I’m still technically on hiaitus, but every time it snows so much in DC, I’m reminded of this story I wrote after snowmageddon happened, around 2009… A really lopsided snowball fight brings two taciturn DC neighbors together. Totally a shameless re-post!
Dear Mr. Tannenbaum,
Please consider the following before you file criminal charges, or whatever…
A few years ago, I also threw a snowball at Dr. Somiley. Maybe you don’t remember his family? They were at the open house. Dr. Somiley was a dentist. Also, no one liked him either. Not that I don’t… dammit, I can’t cross that out. I hate handwriting things, which means I have no intention of re-writing this either. But considering how late it is after being up all night, and that I want to get it through your mail slot before you leave the house, I hope you will understand. Well, in any case, like a lot of the more terrifying dentists, Somiley had one of those names that matched his profession. It should have been my first warning, I guess.
I don’t know why I aimed the snowball at the old man’s head. I have a wife and kids. I’m always telling them not to do it, because we can’t afford it if someone gets it in their eye and we have to go the hospital. It’s also the reason why we have a rule not to put rocks inside of snowballs, because that possibly doubles the bill compared to a regular snowball to the face. But it was right after that blizzard of 09. I hadn’t done any Christmas shopping and we were stuck under two feet of snow. The last weekend before the holiday and I had to spend it shoveling out, that is, if anything was even open. The boys were inside, going crazy, but I was the one who had to get waist deep in it and make sure the walk was shoveled, salted, safe and all that. My wife would have helped but she was sick with the flu. Then, that old Somiley parks, gets out of his Cadillac, hobbling up the stairs to his rowhouse somehow looking decently good. To this day, I have no idea where he had been the previous night. Top hat, cane and all. I swear to goodness, he looked like a black Mr. Scrooge to me, cursing at the snow, scattering it with his cane, hating Christmas out loud when–however it was going–I’d worked my ass off this year and it was my one break before the big break. All two extra days of it. Did I also mention that I was once stuck on crutches for about half the year as a kid after I tore my ACL playing football? Defensive tackle for the Carroll Lions. It was the Tiny Tim inside of me, the kid who got cut and couldn’t come back, then got fat in college. It was the man with two kids, a wife who is so happy sometimes, I’m afraid to ever be negative… it was the English major in me who hard-packed that snowball, leaned back and aimed for Somiley, in the head.
Only, in this case I slowed a little before I let it fly. In fact, I honestly threw under-handed so the poor guy could see it coming. Okay, so my voice broke and I might have gone, “Oh, look out there, Old Somiley.”
It must have been hard to see it coming out of the winter sky, snowball against the drifting cloud remnants of yesterday’s snow storm. I braced myself when he caught it. Caught it in leather gloves. Just like with you yesterday, right then, I thought Old Somiley was gonna kill me. That cane was still hanging off of his arm. He could chuck it real good if he wanted to. He’d already caught a snowball I wasn’t even ready for.
I said something like, “Meant to throw it at you, actually. But then I thought it would be sort of mean. So, you know, I went underhand.”
But then, Mr. Tannenbaum, old Somiley did the one thing you failed to do for some reason yesterday. That old man set down his hat and his cane, and he threw the snowball back. Before I knew it, I was making a new one, and then he was stuck down on the sidewalk, pitching them up at me. He couldn’t get into his yard or up on his porch. I was stuck just beyond mine, up in the yard. Somiley had the advantage, because I never fixed my fence. Somiley ducked like he was in a war, not even laughing too hard when I got him. He was all under-handed, sent them soaring high up in the air. Those snow-bombs could have been heat-seeking, I swear. I was constantly looking up while I ran to make more. I’d see these things hovering, really stopped and thinking at the arc of their trajectories, before they plummeted right down on my head. Every time. Every single time, these snowballs came right out of my line of sight. I finally plunged into the snow, almost swam through it knit hat and all, to get close to the end of my yard, you know how it’s stacked up off the street, like a fort wall? Note, that is the reason why I had to leap over the fence, sort of. Not because I was attacking you in a rage, like you started yelling. I also thank you for not calling the police like you promised you would. Remember that too, okay?
