By JAMIE FRANCIS
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2000
It's a little after 7 on a Monday morning in St. Petersburg and the worn clapboard house on Sixth Avenue S is coming to life; 72-year-old Joe Lindsey grips the two canes by his bed and begins to search for his shoes.
His walk is slow and mechanical, left leg stiff, right leg bent slightly at the knee, his sticks tapping a path like infantry. Ruby, his wife of 51 years, is making biscuits so sweet-smelling that they could wake the dead.
Joe aims for the living room. Above the bedroom doorway is a homemade sign that reads, "Welcome home daddy, we missed you." The sign has been taped to the wall for more than three years. It was a greeting to Joe from his children after an 11-day hospital stay for hip and back surgery. "The doctor told me I'd be in a rolling chair for the rest of my days," he says, "but here I am."
Joe picks up the pace. He does not even glance at the folded wheelchair on the front porch as he heads out the door. He's thinking about the big yellow bus that is lumbering in his direction.
Raleigh Lindsey has always been comforted by his grandparents' back yard. He remembers chasing his shadow there when he was 3 or 4, down the back steps, beside the Pontiac Grand Safari and out to Joe's vegetable garden. Even now, when the bright Florida sun filters through the limbs of the red oak, the 11-year-old extends his arms and spins like a top just to see the image his body casts on the ground.
It's a child's innocence, a happiness that Joe and Ruby reveled in as they watched their own eight children grow. Back then, there were plenty of other kids and plenty of adults to keep a watchful eye. Trusted neighbors like Mr. Charlie or Mr. Lewis or Ms. Postell would keep the kids straight and protect them from strangers . . . if there were any.
"If they saw your children in the wrong," says Joe, "they'd get a belt and send them home."
Things are different now. Joe and Ruby are apprehensive and cautious as they raise Raleigh, who has lived with them since he was 3 months old. They treat him like a son and sometimes he calls them mom or dad. "When he wants something real bad," Ruby says with a laugh.
They worry about Raleigh and sometimes they feel alone in their old neighborhood. Not forgotten, but without the soothing insulation of friends.
It has been that way since 1981, when the construction of Interstate 275 left them living beneath the big road, surrounded by vacant lots and neglected homes. Their community evaporated in a matter of weeks. "We didn't get any new neighbors because there was no houses for them to move to," Ruby says. "The road took them all."
So now, every school day at 7:40 a.m., the old man walks the boy three blocks to the bus stop on 22nd Avenue. Raleigh is a fifth-grader at Lynch Elementary School, and Joe is determined that Raleigh arrive there safely. The grandfather dodges broken bottles and worries about the crackheads on the corner. Sometimes they press him for money. All the Mr. Charlies on Sixth Avenue have gone.
Joe always leaves the house first, but Raleigh's young legs and stout frame catch up quickly. Joe clicks down the sidewalk, slow but methodical. His forearms are the strongest part of his body, sturdy and more dependable than his legs. No words are spoken as Raleigh charges past with his book bag, but there is a moment when the grandson turns into the rising son to pause for his grandpa. Who is protecting whom?
They wait at the remains of an old service station. Joe remembers buying gas there, but he's not sure what they called the place. With his cane he flicks a broken Budweiser bottle from the elevated platform where the gas pump used to rest. Raleigh takes a seat. Curtains in an open window of a second floor apartment dance in the morning breeze. "That's a bad place," he tells Raleigh.
Joe leans hard on the canes. His legs ache, but he refuses to sit. It's 8:07 when the bus rattles up. There are no hugs, just a simple, "Goodbye granddaddy."
That's all the reward Joe needs.
Florida Found is a photographic column capturing everyday moments. It appears every other Friday in Floridian. To contact Jamie Francis with suggestions, call (727) 893-8319 or e-mail email@example.com