A black sedan with chrome rims and a rust-red bumper cruises by. Its bass thumps the beat of a hip-hop song I don’t recognize. I’m at Bad to the Bone Auto Shop and Accessories on 34th Street S, interviewing for a story about chrome car accessories.
“Liz,” calls a voice from behind, “why are you doing a story about chrome?”
A man who seems to be in his 40s walks toward me. He has a wiry frame and mocha eyes. He works at the carwash connected to the shop and must have overheard me talking with his fellow employees.
“What do you mean?”
He looks me in the eyes. “Why are you writing this story?”
I don’t know how to respond.
He leads me to a patch of shade. The air reeks of gasoline and hot metal. “You see that corner across the street? Go to that corner in the evening and you will find a woman there who is homeless. She has an infant child. Talk to her. She has a story.”
Walk around the neighborhood at dusk, he says, when the residents get off work and the streets buzz with life. The people who stay at the old motels, the prostitutes who walk the streets – they have stories. Chrome, he says, is not your story.
The man does not give me his name. Soon I will forget his face. But I do not forget his words.
That afternoon, I meet Arletha Jackson. She is at Bad to the Bone getting chrome added to the most chromed-out car I had ever seen. Arletha is 41 years old and a mother of five. From her neon fingernails to her gold chain-link necklaces, Arletha appears just as flashy as her car.
Arletha invites me to her home. What I thought was going to be a 15- minute interview lasts at least an hour. She told me more than the story of her car. She told me her story.
When I started reporting, I never guessed that I would meet someone like Arletha. She led me away from the shop and into her neighborhood. There I began to understand. For Arletha, it’s not just about chrome as a car accessory. It’s about pride, and behind that pride, anger. She wants the police to pull her over so she can prove she got her car the honest way.
Arletha lives in the “south side” of St. Petersburg, just a mile from Bad to the Bone. It’s a poor, mostly black neighborhood. I had read the stories in the newspaper. Shootings. Crime. Drugs. But I know there is more to this neighborhood than the crime it is known for. You rarely read those stories. I just want to learn and understand.
I grew up the bubble of an affluent suburb of Washington, DC. I went to Walt Whitman High School. Its nickname was “White-man.”
Mary, my colleague at Poynter’s summer journalism fellowship, wanted to write about a similar topic for her narrative – looking for stories in a supposedly “bad” part of the city. Mary grew up in a poor neighborhood in Seattle. She thought her background would make finding a story in a poor black community in St. Petersburg easy.
Although I met Arletha, I still want to go back at dusk to see if I can find the woman with the infant child. When I told Mary, her eyes lit up. “I’ll go back to that corner with you.”
We team up and go back to 34th Street South at dusk to look for the homeless woman with the infant. We park at Shirley’s Soul Food, three blocks south of Bad to the Bone. It is dusk; the sky is a swirl of orange and pink. As we walk, cameras slung around our necks, a man on a bike passes by. “God bless ya’ll,” he says in a southern twang. His voice is friendly, but I’m white in an all-black neighborhood and I’m nervous. What will the people who live here think of me?
Mary wants to get off the main drag and explore. I want to go, but I am hesitant. It’s getting dark. We detour into the neighborhood.
We walk half a block and a car approaches. It slows down as it passes. I feel the gaze of the passengers inside. I want to turn back and get onto 34th Street where there is more light, more people. Mary agrees. She wants to make sure I’m comfortable. Plus, she’s kind of scared, too.
We’re back on the main drag when a car pulls up next to us. The window rolls down. “Ay girl, come here,” says a voice from within the car. “Where your man at? Where can you make room for me in your life?”
Mary slips effortlessly into street slang. She lets him down easy. The car pulls away.
We walk to the corner across from Bad to the Bone. The homeless woman with the infant is not there.
I am surprised by the places the chrome story took me. Not only am I now well-versed in the aesthetic appeal of chrome rims and gas cap covers, but I also got a glimpse into the personal reasons behind one woman’s love of chrome. By leaving Bad to the Bone and hanging out on Arletha’s front stoop, a story that I thought was flat took on another dimension.
I know that not every story I write will be like this. But I don’t want to forget the nameless man at the carwash and his question – Why are you writing this story? Read more