Entry: Good Neighbor Exercise Friday, May 21, 2010

Good Neighbor Exercise

I live in a house that has a small porch at sidewalk level. It is never used for "porch-sitting. It is too small -- too immediate to the thoroughfare. And at the back we have a deck for sitting and watching the New York skyline. In front I keep a small yard that I like to think of as "woodland glen." There are two small trees (both have been given cute names) and pachysandra and hostas and they blend into a nice, green green palate. I have to sweep and rake pretty regularly. I've come to realize that I take this opportunity to speak to neighbors -- mostly greeting and smiling. I've come to enjoy raking and sweeping. There is something gainful, busy, useful, responsible, caring and considerate about sweeping the sidewalk. I always respect businesses that sweep their part of the thoroughfare. Municipal services only go so far. I recollect that when we lived in Harlem -- at the corner of 151st and Amsterdam -- in a busy, gritty neighborhood. It seemed almost impossible to keep ahead of what people threw away without a care. Butterfly McQueen, the legendary actress-comedienne who played Prissy in the film, Gone With The Wind, did her part. We remember seeing her sweeping the sidewalk directly in front of the elementary school, P.S. Something Something, that was on Amsterdam Avenue between 143rd and 144th. It was a simple commitment to clean up the entrance so that the children would not begin the day entering a trash-strewn building. Some people laughed and said she was nuts.
My mother was committed to keeping the front of her house and the sidewalk adjoining it trash free. This is never, ever an easy job. She was sensitive to what was said about African Americans -- as citizens and homeowners. Me, too. So, even if I didn't enjoy sweeping, I'd do it.
I remember the morning my mother pretended to sweep the porch so that she could watch the happenings a few porches down the street. The woman's second baby came faster than her first had and she was caught at home and the EMS people came and had to deliver the baby in the house. The woman's better friends were racing back and forth trying to help and my mother was gathering intelligence. By the time we were in that working-middle neighborhood of northwest D.C. some rural ways were good and gone. Nobody really did a lot of porch-sitting. And after air conditioning, folks gave it up altogether. So it became that sidewalk sweeping was how people hailed and recognized each other.
Anyway, it is good exercise. It is gentle, but can be gorilla cardio if you want to get ambitious. In the fall, the leaf imperative usually gives you chance to see how tall folks' kids got and what super hero/character is the big noise with the elementary school backpackers. I get a bit nostalgic recollecting Butterfly McQueen and my mother and father and all of the careful, circumspect aspirants to middle-class who brought their brooms out to the public thoroughfare.
I've joined neighborhood clean-ups where I now live. But I'm more enthusiastic about regular, sidewalk maintenance and the opportunities for petting other peoples' dogs and admiring the children, bemoaning the lack of parking and giving voice to yourself. I'm really trying to encourage more audible "good mornings" and "good evenings" among my diverse, but often suspicious neighbors. Yes, yes, sweeping and dogs are a good way to meet the other people on your block. And you exercise your body and your spirit of community civility.


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