Sunday, November 22, 2009

Neighborhood Characters

Just before school started I wrote about Woodland Park’s experience with a homeless person squatting in our courtyard playground and how it took a biohazard clean-up team and a new higher fence with a lock to make sure he didn’t come back. In that post I tried to draw connections between that man and the broader problem of homelessness in our city.

I’ve since learned more of the truth about our summertime house guest. His name is Atticus (a pseudonym due to the fact that he is actually the namesake of one of our students). I’ve had interactions with him before. At least four years ago, long before we raised the fence to its current 7-foot height, this scruffy character leaned across our wall as we played outside. He appeared more unsavory than dangerous, but I’m ultimately responsible for the safety of 20+ children and a half dozen young women. (I know that’s sexist, of course these grown-up women can take care of themselves, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to the protective impulses.) I positioned myself next to him and asked, “What can I do for you?”

“I’m just watching the kids play.”

I assumed he was in the area because of the Wednesday afternoon soup kitchen that operates out of St. John’s Lutheran Church across the street. “I see. Are you here for lunch? It looks like they’ve opened their doors.”

We watched a clutch of guys filing into St. John’s for a moment before he answered, “Those guys are a bunch of drunks. I’ll wait ‘til their done eating.”

That ploy having failed I was trying to think of another friendly way to tell him to beat it when he said, “I’m in charge of those guys.”

I’d occasionally found people sleeping on our porch in the morning, even way back then, so I figured I’d take advantage of having the ear of their boss, “Really? Would you tell them not to sleep in here? I don’t care if they sleep on the other side of the building, but this is where kids play.”

He took me seriously. “So, they can sleep up on the Phinney (Ave.) side, but not here? I’ll let them know.” And with that he shuffled off across the street, ostensibly to pass on the message. All I cared about what that I’d gotten rid of him without conflict, but an interesting thing happened. It may have been coincidence, but from that day until last summer we never again had a problem with guys sleeping in our courtyard. I often noticed bedrolls up on the Phinney side of the building, but not in our area.

I spotted Atticus around the neighborhood after that, usually alone, often carrying flowers he’d plucked from someone’s garden, not apparently in charge of anything. But one morning as I was setting up for class, I noticed him struggling with the latch on our gate, then finally coming into the courtyard. He was carrying flowers, what looked like a baby food jar, and a long piece of wood with a rusty nail sticking out of one end. We have an old row boat out there for the kids to play in and Atticus carefully arranged his items on its bench, putting the flowers in the impromptu vase. He then shuffled across the courtyard and knocked on the door. I really didn’t have time for this, but I answered it anyway.

“I need to come in.”

“I can’t let you in. If you’re looking for the soup kitchen, it’s across the street.”

He seemed agitated, “I need to come in.”

“I’m sorry, but I have to get ready for school. There’s no one else here. You’re going to have to leave.” I tried to keep my voice steady and friendly, but firm.

That’s when he lost it, “What are you doing in there?! I’m the teacher of this school! I have to come in and get ready for the kids!”

Atticus is an older guy, skinny, and obviously feeble. I wasn’t afraid of him as much as I was concerned that dealing with him would take up the rest of my morning and I wouldn’t be ready when the children arrived. “Listen, I don’t have time to argue with you. I’m going to shut the door now and I expect you to clear out.” I then followed through, but he did not. Instead Atticus went back to his collection of objects, climbed into the row boat and got to work arranging them. Once it became clear he was settling in, I phoned 9-1-1 using the fact that he was “armed” with a piece of wood with a nail embedded in it as a way to urge a rapid response.

When the cop arrived I stepped outside to meet him, but he didn’t need me. Instead he turned to the intruder. “Atticus,” that’s when I learned his name, “I thought we talked about this. You’re supposed to stay away from the churches.” Atticus sheepishly gathered his things and left. I thanked the police officer who told me he was “harmless,” but to call again if he came back.

Over the next couple years, people from the neighborhood told me stories about Atticus and not all of them were convinced he was harmless, but no one could think of an instance when he went beyond yelling. I’m pretty sure Monkey’s Mama’s post from last month, Fun Stealer, was about Atticus. He seems to fancy himself a friend and protector of childhood.

I’ve now learned that our summer squatter was indeed Atticus, apparently forgetting his promise to sleep on the Phinney Avenue side of the building. I’ve also learned that he’s not homeless. He has his own apartment in the neighborhood. I wonder if he doesn’t just get lonely and take to the streets for companionship.

I haven’t seen him in awhile. I hope he’s okay. After all, he’s our neighbor.

I was inspired to write this update by former Woodland Park parent Julie Howe Gwinn, who has a wonderful piece about the importance of neighborhood characters up on her blog right now. Check it out

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Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

(Gulp)I have tears in my eyes. He probably is harmless and just enjoys watching the kids and interacting with his neighbors, but like you said, you are responsible for those kids. It breaks my heart to see people who are alone or lonely.

Monkey's Mama said...

I'm pretty sure the fun protector wasn't Atticus. My guy was pretty young and definitely not feeble. I have to say I felt a bit threatened!

Anna G said...

It's such a balance, isn't it, between being a caring, good citizen of your community and a protector and caretaker of a place for children? Thanks for sharing this story.

Reservoir Dad said...

This would have to be close to one of my favourite blog posts ever. Atticus is awesome and I'm always overtaken by a feeling of respect when I encounter someone like this who, for one reason or another, seems to walk around with their finger up at the world and a strange surety about themselves. I give them credit for going about their day with a level of courage that isn't quite available to me (again, for one reason or another.) I was a youth support worker for ten years, before becoming a stay-at-home-dad, and meeting people like this is one of the few things I miss about the job. Thanks.

Unknown said...

It breaks my heart to know that there are people that don't have anyone to love them. It really breaks my heart. I wish I could invite him over for dinner. Or for story telling. Or for a hug.