It all started with the old man who lived in and owned the three family flat .He and his wife had lived there for thirty years or more. At least, that's what they say, the neighbors. The long timers. The ones who've been here so much longer than Spousal Unit, the thirteen cats, and I. I saw him once or twice the year we moved in. An old, quiet, black gentleman, mourning his wife, who had died. They had been a vital part of the neighborhood. "Good neighbors, good people." So I'm told. It seemed that way to me.
The wife died and, as so often happens, the old man, her long time partner and mate, did not long outlast her, at least in this world. Reunited, they moved on to new adventures. The house fell vacant.
Either there were no heirs, or no heirs wanted the modest, two story brick building, at least not to live in. It became one of those things we all, or most of us, dread to have on our blocks, in our little urban villages, cancers in our communities. It became an "investment property." A piece of property with an absentee landlord. A landlord who provides the capital, but lives somewhere else, far away. Somewhere not here. Too far away to be held accountable. Not a part of the community, of the people with skin in the game.
There were a few years of chaos. People in and people out. Prostitutes once, whose rowdy, rude, and sometimes violent customers terrorized the block. A stop was put to that. The building changed hands. Owners and tenants came and went.
When "George" (not his real name) moved in to the building, it had been vacant for a good half year. Things were tense in the village; neighbors were hunkered down inside their homes. No one went outside, much. No one smiled. No one spoke. We all looked with hostility and suspicion at anyone we met on the streets, neighbor or no. It was a fortress mentality. We were all alone, each of us, in hostile territory.
I think, though, George didn't get that memo. Didn't get the notice. Didn't "get it", the way things were here. Desperate people hanging on, trying to get by. Trying to stay safe. Trying not to let the hoodlae take over the hood.
George had the audacity to sit on his front porch (are you kidding me? the FRONT porch?) and play his guitar. He was quite good, really. It was an old, battered acoustic thing; he strummed chords, mostly. It was a welcome relief from the heavy, rafter rattling base coming from the mobile stereo systems of the young thuglets as they raced through the streets, gone before the police could arrive to answer the constant complaints. It was summer. I would sit in my upstairs office, the windows open, writing. The mellow chords, carrying just a hint of the blues, drifted in on the breeze. Despite myself, I smiled.
The first time we actually met, George knocked on my door and asked to use my telephone. I think I stared at him, slack jawed, for all of ten seconds before practically slamming the door in his face, my heart hammering. Who WAS this guy? Hadn't he read the play book?
It seemed he hadn't. He had the audacity to speak to everyone who passed by on the street. Speak to them! Introduce himself, wish them a good day. What the heck? We watched him, we did, from behind closed doors and curtained windows, this strange middle aged black man with his bluesy guitar and friendly "Good morning, neighbor!"
"Who the heck does he think he is", I asked the Spousal Unit. "Mr. Rogers?"
Over the next few years, in almost imperceptible increments, a change crept through our little village. I do believe, even now, it was wrought in large part by George and by his determined, relentless friendliness.
People began to speak to each other. "Good Morning!" we would say, now, to each other on the street. We began to know a little more about each other, creeping out of our fortified dens like frightened and hungry kittens, coming out for the food we so desperately need, though we fear the stranger offering it.
Was George aware of the change he was bringing about? I doubt it. He played his guitar; he brought me flowers, scoured from the grocery dumpsters. Many, many days, in the worst of depression, George's salvaged flowers in their crumpled cellophane sat on my kitchen island, their bright colors bringing cheer, reminding me to smile, and to carry on.
He learned about the Thirteen Cats, the managed feral colony, the community kitties who make their homes around the yard and under the deck. He took them into his generosity, too, salvaging litter and food when he could, dropping it off with a smile and a "Thought you might be able to use this for the cats." If you've ever participated in managing a colony of community cats, you know that extra food is always welcomed.
His demonstrated compassion began to open my heart.