The other rowhouses across the street are sloped like the wrong side of a trench. Behind enemy lines, that upper crust sunny side of the street, Northwest DC. By the way, I thought you weren’t like the rest of them.
At the edge of my yard (because our fence is brand new, now. It didn’t lean into your side, like you accused), I finally got Somiley good. He was wheezing with laughter, crouched on the sidewalk directly beneath my perch, when I looked. Then, I called him ‘Smiley’, he actually responded to it, and I let him have a mud-flavored ice ball, right where he could taste it.
We laughed so hard together, we forgot how cold we were. He was pitiful, he really was. I felt bad for him, I said, but he didn’t feel bad for me at all. He said that to my face.
“Can I help you get up to your porch?”
“Yes, Tim, you can, in fact shovel my walk for me. I earned more points than you did, that is how people tend to win games, isn’t it?”
I got as far as his front steps in snow shoes when he gave me his house keys and explained where a second shovel was, by his front door. Then, Dr. Somiley did the last three stairs in his Sunday coat and I did his porch and the first two. Five stairs up to the porch just like my house. Just like your house. In case you forgot, though some might have the advantage of melting snow faster than others or growing greener lawns on the other side of the street, they’re all the same, Mr. Tannenbaum.
He and I would say hello from time to time, after that. I eventually caught my wife’s flu–with everything else going on, I forgot to get my shot–and Somiley came by with tea, which I don’t like to drink, and homemade pork chop soup, that I didn’t have any freaking clue existed! What I’m trying to say is, after the Phelps-Somiley Snow War of 2009, that creepy old dentist guy and I became better neighbors. Whenever it snowed, every year, we’d come onto our porches, shovel at least as far as the yard and then re-start the battle. Well, we’d try as early as the first snow, but there isn’t always enough of it in DC. So then we’d wait until there’s at least an inch. That’s a normal, healthy snowfall here.
Somiley beat me every year, except for, I think it was two years ago, when the kids got involved. Charlotte screamed–I was already yelling too and she told us to stop before we broke any of our windows. Snowballs are pretty great at getting through wire fences if they’re hard packed and small enough, and even past iron bars over your front windows. Not that I was hoping to aim for your front windows. So, the Phelps-Somiley Snow War of 2010 ended in a draw.
The following year, he and I got up really early and shoveled our back porches together. There’s perfect quiet in the back yards, here. The alley was almost completely quiet. And I never really liked my back yard. Very primordial. Mountain lions kill deer in the silence of the woods all the time–okay, so, not around here, but I hear it does happen. But to go out and do that with a friend, and for there to be no more flare than the thrill of adrenaline, no snarky kids with snot-noses, just aiming into the silence, daring to see it land before ducking again for cover. Cars pass through the alley and slow, peer up into our yards to tell if it really is an old black—err, African American man and his pudgy, winter-pasty, worse-for-wear neighbor. No neighbor able to deny that both of us have the bravery of real athletes in that pristine moment, to have risen to the occasion. Amazing.
Afterward, Somiley asked me about my two boys. Daniel is a freshman in college now with the Facebook page I’m not allowed in and all at, but back then he was just a shrimp starting out with texting callouses on both thumbs. I told him how Dannie drove me crazy, and Dr. Somiley gave a half-hearted snort, I think it was laughter. He said his son Bo never grew out of it, but that the father’s attitude has more to do with how the son comes out and not to get upset if I can’t make Dannie work harder right now, or eat better, or back-sass less.
“Back-sass? Bo? Pork chop soup? Did you say you were Southern, or did I always just assume as much from your accent?”
Somiley said, “No, Mr. Phelps. You never did ask. You appropriately minded your own business until now. I was born in Georgia, came up here to live with my father and then got sent back to finish out with his mother and my grandmother, down South. Satisfied?”
