Creating good ripples

Have you ever engaged in an act of spontaneous generosity? My Story Worth question for this week.

We had just harvested timber, so I had the cash. And even though timber harvests are expected and planned parts of our forest enterprise, it still seems like a windfall when decades of waiting come in, so maybe I was more inclined than I might otherwise be to be generous.

I was out in front of Mariza’s house in Baltimore, pulling up some of the landscaping fabric. When they “flipped” her house, they laid the fabric just on top of the dirt and staked it down. It made it look good for a few months, long enough to sell the house, but it was not a long-term solution. Pulling it up along with all the rocks and the plants that have managed to root though the holes is fairly hard work and it was a hot day, so I accepted the offer of the guy who wandered by pulling a lawn mower and some garden tools.

He was a hard-working guy, so I wondered why he seemed to be in such a precarious financial position. He said that he liked to work for himself, and had done okay for some years, but had fallen are harder times lately since he had lost his truck. With a truck, he went on, he could travel farther for business and even employ some of his friends. These are the kinds of enterprises you see advertised as “two guys and a truck,” along with an hourly rate to be paid in cash, usually in advance. Most people are not willing to pay for those two guys w/o a truck.

I asked him if I could lend him money to help him buy a truck. What convinced me that he was an honest man is that he said no. He didn’t know if he could pay it back. It took a while to convince him that I was confident enough to invest in him and that I did not need a quick turnaround. We had a few glitches. I wrote a check, but he did not have a bank account, so got stuck with those fees at the “checks cashed” facilities. I always wondered who used those places.

My father told me that, when he was young, people like him did not have bank accounts, but I figured that those days were passed. I was mistaken.

It would be unfair for me to characterize my friend’s life, since it is not my story to tell. Suffice it to say, our life experiences were different, but we wanted some of the same things. We wanted to take care of our families, be true to our friends, and be respected for the work we did. If I could help this good man do that, it would be worth it.

The truck helped my friend make a living and it helped the people around him. He told me because he had a truck, he could help his neighbors move and drive his kids to events and school. We had an interesting talk about the latter.

Seems he was dropping off his daughter and a cop gave him a ticket for “standing”. He thought that was unfair and as he explained it, I thought it was unfair too. I told him that he should contest the ticket. He averred that it didn’t matter, and he would not be treated fairly no matter. I told him to go to court anyway, if for no other reason than just to make it a little harder on the man. In the end, they dismissed the whole ticket. The outcome surprised him and evidently his friends.

By lending him the money, I showed respect for him and that I wanted to be part of his enterprise. The money was sure important, but I think the dignity was there too. Ours was a relationship of equal adults, interested in a common outcome. That was why it was hard for me to know what to do when he wanted to pay the money back. Not taking the money could be a betrayal of the relationship of mutual respect. Generosity might hurt. Taking the money that he still needed a lot more than I did seemed tawdry.

I got the idea to “pay it forward” from a movie by that name. The movie was silly, but the idea was good, and it worked. I told him that he should put whatever profits thought appropriate into helping his neighbors and his family. I told him that there would be no accounting and I would never ask about it again because I trusted him to do the right thing.

As promised, I never asked, but I think it did help get him over a hump in his life. It has been four years now, so I think we have a success. He kept in touch and kept me in the loop about things, even though I never asked. He is a good man, who deserved my help. It was a blessing to me to be able to give it.

I will be having lunch with him next week for his birthday. I invited him to celebrate his son’s graduation from HS. He sent me copies of his kids’ report cards. They did well.

Update from July 11, 2019
Had lunch with my friend Kevin and his son, KP. I helped Kevin buy a truck a couple years back. He needed it to help him earn his living, which he did gardening and moving. He is one of those “two guys and a truck” you sometimes see advertised. He says it really helped him get over a tough patch in his life and we kept in touch.

I don’t get up to Baltimore much since Mariza moved out. It was fun to walk around the harbor again. I thought I took some pictures, but evidently I did not, except for the “art” picture and the picture of the door of the garage. I take a picture of the place where I park the car when I park in an unfamiliar place. The art pictures are those I take of my figures or just push the button w/o knowing. I guess I just missed on the others or deleted them by mistake. No matter. They were just tourist photos anyway. I do have pictures of Kevin and me, however. We had lunch at Mo’s Seafood and had their signature crab cakes.

Mariza’s new place

The boys and I helped Mariza move into her new place.  It is a very nice place, completely renovated, and they did a really good job. I like the neighborhood.  It is “recovering” but already pretty nice. Within easy walking distance are restaurants, take out places and a Giant.

I know that my impressions are not statistically valid, but I think you can get a feel for a neighborhood by walking around.   It seemed peaceful. One of Mariza’s neighbors, a guy called Greg, introduced himself as we were bringing in stuff. He said that he had lived in the neighborhood for thirty years. It had gone through good and bad times, but things were getting better.  It is the kind of neighborhood where I would be happy to live so I am glad Mariza is there.

