One of my favorite Queen City themed t-shirts reads: "Burlington: A Safe Place To Be A Thug" — although "Girlington" and "Burlingtron" are certainly contenders. I claim no real urban roots, though I was born in an unsavory neighborhood in Providence and, in my early twenties, spent a year living in Dorchester . . . the Polish section of Dorchester (insert joke here). Still, I'm an average middle-class white guy from New England and my experience with life in the ghetto — and no, the Old North End does not count — comes mainly through books, newspapers, TV and movies. And I'm grateful for that.
About a week ago, I was returning from my afternoon constitutional with my faithful, half-crazy half-pit bull, Buckley. As I strode up the steps to my apartment, a thuggish looking kid with a native Vermont accent standing in front of the house next door stopped me in my tracks with the following line: "Did your fucking dog shit on my steps?"
Taken aback, I turned toward him and, trying my best to sound sympathetic, replied, "No, man. It wasn't my dog." "It fuckin' better not have been," he said, adding, "If I ever catch him again, I'll kick his fuckin' ass. It's fuckin' on." For emphasis, I suppose, he proceeded to take a drag of his cigarette, holding it between thumb and forefinger like a joint.
Internally, I began keeping a running tally of the number of times my agitated neighbor dropped the F-bomb. (This is something I frequently do to amuse myself. I firmly believe there is an inverse relationship between the number of times an individual uses some form of the word "fuck" in a sentence and said individual's level of intelligence. I'm still working out the exact formula. George Carlin — who is a fucking genius — is, of course, exempt.)
Slack-jawed, and more than a little unnerved that this punk had actually threatened my dog — who, though generally a colossal wuss, is still a freakin' pit bull . . . well, half pit anyway — I restated the facts. "Dude, my dog didn't shit on your steps. You didn't see my dog shit on your steps. Frankly, I'm not sure why you think he did. But he didn't, OK?"
As if processing the info, staring at the ground — or perhaps, the dog shit — he mumbled, "It's a fuckin' warning."
Bewildered by the unfolding stream of events, I shook my head and replied, "Uh . . . fuckin' thanks?"
A couple of nights later, I left my apartment to buy some beer at the store across the street. As I opened the door, there was my neighbor, standing with a much smaller, but similarly thuggish friend, smoking cigarettes in front of the house next door. "I feel like slapping the shit out of somebody tonight!" he exclaimed. I crossed the street, hoping the remark was a general sentiment and not aimed specifically at me. Turns out it was.
When I returned, neighbor dude, perhaps emboldened by the presence of his pint-sized pal, approached me. "What did I tell you about about your fuckin' dog?" he said, striding onto the sidewalk. Oh shit, I thought. Here we go. Pulse and mind racing, I desperately searched for the right thing to say to diffuse the situation before it escalated any further. I'm a writer, not a fighter.
Before I go on, I'd like to point out that I'm borderline fanatical about cleaning up after my dog. Regular readers know that errant dog doo is, pardon the pun, one of my biggest pet peeves. That night, my excremental religious fervor might have been my saving grace.
"Would you like a beer?" I asked, extending the six pack of Harpoon IPA towards my potential attacker. "What?" he replied, genuinely stunned by my reaction. Seeing the opening, I set my plan into motion.
"Come here, man. I want to show you something," I said, motioning towards the garbage can sitting at the end of my driveway. I walked toward the bin, waving to encourage my neighbor to follow. He did.
I opened the lid to reveal about a week's worth of poop-filled plastic bags. The aroma was stunning. "Shit!" he exclaimed, recoiling in disgust and covering his nose. "Exactly," I replied, dropping the lid. "It wasn't my dog," I said as I walked past him and into my apartment.
A few summers ago, I was sitting at a patio table in front of Radio Bean with a friend, drinking Five Dollar Shakes and just generally enjoying a pleasant summer evening in Burlington. A middle-aged gentleman approached our table and, nodding toward a vacant chair, asked if we'd mind if he joined us.
It turned out he was a veteran of the first Iraq war and a native of Chicago. Specifically, the Cabrini-Green housing projects, one of the most notoriously violent neighborhoods in the country. We asked which was scarier, Iraq or the projects, and he emphatically answered, "Cabrini-Green, hands down." As if on cue, a tricked out Honda Civic, complete with pulsing neon and mag wheels rolled to a stop at the intersection of North Winooski and Pearl. The bass emanating from the car not only shook the vehicle's frame, but was loud enough that you could actually see rhythmic ripples forming in the beer glasses on our table, a good thirty feet away from the intersection.
The Chicagoan chuckled and shook his head. "Have you ever heard of The Fresh Air Kids?" he asked, referring to the program that brings inner city youth to rural places like Vermont during the summer. We nodded. "I have this idea for something called The Stale Air Kids," he continued. "The gist is that you take fools like that guy," he said, thumbing his finger towards the Civic, "and drop 'em off in the ghetto. If they last a week, then they can wear their hats to the side." At that moment, the light turned green and the Civic took off, loudly screeching its tires before hurtling down the street. "I will never understand why these kids think the thug lifestyle is so cool," he said. Spreading his arms as if to the entire city of Burlington, he added, "I would have taken this in a heartbeat."
I've encountered my neighbor on a coupleof occasions since that fateful night. If he acknowledges me at all, it's with a mumbled"'sup" and a head nod. Honestly, that's fine by me. Still, I can't help but wonder how this dude — or any number of kids seemingly just like him in Burlington — would fare as a Stale Air Kid. It's one thing to be a tough guy for fun, or out of boredom. It's another entirely to be one to survive.
Burlington: A Safe Place To Be A Thug.