By white middle-American standards, I don’t live in a “safe” neighborhood. There are at least two houses dealing drugs, prostitutes on the corner, gang tags on my fence. I pick up needles and condoms out of my flowerbeds. My car has been broken into so often I no longer lock it in hopes they will just go through it and leave. Once, a bullet hit the tree next to me while I was weeding my vegetable beds. And two years ago, a drugged-out young man rummaged through our attached garage while we slept. When a full bladder woke my partner, he saw the guy at our sliding glass door and chased him down the street in his underwear. We didn’t sleep that night.
So when the moss-covered motor home with a missing back window parked across from my house I wasn’t happy. I hoped it was just for a bit and the next day it would be gone. But it rained heavily in the night and the owners covered the roof with a blue tarp and bungee cords. They didn’t seem to be planning to move anytime soon.
When I heard voices on the street at dusk the second night, I went out to tell them they weren’t welcome. I wanted them gone, thinking only of more drugs, more break-ins, more reasons to feel unsafe.
A young boy was trying to help his dad put a new window into the back of the motor home. He was maybe 12 years old with skinny ankles peeking out of thin, too-short sweatpants. His father’s hair was greying at the temples though he was younger than me. They were not white.
“Do you need help?” I yelled from the safety of the corner, cell phone in hand.
“No, we don’t need help,” was the mumbled reply. The boy looked scared. And cold.
“You can’t camp here! You’re going to have to move,” I yelled, trying to salvage the righteous indignation that was so thick when I stormed out of the house.
“I’m going to have to call the cops…” my voice trailed off as the dad hustled the boy away from me. As if I was dangerous.
“They’ve already been here, I have until tomorrow.” His voice was tired, lacking hope.
I turned away. Other neighbors had heard me yelling and came out to see what was going on. We griped about the drug traffic, the gang signs, the lack of police interest. But homelessness? That was something we couldn’t summon anger over. Later, warm and snug in the home we owned, I couldn’t stop thinking about the man and the boy in the motor home.
The next day, I did yoga and ate a lunch I’d made with expensive organic ingredients. I thought more about the man and boy and went out to pick strawberries and peas from my lush garden. I snipped off lavender springs and tied them with a pink ribbon. Even unemployed, I have more than I need. So much abundance.
“I am so sorry I yelled at you last night. We have a bad drug and gang problem here and it makes it easy to forget to be kind. I wish you the best.”
I tucked the note in a bag and walked over to the motor home. I sort of hoped they’d be gone so I could just leave the bag and go.
Next to the motor home, a beautiful little girl played on the sidewalk, her tea set “washing” next to her in the plastic drawer pulled from a refrigerator. Paper dolls made out of newspaper ads were strewn on the ground next to her. The boy was applying adhesive to the edges of the motor home window so it could be set in its frame. Their father was washing the motorhome with a scrub brush and pail of water.
They were behaving like a normal family. Like my family would have.
The man approached me warily as I held out the bag.
“I’m so sorry I yelled at you last night. I hope you’ll accept some things from my garden – there are fresh strawberries….” my voice trailed off. I hadn’t picked nearly enough for an entire family.
The little girl ran over to me, full of bright smile and sparkling eyes. “Can I give you a hug?” she chirped.
“Of course – if I can give you a hug back!” I squatted down and opened my arms wide, holding her tiny body tight against mine, heart to heart. Tears bristled in my eyes.
Over the next half hour the man and I spoke. He was on disability and walked with a cane. His wife worked in town. The kids were out of school. They’d gotten thrown out a rental someone had leased to them illegally so they bought the run-down motor home. They’d been assured everything worked. It didn’t. Now they were out of money and stuck.
They used to live on the street behind me. They thought they’d be safe here.
“I know how bad it looks, ” he said, dropping his eyes. “I thought if we could wash it, it wouldn’t look quite so derelict. Than you all wouldn’t mind so much. When we can get it fixed we can go to a campground now that school’s done. ”
I turned on the hose so they could fill their water tanks and have more water to wash up and returned with a cherished jar of honey from the hives I tend in my garden. These people needed community love.
The man was so grateful – the honey, of all things, had brought tears to his eyes. “This is for my wife. She will be beside herself. Her father is a beekeeper.”
I made it home before I cried.
Later, my security alarm went off – the kids stood at my front gate waiting to be noticed. They didn’t come in the yard, not wanting to intrude. They said thank you, I could turn the water off now. But could they please hook their hoses up tonight? Of course I said yes, thinking of dishes and counters that needed washing, bodies that needed cleaning. Fresh water to drink. Water I could so easily have at any temperature I wanted, whenever I wanted. Clean city tap water that – privileged as I am – I wouldn’t even consider drinking before it went through another purifier.
As I write this, I still hear voices on the street every once in a while. One neighbor stopped to help put in the window. Another brought snacks. Stuff is still spread all over the sidewalk, tiny bits of pink paper litter the ground where the little girl played. I am sure the police will come by again to tell them to leave. But they don’t bother me anymore.
It isn’t easy to stay compassionate, to remember to be kind and be mindful of my privilege. It isn’t easy at all, especially when I’ve felt so unsafe in my own home. But it is important.
It turns out this story wasn’t ever really about strawberries and a hose. Or even about my attempt to ease my guilt over choosing anger over kindness. To the little girl with her paper dolls and her hardworking mom, the dutiful son and his ashamed father, this story is about community and a much-needed glimmer of kindness. The story I needed. And maybe the one my entire neighborhood needed as well.
It’s years later, and I read this story with a little wince. The BLM movement has done much to illuminate the challenges Black families face and the problems with the police. My whiteness is glaring here and part of me wants to delete this one. But the story remains true to the day, and sheds some light on issues I still wrestle with like what IS helpful for a little white girl to do? How do we facilitate homeless families and individuals in finding safe options? How do we talk with honesty about things that can expose our prejudices in a way that we can heal and grow? I don’t have answered, but I am learning.