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Last night I was heading downstairs to the laundry room with Li'l Pal lugging a hamper full of stinky underpants when a neighbor called out after me and came up to talk to me. He said he had something he wanted to tell me. He was shirtless with a big scripty tattoo in Spanish across his chest. He didn't speak a lot of English, but he could get his points across to me. He told me that his family has lived on this street for 12 years. I told him I've been here for over 20 years. He said he knew that without me telling him. He introduced himself and we shook hands. He was trying to figure out how to tell me something, so I just stopped and listened. He told me that his sister lives in my building with her husband and child, and he lives across the street with some other friends and relatives. Over the years he and his family have seen me in the neighborhood. He pointed up and down the street to indicate that he had seen me all around. He became serious and looked me in the eye and said, "I always wanted to tell you I respect you."
At first, I was confused and thought he might just be using the wrong word. After all, what is there to respect about a person you just see walking down the street every once in a while? When I think of people I respect, there are specific things they've done to earn that. The guy could see I was wondering what he meant. He put his hand over his heart, looked me straight in the eye again and repeated the word...
He meant it. I felt surprised and a little flattered. I told him, "I don't know exactly what I've done to deserve your respect, but I appreciate it." I shook his hand again and thanked him. He smiled and turned and walked back into the darkness to sit on the curb. All day, I've been thinking about this. If I was describing myself, "repectable" wouldn't be the first word I'd choose.
What did I do to earn his respect? Maybe it's something I don't even remember... just some situation I was in around the neighborhood years ago that impressed him. My mom and dad were always worried about me on this street, but I've always felt comfortable and safe here. There's the occasional problem, but overall these are good family people in this neighborhood.
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The odd thing is that this isn't the first time something like this has happened. A big muscly guy covered with prison tattoos who lived in the building once invited me into his apartment to introduce me to his wife and baby and told me that if I ever needed them to help me in any way, just to let them know. I could tell that he meant it too. Another family invited me to their Christmas party. I didn't speak a word of Spanish, and they spoke no English, but it didn't matter to them. They treated me just like another member of their family. When I was unemployed once, I stopped by the local bar and a fella insisted on paying for my beers, telling me over and over, "America- very good. America- my home now." A next door neighbor couple who had two little girls brought them back almost ten years after they moved away to shake my hand and to "thank Mr. Stephen for being so good to them when they were little." My current next door neighbors always help me carry bags of groceries up the stairs and bring me tamales. They worry when I'm sick and don't come out of my apartment for a couple of days in a row.
Respect is something you earn. It isn't something you get given to you without reason. I guess even when you're not doing anything in particular, you're still doing something. Whatever I did to deserve it, I sure appreciate it.