I was cooking dinner when I heard voices outside. Donald and D’Quon were on the stoop. “Can I borrow your bike?” asked Donald.
He’s 12 and too short for it. “Mmm, I don’t think so,” I responded. “I’d like to be there when you ride it because you’re so small.”
D’Quon, who’s 11, scowled. “He ain’t gonna steal it!”
“That’s not the issue,” I said. “I just want to be there in case you crash.”
But that kind of was the issue. Not that they’d steal the bike, exactly—more that they might jangle its gears, forget to return it in a timely manner, or leave it where someone else would take it. They’re preteens: none of those things was out of the realm of possibility. But they’re also poor and black, and I was worried that my reluctance was influenced by prejudice. So instead of giving an outright ‘no’, I made an excuse.
For the rest of the evening, Donald and D’Quon hung around our front gate. It was distracting; my husband, Chris, and I were trying to get our two-year-old son to eat dinner. But it was also sort of neat that they’d chosen us to pester. I liked being the cool neighbors who get close to local kids.
Later, reading my son a book before bed, I heard them outside the window and pulled open the curtain.
“See, I told you—it’s his room,” D’Quon was saying to Donald, who peered in and saw us on the couch.
“Oh, a bedtime story?” he asked. There was a funny mixture of curiosity and scorn in his voice, and I wondered what he was thinking.
I knew almost nothing about their home life. Donald and D’Quon are the younger half of a team of brothers that also includes Durrell and Derek; I call them the D Boys. Their house is across the alley from ours and last year, we’d greet them almost daily as they trooped to the corner store with their uncle, returning with bags of Funyuns and bottles of fruit punch. I remember thinking they were good, well-behaved kids—especially D’Quon, who was sweet and still wet behind the ears, and 15-year-old Durrell, “the smart one,” according to the boys’ grandfather, whom I’d met a few times.
But then their uncle stabbed someone in their backyard, and soon after—coincidentally, apparently—he suddenly died. The boys changed, particularly the two younger ones: their handsome faces hardened and it was like they didn’t know us anymore.
Their mom is young and had been friendly the few times we’d met. But one day I spied her walking through the alley with Donald and D’Quon, who were munching on snacks. She was in a foul mood. “D’Quon, shut the fuck up,” she snapped at him. “After you eat that, you take your ugly ass to bed.” D’Quon stared at the ground.
My stomach turned, and I promised myself I’d be kind to the boys in the future.
They started talking to us again because of our son. He and Donald and D’Quon had a terrific time playing at a neighborhood party in June, and they’d been coming over ever since. Up close, they weren’t particularly well-behaved, and would push hard against instructions they didn’t like. It made boundary-setting difficult.
But then, everything about spending time with the boys was difficult. They were African American kids who’d been in this neighborhood since it was poor and rough; we were middle class whites with roots in other states who’d arrived in this suddenly-hip community just a few years ago. The differences between us loomed large and, like the scenario with the bike, affected every interaction. Our footing was so unequal and our common ground so slim that we had to establish the most basic relationship elements—trust, limits, shared understandings—from scratch.
A few days after they asked to borrow the bike, Donald and D’Quon were back, striding through our open door together with Durrell trailing behind. I was knee deep in a spanakopita recipe—we were having people over for dinner—and they wandered around like they often do, looking at our books and knickknacks and food.
Donald and D’Quon left eventually, but Durrell lingered. And when my husband came home, he asked Durrell if he wanted to stay for dinner. “Yes,” the boy answered carefully, and he sat politely with us and our guests for the next two hours, making conversation, working his way through spanakopita and chickpeas and blueberries with cream, and helping load the dishwasher. It was lovely, as perfect as it could’ve been, and at the end we sent him home with a plate of food for his brothers.
We only saw the kids briefly the next day. Around 7:00 that night, Chris realized his iPhone was gone. Someone in the alley had reached through a hole in the window screen and grabbed the phone as it was charging on the sill. When we later logged onto ‘Find My iPhone’ to see where it had last been turned on, the GPS dot hovered squarely over the D Boys’ house.
The boys and their parents live on the upper floor of a duplex, so the phone could have been in the lower apartment. And GPS is far from perfect. Nonetheless, it hit us both hard in the gut. The idea that these kids would steal from us had us reeling with confusion and anger and something resembling regret.
For the next 24 hours, it was all we talked about: could the D Boys have stolen the phone? We didn’t fully trust Donald and D’Quon, but weren’t they too short to see into the window? Durrell was such a good guy that there was no way he could’ve done it—right? We didn’t know Derek, the oldest, well enough guess at his character, but he’d always seemed a little flaky.
I confronted them the next day, presenting the situation to Durrell as evenly as possible. But he just shook his head. “We don’t have it,” he said.
And that was that. There wasn’t enough evidence for us to call the cops, and we didn’t want to accuse the boys outright—or worse yet, talk to their parents—and then be wrong: it would’ve undoubtedly sullied our relationship with them, who might’ve felt targeted because they were black. That was the last message I wanted to send.
The next evening, my son and I came home from our garden plot and there were the younger boys on the stoop, animatedly chatting with Chris. I greeted them and walked inside.
