Friday, June 21, 2013

Red Tags and Crumbling Foundations

Awhile back I wrote a blog post about the family across the street. They lost their mother a short time later. It has been a sad story unfolding outside my picture window.

While the mother was in the hospital, the sister and brother living in the house (who I'll call Mandy and Jerry) allowed sister #2 to move in after she was released from jail. This sister (who I shall call Misty) was there with the agreement she would not do drugs anymore. Misty promptly started stealing the mother's Social Security checks, and any other money she could find in the house. She stashed her needles in between sofa cushions. She stashed her drugs in the garage. Every day I would see her go into the park to do a drug deal. Or see her dealer pull up to the house.

Mandy got a job working nights as a custodian at a nearby school. Her daughter and boyfriend live at the house, too. Mandy yells quite often at Jerry and Misty. And at her dog, a white pitbull mix that really is a friendly dog, just has no manners. I think she is stressed.

Jerry was in jail once for drugs. Now, he works hard everyday taking care of all the neighbors lawns. No one asked him, he just does it. First the mowing. Then the leaf blowing. I told him not to blow the leaves and yard waste into the street, it goes right into the storm sewers and ends up in the river. So he found a street sweeper you push. Now he cleans the streets, too. Maybe that is the only thing he feels he can control in his life. Grass.

I know these things because Jerry tells me. Sometimes he breaks out in skin rashes and has to be in bed for several days at a time. He is very stressed and hates his sister living there.  He says he likes to help his neighbors because he is trying to be a good Christian. I tell him I can't pay him. He doesn't care. Once in awhile Jerry will ask for a cup of sugar or some cash. I give it to him.

At the holidays, Jerry always cooks the family dinner. He knows I live alone. Every holiday he gets out a styrofoam plate with compartments from a stack that Mandy has brought home from school and he makes me a plate full. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, beans. He knocks on my door and proudly hands me the warm food.

About a month ago I notice a red sticker on their front door. Red stickers in Lansing mean that a house is unsafe for human occupation.

Jerry came over and told me that Misty had attacked him and choked him. He called the police on her and so not only is Misty now in jail for assault, but the police called in an inspector and found code violations right and left. Jerry assured me they would fix the electrical in a week and then the family could move back in. That was a month ago.

Jerry and his sweet boxer Scooby are living in their garage. They have several junk cars in the driveway and they were told they couldn't just store them. So Jerry moves the cars around every day.

Mandy told me that she and her boyfriend are looking at a place out of town and her siblings have brought all this on and she is done taking care of them. Every few days she comes by and packs up more stuff from the house. I don't know if they are really moving out, but they are definitely living somewhere else right now.

Jerry has no job. None of them have any money. They can't pay for the repairs that are needed to remove the red tag. As I look out my picture window, I see that Jerry has set up a table and has a mini garage sale going. A TV, microwave, a bike, some jewelry.

This isn't just any old yard sale. This is the only way he has to find money to be able to live in his house again. He can't work a steady job, he has some issues. But he is a good person.

They have no water, haven't had for some time. The neighbor to the north has let them hook up a hose and run water to their house.

This story unfolding across the street touches my heart in many places. I know what it is like to be poor. I know what is it like to have no home. I know what it is like to have to sell things to pay the bills, sometimes it is the only thing you have left to do. I worry about Jerry and Scooby. Do they have enough to eat? Are they lonely? Do they still hold on to hope?  I wish I had more disposable income to be able to pay Jerry for the work he does at my house. I wish I could give him a nice fat $500 bill for the two years of lawn care he has gifted to me.

But I fear that it would only help in the moment. It seems the biggest problem they all have is that they never learned how to take care of themselves. To take responsibility for their own well being. Taking in a heroin addicted sister who steals probably was the straw that broke the camels back. And now they find themselves in a pickle.

The most important thing I notice is how my picture window has become a mirror, showing me times in my life that I, too, made poor choices and what that looks like from the outside. It reminds me that the most loving thing I can do for me is to take responsibility for my life and my choices. For when I do, the choices I make most always turn out better than when I see myself as a victim.

