Mabel never thought of her neighborhood as the “mean streets” but she felt they were decidedly unfriendly. Pulling her shopping cart behind her, she skirted the broken beer bottle and a dirty diaper littering the path to her building’s entrance. They were the least of the debris she had to navigate however, and her face settled into stern lines as she approached the doorway. The three men who lounged on the steps were there for most of every day, leaving only to replenish their brown bags at the corner “package” store. By noon, they were usually in various stages of intoxication.
“How do Miz Rollins?” The brim of a stained, misshapen hat was touched. “You need some help with that cart?” The speaker stumbled a bit as he hurried to open the door for her and his friends nodded their heads deferentially as they shuffled out of her way.
“No thank you. I’m fine,” she replied tersely, as she hefted the cart up the three stairs. She paused, and then turned to face the man who held the door open. “Big Bethel is having a revival this week. You gentlemen are welcome to come.”
“Yes Ma’am, yes Ma’am. I’ll certainly try to make it.” His head bobbed up and down as he waited for her to enter the hallway. It was an ongoing ritual that passed as social interaction and which she considered her Christian duty. The only thing that varied was the event at her church.
Her children never could understand the respect Mabel was accorded on the streets. A small, middle aged woman, she was neither beautiful nor especially warm and kept herself and her children out of the mainstream of street life; perhaps it was the big red “Jesus Saves” button she wore like a badge or her ramrod, no nonsense posture, which dared anyone to attempt to engage her in frivolous, time wasting conversation.
A widow, she was always about the business of keeping her three boys and one girl housed, fed, clean and in church. The first two she accomplished by working as a maid in one of the large hotels, the third by doing mountainous loads of laundry after work and the last by the simple expedient of saying “Because I said so.”
The face she presented to the world was the same one she showed her children and while there were not a lot of hugs and kisses – or excessive emotions of any kind - in later years her children would say “my mother was consistent.” They also affirmed that she said what she meant and meant what she said. Her advice to hypocrites was “If you don’t have the goods, take down your sign.”
It was no surprise to them, therefore, that when she found the flyer taped to her door, announcing a block party the following Saturday, she tossed it into the garbage. She wasn’t about to engage in that kind of foolishness. Her daughter Elsie, at the age when “foolishness” held a definite appeal, felt a keen disappointment.
Picking a time when her mother wasn’t bone weary, she approached the subject.
“Mama, why can’t we go to the block party? A lot of my friends and our neighbors are going.”
Her mother put down the pants she was mending and gave Elsie a long look over her glasses. “That’s exactly why we’re not going. You know I don’t like you hanging around those folks any more than you have to.”
Elsie sighed. She fiddled with her braids as she gazed out the window at the gray wall of the apartment building next door.
It was Mabel’s turn to sigh. “Yes Elsie?”
“Doesn’t Jesus love our neighbors?”
Mabel paused. She pretty much knew where this was heading.
“Of course he does.”
Elsie turned away from the window and looked at her mother.
“Then why don’t you?”
Her mother slowly put the pants down and clasped her hands over them, her head bowed in thought.
After a couple of minutes, without looking at her daughter, she picked up the pants and started sewing again.
“Get that paper out of the garbage and let me see what they’re gonna be doin’ Saturday.”
Giving a shout, Elsie jumped up and ran to the trash can. “Are we going?” she asked hopefully.
With a slight smile, her mother said “We’ll see,” which her children also knew was almost as good as a yes.
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