I am facing into my own garden, considering the epic scale of its neglect, when I recognize Michael passing on the street behind me. Scuff, scuff, squeak. Scuff, scuff, squeak. He’s lived at Vantage Place for sixteen years, so I can identify him by the sounds of his slow locomotion as he pushes his walker along the gritty pavement. But I only learned his name last Sunday.
Another of our neighbors can be recognized by the sound of his worn athletic shoes hitting the pavement too hard, as if he struggles to judge the distance between foot and ground. I can even tell his direction, as I attend to my weeding chores. When it is only the chut, chut of the shoes, then he is making his way south. But when that is accompanied by a thin polyethylene rattle, then I know he’s achieved his purpose, and is heading back home to Vantage Place, bearing his Dave’s bag and clutching in his hand the fluttering bills of his change.
It was this neighbor who I watched one day, eyes rolled up in terror, spit dripping from the corners of his lips, desperately trying to increase his pace as another neighbor—the man who slept for part of the year in an office chair under a tree on Franklin Boulevard—screamed, “Bitch! Goddamn bitch! I’ll goddamn kill you!” in his direction. He didn’t know that the anger was directed at the voices inside that neighbor’s head.
After my husband shared a link on social media regarding the imminent closing of the home where these neighbors live, one person suggested that the residents just need to advocate for themselves. I assume that he doesn’t live on my street.
And yet, what useful response is there? If we had skipped our recent trip to Europe, could we have outbid the developer who will be turning their home into market-rate housing? Possibly, if we could have convinced five hundred other neighbors to do the same. Could we have provided rent subsidies for a resident or two, to make up for federal budget cuts? Probably, if I had thought to contact the owner to ask if he was considering evicting any vulnerable residents.
In the church hall after Mass, I recognize another resident. Is her name Kathy? I can’t remember. I have seen her dozens of times at church, hundreds of times walking on our street. Her step along our street is almost silent, as is her voice. When I ask her name, I don’t catch it. Agnes? I am embarrassed to ask her to repeat it, but I offer her my number if she needs a ride to church. She is moving to Madison Commons on November 1, and worries that the mile and a half that seems so far to her would be too much of an inconvenience for me. I check it out on Google Maps, to see what she can walk to. There is a library in that neighborhood too, a church, a convenience store. Is that good enough?
I would like to ask these residents if they feel the outrage that we are expressing on their behalf. When I talked to Michael, he seemed surprised, but not angry. Possibly Michael’s experiences have taught him to direct his emotional energy in less futile directions. He asked if I had any suggestions for a place for him to live.
I hesitate before leaving my garden to try to catch him. Maybe he could go to Madison Commons too. Maybe he would recognize the woman whose name is not Kathy, and that could provide familiarity. Maybe by making belated conversation, I can assuage this guilt that is becoming a disturbingly familiar theme.
But by this time, he has scuffed and squeaked almost to the end of the block. He only needs to turn the corner, and he’ll be out of my sight and hearing.