mr. ross

Mr. Ross is 85 years old.  He lives a couple blocks up from Woodfolk House on Ridge St, in the same house he’s lived in for over 50 years.  Mr. Ross is one of these old timers who remembers when most of the houses in the neighborhood were horse and cow pastures.  He remembers when Ridge St. ended just a couple houses down from his, when the fields beyond hosted fairs and carnivals in years past.

“My wife grew up in the house next to the one there on the corner,” he tells me, pointing a long, thin finger across the street. “Her father helped build their house, the one next to it, and the one across the street.”  He tells me the quintessential stories of how no one used to lock their doors.  “Everyone in this neighborhood, all the way down Cherry Ave, used to own their houses.  Now people come in from all over the place.”

In his time, Mr. Ross worked as: a landscaper in Alexandria, VA (a suburb of DC), a hot dog vendor, as part of an auxiliary crew laying railroad tracks in West Virginia, for a moving company in Charlottesville, and as a small-time mechanic.  He’s got twin sons in their 60’s and one son in his 50’s, and a whole messa grandkids (including another set of twins).  He’s got a million stories to tell.

We heard about Mr. Ross from our new friend and collaborative gardener Bess, who lives two doors down from him on Ridge Street.  She met him as neighbors are suppose to meet; both them out in their yards, sayin’ hi and chattin’.  Bess told us that he’d been gardening for forever, but was starting to get too old for it.

Given our ambitions we of course wanted to meet him and see if we could help him continue to garden.  Bess walked over to his house once with Kassia one day, but he wasn’t home.  Nervousness kept us away for three more weeks.  “You don’t need me to introduce you,” Bess said to me.  “He loves to talk.  He won’t think it’s weird if you just go over there.”

And so it was.  Before we’d even managed to tell him our names, he’d invited us inside, whacking (literally, with a paddle) his dog out of the way as it tried to slobber on us.  “It’s part pit-bull, part lab, a friend gave her to me.  I didn’t really want a dog, but since I’m all alone here I thought I should take her.”  We told him about gardening with Bess and asked him about his garden.

For 54 years he’d grown vegetables in his yard.  Every year, until last year when his tiller broke down.

“Do you have a tiller?” he asked when we suggested helping him out.  He had several interesting stories about various tillers either derilect in his basement or lost in repair mishaps.  We could probably arrange something, we told him.

This was not a business meeting.  Discussion of logistics was minimal and punctuated by extended tangents detailing the history of the neighborhood, his family tree, and how he’s glad his children did not “hang out in the streets.”

The Patchwork Farms collective participated in a neighborhood organizing and community gardening training at Quality Community Council recently.  They set it up for us and a few of their regular volunteers.  Among the topics covered was a basic aspect of their approach in working with the community, including the equation: Trust = Honest + Time.  Honesty includes integrity, doing what you say you’re going to do, which is a sore spot for the African-American community in C’ville.  There have been a lot of broken promises from the city that have left a once vibrant and thriving social and economic hub in ruins. (For more on this, check out  http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/afam/raceandplace/index.html and http://tinyurl.com/endofblackculture)

Karen Waters, QCC’s executive director, said, yes, it might be possible to use their tiller.  Maybe this could be a pilot endeavor for some kind of project helping elderly community members to continue having gardens.  Maybe this could somehow feed into the larger community garden project down on 6th St.

I went and visited Mr. Ross again today, a week after our first meeting.  It took a moment but he remembered who I was.  Again, it was not a business meeting.  I asked him more probing questions about the neighborhood and his life, fascinated to hear about what seems like a whole other world that no longer exists but echos around this world I inhabit.

Of course, I had an agenda, and to the best of my knowledge I was honest about that.  I asked him if he knew about QCC.  Yes, but I never had any dealings with them, he said.  I told him a couple of the ideas of how working his garden might contribute to QCC’s urban gardening efforts.  “Maybe people could come help out, get tokens that they could redeem at the QCC markets, and any excess produce from your garden could go there.”  He seemed open but didn’t directly respond.  He was interested in accepting the loan of the tiller, or maybe renting one.

But again, mostly I was there to learn, to get to know him a little better, to put in the time it takes to be part of a community.

I know something about this.  I know how different my life at Twin Oaks was after being there 8 years, how much more integrated into the community I became.  And that was a much smaller, more intentional community, more culturally familiar, where the rules are more spelled out.  I feel like I’m starting over, and it terrifies me.  The only thing that gives me any sense of comfort is that if nothing else I know that I’ve learned how to learn better, and maybe I’m a little more patient than I was 10 years ago (though I’m probably more stubborn). I feel very grateful to QCC for the guidance and ideas they’ve already given.  I think I’d feel very lost at sea without them.

In some ways, meeting Mr. Ross and spending a little time with him feels very small.  I don’t have a clear sense of where it’s going or what it’s value is.  But I also think it doesn’t matter.  Simply the fact that doing it scares me and that I’m overcoming it seems important.  Giving this old man a chance to share about his life seems important.  My just listening seems important.  Am I changing the world by doing this, making the world a better place?  I don’t really know.  I think so.  It feels right.

At some point today, as we sat there, we looked across the street to where a little boy and girl were playing around the car their father was cleaning out.  I could tell we both had a similar feeling about them.

“I grew up in a whole different world then you did,” I said to Mr. Ross.  “And they’re growing up in a whole different world from the one I did.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” said Mr. Ross. “Yes, Lord.”

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~ by skybluestar on April 28, 2009.

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