It has been a good story to regale friends with, with multiple parts and surprise plot twists.
It has also shaken me, and disturbed how I think of myself.
The greenhouse at school is a sweet little building, though hot as blazes. It sits on a quiet side of the school building, and not too close to the street. As school was closed, the greenhouse was locked up and unused.
I started noticing things. One day it was unlocked. One day it looked as if children might have been playing inside. I thought, I’m not the only one with a key, and just re-locked it.
Then one warm evening I was walking by and noticed the fan was on in the greenhouse. That did it. Who would be using it, and who would leave that noisy fan on, and since school was closed, was the fan going to be on for days and days, consuming energy needlessly?
I didn’t have the key on me but nearby was a shed with a padlock, and inside that shed hung a large sturdy water faucet key for the hose and a small greenhouse key for the simple lock in the handle of the flimsy greenhouse door. I got the key and was working it in the lock this way and that, struggling to get it to work.
As I did so I started to look through the frosted plastic wall and realized I was seeing a form rise up from where it lay on one of the rough wooden tables. The man, for it was a man, pulled off some light cover as from a bed, groped around for his hat which he put upon his head, and unlocked the door from his side, bending in the aperture as if to say, can I help you?
He was fairly young, black, The hat was home-made, at least 18 inches tall and all in red.
I stammered something about you can’t be here, and I hastily exited.
I waited until late that night to email my principal and assistant principal to let them know. In the subject of the email I typed ‘a problem.’ I didn’t want to call the police, and I didn’t want to be the school representative for the issue either. I also didn’t want to get him kicked out of his abode that night, wanting to give him one more night of relative peace and security.
The school admin asked two of our custodians if they would be willing to talk to the man. They did and asked him to clear out.
The wheelbarrow he had taken inside was outside now, full and strewn about with greasy wrappers and foul smelling trash.
Our head custodian Mr. A. spoke with him again and it didn’t go well, so he asked school security to help. They couldn’t immediately but would come soon.
I was working at school and took a look inside the greenhouse, uninhabited for that moment. It was neat, mostly. A backpack lay against a table leg. Empty glass bottles were on the floor. Calendar pages hung decoratively from one clothesline, a fleece blanket with a tiger on it was draped across another. Pieces of light blue cellophane were taped on some of the walls. A turquoise colored belly-dancing skirt, gold coins hanging along it, was tied as decoration in a corner. The whiteboard we had inside had been drawn on and glittery stickers decorated it as well.
School security came a few days later but “the gentleman”, or “our greenhouse neighbor” as we started referring to him, was not there. His belongings were, and they collected them and removed them from the building. Their policy is to offer a housing alternative but he didn’t show. Mr. A. screwed a hasp with a padlock onto the door.
Mr. A. and Mr. L. went to a lot of effort and cleaned out the inside, washing down the floor with bleach.
I walked by the next Saturday morning with a friend. All looked calm and neat. Then my friend noticed a men’s red and white sneaker in the raised garden bed by the greenhouse. Hidden inside was a long bolt cutter.
My friend and I took it and hid it in the locked shed.
That’s where we stand now, but our resourceful neighbor may not accept his eviction from his sweet if broiling, little house.
Like the rabbits and birds, “our gentleman” encroached from the outskirts, the wilderness, and took over unused space. Surely if school was in session, he could not have dared. I can imagine he feels entitled to this deserted building.
I think of him when rain lashes my home. I think of him having to carry all his stuff with him. I think of him looking for a place to rest at night. I think of him longing for a space he can pretty up.
I wonder if I will see him on the street, will I recognize him? Will he recognize me?
I expect I will never see him. I suspect homeless people are like the rabbits and the rats- for every one you see there are probably ten that are hiding and will stay hidden.
I question myself. What do I call him? Am I naming him in a snarky way or a respectful way?
Why am I speaking of him more like a wild animal than as a human?
Like I would fill steel wool into a mouse hole, we locked him out and I hid the bolt cutters.
I recognize in him a need for place, for security, a need for nesting and for self-expression- a need to make his mark. But I also tell myself, over and over, he can’t be here, he can’t be here.
What are my responsibilities?
Have I become a worse person in this exchange?
Have I cruelly made sport of his plight, telling friends all the latest “developments.”
I am left with a bad taste and hard questions, as I look for a tall red had peeking out from a brown backpack, somewhere in my neighborhood.