The neighborhood I live in and the materials of my backyard fence mean a couple of things. The location and class of my neighborhood lends itself to walkers, not only in the street as they head for the various businesses on South 14th St., but also in the alleyway out back. The chain-link that encircles my backyard means I can see and interact with those walkers, and they with me. This isn’t an experience I’d ever had before living in this house.
In my youngest days, we lived on base housing, we had eight-foot cinder-block privacy fences for much of that time, and there weren’t alleys for trash and utility service. When dad retired and we moved off base, we lived in a pretty standard middle-class four-bedroom house in an area that had wood picket fences and no alleys between houses. Not much for passers-by, not that anyone in that neighborhood was walking anywhere anyhow. Today, my alley visibility means that I interact with—or at least observe closely—a group of people that I don’t see in my daily university life. Just people. Children, teenagers, thirty-somethings, the elderly, all of them in that special, leisurely Texas motion. Instead of button-downs and slacks, there are undershirts and athletic jerseys, with the odd sweaty polo shirt emblazoned with a Sonic or Taco Bell logo. A boxer or a pit bull on a heavy chain, stiffly sniffing out the scents of the day. A wandering stray kitten, gray and alone but curious when I turn on the garden sprinkler.
There’s the thin old man, straw-hatted, who lives across the alley and down about ten houses; he scavenges aluminum cans out of the dumpsters in the area, and I’ve watched his operation progress over the years I’ve lived here–from a simple pointed stick and black garbage bag to an old lawn mower base with a 32-gallon roughneck garbage bin strapped to it. Hot as it is now, I wouldn’t even recognize him in all the layers of sweaty bandannas and baggy, tan-colored, clothes he wears as a moveable shelter, but that he still wears the same orange reflective safety vest and greets me with the same leathergloved wave as I take out my garbage in the morning before heading off to my air-conditioned cubicle. I wonder if the recycling bin station I set up behind my house has foiled his little economic scheme very much?
Or there’s the fiftyish Hispanic guy two houses down; he’s always working in his shop in the evenings, a visitor pulled up and talking or tinkering, and whenever he drives by in his blue pickup he waves and compliments me on my zucchini. In this heat, the garden’s not much to look at and so hasn’t been a point for casual conversation, but he’s stopped to check out and briefly approve of my homemade compost bin.
Today, two sweaty strangers came down my alley. It was evening, after dinner, still hot but bearable in the shade, and my wife and two girls and I were all outside—the kids splashing in their little plastic pool from Wal-Mart (somehow it survived the winter!), and Kat and I complaining about the dearth of bees for our okra and the overabundance of carpenter ants in the kitchen. Usually, passers-by that aren’t neighborhood regulars just walk on past, maybe a glance or a quick head-bob in acknowledgement, as if to say “yep, you’re there,” but rarely a wave or a word. These two men going by were hot but seemed used to it, walking slowly as if they’d already walked far and still had a ways to go. The taller of the two is maybe thirtyfive, stooped just slightly under the weight of a school-size backpack and sipping occasionally from a cheap plastic bottle. His teeshirt was probably white once, and I imagine that coming fresh out of a haircut he would be shaved clean from crown to chin, but today he’s got deep brown sweat rings and at least a five day stubble. The other man is shorter and looks that indefinable fortyish—he could just as easily be thirty-eight as fifty-two. Hispanic, darkly brown with a moustache and slicked-back hair reaching the nape of his neck, he is unburdened by any bag and wears deep blue jeans and a cruddy black tank top. He’s not muscular, but not fat–just an average guy, blurred tattoos, and big, hard hands.
I look over as they walk up, instinctually observing and watching-out, not intending to make eye contact, really just thinking about opening the copy of Kerouac that’s been shadowing me for the last two weeks. I’ve been on page seven since last Sunday, and it’s just not happening. As I look up, the dark guy waves me over. Hey, bro. This never happens. I amble over and greet him; his story is short. You see, he needs a shirt, and he hates to ask, but maybe can I give him one? You see, him and his partner, they’re headed to the bar and they won’t let him in without a real shirt (I can hear the angry scare quotes around real shirt as he say it). And when he was in there Wednesday night they wouldn’t let him in in just his shirt and do I have one he can have, man? He’s looking at me, maybe a little embarrassment in his eyes, but mostly the will to get what he needs. I can tell he’s prepared for me to say no, to blow him off, and he’s prepared to keep asking more times. So I shrug, tell him to hang on a second, and scuffle off to the back of my closet—I’ve got plenty of old and lightly-used dress shirts, and even if I didn’t have those it’s not like I’m suffering from a shortage of Galleon shirts. So I grabbed a pea-green short sleeve button-down (size XL) that I haven’t worn in two years—something that would have ended up at Goodwill or the United Methodist Women’s annual garage sale eventually–and headed outside. He looked not quite surprised, but relieved, I guess, when I came out and handed him his new shirt. There ya go, brother. Yeah, thanks, man. An open-handed wave. A nod from his companion, and they turn and shuffle off down the alley, headed for a dark, air conditioned room, for cold beer (what I’m drinking on a day like this) or hot whiskey (what I’d drink if I had to walk in it all the time).
As I’m about halfway across the yard, I hear his soft surprise—I’m sure he expected me to give him some ratty old thing no better than the one on his back. That little ‘hey’ will stick with me. I could have cared less for that shirt. Of course, I can’t be certain that’s what his shock was about, but the context lends itself to that interpretation.
I’m not sure how to end this story, so I won’t fuss over it too much, but I needed to share this story, because the interaction was striking and unusual.
Maybe it shouldn’t be.