Since Michael has been back from his contract in New Hampshire, we have been busy at work on our house. It seems the work is never-ending, which is how home improvements typically manage to shake out. Michael has been doing most of the work lately, because I am not the expert in framing windows, making moulding and trimming out rooms, nor can I finish dry wall and mudding like he can. In general, I am relegated to things like painting, cleaning, and little odd jobs that are easy for a non-expert in home improvement. I make my contribution in other ways, and hopefully soon we can get at the Airstream to begin work on that remodel. We need a home when we sell. Honestly, I think we did things backwards. It might have been smarter to finish out the Airstream first so we could live in it while doing the home improvements, but hindsight is 20/20. Oh, well. In the meantime, I am doing my best to make the most of being in our hometown. My niece and I are writing a children’s book together (she’s nine), and that’s been a lot of fun. I also just finished a non-fiction handbook on facing fear, which should be available by the end of this week (provided I can get the tech to comply—it’s always tech that gets in my way). If you want to check the info on it, you can click here to visit the landing page. My paranormal mystery sequel is also coming along, and I just met with my editor the other day to discuss the progress on my manuscript. I still have some writing to do, but that should be out by the end of August. Busy, busy!
In other news, after learning about a local community garden last week, I got myself to a meeting to see what’s what. A couple of people from the neighborhood showed up, and the gentleman who seems to be spearheading the committee was also there. We introduced ourselves and explained who we are and what we do, and then we got into the business of what the garden needs, and how we can get the neighborhood more involved. The garden is currently free to local residents who want to plant anything they wish to grow in one of the available plots, and a huge donation from a local greenhouse started them off with a wide variety of plants. Lots of ideas got tossed around, and I agreed to lend a hand with starting a newsletter and teaching a workshop. Plenty of thoughts were discussed about how to get the locals more excited about the project. What I felt to be the highlight of the meeting, however, was the few minutes I got to chat with two neighbors after the meeting. We had a nice few minutes to get to talk about what the neighborhood around the garden is actually like, how the landlords treat their rental properties, and the seriousness of the element of crime there. In case it isn’t evident at this point, the neighborhood is what many might call “low-income.” Olean is full of knots in plenty of areas where collections of poverty-stricken homes seem to fall into themselves like tiny shanty towns.
In my little home town of Olean, the community has suffered some nasty blows to its economy, much like a lot of the northern Rust Belt cities and towns, but it has the added bonus of being at the top of Appalachia. As a result of our local economic struggles, I’m sure it’s no stretch to imagine people are finding it difficult to get jobs and provide for themselves. All too often those in the middle class seem to relish looking down their noses at the folks living in poverty, complaining about the drug problems and the garbage on the lawns and all the crime. I used to live in a neighborhood like that. In fact, I have lived in many neighborhoods like that. My current neighborhood has been on the verge of that for a few years, and the whole city of Olean now seems to be rife with difficulties associated with poverty. We love to look down on poor people in this country, as if people choose such a life on purpose, or are just too lazy to make their “American dream” a reality. Having grown up working poor and living that way most of my life, I have a close connection to the reality of how it feels to live without the security of money for a lot of the things my friends had, and I once faced the dark of night in a city where I lived, alone and terrified as I considered how I would keep myself and my bag safe if I had to sleep on a park bench. No one chooses that, but it happens to a lot of people.
Fortunately, I had help in my desperate hour of need. The friend who said he would help me shut his door in my face when I showed up on his stoop, and then a complete stranger in a bar offered to let me squat in his empty store front while I looked for another place to live. It was very sketchy, and I will never forget that moment of utter and complete anguish as I stared down at the rusty, filthy tub in which I was attempting to bathe in cold water, just so I could be clean to go to work. At least I have I job, I thought to myself. Yes, I had money coming in still, and that probably saved me from a much worse scenario than squatting, but I also had help from the lovely people who employed me. They discovered I was homeless, and because they were leaving town for a week they kindly offered to let me house-sit for them. That led to me meeting a man who then rented me a room, and I finally had a home again. It could have gone differently, but I was lucky. Not everyone is so lucky. Many people in Olean are not lucky at all.
Back to the conversation I had with those neighbors, it was actually refreshing to stand on the sidewalk in front of the church where we met, just chatting and getting to know each other. As we stood on the sidewalk, rain pattered lightly, the sun set below the horizon, and bats began to flutter between the trees and houses. We talked about how people in downtrodden areas don’t need rich or middle-class people to come in and save them. It’s not about saving anyone. Poor people generally are fairly good at survival because that’s their zone. They know how to survive hell, and they’ll tell you all about it anytime you want to be real and have a seat on the front porch if you bring a beverage and a bag of pretzels. In a world where nothing is free, people living in poverty don’t give a rat’s ass about being saved from their misery because they know if the rich people come pledging to save them, they know there’s another price tag somewhere else. If anyone actually cares about helping poor people, you have to actually care about poor people. They don’t need help learning how to live. As far as they’re concerned, a lot of them already know how to live just fine. What they need might often surprise you if you have the interest in finding out, but that means you have to take the time to have a relationship. If you act suspicious, concerned about how dirty the house is, or are self-important when you go talk to someone in a hard spot, they are going to treat you to a similar level of suspicion. As our group stood talking on the sidewalk after the meeting, people walked by us, and I took the time to speak to each passerby. I apologized for being in the way when they had to walk around our little group, said hello, tried to be friendly. It’s not hard to be kind.
Every time someone walked by us, they were friendly right back. It’s what happens when you’re nice to people, I’ve discovered. Really, it’s actually very easy to chat up the grocery clerk, the bank teller, the tattooed guy at the hardware store, and even the random person you meet on the sidewalk. Those little connections with people are opportunities. Every person who passes you on the street or in the store is an individual just like you, a person trying to make a living, pay bills, keep a schedule, figure out dinner. We all have ordinary lives, and yet each of us is capable of extraordinary things that no one else can do like you can. That person you stand behind at the store has some amazing skill that could blow your mind, but unless you talk to him or her, you’ll never know. After our chat session on the sidewalk, we all went our separate ways, but I left feeling happy. The connection I made with those neighbors made me happy. We discovered we had things in common in just the few minutes of conversation, and we talked about ways to help the rest of the neighborhood see the benefit of the garden, enjoying the use of the building as a sort of community center, and getting to know each other. I really hope I can help build that while I’m home. It would be a beautiful parting gift to leave behind me before we move, and it would feel so good to know I might be able to finally give back to Olean in a far more meaningful way.