Something happened to me this week that was funny, unexpected and quite interesting. I started a month-long Healthy Neighborhoods Walking Tour last Sunday near one of the corridors of my home city of Biddeford that hugs the Saco River. Given that it was quite blustery and wet out, attendance was a little sparse but the walk was still pleasant and I got to learn more about our neighborhoods and what issues have impacted them for the last few decades. I’m looking forward to the next 6 walks in the coming days and weeks because they give me an opportunity to be “in the trenches”, as they say. You really can’t understand the place you live in if you don’t walk its streets and talk with your neighbors.
The day after this first in a series of 7 walks, I was at home in my office working on a project when my cell phone rang. I didn’t recognize the incoming number, but could tell by the exchange that it was a local call.
“Hello.”, I answered.
“Well, hello young fella! Is this Daniel Parenteau?”, the voice on the other end asked.
“Yes, it is. How may I help you?”
“This is Ernest!” , he stated as though I would instantly know who he was.
I quickly scanned my mental rolodex: Client? Friend? Acquaintance? I came up with nothing. Now what?
“Oh. Hey, Ernest. How are things?”
“Well, you know, every day I wake up ABOVE the ground is a gift!”
Ok, I’m thinking to myself. This guy has my sense of humor – as blind calls go, this was heading in the right direction was my thought.
He went on, “Listen, I am calling you to apologize. See, my granddaughter told me about the walk from Mechanics Park on Sunday and I really wanted to meet you but couldn’t make it. I’m sorry.”
Turns out his granddaughter is a girl I graduated from high school with who had told Ernest about the event.
“No worries, Ernest! Sometimes things happen and we can’t do some of the things we set out to. Like they say, the best laid plans and all that. Hey, I have 6 more walks this month – maybe you can make one of those.”
“Well, maybe I might be able to do that. We’ll see. I really wanted to walk with you here. I have a hard time getting around, you see, and I know a lot of the history in this neck of the woods. I know everything there is to know about this neighborhood.”
I could tell from his voice that he was genuinely disappointed. It was also very clear that he loved his neighborhood and possessed so much first-hand knowledge of where he lived. Suddenly, I felt like I had missed this really great opportunity to get closer to this neighborhood.
“Tell you what, Ernest. How about if I come out your way in the next day or two and meet up with you? We can talk about whatever you’d like and you can teach me about your neighborhood.”
After a long pause came, “You mean to tell me that you would be willing to come back out here just to meet up and talk with me?”
“Yep. That’s what I’m telling you. What do you say?”
We arranged a time to meet for the next day at 8:00 am. Apparently, Ernest is a morning person. He chose the time and emphatically made it a point to say 8:00 am “sharp”. I met him outside of his Cleaves Street home where he was already busy pulling weeds and pitching stones away from his front stoop. He greeted me with a broad smile and probably the strongest handshake I’ve ever received in my life. Ernest was short, stocky and powerful. My Dad used to say that guys like that were “built like a fireplug”. I never really understood that phrasing until that day.
He started off by telling me he was surprised that I would take time out of my schedule to walk with only one citizen. I told him that numbers were really secondary to the chance to hear a living history from a place that I have called home for the last 50 years. And with that, we started our walk. I could instantly see what Ernest meant before when he stated that he had a hard time getting around. He told me that he had a form of gout that made walking very difficult on some days. With that in mind, I made sure to walk slowly.
What a walk it was! I quickly learned that Ernest had lived in his home his entire life. In fact, he was born in that very same house. His parents worked in the mills, and he attended local schools through the 6th grade. He left school at an early age to go to work and help bring money into the family. His parents were very adamant that Ernest would not toil in the mills so he ended up taking on an apprenticeship with a boat builder at Rumery’s Boatyard. He told me it was far from glamorous, but it was honest work that also helped him develop a muscularity and endurance that he wished he still had. He told me that, in his day, you had three families: your blood family, your church family, and your work family – in that order. The world was not a complex place when Ernest was a younger man. Everything he did was for each of his families. He fought valiantly in the Korean War, he married and started a family, and he was active in his church up until the diocese closed it – a very sad and sensitive period in his life. He got really choked up about this and abruptly changed the topic.
I should mention here that the entire time we walked along Cleaves Street, neighbors would stop what they were doing to say hello to Ernest, ask him how his health was and blurt out funny sayings in French that I, of course, understood growing up in a French family myself. Ernest pointed out house after house and recounted stories of the people who built and lived in them once upon a time. Worried about his legs, I kept asking him if he wanted to head back so that he could rest. He just gave me this look and exhibited this body language that spoke volumes in telling me he could handle anything I could throw at him. I let it go.
He went on to talk about how security and public safety in his neighborhood had changed so much. He cited a rapid infiltration of drugs as one of a few root causes. He thinks that too many people have lost faith in their religion, in the sanctity of family, and in pride in your community. He was quick to point out that he is very tolerant of those with a different sexual orientation, color or faith. He gets frustrated sometimes when people think he isn’t tolerant just because he’s elderly. He’ll talk to and help out anyone if they ask. The problem is, nobody asks anymore. There’s no community spirit and no one trusts anyone. He thinks that the city should have more youth centers and programs that build bridges between the youth and the seniors. He also remembers a time when cops would walk a beat. They became a part of the community and built trust. Everybody knew everybody and you looked out for one another. He thinks that getting back to those days can still happen.
Before we knew it, our circuitous route back to his home came to a close. Honestly, we could have easily talked for hours. I learned so much and got closer to the makeup of this community where I was born and raised. Just before parting ways I had mentioned that I knew this neighborhood rather well since my Grandfather and Uncle used to have a neighborhood store right on Cleaves Street where I worked as a young boy stocking shelves and delivered groceries all over the neighborhood. He looked me dead in the eye and told me that he already knew that. Apparently, his was one of the many families I delivered goods to all those years ago. He told me he remembered me, knew my whole family, and was a fan of my column in one of the local papers. I proceeded to apologize for not remembering him and that I was humbled that he knew so much about me.
“Don’t worry about it!” he said. “You came out here to walk with me not because you may have known me, but because you were genuinely interested in hearing what I had to say. You weren’t obligated, but you did it because you are an earnest man who wants to restore what we once had. You’re the real deal.”
To say that I was speechless would be a grand understatement. If anything, this man was the one who was earnest and passionate about his community. I thought I knew what neighborhoods were all about but Ernest took me to school today. Regardless of what may happen at the polls on November 5th – I feel as though I may have already won because virtually every part of this campaign so far has made me a very rich man – wealthy in the gifts that my neighbors continue to give me. I could have easily brushed Ernest off by deferring him to an upcoming walk. Boy, am I ever glad this went another way.