Belly Dancing, Changing Baltimore & Unchanging Maryland

Mariza’s uncommon hobby is belly dancing. Actually it isn’t so uncommon. Belly dancing has become fairly popular among women as a fun form of exercise. Mariza hopes to take advantage of that trend to build a successful fitness business around the exercise associated with belly dancing. For now, however, she mostly just gets to dance herself and just about breaks even. Chrissy and I went to see her do it at the Baltimore Aquarium.

Belly dancing really is good for fitness, BTW, and it also does wonders for posture.  Mariza actually measures and inch taller because of it. I am reasonably certain that it is the cause, since she grew this inch when she was already twenty-four. The extra inch is not much advantage in Mariza’s case, since she is already six-feet tall.  But I think that the posture and height improvement could be an important consideration for many.  There is a mismatch. Men generally would be more interested in height enhancement, while women are more interested in belly dancing (at least as participants).  

Baltimore is much improved, at least in many neighborhoods. I still remember when you had to fear crime if you walked even a few blocks away from places like the Inner Harbor, but the area of security has widened. We walked to “Little Italy,” which has become (or become again) a thriving restaurant district. It has a sad side, however. Many of the restaurants and loft apartments are located in old warehouses and factories. These used to be places where working men made the things that made America great. It was a grittier and less pleasant world than that of restaurants and luxury apartments, but its loss is regrettable.

I had to work on Friday, so in order to get to Baltimore in time to see Mariza’s performance; I caught the Metro up to Forest Glen, which is near the Beltway in Maryland. Chrissy picked me up there. I got there a little early and had a chance to see the neighborhood where we lived when I was studying Polish back in 1992. I was surprised how little the area had changed. Given the proximity to the Metro (it takes less than five minutes to walk), I thought for sure that it was a neighborhood in transition. 

I thought that the low density and comfortably shabby settlement patterns would soon be replaced by higher-rises.  But twenty years later I had no trouble recognizing the place. It seems that little has changed.  The old house we lived in was still there, w/o obvious changes. 

One of the interesting things about the neighborhood when I was studying Polish was the presence of the Our Lady Queen of Poland church. We did not choose to live there because of the church, but it was interesting to have it close by. They did mass in Polish and had Polish day care classes, fortuitous for a Polish student.

Fells Point in Baltimore

Chrissy and I went to visit Mariza in Baltimore. It really is a nice city, at least the parts we visit.  Espen and I once turned into a less nice area. It looked like the set for a cop drama; lots of people just hanging around, but these places are being renewed and redeveloped pretty well.

The pictures are from Fells Point, where we went to eat at a place called Kali’s Corner, a seafood restaurant. They had a special menu for restaurant week. I had sea bass; Chrissy got skate, evidently a sting ray & Mariza got the salmon. The Atmosphere was very good; food was okay.

Mariza is doing fine.  Business is picking up a little at Travelers.  Evidently they are at least hiring some new people this year. Above & below are pictures from the windows of Mariza’s new apartment.

The Simple Life

Mariza moved to a new apartment.  It was not far from her old place.  Espen and Mariza’s boyfriend – Chris – helped.  Alex had to work.  We had to make a few trips in the pickup truck.   I told her that she has too much stuff, but I don’t suppose that it true in comparison to most other people her age.

I retold the story that when I moved to Madison, I carried everything with me in a duffle and backpack.   It wasn’t really a completely valid comparison.  I didn’t have any furniture because I had apartments that had furnishings.  Mariza doesn’t have too much in the way of clothes or other things.   She is good about not having too much more than she needs.   The big thing is that she doesn’t yet have a car and uses the light rail system or walk.  

Mariza’s street is below. It is a nice renewing neighborhood.  Not too far away, the nice houses like those you see in the picture are still boarded up.  The second picture is taken from Mariza’s back window.  The neigborhood declines literally on the other side of the tracks.  Espen and I drove through some of these neighborhoods on the way home.  Espen told me about the Dave Chappelle routine on the subject.  Chappelle can be offensive, BTW, so viewer discretion is advised on the link.

Simple is better

A simple life is better. When people get too much stuff it begins to oppress them. It is sad to see so many of those storage places popping up. I understand that you might store your possessions that you use seasonally or episodically, but that is not what is usually going on. 

You just cannot own enough to make you happy.  Of course, it is possible to have so little that you live in misery.   This is not really a problem in the modern U.S. anymore for most people.   Most of us have the opposite problem, although sometimes we are so busy grabbing more that we miss what has happened. 

The really good gift a person can give himself or others is examined experiences  You are better off spending that money on something where you do or learn something new.   I think the examined part is also important.  Experience is a great teacher but only if you pay attention.   

