The small white house next to ours sits very near, maybe 10 or 12 feet away. It is owned by a black family, and various members of that extended family have dwelt there for the 15 years we have been in our house.
When we first moved in there was a young woman with two small children living there. She was very sweet, and our children played well together. After a few years, though, she decided to move back to Canton, closer to her job and friends.
Then Sherri moved in. She was in her fifties, and very quiet. Indeed, I felt sorry for her, living so close to our often raucous home. The only frequent visitor was her boyfriend, Steady Freddy (“I’m Steady Freddy and I’m always ready”). Freddy was a large and genial man, who liked to josh around with our kids. “Lukas, my man, how you doin’ ?” he’d say to five-year old Luke, who always grinned back at him. The only other person we ever saw there was the guy, reputedly a brother from Cincinnati, who once a summer would come up to trim her bushes and do other chores for her. I never got a good look at him, but at night he would sit on the porch and talk on the phone, and about every other word was a cuss word of the worst sort. I am not a prig, but that is not the best background ambiance for a house full of small children.
Sherri had diabetes, and eventually had a toe amputated. The steep stairs in the house became too much for her, and she had to move out.
The house sat vacant for a long while.
Then, a couple of springs ago, a middle aged black man appeared, and it looked like he was going to move in. I began to fret: was this the brother? Was this the beginning of trouble?
When I next saw him I introduced myself. He said his name was Bill, and we shook hands.
The night after he moved in there were people coming and going all night, slamming car doors and talking loudly, waking us frequently.
Oh no. Was this what life was going to be like?
When I came home from work, tired from the lack of sleep, I was greeted by a small child, eager to tell me that Bill had smoked a joint with my then-18 year old son. I groaned, and said that I would go over and talk to him.
My older sons thought this a horrid idea. They always react like this when I approach someone directly when I have a problem with them, which is how I deal with things. I don’t act confrontational, am as conciliatory as I can be, but I don’t evade the problem either. My older kids, who tend to be paranoid, are always sure I am going to get myself killed, like when I walked next door the morning after the drunken neighbor had reacted to my request to turn his music down so I could get my small children to bed by loudly cursing and berating me, my bride, our kids, and all our doings, even after I had walked away. He did not shut up, but went on until the people across the street called the police.
The next day, ignoring the pleas of my older sons, I took a couple of beers and walked next door. Aaron came to the door looking guarded, but walked onto the porch and accepted the beer I offered. I began by telling him that it was not I who had called the cops and apologizing for anything we or our kids had ever done to offend him, for my children going into his yard (one of his many complaints), and saying that he must have had a bad day, as he had never reacted like that before when I had asked him to turn down the music.
As I talked, he gradually seemed to relax. He said that yes, he had had a very bad day at work and really needed to unwind that night. He eventually apologized and we parted with a handshake. We have never had a harsh word since, and I use this as a teaching moment, to show my hothead sons that if I had responded with anger we would have had an enemy for life.
This is but one example of the many times I have averted enmity by directly approaching someone I had a problem with. It doesn’t always end in reconciliation, but it has never made things worse, even when I approached the man who almost certainly had intruded into my home in the middle of the night. I simply walked into the barbershop where he worked and asked him about it. He denied it, convincingly, even though he had been positively identified after pushing his way into the house next door moments before I awoke to find a shadowy figure in my bedroom doorway. We did not part friends, but he has not shown his face on our street since.
Despite this history, my thick-headed sons thought I was crazy to talk to Bill.
But I went next door. I said that I was told that he had smoked pot with my son, which he acknowledged. I told him that that was a poor way to begin a neighborly relationship. He said he was sorry, that he smoked with his son, and thought it was okay. No, I replied, it was not okay; we did not think pot had been good for our boy and tried to discourage him from using it.
Bill apologized, and promised it wouldn’t happen again. I was impressed that at least he was not confrontational or hostile, that he seemed to want to get along.
A few days later a puppy ran up to me when I walked out the door. It was a pit bull, and it was running free.
The dog belonged to Bill.
I realize that some people -not least, my daughter Maria- think that judging dogs by their breed is akin to racism, and think it unfair. I respond that as a mailman I have direct experience with a lot of dogs and can testify that breed does matter, that dogs who belong to breeds with a reputation for aggression are in fact generally more aggressive. This does not mean that there are not black labs and golden retrievers who will attack you; I have had both try to bite me. But it is always a surprise when they do, while it is utterly predictable when a rottweiler or a pit bull does so. Add the fact that overly aggressive guys gravitate to breeds with a reputation and then train their dogs to be mean, and you have a bad situation.
So I was concerned, even if Maria wasn’t. But how to approach him?
After some thought I realized that I could present it as just a neighborly concern.
A few years back we had a golden retriever. Not to go into it, but she died just before her second birthday, which before the deaths of both of their grandmothers within a few days of each other had been the worst tragedy my children had ever experienced.
When Rosie was just beginning to be housebroken my bride had a baby and two other small children in the house, and could not always drop everything and take Rosie out when she started whining at the front door. So she would let the dog outside, then call her in vain as Rosie followed her nose around the neighborhood, coming home when she was bored or hungry.
