My Neighborhood Gang
This is so weird. I am really confused. I went to sleep in my recliner in the kitchen. I believe it was Wednesday late afternoon or evening; I really don’t remember. I also don’t remember clearly that Candace worked that day, but I think so which would have made it Wednesday.
When I woke up I thought it was Thursday morning, about 6:30. I thought that I had slept the night in the recliner; I have done it many times before. I felt refreshed, rested. In fact, in deciding whether to go up to bed I opted for a cup of coffee and a roll with butter and jam. Then I went in and faced Facebook, exchanging a few messages and preparing to do some writing, for the first time in quite a while. Destined for Automythology. A small story I want to tell.
I kept waiting for it to get light outside in the belief that I had woken up very early Thursday morning. At 9:30 it was still dark dark outside and it began to dawn (actually not) on me that I had slept, but relatively briefly, and that it was really Wednesday evening. It is now 10:12 pm, 12/31/15 (computer time) and it never got brighter outside. And I am still in limbo, gradually acclimating myself to the fact that my psyche still doesn’t know what day it is. It’s not a bad feeling. Did the sun not come up? And I still feel good, with no hint of a feeling that I’m going to crash. I feel almost as if I had slept the clock around- 24 hours. I’m in Never-never land.
Now for the story. One of the reasons my third wife, Betsy, and I split up was the house. She wanted me to take two years and finish it so that it could be sold and we could move out in the country. Somewhere along the line someone remarked that I was married to this god damned house. Sounds absurd, but it’s more true than not. OCD on a monumental scale. At some time I had imagined this house as being an ongoing work of art, and (grandiosely) fancied it as being my masterpiece when finished. I even had a title for it: “A House in Time”, a very pregnant evocation. I had been working alone on the house off and on (mostly on) for about 10 years when Betsy left. Some deep part of me balked at this seemingly benign ultimatum and I did not, would not finish the house. So I stayed with the house and Betsy left. I did have paid help from time to time whenever it seemed necessary, but mostly I worked alone.
(A brief aside here: One of the men who helped me work in the house was a slight, elderly black man named Raymond Howard. We became close friends. One element to our bond was that we both intensely disliked his brother, Reginald. As a contractor, I had worked on Reginald’s house which was how I came to know Raymond. To make a long story, mercifully short: Reginald was an asshole. I had about the same reaction to him as I have (and had) for Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump: they give me the hives.
While working alongside me on the house, Raymond was a reliable, steady, hard and productive worker. It makes the work so much easier and the time flow by so smoothly when you’re with someone like Raymond. I don’t know how long he worked with me when, for reasons I don’t remember, I had a financial crisis; I was getting very short of money, though not quite going broke. It really hurt me to have to tell Raymond that I would have to lay him off. It wasn’t that he needed the money; I don’t think he did; he worked another job as well. He argued, insisting that I didn’t have to pay him, he wanted to keep on working with me because he enjoyed it. He said outright that he didn’t want the money. I did my usual stubborn pride thing and said that I couldn’t feel right letting him work without paying for it. We argued for some time, but I prevailed and we reluctantly parted company. Looking back twenty years or so on this gives me fresh pain. I had no concept then of my own ignorance. I refused to listen to him and understand the full message. I was just not sensitive enough. It’s taken me so very, very long to learn how to accept a gift freely given. I keep tripping over my own ego or whatever it is. It’s a false concept that is so destructive of relationships. I can’t say that I have fully learned my lesson yet.
Anyway, time passed, perhaps a year or less. I’m working alone again. There’s a knock at my door. It’s Reginald. He said he wanted to talk to me. I was reluctant to let him in, but I did. He beat around the bush for a while then said, “Raymond’s dead.” He died of lung cancer and he knew about it when I laid him off. He kept his silence on this issue. He was a very dignified man. He wanted to keep working with me because we were friends and that gave him something of what he needed to get through the time he had left as comfortably as possible. Reginald or no Reginald in front of me, I broke down crying. The sense of the larger picture came over me all at once with a lot of painful sadness. I still miss you, Raymond Howard, friend. I wish I had had the human sense to have been a better friend to you.)
Aside, aside. I’m working alone again. When we first moved here we rented an apartment halfway down the block and for four years before we moved into this house I put in a hard day’s work usually seven days a week. Curiously I finished much of the yard/garden first as an oasis, a place to take breaks and rest. However, I also spent a lot of time sitting on the front marble steps taking cigarette breaks. Newly here, I would smile at passersby as they approached and say good morning or good afternoon or whatever seemed appropriate. I did this maybe fifty times, maybe even a hundred and nobody returned my greeting. Not a howdy in the bunch, so I gradually stopped doing it and closed myself off. There was an exception to this that seems to exist universally. One finally learns that when someone on the street smiles, says hello, tries to shake your hand, the next thing that happens is that they ask for a cigarette or money. As I said, gradually- against my nature- I hardened off. Whenever I could I avoided contact with people on the street unless I knew them and I learned to dodge even some of them. I made no eye contact whenever I could help it. Nevertheless, I continued to take smoke breaks on the front steps. It’s a free country isn’t it?
