Hard Lessons

We live in a neighborhood that is in transition. That’s a nice way of saying that we live in an area that is;

  • labeled as blighted
  • is often a dumping ground for the unwanted
  • sometimes called the ‘hood (even by me in jest)
  • a place where radio DJs have suggested folks go to if they want to illegally dump their extra trash
  • where prostitutes roam a well-trafficked road just a few blocks to the north
  • where gunshots and our favorite bird, a police helicopter, are a regular occurrence

We traded out a quiet existence on a suburban street where we never locked our doors for one where many bar their windows and lock their doors and are strong advocates (and owners) of concealed firearms.

A neighborhood in transition seems easier to say, however.

Last week, a young man approached our house and asked my husband if he had any work that needed done.

“Can I rake your leaves?” he asked and said he was “looking for weekend money.”

We prefer to let our leaves turn into mulch. In the spring we will run through the dried leaves with our mulching mower and turn them into good compost material so no, we didn’t need help with that. The next day, when Dave saw him again, he called out to the young man and asked him if he would be able to work on Sunday.

We didn’t have yard work, but we were planning on organizing the basement and hoping to finish the tuckpointing on the interior foundation walls of our 120-year-old home. After more than a century of living, the mortar between the stones was turning to sand. Chisel it out, vacuum it clean, and then apply fresh mortar. It’s a messy job and we looked forward to getting some help.

He said he was interested and we told him to show up at 10 a.m.

A few hours later, he was back at our door. “Could I get an advance on my work for tomorrow?” he asked. If it had been me, I would have told him unequivocally NO. I don’t get advances in my job and I would never ask for one.

I have a good reason for this. I know how it feels after you spend the money and then have to “earn” it after the fact. It feels like servitude. No matter that you asked for it and agreed to it, it has a different feel than working for a certain period of time and then being paid for it. And if that wasn’t enough, well, it isn’t good business.

Do the job, get paid. In that order.

I’m so weird about it that if a client sends me money through Paypal, I won’t transfer it to my bank account until after I have completed the work.

But I wasn’t the one who answered the door and that wasn’t the answer this young man got.

About an hour into our work on Sunday and no young man, my husband remembered that the kid had given his mom’s cell phone number as a way to get in touch with him. He called the number, and after hearing the story a very pissed off mama vowed to find her son and send him our way.

Hours passed, phone calls were made back and forth.

No kid.

We finished up for the day and took our baths, scrubbing the mortar dust from our skin.

I felt sad and disappointed. Not that I had lost $20 – that was nothing. Less than nothing. It was that we hoped it would be different. We wanted it to be different. We aren’t mad at this kid, we’re sad.

Let’s face it. Life is hard. It’s hard enough when you have two parents who love you and want the best for you. But as we found out in those snippets of conversation with the young man’s mom – that isn’t his life. His dad died. His mom is on dialysis. He’s having trouble in school, talking back, off with his friends and avoiding responsibilities at home.

And despite having seen the writing on the wall when he showed up at our house on Saturday afternoon asking for an advance, even now I wish for a different outcome. I don’t want $20 paid back to us, instead, I want to help. I wish I knew how.

I wish I knew how to explain to this young man how important keeping your word can be. That trust, when lost, is not easily returned. I wish I could tell him how difficult his life is going to be if he walks this road he is walking, and how much better it could be to walk a different one.

Write me up as a bleeding heart, it certainly seems to fit here, but if that young man were to show up on my doorstep right now, there would be no recrimination. It would simply be a “Hey there, I’m glad you came by. Here’s what I need you to do.” Afterward, I would tell him, “Let me know if you ever need work again.”

He’s fourteen. He thinks he knows how life works, he thinks he has it all figured out. And he’s got a long, long way to go. These kids, they need someone to believe in them. They need a better hand than what they have been dealt. They need opportunity, patience, and boundaries.

How do we help them find the right path to walk?

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