I’m standing in the downstairs kitchen at Charlie’s house getting ready to put up a coat of mud in the living room. When I come here, I can’t help but think about him. We were neighbors for about a dozen years. When we first moved into 53206, I had a fear that the people who lived near me wouldn’t like me because we were white. We were then and still are really the only white people that live here in our neighborhood. Besides a few sporadic not-so-nice comments from some overly intoxicated people, that fear was never realized. Instead something different happened.
I know most people don’t always love their jobs. For me, there were whole school years where I dreaded showing up in front of a group of kids. During my first year teaching, I worked at a school about a mile and a half from my house. I would pray that I would get in a car accident, so I didn’t have to show up. I’d drive as slow as I could trying to maximize my chances of getting hit and attempt to eek out one extra minute of solitude before walking through the front door if I wasn’t lucky enough to get sideswiped.
A lot of those days I would drive by Charlie. His house is 5 or 6 down from mine. As I would creep past wishing someone would rear end me, I’d shout or honk and wave and he would look up from tending to his front yard. He loved his yard. He loved his house. He took better care of his property than anyone I have ever known, in the ghetto and outside of the ghetto.
Sometimes I would take the garbage out and see him down the alley. I’d stop over and talk for a minute. He would always want to show me something, like how he was redoing the roof on his garage little by little or how well his pears were coming in. There’s an absence of studiousness when it comes to property upkeep in 53206, but not at Charlie’s house. I’m not sure if it was the only house he ever lived in, but I know he lived here very close to his whole life. He lived here before the highway was built in his front yard. He knew the neighbors that lived where cars now buzz past on interstate 43. He lived here during white flight, Bill Clinton’s presidency and through everything that has happened since. He lived through all of that in this house, until we bought it in the fall of 2019.
In the months prior I saw him less and less. When I did see him, he wasn’t the same. Before, when I would drive obnoxiously slow past his house wishing summer break to come, many times he would be cutting the grass in the front yard – with a pair of scissors. That’s the type of man Charlie Pace was. He was the type of guy that cared so much about his place on 8th and Burleigh that he would be on his hands and knees early in the morning trimming single blades of grass.
In the spring of 2019, I didn’t see him out front. In the summer, when I talked with him for the last time, I understood why. A few weeks later, his wife moved him to a senior living facility that specializes in elderly patients with dementia. He died a few months later.
Meg is really good at keeping in touch with our neighbors, even after they move. Barbara, Charlie’s wife, and Meg talk on the phone about once a month. During one of those conversations, Barabara said something to Meg that made me understand Charlie a whole lot more. She said, as the neighborhood deteriorated in the 80’, 90’s, and early 2000’s they committed to staying, where else were they going to go. All around them houses were boarded up, turned into crappy rentals where tenants moved in and out in unpredictable patterns. His neighborhood became less and less neighborly. In Trevor Noah’s book he talks about the ghetto. He says that most who live in the ghetto want to get out of the ghetto, but those that can’t get out or refuse to leave are forced to try and make it better. I can’t pretend to know what goes on in the mind of someone who has experienced so much change in a neighborhood during a lifetime. But something Barbara mentioned about Charlie makes perfect sense. Charlie said that if he keeps his house looking nice, it might convince other people to keep their places nice too. That’s why he was out there cutting the grass with scissors waving to me as a crept on into work all of those days.
I’ve only got a couple of months left of this renovation. It’s been smooth, thanks in large part to all of the work Charlie did over the years. The house still needed a full remodel, but so much of the irreplaceable pieces, like trim and door knobs and built-ins and pocket doors and vent covers and fireplace inserts are all there and perfectly maintained. It’s a genuine honor to be standing here working on his house. I mean I’m a super lucky guy as it is, but I don’t know what I did to deserve the opportunity to be entrusted with his house. I have to think he would be pretty happy with the outcomes so far and he would be excited to see all of his hard work live on. One of these days I might even get out there with a pair of scissors and give the lawn a trim.