In 2006 we were stupid kids. We bought a house we couldn’t afford. I was 22 and my wife, Meg, was 24. I hadn’t graduated college yet. Meg had, but hadn’t found much in terms of a career. We were both working as interns at a church outside of Milwaukee and increasing in restlessness as we started learning the ins and outs of how life works, how large churches work, and the disconnect between the two.
We have never set out to do anything important or interesting. We have never tried to push an agenda or convince anyone that the way we think or act is any better or worse that what someone else thinks or feels. I would say that we both are more inclined to look at a problem and attempt to solve it without forethought on what conventional approaches might have to offer in terms of guidance. Neither of us really care about best practices a lot of times, because those best practices were probably new and innovative at one point and we would rather be on the forefront of whatever the new next best practice is. We would rather already be doing the thing that other people haven’t realized is the next big thing. We would rather be the earliest of early adopters.
We are stubborn and principaled. For some reason we would rather forego enjoying the financial fruits of our labor and invest it in the next property or financial goal we are trying to meet, like buying the next rental property. Right now we own four paid for houses, two of which are fully rented and net about two grand a month between the two of them. The third house we live in and the fourth house is going to undergo a renovation starting in a few months. We have four houses and I own one pair of blue jeans. My truck has an exhaust leak that requires me to toggle back and forth between setting the heat to recirculate and then to defrost and back over and over to keep the windows and windshield from fogging up. I could pay to have it fixed, but I’ll fix it myself, once I get the time. I don’t know if that means we are frugal or cheap, maybe just stubborn and principaled.
We treat people fairly and we hold ourselves to a higher standard of accountability even if it is the lousier financial decision. I would rather a rental property sit empty than have someone rent it that I think might be a hassle. I would rather make a strong attempt to work with a tenant in hopes of growing their skills in a way that allows them to make better financial decisions than kick them out for not paying rent. I would also rather remove a tenant for not owning up to something they did that was wrong than keep them around regardless of if they pay on time or not.
We work hard.
I am now days away from completing my third whole house renovation while working full time. I am not talking painting and curtains. I have moved kitchens and stairwells, converted from radiator to forced air heat, built a huge ass garage, redone the plumbing and electrical in all three houses, moved half a dozen rooms, put two roofs on, resided one of the houses, built a porch, installed a couple of furnaces, run gas lines, installed a fence, installed laminate flooring, refinished hardwoods, installed hundreds of feet of trim, repaired water damaged joists, redesigned every aspect of bathrooms, jacked up walls, built an archway to match an existing one, installed ductwork and water heaters, repaired barely reparable doors, converted exterior doors to different sizes, fixed other peoples shitty repairs, cleaned up entire houses full of trash, emptied a garage packed full of stuff covered in cat piss, landscaped, closed off windows and added windows. Besides my dad or other family helping out I have done it all by myself. When a project needs to get done, I start working on it until I figure it out. I am the type of person that would rather end the day exhausted than bored.
Meg isn’t as extreme, but is far from being a slouch. She has run her own web design business for the last 7 years. She turned a skill learned at one class at a community college into a highly successful small business while almost never sacrificing time with the kids. She gets up early to do yoga and journal and then starts work at 6 so she can pick the kids up from school every day. Because I am always working she does more than her share of household chores. She cooks and cleans and does the laundry and vacuums multiple times a day to pick up the hair from her Husky. She listens to more podcasts, npr, and books on tape (whatever you call a book that you listen to on Audible) than anyone I know, and she is too humble to even realize she does all of this. She runs, goes to spin classes, and does hot yoga. One day a few years ago she decided she wanted to lose weight and then just did it. I think the best thing about her, though, is how she raises our kids. She has taught them to love reading. She has taught them how to be kind. She has been teaching my nine year old daughter since she was six what it means to be an introvert and how to cope with being around people all day long. I find the last point especially impressive since there was a time not that long ago that she didn’t even know what an introvert was.
We work hard, we try to make decisions based on principals, not how we are feeling at a given moment, and we try to set ourselves up to be pushed naturally or even systematically. I couldn’t have articulated it very well back in 2006, but I do remember thinking through the implications of moving into the inner city. I knew it was going to push us. I knew to expect to be irritated some times. I knew it wasn’t going to be sunshine and rainbows every day. I actually thought it was going to be a lot worse than it has been. I never thought I was going to be murdered or anything like that. I just assumed it was going to be harder. The hardest part might be that it isn’t that hard. It is actually pretty normal. It is just a shade off of living in a suburb. Sure, there are things I don’t like about it, but the level of irritation that I experience is only slightly higher than what I would have living in a suburb. I think that is the hardest part – coming to terms with the fact that it isn’t really all that bad here. I might be weird, but I kind of like living here now. Both Meg and I don’t really want to move. We have chances to get out or take our lives in a different directions and keep choosing not to.
Being an upper middle class white family in a poor almost all black neighborhood just seems normal now. I went about 10 years without telling people where we lived, mostly because it seemed so basic and uninteresting to me. Answering the question where do you live was about the same as saying what I had for lunch. It was nothing special and I didn’t want to make a big deal about it. Then, when I started telling people one of two things would happen. They wouldn’t believe me or they would just stare at me and not say anything.
I am terrible at seeing anything I have accomplished or done with my life in a context other than just some goal I met. All of the home renovations were just one long list of things that had to get done, so I did them. Similarly, living here is just a thing we do now. I don’t see it for anything more than that. People’s disbelief and blank stares are the only sign that we might have a story worth telling or at the very least, we have a perspective unique and interesting enough to one day be the new normal.
What you do matters. What you say, what you think, how you act, it matters. It doesn’t matter simply because there are real world consequences. Working in a school, there are consequences to students’ actions. Inside of the system we create there are norms and expectations and when the norms and expectations are not met we have to redirect the student. Sometimes there is a tangible consequence – a suspension or a restorative conference. Most of the time, though, the consequence isn’t so obvious. Sometimes the student is alienated from the group by their peers and their school anxiety increases or sometimes their intrinsic motivation takes a hit and completing school work is now incrementally harder. There really wasn’t a time where I needed to be convinced that there are consequences to our actions. Maybe someone convinced me of it so long ago that I can’t even remember where the idea came from. I hesitate to say this is a universal truth, but if there are any, I could see this being one of them.
This concept seeps into several areas of your life. What you say matters and so does how you say it. If you say what needs to be said, but destroy the confidence of the other person in the process that isn’t really any better than not saying it. What you think about another person matters. If you choose to have empathy first, your thoughts are viewed through that lens. If you choose to view someone through preconceived biases your perceptions will be very different. Each of us gets to decide if what we do means anything or if we are just here randomly interacting with each other without any reward or consequence. If I really believe what each of us does matters, then the converse of that statement would also be true. What you don’t do matters.
I’m not better than anyone else. I guess if I had two core values the first would be what you do matters and the second would be that I am not better than anyone else. Sure, I am better at certain things than other people and there are a lot of skills and tasks that others are better at than I am. I am good at a lot of things. I am also really bad at a lot of things – things I would really like to be good at. There are nicer people than me and there are some that are meaner. There are people that give more than I do and also people that give less – people exist that make less money than me and people that make more. Saying that I am not better than anyone else is really saying that there is no ranking system for the value of a human life. Even shitty people have value. This might not be that interesting of a statement but believing that even the shittiest person has the same value as me might be. No one is better than me and I am no better than anyone else. There is no reason why I shouldn’t cultivate my talents and try to be the best at whatever skill or trade I am attempting to get better at. At the same time, there is no reason why I should be discouraged if someone is better. In fact, I should encourage that person to continue to grow into the best version of what that person can become.
My biggest fear in life is that I will be on my deathbed and regret not doing something I so clearly knew I should have done. I worry about not acting on the voice inside my head that says I should do this thing, whatever it is. I have had the same fear for the last 20 years. Maybe I’ll hear about an opportunity to participate in something new or my ways of thinking will be challenged and I’ll need to backtrack on something I have said or done before. There is a call to action and a low level anxiety creeps into my subconscious. It’s equal parts I should do this, I want to do this, and I’ll regret not doing this, but it’s scary or different or hard or I’m tired and this isn’t a good time.
I think some call this the little voice inside your head that tells you to do something. Others call it your conscience. In Christianity, I think it is called the Holy Spirit. Whatever you believe, it is hard to deny that there is a subconscious force that takes in information, analyzes it, and guides you to act. It is what makes you think to call your brother out of nowhere. You don’t know why but you feel like you should. You want to. So you do. Then when talking to him you find out things aren’t going well. But you kind of knew that already. You had a feeling. Or maybe you noticed a couple of things the last time you saw him. Things that at the time seemed one degree off, but you didn’t think anything of it. Then you get one additional piece of information, seemingly unrelated. Something inconsequential when not taken in the totality of your other interactions.
That low level anxiety starts to move in and you are called to act. You have experience dealing with what he is going through and in some small way you can help your brother and show him you care. That’s a small example. If you have ever watched curling, it is kind of like that. The person pushing the stone down the ice really only has to use a small amount of energy to get the stone moving. Then, eventually, it makes its way down the ice and smacks into another stone or lands in a little circle. It is a small nudge in one direction that leads to something.