I am not a proponent of recession, but it does have some useful effects.  People are becoming more frugal again.  The economic boom times really lasted from 1982 until the beginning of last year.   The two recessions were mild.  We all got used to having more and more.    Pew Research finds that people say they “need” fewer things than they did last year.  This is a good trend.   Of course 8% think a flat screen TV is a necessity and 23% say the same about cable TV and 31% evidently figure that a life w/o high speed internet is not complete.    I guess we didn’t know how poor we really were before these things were available.    

Below – sic transit gloria mundi.  The overgrown monument was set up by one of Baltimore’s mayors, one John Lee Chapman. The original was set up in 1865.  It was renewed in 1915.  It probably was not on a freeway on-ramp at that time.  Now it is isolated by roads and a bit overgrown.   Notice in the background are trees-of-heaven.   Those are the invasive species I have to fight all the time on the farm. They are okay in the disturbed ground of the city.   The thing that makes them invasive is the same thing that makes them good city trees:  that they can grow fast in almost any conditions.

One more thing – this is the Mormon Temple.  I see it as I drive by on 495 on the way back from Mariza’s house.   Usually I am going too fast to take a picture.  We hit a traffic jam today long enough to get a shot.  It is more impressive than my picture shows, but this is the best I could do w/o endangering myself or others. 

Mean Streets Softening

Below are apartments in Washington SW. They are an early example of slum clearance, rebuilding and low income housing. According to the sign nearby, they were built during the 1930s. I like the neighborhood; it is a great location with lots of nice trees and open space. They are now being converted to condos, probably expensive ones. So there will be these expensive places – newly affluent former low income housing, amidst the current low income housing.

Everything gets its cable television marathon sooner or later.   AMC recently featured a “Death Wish” marathon with a couple “Dirty Harry” movies thrown in.  These movies were wildly popular.  They made Charles Bronson famous and inspired spin offs.  The movies really were not very good and the premises were ridiculous (like most action movies).  They were popular because they caught a cultural wave and connected with ordinary people’s fears and anger.  They were made at a time when societal norms were breaking down and crime was spiking up.   It seemed like the cops could do nothing and that the crooks could get away with anything.  If the cops did manage to make an arrest, weak minded judges would let them out, citing the need to go after the “root causes” of crime.

Below is vandalism.  Somebody put a lot of effort into pulling these benches apart.  As I wrote in the earlier caption, this is a nice neighborhood, but some of the neighbors are not well behaved.

Crime rates started to come down around 1990.  Nobody can really explain it and there are certainly multiple causes, but an important factor was the prominence of the broken window theory.  If you look at the pictures above, you can see how a few acts of disorder can make a whole area feel unsafe.  

You can read the link if you want details.   Generally, the idea is that disorder causes crime.  If you want to cut big crime, you go after the little disorders.    The most important root cause of crime is crime itself and the disorder it engenders.    People who live disorderly lives usually end up poor and sometimes criminal but it is very hard to live an orderly life when you are surrounded by disorder and indifference.

Below is the progress of the construction.  I have taken pictures of this before at earlier stages.  I think it will be done by summer.

Attitude plays a big role in almost any human endeavor.   I think that sometimes we lose the conviction that we have a right to impose order and when that happens disorder ensues.    Being judgmental is unfashionable, but the ability to make reasonable distinctions is the mark of intelligence.   The broken windows theory wasn’t a panacea, but it provided a base on which we could again make reasonable judgments.    We could say with renewed conviction that some of the petty crime and antisocial behaviors were not okay.    The subsequent success of welfare reform, which works from some of the same assumptions, helped win the intellectual battle.   We still have some rear guard “root causes first” folks, although decision makers tend to listen to them indulgently and even talk their talk,  they usually reject their practical advice.   Our streets are safer and more pleasant and that is worth a lot.

Below – you can see the neighborhood has some attractions and good location.  This is Delaware AV SW looking northeast. The new cars indicate the coming prosperity.  The progress is regrettable in some ways.  The poor people who live in the public housing enjoy the good location.  They will be displaced by the improvements as their neighborhood moves farther upscale and high rent than they can afford.

I don’t think we will ever get back to the low crime rates of the 1950s.  Populations were not as mobile back then and it was easier to isolate, localize and control crime. * But there has been a lot of progress since the 1970s.   I walk all around Washington in places that I would have feared to tread twenty years ago.   The neighborhoods in the pictures is a good example.  Even nice neighborhoods like Capitol Hill just up from here used to be dangerous after sundown.   Today you can even go up to U Street at night.  It is lively and a little sleazy, but certainly not the fearful war zone I remember inadvertently wandering into twenty years ago.  Back in 1985 when I first visited Baltimore they warned you not to stray too far from the well protected tourist zones near the harbor and monuments.    Today I don’t worry too much about Mariza living there.

