Visiting a nontraditional farm in the large town near us was a delight last week. I learned a lot about urban farming and the work of both Purdue Extension staff and community volunteers in making a difference in what is termed a food desert: an area of a city where it is difficult to purchase fresh produce. Another type of education came as I was leaving the innermost part of this city. I’d like to share more about that here.
As I was leaving the former Firehouse #9, renovated to become the education and gathering center of Johnnie Mae Farm, I recalled that several male young adults had walked through or around the property. I shouted out a friendly invitation to two of them that there would be a market day there on Friday and that they were welcome to stop by! My wave to a neighbor on her porch was easily exchanged as I drove my truck away from the vacant lot across the street. Google Maps pointed me in the direction of home about 12 miles away to the north, in a quaint suburb on the other side of the tracks from here. I had visited this area of town just about every week a few years ago when I was working in home health care and knew the joys and risks of walking into homes in a multi-cultural community. Visits were virtually always completed in the daytime; situational awareness and calling your patient from your vehicle before you approached the front porch were procedures shared by virtually all healthcare workers. I never had a problem except maybe my nervousness from being in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
I needed to travel along some neighborhood streets before turning onto main roads; some of the streets looked more like paved alleys than side-streets. I grew up just north of Detroit in the 1960’s when the new neighborhoods were no longer developed with alleys. If you were able to afford one, garages were built in the backyard enclosed by a chain-link fence that outlined your backyard. We played in the streets because we didn’t have an alley; this was actually less safe as our games were often interrupted by passing cars! Often we knew who was driving by or we made note of those we did not recognize. It was our sense of community even in what would become a sprawling suburbia, followed decades later by neighborhood associations. Turns out that the squared-off streets of the inner city where I travelled this day are no different . . .
Suddenly in front of me, I noticed a sedan had just turned onto the street with one of those motorized mini-cars on its trunk: the kind that kids like to drive on the sidewalk pretending to be just like Mom or Dad. I had wondered how it was attached so it wouldn’t fall off when WHAM! it went tumbling onto the pavement into the middle of the street! Pieces of fender and side panels broke off and flew into different directions! Oncoming traffic slowed down and for a second time stood still. I was already past them when I realized that whoever was driving that sedan would have a struggle to retrieve the toy car in pieces on the concrete let alone get it home again. Was it totally broken? Holy cow, what a mishap! I looked back briefly in my rear view mirror. I couldn’t help but wonder what these folks were thinking anyways? Didn’t they try to secure it to their vehicle? Didn’t look like it was attached at all.
Then an overwhelming feeling came over me that I needed to help out somehow. There was no where to turn around easily so I made a left onto a side-street, an alley, turned around, and made a left-hand turn back onto the 2-lane road. Just as I got closer, I saw a man from across the street run over from where he was standing on his front porch and start to help pick up the mangled pieces of plastic. There were two women driving the transport vehicle that were now rushing out into the street, having barely pulled off onto a side street. I practically swerved into oncoming traffic as I lowered the window of my truck and yelled out, “do you want to use my truck?”
I really don’t know what I was going to do if they said, “yes!” We are all living in the middle of a pandemic and person-to-person contact is difficult at best let alone amongst strangers. I guessed that I would open the tonneau cover over the bed of my truck and help them load up the toy car then follow them home to deliver it. But where do they live? How far from here? Is it safe? And before I could even think this through at all, I realize that the man was getting into his SUV on the same corner, as if to move it forward to load up the pieces and such. Or I guessed so. The two women looked like a Mom with her Mother and gestured over to the man as if to say that he was going to help them. It all happened so fast. The oncoming traffic was getting closer an now I was blocking traffic!
And then it happened. As I was trying to jackknife myself into the correct side of the street, I exchanged full eye contact with who I believe was the Mom of the child for whom this fun toy car was lovingly being brought home in her vehicle. It was possibly the only means of transportation she had available that day. Perhaps she was bringing the toy car home for a birthday present or surprise for a good little boy or girl. She looked at me squarely and said, “thank you.” The older woman looked over just as my attention turned to my task of getting out of the middle of the street. The man looked my way as well. Just like that, the problem would be solved by one neighbor from another street helping a Mom and a Grandmother on a hot Monday afternoon.
Something happened in my heart as I pulled away from the scene. Her look penetrated what had become a little distancing from my love for helping people since no longer working in healthcare. This moment transcended the tension that I didn’t realize I had brought with me on that trip that day. Another dynamic going on in our society as I write this are violent protests in large cities over race, political extremism, and control. Many of our cities are struggling for law and order putting businesses, the flow of societal norms, and the ability to function in our communities into varying levels of chaos. People everywhere are on edge. This has included our smaller city of 300,000 at times but not-so-much where I live north of these innermost parts of the city. Yet here I was just blocks away from where most of the violence took place just a few weeks ago and in its place, witnessed the BEST part of what “community” really looks like. Nothing has really changed! People still see each other and help each other out for the most part. Spontaneously! Without regard to checking the time of day, political correctness or narratives, along what street your toy car lands on the pavement.
Lastly, the people that I just encountered in a friendly little neighborhood in the big little town of Fort Wayne, Indiana never looked at outward appearances before reaching out to help each other. We represented four different races. We each lived in 3 different neighborhoods. We stopped traffic for a moment and it was a good thingy, for a good cause, for a little kid or two waiting in the wings. This experience was a wonderful marker in time and an important reminder that people still do see each other, do care about each other no matter what is going wrong in our society. I want to remember this encounter the next time I see someone in need. I will still invite the two dudes in gang-banger type garb walking down the street to a produce market day! I want to remember all of this the next time I am tempted to feel something different than the warm reality playing out in front of me.
Save the toy car people! It’s worth fighting for, eh? JJ
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