First Person / Me and my hoodie

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The Trayvon Martin trial is on, which brings back memories of hoodies, one of which Trayvon Martin was wearing when he was shot by George Zimmerman. Soon after the event, some commentators suggested, more or less, "Well, he was a black kid wearing a hoodie in a gated community, what would you expect?" ...

In the fall of 1991, the first autumn in the Victorian house my husband and I had bought, I went a little nuts and had ordered one thousand daffodil bulbs. The long-neglected garden cried out for color. But one thousand holes ... You are on your own, said my husband.

A young man from next door came over one day with his mother and asked if he might help me in the yard. He wanted to earn some money for school activities (the upcoming spring prom and all those other little extras his mom could not afford). I bought him gardening gloves and a foam kneeling pad so as not to hurt his knees and interfere with his football playing.

So the digging began.

Never one to complain, he did one day suggest we start a company called "We Be Bulbs."

He was a really bright kid and good company. He asked a lot of good questions about gardening, bulbs and then our conversations turned to current events, music and anything else we came up with to help pass the arduous hours. He was very curious about what it had been like growing up in a small town, away from the city, a life so different from what he knew.

We decided to plant some veggies in the spring because he wanted to see how they grew. I teased him that tomatoes did not grow in back of the Giant Eagle.

Not really knowing how much teenage boys eat, I would often run out of his favorite soft drink or snack and he would jog to the corner store for more. I rewarded us with pizza. I heard my first rap music when he loaned us some CDs. He asked for and we gave him our copies of The New York Times.

At one point, I began to notice that my companion from time to time would appear reluctant to come into our yard. So I asked him if there was a problem. He lowered his head. "Mrs. Parker, you should not be wearing that navy blue hoodie. This is Bloods territory and those are Crips colors." I looked down at my muddied sweatshirt with "Chatham" plastered across it in large white letters.

I was stunned. Into what alternate universe had we sunk all our money and hard work? Who would ever look at me, a blond, short, 40-ish white woman and see me as anything else? But when I put on that hoodie ...

We knew that it was a "transitional" neighborhood and learned after not too long that one of the city's worst open-air drug markets was just around the corner. Yes, I did call 911 more often than I talked to my mother. But I somehow felt safe there, immune from the drugs and guns. We had felt as youngish professionals that the city neighborhood needed us much more than a suburb.

I told my husband about Jamar's concern for me. Without hesitation, my husband said, "Ditch the hoodie." I eventually gave it to my niece in New Hampshire and bought a gray one from the Chatham bookstore. We both became more aware, and I will say, a little fearful of our surroundings. We wondered what other "cues" that we might be unaware of.

People started telling us all sorts of wild tales, mostly urban legends, involving your headlights, getting your ankles slashed in grocery store parking lots, what color your Christmas lights were and on and on. They warned me about keeping my hands in my pockets so as not to have any gesture misconstrued as a gang sign. It was a fearful time for so many; there was so much misunderstanding. Apparently it still is in neighborhoods everywhere.

Now I live in the country where other things in your yard will bring you trouble. The "wrong" candidate sign will get fire crackers thrown at your dog or get your car keyed. Now when I put on my hoodie it reminds me of how we judge each other by such externals and how deadly it can be.

By the way, the community where we had bought our Victorian, in Highland Park just next to East Liberty, is now considered "hot" for other reasons. It's been reborn, thanks to Google, Target, Home Depot and a lot of work by our former neighbors.

I would like to think that our investment at that time and place helped to contribute in some small but significant way.


Susan Parker is a writer living in Ligonier (fiona1433@


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