Monday, December 13, 2010

Out in the Streets: Robbery, Killing, Hunger, Fear, and Rage -- But Have Yourself a Merry Christmas.

In Worcester when we say the streets, we mean the “bad” part of the city, the East Side. By that, we mean the drunken car crashes, shootings outside of bars, convenience store hold-ups, violent men beating girlfriends and wives, warring gangs … well, you know if you live in or near a big city. It’s all over the TV news.

I feel bad for people having to live in those dangerous, crime-ridden areas. But I do so from the quiet and civilized world on the "good" side of Park Ave., which separates the East Side and West Side of Worcester like some kind of Berlin Wall.

Lately, that wall has been crumbling. We in the West Side are getting a taste of what East Siders live with every day -- and, to tell the truth, we don’t like it. To tell the whole truth, it is a little frightening.

As in the following neighborhood story.

Near our home, maybe a five-minute walk, is a 7-11 convenience store where I go religiously on weekends to pick up The New York Times. An early, early riser, I am there in the wee hours. When I go in, it is usually just me and the night-shift clerk.

With just the two of us there, we have taken to chatting. Her name is Sanaa and she is from Syria. In her native language, Sanaa means sunshine and, with her quick smile, she is certainly that. Here she poses with some Syrian goodies she brought in just for me, spreading her sunshine.

Sanaa’s husband  came here eleven years ago and she and their three children later joined him to pursue the American dream. Today two kids are in college, a son at UMass Amherst and a daughter at Quinsigamond, with a younger daughter at home.

Paying for tuition, books, and fees for two kids in college on top of living expenses is, to put it mildly, a financial mountain to climb. Sanaa’s husband works 70 hours a week at his job and she works the night shift here, as well as a second job at a clothing store.  As is happening so often in this Great Recession, the clothing store is closing on February 8 and Sanaa will be out of her second job.

Neither Sanaa nor her husband are citizens yet. Both have green cards which permit them to live and work legally in the U.S. Both are working to become citizens. Becoming citizens of their adopted country is an important part of their American dream.

By the time I come into the store, Sanaa has been up all night. She is open to a friendly voice and a little comic relief, especially from a non-threatening old man who regularly brings his wife into the conversation.  I buy the Sunday Times and make a big production of slowly and painfully peeling off bills to pay the $6.00.  Sanaa smiles. I beg for a discount;  Sunshine laughs.

She tells me how much she misses her family in Syria and that she calls her mother several times a week. I hear how much she loves to cook and of her dreams of opening her own restaurant in Worcester serving Syrian cuisine.

A couple of times, she surprised me with a gift of her homemade Syrian cookies. For Thanksgiving, she presented me with a Syrian meat dish with trimmings -- carved lemon, hummus, garnishes. Yummy.

She decided to go full steam ahead with her restaurant. For weeks, she excitedly told me about her negotiations for a building and for bank financing. But then negotiations broke down when she couldn’t get financing. Sunshine was near tears when she told me.

One morning, I came in and she was not herself.

“You okay?” I asked.

“I was robbed the other night,” she said, sighing deeply.


“Yes, a young guy in his early twenties came in about two in the morning. No one was in the store. He asked for a pack of cigarettes and I gave it to him and he handed me the money. When I opened the cash drawer, he told me to give it to him.”

She said he displayed no gun or knife, but his look and tone of voice told her that he was deadly serious and that she'd better comply. She handed him the cash drawer and he ran out the door with it.

“Did he get in a car?” I asked.

“No, he was walking.”

“Walking? That means he probably lives right around here.”

“Yes, he used to come in the store. I remember waiting on him. Even though he was all covered up and I could only see a little bit of his face, I recognized him. I knew the eyes.”

As soon as the thief was out the door, she pushed the alarm button under the counter. The police arrived within 15 minutes. She told them what happened and described the robber, young, tall, probably local, all covered up. He had been in the store before.

The store could supply no video. The camera was on at only one of the two entrances. “He came in and left through the door not on the video camera,” Sanaa said. Which means he got lucky or, more likely, had checked out the store’s camera surveillance.

As far as Sanaa knows, the robber has not been caught and the police have no suspect. This was the third time she has been robbed at the store. She’s now afraid to work at night and has told the owner that.

The owner has asked her to stay on until he can find a replacement. As of now, he has not been able to find a replacement. She continues to work the night shift. But she keeps both doors locked. Now I have to rap on the door and Sanaa lets me in with that wonderful smile of hers.

