Sweeping in Change
Sweeping In Change
by Alison Barnet
Wednesday Apr 6, 2011
When I walked down my block that fall, there always seemed to be a young, middle-class, white woman angrily sweeping the street in front of the "brownstone" she and her husband had recently bought and were expertly restoring. They had little children-one or two, never three-who weren’t allowed to play with the street kids except while their mothers were outside. Her sweeping was like a social statement, letting us deadbeats know she was a responsible homeowner who cared about improving our crummy street, and we weren’t.
It had never occurred to me that the street was dirty. When other people swept the sidewalk, it was mostly as an excuse to talk to people. Deaf Mrs. Thomas was always out, an old rag on her head, picking up potato chip bags and Styrofoam cups; she always had something to say. At the other end of the block was Warren, an extremely pleasant man who took every opportunity to lean on his broom and discuss any subject under the sun. This was when it was a pleasure to walk down my street.
Bill and Edie, another new couple, invited me for a drink in their backyard. Cocktails in the backyard, grown-up drinks like gin and tonic, were becoming fashionable on East Springfield St. We’d never thought of it before, probably because backyards were for taking out the garbage and, at my house, my landlady’s dog’s bathroom. Bill and Edie had a nice backyard, all cleaned up, no ailanthus or "ghetto" trees-we had one sticking straight up through our garbage shed.
Like other new neighbors, they were renovating all five floors into attractive, open, and artsy space for themselves-no tenants. Their big kitchen with its shiny red stove was in stark contrast to my two makeshift kitchens with their broken refrigerators and hotplate on legs, to say nothing of my landlady’s sleep-kitchen with its small black greasy stove and wall made of old bureaus.
Suddenly, my apartment no longer seemed like the find of a century. The conditions under which I lived-the sagging upholstery, dim lighting, and landlady who wouldn’t let me take up a rug-began to seem odd. The new neighbors didn’t think my landlady was remarkable and didn’t understand why I did her shopping and went to the library for her. They wondered why she didn’t just sell the house and go into a nursing home.
Mary did worry me now and then, like the time she had roof repairs done and couldn’t get up the stairs to look at the finished job. When the roofer came down, she was sitting on the edge of her couch looking as vulnerable as a just-hatched bird. Opening her checkbook, she said, "Now, I’m sure you’ve done a marvelous job. How much do I owe you?"
Bill and Edie were about my age; Edie was competent and no nonsense; her husband, an art teacher, mellower, with a wry sense of humor. At the neighborhood meetings we started attending together, he would make drawings illustrating the things people said. Once he slipped me a drawing of two faces stuck together: "I think we should meet them eyeball to eyeball."
I recognized we were peers. Why then did I always feel so uncomfortable around them and the other new people too? I was a peer but in the poor cousin department. I lived in an apartment-on only one floor!-owned nothing, and was in no position to fix things up. Had I ever wanted it otherwise? Everyone laughed at my stories about the strange people who lived in my house, but there was always that "our dear old Alison" ring to it. They were marching with the times, while I was "resistant to change." I knew the recent history of the neighborhood, but they spoke authoritatively, tossing around words like "Victorian" and "authentic."
The neighborhood’s old people, mostly poor and black, would soon be moving into one of the apartment buildings for the elderly and disabled the city was in the process of building. One of these brick "warehouses" was diagonally across Washington Street; and, although called Washington Manor, was far from grand. Identical structures were going up on Tremont, Northampton, and St. Botolph streets, all with equally pompous names. Mary would be unhappy in one of those places. What would happen to her?