I heard the doorbell ring while I was cutting up the watermelon in the kitchen this evening. Almost immediately I heard my eager 9 year old greet someone at the door. “Maa, can you come?!” He yelled back at me.
I put the knife away and careful not to drip on my way to the sink, washed my hands and began walking towards the front door fully expecting a Bible study mentor, a tree service recommendation, a girl scout cookie guilt trip that I am about to take, a neighbor with a request to collect her mail while she goes on yet another vacation and a lot more.
Smiling at me was this guy I had met last year for the first time. He and I share a bond. Of course, there is the always present human to human one, but this is more than the basic. I am the home owner and he is the gutter cleaner.
“Hey you, how are you doing??!” I didn’t recall his name right away, so I used the Seinfeld technique, something that he suggests you do when you don’t recall an acquaintance’s name when you meet him on the street.
“I am fine, how about you? How is Chaz doing? I was in the neighborhood, I thought I will just say hello!”
“Thanks Henry, I appreciate that, we have been well, Chaz is well, still finishing up his MBA at Tech. He won’t be home until 9!” I said as I brought back his name to the forefront of my brain.
“Yeah, I remember, he had just started last year, when I came by for the first time.”
“Hey, thanks for stopping by, say hi to your girl, hope you are taking good care of her.” I am unsure how it came across to people, but there is a general undertone of well-meaning patronization to how I reply to people. After all, there are plenty of assurances around, running water, a good strong roof over my head, loads of food in the pantry and the refrigerator. I will survive, and there is no reason whatsoever to complain.
“Tell you what, I wanted to show you my brother-in-law Jeff, he helps me in my business. Jeffy!” He turned his back to me and shouted over to the guy who was looking at us from the driver’s seat in the Isuzu Rodeo. The car must be atleast 20 years old. You can’t un-remember such cars.
Last year when he knocked on the door offering to clean our gutters, I watched him from my kitchen window climbing up and down the ladder in the backyard in the rags that he called clothes. The sight squeezed my heart so much that it hurt me physically and morally. I ran upstairs to our closets to glean for all the old and unused clothes that I could find. It did not matter to me that I was packing my 12 year old Shivani’s clothes and 9 year old Shivam’s clothes. He must surely have kids or have someone in his life who could use the girl and boy clothes. I then gathered a few of Chaz’s clothes that I did not want him to wear anymore.
I filled up three empty trash bags and ran out to the lawn where Chaz was standing and overseeing Henry’s work. To his confusion and annoyance, I held up a few shirts from one of the bags and told him that the cleaner needed them. Towards the end of his clean up, I walked up to him while he waited on Chaz to write a check for 125$. I gave him a cup of water and pointed at the three bags that were sitting next to one of the shrubs on the lawn. “What’s your name? I have a few clothes that I can give, do you need them? There are kids clothes in there too.”
“It’s Henry! Yeah, sure, how did you know I needed clothes? I have a little girl at home, she could use some too!!” He had laughed generously as if he was making fun of his own poverty.
Chaz and I held hands and stood on our lawn for a long time staring at the grass under our feet, long after Henry had left after loading his trunk with the bags. We felt thankful for all the opportunities, our privileges, our lives, our children, our grass and our clean gutters.
Jeff looked a lot like Henry with his blonde hair covering his dirty face and ears and had similar mannerisms. His short sleeved shirt barely covered his arm tattoos. His jeans covered him not with cloth but with many holes and twigs. It reminded me of the first time I had seen Henry.
“Hi, nice to meet you Jeff! So, I see you guys get along really well?!” I joked.
“What now?” Jeff asked.
“Yup, that’s right, he is my wife’s brother, and we all live together in Mableton. We gotta get along!” Henry patted on Jeff’s back to which he smiled at both of us timidly.
“Great, thanks for stopping by!” I said and asked them if they needed water before heading back home to which they declined. I told them I was getting ready to take my son to his music class and we retreated to our indoor and outdoor spaces politely.
A few minutes later as I was pulling out of the garage I saw that the Isuzu Rodeo was still idling next to our post box. Henry was standing next to the passenger window, his arms and head leaning into the car. I was annoyed about three things, the heat outdoors at 7pm in late August, the thought that Henry surely should have known that I didn’t intend on cleaning my gutters every year when the first time I got it done was after a jaw-dropping 12 years, and three that those guys hadn’t left as I had hoped.
I reversed my car completely out of the drive way and then pulled alongside the curb a little further away but in walking distance to his car. I sat there for a couple of seconds and got out of the car. I saw Henry’s head retreat out of the car window and he started walking towards me smiling.
My heart beat faster. I wished hard that a car would go by and witness what was about to unfold. How are my kids holding up in the car seats? Should something happen, will all my teachings bear fruit? They know where I hide my cell phone in my purse, they should be able to find it if they had to. I shouldn’t have trusted my gut that first time when I felt sorry for Henry. His eyes are red. Did I not notice them earlier? He had almost slipped from our roof. He must have been drunk. Not sure what he did with that check that day. I can imagine him going back to his dirty home. I should have known better, people have natural instincts molded by communities and childhood they are subjected to. People never change. Now all his tattoos were crawling up to my face and irritating me. He must have seen my new BMW X5. He must have heard the roar of it’s brand new engine. His car had cockroaches everywhere; they scurried out when he opened the trunk to put those bags. I should have never told him Chaz was not home.
As he walked closer, I noticed for the first time he was wearing my husband’s Rush concert T-shirt from the year 2000 that I had given him that day. Chaz had it for 13 years before I stuffed it into the bag and handed it off to Henry.
“Hey, you don’t happen to have any shirts that Jeff could use, do you? He could really use a couple of them if you can spare. Thanks.” I stayed frozen in place but not in time.
As if to admonish me it started raining gently. I thought of Shakespeare. It was as if he was reminding me of what I had read about, tweeted, quoted, and blogged about many times. “The quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” We are all, after all, products of each other’s mercy after relaxing our presumptions.
Presumptions drown empathy, but empathy drowns fears. There is little hope for a person who chooses to identify with only his version of cultural comprehensions of the society he lives in. Sometimes thoughtless actions can be more life changing than the ones with deliberate thoughts. Sometimes it takes just a moment to realize that you are still dirt poor at your heart.