An Essay by Jason Warshof
OUR NEIGHBOR JESSE was the youngest and lone surviving of twelve siblings from a sharecropping family in Jim Crow Alabama. He had the frame of a bull and a graying goatee. He wore dark glasses. At the time of our incident, Jesse was about seventy-two, although he tended to adhere to a given age beyond the standard twelve months. Jesse had a laugh so consuming that it caused his entire body to quake, often upsetting his balance as he stood there with his cane on the sidewalk, or even in the middle of Atherton Street when traffic was light.
Jesse had come to Boston in the sixties by way of military service, some of it spent in Stuttgart, Germany, a city he appreciated for its tidiness. Earlier, he’d lived on the Florida Gulf Coast, where he’d met his wife, Marian, at twenty, before spending an interval in Detroit. In Boston, he’d gotten his start at a warehouse on Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury but later found a better job at a paper plant downtown. When the plant closed and Jesse was left without work, a friend convinced him to join as a partner in his plastering business. And this was his break. Plastering, by all accounts, allowed Jesse to provide steadily for his family, which eventually grew to include a son and two daughters.
The symbolic markers of Jesse’s success, though, were the two large, somewhat worn Victorians on our block, which housed much of his extended family. He’d bought the first of them in the seventies for just ten thousand dollars. Jesse kept a tenant in one of his houses, an older white headmaster in the Boston Public Schools evidently, but I’m not sure I ever saw him. I did see the tenant’s 1980s-vintage sedan parked on Atherton sometimes. Flanking Jesse’s front porch, a pair of stone lions—were they Lions of Judah?—testified to his pride of ownership. A crucifix was carved into the railings of his second-story porch.
Jesse liked me, but sometimes he wasn’t sure that I wasn’t the enemy. For years, long before we’d moved in, he had directed so much vitriol at our building and its blighting effect on the street that he could not fully trust even those inhabitants for whom he felt innate affection. In our early years living there, before we put a few thousand dollars into the place, the neglect was evident everywhere. A cluster of shingles outside my office window hung by a thread. A dent marred the aluminum awning at the building’s entrance. Trash piled up on the perimeter of our gravel parking lot. But worst of all, in Jesse’s view, was the hillock that bordered his own front yard, which I later nicknamed the Hill of Evil Counsel. In spring, weeds grew unchecked down the knoll, infiltrating his own neat but modestly landscaped property. And the teens who swaggered down our street late at night used the hill as a dumping ground for their empty beer bottles and cigarette packs and candy bar wrappers, and sometimes to relieve themselves.
One spring afternoon, Jesse, fixating while out there on the street with me, lost his cool: “If you don’t do something about that hill, then I’m going to call City Hall!” I was startled by this outburst—I’d thought we were friends, that Jesse could control his temper for the sake of neighborliness—and I found I was shaking as I reentered the house to tell Diana, my wife, what had happened.
* * *
Months later, with the hill weeded to Jesse’s satisfaction, his frustrations surfaced in another context. I was about to become a dad and had gotten into the habit of casually interviewing fathers about their experiences. Encountering Jesse outside his place, I asked whether he had been present at the hospital when his son, Jesse Jr., was born. “No,” he said, and turned serious. “I was working up in a warehouse for Jews. And those Jews, they didn’t work, but they forced us to work in there anyway.” I guessed it had been the Sabbath. Then Jesse, I think sensing I might be Jewish, took my arm and said, “I don’t mean to . . .” But his fury could not be contained: “I still sometimes think about that. They were Jews, you know what I mean.”
The resonances of this exchange returned for me years later when I was reading the memoirs of the journalist and jazz aficionado Nat Hentoff, who had grown up in the twenties and thirties on Howland Street, just a mile’s walk from our place on Atherton. Back then, Hentoff reports, half the residents of his street were Jewish, the other half black. The two groups barely interacted, in his recollection, but they did coexist more or less peaceably. Blue Hill Avenue, the main artery of the neighborhood, was known then as Jew Hill Avenue. By the time we lived there, of course, that earlier generation of Jews was long gone, relocated to the southern suburbs.
The encounter between Jesse and me, meanwhile, played out with predictable awkwardness. I confirmed for him that I was Jewish, and he backtracked. Eager to demonstrate sympathy for some alternate Jewish reality I perhaps inhabited, he tossed out the broadest-possible themes: Israel, the Holocaust, mezuzahs, circumcision. I forgave him rhetorically, and in my heart too. This was not the anti-Semitism I’d been raised to fear. That other anti-Semitism only emanated from what I then perceived to be the oppressor: the Pole, the Ukrainian, the German, the Arab, the Southern white.
