Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Hustler with Heart

There are four basic types of people who live in Trenton:

The Sociopaths:
for example:
The guy who rides around in his tricked-out former cop car with the music so loud that our windows rattle.
Julian, and others like him.
Drug dealers and 'hos.
The assholes who ride ATVs on city streets with impunity.

The Self-Serving Pricks:
for example:
Paul Pintella.
Annette Lartigue.
I'd say Doug Palmer, too, but can't, since he doesn't technically live in Trenton.

The crazy people
for example:
The non-criminal, and often civic-minded element, who will, I hope, prevail in making Trenton a better place to live.

The entrepreneurs
In my neighborhood, this includes/included:
Martin, the jack of all trades
Bill, our former neighbor, always looking for a fast buck
Mr. F, the good guy, I suspect, who is currently laid off, who does yard work to make ends meet.

Because of my time constraints, and inspired by yesterday's not-so-crippling snow storm, let us focus on The Entrepreneurs. I write about the other groups a heck of a lot anyway.

In my neighborhood, it is not uncommon to see a skinny guy on a bike, holding a rake in one hand, and dragging a lawn mower behind the bike with his other. Most of these guys are crackheads, but it doesn't make their bicycling skills any less impressive. I never learned to ride no-handed, and have the scars to prove it. We once saw a guy who fashioned a red wagon to the back of his bike and was able to haul more landscaping stuff, like a chain saw and buckets around with him, all the while hauling a lawn mower and holding a rake in his other hands.

Because of their willingness to work, and ability to ride a bicycle as least as well as Lance Armstrong, I can't say these entrepreneurs are the bane of my existence. But they still drive me crazy. We have a small city yard — perhaps bigger than some, by city standards, but still way smaller than any other yard I've had — and the first few weeks we lived here, we were bomb-freakin-barded by (mostly) crackheads and other dudes with other addiction issues, who wanted to take care of our lawn, trim our hedges, etc. I decided very quickly we needed to kill the grass. It took a few years, and we still have some work cut out for us, but in the few years we've been here, we've installed a patio in the backyard, and planted ground cover all over the front lawn. I've been trying, with limited success, due to poor soil quality and lousy northern exposure, to nurture an English-style garden along the side of the house.

We've been here a few years, and because of our almost low maintenance yard, and because I am often outside in the warm months hacking at stuff, hauling rocks, and scheming, the entrepreneurs generally leave me be. During the cold months, we do see these business-minded crackheads trudging through the snow with their shovels; they occasionally ride their bikes through it, depending on the quality of the cold stuff, to get to a job. We don't get that much snow and ice here, and when we do, my Canadian husband is all over it. So, the army of snow removers generally marches on by our house. That didn't happen yesterday, due to the timing of the storm, and when Glen needed to be at work.

I would have gladly shoveled, but couldn't responsibly, since I'm not sure what I'd do with Matthew, who pretty much refuses to sleep, while I shoveled. Also, I was dog-sitting yesterday, and Steve and his new girlfriend were racing hilariously all over the house, and I didn't want to leave them unsupervised for even 5 minutes. So the snow shoveling teams began knocking on my door around 9:30.

We are not entirely sure if we have been handling this kind of situation correctly, but in general, we almost always refuse the help, politely. Even though these guys offer to work for an insanely low rate of pay (yesterday, one guy offered to shovel for $10: we live on a corner and have two entrances, to boot), we just don't want drug addicts — even those who will work honestly — coming around our house. In other neighborhoods, kids would be offering to mow the lawn and shovel the walks, and that's all fine and good; but it's just kinda wrong when adults (with crack addictions) offer. Giving the job to them does not really build a neighborhood. Where I came from, if I needed a bit of help moving a piece of furniture, or changing a tire, for instance, a neighbor would come out and help, just because it was the right thing to do. This seldom happens in our neighborhood, unfortunately, without someone extending a hand for a buck. And we resent it.

