The night before Easter, I was walking through my neighborhood wishing people a happy Easter and checking to see if they had a place to go to church the next morning. I walked most of Brady Street and turned up onto Jackson Place as the Saturday evening darkness began to trade places with the Saturday afternoon light.
As I walked, I suddenly thought of a friend of mine who had been in the hospital not long before. I was pretty sure he lived in the large apartment buildings close to me, but I didn’t know in which apartment. I headed that direction anyway. I knew he was involved with his church on Franklin Street, and so probably had a place to go for Easter, but I wanted to check on his health as well.
There were no people sitting on the front steps of the apartment tonight, which surprised me. No babies running by in diapers, no angry conversations. I walked up the cement stairs and through the glass door smudged with a thousand hand prints. Inside I was met by a hall, a dark staircase on the right, and the smell of cat pee. On the walls and the first door to my left, handwritten notices on sheets of notebook paper announced messages like, “How many times do I have to tell you you are NOT allowed to have animals in the house? The landlord said so himself.” Or, “Do NOT sleep in the stairwells. Cameras are watching.”
The doors were all closed and no one could be seen, but I was pretty sure Matt lived on the third floor. I cautiously stepped onto the flight of stairs. Marnell, by the way, was in Mississippi.
It occurred to me as I climbed that walking into an apartment complex, alone, without knowing where you were going, was marginally daring. However, I remembered a friend and I, a decade and a half before, doing just such a thing in the apartment buildings of Brooklyn, New York, inviting children to VBS, and I took courage.
I reached the third floor and looked around at the closed doors. I finally chose one and knocked.
“I have no idea,” a young black man told me when I stated the name of the person I was looking for (which as you might guess is not actually Matt), before summarily shutting the door.
I stood hesitantly in the dimness and considered my options. I would just have to find his phone number, I decided, and ask him which apartment he lived in. I headed down.
As I descended, I met a man coming up. He had a pleasant expression and a backpack on his back, and was climbing the stairs with confidence and speed.
“Hmmm….” he said pleasantly, “I’m not sure, but I know someone who knows everyone.”
He let himself into an apartment at the top of the stairs, then re-appeared.
“They aren’t home,” he apologized.
I descended again. This time, I decided to knock on the door with handwritten notices posted on it. Sure enough, it opened.
“Are you the landlord?” I asked.
“I’m the manager,” the woman said, looking me over suspiciously.
“I’m a nurse from the hospital,” I said, “And I’m here to see Matt. Do you know where he lives?”
I wasn’t exactly coming as a nurse, but I thought I should say that to decrease my chances of being kicked out. Sure enough, the woman’s face relaxed into a smile, showcasing her few teeth.
“I know where he lives,” she said. “Come, I’ll show you.”
I had a nice chat. He was doing well, and told me a little more about his life and struggles, which had been many.
A few days later I returned with Marnell.
“So nice of you to come back with your man,” he said.
By this time, I was beginning to think about my geranium project. Flowers seem to have a good effect on people, and it was time to distribute them to my neighbors on Brady Street. I had never brought them so far, but, then I had never had contacts inside the apartments before.
“Do you think,” I asked, “that people would like to have flowers at the front of the apartment?”
He gave me the landlords contact. On the way out, we checked with the manager, who said she would be happy to water them.
A few days passed before I had time to check with the landlord.
“Matt told me about this,” he said. “I think that’s just fine. The older I get, the more I appreciate flowers.”
So this morning, for the first time, we took the large pots of tiny flowers to the front steps of the huge apartment buildings. By we, I mean of course Marnell, and also my neighbor Michael who doggedly stuck it out with us for three hours. By we I also mean Marnell’s dad, who wasn’t with us in person, but was well represented by his trailer which simplified the process immensely.
The manager was walking back from Dairy Queen with food and drink. She announced that she was going to take pictures of the pots, because, “excuse my language, but there are some air-heads living here. If anyone starts destroying these flowers, I’ll know.”
They look alone and small there now. As we drove away, they bent in the wind blowing in ahead of the weekend rain. It will be impossible to protect them if someone wants to destroy them. They are too far from my house for me to keep an eye on them more than casually as I drive by.
But if they survive… I have faith that they will speak the words that every person walking down those steps needs to hear… there is still beauty in the world, and every day it grows…
I want them there for Matt, as he recovers and grows stronger. I want them there for the young guy who first answered the door, and for the nicer guy with the backpack, and for the people in the apartment who “know everyone”. I want them there for the babies running around in diapers and for the fighting women and for the manager who tries to expel the animals and for the people sleeping in the stair well.