Father Panik Village
The Wagon Magazine 2016 India
September 12, 2017
Father Panik Village in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the worst of the worst in the failed projects experiment was scheduled to be demolished and I wanted to see my old home one last time. It was gloomy then and gloomy still when I arrived. Razor wire fences across from Panik, for two long desolate blocks, were the closed factories that spewed their pollution into the river they faced were shuttered with large For Sale signs nailed to them.
The police had stopped patrolling it on a regular basis years earlier for fear of getting shot. There was no official gang but other gangs from different parts of town and other projects learned long ago not to enter. Drug sales took place in the open. Now the windows of the vacant units were boarded, graffiti was everywhere. I drove on to the parking lot where we huddled to shoot craps or play black jack. Good memories and bad
Yet the people who were being made to move protested about being thrown out of the only home some had ever known. Many were third generation Father Panik people. In the place of the ninety apartments the city was going to build ten small houses that would go by lottery to dispossessed families.
I drove the parameter and then cut through the side streets slowly seeing for the last time the ugliness of these three-story brick buildings once vibrant with kids playing and the aged and unemployed sitting around smoking and playing tonk for pennies. I saw the triangle of concrete where we held our wiffle ball games, and our kick the can tourneys but I heard that stopped when the drug dealers started claiming sections as their “offices”. I saw a young girl leaning against a building and I pulled to the curb. I walked over to her and said, “Hi. You’ve got to be the last person in Panik.”
I offered her a stick of gum. She took two and said, “One’s for later.”
“How come you’re still here? What are you fifteen, sixteen?”
“Fourteen and my man told me to stay here til he calls for me.”
“How long ago was that?
“Couple of days.”
She didn’t answer me but her look said yes.
“C’mon. We’ll go to the Hot Top Diner and get a good meal. Have you back in no time.”
She tentatively walked to my car and got in. I drove towards the diner when she said, “Ella.”
“My momma liked Ella Fitzgerald.”
“I’m Ben,” I said. “What would you like to eat? Hot Top okay?”
“No. No. He’ll be at the diner. I’d like a Happy Meal.”
We went through the drive-through and Ella didn’t order a Happy Meal. She asked if she could order extra for later and I said sure and she ordered enough for three grown-ups and ate fries all the way to the Seaside Park where I stopped the car facing the water and took out my own small bag of fries and a Coke.
“Do you live with your parents?” I asked her.
She didn’t answer.
“Where are you going to go when they bulldoze Panik?”
She shrugged and that’s how our meal went. I told her there were places that would take her in and send her to school. Places that were clean and she’d have friends and her own room but she didn’t respond.
Finally, she folded her bag and put it on the floor. “That was good, Mr. Ben, I still have enough for a good meal tonight.” I started the car. Ella slurped the last of one of her Coke and then reached over and put her hand on my crotch, grabbing the zipper with practiced hands.
I pushed her hands away. “Put your seat belt on,” I said.
She began to unbutton her blouse. “I’m woman enough for you.”
“Button up, that’s not why I bought you lunch.”
In the quiet we reached Panik and I stopped the car. “Here’s my phone number.” I gave her a business card. “Call me if you want to go to one of those nice places I told you about.”
“Listen,” she said. “Gimme twenty dollars, would you, or he’ll be angry. Please.”
I gave her two tens and she opened the car door. “Don’t forget your food,” I said and she took the bags and ran towards the building. I watched her holding them out as an offering, opening her arms wide to Panik as well as her man.
I drove off, my business card lying where Ella sat minutes ago.