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In the city, life comes right up to the door


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2000

Sometimes I wish I lived in a gated community.

Wednesday night a fairly bulky man was banging on my door. It wasn't late, 7, but it was dark. I was alone. My husband was in the Neuro-Intensive Care Unit at Tampa General. Let's just say it had been a long day. The man on the front porch was not anyone I knew. It was not anyone from the neighborhood. An ID card was hanging around his neck, which means he was selling something. Or wanted to look like he was.

The lights were blazing, he could clearly see me in the house, a bungalow with a thousand windows. I literally waved him off with a long sweep of the arm that said get lost. He gave a friendly wave back and headed off.

Earlier in the week, I was sitting in my living room reading when an SUV pulled up and a woman came bounding onto my front porch. I went to the door, but she was already headed back to the SUV. The driver called out, "We just wanted to see the color of your paint."

This wasn't the first time on the paint. Several months ago, a type-A yuppie new bungalow owner, whose wife had jogged by our house, wanted to know the color of our paint. He returned a second time, refusing to believe the paint is no particular color; actually, it's some kind of green. We just mixed and mixed till we got it right. He returned a third time, with his painter.

I have never lived in a gated community, and I don't want to. I grew up in a suburb that had invisible gates. Everyone knew that certain people were not allowed to live there, knew it as well as if the town had had an electric fence around it, the kind they use for dogs.

A gated community, to me, means a gated life. It's the opposite of a city, where diverse people -- people you don't know -- are thrown together in a common space.

Sometimes that happens on my front porch.

Like the two guys who came to the door and said, "We're from Brazil."

I wasn't sure what that opener could lead to, but, in fact, they wanted a stalk of bamboo. I said okay. A third guy got out of the car, walked to the backyard with the others and pulled out a machete. I stood in my kitchen, transfixed by the surreal scene as he cut a stalk, stripped it of subsidiary branches -- which were methodically picked up by the youngest of the three.

They wanted the bamboo to make furniture, a lawn chair.

Or the woman whose car had a flat tire; she was late for work, she asked to use the phone. The next day, she turned up on my front porch again and thrust at me a bouquet of flowers.

Or the elderly man who showed up on my porch right after I'd moved in, almost 10 years ago. He told me he had cut the grass for the people who'd owned the house before me, and the ones before them. He'd do it for $10.

"That's not enough!" I blurted. Our yard is huge.

"I've been cutting this lawn for 20 years," he said. "It hasn't changed."

One day he said he couldn't cut it anymore.

A few weeks later, I was sitting on the front porch steps with a neighbor, and a young guy pulled up in a nice-looking truck, approached us and asked if I wanted the lawn cut.

That was nine years ago.

He now has a mower the size of a tank.

His little boy sometimes comes with him. We've had some interesting conversations. Last time, he offered me a quarter from his states' collection.

- Sandra Thompson is a writer who lives in Tampa. City Life appears on Saturday.

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