Two teenagers huddle behind my neighbor’s garage. From my upstairs study window, I can see their heads and shoulders. The one with extensions piled stylishly on top of his head is trying to roll a joint. Not good at it, takes a long time. His buddy, a silky black scarf wrapped tight to his skull, gets impatient, rides his scooter in slow loops across the alley and back, waiting. Finally, extension boy finishes and they move to where I can only see an occasional puff of smoke. March. First warm day, the high school a block off and spring break still forever and three weeks away.
I walk into the gym for the first time in months and Tomasina, the older woman at the front desk, doesn’t even say hello: “Where is he?” she demands. I shrug. She starts lecturing about how much good it would do him to come. “Tomasina,” I interrupt, “you need to go to my house and say that.”
My hamantaschen arrive, so I know it’s Purim. I get latkes for Hanukkah and challah anytime. Having an observant neighbor—or more accurately, one who loves traditional baking—has taught me some holidays I am happy to add to my repertoire: especially the hamantaschen holiday and the latke holiday. Yum.
Taking a walk in my once-black neighborhood I pass two young white women, one with a baby in a front sling and the other with a golden retriever on a leash and as I pass them, the one with the baby is saying, “so I interviewed another nanny.” The hood I moved into forty years ago is lost in the mists of change.
I’m in the alley putting out trash and the littlest of the boys from the apartments at the end of the block—they are assembling something with discarded planks down there—spots me and runs full blast to my side. He has breathless news to share. “We’re building a place for a homeless man to stay.” “That’s nice of you,” I reply, squinting at the haphazard production taking shape against the wall of the carpentry shop. “Not sure if the owners of that building will like it,” I opine. “It’s our wood,” Debonaire points out. Indeed. The carpenters who left those boards in the alley have only themselves to blame. I made him repeat his name twice to be sure: I’m guessing at the spelling. Debonaire is five. His right eye is completely red. I ask. His brother kicked him, he said.
“I bet that hurt.”
“Yeah. But I didn’t cry.”
“Yep,” he nods sharply.
Big brothers are often hard on little brothers. “Is this your garage? What’s in there? I need to see your yard,” he says, and follows me in the gate. “These are big steps,” he pronounces about the porch, then looks around our small yard. “How much did this cost?” I say we bought it long ago, don’t remember. “You better go see how that homeless shelter is coming along,” I suggest, before he can ask to see the house. Debonaire nods, goes quietly.
The neighborhood may have changed, but Section 8 housing is still here. Over the decades, those apartments have gifted me many Debonaires, bursting with life, not yet filtered, bringing me fresh air.
The neighbors have a key to my house, I have a key to theirs and now I learn that V, two houses down, also has a key to theirs. I come out to get the mail and see V with Miles and Matzoh, coming back from a walk. Miles is V’s, a big, shepherd mix dog who comes over to lean on me. He’s not as big as Matzoh, a short-hair St. Bernard, my neighbors’ 120-pound pup. They are at work and V took the dogs to the park. She cleans Matzoh’s feet before letting him back in his house. It is a lovely block I live on.
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