Events and situations in life are like that. They move you and steer you in a certain direction. You are like that curling stone sitting in the middle waiting for something to come and hit you and change your course. Or, you are like the stone gliding down the ice having already received your momentum, and now waiting to make an impact. Sometimes the impact is a new piece of information, information that changes your perceptions or the way you view the world. Other times it’s the missing link that unlocks a puzzle you are working on, only it’s not a literal puzzle, it’s more so something you are trying to figure out or understand. LIke you are interpreting your end of a conversation only you aren’t speaking a language you are fluent in. You know bits and parts of what is trying to be communicated, but the parts in and of themselves are not the end all be all. What is, though, is what the sum of the parts, when arranged in a certain order, compel you to do.
My wife and I met each other labor day weekend 2002 and started dating in February 2003. In January 2006, we got married. At that time we were both working as interns for what some people would call a mega church. That mega church had a college aged ministry (called The Ave) that we were both a part of. That met near the Marquette University campus (about 15 miles from the actual church campus) in a big red church. While we didn’t actually meet at The Ave we were both increasingly involved with planning and grew as leaders within the organization. At that time we were about half way through our first of two years serving as interns and were basically paid to hang out with our friends and lead what we lamely called urban ministry.
The big red church that The Ave occupied on Tuesday nights was right at the outskirts of downtown Milwaukee. It wouldn’t be uncommon to have a homeless person walk into the service and sit down and hang out with a bunch of late teens or early twenty-somethings. Coming from a pretty affluent suburb of Chicago, I didn’t have much exposure to homeless people. I remember the first couple of interactions I had and feeling unsettled or unhappy with how the interaction played out. Luckily I had a lot of opportunities to practice and get better.
What you do matters. But it isn’t that simple. It isn’t black and white. There are a ton of questions that can run through your head when someone approaches you on the street and asks you for change or a dollar. What you do in that situation matters, and how you think about that interaction matters. How do you interact with someone whose purpose for the interaction is to get something out of you? How do you communicate that you are not better than them, while still making a calculated decision to give them a dollar or money for the bus. How do you interact with someone who doesn’t appear to be homeless, but tells you that they need something? How do you know what to do or say when someone presents you with an opportunity to help.
There used to be a gas station across the street from the coffee shop near my wife’s apartment. It was about 7:00 pm and an older guy with a van asks for a couple of dollars so he can put gas in his tank.
That type of scenario happened from time to time. It wasn’t new. I had lived in Milwaukee long enough to develop a quick response. I grilled him for a minute or two. Why don’t you have a debit card? Do you want to use my phone to call someone? Do you have anything you want to sell me? He turned down all of my questions and offers to help in a different way, so I headed across the street to the coffee shop. For some reason though, this conversation left me a little more unsettled than usual. After walking across the street, about 15 feet from the front door, I stopped, turned around and walked back. I pulled out my wallet, took out 5 dollars and handed it to the guy, turned around and walked back to the coffee shop.
If you have ever had anything like that happen to you, you know that you run through a wide variety of emotions. At first you are guarded, because you don’t want to be taken advantage of (the guy with the van was still there asking for money when I left the coffee shop. In fact, he asked me for money using the same story as before and didn’t recognize me). Even worse, you are concerned initially for your safety. Anyone approaching you on the street asking for something brings with them a set of variables that takes some time to get used to. You have to quickly assess and process a situation where someone is telling you they need something while taking into account your life experiences that might tell you otherwise. Someone acting outside of the social norms creates, at least, a minimal level of fear. If a person will walk up to a stranger and ask for money, what else will they do? If they get mad at you when you tell them no, what else will they do? If a person will use fear as a motivation to get what they want, what else will they do?
I never really cared about the dollar. I was almost always worried about being taken advantage of. The problem what that viewpoint is that you never really know if you are helping or hurting someone. You can’t get into the mind of the person asking you for money. Unless it is obvious, you don’t know if they are going to take whatever you give them and walk over to the liquor store and spend it or use it to get high. You want to meet an immediate need, right? You hope that the couple of dollars you offer are going to be used for a cup of coffee so they can get out of the cold for an hour or that the money is going to help someone go from hungry to not hungry. But you can’t really ever know that. You can never really know if giving the person money is helping or hurting them. Are you giving them what they need or are you enabling them to make additional bad decisions.
In thirty seconds of interaction, you are deciding if the expressed needs of the person asking you for money are legitimate or if they are lying to you. When someone walks up to you on the street and tells you that they are hungry, you are deciding if what they tell you is true or if they are using that statement to get what they want. How could you possibly be expected to make a choice that quickly based on so little information. You are essentially judging the character of the person and deciding if they are a liar in half a minute. It’s no wonder people freely give money to panhandlers. It is a lot easier to give a person a dollar than it is to make a judgement on another person’s character.
That was never good enough for me. I didn’t feel right about deciding what I thought about a person without having a conversation with them. So I started talking with people that came up to me asking for money on the street. Fifteen years later, that seems like such a simplistic idea. Yet, at the time, talking with homeless people seemed so revolutionary to me. Maybe it was the novelty of it. I remember frequently wondering what set of circumstances got a person to the point they were currently at. What path did they take that brought them to where there stood at that moment. There are multiple homeless shelters and meal programs within a short distance of downtown. So, in theory, most of their immediate personal needs could be met. Maybe that’s why I didn’t feel obligated to give someone a dollar if they ask for it.
I never really had a specific approach or agenda. The point was to try and understand where the person was coming from and try to figure out if three dollars would really change anything for them. The majority of the time it wouldn’t. Their mental health wasn’t in a place where any amount of money would help them. 8 out of 10 times within a five minute conversation it was obvious that mental health or addiction were what brought them to where there currently were. 1 out of 10 would get mad at you for trying to talk to them, presumably because it slowed down their acquisition of loose change. The other 10 percent needed help, but a small amount of money wasn’t going to make a big enough difference.
Having that analytical head knowledge meant that I solved the “problem” in my own head regarding whether or not I should feel bad about not giving money to panhandlers. I don’t feel bad about saying no when someone asks me for money. But even though I have no issue with turning down a request, the fact that I have the ability to make that decision means that I have some level of power over that person.
I remember someone being particularly pushy when asking for money. We talked for a couple of minutes and he got really mad when I said no repeatedly. I got the impression that he felt that he had wasted his time talking with me, since I wasn’t going to give him what he asked for. As I started to walk away, he followed me. It was the middle of the day in downtown Milwaukee with a ton of people around so I wasn’t worried about safety. I was more uncomfortable with a guy yelling at me from behind as I made my way to wherever I was going. I thought for a moment that I should just give him a dollar so he would leave me alone. Then it struck me.
In that moment I was making a choice. A choice I could only make because I had something another person wanted. I had money and he didn’t (or he did and just wanted more of it). If I gave in, reached into my pocket and handed him a dollar I was essentially paying him to go away. For one dollar I could get out of that situation. For one dollar I could make him leave me alone and I could go about my day.
This the first time I was ever able to articulate in my own mind one of the advantages of having money. I was and still am pretty easy going. I would like to have nice things, but for the most part I don’t care. I like my stuff to work, but I am ok with fixing it. At that point in my life, I was buying most of my clothes from the thrift store because I thought it was being unique or different.
As much as a broke 20 year old kid can actually do this, I made a decision to carefully regulate the level at which I was insulating myself from the problems in our world regardless of how much money I had. I decided it wasn’t ok to use money to avoid uncomfortable situations without first thinking through the consequences of doing so.
It is one of the burdens of having the privilege of having money, even if it is only a few bucks. You get to decide if you use your money to not have to deal with uncomfortable situations.
You can basically pay to not have to deal with the problems of other people. You can use your money to insulate yourself from discomfort.
You get to decide if you want to use your money to embrace the problems in society or separate yourself from them.
This is one of the great advantages to living in the inner city. While we can still use the money we have to make our lives easier. I can’t completely isolate myself from the everyday bullshit that people living in the poorest, almost entirely all black, zip code in Milwaukee have to deal with. Even if we bought every house on our block and put up a fence around the entire thing, we would still have to deal with many of the same societal problems associated with poverty and racism that every other person here has to deal with. By default we are part of that experience, even if we don’t help meet the needs of any other person living here.
Some of the strangest people you will ever meet show up at diners in the middle of the night, especially cheap diners. Also, some of the drunkest people you will ever meet show up at diners in the middle of the night. I worked 3rd shift at one of these diners for three years in my late teens and early twenties. At this particular diner we typically had two people working on a weekday and four working on a weekend. We were all trained as waiters and as cooks so we could bounce back and forth if necessary. During my first year and a half there I usually worked on the weekdays with a fifty year old woman named Debbie. Debbie was four feet tall and smoked four packs of cigarettes a day. She was married to a man that was six five and smoked six packs a day. That’s one pack per foot tall I guess. I don’t remember a time when Debbie wasn’t waiting on tables where she didn’t have a cigarette in her hand.
On weekends we would add another waiter or cook and a dishwasher. John the dishwasher was in his mid-forties and probably hadn’t brushed his teeth in a decade. He liked wrestling. He liked wrestling a lot. He was the type of guy that would take the train to Chicago to watch a wrestling event and then get lost on his way back to the train, arrive at the train station five minutes after the last train leaves for the night, and have to call for someone to come and pick him up. That was just the way he was.
