The continuing saga of the Gemstone quest to beautify and brighten Cairnes Lane, the alley behind La Bodega Unión.
“Sir, excuse me sir,” he said in his distinctively Hampden accent, a lingual tilt that can also be heard in the historically working-class neighborhoods of Baltimore’s industrial sister city, Pittsburgh. “Can I leave this here for just a minute? I’ll be right back for it.”
It was the early afternoon and I was standing on my porch in my pajama pants, a habit I’ve picked up as a sort of fist (or perhaps a finger) in the air toward my former nine-to-five life.
I make a real effort not to prejudge my less fortunate neighbors, but I have also learned not to trust strangers on the street. My split-second, mostly unconscious decision was that he probably wouldn’t leave anything dangerous or incriminating on my front walkway.
“Sure man, that’s fine, doesn’t bother me,” I said, wondering what it was in the cardboard Huggies box that he couldn’t take with him but that he also trusted to be exposed to passersby for half an hour.
“Oh, thank you sir, I’ll be back for it, just don’t want to be a bother or nothin’.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I responded, and curiously peered into the box that he set down at the base of my front steps. A can of carrots, a few packages of noodles, a bag of beans, more non-perishable foods that I don’t remember. I arched an eyebrow but hey, that’s Hampden.
It will not surprise the reader to learn that the box was still there that evening after we finished our dinner. By the following morning, when I went outside around 8 o’clock with my freshly-Chemexed coffee, items had begun to disappear. Thirty-six hours later, only the carrots remained.
“You know,” Ruby said to me in her here’s-something-neat tone that night, “I liked how people slowly took what they wanted out of that box.”
“Yeah, I sort of expected someone to just take the whole thing,” I admitted, something that, in hindsight, does not reveal a very kind attitude toward my neighbors.
“Maybe we could fill the box back up with stuff. Or even, we could make it nicer, like, I could make a sign,” she said, getting excited by her burgeoning project.
“A sign? Sure, that would be really nice, actually. And we could just put cans of food in the box once in a while?”
“Or, when I go to the store later I could pick up something a little more permanent. And then just whenever we go shopping grab a little extra. Maybe other people would leave things in it too!” she said, and we were off.
Ruby did find a perfect little basket at Target that we zip-tied to our stairs, and she did paint a great little sign on a piece of wood that I had left over from building the wardrobe in our bedroom. We started filling it up slowly, and the food continued to disappear slowly. To date, no one has taken more than a couple of pieces at a time from our humble offerings.
After a week or so, we started to notice cans of food sometimes being added rather than simply disappearing. One day, we woke to find the basket overflowing (above). Someone had been inspired by our basket to empty their cupboards, just as we had hoped. We’ve seen a cookbook, yogurt, and coffee. Now, a month or so in, it’s part of our routine. Whenever we shop for food, we just pick up a couple of extra things.
I did overhear some kids talking, “Yo, I had to promise my mom I wouldn’t steal that basket. It’s a nice basket.” I mean, it’s not. It was $4.50 at Target. But there is a tradition, I guess, of fourteen-year-old boys blustering about stealing baskets. For now, while we are not solving any systemic problems, our little basket moves us a step closer toward our corner of Hampden being the neighborhood I believe it can be.