May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
June 24, 2013
Ten years ago I was stopped on a sidewalk in a neighborhood I scarcely knew, blocked by a muscular, unshaven man who wanted to know where us white kids came from.
“How y’all end up on Worden Street?” He looked maybe fifty and sounded more curious than threatening.
We were standing halfway between the corner laundromat and the house I’d recently begun renting with seven college classmates. I had a basket of laundry on my hip, with a book of literary theory on top of the clothes. Worden Street ran through a blighted neighborhood in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Our block was several miles from our college and was poorer and more diverse than the usual student neighborhoods. This appealed to my roommates and me, though I wasn’t sure how to explain that to Walter, the man on the sidewalk.
“Um,” I said. “We’re living in community. We’re trying to be intentional about getting to know each other and sharing stuff. We believe in getting away from where everyone’s like us. We’re trying to be friendly in our neighborhood and get to know, uh, different kinds of people.”
Walter cocked his head. “Huh,” he said. “Different kinds of people. I was a prison guard for twenty years. Stop by sometime and I’ll tell you stories you won’t believe.”
I turned for home, feeling like I had failed to explain what I was doing in the neighborhood. “Different kinds of people” sounded like I was too sheepish to say “poor people” or “black people.” Every time I tried to describe the project I had joined, it came out sounding naive or condescending.
I moved into the house on Worden Street to live as a neighbor, in the full and neglected sense of the word. Calvin College students began living in the house a few years earlier as an experiment in radical community building. They called it Pamoja House, from a Swahili word meaning together, and each year a few new students moved in when the graduating seniors moved out.
I was drawn to Pamoja House out of a hunch that life would somehow be richer when sharing more of it with others (whatever that squishy word share might mean). When I saw a campus flyer advertising the house, I signed up immediately for a visit. I found a group of eight sharing laughter and peanut stew in a long, relaxed meal. I had grown up in the suburbs with plenty of privacy; I found it overrated. I wanted to try something else—so I moved in.
The eight of us living in the house tried to coordinate as much of our lives as we could. Instead of buying separate groceries, we shared our food. We took turns cooking and committed to spending most dinners together each week. We devoted time to getting to know each other, taking turns telling our life stories on Wednesday evenings.
As communitarian projects go, it was modest. We weren’t pooling our bank accounts, farming our own food, or living off the grid. We weren’t trying to topple the state and remake it to our liking. But it felt exciting and countercultural to form group goals.
We also wanted to be decent neighbors. We weren’t going to be typical college renters with a ratty couch on the porch and beer cups littering the yard. We wanted to get to know our neighbors, invite them over for dinner, and see where that took us. My housemate Jen helped Mrs. Bell a few doors down set up her computer. Deonne, a junior-high girl next door, came by most days asking to use our phone to call her dad long distance. She was a familiar figure in our kitchen, cradling the headset, twirling the long cord around her fingers.
Our house, like most nearby, was a drafty wood-frame whose original character had been covered up by pale vinyl siding. We rented the house plus the bottom floor of the duplex next door. Our landlord regarded our project with indifference.
“I know you’re doing some alternative group thing over there,” she told us. “Just know that if you paint the walls purple or something, it’ll take several coats to get it back to off-white and get your deposit back.”
She sensed, correctly, that we were the type of college students who thought it was “subversive” to paint rooms purple and beet red. What can I say? We had grown up in beige houses. This was our chance to declare we were finished with the timid colors of suburbia.
The house-and-a-half setup gave us a combination front-side yard that we used to throw a fall festival party. We handed out leaflets and carried our kitchen table outside to serve cider and homemade doughnuts. Only a few adults showed up, but the kids came. I led them in a game I knew from summer camp, and my roommate Kevin showed them his video camera. They jumped in front of the camera to goof off for their friends, their faces lighting up.
We talked about the party at our next house meeting while drinking tea in our beet-red living room.
“I’m glad you let them play with the camera,” Jen said.
Kevin nodded. Before college, he’d spent a year shooting videos in Kenya, and he was as skeptical as any of us about our position as do-gooders in the neighborhood. We weren’t trying to be community organizers or ambassadors of middle-class values, but it was impossible to deny we had invited ourselves into a neighborhood that wasn’t asking for us.
“We can be as neighborly as we want,” Kevin said. “But how many of us are going to be here in three years?”
It was a good question. In less than a year I’d be graduating. I was already splitting my time between the house, my studies, my girlfriend, a part-time job, and the school literary club. There wasn’t a lot of time left over for being neighborly. I had seen Walter on the sidewalk again and invited him to the party, but he didn’t come and I hadn’t gotten around to visiting him.