So, I assumed it wasn’t a happy shuttling back and forth. Somiley became aware of his tone and assured that Washington, DC was now his home and he’d raised his kids here and all, in our very neighborhood, in fact. I didn’t realize this because their son was about my age and living in another part of the District with his own family. They never visited.
Last year, I did not see Somiley as much. We weren’t those kinds of neighbors to go over to one another’s houses. I had my family and my work, and he had an axe to grind that I sensed I could never ask about. I didn’t see any of his house except for the front door where the snow-shovel was kept during winter. Once, I was locked out and asked to use his bathroom and he stayed inside the house, though I could hear PBS Create blaring from the living room. He sort of shrank into his chair and pretended not to be home. I was, of course, perplexed, though one can’t be perplexed about peeing for very long. Afterward, I didn’t judge. I made myself forget about it. Then, late that year, Somiley started to have visitors. First, my wife said Somiley’s son was there–wasn’t it funny that he was named Bo?–she said. Charlotte’s always interrupting herself. ‘Not really, Charlie’ I must have said because she shoved me at some point during that conversation. Charlotte remarked at how Bo had two boys to match our own, and that she couldn’t tell if his wife was wearing a weave or not. Her hair was styled so beautifully and she wondered if she could try it? Was there a way to politely ask? One of my wife’s co-workers took her to see Good Hair, with Chris Rock in it during the summer. I assume it was a funny movie. I also assume that Charlotte likes me making fun of her, for coming to me with such easy set-ups. Oh, dammit, I can’t cross that out, either. Anyways, my wife is charming, really charming if you would just try to get to know us, Mr. Tannenbaum. She’s silly, but she doesn’t mean any harm.
On the other hand, and what I want you to know is, your walls are thin. I heard you when you shouted that I was a terrible neighbor. Have you lived in a rowhouse before? When Somiley was there, we heard a few arguments come through the walls too. First, with his daughter-in-law with the ‘good weave’ as my wife says–sadly, I don’t know this woman’s name. She should have been the one who sold you the house, the real estate agent. Next, Bo would come without the kids or wife and he and his father would get loud. I heard only parts of their arguments. At that time, it was something about Somiley needing a ride to get places. His Cadillac hadn’t been moved from its parking space all last winter, come to think of it. After I got laid off, I didn’t have much else to do. I found a way to offer him a ride, politely, I thought, but that conversation ended badly. We heard less and less from him and more and more from his son. The Metro Access van and sometimes a shuttle from George Washington Hospital Center would drop him off. I was born at GW, not that I remember it. But I always think it when the name comes up. A worker would try to help Somiley inside his house every time, but he refused. I could tell by their looks, they hated Somiley like I did once. If it weren’t for the economy, the one hospital guy I noticed would have pitched that snowball in his hand, during the winter of 2011.
The snow almost didn’t come at all that year. In fact, I felt certain that it wouldn’t, and I also wanted an excuse to talk to Somiley, so one day, making my snow shovel more than obvious where I stood on his back porch, I knocked on his door. He came bundled up and we sat on his porch. Somiley did not look good at all. Pale for him, even gaunt-looking. He wasn’t going to the hospital anymore. I think I knew. Charlotte says that I can’t have known, but right then, I knew. It was going to be his last Christmas.
“You know, my son works down at the National Zoo. That’s why he’s here sometimes.”
I doubted that, until Somiley started to smile with his abominably straight teeth. I watched him talk about the Invertebrate House, Bo called it ‘Inverts’ and that his son cleaned a tank full of hissing cockroaches when he started out. Now, he ordered a team of volunteers around who giggled through cleaning up after animals, chopping earthworms… you name it, they did it with him and they loved it, for some reason. Somiley was proud, saying that about his son Bo. There was an octopus at Inverts–I’d seen the octopus, but I hadn’t realized it wasn’t the exact same octopus I knew as a child. Somiley knew all the good stuff, the real stuff. The reasons behind everything.