John’s job was to stand in the back of the restaurant, usually with a cigarette in his hand and wait for people to leave. Then he would scurry over and clear off their spot and get it ready for the next group. That sounds really easy, but when the bars closed at 2:30 in the morning it could get a little rowdy. John hated it if you helped him do his job.
If you cleared off a table because there was a line out the door, you were trying to make as much money as possible and would want to turn the table quickly. Logically, it made sense for Debbie or I or Chiquita (another lady we worked with) to run over and empty the table and bring the dishes over to the sink. This infuriated John. John was the type of guy that would rather throw dirty dishes away or smash them in the sink than wash the ones that he had not cleared himself.
I hesitate to say that every single time he worked he told me he was about to quit because three years of him saying that would seem ridiculous, but I don’t remember a day that he didn’t tell me that. However, years later I was out late and drove slowly by the big picture window in front of the restaurant and saw him clearing tables, probably bitching and moaning about how he was going to quit.
John liked to talk to me. He had three topics of conversation. The first was wrestling, but not current wrestling. It was always wrestling from when he was younger. Matches that he remembered seeing fifteen years before. The second topic was trips that he took that went wrong. This might be an exaggeration, but I probably heard about the same five trips he had taken in the last ten years fifty times. Each time he forgot how to get home or lost his bus ticket or his wallet or never figured out how he was going to get back to Milwaukee in the first place. John was, at times, beautifully ignorant. The third topic was how much he hated his sister. I should have asked him more about that, but what I took away was that she used to tease him and he still hated her for it. One night he walked into the kitchen and declared – the bitch is dead – referring to his sister like he was the one that killed her. I asked him if he was going to go the funeral since I knew she lived a couple of hours away. Without thinking he told me that it had already happened a few weeks before and he just found out about it from a friend of the family. No one else told him.
John rented a room at Debbie’s house. She lived on the south side about fifteen minutes from the diner and took the bus to and from work. I lived about 5 blocks from the restaurant, but would drive. Being 19 years old I didn’t understand that it was normal for people to take the bus. That’s a strange thing to write down, but I didn’t get it. I thought people only took the bus because something was wrong with their car.
We have all had an experience like this. You offer to do something nice for someone one time and it turns into a new normal. At six one morning, when Debbie, John, and I are finishing our shift, it starts pouring, so I offer them a ride.
I probably drove them home a hundred times before I made up an excuse to stop doing it.
Isn’t a little strange when the people you work with start to become your friends? Maybe it was just strange because there was a time when I was nineteen or twenty where two of my good friends were a 50 year old chain smoking little person and a mentally delayed 40 year old dishwasher that lived together.
I am the oldest of five kids and the first to leave home. I only lived an hour and a half away and would come home a lot. I liked driving and I liked going home so, when I called my mom and told her I wasn’t going to be coming home for Easter she was confused. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but John’s plans fell through for Easter dinner, which looking back on my experiences with him, sounds about right. So instead of heading down for Easter with my family, he and I went to Baker’s Square together. Isn’t it weird when you work with someone at a place where you wear a uniform and you almost exclusively see that person wearing the same thing, but then see them in something totally different. That happened to me on that Easter Sunday. I drove down to Debbie and John’s house for the hundred and first time, parked, got out of my car, and walked up to the front door. As I am walking up John walks out wearing a suit.
Maybe it was the stark contrast in apparel or maybe I was a little home sick or maybe it was something different. It was the same feeling you get when you are in middle or high school and you befriend someone with a serious disability. You are trained to be nice to them, but in the process of being nice to them you develop a friendship, just like you would with any other person. I remember sitting in that Baker’s Square realizing that the man sitting across from me was more than just the caricature of him I had created in my head. I didn’t cancel plans with my family on Easter to take pity on another person by inviting him to dinner. He was a friend and I cared about him. I knew he was upset about not having a place to go on Easter and I could help fix that. Sure, he was odd. His hygiene wasn’t great. I had already heard every story he cared to tell me. He had nothing material to offer. As a professional dishwasher, his skills were lacking. At work, he actually probably made my job harder. He didn’t even bother to offer to split dinner and I don’t remember him saying thank you.
Driving back to Debbie’s I do remember, though, deeply understanding that the guy sitting next to me was another human being and that he had value, he mattered, and I was no better or worse than he was then or is now. We were both dealt different hands and played them the best way we knew how. My mistakes weren’t any better or worse than his and my life has no greater or lesser value than his does. In the eyes of the world (and customers) I was better off, more talented, probably smarter or at least not quite as strange. I had my entire life ahead of me and I already eclipsed his accomplishments. But in that moment and from that point on I understood that I am his equal and his is mine, and if that is true, than there really isn’t anyone else that is any better or any worse than I am.
It would be easy to sit here years later and pretend that thinking this radically changed my life, but it didn’t. Luckily, I had another year or two of working there to help re-iterate this concept. When you are working in a restaurant, your goal is to provide the customer with a good experience in the hopes that they will want to come back and support your business. In order to accomplish this you serve them, both literally and figuratively. If they need something you walk over and give it to them. The better servers anticipate when a customer needs or wants something. There clues they use to tell, some obvious and some not.
If you have a table of four and they are sitting and talking and appear to be having a good time, you treat them differently than a single person sitting at the counter. You want to make the table of four feel like you could be the fifth member of the table if you weren’t at work. You talk with them, joke a little, and ask them about their night. If they like you, they have a better experience, they tip more, and you win. At three in the morning most people aren’t at their best. Some people are at their worst. Four drunk assholes looking for pancakes in the middle of the night could go either way. You learn quick, though, that providing lousy service, while it might make you feel better, is really counter productive. It doesn’t get you anywhere. You still treat each table the same, even though you know in the back of your head that they might piss you off or they might leave a mess. They might send everything back or they might go throw up in the bathroom. Night after night was practice in understanding that no matter what you might interpret a situation to be with a particular table, attempting to provide a high level of service mattered. Just because someone is jerk after they have been drinking all night doesn’t mean anything. That way of thinking could be overly simplistic or too analytical.
Assholes helped me establish boundaries. I will serve you up to a point, and after that I have to change from a server to someone that is trying to minimize the damage you do. Being a sloppy drunk is one thing, but being abusive or even violent is another. Can you imagine the number of opportunities for a group of intoxicated college guys to comment on a four foot tall waitress that chain smokes while she works. Being hammered late at night/early in the morning, hungry and tired, decreases the likelihood that anyone is going to make a good decision. I can imagine how much more I would be inclined to say something stupid at three in the morning. On one hand they embody the exact thing I am working against. At that moment to those college students, Debbie isn’t the person I know her to be. She isn’t a mom and a grandma and a hard worker. She is someone who is different, wants something they have (a tip or at least she wants them to not be assholes), and they might not ever see her again or they at least might not remember any of what happened. It is hard think that those types of people matter. That they have value. The worse offenders were guys that were trying to be sly about making fun of her. Calling her a munchkin or an oompa loompa is a pretty lame way of teasing a person, so it’s easy to brush off, especially the thousandth time you heard it. Standing behind her and pretending to have sex with her from behind and then sitting down and saying you fucked a munchkin all while she is taking the tables order is a little different.
Unfortunately, assholes are people too. I guess that is a good thing since I have been an asshole before and I will be one again. Everyone has the capacity to be mean or rude or insensitive or cruel. Some people are more inclined to lean in that direction. Some people are much more inclined to be that way when the right set of circumstances are met. Some people are jerks when they are drunk in the middle of the net. Some people are more inclined to get mad when you clear dishes off of a table for them. Circumstances dictate responses in the moment, but also the collective set of life events and experiences shape and mold the actions of all of us.
I have painted three rooms gray in the last year. I have painted both bathrooms in one of my rentals gray, but the first gray I picked out I didn’t like. It was too blue. I try and use the same paint color in multiple buildings since it makes it easy to go and touch up a room later. Since I didn’t care for the shade of gray in the first bathroom, The next time I was ready to paint a room, I picked out a different gray. The only problem is, I couldn’t remember the name of the color I picked out the first time. So I am standing in front of the giant display of colors trying to make sure I pick out one that is similar but a little different than the first one. In my mind the worse thing I could do is pick out the same color. I already know I don’t want that one. After I landed on one, acquired the paint, grabbed a hot dog for lunch, made my way back to the rental and started painting I saw that I didn’t pick out the same paint, but where the first one was too blue, this one was too dark. The third time I was repainting a room in my own house so I figured my wife needed to come with. We, again, stood in front of the giant color sample board. We looked at the little pamphlets where they showed the trendy colors for the year. She picked one out and I was pretty sure it was the same as one of the first two colors, but when we got it home and starting applying the paint to the walls it was perfect. It was different. It was a shade or two off of the first two room colors. I didn’t want the first two, but really liked the third. Sometimes I think people are like paint colors. Not literally or physically, but we are all just different shades of the same color or maybe we are all just different shades of one of many colors. I hated two grays, but loved another one and if I walked up to that giant paint sample board I couldn’t tell you which one I picked out any of the three times I was there. They all look the same from a distance. The first one might have had a little more blue in the mixture and the second a little more black. We are all just slight variations of the same color influenced by the things we have gone through, the people we have met, and the work we have done in ourselves to improve who we are.
