On futility

A former neighbor of mine moved out of his multi-family house this year, opting to rent it instead. He didn’t move far, and he comes back from time to time to check on the place. The tenants have changed several times over the two years I’ve been here to watch. One of them seems to be a steward of the property. It is good to have a steward who lives in the building. Too many landlords don’t bother to see to things like sweeping out front. This tenant makes an attempt to do that job once in a while—a praiseworthy effort on a street where the norm is to neglect care and attention to the curb.

After the man sweeps, everything is piled on the tree belt. Over the summer the pile was a tall, narrow column of blackened goo dotted with white bits of styrofoam cup pieces and glass shards. Today it is a long, flat potpourri covering the entire tree belt in front of the house: mostly leaves, but with a good helping of plastic bottles, discarded paper wrappings (people toss them out of their windows as they drive by), and a few pieces of large gravel.

The gravel comes from the numerous potholes on the street, which the DPW annually patches up, sometimes by filling the holes without a top layer of asphalt. Toppings of asphalt tend to break up quickly, not bonding with the existing, much-hardened asphalt. Repeated wear and tear, along with the buoyant effect of pounding rain and swelling puddles, brings up the gravel and scatters it around the street. It gravitates to the curbside, where it becomes a collection ground for water run-off and the litter and leaves that wash away with it.

While the piles seem like the result of an unfinished job, it’s further along than most of us get when it comes to clean-up efforts. It’s when the trash and leaves start flying around, landing in the yards of other houses on the street, that we might start to view the unfinished job as more of a liability than an asset. At least when it’s all clumped in the curbside, it stays there, and only causes ponding by clogging the storm drains when we get a lot of rain. I’ve grown to regard the tree-belt pile as a sort of museum of the street’s trash, a seasonal exhibit.

I believe in this tenant’s good intentions after seeing his efforts, and I want to get to a point where some conversation can take place. It’s taking time. Some months ago I watched him share a marijuana joint with two visiting men. Visitors often come by for car-repair work. Smelling pot smoke in my back yard is nothing new, but usually it’s a little further away and I can’t always see its place of origin. This time I called the police non-emergency number. "Is he outside smoking right now?" the dispatcher asked me.

"No, he was doing it five minutes ago," I responded, cursing myself for wasting precious minutes debating whether or not the call was warranted.

"We can’t do anything about it if he’s not doing it right now, and we can’t go into the house. Talk with the owner," I was told. "He can notify the Narcotics Bureau."

I tried to look up the landlord’s phone number, which is not listed. My next option was to wait and watch for the landlord to show up. To my surprise, he did, not 20 minutes later. I noticed him standing on the sidewalk, next to his parked car, talking with the fellow who had been smoking. I wondered if he was buzzed, and if the owner could tell. It occurred to me that I was going to have a hard time talking with the owner about the situation with the tenant standing there.

Minutes passed. I watched the probably-buzzed tenant drive away in his car, and then seized the moment to see if I could talk with the owner, whose car was still parked out front. I just wanted to ask for his phone number, having decided that was an important first move. Two other tenants were standing in the driveway on this warm, sunny mid-day. They told me the landlord had just stepped out. I realized he was likely a passenger with the steward-neighbor, and wondered again if he could tell the guy was a little buzzed, this time driving. All sorts of thoughts flashed through my mind about what activity they could possibly be doing. Since that day I’ve lost all courage on the matter.

Author: Heather Brandon

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