Another city, another story, and stories like this probably happen more than we know.

People can be that way, right? Almost grumpy about it at times, always wrestling with that phrase in which “cheerful” precedes giver?

But if you look closely enough, we can all see when other people need things. We’re tuned to it. The look is familiar. A whole mess of kids, for starters. Anyone with that many never has enough of anything. A young couple, moving in next door, shy to the point of retreating. Not anti-social, by any means, but…timid. At least that’s what he says he thought.

That day after the rain he noticed their van’s windows, down. It wasn’t long before he realized they didn’t roll all the way up. That might have been the first thing. Maybe the second was that the kids wore the same clothes, every day. Freshly cleaned, but the same. Every. Day.

Frankly it surprised him that anyone had moved into the house next door, since he was pretty sure it was destined to be another tear down. A dwelling like that might not seem like much to you, and this one certainly didn’t seem like much to him – but after awhile it became obvious it was everything to them. These days such families are frequently trapped. Developers often want the land on which the only houses or apartments affordable to them sit. Chances are they’ve already been encouraged to leave elsewhere under similar circumstances. Where do you go then?

He was a little leery, of course. Not being quite sure of the owner didn’t help, and the last person in there hadn’t stayed very long. It had been a rental, and the current status was a bit murky. Like any good neighborhood snoop, he’d copped a peek inside one day between occupants. It sure didn’t seem like it would be anyone’s first choice of where to live with a gaggle of goslings, so it likely wasn’t. When it got super cold he wondered if there was even any heat in there. Had he seen them wearing their heavy coats inside?

And he wouldn’t want to kid you, either. Yeah, he noticed. Were those tattoos? Were they mixed-race? Did someone in the neighborhood mention the word jail? My friend will tell you he has to fight his own prejudices every day, but mostly he was thinking none of that makes anything easier – even if we are twenty years into the 21st Century. Some might say that’s just balancing good deeds and good will with good sense, but he tells me that’s a copout. Even though he’s not always all that cheerful about it himself, I’ll have you know.

During the Holidays he’d made some stuff, so he and his family took a little tin of the goodies next door. Cookies and fudge, and things like that. Being friendly isn’t always his first nature, but this seemed like something about which he had no choice. Grown-ups? Meh. Well, for the most part, meh. But throw in kids? That’s when his stiff neck gets looser. And cute kids like that ought to have cookies and fudge that time of year, right? They just should.

Oh boy, the trash. There has never been a more OCD homeowner than this guy. He would pick-prune his grass. It’s ridiculous. In his next life he longs to be a Major League groundskeeper – so if you have junk in your yard, forget about it. As some point he supposes the owner had people over to clean up the property, but, like, wow. Their leavings were a disaster – and this couple seemed to have all they could handle just ushering little ones to and from that van every day. Likely as not, none of that stuff was ever going to make it to the curb or a dumpster.

As he tells it, one night late he and his better half spotted the mom going in the front door with a giant jug of water on her shoulder. The two had never seen much furniture go in the house, let alone a water cooler. That did it. Did they have running water in there at all?

I know what you’re thinking, and believe me – he was thinking that, too. But all of us know what also can happen when we call, right? If you ever spend much time with the homeless, one of the things you pick up on fast is that we’re all about one major life trauma from the street. So now what was he supposed to do? Call for a welfare check that could put a family of six under a bridge? That’s when the questions get harder.

The next day while he was out pick-pruning that grass, she came walking over. The lady next door, apologizing for mess the owner’s workers had left scattered about. Right then he thought to himself do I really want to get involved? Because we all know what often happens when we do. And even then, if it even remotely turns out alright, who has the time?

In spite of himself, he couldn’t resist. “Can I ask you a personal question?”, he began. “Are y’all alright in there?”

The way I heard it, that’s when she teared up. The details aren’t that important, but he tells me it was plain that the best thing to do was not to get on the phone. It was to put on his gloves.

So, the following morning he went to work. He had other plans for the day, but those went out the window. By afternoon all that scrap was cut up and stacked out by the street for the next bulk trash pickup. Then those kids didn’t have to come home to that after school, he thought. The Better Half suggested putting a few flowers in a spare pot or two to brighten up the front, and that was easy. And since he was going by the store anyway, putting four bottles of water for the weekend in the truck was simple enough. Why not?

Now here’s where things get really interesting. This guy has always revered his granddad, who treated everyone like a neighbor. The way my friend tells it, he was in the shower thinking about that when an epiphany hit: without realizing it, he’d just imitated the person he admired most. He’d just been given an opportunity. He had trouble describing what he felt, but he told me the only words he could come up with were thank you.

That was the first thing. Then as he bowed his head, he watched the water dripping from his face down into the drain. That’s when he says he was struck by a second thought: he was pouring away something he gets from a tap that others have to go buy in bottles. All he had to do was turn on a faucet and there were children over there who couldn’t take a bath or wash their hair if someone didn’t go to the store. Right. Next. Door. And there were things he thought he needed to complain about?

That’s when he started sobbing. In the shower.

And he says that’s when he realized: he was once again being washed.

It was one of those moments we all tell our partners about at the end of the day, he said – and I  believe I understand why. I think other than family I’m the only other person who knows. I can tell you he isn’t altogether comfortable even sharing the story for fear of credit – but he admitted it might remind us that we all have opportunities. And sometimes, thank God, they’re unavoidable.

By the way – I’m told the kids came over in return on Sunday with hand-written thank you notes, candy, and a pretty rock. One lollipop, two butterscotches, and the rock has sparkles. And who does hand-written notes anymore these days, anyway? He says he plans to save the candies and keep the rock.

How cool is that?