Still, I wanted to learn how to treat neighbors like him. Pamoja House wasn’t just a place to sleep and study and learn to cook questionable vegan stews—it was a place to figure out the rest of my life. I’d spent the last few years developing new ideas about community, hospitality, and peacemaking, and I viewed the year on Worden Street as my best chance to test out these gnarly new convictions.
To explain why these concepts were so novel to me, I need to hop back another ten years. I’m eleven, sporting round plastic glasses and a cowlick, grinning for a photo, my usual shyness vanished. The reason I’m giddy is what’s in my hands: an M16 assault rifle. My church’s Calvinist Cadet Corps, a sort of church-based Boy Scouts, is on a weekend camping trip. Except instead of camping at our usual state park, we are at Chanute Air Force Base, an expanse of training facilities and hangars on the Illinois plains.
I remember it vividly: Sleeping in real military dorms, watching airmen jog in gray sweat suits, holding the gun. It was unloaded but deathly heavy as we took turns posing for pictures. I was learning that, as a Christian male, faith in Christ meant never having to worry about messy emotions like doubt or fear. Our faith, if it were strong, would give us an unshakeable toughness. Nobody ever explained the religious virtue of toughness in so many words. They didn’t have to. I could see it in our Cadet counselors, the dads wearing jeans and gray uniform tops with military-inspired badges and ranks. They helped us build model rockets and pine-block race cars. They taught us to use hatchets and power saws, laughing with the easy confidence of men at home in their world.
By high school, I was still obsessed with toughness and as confused as ever about how to acquire it. I became friends with Jesse, a classmate at our Christian school. He had wild, curly hair that he buzzed into military submission and a naturally lean body to which he was determined to add muscle. In the summers he worked for his father’s construction crew, which gave him significant macho points.
We drove around in his Chevy Blazer, him chain smoking, me wondering if I should start. After dark we met our friends in parks and looked for the few stars that were visible through the glow of suburban Chicago. “I’ll be honest, I used to think you were a puny, nerdy kid,” Jesse said once. “With the glasses and everything.” He grinded his jaw in a way that meant he’d been thinking deeply. “You’re all right, though.”
We would meet up at Al’s Diner, a burger-and-shake place with predictable 1950s touchstones—pink and blue neon, a jukebox, waitresses in miniskirts, model muscle cars. James Dean and John Wayne posters hung from the wall. I think we hoped the masculine decor would rub off on us, that we would absorb it the way our clothes absorbed the smell of onion rings.
We lifted weights. When results were slow to materialize, we bought tighter T-shirts. We talked about fistfights endlessly, grew fanatical about them. We imagined scenarios for starting fights with our enemies, the popular kids at school.
Things came to a head when Jesse left me waiting at Al’s Diner for an eternity, finally showing up late with his sister.
“What’s the deal, man?” I said. “You said you’d be here an hour ago.”
That was the opening he needed. Who did I think I was? I’d gotten an attitude. He’d noticed and he was tired of it. It was time for me to step back.
I swore back at him across the table. If there were another way to respond, it didn’t occur to me. I snuck glances at his older sister to see if she had any intention of being the adult in the room. She didn’t. Either we’d go outside and get the fight we’d been longing for or I’d let him have the last word.
I knew then I didn’t really want to fight anyone. I had always known it. It was time to admit it.
“Whatever, man,” I said. “If you think I have an attitude, I probably do. I’m gonna head out.”
We hung out more after that—we had too many common circles not to—but it wasn’t any fun. I had reached the logical endpoint of my quest for toughness: trading insults with my closest friend. It was pathetic. I wasn’t proving anything to anyone.
The summer after my non-fight with Jesse, when I was sixteen, I went to work in the kitchen at a camp in the sandy-soiled forests of West Michigan. I worked in the kitchen with three other high schoolers, cooking and scrubbing dishes. Mostly, we watched the counselors—suntanned, weary, bright-eyed college students who approached their jobs with playfulness and wit. They improvised skits and led hand motions for silly songs and showed no concern for looking tough. They comforted homesick campers and calmed angry campers with skill and tenderness. They relied on each other to cover lifeguard duties or to help start a campfire in the rain. I wanted to learn how to do all of these things, and I eagerly signed on for four more summers. In these goofy college kids, and the slightly older supervising staff, I was catching a vision that looked a lot more fun than the lone cowboys on the diner wall.
