America’s unofficial rest stops

It is a sunny, fall day and my neighbor, Lawrence, and I are on his front porch. He’s sitting in one of those outdoor chairs with plastic straps running across a metal frame to comprise the seat and back. I’m standing on the brown concrete floor, my hand on the bar of the stroller, pushing it rhythmically back and forth to lull the baby, M, dozing under his green and white blanket. This was in the days before we homeschooled and so the girls are off in their classrooms, the dog tucked in the house, across our abutting yards.

“I’m just grateful to be alive,”Lawrence says to me. Not long before this, he was in the ICU with pneumonia. His daughter had been over at our place playing with our girls right before he went in. When he’d walked over to our front door that night to pick her up, he’d hustled her along, saying he didn’t feel well and needed to get back home. It would be months before we would see Lawrence again after that evening on our front stoop. In the process of treating him for the pneumonia, they had to amputate both his legs below the knees. He’d lost fingers as well.

Really, this attitude of “I’m just grateful to be alive” is all you need to know about Lawrence.

He’s just gotten through telling me about the time, back when he was still in a wheelchair after his surgeries, when he’d had to go to the doctor. He points up towards a brown building within eyeshot but somewhat obscured by a few trees and other foliage. To get to the doctor that day, he was going to have to cross the 6 lane highway* next to our houses and he didn’t have time to call and wait for the public transportation service. So he’d called for a car and driver using a popular app/ driving service/ side-gig to drive him up the street.

“I don’t know what I was thinking or if they’d had me on some sort of drugs that day, but I decided to get myself back home.” Neither the curbs nor the pedestrians signals are amenable to wheelchairs or really, for anyone, who isn’t basically in above average physical condition and in a hurry. Fortunately, Lawrence explains to me, a kind soul had been there to help him across the highway and safely home.

The conversation turns towards various other issues in our neighborhood. The garbage and litter, empty beer and wine and liquor bottles that the neighborhood middle schoolers occasionally smash into the street or sidewalk walking home from school. The car accidents, particularly at the two closest intersections. Lawrence says he once watched someone, a young man, get mugged in his front yard. But, from his wheelchair, he’d been unable to do anything and had to watch as the two assailants made off with the young man’s back pack. I recalled the time someone threw a brick through a neighbor’s car window and stole $500 cash. He tells me about all the cars that pull over in front of his house. Sometimes, drivers get out to pee against a tree. “Hey, man!” he shouted once. “Well, I’ve already started! I can’t stop now,” the guy shouted back.

We both have time that day, chatting on his front porch, so Lawrence launches into another story. “I had taken the bus down to the gym.” While it wasn’t too long ago that he was in a wheelchair, he now works out regularly on two prosthetic legs. He describes how he’d decided to pick up a six pack of beer. And he spends some time on this detail of the story, as if somehow he feels like he has to explain it to me, as if picking up a six pack isn’t a completely ordinary or reasonable thing to do. On his way back to the bus stop, his legs started to hurt, so he grabbed a bench in a nearby park. He set his beer next to him. It was after dark and quiet, so he did what everyone would do and he checked his surroundings. That’s when he noticed a policeman in a marked car watching him. The policeman approached Lawrence, sitting on a bench in a public park and asked him what he was doing.

To be honest, I don’t remember all of the details of the conversation that Lawrence relayed to me. But I do remember that he kept saying the policeman “just kept trying to trip me up.” The officer wanted to know what was in his bag. And as Lawrence relays this to me, on the front porch of his home on a sunny fall afternoon, he says, “I just kept thinking about Freddy Grey.”

“Was I being racially profiled?” Lawrence asks. Later, in the comfort of his own home, he wrote letters about this experience. “The words just flowed,” he says, smiling slightly.

He goes on to tell me that, eventually, the police officer backed off. “He told me that the reason he noticed me was because I was looking over my shoulder.” Remember? When Lawrence started the story by explaining that he was in a park after dark and thus checked his surroundings? That was him “looking over his shoulder.”

************************************************

A year later, on another sunny fall morning, we wake up to the surprise of a construction crew at an intersection near our houses. It appears that they are setting forms and pouring concrete to change the shape of the curbs. I am hopeful that this might be an effort to slow down cars driving through our neighborhood. We have large, broad streets and few sidewalks, crosswalks, and four-way stops. Between these car-friendly conditions and the 8 lane highway which runs to both the beltway and into DC, our residential neighborhood is often used as a quick and easy “cut through” for drivers on their way someplace better.