That’s why even assholes matter. They are just a shade off. The color combination to make those three grays is probably almost identical except for a small amount of red or blue or green. From a distance they seem to be identical. When you see them up close, under the right circumstances you see something a little different…
A single person sitting at the counter is different. So is a group of two that come in together but spread out a little bit. Maybe they take up three tables between the two of them, so they can spread out like royalty. We had a pair of regular customers that would come in around 4:00 most Friday and Saturday nights. The first guy looked like George Castanza and ran a hot dog cart near a group of bars nearby. Debbie liked him. I know she like him or maybe even loved him because as soon as she would see his blue Ford Explorer pull up with his little hot dog cart behind it she would smash out her cigarette and power walk over to the coffee pot and pour a cup for George. The second member of the team was a homeless artist that lived in a tent village near the river. George paid him in hot dogs and dinner after their “shift”. He liked Diet Coke. By the time they would walk in, their place would have been set, their dinner started, and ash trays cleared out and ready to be filled back up over the next few hours.
The homeless artist was the first person I met that chose to be homeless. John the Dishwasher hated the homeless artist and the homeless artist hated John. I have always kind of thought that choosing to be homeless or at least forcing yourself into a materialistically simple lifestyle was somewhat romantic. Obviously, the logistics of living that way are much more challenging than this overly simplistic view. But, you could tell that he appreciated the freedom he had from a lifestyle that set very little expectations of him. He was an artist and had endless hours to explore his passions. He had an immense amount of talent, but I was never really sure if he used it for profit other than trading it for food from time to time. Although I have no artistic talent, I could see a lot of myself in him. He might have been more than a few shades off, but we were both gray.
One night the blue Ford Explorer dragging a hotdog cart pulled up in front of the restaurant Debbie crushed her half smoked cigarette into her ashtray, grabbed a mug and a glass and yelled at me to get their order ready. I waited for George and the homeless artist to make their way to their corner, but that never happened. George stopped in front of the register out of my site. Debbie talked to him for a minute, then he turned around and walked out. I finished making their order and went to bring it out to them, but couldn’t find them. Debbie was back to her perch, sucking down a fresh smoke. I put the plates down and walked over to her assuming they were in the bathroom or maybe forgot something where they set up shop for the night. As I get closer I see tears in Debbie’s eyes. George hadn’t intended on staying for dinner. He had just come to tell us that the homeless artist had died. I don’t remember the specifics, but he died of something really stupid, something he could have easily been treated for, like an infection or pnumonia.
How did his life matter?
John was a real stickler for rules about eating free food. I had already made two dinners and was going to toss them out so I offered them to him. As I go to hand them to him we make eye contact and he also has tears in his eyes. Taken aback, I pause. He stares at me, I start to speak, he cuts me off, tells me to shut up, and grabs the burger and goes to the back storeroom area.
If you are at a diner in the middle of the night by yourself sitting at a counter for much longer than the time it takes you to eat, you are probably have something intriguing about you. If you are sitting at a counter for hours on end and order the cheapest thing on the menu, say a grilled cheese and a Coke with no ice, you are looking for one of two things, you want someone to talk to or you have some serious work to do and need a place to do it and you don’t care about the food. This man thought he had serious work to do, but I never saw any of it. He drove a late 80’s or early 90’s Porsche. It was red. He was an overweight black man in his mid 40’s with a well established graying afro. Strange is probably not the nicest way to describe him, but it is fitting. Maybe eccentric or odd would be kinder. During some of the time I worked at the diner, I was enrolled at the college up the street. I was a math major and I had already taken several obscure math classes. One night he ordered his grilled cheese and Coke with no ice and pulled out a tattered transformational geometry textbook. Coincidently, I had just completed that class a few months before so I started asking about it.
Are you in school? I just took a class on that. What are you looking to know? Did you have any questions?
Turns out he did have some questions. I was expecting to be asked something related to the information in the textbook. It was from an upper level college course, so I wasn’t sure I would actually be able to help, but it was the middle of the night on a week night and I was struggling to stay awake and a little conversation could help with that.
Inside of his textbook he retrieved a piece of paper folded in half. Complicated math proof writing was something I had done a lot of and I was mentally running through different themes or important aspects of the course to try and jog my memory so I could help him. I had done well in the class and I was excited to actually use some of that information. He held the piece of paper in his hand and started to unfold it.
Instead of containing something that might look like a foreign language to some, it had a picture of a circle on it and the formula for the area of a circle. He asked me what it meant and wanted to know if I could help him figure out what the symbols were. Have you started a conversation with someone assuming they were one way and immediately realized they were the opposite. It’s kind of like when you were in high school and a guy you thought was a jock asshole actually was really nice to the kids with down syndrome. You just didn’t really see that coming. The contents of the book don’t match the cover. I assumed he was a reclusive math genius and it turns out he had the abilities of a middle schooler. When I regained my bearings, I explained that A stood for area, and that r stood for radius and that is the distance from the center of the circle to the edge and that we use the number pi to help calculate the area since it is for a shape that is curved. I’m not sure he totally got it, but he said he did and continued with his evening slowly eating his grilled cheese and ordering several refills of Coke with no ice.
Have you ever known someone that is a little strange, but you like them anyway? They are kind of quirky, but for some reason you are drawn to them. That was this guy. He was weird, but at the same time interesting, like if a couple of things in his life had gone differently, he wouldn’t be sitting at a diner in the middle of the night. He would be a research scientist or a millionaire hedge fund manager. Instead he was sitting at a counter at a diner at three in the morning talking to me.
After that night he would come by more often, probably 4 nights a week. He would sit in a similar spot each time so he could talk to me. He must have been comfortable with me, since very quickly he told me how much he loved prostitutes while simultaneously complaining about the issues he was having with his multiple std’s. At that point in my life, I honestly didn’t think prostitution was even a thing any more. Obviously I know that not to be true now, but being a 20 year old from the suburbs of Chicago, I never imagined a situation where I would meet a prostitute much less meet someone that would freely, and I mean freely, talk about how much they enjoyed them.
Sometimes I have to process things from a view of the situation looking down. Like a lot of us, I can’t see the forest through the trees or however that saying goes. I have to state a situation with just the facts and no interpretation of those facts. He was an overweight, middle aged man with the mental capacity of a teenager, who drove a Porsche, and loved prostitutes, and was dealing with the effects of that.
So, is he no better or worse that me?
Knowing someone like him, as much as I did, helped me to deeply know that everyone has equal value because it wasn’t just some idealistic concept. I was forced to decide that over and over while working at the diner. Just because someone was odd or a kind of gross didn’t negate the fact they were a human being. I don’t understand the circumstances that would bring someone to the mental place he was in, but I can respect the fact that under the right conditions I could have been him.
Now, a single person at the counter is one thing. A single person at a table in the back of the restaurant really just means they want to be left alone. I wouldn’t say we had a problem with homeless customers. I mean that in the sense that there were not an overwhelming amount of them. I think we would have three or four different ones during a week. It seemed like they would mix it up in regards to where they go and eat. I am guessing they have their favorites just like people who are not homeless. I am sure those places are spread out throughout the city and they have to travel, most likely walk to them. It makes sense then that you wouldn’t see the same person every night. Sometimes, though, you would get a stretch where the same person would come in more often, say three nights in a row or on a Friday and on a Saturday.
I would always try and figure out the reason for this, but Debbie seemed to love certain homeless guys and hated others. I couldn’t tell you why or how she decided or even what she was looking for in the ideal homeless customer. They are all kind of the same. This sounds terrible, but you know they aren’t going to tip you, or even if they do, you feel bad taking their money. It’s likely they are going to be there awhile, and if they restaurant is full, that means you are losing out on the tip money from that table multiple times. It’s also kind of a buzzkill for someone to be sitting next to them. Most people have one of two emotions when sitting next to a homeless person at a restaurant. They are either uncomfortable or they want to help. Both created tension for me. I was constantly worried that a person seated next to a homeless person would be dissatisfied with their dining experience and say something rude to the homeless person. Even more so, I was worried that they would want to help the homeless guy and this would create a dynamic where the diner would become overrun with homeless people and we would never make any money.
Homeless customers, again, reiterated in me the need to have boundaries and gave me a lot of chances to practice using them. Your interactions with a homeless customer, for me at least, required you to walk a fine line. How do you fulfill the obligations of your job – run a restaurant, while still being kind.
You have this thing that a person wants (or needs), but the person can’t really afford it, but you feel bad for them so you want to give it to them. You feel bad because the thing you have is food and a warm dry place to hang out. Those are necessities, basic fundamental needs. Food, shelter, and clothing. Those are human needs, and you are standing there behind a counter deciding if you are going to provide someone with two of them.
There was a sign in the corner of the restaurant that said something like, you have 30 minutes from the time you get your food to eat your food and leave. Obviously, that’s a paraphrase, but that was the point of it. Really it was just something that we could point to when we needed someone to leave. It was a tool to use when someone had overstayed their welcome. Like with any tool, you get to decide how and when to use it. After 31 minutes do you walk over to the table and kick the person out? When referencing the rule do you just shrug and say it’s company policy and there is nothing you can do about it? How do you know who the rule actually applies to? George and homeless artist could sit there all night, but if you didn’t like someone you could get them out of there much quicker.