My heart leapt every time I drove the gravel road to camp at the beginning of a summer. I was home. But it was a temporary community, intense and shimmering for two-and-a-half months, then falling dormant for the off-season. I wanted to find out if an intimate, peaceful community could survive outside the bubble of a camp in the forest. I wanted to try it in the city.
After I’d been living in Pamoja House for two months I realized I hadn’t really gotten to know anyone else on the block. So one evening I bought a couple beers at the corner store and went to visit Walter.
He answered his apartment door and squinted a moment, trying to remember who I was.
“Right. Hey. Come on in.”
The Pistons were playing on a fuzzy TV. I followed him out to the balcony, where we looked down at the street, lined with trash bags. Walter had a gray, stubbled chin but clear eyes. I asked him about his prison work.
“I’m thinking about writing a book, actually,” he said. “Folks don’t know what it’s like inside Ionia Correctional.”
“I believe it.”
He looked at me. I wondered if he thought I was being patronizing. He flicked his bottle cap off the balcony.
“Tell me,” he said. “What would you do: A felon, some three-hundred-pound guy, says you got a choice between taking his cock or taking his blade, and he’s showing you his knife?”
I gazed down the street. Long rows of power lines swayed above washed-out houses. Then I looked Walter in the eye. I think he wanted to know how squeamish I was.
“No idea,” I said. “I’m glad I’ve never been in that spot.”
“No idea,” he said. “No idea. You got to know how to defend yourself. If you don’t keep your respect, you’re nothing.”
I told him I didn’t think violence ever solved anything. If you fight back, the felon’s just going to catch you by surprise next time or attack someone else.
“So somebody comes down the block and hits you, you wouldn’t swing back?” he asked. “You wouldn’t have made it growing up here.” I didn’t deny that. I was no longer interested in proving my toughness.
I asked him about his life. He told me about growing up on Chicago’s South Side. We talked about the old Bulls-Pistons rivalries, about his grown kids, about his sometime girlfriend and my first serious girlfriend. I tried to tell him about summer camp, though I could tell he didn’t see why I loved it so much. Eventually we ran out of things to say.
“You should come over for dinner sometime,” I said. “It’s vegetarian, but it’s good.”
“Yeah, I’ll try to.”
Inside the house, there was more to figure out than I expected. It should have been easier to divide the labor among the eight of us, but it turns out that doing things communally involves discussing them. A lot.
We made our group meals vegetarian because of the ecological cost of factory-farmed meat. But we decided house members could eat meat at their other meals, which led to thorny legalistic questions of whether, say, Ellen could bring chicken leftovers to the table at the end of our group meal.
“Tell me again why meat is bad?” she said once, pushing a pile of cumin lentils around her plate.
We chose not to buy napkins as an act of voluntary simplicity. But that clashed with another house goal, hospitality, when we served cornbread to our guests and left them wondering where to wipe their greasy fingers.
Before long I learned that sharing ownership of housekeeping tasks meant nobody took full responsibility for them. Our sofas were buried beneath books and laundry. The less said about bathrooms the better. Maybe living like slobs was part of declaring independence from suburban tidiness. Still, a house where there’s no clean place to sit isn’t especially welcoming to visitors. Ellen made this point at a house meeting late in the fall. We sat circled on our cluttered couches.
“We’re good—we have our cleaning schedule on the bulletin board now,” Maggie said.
“Having a schedule doesn’t make things clean,” I said. “We have to actually follow it.”
“Relax, Jon,” said Jen.
She had a point. Cleaning schedules aren’t that important. Or shouldn’t be. But I had a way of making things feel overly important, since I had declared this year my grand experiment in radical community, fearless hospitality, racial harmony, voluntary simplicity, ecological eating, and any other twenty-cent ideal that came to mind.
Fortunately, not everyone was so uptight. That winter we threw a Robot Disco party and invited our friends and neighbors. We made it a root beer kegger. We weren’t opposed to alcohol, but it felt more subversive to dance in stupid outfits without booze to dull our inhibitions. We wondered why we hadn’t thrown a dance party sooner.
It didn’t bother me that few of our neighbors showed up. If we could figure out our internal community, maybe our role on the block would fall into place too.
I heard the intruder before I saw him. Footsteps thudded on the front porch, and then the window screen scraped and rattled as he worked it loose. It was past midnight. I lay frozen in bed, my pillow a foot from the window. “So,” I thought, “ it’s finally happening.”