Our foray into a traditional school was brief, and so on this day, the children are all at home. But it’s sunny out, so they opt to play in the front yard while I’m inside with the littlest one, no longer small enough to nap in his infant car seat like he was last year while we were on Lawrence’s front porch. I don’t know what makes me look out the front window at them, but when I do, the bushes right outside the fence are shaking strangely. It takes me a moment to realize that I can see the shape of a hat above the fence that runs between my property and Lawrence’s property, in the plants. I open our front door, shouting, “hey”. I think my voice can’t be heard over the sound of the cars and trucks on the highway. I start clapping. The girls look up, alarmed and then back behind them, where I am looking. The both scream and start running towards me. “Get inside and close the door,” I tell them. I see the hat begin to move back out of the bushes as I open the gate. There’s a man, obviously from the construction crew, walking away from the fence and back towards the intersection where the construction is going on.

At this point, I’m yelling as I follow the man. Everyone on the crew is looking at me. “Where’s the supervisor?” A man approaching me. He’s holding a cell phone, as if this indicates his status as the one in charge. He seems to be insisting that nothing happened. But I don’t speak Spanish and I’m having a hard time understanding his English.

There were three of these on this particular day that I was clearly garbage from in front of our house.

Lawrence comes up next to me. “What’s going on, Rhena?” I hear him say.

“One of these guys was in front of my house, in the bushes. Right next to where the kids were playing.”

Lawrence says, turning towards the man with the cell phone. “I saw someone else peeing on a tree over there.”

The man with the cell phone tries to explain that he has been calling the boss all morning. He keeps talking about a “seat” and it takes me a while to realize that he’s requested a portable toilet but in the meantime, he’s told his crew to go and pee somewhere far away.

“There are children here!”

“This is bullshit,” Lawrence says. He looks at me and then behind me. My 9 yo, A, has followed me out. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have said that.” He nods towards A.

He turns back to the man. “If this happens again, I’m calling the police.”

But I know, and I’d wager a guess that everyone here knows: getting the police involved is the last thing anyone here wants to do.

***************************************

I’m perhaps even a little jumpier than usual that day and the following. I’m a little unsure what to do with myself. I have the post-adrenaline come down but no resolution. On regular Sundays, Eric and I meet with some other parents at our parish. One of my responsibilities is to send out an email ahead of time with the Sunday reading and gospel. I decide that maybe typing it up will give my hands, at least, something to do. It’s a little early, but at least it will be ready to go out. The reading is from the prophet Habbakuk, as follows.

How long, O Lord? I cry for help/ but you do not listen!/ I cry out to you, “Violence!”/ but you do not intervene./ Why do you let me see ruin;/ why must I look at misery?/ Destruction and violence are before me;/ there is strife, and clamorous discord./ Then the Lord answered me and said:/ Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets,/ so that one can read it readily./ For the vision still has its time,/ presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;/ if it delays, wait for it,/ it will surely come, it will not be late./ The rash one has no integrity;/ but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.

******************************************

We used to live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is popularly referred to as “fly-over country”. The truth is actually that Minneapolis, as a hub for one major American airline, would be more aptly called “fly through” country. Over 18 million passengers pass through the airport there each year. Much like a sanctioned rest stop on the side of America’s highways, the airport is equipped to deal with the basic needs of those passing through. Needless to say, such a high volume of passengers and aircraft can have a profound impact on local residents. Perhaps most detrimental are noise disturbances. In order to distribute this impact so that no one community must bear the brunt of low-flying jets overhead, the flight paths are rotated around the airport. In addition, grants are available to upgrade HVAC and windows on homes to keep the noise out.

For those of us who live in residential neighborhoods next to highways and which are “drive through” country, none of these types of accommodations, even those around basic pedestrian safety are provided for us by the county or the state.

**********************************************

Later that fall, I am once again in our front yard. I notice a car pulled over in front of my house, next to the “no parking” sign. I watch the car, wondering if the occupants need help. A few times in the past weeks, I’ve seen someone get out of a car and then walk to the median of the state highway with a cardboard sign to ask drivers at the stoplight for money. I’m not entirely sure what to do when I see people right in our neighborhood, begging for money. So I pray.

Watching the car now parked on my street, I can see the outline of a driver and someone else, another adult, hunched sideways in the back seat. I watch for a few minutes, trying to figure out what is going on. Eventually, the person in the back seat moves to the front passenger seat. The car drives off. I see on the side of the road, a familiar neatly, folded white package left behind. A used diaper.

(*In an earlier version, I mistakenly described this as an 8 lane highway as I inadvertently included the turn lanes visible from my neighborhood. I apologize.)

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