But with Jesse, the defining clash was still to come—and in this I was the perpetrator. It all began on a mild rainy Friday evening in December when, depleted after the workday, the letdown from strong coffee, I spontaneously suggested a bit of playful sabotage to Diana. The impetus was that Jesse had been setting out orange traffic cones to protect his family’s spots against the commuters who filled our street’s unmetered parking before riding the subway downtown. These commuters had long been Jesse’s daily affliction—but his incessant complaining about them was becoming mine.
As we turned onto Atherton, I made my pitch to Diana, “You wanna hit Jesse’s cone?” And without awaiting her reply, I swerved slowly and rode over its side. The cone teetered but did not fall. Then Diana whispered, “He saw!” Jesse had apparently been sitting on his porch. I felt the breath over my teeth. My eyes closed. I knew in that moment that Jesse would never forgive me, despite whatever leeway I had once granted him when he’d attacked me in broad daylight over the condition of the hill. And as we emptied out of the car, Jesse performed as expected.
He lumbered over and laced into us: “Was that cone in your way?” I answered pathetically, “Jesse, please.” But I knew I’d shown some grain of deceit that lay under all the patience I fronted, day after day, as I indulged his talk on the same topics—the wealth of Bill Gates and Martha Stewart, even after she’d been released from prison, the condition of our condo, and Jesse’s own common sense, even if he “didn’t go to college like you.” All this banter I could engage with good humor; but the cones, his absolute doggedness, somehow sparked in me a desire to respond.
Back in the apartment immediately after the incident, without even turning on the lights, I called Jesse and left a message seeking his forgiveness. I thought of his daughter Selenia’s car, with the license tag FORGVE. I thought of Jesse’s weekly church attendance, his reading of the Bible from the front seat of his pickup truck, parked on Atherton. As I waited for his return call, alone in the kitchen, I tried to salvage a laugh from the gesture, how absurd it was, but this effort was strained. It was an evasion of the inevitable. And no return call came from Jesse.
* * *
About two months went by, during which Jesse greeted me coldly, if at all, on the occasions when I passed him. Jesse had retired a couple of years earlier from his plastering business and wasn’t outside much during cold weather. And Diana was not spared the fallout either, despite her blamelessness. He ignored her too. The interactions with Jesse, such as they were, stirred in me a mix of self-recrimination and anger, but I was also increasingly motivated to approach him, to explain myself and restore our previous warm relations, or at least a semblance of them. My friend Dan suggested I buy something for Jesse, so one morning I left an expensive chocolate bar with a note of apology on the windshield of his pickup truck. We were visiting my parents in DC for a week, and I warily anticipated receiving a call from Jesse thanking me for the gesture and saying all was forgotten.
But again no call came.
So several weeks passed uncomfortably, until one unseasonable day in late March, with temperatures rising into the eighties, when Diana and I were walking home from coffee on Amory Street with our son, Eli, now a year old. Jesse’s broad back in white T-shirt faced us as we turned the corner onto Atherton. He was just standing around apparently, waiting for someone to talk to. But not us. When he saw me, he stiffened against the railing by the sprawling warehouse that occupied the entire block opposite our house, a prodigious blocker of western sunlight which a century earlier had housed a plant for the production of “reliable automobile accessories, Jericho and Jubilee horns, ‘B’ line all metal oil, grease guns, and Blitz spark plugs.” I put my hand on his shoulder.
“So, are we friends again?”
“It ain’t that,” he said.
“Are we friends?” I repeated, holding out my hand, and he shook it.
“Look,” he said, “it’s not that. It’s just that when you’ve lived on a street for forty-seven years, and people park on the street, and you can’t even get a spot— And my wife, Marian, you know, she had a broken hip, and then I see you drive over that cone that saves my spot, you know, it just ain’t right.”
“It’s true,” I said, “but do you forgive me?” I had apologized to him at least twice now, and it felt redundant, and possibly insincere, to do it again.
“Yeah, I forgive you,” he said, shaking my hand again but then reprising his line about the parking spaces and living on the street for so many years and the injustices, not only of me driving over his cone but of all the other commuters who never once considered their effect on residents, namely his family.
“I made a mistake,” I said.
“Yeah, you made a big mistake,” he said. “But we all make mistakes.”
“Well,” I said, “it’s a good thing we’re friends again, because it’s not much fun walking outside every day knowing you’re angry with me.”