A guy who used to live nearby us, Bill, always came around looking for work: "I'll help you unload your car for $3," he'd say. And we gave him some work, because we knew he needed it. Bill used to knock on our door asking if he could shovel for $3, after only a light flurry. Glen would explain that he was from Canada, and he enjoyed shoveling, and so, Bill would ask to borrow the shovel, so he could ask other neighbors if he could shovel their walks for coin. In between, he'd knock on the door and ask for 67¢, most likely, because he learned that no one will give him 67¢; if he's lucky, he'll get a whole dollar. We weren't terribly sad to see Bill move away.

And then there was Martin. Oh, Martin. He was a pro at riding a bike while hauling a trailer behind him. But, man, he was pushy, and abrasive. The former owner of our house left his nasty king-sized bed behind, but was nice enough to bring it out to the backyard first. One afternoon, I called the city to arrange for a pick up, and started to drag it around to the alley. Martin cornered me, and explained he was a hustler, but "a hustler with heart," and he'd remove the mattress for me, for $20. I refused, and said I could have it dragged around back in a few minutes, and the city was coming for it, all for free; and, he couldn't tell me where he'd plan to dump it. He kept insisting, and I kept refusing; it was the beginning of a contentious relationship.

One Saturday, after we had only been in the house for a few days, Martin knocked on the door, hedge trimmers and rake in hand. He had the bad luck of facing Glen. He made things worse for himself by uttering the phase, "Let's get this place cleaned up." Which implied messiness; which, to be honest, it was...this place felt like home, and had so much gorgeous structure, but in many areas, was a flat-out disaster of debris and overgrown vegetation. Glen did not, however, need to hear it from Martin. Glen kicked him off the porch.

Martin continued to try to sell us on his home improvement skills, but without luck. He did manage to wrangle one neighbor into allowing him to scrape paint off the front of the house; a job he started, but never finished, since our neighbor paid him too early. Another neighbor allowed him to mow her lawn, but she had to stay outside and watch him like a hawk the whole time; and she, too, learned not to pay him too soon. A random passerby had a flat tire, and Martin was there, offering to help for $10. He built a little rampy thing out of some scrap wood he found in the alley, and when the tire was changed, left the rampy thing in the street, and then promptly bought some crack off of the knuckleheads up the street, and smoked it behind our garage.

Martin came around offering to shovel: "The snow won't clear itself!" he'd say. Last year, he was implicated in a rash of burglaries in nearby Villa Park, and based on the endless supply and breadth of tools at his disposal, maybe there was some truth in it. We won't know, though, because Martin was struck by a car on East State Street a few months ago, and he died.

The Trentonian's ever-sensitive Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman wrote an article about the accident that claimed Martin's life, describing in vivid detail how he died, and what he looked like as he did so. Rahman never mentioned where Martin lived, or who he left behind, or what he did with his life; and in Rahman's defense, maybe it was because Martin lived on the streets of the East Ward. Maybe he had no family, and hustling for crack money isn't exactly a living in polite society.

The lack of respect and decency toward Martin in Rahman's article has stayed with me over the last few months. Young Sulaiman certainly isn't singularly guilty of not caring a heck of a lot about society's misfits. Greater society does not respect people like Martin, either; he fell through the cracks. Martin failed miserably by normal standards, and life failed him, in return. My teeth clenched every time I saw Martin circling around the block on his bike; I resented he used the back of our garage as his spot to get high. I wished he'd just go away, without ever giving any thought to what that meant.

Martin died a horrible death on a warm night on East State Street. I missed Martin yesterday, all bundled up on his bike, wielding what was likely a stolen shovel. I think Martin meant well. I think. He was probably complicated, like most of us. Now, he's gone, permanently, and at least three other drug-addicted looking guys have filled the void he left. They, too, probably mean well, for the most part, but will probably attempt to do drugs behind my garage, as well. Despite their horrible lives, they are human. They may be a nuisance, begging for work, but at least they're trying. If our neighbors offered to help one another, you know, out of the goodness in their hearts, I'm fairly convinced there would be far fewer people in Martin's situation. People like that do matter. And the more we pay the hustlers to shovel our walkways — or what's more likely here, NOT even bothering to shovel — while we stay inside and don't get to know one another, the more the cycle perpetuates.

I am guilty of this, too. It's complicated, isn't it?

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