An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

June 21, 2011

42nd Street

This past May marked a minor anniversary for me, one I did not at first remember.  It was 30 years ago that two of my friends and I signed our first lease.  I was 20 years old and no longer relying on my parents (at least not entirely) or the university's housing system for a place to live, it was one of those steps taken to reach adulthood.  The house we found was within a few minutes walk to school in what might be referred to as one of Norfolk's transitional neighborhoods, of which there are still many.  It was a small bungalow with three bedrooms, one for each of us, and the rent was very affordable, even at 1981 prices of only $300 per month for the whole place.  The house had a roomy front porch and sat on a large-for-the-area double lot where mature azaleas, camellias, dogwoods and figs grew sheltered by huge oaks and sweetgums.  It was an ideal yard for beer fueled parties.

We rented the house from an elderly woman named Loretta Zoby; she and her late husband had it built and raised two sons there.  My first conversation with her on the phone was a long one, but it was quickly clear how much she loved her house and how unhappy she was to not be living there.  She said she was anxious for us to see it, and also anxious for young men to rent it, not young women.  After seeing the house we soon signed the lease, even though the place had a few quirks.  One of which was security bars on all the windows, not uncommon in some places, but it was a first for me.  The house also had several small silver saint medallions nailed to each interior window and door frame.  On the walls hung Holy Mother icons, several chained crosses were left in the house, and an out of date calendar with a very graphic picture of Jesus parting his chest to reveal the Sacred Heart was hanging in the kitchen.  Mrs. Zoby asked me to leave all of this, and I said that I would, even though to this boy raised as a no-frills Protestant, they were as foreign to me as prayer rugs, menorahs and statues of the Buddha.

About two months after we moved in we could have used some of the portecion Mrs. Zoby thought the house needed.  We came home to find the back door knocked off its hinges and our television, stereo equipment and a moped missing.  We suspected our neighbor who we knew as a harmless drunk, but he ran with a younger, less impaired crowd who were not above a little breaking and entering.  We tried to get out of our lease after that, but Mrs. Zoby's son, who handled all the business details, would not let us.  In talking with her after the incident, Mrs. Zoby reluctantly told me that before she moved out, the men next door would pull their cars into the yard at night, headlights aiming at her bedroom window, yelling at and taunting her lewdly.  I could only imagine how frightened she must have been.  Using the break-in as leverage, we were able to persuade Mrs. Zoby's son to change the lease and let us get a guard dog.  We ended up with two young puppies and a kitten instead, not an ideal crime preventing trio, at least not at that age.

Over the Christmas holiday I had the house to myself.  Out partying with friends one night, I came home to find a very scared puppy and a house that had been robbed yet again, but at least there had been less stuff to be stolen.  This time we were allowed to break the lease without penalty.  We soon found an apartment further from campus, but in a much safer neighborhood.  A few years later I learned that Mrs. Zoby's house on 42nd Street had caught fire and had to be torn down.  I drove by later to look at the spot, and all that was left were front steps leading to nowhere.  Today the site sits under a parking garage for the university's new convocation center. 

I have lately been thinking a lot about that old house, and where I was in my life when I lived there.   What has prompted all these memories are recent local headlines.  In May of this year at another house on 42nd Street, one block east of where I once lived, a young man by the name of Chris Cummings witnessed two people brandishing a gun trying to enter his home .  He was able to startle them into fleeing.  His parents of course urged him immediately to move.  On June 10th the same house was the scene of a double shooting.  Chris and his roomate Jake Carey were shot during the early morning hours; their other roommates were not home.  Jake was seriously injured, though survived, but Chris was pronounced dead at the scene.  By the accounts I have read and from the interviews I have seen on television, 20 year old Chris Cummings was an outgoing guy, fraternity member, had a large group of friends, volunteered at a local homeless agency and was studying criminal science.  His uncle is Elijah Cummings, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Maryland, who is also active on gun control issues.  Like the death of any young person, it makes you wonder what they would have brought to the world's table if given more time.

42nd St.

Unfortunately murder is not uncommon news in this area, but it is no different here then any other large American city, some may be worse and others better.  These local stories usually catch my attention, but I don't normally respond to them the way I did with this.  It's just that this one took place a short walk away, three decades apart and too close to home.


  1. Your story of the house and death is very moving. Sad so sad. What you say about all the "unknown" hopes and dreams that that young man could have brought to the Earth will never be known. How very sad. What potential lost - forever. I write another Blog on subjects like this and other things that move through my mind. At present I keep that Blog private until I have more postings and a larger archive of my thoughts and poetry. We are on the same page here. Jack

  2. A very thoughtful post. I live in VB and have been reading your blog for two years. I enjoy it tremendously. This is my first comment. (I'm sorry.) This story is a real tragedy and we grieve for the Cummings family. You have written of this tragedy in a compelling way. My son went to college in the inner city of LA, yet felt safe. Something really needs to be done about campus security at ODU.

