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Singing the Barney Street Blues


Barney Street in Wilkes Barre – a rather long, straight and narrow road that connects Wood and Division Streets.

And, contrary to certain recent public announcements, full of noise, crime and filth.

Starting at the Division Street end, St. Al’s just took down their convent: one day it was there, the next, gone. There’s now a vacant lot topped with gravel. The houses between St. Al’s and Ferris’ delicious sandwich shop are mainly your typical Wilkes Barre double-blocks, a few of which are half-way houses of half-hearted effectiveness.

The empty plastic crack-bags and broken booze bottles on the tree-lawns can attest to that.

The other day two rats jumped out of a garbage container in my friend’s backyard. She screamed – nobody noticed. Screams are actually like white noise here – they provide a familiar background. Cops have visited here periodically, most recently a week ago when there were shots fired. Nothing in the news about it, either.

The houses here are a mix of individual owners doing their best to maintain their homes in a corroding neighborhood, and absentee landlords who really don’t give a damn as long as the rent checks are signed every month. Vacant lots and driveways are used as either dumping grounds for garbage or shade-tree mechanic areas, with any left-over car parts being strewn on the ground in readiness for the next project. A ratty old box spring leans lazily against a garage; a yard has cheap blue plastic tarpaulin tied to the chain-link fence, ostensibly to offer a bit of privacy.

Barney Street must be a convenient parallel route for drivers wishing to avoid the insanity of Carey Avenue, because much of that vehicular craziness is evident here at all hours. Japanese street bikes shriek past every hour on the hour, Harleys shake the plaster loose and every third car seems to be missing a muffler. Trucks add their own sweet notes to the symphony, creating an urban aria that cannot be escaped even with closed doors and blasting televisions.

Not to say they don’t try. It’s always much easier to turn a deaf ear than to take any sort of real action.

At the corner of Barney and Horton Streets, where the newly-rechristened CrisNic’s Irish Pub stands, we have our own local version of Russian Roulette, otherwise known as the Four-Way Stop. Any pedestrian attempting to cross this deadly intersection, in the midst of impatient drivers who never really studied their driving manuals, is taking a suicidal leap of both athletic ability and faith in a Higher Power. A sad little used-car operation sits on the opposite corner, offering two or three of yesterday’s cast-offs at today’s prices.

More houses, more chipped paint and sagging porches. Weeds all overgrown, the occasional collarless stray dog trotting at an angle down the sidewalk, giving wary glances and wide berth to passers-by. A car’s rear bumper is held on with a liberal application of duct tape. Other cars, tucked away in the far reaches of driveways, are too embarrassed to even show a license plate. A girl screams – again, no one seems interested in finding out why. Curses are heard every few houses along, in both English and Spanish. A fat orange tabby-cat spreads his bulk in a front window, watching the world go by with a look of smug superiority and disdain, as if to say “You stupid, stupid humans.”

He might be right.

A new pizza place has moved in – although I’ve heard they’re great I’m afraid to try them, as that would involve walking down a sidewalk filled with recycling bins overflowing with beer cans and bottles. Something might happen to tip those top-heavy containers over, and I’d be in a world of stale week-old beer. A house that was burgled not too long ago sits quietly, glaring at me accusingly.

I didn’t do it, I swear.

Quite a few “FOR SALE” signs. They’ve been there for a while. Zillow shows that the range of prices in this neighborhood is $39,000 – $97,000. They also predict a 0.9% increase in home prices here next year, as opposed to the decline predicted for Wilkes Barre in general.

That I’d like to see.

For $39,000 I could purchase six mobile homes in Florida’s Space Coast and rent them out at $550 a pop. I’d be in the black after only one year. The same could not be said for those Barney Street properties.

More houses … broken toys in the yard. A raggedy American flag making its last stand on a rough wooden porch-pole. A sheer blue sheet being used as a curtain in a front window. A squirrel, doubtless looking for a square meal, darts out in the street and is promptly struck by a speeding car with no muffler. The car keeps going; the squirrel does not.

Wood Street – the end of the ride. Please exit carefully and thank you for your visit. Come again!

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