The next day, I opened the curtains. I sat on the porch at regular intervals and watched. Allying my fears about where we had decided to stay while we fix up our new forever home.
The quickest way to disarm people who don't like strangers invading their neighborhoods is to look them in the eye and acknowledge their existence. It's worked for us over the past six weeks. We aren't trying to change them, or the neighborhood.
While that first night might have made us feel the fear that seems to be so pervasive in so many places, it has been replaced with reminders of where I grew up. Another neighborhood that still struggles with identity, one side fearful of the other.
On my way out soon after, I turned from the street to lock the front door. There, I noticed a note sticking out of the mailbox. Written on a piece of paper from a steno pad. It said:
(our neighbor's nickname)
I'm not invested in this neighborhood. But I am aware of how pain must play a part in most of the lives around us. Our guitar-picking neighbor who wrote the note, always says hello, sometimes rescues cats, and seems to have a number of friends. And now he reaches out to my husband to thank him, but we don't know why.
Others, it seems, attempt to numb the creasing, searing set of their jaws. The woman across the street is a case in point. She is severely bow-legged, her back dipped down into the pain of a thin frame on an unusual body, and she grabs for a seat any time she can. Her eyes hide behind big-framed glasses and when she talks, I think of the old men in Goldie's Saloon down the street from where I grew up. The sound of her voice like too many cigarettes, too much booze and a frog croaking on a hot summer night.
A tall, thin man leans against a fence most days on the same side of the street as me. He folds his long arms over his skin-to-bone torso. His hair is long and pulled into a pony tail, exposing a jaw line exact and somewhat sad. He reminds me of the man who lived next door to us when I was a teenager. That man came back from service in the sixties and grew his hair long as a protest against the Vietnam war. He had a reputation as the biggest drug dealer in Northern Kentucky. I never got my drugs from him. But he had a peaceful look that often made me feel safe.
Across the street from my temporary home, a life-size statue of Jesus has been employed as a sentry. His left hand is fixed on an exposed, radiating heart. His right hand raised with pointer and middle finger directing attention upward as a reminder that if only you would look beyond the every day of your existence you might begin to hope. While this Jesus is faded from weather, smirked at by those of us who divorced ourselves from organized religion; he resembles the Jesus who still stands in vibrant color in the church of my hometown.
Then there is the man who died. I watched him for weeks, fascinated by the Rat-Pack stature, the Just-For-Men pompadour, and turned up collar of a golf shirt. He'd dance across the street at least once a day to talk to the guardian of the neighborhood, a man who lives peacefully with his wife of forty years. The Dean Martin look alike seemed to sing with every movement.
It still astounds me, two weeks after his death when the ambulance showed up, that it wasn't for his aging mother. I hear that he lay on the floor with blood coming out of his mouth. Two women yelled from the porch to call the squad. Now his mother sits alone, head bent, unaware of Jesus just a few houses away.
But the one who gets to me the most is the young man who's face reminds me of some romantic notion of a ship's captain. His gnarled and compromised body is supported by a grocery cart with a trash can in it. The young man's arms stabilize him on the edge of the large, green can, filled with plastic bags full of empty pop cans.
I got a good look at him yesterday, his legs no bigger around than a child's baseball bat, knees at near right angles. I wonder if they were ever straight legs. His feet hide in construction boots, untied, and clopping along reminding me of the sound of horse hooves. His feet point in opposite directions from one another.
What sort of pain does he live with and why? He reminds me of a young man in my hometown, long ago. He didn't need a makeshift walker, the souls of his shoes worn in odd places because of his disfigured stride. I'd watch him, too. Mystified by his struggle to be normal, like the crowd he ran with. The captain of my temporary, transitional neighborhood walks alone, manages his grocery cart-trash can walker and talks into his cellphone, while steering himself with his free hand.
When I sit on the porch of my temporary home and think of the new home I'll be moving into soon, I harbor no ill will toward anyone who thinks I am better than them, or their neighborhood. You see, we all live with pain, physical and otherwise.
I am reminded today of the time I walked out of my front yard with my mother. I was sixteen. We were on our way to the grocery when we discovered the drunk in the gutter, a product of Goldie's Saloon. He was one I avoided regularly. His wiry frame as thin as the wispy hair on his head. My mother stooped down, talked to the man for a moment, and then gathered him up and set him on the curb. While I stood ashamed of her willingness to get into the gutter, she straightened and muttered, "There but for the grace of God go I."