
I didn't explain that many years ago, my husband and I chose this house and this neighborhood for very particular reasons. We looked at every kind of streets, house, and neighborhood for two years before we found this iffy unfashionable part of Dallas. It was a part of town that wasn't a behind a wall and didn't have a security guard at the gate to give your friends the stink eye. The streets, shaded by old full-grown trees, didn't exclude old fussy people or shouting children, and there were folks who still sat on their porches and waved when you strolled by. There was no duly-elected taste-maker who kept a hard eye out for trim that needed painting or plastic flamingos that need to be ripped from lawns.
We were happy it wasn't all-whitebread here, although we heard the usual racist bullshit from time to time because Texas is part of the South, and that's what you hear. Myself, I'd always lived in cities where different races lived in near proximity, and I felt lonely without any black people, Asians, Mexicans, or Puerto Ricans near me.
It was a place, my husband and I thought, where real life could still leak in with all its mad mixtures and cock-ups. We needed that stuff, all of it, because we photographed, filmed, painted and wrote about life in all its glory and goofiness. And we found it here in this old shady chunk of Dallas. We had thieves from time to time, and we had gunfire too, but we also had our velvety, nearly soundless nights, where 'possums crept out, and owls swooped.
And so we plunked our money down on this brick home, built in 1955, with broad shading eaves, thick interior walls, and hand-done plaster work. Only one other family lived here. The children grew up, moved out, and married, and their parents got the itch to build in Sulphur Springs. So we moved in and added our lives to the ghostly ones still flitting here, seen among the shadows.
Tonight my boy lies sleeping in the big bedroom, the one holding our king-sized bed, his wheelchair, too many medicines, and where the cats come to play. It's dark, silent, and hot outside now, and I sit in my office jotting stuff down, as I do most nights.
I feel impatient with myself, trying to write about this rich, wild life all around me. I've been an artist now for about two million years, and I'm still flabbergasted by how slippery life really is, impossible to contain.There's so much to tell, like how you can hear the doves cooing from their groundbuilt nests in this near dawn, and how, in the darkness tonight, I spotted the red reflected eyes of a single wary raccoon.
And how, an hour ago, the alcoholic across the way, crept outside with all his empty Wild Turkey bottles, and dropped them into the garbage can all at once with a crazy joyous crash.