Ray lived next to me in our old house–the one in the neighborhood that real estate agents like to call “transitional.” What transitional means in land-ease, is that most of the neighborhood is made up of older people who are starting to leave (read: die off) and the influx of new home owners tend to either be “fixer-uppers” or the type of people who want cheap housing in a good school district, but who really can’t afford the upkeep on an older home. They call it transitional until the majority of the neighborhood goes one way or the other at which point it’s either “improving” or it’s becoming a ghetto. We left, so you can guess which way the pendulum was swinging.
Ray is one of the older people. At the age of 70 now, he still stands about 6′ 8″ tall and weighs roughly 230. He played basketball in his youth for the University of Houston and racked up some serious points back in the mid 50s.
I saw Ray out in his yard a lot and for a long time, I just called him “Old Man.” He was eccentric even before I formally knew him. I’d watch from my kitchen window as he dug weeds out of his grass using only a kitchen spoon. I’d shake my head and mutter, “They make spray for that you know,” as he spent hours at it. Thanks to several old pine trees, his backyard was devoid of any grass, but he maintained a couple of bird feeders and even threw out corn for the squirrels, so at any time I could look out and see squirrels and chipmunks running back and forth across the fenceline that separated our yards.
When I was outdoors working, I had my dogs with me. My dogs were/are quiet and not the kind to run away. Eventually, they sniffed their way over into Ray’s yard and it wasn’t long before he was bringing them treats and talking gently to them in order to coax them over. Turns out his wife fancied herself a cat rescuer and so their house contained–at any given time–approximately 4 to 6 cats and from what I could tell the couple of times I visited (briefly), they didn’t change the litter much.
Eventually I got to know Ray pretty well. Ray is old-school. And I don’t mean that to say that he’s a debonaire old gentlemen who sat around listening to Sinatra. No, I mean he’s from an era when people said what they meant and they didn’t care who heard it or what people thought. By today’s standards, Ray is a raving racist; but by his era’s standards, he’s a man who has worked hard his whole life and doesn’t want to live around people who don’t want to take care of “the place.” For people like that, his patience was thin–even for his own son-in-law who was a licensed electrician but who refused to hold down a regular job, preferring instead to constantly beg and borrow from family members.
I laughed at what Ray said–a lot–primarily because I was afraid someone else had heard what he’d just said and I didn’t want to get caught up in it. But there was truth in it too and deep down, I think many people would agree with him on some level; they just wouldn’t say it out loud like he did. All in all, Ray and I became good friends. He’d regale me with stories from the hayday of the neighborhood, when he and his wife hosted “block parties” and he had all the alcohol people could drink because he was a liquor supplier. In return, I’d talk “dogs” with him and occasionally rake his yard when he wasn’t looking because I knew that he was having trouble getting along at times.
One day I came home from school–this was when I returned to college from ’02-’04–and found him lying in his backyard. He’d fallen off his ladder while painting. The drop was about 20 feet and he’d fallen hard. By the time I found him, the blood oozing out of a dozen scrapes and cuts had attracted both the ants and the mosquitos and he was covered in angry whelts. He’d been lying there, as near as we could tell, for about six hours unable to move. Turns out he’d shattered his pelvis upon falling, along with breaking a half dozen other bones.
Ray finally got out of the hospital, but he never really recovered. To this day, he’s limited to the walk from his lazy chair to his bed. He does some very light yard work, and that’s about it. The last time I talked to him, he told me how the people who’d bought our old house had trashed the place and one of the grown sons who lived there with his equally grown brother and their dad, had gotten chased out on the roof by four cops–and still managed to get away. The bank finally foreclosed on the house, but it’s too late to matter. No one is going to buy the house now and fix it up. The neighborhood isn’t worth it. Ray doesn’t care who lives there, as long as they aren’t a minority of any type (my words…his were far more colorful). And as for our President…well, let’s just say that IF Ray could travel to D.C., he’s not too worried about what they’d do to a 70 year old cripple.
In many ways, the world will be better off without people like Ray, but in some ways, it’s going to be a damn shame when the people of his generation are gone. They are a different breed. A more honest breed to be sure and in some ways, I feel that if this country were still run by people like him, we wouldn’t be having this discussion about illegal immigrants, or welfare states. Of course, we’d likely still have slavery too, so I’m not sure how you square that.
I miss Ray–I do. I didn’t have to watch my words around him and he loved my dogs as much as I did. My neighbors now are fine, but we never talk to each other. We’re all too busy working to afford our houses and our cars to stop and have more than polite, surface conversation.
For now, Ray is still living over in the old neighborhood with the chihuahua his wife saved from some shelter or other. Ray refuses to walk him though for fear people will laugh at the disparity in size between the basketball player and the smallest species of canine known to man. But he’s there, and that’s comforting to me even if I rarely ever see or talk to him.
You’re (basically) good people Ray. Here’s to you. May your heaven bring you peace.