When you work with someone night after night and then drive them home in the morning, you develop a working relationship where you can sense what they are thinking or how they feel about a certain customer. I knew who Debbie liked and didn’t like. If the customer reminded her or I of someone she liked then the rules didn’t necessarily apply. If she didn’t like them or if they were similar to someone she didn’t like then the rules were followed much more strictly.
It takes time for a new guy to be able to exert any say in a situation like that. If you are like me, when you were younger and just starting to work you probably where very careful to fit in with the culture and the dynamics within whatever place you were working. Like, who you gave free food to. My friends and future wife could eat cheese fries and french toast there pretty much any time I was working, but that took awhile and I eased into it. It was the same with homeless people. It took awhile to get my bearings while working with Debbie in regards to who was allowed to stay. Which ones just needed a place to sit for an hour or two and which ones would cause actual problems.
I liked the ones that you could tell were just tired. Not sleepy tired, more like warn down. They sit low in their chairs and their heads tilt down instead of up. Their fingernails are long and darker than normal. Sometimes they smell, not terribly but not good either. Most of them had beards and several coats on – like they were cold and couldn’t get warm.
There was a stretch where the same guy would come in a couple of nights a week. I liked him. He would order chicken soup or chili. The soups at this diner rotated daily so one of my duties at night was to make the soup for the morning. We would then throw away whatever was left over. It was easy to justify giving him a bowl of soup. Debbie didn’t like him very much, but she was ok with me “helping” him.
After a couple of weeks I asked him his name and he told me it was Dave. A couple of weeks after that my future wife and a friend or two of hers came in for french toast and cheese fries. It was a little busy in the restaurant so I wasn’t able to talk much with them until after they ate. When I finally came over to their table you could tell something wasn’t normal. My future wife blurts out that her friend thinks that one of the people in the restaurant is her uncle. Her uncle had been estranged from the family for years. He was a war vet with PTSD or some other mental health issue. He was a shade off. Their family, specifically, her dad had looked for his brother for a long time and wasn’t even sure if he was still alive.
I ask who and my future wife’s friend points to a man sitting in the corner in the back of the restaurant by himself.
My response: Oh yeah, that’s Dave? He comes in here all the time. Nice guy.
It turns out they guy I had been giving soup to was one of my future wife’s best friend’s uncles. She called her dad and within an hour Dave was reunited with his family. He still has mental health issues. He still is a shade off, but he is off the streets and living in an apartment now.
I learned those lessons over and over in the middle of the night at that diner. Looking back on those three years, it doesn’t shock me that when given the chance to do something a little radical (be the only white family in an all black, almost all poor, neighborhood and everything that is wrapped up in that experience) to show that even the poorest of the poor in Milwaukee have value, that we would jump head first into it. We live where we do because we know that what you do matters and that everyone has value and that value isn’t dictated by anything other than the fact that the person is a human being.
In August 2005 I quit the diner to work at the church. I had been attending and volunteering for a few years at that point and it seemed like a natural move to make at the time. When you have the mindset that what you do matters and that everyone has value, working at a church seemed like an easy next step. Looking back, it was a pretty sweet gig, especially since I didn’t have to work at night. I also got to work with my fiance (now wife) whom I married in January 2006. By far, the best part of working there was coordinating mission trips. We went down to the inner city of Chicago a couple of times to work with ministries serving the poor in that area. There was a trip to Nashville to do something similar. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans just as we started working at the church and we coordinated a couple of trips down there to gut houses flooded by the storm. We would sleep on the floor of a church near the worksites, get up and eat food prepared by volunteers, work all day, and then come back for dinner and pass out from exhaustion. It was awesome. One of the trips we even came back with our first dog, Cajun.
During spring break, we would take a group to work with an organization focussing on Christian Community Development in Jackson, Mississippi. It might sound strange, but it was actually a really fun way to spend your spring break. Since Jackson is a full day’s drive from Milwaukee, we would meet at five in the morning at the church, pile as many people and their stuff into our cars as possible, road trip down there, and then stay in this massive house in the inner city of Jackson, Mississippi. The trip was so popular that we even had to run two weeks of it to accommodate the different spring break schedules for the different universities in the area. In total, I spent six weeks there over the four years.
The organization we worked with would obtain houses cheaply, sometimes for a dollar, and then use volunteer labor, us, to gut the houses and/or do minor repairs to houses near completion. Once a renovation had been completed on a house, it was sold to a renter in the community for under market value. They would work with the potential buyer in advance to make sure their credit was acceptable and help them improve it if it wasn’t. They would assist with the loan process and help navigate them through the details.
Part of the experience was a tour given by some of the volunteers or employees from the organization. The tour started at the house we stayed at and we would meander around the neighborhood. The city of Jackson, particularly in the inner city, is full of shotgun houses. They are narrow, sometimes only 12 feet wide, with the front and back doors aligned in a straight shot to create a hallway that each room is entered off of. The name shotgun house reflects the fact that you could shoot a shotgun through the front wall of the house and the shot would pass through each room as it makes it way to the back of the house.
Shotgun houses were probably never in great shape to begin with and most of them were run down. That isn’t surprising given that we were in a poor neighborhood in the south. When you are 23 years old you don’t really understand poverty if you didn’t grow up poor, or at least don’t identify as growing up poor. It is easy to judge someone for the level of care they take in maintaining where they live. As we meandered around the neighborhood we would pass by houses that were renovated by the organization and bought by residents. Those houses were always in pristine condition. Even the older renovations still looked immaculate. Their yards were clean and maintained. There weren’t cars parked on the lawn or dozens of kids toys strewn about the yard. There was a level of pride inherently apparent in how the houses were presented to passers by. The economic status of the owners of those houses weren’t necessarily different than the house with three cars parked in the yard. The nicer houses were kept nice and the shittier houses were kept shitty. That was my first interaction with that truth. Nice stays nice and crap stays crap. As a landlord a dozen years later, I use that same principal when thinking about the quality of work I create at my rental properties. Financially it makes almost no sense to put money into a property I can buy for next to nothing. Unless something drastic changes with our neighborhood the return on my investment will be much lower than if I came into a property and did the lowest quality work as quickly as possible for the least amount of money. But, I know that nice stays nice and shit stays shit.
Part of the conversation in the neighborhood focussed on issues of public health. The 36 year old version of me knows a lot more about healthy living habits than the 23 year old version did. But even at that time I understood how weight gain works and how caloric intake verses energy expended matters. As we drove on, our tour guide explained how a 40 year old person living in this neighborhood would have been born in the 60’s and grew up during a time when racial segregation, especially in schools, was normal. Because of that, they might not have had a very favorable view of education. Even worse, they might not trust information given to them by “authority figures”. Even though I can’t totally relate to that mindset, I can see how a lineage of mistrust could be passed down through a couple of generations. If you grew up with parents or grandparents that were discriminated against because of what they looked like, you would have been taught, subtly or not, that white people are not to be trusted. Now, when a public service announcement or campaign comes out and an older white doctor tells you that sugar and fat are bad for you, it’s at least plausible that you might not believe them as much as someone that has been trained to trust information handed down by older white people. Even if that is only minimally true it at least creates a dynamic where the playing field isn’t level. And, because of that, the idea at least has some merit.
Next up on the tour we started moving away from the houses and into a more commercial area. In 2006 there seemed, at least in my circle of friends, to be this idea that Walmart was bad and small businesses were good. Walmarts were bad for economic development and because they rarely paid a living wage the employees weren’t given the same opportunities that someone working in a small business might have. I don’t think that sentiment has changed much since then, but for a guy that grew up going to Walmart and Sam’s Club and never thinking twice about it, it was a new, fresh idea. As we drove on we passed a Walmart and a couple of other big box stores and then something I never really noticed before. I never noticed them, because I never thought about going to one. It seemed like, though, every fifth store was something like a cash checking place, or a cash advance shop, or a furniture rental place. When I say I never noticed them, I also mean I never thought about what a person would experience when they walked into one. I had a checking account when I was 10. I didn’t, and still don’t, totally understand why a person would be adverse to opening a checking account and therefore need to rely on a check cashing place. Especially since they charged the customer for cashing the check. At that time, I think the minimum wage was about $7.25. So if they charged you $5 to cash your check, after taxes, you were spending one hour worth of “work” ($7.25 after taxes is about $5) on cashing your check.
If you needed the services of a cash advance place, you were in even rougher shape, since the interest rates charged were roughly 25% and then if you failed to pay the late fees charged to you meant that if you were to borrow $100 and miss a payment for some reason, you might end up having to pay $200 before the loan is totally forgiven. Again, as a 23 year old that was never in that dire of a situation, it was really hard to wrap my head around the mindset that would be needed in order to think that using a cash advance shop was a good idea. The same is true with renting furniture or appliances.
Then we talked about how the flow of money in and out of a neighborhood matters. Since none of the stores were really in their neighborhood, and none of the landlords lived in that neighborhood that meant that any money spent by the residents went to people or stores outside of the neighborhood. Because of this, no new economic development, besides a corner store or liquor store popping up, was created. That also meant that very few, if any jobs, were created in those areas. And because of that, the entrepreneurial potential of the neighborhood was slowed to an almost non-existent pace.