One day a little black boy, maybe nine or ten years old, came timidly up to me. “This your house?” he asked politely.
I looked him over, sensing he wanted something.
“Yes,” I answered, with some reservation.
“You fixing it up yourself to live in?”
I nodded and said yes. There was a pause. He seemed to be struggling with something within himself. I was waiting to find out what he wanted.
Finally, it came out. “Do you have any nails,” he asked.
I said yes, wary of involvement.
He was being very polite in his hesitation. “Do you have any nails that you ain’t using, that you don’t need?”
I asked him why he wanted to know.
“Me and my friends, we’re building a tree house a couple blocks over. We got some wood from the empty houses. We need nails.”
“You’re a little young to be doing that. Isn’t it dangerous?” I was getting sucked in.
“A couple of the boys are older, bigger. But I’m not too small to learn how to do it. They got me to come ask you because I’m small. They was worried you’d be afraid if one of the bigger boys came.”
“What kind of nails do you need?”
“I don’t know. We figured you know more about that than we do.”
In truth he was a little gentleman. In spite of my reservations, I was won over. “You stay here”, I said. “I’ll see if I can get you what you’ll need.” In the basement I filled a coffee can with 6d, 8d, 10d and 12d common nails. It amounted to three or four pounds. When I brought them up and gave him the can his eyes lit up. Forgive the cliché, but that was the appearance. He smiled and thanked me more than he had to. Then he left.
Later that day when I came outside for a smoke, the boy was standing there quietly on the sidewalk. He obviously was waiting for me, but did not knock at the door. Nor did he sit on my steps. I suppose he might have thought it would have been discourteous.
I said, “Hi, you out of nails already.”
He seemed reluctant to answer. “No,” he said. ”But I need to ask another favor.”
Here it comes, I thought. “What is it?”
Meekly, he asked, ”Do have an extra hammer we could use? An old one. It doesn’t have to be very good. I promise we will bring it back when we’re done.”
I stared at him willing myself to say no, but the truth of the matter was that I had tons of hammers I’d probably never use. I get my materials from god, but he borrows my tools. I didn’t have whatever it takes to say no to him. “I said OK, wait a minute, I’ll see what I’ve got.”
In the basement I couldn’t bring myself to pick the worst one I had for him. I got him a decent hammer, not my best, and took it up to him. Again, his gratitude was effusive and seemed genuine. I was touched.
He lingered before leaving. Before thinking, I asked him if there was anything else he needed.
He dawdled, reluctant to speak without urging. I urged him. “What is it?”
“Promise you won’t get mad,” he asked.
“I don’t know. I’ll try not to. What do you want?”
“It’s my friends, see. They would like to meet you. Could they come along with me next time?”
Next time, I thought to myself. What am I getting myself into? What I actually said was, “I suppose that would be all right. Just knock on the door. When are they coming?”
“Actually”, he said. “They’re waiting around the corner to see what you would say.”
“Now?” I asked. “Right now?”
“If that’s ok with you.”
“Alright, but I don’t have long. I’ve got to get back to work.”
“Thank you,” he said and hurried around the corner at the end of the block. Almost immediately, he returned with five other boys around his age, none older, I would suppose, than twelve or thirteen. They gathered around him as he stood in front of me. They stood respectfully, silently for the most part. I said to the boy, “I don’t know your name.”
“Tom,” he said.
“Why don’t you introduce me to your friends, Tom? I’m Jack”
As he called out their names each stepped forward and shook my outstretched hand. I have to admit I was touched. Each of them said thank you and they all left together.
Tom came the next day with one of his friends. He knocked and I came to the door. “More nails? “ I asked. I was not being sarcastic.
“No,” he mumbled. “Not nails.”
“We’re out of boards. Do you have any you don’t need?”
“What kind of boards?”
“Could you please come and look for yourself? It won’t take long. It’s not far.”
“I don’t know, Tom. I’m kind of busy here myself.”
He said, “OK”, looking disappointed, but not arguing. “Thanks anyway.” They turned away and made it to the corner when I called them back.
“C’mon inside and show me what you think you need.” I knew that once I saw their project I would get even more involved and end up helping them build it. I’m like that. “Come on, both of you.”