I learned a few things about him, over the years. He was a veteran. He was a cancer survivor. He was a recovering addict. He had been homeless. Maybe it was that, the former homelessness, that made him so joyous to be in this little home, in our little urban village. That made him so industrious in making it a home; in doing what he did to foster community.
For years, all was quiet. All was peaceful. The block was blooming, and George was a real contributor to that.
Then things began to change. Sal (not his real name) moved in. Sal and George were brothers.
Things began to unravel a little. Sal had lots of friends; there began to be lots of traffic, at all hours of the day and night, to the little three family flat. The guitar disappeared. I noticed, because I missed the afternoon music floating in through open windows.
One evening, well after midnight, they woke me up, shouting.
"Don't you like it here?" George, standing in the middle of the street, berated his brother. "Isn't this a nice place? Don't you want to stay?
"You're going to mess things all up if you don't just stop!"
Sal stood on the porch, swaying, drunk or stoned. He fell down. George let out a string of frustrated commentary, then helped his brother into the house.
I figured Sal had been on a bender. I closed the windows and went back to bed.
There began to be cars, strange cars, parked up and down the block. Some with no license plates. Some with license plates from far away. Sal and George were always working on cars.
The Spousal and I thought, "Well, ok. People have to make a living. What do we care if they're working on cars without a garage license." But it was more than that. Often, a car would be parked in front of their house, its hood open, but no tools in sight. Sal and George would be dressed in bright blue. People would come, stay for a few minutes, then leave.
It takes us a while, but eventually we get it. They were trafficking in drugs. They and the people who visited became bolder and bolder. The drug deals were happening right in front of my house. I stood at my upstairs windows, watching the money change hands.
The people who came to buy drugs were disruptive. One group of young men began throwing things at the house of one of my neighbors, believing this neighbor to have reported some misdeed or another to the police. A gaggle of thugs followed female neighbors, shoulder chucked them, laughing, attempting to intimidate us. The corner store was burglarized. Twice.
And then of course there was the constant noise. The "boom boom boom" of loud, hate driven music in the visiting cars, the profanity, the fighting at all hours of the day and night.
It took a while, but finally, enough was enough. Working with the Neighborhood Stabilization Officer, the Alderman, the Problem Property Coordinator, and the police, the neighbors banded together and the place was shut down. That absentee landlord has never even shown his face, hasn't responded to any invitations to meetings. Has certainly not put some skin in the game and come to deal with the quality of life issues his neglect was allowing to happen.
Finally, the building has been condemned. At first, this had no effect on the residents, the two brothers and a woman who had moved in. They ignored the posted signs and went about their business. The police returned. George was caught being on the property, after having been warned to stay away. There were bench warrants, and he was taken away. This week he was back.
The cars with their hoods open, no tools in sight, were parked again in front of the building. George was again sitting on the porch wearing royal blue, open for business.
This morning, the police came again, and a big truck full of city workers with plywood and drills and tool belts. They had come to board the place up. George had to go.
I sat in the upstairs office, looking out the open windows, weeping. I know we can't enable drug trafficking in our midst. There are children growing up on my block. There is one young couple with a baby on the way, my beautiful young neighbor radiant with the promise of new life she carries inside her. I know these children deserve a safe place to grow up. I'm willing to fight to see to it that they have it. To allow the drug dealers to stay, to look the other way, is to participate in the cancer they bring to our village. It's to allow the violence. It's enabling of the worst kind. It helps no one. It hurts everyone.
Yet still, I watched him go, and I wept. Once upon a time, these two men were also the promise of new life, growing inside a beautiful young mother. I don't know what their lives were. I don't know what wrong choices they made, and I don't know all the twisted, subtle ways in which we failed them.
I confess, I'm glad to see them go. I don't want the drama, the danger, the chaos.
And yet, I will miss that bluesy guitar, the crooked smile, the "Good Morning, neighbor!"
I wish them well. I wish it could have been different.
stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of short stories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjects: felines , philosophy, and folklore. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com. Thanks for reading!