Those tours created a solid framework for understanding the problems facing Jackson’s inner city. The house we stayed at in Jackson had a huge living room with probably ten couches lining the space. At night all 20 of us would gather up there to debrief from the day and talk about what we learned. During one of those sessions someone made the connection that the problems facing Jackson were really similar to the problems Milwaukee was dealing with. That connection made the trip all that more meaningful since work was being done in Mississippi to fix the problems and that work could be translated and continued in Milwaukee.
Throughout the week long trip, two themes would continue to rise to the surface. The first was the idea of Christian Community Development.
My wife and I had always thought that being missionaries would be an interesting (fulfilling, meaningful, purpose filled) lifestyle choice. Living somewhere foreign to you and having to learn the culture and figure out how to navigate life outside of the normal way of living it is inherently exciting. When we first met we talked through how we could see ourselves living in a hut in Africa or in a jungle somewhere. My wife’s brother was in the Peace Corp a few years before this on an Island in the Caribbean and we took a trip there to help paint a daycare center and do other small tasks around the town where he lived. When you are on a mission you feel different. You are excited to wake up because of the work that you get to do that day. You aren’t as concerned about yourself. It’s ok if you are uncomfortable or if you work so hard you just want to go to sleep when you get home. That was what life was like when we went to Jackson, or any of the trips we took while working at the church. There was a purpose to what you were doing. By 2006, I understood that feeling and wanted to have more of it.
One of the main themes of Christian Community Development is the idea that in order for a neighborhood to actually be desegregated it needed to be diverse racially and socio-economically, and that both of those were equally important. In order to have racial reconciliation actually take place, diversity needed to exist on those two levels. It wasn’t good enough to have a neighborhood with multiple races if all of the people living in that area were poor. That didn’t actually put right what racism made wrong. Obviously, it didn’t hurt, but the idea of reconciling is more than just fixing a problem. It is fixing the problem in a way that provides an outcome that should have existed if the problem was never there in the first place.
The socio economic aspects of racial reconciliation and community development were especially appealing. Both my wife and I grew up in middle class or upper middle class households in suburbs of large cities. We were both raised with strong work ethics and understood our economic potential since both of us were college graduates.
Being middle class would be the floor of our potential. If we dipped below that, it would either be by choice on our end or we would have to screw something up bad enough to disqualify us from that type of lifestyle.
So, if you are keeping score, we possess the two main characteristics needed to assist in community development/racial reconciliation. Even though we were pretty poor at the time, we knew that wouldn’t last long and we were, and still are, white.
The other main idea this organization focused on was helping create an atmosphere where those of different races and socio economic classes were seen as “more than equals”. It wasn’t good enough to just think of someone different than you as your equal. There needed to be some action involved. There is a level of sacrifice when you know someone is more than just equal to you. It isn’t good enough to just not discriminate against a person because of their race or class. That is only the first step.
I think it was around that time as well where white people would be proud of the fact that they had a black friend. People’s rebuttal to the accusation of being racist would literally be to tell you about the one black friend they had. I don’t think that idea is that common anymore sense it was pretty stupid to begin with, but the thought was if you had a black friend that somehow made you not racist or it excluded you from anyone being able to assume that on some level you might be racist. I remember multiple times around that time of my life where someone defended themselves as not being racist by pointing out they had at least one black friend. Racial reconciliation is more fluid or alive than a benchmark that you can arrive at. Hundreds of years of legal slavery and decades of government sponsored segregation and years of discrimination based on a persons race aren’t going to be fixed by white people having one black friend. To be more than someone’s equal requires at least a small amount of sacrifice. Deciding that you are going to treat someone that is different than you, someone that you might not understand, in a way that honors your differences while still allowing the individuals to live their own lives in the way they choose is hard. This reminds me of a neighbor we have.
Lavelle is the son of Patricia. Patricia has lived next to us the entire time we have lived here. She lives in a triplex owned by one of her sisters and her brother in law. In one of the units lives a different sister, Gwen, and the third unit has been occupied by various family members throughout our time here. The average person would guess that Patricia is at least 20 years older than Gwen. Gwen is older than Patricia, but you would never know by looking at her. Patricia smoked constantly when we moved in but has had so many health problems that I rarely see her smoking any more. She is up between 4:00 and 4:30 in the morning usually when I am just getting up and is picked up by a medical transport van and taken for dialysis treatment most days of the week. I have never heard about either sister working. Neither sister drives.
I have also never heard of Lavelle working. He drives all the time though, usually with a beer in the cup holder. I think Lavelle might be a little older than me. Maybe he is in his mid-forties now. Lavelle loves honking the horn. He’s better about it now, but he also loves bass. At least, you would assume so because of how loud it is and how often he is listening to it at odd hours of the day and night. I used to think Lavelle had 8 kids. Then I found out they were actually his long time girlfriend’s kids. Many of her kids have different fathers, but none are Lavelle. I have never seen one of those kids properly restrained inside of a vehicle. Even the smallest of kids were never in a car seat. We have tried to fix that but haven’t gotten anywhere with it.
I wouldn’t say that he is my friend. In fact, I wouldn’t say that I really like him all that much. He throws his beer cans on the ground in front of our house. There was a summer where I had to go “ask” him to turn his music down at two in the morning multiple times a month. We had to call the police on him once for being in a loud argument outside of our house. He really doesn’t offer society much in terms of production or economic value. He doesn’t work, but has enough money to buy a beater car, subwoofers, beer, and weed. I don’t have any reason to suspect that he gets his money illegally, I just don’t have reason to assume that he works for it.
He does, however, really care about his mom. He comes over all the time to check on her. It seems like he is always running errands for her too – bringing her a six pack or a pack of cigarettes. It seems like he really cares about the girlfriend and all of her kids. Even though I don’t really like a lot of the outward things I see from him, I can see enough good in him to value knowing him. Even though I’ll probably never invite him over to hang out and watch football, and I probably wouldn’t consider him a friend, I would still be sad if he wasn’t around any more. When Patricia dies I’ll be sad for Gwen and Lavelle. I think that might be what being more than equals is actually about. It would be really great if I had enough in common with Lavelle where both he and I wanted to hang out together, but we don’t have that type of relationship. It would be really great if we both liked each other enough to want to even want that, but we don’t. In some ways, I think that is what it means to be more than someones equal. It means that you can look at someone who looks differently than you (I am white and Lavelle is black), who has a different world view, and who has a different level for what is tolerable behavior and still wish the best for them and find ways to appreciate the good you see in them.
The cycle of poverty.
I started to understand what that phrase actually meant while in Jackson. The idea that different people having different starting positions in life became more clear. If you can accept that idea as truth, it is easy to make the connection that if large pockets of minorities are all starting behind the average middle class white person, it wouldn’t be a stretch to consider that as a race issue. Understanding the financial leveling up that happens through generations, again, makes it easier to view how this can play out. My parents are financially better off than both of their sets of parents are/were. My wife and I and the families of my siblings and my wife’s siblings are better off, or at least can project to be, better off than my parents. Each generation levels up a little bit. If this has been happening for 5 or 6 generations, it is conceivable that the starting point of families in my neighborhood could have been slavery since 5 or 6 generations ago slavery was still a thing. I can see that it would take a lot more than 5 or 6 generations for a black family to work their way up to the upper middle class. I can understand why a black family wouldn’t necessarily have the means to up and move out of a neighborhood that is falling apart. I can see how there would be too much leveling up required to get someone to feel confident enough to move out of our neighborhood.
Especially now I can see how there is a disconnect in the way someone like Lavelle sees the world. Or maybe it’s not a disconnect, maybe it’s just different. He doesn’t need to work so he doesn’t. Maybe having a career was never made accessible to him in the same way that my parents sat me down and told me I was going to college. I remember being in 10th or 11th grade and my mom dropped me off at the library, showed me where the books on careers were, and told me to call her when I figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up. My dad never gave me the option of not going to college. It was just what I was going to do. He knew enough about life to understand the value of going to college at the time I went. Neither of my parents went to a traditional college. My mom didn’t attend one at all and my dad went to a trade school. But, again, they leveled up from their parents and were helping us do the same thing. I doubt anyone ever sat down with Lavelle during his more formative years and explained how to level up enough in order to make him want to do more with his life, and even if someone did, his starting point in life was pretty far behind the average white middle class person’s. The cycle of poverty is more than just the idea that if you are poor it is hard to stop being poor. It’s more like if you are poor, it’s hard to know what it would be like to not be poor, or even more so it’s hard to know that you might not want to be poor, or even worse, you might not know that you don’t have to be poor, or worst of all, you might know that you don’t want to be poor, but have no idea how to stop being poor.
It was April 2006 and a lot of those ideas were starting to make sense to me. We had been married for three months. Both Meg, my wife, and I were down in Jackson again for another pair of weeks. We worked during the day and debriefed at night like we had in previous years. Lunch each work day was provided for us at the church by a woman named Mama Ward. She was in her 70’s and each day she would make lunch for the 40 – 50 high school or college age volunteers. I don’t know if we were just really hungry every day from working or if she actually would make the greatest meals any of us had ever eaten, but it sure felt like it. Being in the south, everything was southern. Macaroni and cheese, baked beans, pulled pork, corn bread, and for dessert, banana pudding. I don’t even like fried chicken and I would eat seconds or thirds if there was any left over.