“It’s not that I was angry,” said Jesse, before conceding the point: “Well, it’s not that I was angry with you all the time, but, yeah, when I saw you I got angry.”
Then the conversation rambled, as it often would with Jesse. He admitted that he was curious about our car, an almost new Chevy Impala inherited from my grandmother, who had died that January. And he wondered aloud, again, how many units in our building were rented and how many owned. And, yes, on his end, an ambulance had been outside his house the other day; one of his daughters had accidentally swallowed nail-polish remover.
As we parted, I was overcome with relief, and I practically levitated as I worked on an editing project for the rest of the afternoon. For those past months, I’d felt a strain in my rib cage and neck every time I left our building and walked by Jesse’s house, which had his initials carved into the wooden rails of the first-story porch, a wooden plaque honoring the “Mayor of Atherton Street” above the front door. I would walk on the opposite side of the street and resist the nervous impulse to look toward his front porch, where in warm weather Jesse was omnipresent.
When strolling Eli, the awareness of being unwelcome on my own street was even sharper. I was a new father, maligned. I thought a lot about whether the shame was an outgrowth of this particular situation or whether it lay just below my conscious thinking at all times, awaiting activation. I became adept at not sharing these rather unhealthy musings with others, including Diana. I did share them with Dan, whose fondness for the story provided some gratification.
Another issue was us as gentrifiers. We certainly weren’t rich at the moment—but we were educated and white. I worked on my computer over there at the café; soon, as far as Jesse knew, and in all likelihood, I’d be working on my computer in some other neighborhood, living in a fancier house.
* * *
In the days after Jesse accepted my apology, a couple of strange things indicated the thaw was under way. First was the late-afternoon visit to our parking lot by D.J., Jesse’s grandson in ninth grade whom we had somehow never met. Diana and I were about to take Eli to the playground, when D.J. said, “I’m your neighbor,” and we introduced ourselves. The exchange was friendly but oddly scripted, with D.J. telling us about his placement in a suburban school through the Metco Program and how he was preparing for college and how Eli maybe could follow a similar path when the time came. Then, on cue, his mom called him back to the car, and we never talked to D.J. again.
The second incident occurred the next morning, when I was walking to the café and Selenia, heavyset, hair in braids, waved expressively with a big smile at me from her car. Other family members implicated in the banishment and now the restoration included Jesse’s son, a cop who had just a year before moved with his family to a “horseshoe” (cul-de-sac) in Hyde Park, leaving the two-home family compound on Atherton Street for the first time in his forty-year life. And there was Selenia’s husband, Kelvin, a cheerful Caribbean islander who knew my name long before I had any notion of who he was. And Jesse’s wife, Marian, matronly and reserved to the point of self-effacement, who had worked at Raytheon in Waltham, always at Jesse’s side, often rolling her eyes at his yapping, riding with him in their family vehicle, a Lexus SUV (license plate: GOD CAN), on day trips to the suburbs—the mall in Natick, a restaurant in Framingham, a supermarket in Brighton, Castle Island to watch the boats in the harbor and the airplanes taking off from Logan.
Over the previous few months, I’d felt all their judgments, not just Jesse’s, in my body every time I’d walked by the compound. I’d offended an entire multigenerational family—and the family lived next door. Still, I sensed that they sympathized with me at the same time that they scorned me. They’d dealt with Jesse and his obsessions and tirades for decades. But not once, during those three months, had any of them broken the family front. Not one of them said a friendly word to me. I understood that, but I also resented it.
The problem was that even after our March exchange, Jesse hadn’t actually forgiven me. One day on the corner of Lamartine Street, on the far side of the overpass—under which subways, commuter trains, and Amtraks clattered by at all hours—I waved to him as he drove by in his pickup truck, and he did not honk, as he used to, much less wave back. Freshly spurned, I knew the onerous work would have to continue—not only the work of courting him but also the self-care: the meditation to filter out negative thought loops, the emphasis on achieving serenity, the studied walk on the opposite side of the street, facing forward, no indulging of the urge to look up toward the porch.
A certain shift had occurred with the overtures by Jesse’s family, and the burden was slightly less heavy, but still it was there. Every exit from our building remained a test. On the rare occasions when Jesse weakly said hello to me, I found myself reexamining the whole history of the conflict. But if he couldn’t forgive me, he couldn’t forgive me. I could learn to live on a street with a neighbor who held a grudge against me. I did not need his blessing. I could establish the techniques to ignore him. But it didn’t feel good. Still more months passed.
