It was a Saturday morning when a mufflerless truck rattled the windows along Walker Ave. and brought residents to their front doors. A rusty old pick-up, stacked high with household items, stopped in front of a vacant house two doors down from ours, backed into the driveway and cut the engine. Three people emerged. It looked like they could be a family - a husband, wife and teenage daughter - though this was pure speculation. They unloaded furniture, clothes, pots and pans, boxes and an assortment of other furnishings. The truck then fired up, rumbled away and soon returned with a second load of household stuff. This load brought another young woman - maybe another daughter - and two good size dogs. It was apparent that we were getting new neighbors. This could be good. The house they were moving into had been vacant for months and a vacant house is not good for a neighborhood. It attracts vandals, for one thing. It also raises questions about the real estate value of the area. It's far better to have people living in houses. Usually. We couldn't tell from a distance whether these new neighbors would be the kind who would be good for the neighborhood or if they would be troublemakers. But their unresponsiveness to our welcoming waves was not a particularly good sign. Once their loads were carried up the porch steps and through the front door, they shut the door and drew the blinds.
Over the next several weeks we determined that they were indeed a family. A rather reclusive family. With two unfriendly dogs that barked constantly. They kept to themselves, mostly. The younger girl shot hoops for hours by herself at the makeshift basketball goal in their back yard. Frank (we found out the father's name) did occasionally come out to mow the yard but hollered threateningly if neighborhood kids chased stray balls onto his grass. Of course, the kids responded with uncomplimentary names and not-so-subtle taunts which quickly fueled unfriendliness into open hostility.
Frank seemed to appreciate the quick, corrective intervention of parents that brought this animosity into check. He seemed surprised by this kind of neighborly concern. His defensiveness eased a bit and he began to venture a few tentative waves from his front porch. He even allowed his daughter to invite a couple neighbor kids to shoot basketball in his back yard (though the dogs remained at a state of high alert). We had no way of knowing just how big a step this actually was for Frank nor of the battles he had faced on other city streets fending off forces that threatened his family.
It was early spring at a community association meeting when a discussion arose about building a neighborhood basketball court. Frank, of course, was not at the meeting. As we pondered the feasibility of forming, pouring and finishing enough concrete for a full court of basketball play, it became apparent that our limited budget couldn't stand the cost of having it done professionally. However, no one in the meeting had experience with a concrete job of this magnitude. That's when Frank's name came up. Someone remembered him saying that he finished concrete for a living. It was agreed that we would ask him to help, though we were not at all sure that a person as guarded as he would be open to involvement in a community activity.
Asking Frank to head up the project was like morning sunshine to a budding flower. He blossomed. He set to work immediately making lists of tasks to be accomplished, gathering metal forms, calculating the amount of concrete and reinforcement wire. On the first volunteer work day, Frank's expertise became obvious as he directed kids and adults alike in levelling the earth, digging footers and hanging forms. There was a shy humility about him, a social insecurity mixed with the kind of confidence that comes in knowing one's work well. When pouring day arrived, his humility burst forth in pride. Under his proficient guidance, the court finished out square, level and smooth! Not a single dirty word, not even an initial, was carved into the drying concrete that night. The kids of the community shared his pride.
One evening a few days later as Peggy and I were out for a stroll, Frank beckoned to us. As he came down his driveway we could see that he had an envelope in his hand. "Read this!" he ordered excitedly. Peggy read aloud a brief letter from Julie, the secretary of our neighborhood association, expressing appreciation to Frank for the great job he had done on the ball court. It was a gracious we-couldn't-have-done-it-without-you kind of thank you note that expressed the gratitude of his neighbors. Frank was obviously deeply touched by it. "Nobody's ever thanked me for doing a good concrete job before, not in twenty-five years", he said. "This is really something!"
Frank has now become an active, involved member of the community. He frequently checks on the ball court to see that all is going well. His daughter, who can outshoot most of the neighborhood boys, is a regular on the court. The other day I saw him mowing the lawn of a grandmother across the street who works full-time and is raising five grandchildren by herself. If someday you happen to drive down Walker Ave. and someone smiles and waves, it's likely to be Frank.
Sometimes needing people is all that it takes to bring them out.