Some days we would have someone from the housing organization or church or neighborhood come and talk to us. Years later, I only remember one. I’m not totally sure how the organization and the church we ate lunch at were connected but they seemed to have a pretty good relationship. During that lunch the pastor of the church’s wife came to speak to us. She was a white woman in her early 50’s.
Have you ever noticed when people give the same speech over and over they tend to move through it pretty quickly. Rehearsing something and speaking it repeatedly naturally quickens your pace. When you have about 20 minutes to talk to a group of college students and you finish what you wanted to say in 15 minutes, you have a chance to freestyle a little. Although I had never met her before you could tell she would come and talk to volunteer groups often. Her talk was nice, but not anything special. She and her husband ran a church that was racially and socio-economically diverse. That was one of the major tenets of their congregation and the two of them lived that out by living in the community they served. They weren’t the only white people living in the poor, mostly black neighborhood we stayed in. The construction project manager, Matt (25 year old white guy), lived in a renovated house and, since we spent a couple of years in a row coming down there, the group we came with kind of adopted him into what we were doing outside of work time. He came over for dinner most nights and if we went out to eat, he came too. The volunteer coordinator, Megan (45 year old white woman), also lived in a house nearby.
Why both Meg and I remember that lunch and the pastor’s wife so vividly is what happened after she finished her speech early.
“I don’t normally share this, but I feel like I should”
We have no way of knowing if she actually shared what she was about to tell us with every group she came to talk to. She might have told everyone the story she was about to tell us. I guess it doesn’t really matter, but I don’t think we would have actually moved into the inner city if we hadn’t heard what she was about to say.
There aren’t many moments in your life that you can look back on and say that something you heard made you want to drastically change the course of your life. Maybe that’s what happened or it’s possible that it was just reorienting all of the things we had already been thinking and feeling, aligning them for a single,greater purpose. Kind of like when you put a really strong magnet near a compass and it changes the way the needle points. We had a bunch of compasses that we were using to guide our life. One of them being what you do matters, another being that everyone has value, another being that we want adventure – to feel like you did when you were on a mission trip, we wanted to do something memorable with our lives, another being we want to have a naturally ingrained level of sacrifice, we wanted to use what we had been given to help those that hadn’t been given as much.
“I don’t normally share this, but I feel like I should”
She went on to tell us in vague detail about a time a few years prior when her husband was out of town. She was alone in her house in the inner city of Jackson. Nothing like this had ever happened to her before and hadn’t happened since. All she told us was that someone broke into the house while she was there alone. Choking back tears you could tell that there were other details to the story that she was holding back, something more happened. I suppose the specifics aren’t all that important. It doesn’t make her next comment any more or less important. If she had been raped or beaten her sentiments have the same weight as if she was asleep while someone broke in and stole her tv or if someone took her lawnmower out of her garage.
She was dressed nicely so you could tell that her and her husband, although they currently worked for the church, must have had lives before ministry that allowed them to have nicer things. Maybe he or she was an investment banker or something before working for the church. That wouldn’t surprise me. She was a white middle or upper middle class woman that chose to live in the inner city and was telling us that someone broke into her house one night while her husband was out of town. I think about her every once in awhile and I wonder if she had any second thoughts about telling us about the break in. I guess she must have since she told all of us she doesn’t normally share that story with many people. I could see how it would be a pretty big downer. We all traveled hundreds of miles to help out and then are told about someone’s house being broken into, not far from the house we were staying in.
She continued on with the story by talking to us about her conversations with people afterward. She told us that her husband was more than fine with moving out of the neighborhood. He wanted to do it for her. They didn’t need to live there for financial reasons. They had plenty of money and could use it to buy a house somewhere else. They had been there long enough to tell themselves they made a difference. She told us about her conversations with friends.
“Why do you live there. You don’t have to live there. Are you going to move?”
She told us that it took her a couple of weeks of trying to figure out what to do next. I can imagine them looking at real estate listings online or driving by apartment buildings thinking about what their lives would be like if they lived there instead. I could see the two of them walking up to the front door of their house with a pit in their stomachs. I bet driving home from work they wished that they could just stay at work or had some other place to go to so they wouldn’t have to walk past areas of the house that created mental flashbacks of what happened. I am sure there were times they had to convince themselves they were strong enough to stay and other times they knew they weren’t. If they were like me, they probably started off telling themselves there was no way they were going to move and then hit a breaking point where moving seemed like the only possible option. Like when you are a kid and you are trying to hold your breath underwater for a minute. You start off thinking that you can do it no problem and then you slowly start to think that you can’t. The pressure builds and you begin to doubt if you can actually do it. 30 seconds go by and even though you’re halfway, the second half is way harder than the first. At 45 seconds you start telling yourself that 45 seconds is good enough and you want to jump out of the water. At 50 seconds you start to feel like you’re drowning and by the time a minute rolls around you throw your head out of the water and gasp for air thankful for the chance to do so.
In the end they decided to stay.
The reason they decided to stay is what changed our mindsets moving forward. If they would have stayed because of pride (we are tough enough to handle this), I probably would have forgotten all about it. If they had stayed for religious reasons (God is tough enough to handle this) I probably wouldn’t have really cared. If they had stayed because they thought someone else was counting on them, I would have thought that was nice, but again forgotten about it.
The reason they stayed was because every other person living in their neighborhood had to deal with the potential for something bad to happen to them. None of them wanted to live in a place where they were more likely to experience crime, but while the pastor and his wife could move, the majority of the rest of the neighborhood couldn’t.
That is what it means to be more than someone’s equal. You share in a burden that you can easily avoid having to bear.
I get that now. I started to understand that day after hearing her story. Now, having lived in our house for the last 14 years I understand it more and more.
No one wants to feel unsafe in their house. No one wants to worry about someone coming up to them when they take the trash out after dark. No one wants to hear gunshots and wonder how close they are. Is it possible for them to hit our house? Did they hit someone and if so, is the person laying on the ground dying somewhere. No one wants to look out their front window and see an obvious drug deal happening and no one wants to make eye contact with the drug dealer and then be afraid the rest of the day that they might come back and do something to you. No one enjoys seeing someone pick up or drop off a prostitute. And no one ever wants to see a drunk old man pee in the alley. With all of the bullshit that goes on living where we live, I am actually surprised, at times, that anyone lives here. But then I remember that I have a choice and not everyone else has one.
Within three months of taking that trip to Jackson we moved into our house on Milwaukee’s northside. For some reason our lease in the first apartment we rented was only seven months long, which meant that even though we moved in to the place in January we were able to move near the start of summer. When I think back about this time I keep feeling the need to explain that we were just dumb kids and really had no idea what we were doing. The fact that we only looked at three houses before deciding on buying ours is proof of that. 2006 was one of the worst times in the last 75 years to buy a house, which we should have easily seen coming had we known about trends in housing prices in the areas we were looking at. Within two years our home’s value was cut by a third and, even now, several years after the housing bubble burst, having spent tens of thousands of dollars on home improvements, I am not sure it is worth what we paid for it. In fact the last rental property we bought is larger and nicer than our place was to start and we paid less than half of what we paid for our current house.
Maybe I want to dispel any notion that we had some grand plan that we are just now living out. Besides creating a lifestyle for ourselves that systematically forced us to interact with the world differently than most people get to or have to, there really has never been intentions to do much more than just that.
The first house we looked at was owned by a friend of a friend of ours. It was a dump. It still is a dump and I drive past it every once in a while. It had almost nothing going for it. I wonder if we settled on our house because of how bad the first three were. The second house made both me and my wife car sick when we walked around inside of it. Old houses settle and aren’t square or level any more, but this was way beyond that. I don’t remember the reason why, but I had a golf ball or a ping pong ball or something like that in my pocket and I set it on the floor and it immediately started rolling toward the center of the house.
I think the third house was literally a whore house. Red velvet covered the windows. When you walked in the first thing you saw was a bar with pictures of women wearing very little holding on to men that didn’t look like they would be there boyfriends or husbands.
Although the floors in our house aren’t perfect, they didn’t make us nauseous and even though there was a sleeping giant in one of the bedrooms and too many dogs for us to go in and look in another, it wasn’t a whore house.
For better or worse, I see potential and I am usually looking at a project through the lens of what it could become rather than what it is. I think that might be why we have stayed here so long. I can see the potential for the neighborhood rather than focus on what it’s like right now.
We shouldn’t have bought a fixer upper, since we were poor and working for the church at the time. I also didn’t have any home remodeling skills. I had no tools. We did have cable so I knew enough from watching HGTV that I really had no idea what I was doing. If we were going to buy a fixer upper then we should have bought one that just needed to be painted or had the floors refinished. We had no business buying something that required a total renovation. The place needed a new roof. It used to have a garage but it was torn down before we bought it. Our house used to be a duplex, which worked for us for a couple of years, but then wasn’t really appropriate for a small but growing family so we ended up converting it to a single family house.
In the summer of 2006, we moved into the upstairs unit. The downstairs unit was rented by a father and son. They were getting ready to move down the street and only lived with us for about two months.