* * *
One weekend morning in June, on a walk to buy pastries, I encountered Jesse standing on the overpass with his cane. The street was roped off for a race, and we chatted for a minute or two about the litter on the street. When I suggested the race was probably for a cause, he said, “I wish they’d raise a couple of bucks for me.” Sensing an opening, I patted him on his shoulder, but the move felt like too much of a concession of weakness on my part, even if Jesse was ceding some of his own ground. I immediately regretted it.
And even if he was now showing some willingness to talk to me, Jesse still didn’t honk when he drove by. He still didn’t call out to me when I walked by on the other side of the street.
One weekday in early summer, though, as I walked up the stairwell of our building, I allowed myself a glance out the window, where Jesse was tending to his truck. He was following my course up the stairs with his eyes. I thought I saw vulnerability and a longing for reconciliation in his look.
* * *
In July, my friend Dan visited from New York. When I updated him on the situation with Jesse, he played for me a podcast of Niccolo Tucci’s 1947 story “The Evolution of Knowledge,” about the standoff between two émigré families, one Italian, one Jewish, living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In the story, the Italian narrator’s children are accused by Mr. Feinstein, who lives below them, of stamping on the floors and shattering his fragile equilibrium. Pulled in two directions, the narrator alternately seeks to appease his downstairs neighbor and to lightheartedly empathize with his apartment-dwelling children.
Even after the crisis is seemingly put to rest in a scene of shared laughter and a bottle of wine spontaneously produced by the narrator’s wife, relations between the narrator and Mr. Feinstein never quite resolve. “For now, every time I think of my good friend Mr. Feinstein,” the narrator says, “even late at night, I hope the children will play ball, jump, or do something awful just to let him know that he has friends upstairs, real friends, and that his name is not being taken in vain. Yet he’s so nervous now, so jittery, so sad, and, needless to say, his spirit still sometimes manifests itself by the usual rappings, that I still am afraid to let the children act like children.”
And so, in listening to this story, I sensed that my peace with Jesse, if and when it came, would be cool and incomplete—for sure not the worst outcome but one I hadn’t previously considered.
This was my assumption for about two weeks, until the last day of July, cloudy and cool, when Jesse “set me free.” He called me over to his porch as I was returning home from the cafe, and I approached tentatively. “Come on,” he prodded, and I could tell he was acting intentionally in a way he hadn’t before.
His stated reason for asking me over was to cut down a few branches from a tree in the unruly back corner of our yard, which was providing passage for squirrels onto his roof. First, he was just guiding me to cut: take a little here, a little more there. But then he addressed the heart of the matter.
“I know we had our thing, but now it’s over.”
And he talked about forgiveness.
“Hatred is torture. It eats away at you.”
And about death.
“Either you or I, we could go at any minute.”
Just as Frank Ciampa, who owned the pizza shop on Centre Street, had dropped dead just the other day. And when Jesse died, he didn’t want me to remember him as “some chump, glad he died.” I won’t deny having had moments during the previous months when I’d fantasized about his death, wondered what I’d say to his family and whether I’d attend his funeral. Worse, what they would say to me. Would they accuse me of having brought about his end?
“But why today?” I asked as I continued cutting, following his orders. And he said that he’d wanted the branch cut, and why not call me over? And he said that he had realized for weeks now as he saw me walking on the far side of the street, “Now why shouldn’t he be able to walk on his own side of the street?” I acknowledged that I knew he hadn’t been ready to forgive me before, so I figured I’d wait until he was. This reconciliation brought both of us to a state of warm emotion that I suspect surprised Jesse as much as it did me.
While we talked, I kept following Jesse’s orders to chop a branch here, a branch there. “No, this one. Cut it at a low point. It’ll grow back.” Until, I saw with sudden regret, I had cut down the whole tree. And it had been a handsome tree, its tag from the nursery still affixed, although I now forget its name. I didn’t mention my thoughts on the tree to Jesse then—this hardly seemed like the time—or ever, but the next day I received an irked email from our downstairs neighbor, who had helped us beautify the property, asking whether I knew what had happened to it. I confessed right away, feeling the familiar heat of shame rising.
Jason Warshof lives in upstate New York with his wife and son. He holds an MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and his essays and reviews have appeared in The Antioch Review, Boston Globe, Jerusalem Report, and elsewhere. His upcoming writing projects focus on creek swimming and the cities of Oceania. He aspires to farm.