Thursday, January 5, 2012

Different Places

Different Places
by Greg Larson

     We were only a few miles from home, but it seemed like a third-world country.  The signs on the buildings along Central Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas, were in Spanish.  The surviving businesses had bars on the windows.  Boards covered the windows on the businesses that had closed.  Sirens and their echoes were constant, a fact of life in the neighborhood. 

     A friend of mine from church, Rich, invited me to help him on a Hope Builders project.  Their motto is “Helping others live in safety, comfort, and dignity.”  If I had been asked to come up with the motto, I’d have called it, “Handy-man SWAT team for the needy.”  If you are retired and good with tools, it’s a great volunteer opportunity.  Two of the most important things for those living in the inner-city neighborhoods are to have a door that locks, and to have the cracks in the walls insulated.

     This was our second trip to help Rita, an older Hispanic woman.  She lived on a side street, in a narrow two-story white house with clapboard siding and a covered front porch.  The fenced front yard was full of figurines, statues, and pots full of colorful plastic flowers.  Tucked near the porch was an arched shrine to St. Mary with an American flag hooked to the arch and fluttering in the breeze.  Her dog, Pogo, a mutt with unkempt hair, barked and looked at us as if he were saying, “I don’t trust anyone but Rita.” 

     A protective dog is good to have if you live alone in this neighborhood.

     On our first trip a couple of months ago, we replaced a rotted door jamb to the basement storage, and trimmed the edge of the old door so that it would shut and lock.  Today we were going install a new storm door on the back of the house, to replace the one mangled by burglars.

     “I never expected you to come back,” said Rita.  “You are an answer to my prayers.”

     Rich measured the rear door and was off to Home Depot in a flash.  I painted the basement door jamb, and then went to the front porch to wait for his return.  It seemed surreal, sitting in the warm sun on the November day in a place that seemed so far away from my own neighborhood.  The sunshine warmed the houses on the hillside, and I was comfortable sitting on the porch in the wire chair with the flower-print vinyl cushion.

     “Hola!” a neighbor yelled across the fence.  Rita walked over to her and chatted briefly in Spanish. The neighbor handed her some papers, then Rita walked back to the porch steps.

     “I translate their legal papers for them.  It’s the least I can do.  I just tell them I need to read it carefully so that I can explain it correctly.”

     She re-arranged some of the plastic flowers by the shrine and said, “Thank God for such a beautiful day.  Did you celebrate Veteran’s Day last week?  I feel so sorry for the men who have to fight in these wars.  All my brothers and uncles were in the military.  They were so proud to serve our country.”

     I was embarrassed that I hadn’t given it much thought.   I said, “The weather was nice  on Veterans Day, wasn’t it?”

    That was when I realized she had placed the flag at the shrine to celebrate Veteran’s Day.  It was her way of showing appreciation and respect for those who served our country.

     “I really like all the statues and flowers you have in your yard,” I remarked.

     “I don’t throw anything away.  I find the bargains at the garage sales and flea markets, and I store a lot of things in the basement.”

     That was an understatement. I’d seen her basement.  

     “I wash these flowers and change things with the seasons,” she said.  “I like to put out stuff for the children . . . for them to see when they walk by.”  She walked over to the fence and repositioned one of the black cat silhouettes left over from Halloween.  Then she turned and grinned wide enough that I could see the spaces where some of her teeth were missing.

     I don’t think I’ve met a happier person living in such rough conditions.  She has no car.  She barely has enough money for groceries and utilities.  The newspaper is one of her few connections to the outside world.  But she is happy.

     Rich returned and we carried the new storm door to the back of the house.  I tore open the carton and we mulled over the eight pages of instructions.  It took us about two hours to install the door, but we enjoyed the camaraderie and the warm sunshine.  We went about our business, all the while joking about the instructions and what type of sadistic person had written them.

     Finally, the door was in place and it actually worked.  Rich picked up as many tools as he could carry, and went to load them in the van.  I cut the cardboard carton into smaller pieces.

     “Rita, I’d be glad to take the old door and the cardboard to the front yard to make it easier for you to put out the trash,” I offered.

     “Oh, no!  The city will fine me for putting it out before trash day.”

     The front yard was full of yard art.  How would they ever know?

     I worried that she would try to move the door herself.  “Okay,” I said, “Be sure and find somebody to carry that door.  It’s too heavy for you.”

     As we were leaving, she talked to Rich.  “How can I ever thank you.  God bless both of you.  Who can I send a letter to thank them for what you’ve done?”

     Rich patiently wrote out an address and gave it to her while I loaded some tools in the car.

     We said “good-bye,” and as we drove away, I looked back at Rita and Pogo, standing in the front yard.  That’s when it hit me:  We all live in different places, different houses.  We also live in different places in our minds . . . places from the hand we are dealt and places of our own choosing.

     Some people find happiness wherever they may be.  One of them is Rita