When we bought a new house, the kids from the middle school across the street invaded. Every day at 3 PM, skateboarders, flower-pickers, and nose-pickers hung out on our steps. They played with the sprinklers and left trash.
My husband Andy declared war. He lost. He wanted me to continue the battle.
I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do less than yell at a bunch of recalcitrant, hormonal tweens.
Especially since they knew where we lived. At best, I was sure they’d retaliate with toilet paper. At worst, outright vandalism.
But when they began skateboarding down my steps, ripping apart my rose bushes, and loosening the brick landscaping from its mortar, I barged outside with my dog Woofie at my side.
“What are you DOING?!” I yelled at the skateboarder. “You’re going to chip the brick!”
“Sorry! Sorry!” the kid grabbed his skateboard and ran off.
“And you!” I rounded on the girl playing “he loves me, he loves me not” with my Princess Elizabeth rosebuds. “That flower never even got a chance to bloom and you tore it apart! What is WRONG with you?!”
“Sorry,” she whispered, and fled.
The boys rocking back and forth on the bricks were next. “You two! Get off that brickwork! You’re loosening the bricks and if the one you’re standing on comes loose and you fall and break your heads your parents will sue me!”
The kids jumped down and scurried away.
Satisfied, I stepped back – and nearly tripped over a tiny girl petting Woofie.
“I love your dog,” she gushed. Woofie licked her face and tried to jump on her. He was bigger than she was. She just laughed and hugged him. “He’s so cute. I wish I had a dog. But grandma says we can’t have one.”
Woofie lay down, dragging me into a crouch next to him. The dog-loving girl patted his head. Two other girls went “Aww!” and dashed over to pet him also.
Within seconds, a gaggle of girls had gathered. Woofie’s tongue lolled. He rolled on his back and soaked in belly scratches.
Damned dog totally mellowed my harsh.
The girls peppered me with questions.
“How old is he?”
“What’s his name?”
“Is he the dog who went to science class?”
I said, “He’s about a year old, his name is Beowoof – you’ll get the joke when you are older – we call him Woofie, and yes. He escaped and went to science class.”
“Julia said he was scary, but he’s not scary at all!”
Neither was I, apparently. Kids spawned out of the ether for several minutes. Even the ones I’d yelled at returned.
Their numbers didn’t decrease until their parents arrived, ten, twenty, and even thirty minutes after the other school children had been collected or walked home.
Eventually only Woofie’s first and smallest groupie was left. She told me her name was Brittany. She told me that Woofie had gorgeous eyelashes. She told me that she — and all the kids who hung out on my steps — couldn’t walk home because they lived on the north side of the city. “This school has the best teachers,” she explained. “But it’s not full.”
I thought of how Andy and I were the only couple for two blocks under 50. Most of the neighbors were either the originals owners of these houses, built sixty years ago, or the children of those owners, now in their 50s and 60s. No wonder the school wasn’t full.
Turns out the school district had an open-enrollment lottery once a year. It was a chance for the kids from lower-income areas to get a spot at the best schools. And once a student made it in, they stayed in that area’s schools, going to the better high school as well. Vigilant parents entered the open enrollment lottery every year.
But not Brittany’s mom. Brittany’s grandmother had gotten Brittany into the good school. Brittany’s mother was a drug addict.
“She’s not a bad person,” Brittany told me, as she stroked Woofie’s soft ears. “She just…can’t help herself. So my grandmother takes care of us, but I have to wait for her to get my brothers and sisters before she can pick me up.”
Jesus. I felt like a white, entitled monster. Autumn, Abominable Snowman. Probably the other kids on my steps had similar stories. Brittany was white, but many of the other kids weren’t. I had kids of all ethnicities — Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Black. They weren’t lazy for not walking home. Their parents weren’t neglecting them. Their parents – or grandparents – were doing their damnedest to give their kids the very best education possible. Some of them had younger kids to pick up, too, or were coming directly from work.
The next day, I was on the porch with Woofie at 3 PM. Brittany was thrilled. So was Woofie. So were all the dog groupies.
A skateboarder went by. Fey appeared at the window and barked at him. Brittany’s eyes grew wide. “You…you have ANOTHER dog?!”
“Well, yeah, but she doesn’t love kids like Woofie.”
One girl clamored, “But can we see her?”
I took Woofie inside and brought Fey out on a leash. The girls gushed over her pretty eyes, tiny ears, and scimitar-like tail. Fey cocked her head at them and thumped that tail. I gave her some treats. Her tail thumped harder.
Within a few weeks, both dogs sat on the porch with me at 3 PM. Both got petting. Fey got socialized.
And if a newcomer climbed on the brick planters, I said, “Hey! You can sit on the brick steps in the shade, but stay off the planters. You know why?”
The offending child would shake their head. The usual step crew would then chorus, “Because if you fall and break your head, your parents will sue her!”
Once, when I was on a phone call at 3 PM instead of outside, my doorbell rang. Two shame-faced boys admitted to breaking one of the flowerpots in the brick pillars that framed our walk. They helped me clean up, and their parents arrived before dark with money to pay for the pot. I was impressed.
Andy, who had to fit the replacement pot, was not. “I wish all the damned kids would go somewhere else!”
“They can’t, honey.” I explained the kids’ situation. And I reminded him how he’d been first generation latchkey kid, too, with his dad working early and his mom working late.
Andy grunted. I told him about Brittany, and how she couldn’t have a dog in her grandmother’s crowded apartment, and how she adored Woofie and Fey.
Andy grunted again.
Halloween came. Now that we had a real house instead of a half-hidden town house, I optimistically bought a ton of candy. We got less than a dozen trick-or-treaters.
Andy had the Friday after Halloween off. Usually, he ignored the kids. But that Friday, he was on our steps at 3 PM, offering the giant cauldron of leftover candy to the kids.
Brittany hesitantly took a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.
“Take as many as you want,” he told her.
She thanked him and grabbed a bunch of them. “My little sister loves these!”
Brittany stuffed her backpack.
So did the rest of the regulars.
When the cauldron was empty, Andy turned to come back inside. He saw me standing in the doorway.
He said, “What? I’m just getting rid of the candy. So we don’t get fat.”
Andy disappeared into the house. He never interacted with those kids again. But there are two things you should know about my husband:
1) He hasn’t cared about his weight since we got married.
2) Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are his favorite candy.