He was the first one on Beulah or anywhere in this neighborhood I ever talked to.
I came here white-fearful. But I came with a poker face, trying to be far more woke than I felt on the inside, trying to get my body to match what I considered to be my educated deconstructing mind. I came carrying all the stories I’d ever heard about the Black urban hood, hopeful I was wrong, but also afraid.
Nearly every day since we moved in, he’s been in our driveway raking rocks, or alongside the house raking leaves, or sitting on a neighbor’s porch. I learned him the way I learned the birds, learned the gulf-coast weather, and the sounds of Houston. I learned to listen carefully when he spoke, his voice soft, his words labored through not enough teeth. I learned to breathe, be less afraid, more curious, and to love the kindness in his eyes.
We mostly said hello, and how are you, exchanging pleasantries, smiles, waves. Sometimes he’d try to say more, I’d try to hear more, but I struggled to understand, a fact that grieved me deeply as time went on.
Still, we got a few more words in edgewise. One day he cornered me by the mailbox as I came out in the morning and he said, “Listen, I see you run. You don’t have to run. Just walk more, drive less, and the weight will come off.” It was so forward as to be surprising, but his face was so gentle, how could I fault him?
I looked for him every time I walked out my door, especially in the early days so grateful for his presence and wanting to be certain that if he saw me and waved, I was looking and waving back. Often when I returned home after work, he’d be there still in the driveway, a friendly wave and smile as I headed into the house.
A month ago, the boy and I pulled into the driveway coming from somewhere. We said our hellos, and he walked over to shake my kid’s hand. And then he said, “Today’s my birthday.” We both exclaimed, “Happy birthday!” “84,” he said, and then, “I guess I never thought I’d get this far, thought I’d go a long time before now. But I’m here!” He was grinning, and bashful with disbelief, teary. I said, “We should sing to you!” He smiled and waved me away, went back to his rake. “Happy birthday,” we said again as we went through the fence.
His funeral was this morning. It was a mess, maybe 20 of us, and one particular person intermittently at the helm who most of the rest were not thrilled with. The theology was bad, the misquoting of psalms kind of wretched. There was no service really – the reverend didn’t show. So we started twenty minutes late, with our neighbor’s son thankfully stepping in to be sure our friend was honored and calling on folks to come share memories. They did the best they could, patching together what they knew from other losses and griefs. Over and over again, we heard that he was a good, good man. Our landlord came and sat with us, a row of white people back and to the right of most everyone else.
He’d been sick, had been in the hospital for heart things, and my housemate had taken him to the pharmacy recently for heart meds. Still, even after the hospital, he was back in our driveway, his bike against the fence. But I was watching him decline slowly, and began to feel more every day that his time left was measured.
On Monday nights or very early Tuesday mornings, he would come and drag our trash bin and recycling to the curb. He told me a few times, “I’m doing this now. You don’t have to anymore. I’ll do it. You all are good people.” We learned to not feel bad, but to instead receive his hauling our trash as a gift of affection, a reminder to us that he thought we were good.
But the last week before he passed, I made sure we took it to the curb Monday night. I’d seen him Sunday after church, bent over with a shovel, doing something in the ditch, and when we said hello, he took a deep breath and said hello back, then smiled, but everything was slow and his face was ash grey and hollow. I feared he would come take our trash, and we’d find him in the morning, gone.
The morning he passed, Good Friday, the boy heard a noise in the yard and went out to find a woman inside our fence, looking at our flowers. She looked up and informed him that our friend had died in the night, and did we know where the bicycle was? When my housemate heard, he went across the street to spend time with our neighbor whose son got us through the funeral, and whose porch is a sort of gathering place for her family and other neighbors.
Later that evening when I left for church, our next door neighbor came out barefoot across the rocks to be sure I knew. I could see the distress and grief in his face. In the coming few days, I’d hear him announce to passerbys in an anguished voice the news that “Cliff, our yardman, he died…. Cliff, I said. Yes, died.”
Our friend was the kind of unknown tiny-in-this-world person whose funeral a reverend might skip. He was a lawn-care worker who in his elderly post-cancer years became a raker of rocks, with basically a bicycle to his name. Our landlords cared about him, knew he was reliant on the income from yard work, and so let him keep doing whatever he could, paying him up to the end. I’m still not sure what he was doing with the rocks, but it’s clear to me that they were not his real work in the world.
He became for me a mediator of my sense of safety here, hospitality to the neighborhood embodied in a person. In the beginning, I would count the gunshots at night, be unnerved by men in trucks who stopped to “chat” when I ran. I’d catalog crimes by street, and keep to myself, other than waving at porch-sitters so as not to seem hostile.
But over time, his mere presence and daily kindness helped to wear some of my fear thin and open me up to something of this place besides danger. He was a slow doorway into conversation with my next door neighbor, who now keeps me up to date on the happenings of the neighborhood. Most of all, he was perhaps the first sign to me that goodness, kindness, humanity could exist here, an invitation to be less terrified and more curious. His raspy voice became like the sound of familiar birds, beloved and homey. I came to look forward to seeing him.
I missed him right away, the dailiness of his voice and the sound of his rake in the drive. With the weather warming up again, my door has been open during the day while I work. There was no rake scratching in the drive and my next door neighbor, maybe in grief, spent most of this past week hanging out at the chess tree, and everything was too quiet.
This morning in the funeral, our neighbor’s son, the one who took over in the reverend’s absence, from the podium greeted my housemate and then turned to me, asked mine and the boy’s names. He said he was sure his mother knew our names but he didn’t. Then he invited us all to speak if we wanted to.
“We consider you family. You’re not just here. You’re family. You’re us.”
Calling us family moved me so much. It’s a tremendous generosity. To belong here isn’t anything I considered possible. I imagined we’d always be outside somehow. But in the past while, I’ve felt our neighbors draw us in slowly, and I have wondered if Mr. Cliff’s trust of us, his belief in our goodness and invitation to believe in his, somehow in some small way helped mediate those connections – or at least in my case. I am slow to connect, to not be afraid, where the housemate and the boy have come to it more easily.
As we left the funeral home this morning, a short stout woman in a black and white dress silently came to me and drew me in close for a tight hug, before turning to the boy to hug him as well. Then she turned and went back to the others. I hadn’t said anything in the service, partly because I would have cried just as a matter of course, and partly because I hardly knew him past hellos. But I wonder if she knew somehow that I will miss him, and came for me in love and embrace. I have no idea even who she is, but I’m grateful.
I truly will miss him and his goodness. Rest in peace, good man.