When we arrived at our Good Neighbor Weekend assignment, I thought “good, I can’t mess this up.” You see, I am not good with my hands. Tools–what are they? I was dubiously anticipating the Saturday morning with my wife, son, his wife, their kids, maybe all looking to me as the patriarch. Wow! How was I going to show them, and what? To set an example for them? I was thinking I would not participate next year.
As it turned out, while most of our team was assigned to clean and repair a playground, all my family had to do was work on a vacant lot half-a-block away. There was trash, some deep ruts caused by a vehicle that had bounced over the sidewalk into the grass, and more grass growing along and over the sidewalk, in the cracks, and in the gutter in the street running by the sidewalk. I was relieved. Not much wrong I could do here. The lot was vacant because the houses, whose tenants were the infamous Outlaws Gang, were leveled after the gang was broken up by the F.B.I. a few years ago. We were told to be cautious about needles and metal obscured in the grass.
Then, the work began; three hours of shoveling, scraping, digging, scooping, pulling, edging, spraying, picking, tamping, cutting, and whatever other verbs go with grass at a vacant lot in the inner city. All six of us toiled in the hot, humid morning. Our pale white cheeks turned ruddy, with sweat pouring down our faces and soaking our shirts. Those laborers in the various environments who have to work outside every day. . . another wow!
Some who drove by noticed. They knew we didn’t belong there but also knew we were up to good. A few greeted with honks and thumbs up. We waved and smiled. One young man dangerously sped down the alley, causing my 6-year-old grandson to run away from where he was standing. I was angry as I wondered why the driver would do that. Another guy driving a beat-up pickup truck east on New York Street leaned on his horn as he passed by the vacant lot because the car in front of him slowed (suddenly to turn down that same alley). My 8-year old granddaughter wondered why he seemed so angry.
One (only one) neighbor came by. As first, I was a little nervous when he said “what’cha doing?” without much of a smile. After I told him, he smiled as he both thanked us and wondered out loud where the neighbors were. I told him I was Terry, and he offered a handshake as he said “Jerry.” A little while later, he was picking branches up for his compost pile and dragging them home. He returned and joined our efforts for about an hour.
Jerry was white, in what appeared to be an African-American neighborhood. He apologized for his missing neighbors, pointing out that most of them were “renters — not to say anything bad about them.” He volunteered that he’s a grandfather too, and that if he knew we were going to be doing this, he would have had his granddaughters there. Really wanting to know why he lived there, I instead asked him how long he had lived near the intersection of New York and Jefferson Avenue. “I’ve lived in this neighborhood all my life” he said, as I realized that it was the neighborhood that changed, not him.
When my granddaughter and I walked back to the car, we both saw the sign in a window of a run-down house: “NO TRESPASSING. Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.” I wondered what she thought, then wondered what I thought.
It was just a vacant lot, but we worked on it. There was nothing to mess up, but we worked hard. Today, my muscles are sore, but it’s a good sore. The lot looks better but it still needs work.
I have many pictures of my grandchildren stored on my phone, many of them as they said “cheese” in happy times; however, I think my favorites are the ones I took yesterday at the vacant lot, as they were actually using shovels and brooms, tired, sweat dripping, but their expressions conveying more happiness than saying cheese as we all tried to be good neighbors.
I’m thinking, that lot does look better, but someone knew it was not it that needed more work, it was me. Thank you, Lord.