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Writing Austin's Lives: More than 800 residents tell their stories in Humanities Institute community project

Where I Live

By Deb Kelt

I walk through my neighborhood every day at 6:45 a.m. I guess you could say my neighborhood is my morning meditation. I always take the same route—up South 3rd, around St. Elmo, down South 2nd and around to Englewood. The sun comes up and life in the small, ranch-style homes begins to stir. Another day in our still diverse and still blue-collar patch of Austin. Lots of pick-up trucks, dogs, chain-link fences and converted garages. Bud Light seems to be the drink of choice, judging by our recycling bins. Outdoor shade is provided by those persistent hackberry trees; indoor cool comes from AC window units.

Deb Kelt stands in front of a Virgin of Guadalupe that she passes on her morning walks

Deb Kelt

These are the constants in my hood, but as I walk every morning, I notice that nothing is ever the same. The night always produces some magic, a little cosmic shift left behind while the sun went away for a time. And if I walk with eyes wide open, I notice these morning gifts. My neighborhood touches me with grace each day—a daily blessing from 78745.

Sometimes my blessings come from the usual suspects. The Virgin Mary has a spot in lots of front yards. I always love to pass her, noticing her eyes looking down, her arms outstretched. In my neighborhood we have painted Virgins of Guadalupe with her starry blue shroud, terra cotta Virgins that nearly match the clay dirt, concrete Virgins with tiny graceful hands. I love when the roses bloom near them—almost everyone plants roses around the Virgin. I smile and think of Juan Diego as I pass a serene Mary surrounded by almost shocking orange blooms.

I noticed three days ago that one of the Virgins now has a blue plastic rosary around her neck. I look at the house and wonder what has happened in this home. Maybe a baby has been born, or perhaps some sadness has entered their lives. Was it left only as a simple prayer? Either way, something is different. I smile when I think of my neighbor walking outside to place the rosary, quietly marking this change. I wonder how I mark the big and small changes in my own life, how there never seems to be any time for quiet rituals.

Other mystical visions come from the chihuahuas on Englewood. Some days these dogs come hurling toward the fence as I pass, anger and venom dripping from their tiny chops. They’re almost flying as they leap over that red Tonka truck left out all night. Talk about mad—these four dogs are fuming! Their tiny toenails scrape across the driveway and for just a second they seem to be running in place, but soon the fence is right at their faces and they let me have it. (I sure hope I don’t look this silly when I get mad. But I think I do.)

Other days the gang of four doesn’t even stir as I walk by. I see them eyeing the biggest of the group (about the size of a loaf of bread, minus 5 slices or so), getting their orders for the morning. If she is calm, so are the rest. And my day begins without a canine ambush. Some days barking at the fence just ain’t worth it, I’ve learned.

On the corner of South 2nd and Philco lives Meticulous Lawn Guy. At least that’s his name in my head—and I mentally call him this with the greatest of affection. Meticulous Lawn Guy dedicates his morning meditation to the lawn, of course. He spreads fertilizer, waters, sweeps up clippings from the street, or gently blows them with his very quiet leaf blower. (It is only 7 a.m. Meticulous Lawn Guy is quite a considerate neighbor.)

The best days are when he breaks out the scooter. Meticulous Lawn Guy has constructed this little chair on wheels. It is only about six inches high, hitting just to where the curb and the lawn meet. MLG then sits in the scooter with a small pair of clippers and he edges—by hand—his entire lawn. It must take hours. My favorite part of the whole endeavor is the tiny, reflective traffic sign he places behind the scooter—so oncoming traffic will not sideswipe him. Some days MLG says hello, but most of the time he is lost in meditation, like me. His fantastic yard reminds me of the power of patience and persistence. And the scooter? A morning reminder to let my inner-weirdo sing.

The last part of my stroll takes me down to the corner of Orland and Englewood, which is where I live. Across the street from us are the Mexican painters. I think about the Mexican painters a lot. I know them all—their faces, their children, their cars, even the songs they sing at night when they break out the accordions and cerveza.

But we never say hello. Ever. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because of language, although my Spanish is just fine. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman in shorts and they are 10 guys in work clothes—they don’t want to freak me out, I don’t want to seem overly friendly. Maybe it’s just too early. Or perhaps they’ve gotten grief from other neighbors who are not happy with the bulldozer that sat in the yard for a year, with the seven or eight trucks they have parked on the street, with the dirt they keep instead of a lawn.

I don’t know why we don’t talk, but when I pass their house, my walk takes on a certain sadness. I vow to myself to say “hola” the following morning, to get to know these people who are my closest neighbors, to find out about their lives, their stories, maybe even a little about their hopes and dreams. At the very least, I’d like to see that accordion close up.

I did wave once as I walked by. One of the men—dressed in a white t-shirt and painter pants—sort of nodded back in reply. I guess it’s a start. Maybe someday we’ll move to “Buenos Dias.” I’ll keep waving and walking and thinking about a morning miracle. The dawn always holds promise.

Like today. I came home to find a bird’s nest in my mailbox. Small twigs and grass carefully constructed, trying to create a tiny little home. Just as we all are, where I live.

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Read Writing Austin’s Lives introduction

Photo: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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