The Number Six train from Manhattan to the South Bronx makes nine stops in the eighteen-minute ride between East 59th Street and Brook Avenue. When you enter the train, you are in the seventh richest Congressional district in the nation. When you leave, you are in the poorest. The 600,000 people who live here and the 450,000 people who live in Washington Heights and Harlem, across the river, make up one of the largest racially segregated concentrations of poor people in our nation.
Brook Avenue, the tenth stop on the local, lies in the center of Mott Haven, whose 48,000 people are the poorest in the South Bronx. Walking into St. Ann's Church in Mott Haven on a hot summer afternoon, one is immediately in the presence of small children. They seem to be everywhere: in the garden, in the hallways, in the kitchen, in the chapel, on the stairs. The first time I see the pastor, Martha Overall, she is carrying a newborn baby in her arms and is surrounded by three lively and excited little girls. In one of the most diseased and dangerous communities in any city of the Western world, the beautiful, old, stone church on St. Ann's Avenue is a gentle sanctuary from the terrors of the streets outside.
A seven-year-old boy named Cliffie, whose mother has come to the church to talk with the Reverend Overall, agrees to take me for a walk around the neighborhood. Reaching up to take my hand the moment we leave the church, he starts a running commentary almost instantly, interrupting now and then to say hello to men and women on the street, dozens of whom are standing just outside the gateway to St. Ann's, waiting for a soup kitchen to open.
At a tiny park in a vacant lot less than a block away, he points to a number of stuffed animals that are attached to the branches of a tree.
"Bears," he says.
"Why are there bears in the tree?" I ask.
He doesn't answer me but smiles at the bears affectionately. "I saw a boy shot in the head right over there," he says a moment later. He looks up at me pleasantly. "Would you like a chocolate-chip cookie?"
"No, thank you," I say.
He has a package of cookies and removes one. He breaks it in half, returns half to the package, and munches on the other half as we are walking. We walk a long block to a rutted street called Cypress Avenue. He gestures down a hill toward what he calls "the bad place," and asks if I want to go see it.
I say, "OK."
"They're burning bodies down there," he announces ominously.
"What kind of bodies?" I ask.
"The bodies of people!" he says in a spooky voice, as if enjoying the opportunity to terrify a grownup.
The place Cliffie is referring to turns out to be a waste incinerator that went into operation recently over the objections of the parents in the neighborhood. The incinerator, I am later reassured by the Reverend Overall, does not burn entire "bodies." What it burns are so-called red-bag products, such as amputated limbs and fetal tissue, bedding, bandages, and syringes that are transported here from New York City hospitals.
Munching another cookie as we walk, Cliffie asks me, "Do you want to go on Jackson Avenue?" Although I don't know one street from another, I agree.
"Come on," he says, "I'll take you there. We have to go around this block." He pauses, however, and pulls an asthma inhaler from his pocket, holds it to his mouth, presses it twice, and then puts it away.
As confident and grown-up as he seems in some ways, he has the round face of a baby and is scarcely more than three-and-a-half feet tall. When he has bad dreams, he tells me, "I go in my mommy's bed and crawl under the covers." At other times, when he's upset, he says, "I sleep with a picture of my mother and I dream of her."
Unlike many children I meet these days, he has an absolutely literal religious faith. When I ask him how he pictures God, he says, "He has long hair and He can walk on the deep water." To make sure I understand how unusual this is, he says, "Nobody else can."
He seems to take the lessons of religion literally also. Speaking of a time his mother sent him to the store "to get a pizza"--"three slices, one for my mom, one for my dad, and one for me"--he says he saw a homeless man who told him he was hungry. "But he was too cold to move his mouth! He couldn't talk."
"How did you know that he was hungry if he couldn't talk?"
"He pointed to my pizza."
"What did you do?"
"I gave him some! "
"Were your parents mad at you?"
He looks surprised by this. "Why would they be mad?" he asks. "God told us, Share!'"
When I ask him who his heroes are he first says "Michael Jackson," and then, "Oprah!"--like that, with an exclamation on the word. I try to get him to speak about "important" persons as the schools tend to define them: "Have you read about George Washington?"
"I don't even know the man," he says.
We follow Jackson Avenue past several boarded buildings and a "flat-fix" shop, stop briefly in front of a fenced-in lot where the police of New York City bring impounded cars, and then turn left and go two blocks to a highway with an elevated road above it, where a sign says BRUCKNER BOULEVARD. Crossing beneath the elevated road, we soon arrive at Locust Avenue.
The medical waste incinerator is a new-looking building, gun-metal blue on top of cinder blocks. From one of its metal sliding doors, a sourly unpleasant odor drifts into the street. Standing in front of the building. Cliffie grumbles slightly, but does not seem terribly concerned. "You sure that you don't want a cookie?"
Again I say, "No, thank you."
"I think I'll have another one," he says, and takes one for himself.
"You want to go the hard way or the easy way back to the church?"
"Let's go the easy way," I say.
Next to another vacant lot where someone has dumped a heap of auto tires and some rusted auto parts, he points to a hypodermic needle in the tangled grass and to the bright-colored caps of crack...