Below is a street scene in Baltimore near where Mariza lives.  The houses are nicer on the outside than inside for now.  Old buildings are hard to fix.  It is easy to put new brick on the facade, but the plumbing and wiring are nightmares. This picture is from November 2009. 

BTW – Profound changes often stem from prosaic causes. Crime rates spiked in the 1960s for lots of reasons.  We can blame all sorts of social breakdowns but cars and air conditioning also played  roles. Most crime is committed by young males.  If they don’t have cars, they are not very mobile.   If they rip off the local grocery store, everybody knows who they are.   The car not only makes getaways easier, it also allows them to go far enough from home where nobody knows them.   Air conditioning is a more subtle cause.   W/o air conditioning, people sit on their front porches or stoops on warm summer evenings.  Neighbors get to know each other and everybody is keeping an eye on the street.  Air conditioning isolates people within their homes with the windows closed, leaving the streets to strangers.  These things are the realities of our society today and those are two of the reasons why I don’t think crime rates will ever drop to their 1950s levels.   Of course, maybe modern surveillance technology will jump into the breach, but that is kind of scary.   

Bolton Hill Baltimore

Below – Mariza on her street in Bolton Hill

Mariza rents a house along with some roommates in Baltimore’s Bolton Hill district.   I was a little apprehensive when Mariza got her job in Baltimore.   I remembered the crime and squalor.  But the city has improved a lot in recent years and there are some really nice and neighborhoods.   The Mount Vernon area, right next to Mariza’s area is very nice.  A lot of her co-workers live in Federal Hill, evidently a yupifiying district.   We walked around there.  It is not that nice, IMO, but it does have large numbers of restaurants.  It reminded me of State Street in Madison. 

Mariza moved her last year.  She started out by looking for apartments in the Inner Harbor area, which is superficially attractive but too expensive and a little artificial, sort of like living in Disneyland.    Actually, I have to admit that it was our advice that she look there.  It was the only area of Baltimore that Chrissy and I knew.  Her further investigation turned up other, better opportunities.   

Where she lives now has lot of parks and museums and the Maryland Institute College of Art is there.    Many of the old buildings have been recently renovated and it is a mostly intact 19th Century neighborhood.    It is within walking distance to restaurants and stores and has good access to public transportation and the light rail system, which is important because Mariza doesn’t have a car.   It is a nice place to live and seems safe.   

I like the fact that she has roommates.   She has the usual roommate woes.    The landlord forgot to pay the electric bills for the previous period and they were about to lose power, so Mariza had to pay.  The others owe her money.  This is not a big problem; she is in touch with the landlord and can just deduct it from the rent, but she is now in the position of managing the landlord relationship.    They have the mirror image problem with water bills.  Mariza and her roommates were supposed to get the water bills, but they went to the landlord instead.   Now he wants to be repaid for those bills.  It looks like Mariza will again have to front the money and get it back from the roommates. 

Below – We were a little worried about some Baltimore neighborhoods.  Mariza didn’t look for houses where we saw this rolling bail-bond truck a couple summers ago.

I had six roommates one year when I was in college in Madison, but we had trouble after two women moved out and went to Florida.   We had a joint lease and we all had the responsibility to pay our shares of the rent, so we had to find new roommates.  In a college town, there is usually something wrong with anybody looking to rent an apartment in October or November, but we were desperate and got some real weirdoes.  Some were more responsible than others in paying.   I got the enforcer job.  One of my roommates, Marcus, didn’t pay until I threatened him.  This I had to do two months in a row.  After that, he claimed it was a hostile environment and he moved out with one day notice just before the third month’s rent was due. 

These pictures are from our town house complex in Vienna, VA.  The trees are turning nicely.

Marcus was slob who didn’t use sheets on his mattress and it was stinky and dirty.   When I came home the day after Marcus moved out, I found the house full of smoke.   One of my other roommates, Tom the stoner (this was the 1970s), was sitting around with his friends in the living room.   I asked them what was going on and Tom just said, “I don’t know, man.  It’s been that way for about an hour.”    I thought it a good idea to find out where the smoke was coming from and found it was coming from under the door in Marcus’ room.   When I opened the door, his bed burst into flames.   Tom had wanted to get the smell out of Marcus’ mattress, so he put some incense on top it.   It burned through into the mattress and was smoldering inside so that when I opened the door, the rush of air ignited it.   I expect it would have started flaming soon enough in any case and I believe that had I not come home when I did, Tom would have burned the house down and he and his friends would have been caught in the conflagration and become literally burnouts.  When he saw the flames, Tom just said, “Wow!”  I beat the flames out with my coat.   We dumped some water on the mattress and got rid of it.  Roommates can be challenging, but they provide interesting stories.    The stories are funny when you look back; not so much at the time.

Our complex again.  I just like the trees in their fall colors.

Back to the present, I like Baltimore and have been pleasantly surprised by the charm.