  3. Sounds like despite all of Norfolk's and ODU's expenditures in the neighborhood, the reality on the street hasn't changed since you lived there. Sad.

  4. What's wrong with people? I've kind of been living in the early 1900s doing some research lately, and when I tune back into today's world, what I find seems all the more shocking.

  5. I visited the 42nd Street house of yours twice when you lived there. The first time you had been there a few months and it was relatively furnished. The next time I visited, there was a refrigerator, three cinderblocks, a turntable with no stereo, a bed, part of a night stand, a 2 x 4 by the door and a sofa with two dogs on it. i was really hoping you were planning to abandon your Galaxie 500 in the yard as a planter before you left.
    I also remember the joint at Folly Beach. That would also make an excellent blog post. It had a wolverine in the basement if I remember correctly.

  6. Very moved by your post. What a loss that young man is and so pointless. So tragic for his family.

  7. Your account of this recent tragedy prefaced by a very similar experience of your youth was poignant and unforgettable. It is repeated much too often across this land. What is the solution?

  8. Oh boy. :( Do they have any leads on the killers?

  9. Jack,
    Thanks for taking the time to comment. It's beyond tragic when someone on that age dies from an accident or from some horrible illness, but when their life is taken from them, that is different.

    Thank you for following along, I really appreciate it. There is no need to apologize for not commenting, I do it all the time with other sites. My son is just 13, but it seems like more and more we are sending him out into the world on his own. Scary times.

    I wish it was a work of fiction.

    Mr. Powers,
    No, things have not changed. Just the other night there was a fire alarm sounded in one of the new dorms in University Village. A student waiting outside with his girlfriend for the all-clear was knocked over the head so his lap top could be stolen. Fortunately the perpetrators were immediately arrested.

    I spend a fair amount of time daydreaming about other ages. When I compare what could happen to a person then vs. now, more and more then looks like a better option.

    I hope you know how much I appreciate your perspective.

    You are entirely right.

    I wish I knew the solution. There has to be something beyond arming ourselves, avoiding going outside, living in fortresses or increasing security to the point we are living without some of the freedoms we have become accustomed to.

    Nothing yet, at least they are not saying anything.


  10. How very tragic. I always hate to hear of young people or anyone losing his or her life too soon. It sounds like the 42nd street neighborhood is a bad bad neighborhood. Such a pity. Mrs. Zoby must have indeed been paralyzed with fear. How terribly awful.

  11. morning Les, what a tragic story. I like Elijah Cummings, sorry for his family's loss. There has been a lot of crime near the campus over the last few years. As a parent I would not want my kids living there.
    I enjoyed your account of the old house and all the religious symbols at each doorway.

  12. This story moved me a lot Les. Unfortunately many people don't have the discipline to control emotions, anger and negative feelings with victims as a sad result. The most difficult test for mankind is control and analysis of emotions and the mind.
    Impressive story, thanks for sharing it!

  13. Les, I enjoyed (is that the right word?) the story from your youth but share everyone's sadness at the senseless loss.

    I don't however, think that things where better in the "good old days".

  14. Hi Les, This is a very sad and moving post. I bet that young man's family is devastated. It is easy to see how this shooting must effect you as the circumstances are not unlike those of your college days.

  15. Les, we happened to be visiting my mom in VB when this story was the lead every night on the local news. Sad to say from personal experience that things haven't changed much at all and certainly none for the better in certain sections of Norfolk in the past 50 years or so except under a bulldozer's blade and I see nothing to make me think anything's being done to change that. My wife and I were so relieved when our daughter decided against attending ODU in favor of schools in safer locales.

  16. I don't think this post is "way off." It is a lovely commemoration of a young man and you write brilliant profiles here. I was heartened to see the bouquets on the steps.
    -- Georgia

  17. Tina,
    I feel safe walking or biking through there during the day time, but you would not catch me on foot or on pedal at night.

    It has always been crime ridden. I think the crooks take the kids as an easy mark, and I think the kids are too ditracted by their own life to take a moment to look over their shoulder. It is a sad situation. BTW, the Va. Pilot picked up my article and published it last Sunday.

    What you said is so true, for so many people. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    I agree with you about the good old days. I think things were likely no worse, it is just that we did not hear about everything.

    There was an article in the paper last week about his family and the ordeal of having to clean out his things from the house. I can not imagine.

    I think when the bulldozers get busy, it just moves the crime to somewhere else. That is kind of what has happened to the area where the shooting took place.

    Thanks for stopping by. The bouquets arrived the day before I took this shot, and though I had my camera, I could not take a picture as his blood was still on the white front door. It was too real for me to shoot. By the next day it had been cleaned.


  18. Les, it's a sad tale indeed. You do a wonderful job of writing — i can picture the events through your words. It is always interesting to think back to those times when we all more trust and less experience.