Streetlights glowed through the curtain, and the silhouetted figure struggled to pop the frame free. My roommate jerked upright in bed across the room. I mentally scanned the room for a weapon: nothing. Then I remembered that I was trying to demonstrate the power of peacemaking in a neighborhood—and a world—marked by violence. That’s why I was here, to take the skills I’d practiced at summer camp and discover if they work in the real world.
I tried to think of the right words to say, like “Welcome, stranger. You don’t have to break in, because I’m inviting you into our home.”
I’d clear off a spot on the sofa, brew a pot of fair trade French press, and reach for my dog-eared copy of Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out. I’d open my heart to the burglar. I could be a priest to this Jean Valjean, who was probably just trying to feed his family.
“You can’t steal because I’m going to let you take whatever you want,” I’d proclaim. “You’re no thief and I’m no victim—we’re simply brothers in Christ.”
Stirring words, huh? They didn’t convince me either. How much would I even have time to say before he pistol-whipped me? Maybe if I kept still instead, he wouldn’t notice me and would take what he wanted and leave. “No,” I thought. “That’s delusional. And cowardly.”
The screen popped free and the frame slid upward. Beneath the curtain a leather loafer appeared. It looked kind of dapper for a burglar—and familiar.
“Sorry guys, forgot my keys.” It was Peter, back from a late play rehearsal, and infuriatingly calm.
Kevin uttered something unprintable from across the room. Peter shrugged—he didn’t see what the big deal was. He had the courtesy to shut the window and then left our bedroom for his own. For an hour I lay in bed with my heart pounding.
That’s when I knew I was kidding myself by acting like a do-gooder in the neighborhood. I didn’t have any wisdom my neighbors didn’t have. I didn’t have an answer to the hardest question they had posed—the question Walter asked me on his balcony. I told him I believed in the nonviolent way of Jesus. But I knew I might never face the threats of violence he confronted daily in twenty years as a prison guard.
Although Walter was too polite to say so, I think he was disappointed in my non-answer. I had it easy, because I didn’t really have to find an answer. For the rest of the year, I waited for him to stop by, but he never did. And I never went looking for him.
The year as I had imagined it was a flawed experiment—I can see that now. But I’m still sorting through what I learned from my time on Worden Street. In the years since then, I haven’t lived in anything you’d call an alternative community. I wonder if I’ve still got the stomach for it. My wife, Hannah, and I talk about it from time to time. Surely there’s a happy medium that would let us share part of our living space with others and still have our own bedroom and bathroom, and maybe a quiet room for reading in the evening. It’s easy to list these requirements, and it’s easy for them to make communal living impossible.
These days, we’ve got a home in a mostly safe neighborhood in another city. As I write, our six-month-old son, Samuel, grunts on the rug nearby. He tries to cram a stuffed elephant into his mouth, squeals when it slips from his grip, and slams his pajamaed feet on the floor in excitement. Hannah holds a novel in her lap as she watches, making faces to draw out his laughter. We’ve got dinner in the oven and wine in our glasses. Not everything is perfect, but we’ve got an abundance of goodness in our lives, and I’d be a fool not to see it.
Our son brings new complications to these questions about community. It’s one thing to move ourselves to a high-crime neighborhood, but with a child? It doesn’t seem responsible. Then again, maybe his arrival means it’s time to decide how we really want to live. Maybe the responsible thing is to show him there are greater joys than having a cozy room to ourselves.
Now that Sam can sit up on his own, we’ve begun to eat our first family meals at the table. It’s deeply satisfying, even if he spits pureed peas farther than seems physically possible. But I want him to share meals with lots of other people too. I want him to know bread isn’t for hoarding but for breaking and sharing, which means I’ve got to demonstrate that openness myself. How do I do that without barging into places I’m not invited? Does community require giving up the comfort of a self-sufficient home? How does peacemaking take root in a neighborhood marked by violence? I didn’t gain clear answers at Pamoja House, but living there thrust me face-to-face with questions I want to keep asking.
Sam’s vegetable-coated hands remind me of our old dilemmas at the Pamoja House table, laughing about our principled stand against napkins even as we earnestly wanted to figure out how to live with less waste. We may have been stingy with napkins, but at our best we were utterly generous with time, lounging at the table for stories already gone on way too long, letting the soup cool in the pot, putting off schoolwork wait until the early morning hours. We knew our time at the table was something special. In our lack of hurry, we were hospitable, both to our guests and to ourselves.
I only wish Walter had joined us.
Jonathan Hiskes is a writer and communications director at the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Mother Jones, River Teeth, the Sun, Image, Books and Culture, and elsewhere. Read more of his writing at Jonathanhiskes.com.