Please send good thoughts to my neighbors.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Who Needs a Sports Car to Feel Young Again?

A couple weeks ago I woke up at 4:30 am and a Thought was there to say good morning to me. "Hi Barb," the Thought said. "How much do you pay to park your car when you go to work?"

"Huh?" I said, still wiping the sleep from my eyes.

"Dollars. Moolah. How much do you pay?"

I thought for a minute. Two dollars and twenty five cents times five. "$12.50 per week," I said.

"How much is that a month?"

"Come on it is 4:30 in the morning!" I whined.  "Ok, about $50."

"How much gas money do you spend driving those 3 miles to the office?"

"Uh, well let's see..." and I did the math. About thirty cents per mile. Not including wear and tear. So almost two dollars a day. Times five days a week. get the point.

The Thought continued.  "So how many hours in a month do you work simply to pay for driving and parking your car on the city street three miles from your house."

I knew where this was going.

Thought said very simply, "Get a bike".

A bike. Like bicycle. Why didn't I think of that. Oh wait, I did. Brilliant!

I used to ride a bike when I was a kid. I loved bikes. What kid didn't? I had a stingray with a banana seat after my tricycle.  I had a blue ten speed with white tape on the handlebars. I promptly stripped the bike down, painted it a metallic copper/gold color, and wrapped buckskin around the handle bars, lacing them with leather. My friends and I rode miles and miles and miles.

That was decades ago. Bikes are a bit different now. More fancy. More expensive. So I talked to some friends in the know. What should I look for? What should I avoid?

I hopped on Craig's list and quickly found the bike I was looking for. A 1977 Schwinn Suburban, new tires and seat, excellent condition. Scored it for $100.  Ebay has them for $900. This was fun.

Next was the helmet. Of course looks are everything, then comfort. I found both. I look patriotic. A blue bike, helmet with a red streak. Stylin'.

I hopped on Old Blue and off I rode down the street, arms wiggling trying to get used to the handle bars that feel like I am pushing a wheel barrel. Soon it was a smooth ride. Then it hit me.

I was free!

Free like an Eagle soaring across the sky! I experienced that complete exhilaration I remembered as a kid, the moment I was no longer a bipedal humanoid but new creature with round legs that gave infinite motion. Oh my lord, I was a kid again.

I have been hankering for a sports car or an old pickup truck lately, something from my younger days. But not anymore. I am reliving my youth riding Old Blue down to the Capitol every morning. Each trip is a new adventure. "Mom, will you pack my lunch? Pickles and peanut butter sandwich please, with sour cream and green onion chips! Don't forget the cookies!" I can hear myself say.

I take the river trail most of the way, greeting the ducks and rabbits and birds that are already going about their day. My wheels squish ripe mulberries on the boardwalk, little puddles of purple dotting the wooden rails. I stop if I feel like it and fill my mouth with summer bliss. I think of Grandma Bell, making me a mulberry pie from the pale full that I picked for her one summer day in the early 1970's. My blue mouth smiles and on I go. I pass the homeless people having their breakfast on the shore of the river. "Morning!" I say. They smile and respond. My smile never leaves.

I have walked to work and I have driven. But I never learned about the topography until I rode my bike. Wheels reveal secrets. I never knew it was mostly downhill to the Capitol, except for the last little jog.  My legs told me it was uphill most of the way back today, my first day of commuting by bike. I felt so good when I got to work, and even better when I got home.  Who else gets to go out and play before they go to the office?

I must have been a sight!  I had a pink bandana tied around my right ankle to keep my pant leg from getting greasy. I had a guitar strapped on my back with a bright orange MDOT vest wrapped around that, as we had band rehearsal today at lunch.  When I tried to stop and scoot off the seat, the guitar was behind it and prevented me from moving forward far enough. That first stop was hilarious as I was trying to look so cool to the passing motorists.  I can hear them now. "Look a that old lady with a guitar on her back riding that 1977 Blue Schwinn Suburban!"

Eat my dust!