My new lumber was mostly on the first floor. I led them upstairs to the second floor where I kept my salvaged lumber. I had pulled the nails from most of it, but it was generally pretty rough tongue-and- groove pine flooring which I was pretty sure was going to end up in the dumpster. “Will any of this suit you?” They tried to look enthused, but didn’t quite make it.
“What’s the matter,” I asked.
“It’s all different lengths.”
“Well, I’m not going to loan you a saw. It’s too dangerous.” Before I could stop myself, I said, “I can cut it for you. You’ll have to tell me what length.”
“How will we do that? We don’t have a measuring thing.”
I thought for a minute. “I’ll get you some string. You can cut it into the lengths you need. Do you have a pocket knife?”
“Are you kidding? No.”
“I’ll get you a single edge razor blade when I get the string. Why don’t you wait for me outside?” I’m always reluctant to let strangers inside my house, regardless of their age. Not paranoia; I’ve been burgled a couple of times- by employees. Call it enlightened self-interest.
They were back within the hour with three pieces of string. I dropped what I was doing and gave them my attention. I didn’t want to get sidetracked so often, but I had said I would do this for them and felt obligated to keep my word. I was more than a little sorry to have gotten involved, but what’s done was done.
Tom held up one of the pieces of string and said, “We need eleven of these.” He turned to his friend and asked if that was right. The other boy nodded. There were too many names for me to keep straight. Tom was the spokesman.
“And seven of these.”
“Whoa, wait a minute. Let me cut the first ones before you give me the next.”
My compound miter saw made quick work of them, one of the boys holding each long end as I manned the saw. I squared off both ends of each board and we stacked them leaning against a wall. “O.K. What’s next?” Tom handed me the second piece of string. “Seven, please.” We got those done and took on the last ones. Not too bad. Both of them were good, willing workers and they caught on quickly.
“You can’t carry all these in one trip, the two of you.”
“The others are waiting around the corner.” Why was I not surprised?
The next day they were back for more lumber and out of nails. They had an exact count of how many of each size they needed. I was losing my irritation and becoming curious. When I asked if they minded if I came over and took a look, they told me they’d rather I waited until it was done.
“You’re being careful, aren’t you? Not to hurt yourselves.”
“Yes, sir,” they said. “We’re being very careful.”
We went on like this- nails and boards- for about another week. Truth be told, it really didn’t take much of my time, but my interest was growing and their enthusiasm was contagious. Here I was, a white man fixing up a house to live in in a black ghetto neighborhood, not prejudiced, but feeling generally, uncomfortably prejudiced against. Trying to learn the rules, and abide by them. Realizing it’s hard to remain gruff and keep my distance, impossible even, when dealing with children like these..
Then came the day. “It’s done,” Tom said, handing me back my hammer and some left over nails. “We want you to come see it.” All the boys were present to escort me over there. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. It took us just a couple of minutes to get there.
My neighborhood is something like this: the parallel street to the east is largely gentrified, more established, cleaner and safer than my street. We bought this house on this street because we couldn’t afford to live there. Going to the west as we were, meant crossing over the frontier into a dystopian slum so forsaken most of the houses were boarded up or falling down or both. People dumped trash and garbage here with impunity.
In the back yard of a vacant house bordering an alley was a large mostly live Mulberry tree. In it was the boys’ tree house. It looked more sturdy than pretty, which was a plus. They had done a good job. They had literally reinvented carpentry as I am sure there was no one around to teach them. The architecture was unique, visionary, but apparently stable. Sure, there were a lot of bent-over nails, but nails are cheap and I know where they could get some more. It even had a roof of sorts, although a lot of light streamed between the boards.
“Congratulations. It looks good,” I said. “I bet it leaks.”
“Yeah, pretty bad.”
“I’ve got some roofing paper I can give you. That’ll fix it for a while. I’ve got roofing nails, too.”
They all said thanks. It made me feel good. Seeing their tree house made me feel good.
When they finished getting their roof on they all came over. They were there gathered on the sidewalk when I came out for a smoke. “Hi, guys. What’s up?”
They were fidgeting, acting bashful. Hardhearted me was sitting there wondering what they wanted me to give them next. I wasn’t totally out of the woods with my feelings yet. Curiously I still felt somewhat like a “lonely little petunia in an onion patch”, as the song goes. I had by then many times questioned the wisdom of moving here.
“What is it? What do you want now? You think it needs painting? I have some paint you can have and some brushes you can use. “
“No,” one of them said. “It’s good as it is. You done enough and we just came to thank you.” They were clearly ill at ease, squirming.
“Well, what is it? What do you want?”
Tom, the spokesman, broke the ice. “We just wondered . . . could we hug you?”
I almost broke down crying. “Sure,” I said. “I’d like that.”
And that’s what they did, all at once, all six of them