Chris followed me in. “These kids didn’t do it,” he said in a low voice. “I don’t know how it got there, but they didn’t do it. They’d have to be sociopaths to do that and then be like this.”
Maybe. I didn’t know. We asked around the neighborhood but got no answers, and we never saw the phone again.
At times, I wonder why the kids’ perceptions matter so much to me—why I care so much about how my actions might affect them, and why I’m so determined to show them that I see them as individuals, not stereotypes.
I only started thinking seriously about race and the inequities around it since moving to this neighborhood four years ago, but maybe the seeds were planted long before. I remember my dad telling my siblings and me that “everyone is racist, even if they don’t realize it.” After one of my birthday parties, when a white friend had commented to the only black girl there, “You’re such a member of the group, Kim, I don’t even notice you’re black,” my father lectured me about how that wasn’t a good thing to say. Kim’s race was an essential part of her, he said, not something to overlook.
My dad grew up in Brooklyn and Long Island and played music and basketball with all kinds of people; he was comfortable in just about any setting, and didn’t look down on anyone, regardless of their race or income. He died when I was 13.
It’s hard to imagine that comments like those, from such a long time ago, might’ve deeply influenced me. But that’s how kids are, right? They imbibe the atmosphere that surrounds them, invisibly absorbing opinions and beliefs of people close to them.
So maybe my feelings about the D Boys stem from my dad’s lessons. Or maybe—as I more frequently believe—living in this neighborhood has simply opened my eyes to how deeply race and opportunity are linked in this country, and how profoundly unfair it is.
And seeing it makes me want to do something about it.
Over time, the issue of the phone receded from our minds. I think we just didn’t want to believe that the D Boys had taken it, so we stopped focusing on it.
By the end of June, Donald and D’Quon were coming over almost every day. Durrell and Derek were working summer jobs, but the younger boys had nothing to do once school was out, so they’d come by, angling for an invitation inside. Lounging on our stoop or couch, teasing our son and asking questions about our life, they could be a lot of fun, and we became comfortable with each other. I started thinking bigger: they’d never been hiking before, so I said I’d take them to Rock Creek Park, the vast forest in the middle of the city, later in the summer.
And I got better at enforcing limits. One day, after I’d explained why I hadn’t let them in earlier, Donald said with a rare sweet smile, “I know what you’re saying. You my best friend, Amanda.” My heart warmed.
But a week later, a For Sale sign went up in front of their house, and everything changed.
Donald and D’Quon dropped by that evening; I hadn’t seen them in days. They confirmed that the house was for sale.
“Are your parents worried?” I asked. I had a feeling they’d been renting the place.
“Yeah,” said Donald, adding that they might move to North Carolina, where their aunt lives.
“We gonna get a new house!” crowed D’Quon brightly, in the false way people do when they’re worried about something and pretending not to be.
That’s how they were the next few times we saw them: loud, boastful, annoying. They started doing this thing they’d done when we were first getting to know them: calling our names from just outside the house and then running away when we’d come to the door. It was like the relationship had completely regressed. I didn’t really mind, but it drove Chris batty.
One day when I was away, the boys did it again. Chris finally went outside to address them directly. “I don’t like you guys doing that,” he said. “We’ve always been nice to you, and you need to treat us respectfully. If you don’t like us, then don’t come around.”
“We don’t like you,” D’Quon responded. D’Quon, who’d once been so gentle.
“OK, fine,” said Chris angrily. “Then don’t come around.”
Chris stayed mad. As far as he was concerned, Donald and D’Quon were troublemakers and “future criminals,” as he put it. The phone? They’d most likely taken it, along with a couple of other small things that had gone missing from our house over the past month.
But I couldn’t be angry. I’d gotten attached to the boys, my spirits always lifting a little when I heard their voices near the house. Even if they’d stolen the phone and the other stuff, they were good kids at heart. A neighbor who works on children’s issues told me she thought they’d been in foster care at some point, and I could only guess at the fear and insecurity they must be feeling with their home at risk. They were acting out, pure and simple.
But that knowledge was useless to me. I didn’t have the skills or the access to work with them, and they didn’t want my help anyway. We’d become the enemy: people like us—young, white newcomers with access to money—were the reason their house was being sold.
In fact, Donald and D’Quon didn’t take the phone. We found out a few months later that Derek, the oldest, had been caught stealing several times; the police had even come to their house because of another iPhone he’d taken. It was him all along.
But it doesn’t really matter now. Little by little, our relationship with Donald and D’Quon has faded away. The house hasn’t sold yet and the boys are still around, but we only see them now and then on the street; we never went hiking. They’re nice to our son, but increasingly unfriendly to us. And they’ve begun hanging out with stone-throwing boys who live down the block.
I miss them, and I worry about what their lives will become. Durrell’s been identified as ‘gifted’; he’ll be OK. But I can imagine that Donald and D’Quon, with their often-surly attitudes, will get lost; gradually, teachers and neighbors and people in authority will write them off—like my husband did—as just two more black boys with behavior problems. Two more lost causes.
The gap between us yawns vaster than ever. And there’s nothing I can do to bridge it.
Photo by José Manuel Ríos Valiente