On a recent Saturday, I got up extra early and decided to walk to 7-11 instead of drive. A little after 4:30, as I was approaching the store, a tall young man all hooded up and hunched over with his hands in his pockets was walking out of the store parking lot toward me.

We were the only two people on the streets. I’m an old nutcake, but what was this guy doing out walking the streets at this unholy hour when it was still dark? Should I run? Should I cross the street? Too late! We were side by side!

“Morning,” I said,” with a little wave as casually as I could. I was too scared to even look at his face.

“Howya doin’,” he mumbled without looking up.

I sprinted to 7-11 and rapped on the door. Sanaa unlocked the door and let me in. “I just passed a tall young guy out there. Scared the crap out of me. Was he in here?”



I calmed down. I got my New York Times. Painfully, I handed Sanaa two dollar bills.  “All you do is take my money, you know that?” I said.

Sunshine giggled.

She told me she is looking for a job, hopefully in social work.

“No one is hiring,” she said.

She will be working at the 7-11 on Christmas day.

This robbery happened  where I live. Also, it took place along with a series of home and car break-ins and thefts. Thieves somehow carried off one neighbor’s outside generator.

Two weeks ago, our next-door neighbor came home to find that her car, which had been parked in the street, had been broken into. Contents of the glove department were scattered on the floor. Fortunately, the thief or thieves found nothing of value to steal.

The other night, the couple living a few houses away were awakened about 2 a.m. by a knock on the back door. The man and women got out of bed and their two dogs began barking. It was obviously a would-be home invader hoping that nobody was home so he could enter and go shopping.

At our house, we have motion detectors around the house that turn on  bright lights. We hope that, with the outside all lit up, it will be enough to scare off your average home invader.  If a determined invader does manage to break into the house, say with sledgehammer and saw, the alarm system will go nuts and wake up the dead.  Not ideal for casual stealing.

So far, no one in the neighborhood has been killed. That happens in the “bad” part of the city, but sometimes it feels  too close for comfort. A young man, just 21, was recently found dead in Crompton Park where Barbara and I go to watch our grandkids play football.

Kevin J. Shavies, Jr. had been executed with a single shot to the back of his head. He was found in Crompton Park early one Sunday morning. At 2:17 that morning, he had called a friend. “He said he had no place else to go,” the friend said, who gave his name only as Ghost. “I told him to come over.”

He never got there.

He had been drinking and walking is what he did when drinking, his girlfriend said. She is four months pregnant with his baby. He had been with her in her apartment before he went out for what turned out to be the last walk of his life.

Kevin was a pure product of the streets. He got in trouble with the law for such things as carrying a dangerous weapon and resisting arrest. He had served stints in the Worcester House of Correction.

But what jumped out at me was this: he had no family. He had grown up in foster homes, moving from house to house, often living on the streets. Alone, without education or job skills, with zero options, he got caught up in gang life.

I have a sense of how desperate he must have felt. Along with my four younger siblings, I grew up in foster homes. At 17, I ran away and found myself on a street corner, alone and without a single adult family member, wondering how I was going to survive.

Many foster kids, like Kevin, do not survive. I did and so did my younger siblings. I wrote a novel, “State Kid: Hero of Literacy” in which the fictional hero is a foster kid whose literacy saves his life. It gets him out of juvenile prison and it is nothing but up after that.

Thinking that I would photograph the memorial that friends of Kevin had set up in Crompton Park, I drove there. It’s a five or ten-minute drive from our home. Getting there late morning on a weekday and driving slowly alongside the park, I couldn’t find the memorial.
Then I saw a group of about a dozen young men hanging out on the street alongside the park. My first thought was, great, I’ll just ask them. But then, as I slowly approached them, I noticed something unsettling: all were staring at me.

They were not welcoming looks. I stepped on the gas and sped away. The young men may not have been members of a street gang, maybe none of them had anything to do with the killing of Kevin J. Shavies Jr., maybe none of them, before the police had arrived,  had taken the photo of Kevin's head with blood coming out of his mouth and e-mailed it to buddies.

Maybe not -- or maybe so.

At any rate,  they sure knew I didn't belong there. And they weren’t at the field to toss a football around.

Now hurt and rage. How is that for a topic for Christmas season? Christmas or not, the reality is that there is a lot of hurt and rage out there on the streets of Worcester. This is truly the Great Recession. I don’t remember economic hardship as deep and widespread as now.

Not the 1970’s oil crisis with its long lines of cars at gas stations. Not the 1991 recession in which I got laid off from my job of 26 years and went on unemployment for the first and only time of my life. Not since the Great Depression has there been anything like this.