They were both named Robert. The old one we called Old Robert and his son we called Big Robert. Old Robert was retired from a job working for the city of Milwaukee. Big Robert was mentally delayed and didn’t work. Well, that is sort of true. Sometimes Big Robert would work, or at least that is what he called it. He would take the bus about two miles to the Walmart. His “job” was bringing carts from the parking lot back up to the store. I put job in quotes because he actually wasn’t a paid employee of Walmart. I think Old Robert just told him to go and do that so he didn’t sit around playing video games all day. Big Robert loved video games. He also loved Spiderman. The downstairs apartment was really only two bedrooms but did have a third space to the right of the entrance that Old Robert used as a bedroom. Big Robert had the larger of the two actual bedrooms. The smaller bedroom was where they kept the dogs.
When I started renovating the first floor of our house years later there were very clear marks on the floor where he would sit and play video games. The wood floors were distinctly worn with two football sized areas of discoloration in front of four smaller spots arranged in a square. This was where he sat at what looked like an old kitchen table chair and played video games. The four marks were from the chair and the two larger ones from his feet. I know this, because during the home inspection we had to walk around him as the inspector showed me what could potentially be wrong with the electrical in that part of the house.
Above the worn out spots on the floor was a thick, dark nicotine stain so concentrated that every once in awhile it would drip. It took an obscene amount of Kilz Primer to cover it up the first time we painted that bedroom. Even then it bled through the primer and paint. In the end we dropped the ceiling an inch and a half to cover it up. Big Robert was kind of like a black version of Lennie from Of Mice and Men. In fact that is how he was introduced to me by his father. The first time I met him, Old Robert told me that his son was “not all there” but he is strong as hell and means well. Big Robert would rip the filters off of his cigarettes before he smoked them. I never understood why someone would want to do that. Maybe it tastes better. The two Roberts only lived with us for two months. Even though they were separate apartments, they were essentially our roommates. I wonder what our families really thought about that. I was 22 or 23 and my wife is two years older than me. Working at the church, our incomes put us below the poverty line, we live in the inner city and now have two roommates that are about as different from us as you can possibly get – a 40 year old slow black giant and his dad.
I have always hesitated to tell stories like this. I never wanted to give off the impression I am thinking we have done anything special by living here. Maybe instead of us doing anything special, we just get to experience life in a special way. If Big Robert was “working” at Walmart and came up to you and asked to put your cart away for you, before he could get a chance to speak, most people would judge him or, more likely, fear him. He was a big, odd, and physically intimidating.
They moved down the street to a house where Old Robert’s daughter lived. Of course, at that point Big Robert already assumed we were best friends. Maybe it was because had lived together, but he wasn’t very good with boundaries, especially when it came to video games. Big Robert knew what the internet was at the time; he even had internet at his house. He just didn’t know how to use it. Apparently it was easier for him to walk half a block to our house when he wanted a cheat code for the video game he was playing. About once a week, he would more or less break into our yard and start yelling my name as loud as he could. Many times after we were already in bed we would hear him yelling.
After midnight one night my wife shook me awake to tell me that it smelled like smoke and she was worried that our house or our neighbors house might be on fire. As I am walking over to the back of the house, the smell gets stronger and I start to worry. Peering out the back window, I see that a fire had been lit in our fire pit. Standing next to it, huddled over and rubbing his hands together is Big Robert. I get dressed, go downstairs and ask him what the hell he is doing and he tells me he was cold, so he lit a fire. Apparently he had come over for cheat codes and we didn’t hear him knocking. He had gotten cold and instead of walking back home he thought the best option was to light himself a fire.
Most people have things like prep the nursery or find a daycare on their list of things to do before having a baby. Tell Big Robert he can’t come over to get cheat codes after dark was on ours.
Big Robert had no economic value. He didn’t work. He smoked heavily. I am sure he was on disability, which he should have been. He was odd and physically imposing. Unless you knew him, you would probably not think to like him. Even his death was about as unglamourous as you can get.
Big Robert died because he didn’t poop.
That is what our neighbor Ms. Williams told us about his passing. I guess something went wrong with his digestive system and he never told anyone until it was too late. He didn’t realize he hadn’t pooped in way too long and died because of it. I don’t think the two Roberts would have considered themselves poor. Old Robert had a pension from the city and I never got the impression that they were going hungry. Neither one had a car, but got around to wherever they were trying to go. I can’t help but feel, though, that if they had been white and living in a better neighborhood, Big Robert would have been exposed to enough education to help him know that something was wrong with him and then have at least some tools or access to information that could have helped him. We had another neighbor die recently and his family suspected he was really sick, like had cancer or something, and he never went to a doctor to figure out what was wrong with him. He just progressively deteriorated and died in his sleep at age 65. I went to his funeral, and couldn’t stop thinking about how his life would have been different if he was white. He had just retired from a decent job and rented the downstairs of the duplex his mom owns. People die all of the time, but I think these two would have died later on, had their families been generationally leveling up for longer.
Old Robert lived for another six or seven years. Maybe I was overly nice to him at first because I felt bad that we bought the house he was renting, which made him want to move, but I actually really just liked the guy. In some ways I expected living in the inner city to feel different. Maybe we have been here too long to really know anything different. For a long time I expected the people I befriended here to be different than they actually are. I think I thought it was going to be like a Disney movie. Like I would magically find out all of the ways that I am similar to my neighbors and we would be best friends and live happily ever after in the neighborhood together. Or maybe I would be a hero or something stupid like that. I have never felt that way. Both Old and Big Robert were my friends. They actually mean a lot to my family too. My dad memorized the poem on the back of Big Robert’s memorial pamphlet and recites it every now and then while we are working on at one of the rental houses. My oldest, younger brother lived with us for about a year after he graduated from high school, which was just after we bought our house. Those were the prime Big Robert asking for cheat code years. We used to get my brother Christmas presents with Big Robert’s picture on them. Even though they meant a lot to me, their friendships looked drastically different than what I would have expected.
Old Robert didn’t really have a lot going on and was very slowly succumbing to Altheimers. Although, looking back, maybe he was just naturally forgetful. He told me about one hundred times before we built our garage that we needed a fence in the back to keep thieves from stealing our cars. I guess it’s possible that he just really wanted us to get a nice fence and was encouraging us to do so. His house had a nice fence and maybe he wanted that for us.
One of the first times I saw him walking down the alley after he moved to the house down the block owned by his daughter, he showed me the small pistol he carried with him for protection. A lot of the people I meet that live in our neighborhood think it is dangerous or that it is overrun by gangs or something like that. I have heard of some bad things happening but we have had almost nothing bad happen to us living here and I still don’t think I have ever seen any gang activity. Still, all of them want something better for the block and for themselves. They are taking a stand to protect what they have and what is theirs.
There is an undercurrent of disgust mixed with hope. If you don’t count the houses rented by transient residents, people rarely move out of here without dying or losing control of their minds or bodies. There was a time when we lived here that I could name you a dozen families that had been here more than 50 years. Disgust and hope is an accurate description of how I feel about living here too. I am embarrassed about the way some of the properties are falling down and there are whole yards filled with trash. When we have people over, I am always worried that something stupid is going to happen and I’ll have to apologize for where I live. But then I am hopeful that if enough people can see the beauty here and start putting resources back into the area that it will reach its full potential – a normal, nice place to live and raise a family.
Why would an old man with a pension from the city that felt the need to carry a pistol while he made his daily walks to the gas station never move to somewhere he considered safer?
I think about that a lot. None of the answers are satisfying though. Did he work his entire life and really not have enough financial stability to allow him to move. Our neighborhood is or was filled with people like him before they started dying off. I’m guessing he had enough money so it can’t be that. So if he had enough money, did he not know there were “safer” places to live. Maybe he didn’t feel like they were for him. Maybe this was his best option, but not necessarily from a financial perspective. I guess if I had lived in the same neighborhood for 30 years and it started falling apart around me I would do the same thing. I would push forward even if I had to carry a pistol on my walk to the gas station. Even though I was disgusted by some of the things I saw, I would be hopeful. I would see the potential.
Every single time I saw Old Robert he would tell me to say hi to my dad for him. And every single time I would say hi to him for my dad. For years, I would see him four or five times a week walking up the street or down the alley. I would purposely drive the long way out of the alley to drive by his house and say hi to him. When my dad would come up from Illinois to work on a house project, he would tell me to keep an eye out for Robert so he could say hi in person. Eventually, I would only see him once a week. Then once a month. Then, I never saw him again. It was really hard to call my dad and tell him that Old Robert died.
That’s what I mean about the friendships being different than I would have expected. I only went into Old Robert’s house once. Big Robert needed help hooking up a Playstation or something like that. I guess I didn’t really know how to be a friend to an 80 year old black man whose son is a mentally delayed giant that constantly wanted cheat codes and loved Spiderman. He probably had no idea how to be friends with a 30 year old white teacher that lives in an all black neighborhood. Maybe us saying hi to and from my dad hundreds of times was our way of saying we cared about each other and we were happy to have each other around. I guess that is what both he and I were really looking for in a neighborhood. Despite of the all the other bullshit going on around us, we still got to look forward to saying hi to and from my dad to one another.
My dad and I still talk about Old Robert. I still find myself looking for him when I cross the alley to one of the rentals. My wife and I still laugh about how ridiculous Big Robert was. Even though buying the whore house would have been a good story, I feel really lucky to have bought our home because it meant that I got to be friends with Big and Old Robert.