“I think I can… I think I can ask him. You could take your boys with him to see what goes on behind the lobster tank, or how they feed the spiders. Would they like that, Tim?”
“Oh, that’s kind of you, but my boys are getting too old for the Zoo. They’d just complain at me and make fools of themselves. Don’t trouble yourself. If I can’t shovel your walk, since the forecast was wrong about snow, yet again… is there anything else I can do for you, Dr. Somiley?”
“Nobody’s too old for nature, Bo. Don’t go thinking that just cause you do something unconventional, that it’s useless.”
“But I’m Tim. Dr. Somiley, are you alright? I think you should get back inside.”
“You chose to work from the heart. No shame in that. Sometimes it’s not as tangible as looking inside a person’s mouth and seeing that they need a filling. Sometimes, people need to smile. The one thing daddy, your grandaddy taught me. Nature can heal a body like nothing else. It’s why I got sent back to Georgia.”
I’m a bit of a sleuth, you might have already sensed it. “Was that really the reason?”
Somiley stood in the doorway, looking exhausted. He’d slipped into some kind of… I dunno, another way of speaking, as if he were at home, really down home. “No. But it’s what your granddad told me. He had some stuff goin’ on… but now that I’m older, I think it was nice of him, to go out of his way and make it bigger and better than it really was. Just because he did it in a strange way don’t mean it wasn’t gettin’ at the truth. Now, you keep at it, Tim. Keep those boys smilin’. You reach out however you can. Whatsoever you do, do good work.” He lifted his hands up and reminded me of a preacher. That’s not racist, is it? I hope not. He looked like a preacher. He felt to me like a preacher. That was my last conversation with Somiley.
He also spoke a lot differently around his son than he did me. Sometime after New Years’ an ambulance came to the house. Mr. Somiley had passed away.
So that you understand, the house you’re living in right now isn’t even yours. It almost went to Bo and his sons who are the same age as my sons. My wife was dead-set on asking Bo’s wife about the weave, over tea someday. We were ready to help the family move on. I found a plastic snow-ball gun thing at the Target on Columbia Road. I told Dannie and James that they would be in charge of artillery and would have to keep the snowballs coming. Dannie was a senior in high school. He actually wanted to be in the Phelps-Somiley Snow War of 2012. It was to be the snow-ball fight to end all snowball fights. But only if Dannie could use the Snowshooter Mega-Apocalypse 9000.
Mr. Tannenbaum, the land you live on is sacred ground. It is a battlefield where men who spend their entire summers wrestling with, um, lobsters and invertebrates and stuff come home then make ready to dig into the trenches. It is a place where oldsters and youngsters make a pact to be bad once a year, while the wives sit down to talk about fake hair, of all things. If you had any balls about you yesterday, you would have taken that snow-ball to the face. You would have liked it and you would have returned fire!
I suppose this started out as an apology letter, evidence of how I’m a good neighbor, but now it’s not. This is documentation, with a copy for myself to-file, that when the Somileys could not move in and raise a third generation because it was too painful, I didn’t give up. We invited you over and you never came. I asked you politely about where we should build our new fence and you only grunted at me. I always try and scooch up so that you can have a parking space if no one else takes it. I ask if you’ve been to the Zoo yet. I understand that people want their privacy, especially these days. Especially in this city. And just because you’re of an age, I know you don’t want others assuming that you need help, so after this, I won’t push anymore.
But now you know that’s why I did it. I was trying to be a good neighbor. I am sorry that I aimed for the head. Being out of work, I play too many console games not to make it a kills hot on the first try, it wasn’t anything personal. But I no longer want to live in a city where people don’t say hello on the streets or know how their neighbors are really doing. Nor do I want to live in a world where a grown man can’t throw a friendly snowball across the fence.
Regards and have a Happy Holiday,
Tim Phelps, his family, and all his neighbors are fictional characters based on many of my real life experiences growing up, volunteering, playing, and working as a black—err, an African American–uh, no let’s stick with black woman in Northwest Washington, DC.