Saturday, April 24, 2010

Green Thumbs

It may not have been the nicest day for a neighborhood clean-up, but that didn't deter the nicest people from coming out to lend a hand.

Here are several of us, tending our little corner garden, which now features transplanted perennials from five different backyards. It also showcases the handiwork of some pretty tiny hands, including those of two-year-old Cora (not pictured), who kept begging me, "Please find me a worm. I like to hold him."

Alas, there were no worms to be found today, at least in our little garden bed. But there were troops of good neighbors, all doing their part to pick up litter, dig out dandelions, spread mulch, prune hedges, and encourage their little ones to join the effort. We even got a visit from the alderman. And when our cantankerous neighbor Marcelino came out to join the action, then told me I had a certain "vintage homeless" look, well, that took me over the moon.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Why We Volunteer

Some highlights from Sunday night's neighborhood potluck:

- Over 50 old friends and new neighbors, sharing a meal and conversation in the basement of our local Catholic school

- Kids doing gymnastics on the small stage in back of the room. Only one split lip, not a single tear

- Dave's cheesy grits!

- A karate demonstration by twenty young people who attend the storefront martial arts school on the corner

- Three adorable girls from the demo (including my favorite, far right with red belt) charitably complimenting my Spanish

- Learning that Tim and Conor, our sweet new neighbors up the street, will soon house backyard chickens

- The debut of babies Eli and Eddie

- At least 20 people, many of whom we met for the first time, staying late to help clean up

- The agreeable Irish nun who came to our rescue when the door didn't lock behind us (as we'd been promised) and fearing we'd have to camp out all night to ensure no one burglarized the building

- Laughter, connections made, and outpourings of gratitude from neighbors

I used to rail against volunteer work on principle. 'Labor should be compensated!' I'd say. And it continues to bother me beyond expression that social services have increasingly shifted to unpaid sectors of American culture. All that said, I have to declare with certainty: Sunday night's work was compensated labor.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Door to Door

One night last week around dinner time, our doorbell rang. It was a sweet young guy in a button-down shirt and one of those messenger bags with a seatbelt around the shoulder. He was canvassing for the ASPCA.

"Did you know that every year [x] thousand dogs lose their lives to barbaric dogfighting rings?" he recited from his script. "Another [x] thousand face unspeakable abuses in puppy mills and illegal breeding facilities."

"Sorry," I said, pushing Inez back away from the doorway. "I should probably stop you right there. We support what you do, but we don't keep cash on hand, so if you could give me something we could read over, we'd certainly consider mailing in a donation."

"Um, we're actually working really hard to get donations tonight," he said. "This is the only night we're in your area, and anything you can give would make a difference." He explained that they took checks and credit cards and urged us to consider a contribution right then and there, because the money could be put to immediate use.

This was a method I remembered from my telemarketing days: Never take no for an answer; push and push until you either wear them down or they hang up on you. I used to long for folks to hang up on me.

I sensed he felt the same: Please, I heard him thinking. Give me a contribution or slam the door in my face. Just put me out of my misery.

This, I realized, is the story of our economy: A young, educated guy, a likely casualty of layoffs at his company, taking whatever he can get to get his rent paid. It forces you to recognize what's happening to those with more significant barriers to employment. They're stuck with what's leftover, which could easily mean a long stretch of nothing, or turning to the underground economy. It's a sad and unsustainable situation with costs that haven't even begun to be tallied.

What I said to our canvasser was, "I'm sorry. We're just not comfortable giving a check or credit card at the door. I promise we'll check the website and see how we can contribute."

What I wish I had said was this:

- People have been scammed on this block repeatedly the last few months. The probability of our neighbors giving money to a stranger are painfully low.

- Why did they send you here tonight? Do they know there have been shootings and robberies? Why didn't they send you out with a buddy? Why did they send you after dark?

- The folks on this block are struggling in ways you can't imagine. Wouldn't they want to send you to areas with deeper pockets, where people aren't straining to pay their own bills month to month?

- You seem like a really sweet kid. Hang in there. I have to believe you're going to land on your feet.

Just before I left, I told him I knew he probably had a quota to make for tonight, and I was honestly sorry I wouldn't be able to help him make a dent.

"It's true," he said, springing down the steps to the next household, undeterred. "I do have a quota. But I just want to say this is a cause I actually believe in, so I really appreciate your support."

And with that, I wish I'd opened my wallet and showered him with whatever I might have found there. My checkbook and credit cards. Keys and gumwrappers. Random business cards and found pennies. The scarce couple of bills in my wallet. All of it swirling around him like rain. Because as much as I occasionally complain about my job, I don't have it nearly as rough as this kid. And in the grand scheme of things, he's actually one of the lucky ones.

Monday, April 5, 2010


I start off this morning, on this second day of my 44th year, marveling at my amazing good luck. The fog has burned off, the skies are blue, and the greenery is standing at attention after last night's thunderstorms. I had the good sense to ask for this day off a while back, hoping to book-end a birthday weekend I assumed would be spent with some quality hours with John, and maybe a little time on my bike. Happily, both were true.

What I didn't count on, though, was a surprise visit from a new pal bearing gifts, or a surprise dinner thrown by neighborhood friends to commemorate my 44th year. I didn't count on Diane's special "unbirthday" concept, where each person goes around the table saying something nice, or clever, or witty, or wacky about the person being celebrated. (I likened this experience to that fantasy we have of attending our own funerals, listening to all those kind words pile up. Let's just say you shouldn't have to wait till you die, and this is a tradition that should be passed on and paid forward).

I also didn't count on feeling honestly sort of moved by everyone in their Easter finery, walking to church or family brunches, then idling away the afternoon in cheerful conversation or backyard foot races. I didn't anticipate last night's lightening show, or the fact that for my birthday dinner, what I wanted most was a bowl of caldo de pollo from our neighborhood taqueria, which John happily and generously obliged me.

There are the ephemeral things in life, like pristine moments listening to friends compare you to the best parts of a stainless-steel nail or a forsythia bush. Or like the posies another set of friends brought me for my birthday. These are the things you try to harness in your memory, even as it dims with age.

And then there are the things that reliably come back, like birthdays themselves, or the myrtle blooming so proudly in our front yard. Or the friends who just might pop over for dinner, because they live within walking distance of the house. Or even taxes or work or the need to repaint the porch steps.

This morning, stepping feet first into middle age, I'm taking the time to appreciate both.