One day, disobeying Michelle calling her name, Rosie ventured to a house at the end of the block, into which a new couple had recently moved. When the woman saw the puppy she came out, and instead of doing the neighborly thing and bringing her home, tied the dog up, and called the dog pound. I arrived home from work just as the animal control officer was hauling Rosie to his truck. He gave the dog to me, but he also gave me two tickets, one for failure to control the pup, and one because she did not have a license. I did not think this a big deal until I called the court and learned that the fines came to over $200. In court I got the “failure to control” ticket dropped, as the officer had told me the woman had tied Rosie up, but the $100 was a big chunk of money, right before Christmas. (One of my prouder moments as a father was when, a year or so later, the woman’s new puppy wandered into our yard and thirteen year old Patric, Rosie’s master, took it back down the street and said, when asked, that it didn’t even occur to him to call the pound).
So I went next door and told Bill that if he left his dog untethered and she went into that neighbor’s yard he could get stuck with a big fine. He thanked me, and said he would take care of it. I still wasn’t thrilled with having a pit bull next door, but felt better at his promise to not let it wander freely.
I never saw the dog again. A week or so later, Bill gestured me over. “I heard what you were saying, Daniel. You don’t want a pit bull next door with small children. I gave that dog to my cousin.”
I was amazed; I had said no such thing, had merely offered Bill strategic “friendly advice”.
This man was very perceptive. And he really wanted to be a good neighbor.
After that Bill and I talked a lot; he was often sitting on the porch as I arrived home from work and I would generally visit with him.
He eventually began talking about his life. He was the eldest of nine children, and Sherri was his cousin. His parents, the owners of the house, were churchgoing folks and had been married for fifty years. Hearing this, I was surprised, then ashamed that I was surprised. I realized that I harbored residual racism, that I had made assumptions about Bill based on generalizations and statistics, instead of seeing him as a unique individual.
And Bill told me more, about how his own life had not been as stable as his father’s. He had gone to Ohio State after high school, but dropped out after the first year, having partied too much. He had been in various sorts of unspecified trouble.
But he loved his parents and admired his father tremendously.
And he admired me, saying that I reminded him of his father: “Man, I see you going out to work hard every day for your kids and I see my Dad. You cool, man.”
When I got to know him better he confided in me that he had a hard time finding good work because he had a felony conviction for assault.
Bill had been married (“Daniel, I worshiped the ground that woman walked on”) and one time came home early to find his wife in bed with another man. He exploded, and beat the guy within an inch of his life. For this he served nine years in the state prison.
I thought this a harsh sentence for what is the most understandable of offenses. Even though he had hinted that this was not his only run-in with the law, I found it hard to believe that an affluent white man, or even a working class one, would have received such a sentence for that crime, regardless of his record. I was suspicious: what was the jury like? Bill said that there was no jury. It was a trial with just a judge.
There are no black judges in Stark County.
Once there was a knock on the door. Bill, looking sheepish, asked if he could borrow ten dollars until his check came in a few days. I believe, as Christ taught, that we are to give to anyone who asks, but I too was a few days from payday and literally had nothing to give. I apologized and felt bad that I couldn’t help him.
One day when I came home Bill was outside with a younger man and called me over.
“Daniel, this is my nephew James. James, I want you to meet Daniel. He’s the hardest working motherfucker in Massillon.”
I don’t recall ever being so honored by a compliment.
But he went on: “Look at him, James. That man is sixty years old. Man, I hope I look that good at sixty.”
I pointed out that Bill was a youthful looking fifty, and James said “Yeah, man, black don’t crack.”
Bill took good neighborliness seriously. Once, when a teenage boy from a rental house that no one ever stays long in was taking pot shots with a pellet gun at a neighboring home, Bill confronted him. I don’t know what he said to him, but that kid never showed his face outside again before his family moved, a few weeks later.
And as this is not a large town, and the barber/intruder is also black, Bill was acquainted with him, though he did not think highly of him. When the barber learned where Bill was living he began to berate me, accusing me of being a racist.
Bill responded that I was no racist and told the man that if he messed with me he would kick his ass.
Bill was becoming the guardian of Third Street, keeping vigil on his porch.
One night last spring when I came home from work Bill was pacing in front of his house. He appeared distraught.
I walked up to him and asked him what was wrong. He said that his mom was in the hospital after a stroke and he didn’t know if she would make it, and that Sherri had just died (I later ran into Steady Freddy and was told that this was not true, and that Sherri was fine; I don’t know why Bill thought that, though he was probably stoned). Further, his girlfriend had just broken up with him. Finally, he said that he was going to lose the house; the sporadic and low-paying work that he did, which was all he could find, could not pay the bills.
“Man”, he said, ” I am thinking about getting a gun and turning back to my old ways, just taking what I want.”
I asked him how his mother and father would feel if he did that, and he acknowledged that it would break their hearts.
And I asked him if he wanted to go back to jail.
“No, man, I sure don’t. But I don’t know what to do. I’m hungry. Maybe I’ll go downtown and panhandle enough to eat.”
Fortunately this time I was in better shape to help. I took out my wallet and handed him a twenty, telling him that maybe this would tide him over until things got better.
He was clearly moved by this and thanked me profusely. Then he put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye.
“I love you, Daniel”, he said, then turned and walked down the street.
And that was the last I saw him.
I was surprised at this turn of events; when he said he was losing the house I figured it would take weeks or even months, not that he was leaving that day.
A couple of months after he walked away I had a dream.
I had come home from work and there was Bill, sitting on his porch like he used to do. The house had been freshly painted and Bill was well dressed and looked healthy. He told me that while he had indeed lost the house he was well and that I should not worry.
I know that dreams can be many things, including wishful thinking, but I hope that this one was more than that.
Pray for Bill, my friend.