Wednesday, May 23, 2007

In Derek's Lovely Garden

I'm sure that my family thought that I was reaching for my last bit of gray matter when I decided that I wanted to live in the inner city. Having grown up in a rural setting, idyllic at times with it's rolling hills, beautiful autumn colors and striking pale green lace in spring. I thought it was time to break the Bryant tradition and I was heading for the city. This year I will have lived in Indianapolis for 11 years. All of it in the same apartment building, all but one year in my, “cat bird seat” that looks out over Pennsylvania Street. Disregard what some say, time flies, good time or bad and yet there are days that it drags its feet like it were wearing cement boots.

While I have been perched on the second floor of this building for the last many years I have seen things that I have found shocking, simply funny, incredibly amazing, sad, tragic and a few things that have caused me to scratch my head wondering how this or that feat was accomplished. In the time that I have lived here there have been three shootings, one of which I was witness to seeing the gunslingers escape through the building. While I couldn't see them distinctly, I learned that because it was a drug deal gone bad that the city detectives had no intention of working too hard on the case. I was told by one cavalier gum shoe that, “they are only policing themselves.” I reminded him that every person is mourned by someone and that his assumption was much less than appreciated in my home and I showed him the door, this was on his second and last visit.

For fear of making it sound like living in the inner city is horrible, I want to remind you that I said that it can be shocking, that's not always bad, sometimes I wonder just how a drag queen can wear a hat that big and how all those lights can be powered for so long and where's the power plant that's running it? Simply funny was watching a man try to unload a U Haul across the street trying to fend off the drug dealers who work the street trying to, “help” the mover for the price of a cold beer, make that any kind of beer in appreciation for their efforts. Amazing: the wind that kicked up a plastic grocery bag that floated around through the air for what seemed like hours. I sat mesmerized while watching it float and flutter and then be violently kicked back up into the air to float about two stories above the street level from where it came. Just like the scene in American Beauty.

And then I think of the tragic, but the story isn't the usual tragedy, at least I don't see it as that, and the man that this story is about wouldn't see it that way either. A couple of years back, I noticed that a young man who lived in the building across the street was coming along very nicely on his gardening project. Until this spring he worked at putting a lot of back breaking work into preparing a small space next to his apartment building that had a bit of a park like feel to it, though neglected for a long time he decided that it was time to do his part at leaving the world better than he found it. He begged, scrounged and was graciously offered plants from several sources for his project. He had a few generous benefactors who provided him with three nice Bradford Pear trees, enough Rose of Sharon to plant a hedge and he resourcefully used one of these plants as a centerpiece for his garden. He mulched, he planted mint, ivy, some day lilies, ground covers, all from starts scrounged and snitched. By the middle of the spring that year I noticed that his garden had become quite the lovely place.

That June I was offered some tree starts and I thought that the gardener across the street might like to have them to plant. The word on the street was that he liked to plant his garden from donations, making the job a bit more of a challenge. I crossed the street one afternoon and told him that I had access to some pine starts, nice starter plants, white pines and would he like to have them? He was taken aback, someone was being kind to him instead of making wisecracks. He was pleased I think because I'm not one of the drug dealers who work the area on a regular basis and I wasn't complaining about how his plants were in the way of their “hiding places.” His demeanor changed and he accepted the plants with grace and appreciation. I made arrangements to meet him there the next day to deliver his trees.

The next evening he told me that he recently had been diagnosed with a very sever kidney ailment and the he was told that without dialysis he wouldn't live long. It hurt me the same way that the news would if it were from a member of my own family. After all, in the last nine years I had watched him raise a puppy in this space and train him to be one of the most obedient dogs I have ever seen. (All he had to do was hold the chain leash up and the dog walked into its opening and began to walk across the parking lot. I know children that aren't that well trained, not that I advocate children on leashes.) I had watched over the last few years as he prepared his garden space and began to squirrel plants, in fact it became a bit selfish of me because I enjoyed seeing his garden from my perch above the street, I had the perfect view of his garden. I had seen him carry copious amounts of water to the garden and I sat and watched from my apartment as he filled his watering can and watered in the cool of the evening or while he held a coffee cup at sunrise. He later shared that he had a compromised immune system and that fighting his kidney issue was becoming even harder. I learned that he had been shunned by his family for actions taken in his life. A few days later he said that his intention was that if he died soon he wanted his and the dog's cremains spread under the plants that he had tended so well. A fitting tribute to his gardening I thought.

A few weeks passed and I didn't see him in his garden. When he returned I told him that I had missed him and was concerned about him. “You were?” he asked. I inquired about his absence and he said that someone—I knew who—had pulled up his day lilies, that another had as a matter of fact taken a weed eater to his ground cover, freshly planted creeping myrtle. He was understandably discouraged. He said he couldn't face the garden and he had been taking his dog for walks in other directions away from the garden.

A few evenings later, after a bit of a windstorm, I noticed that a man who ran drugs through the neighborhood usually on a bike, was pulling on the branches of the big stately box elder tree that has been a part of the garden for many many years. It was in the corner of the garden and the branch gracefully arced out over the side walk providing shade for a couple of the neighborhood's elderly women who gathered now and again for a bit of what I suspected was, “news swapping.” The bike rider pulled and tugged and yanked, I finally had to walk away I couldn't stand to watch any longer. The branch had not been damaged in the windstorm, but the mobile dealer couldn't stand on his bike pedals and clear the branches. When I rose the next morning, I opened the curtains and saw that the branch had been dismembered and tossed into the garden, breaking some of the Rose of Sharon hedge. I cried, tears rolled down my cheeks like raindrops down a window pane.

How must the gardener felt I thought, he is working to prepare a space for his final resting place only to see it treated like a landfill, or the center for illegal drug distribution? How must he have felt when the flowers that he planted himself to make his part of the world a better place, for not just himself, but for others, it surely hurt to see them plucked from the ground like fresh Vadalia onions? When he heard the whine of the weed eater, did he cringe, did he cry?

It wasn't the end of Derek's lovely garden. Watch for the rest of the story to follow.


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