Little acts can form important connections

Monday, August 25, 2008

For a moment Friday, I wondered if we were in for a repeat of March's floods. It made me think of the March night Rudi Keller and I were out skulking around the flood wall, waiting to see if it would be closed for the first time in five years.

Within minutes we spotted an older red pickup truck and Dave Puchbauer and Gordon Morgan on floodgate duty. Rudi started an interview but couldn't find a pen. I handed him the one I'd been using since 2004, when my children gave it to me for my graduation.

Well, one thing led to another and Rudi ended up trying to help Puchbauer and Morgan move a stubborn floodgate. As the three men pulled on a rope, I snapped some photos, though I missed catching the moment the rope broke and Rudi fell, nearly into the swollen Mississippi River. He was wet but OK; the top of my pen was floating south. Given the circumstances, I wasn't at all mad. The other half of the pen ended up in my pocket, then my planner, largely unused for the ensuing months.

Last week I was delighted to find a replacement part at the bottom of a box in the form of the pen's matching pencil. The pencil mechanism broke two years ago, as all mechanical pencils do in my hands, but I couldn't pitch the thing. Now the pen is ready for the next story, and the pencil is consigned to the junk. I'm learning to let things go, thanks to the mortgage crisis.

I'm one of those million-plus Americans enmeshed in that mess, with a house in Michigan's oversaturated marketplace, where, last I heard, one in eight are in foreclosure. I'm not among them, yet, but have put pretty much everything in the house into storage in hopes of renting it until the market stabilizes. Packing up was a much bigger job than I expected. My friends Roel and Dawn Garcia offered to help.

As we packed (and in some cases pitched) stuff, we talked about why we bought our respective homes, just a few blocks away from one another close to downtown Holland, Mich. Like Cape Girardeau, Holland has about 35,000 residents and the attendant urban problems all cities have. The Garcias and I chose neighborhoods on the cusp of trouble.

Each of our homes was on the cusp of being better, or worse.

To say my house had problems is an understatement. The plumbing didn't function. The floor under the toilet was about gone and the floor covering in the kitchen was worn away. The old boiler-style furnace looked like an octopus but sounded scarier. Some of the wiring had been installed in 1906, the year the house was built. I bought it anyway.

Fixing it became a habit, a hobby, a second job. I learned a lot of lessons and bought a lot of power tools, not necessarily in that order. The bathroom was gutted and reinvented. It's not lavish, but it's a decent little house.

As the house improved, I learned the many little ways in which my neighbors keep our block on the good side of the cusp. One plants flowers, another happily uses his snowblower much farther than his property lines, a third is quick to introduce herself to new arrivals and help them fit in.

The next family to live in my house stands a good chance of becoming part of a community, and I can write this because I know the neighbors.

What do you know about yours?

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