Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The fourth day of Christmas: And then you do it all over again


First thing this morning, I was called by Chuck, my shoveling friend from yesterday, wanting to know our next step. Walking down to the church, I ache all over. But it’s a good ache, physical labor ache.The snow is second day wet, frozen, dirty. As I reach the church, George is there eating a good looking tuna salad. One of the wreaths has fallen down. And someone has left a bag of clothes. I ask if they’re his, he says “no.” So I move them aside. Hang the wreath back up. Get ready to start on the steps. I shovel them off, getting closer to clear.

I’m discouraged to find that most of our hard work of yesterday has been undone. The pathways filled in, ice hardened banks of snow filling the walkways we cleared. (Metaphors abound again.) There’s nothing to do but to dig in and do it all over again. As I start in, there’s Deacon James back again snow pants and a Russian hat. I’m happy to see him and that he’s in good shape. We’ve got an ice breaker and three kinds of shovel between us.

As we dig in, an elderly African-American woman in glasses dragging a shopping cart appears. “God bless you, she says, I can hardly get my cart through. I grew up in the church. If I had my little shovel, I’d dig in myself.” We clear her a path and she walks through, dragging her cart, laughing, talking about the city. “God bless” you she says.

It’s the same routine as yesterday,the people walking over you like you’re not there, like they’re entitled. Finally, a woman says, “thank you so much, thank you.” And James says, “Hallelujah. You take what you can get. Leave the rest alone.” When able bodied young African-American men walk by, he always extends the shovel, asks them to join him. None do.

Rolando Matalon, rabbi of B’Nai Jeshurun, walks through the path I’m creating. “BJ” is the largest progressive synagogue in the country, a major presence in the neighborhood. Marshall Meyer (of blessed memory) brought them back from near extinction back in the late ’80’s. After having gone one on one with the junta in Argentina during the “Dirty War.” Marshall, my predecessor Bob Davidson and Daniel Berrigan made quite a trio in the neighborhood. We have been sharing SPSA with BJ these last three years. “Hello Roly,” I say. He looks startled to see me in my football practice jersey, watch cap and shovel. “Bob,” he says, “you’re getting good exercise.” I think of saying “grab a shovel,” but just say “thanks,” and keep digging.

There’s a crisis. A man in a motorized cart is stuck in the middle of the street. Can’t find a way through. As annoying as these days are for most of us, especially parents with strollers, for disabled people its a frozen hell. The 86th Street crossing is almost wide enough, so we dig in double time. He starts through, gets stuck, James pushes him through to the clear walk. James raises his arms, shovel in one, the other a fist, “Victory is ours!” he shouts. This made coming here worthwhile.

A classic older Upper Westsider in his long camel hair coat, fur hat, wire rim glasses and leather gloves has been watching us. “Where are you people from?” he asks. “West-Park Church,” I say, “that church right there” and I point over my shoulder.” “God’s work,” he says, “you people are doing God’s work.”

On the one hand, that made my day. The suffering servant part of me says that just to clear the paths and have hundreds be able to walk through is worth it just as is. The community organizer part of me says we need a sign to stick in the snow banks to say “These pathways dug out, cleared and maintained by West-Park Church,” and the money conscious part of me says that we need donation jar.

We dig back in and finish the pathway across 86th Street. I look at James and say, “I think we’re done here.” “No think about it,” he says, “we’re done.” “Good work,” I say, and snap his picture with his shovels. We put the shovels away. I lock up. I wave goodbye as he heads home.

I say “take care” to George. He nods.

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