But I rant. Let me talk facts. At the South Worcester Neighborhood Center, which provides food for hungry families, the number of families being served has jumped dramatically. Last year 11 families a day were served; this year it is 37 -- more than three times as many.

Ronald Charette, Director of the Center, says that many of the needy are employed. He says their hours have been reduced or they are working two low-paying part-time jobs. After paying rent, utilities, and gas to get to work, they don’t have enough money to pay for food, he said.

Tim Garvin, CEO of United Way of Central Massachusetts, got a shock when he pulled into his office parking lot the other day. This is how he described the scene:

“The line of more than 150 people snaked around the corner of the building and down the sidewalk. Braving the cold, they were of all ages -- from babies bundled in strollers to the elderly using walkers for support. The awe was because this line was not outside a big-box store waiting for the latest holiday item or electronic gadget; unfortunately, this line was for the most basic of needs, food.”

Food costs are going out of sight. I do the food shopping in our house and I am astonished at the soaring prices. One little example: A year ago at Price Chopper, my favorite raisin bagels cost $2.99 for six. After repeated increases, the price is now $4.46. That’s an increase of 49.5% in one year!

I went to the bakery manager. Shaking my head, I said, “$4.46? Are you serious?”

“Yes, I know,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“Maybe the store should change it’s name from Price Chopper to Price Increaser.”

He apologized again.

I’ll pay the higher price. But many people in this city can’t. They don’t have the money. Another startling fact: 66% of Worcester households receiving food assistance have incomes at or below the federal poverty level. For a family of three, that is $18,312.

Nationally, according to the USDA, more than 50 million Americans live in hunger, 17 million of them children. Forty-two million are receiving food stamps, up from 27.5 million in 2007. The unemployment rate is 9.8%, the highest in eight decades.

8.5 million Americans receive federal unemployment benefits, with an average benefit of $302.90 per week. It may not be much, but it is enough to keep people from starving to death. With the unemployment benefits of some 7 million workers about to expire, some Worcesterites took to the streets.

Their message: “We’re hurting.”

People gathered in downtown Worcester on the sidewalk outside the offices of U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern. The rally was organized by Chris Horton, 66, who was profiled here last time. He is one busy, fired-up guy. He's holding the bullhorn below.

He spoke briefly about the impending loss of unemployment benefits of millions, then handed the mike to others. Each, in turn, told their stories. They spoke of hard times, of fruitlessly looking for work, of losing homes, of struggling to survive.

Their voices were raised not in self-pity, nor in despair, but in hot, undisguised anger. They want the the world to know that they are good hard-working people -- and they demand to be understood and treated as much.

The press was there. One of them was Peter Colpack, an intern at WCCA- TV.  He is shown above at work videotaping the gathering. He and I got to talking. He is 19, a teenager just starting out in life; I am 72, an old man not yet dead. You might think that we would have nothing to say to each other. You would be wrong.

He told me that he was unsure what to do with his life. He was trying to decide whether to go to college or not. Meanwhile, he was doing the internship at the local TV station. 

I gave him my take on college today. Though I went to college, though I encouraged my two sons to go to college (one did, the other would have none of it; both have done well), I suggested that he think long and hard about going.

I told him that I thought college today was overpriced, overrated, was not the only or best way to learn, and wastes  too much time. “When I went to college,” I said, “a college degree guaranteed you a decent job. Today, young people graduate from college into unemployment plus the burden of huge college loans.”

My advice: "Create your own job. Work for yourself." (I didn't tell him that that's what I did when I got my walking papers after working for others most of my life. I had  walked the talk.)

He took it in.

He said that he was appalled at the awful economy, with people losing their homes, not being able to feed themselves, and bank bailouts. He couldn’t believe that with jobs so hard to get and with unemployment so high that politicians in Washington could even consider not extending unemployment benefits.

“What this country needs,” he said, “is a revolution." Look at these people here pouring out their heartache on a bullhorn, he said.  “The people have to rise up and take back their country.”

A few days later, there was another rally outside City Hall in downtown Worcester. In my role as old snoop with nothing better to do, I showed up with my camera and notebook. And who did I see there waving a protest sign? Young Peter Colpack.

“Not on the job now, are you?” I said.


“Rising up?”


So long and keep moving.

 E-Books by George Pollock

 "State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his  real-life experiences  growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of the author being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison;  "I, Cadaver" is about the author's postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story good enough to get him into an exclusive college -- on full scholarship; and "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life," which is about how to live the title every single day.                                      

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