Mr. Whitfield

On Tuesdays, I lug my recycling bins to the curb. (I like to have one for paper and one for the rest.) I usually come home from work to find the empty bins up on my porch.

The first time I thanked Mr. Whitfield for putting them there, he claimed complete ignorance. No idea how they got up there, he said.

He likes to do that – do something nice and then pretend that it’s a mystery to him how the good deed happened.

Wednesday is trash day. When I signed up for one of those carts that wheels to the curb, it didn’t occur to me that Mr. Whitfield would be the one wheeling it back after it was emptied. But so it was.

He is 79, and life is catching up to him in certain respects. Some days are not as good as others. He apologized to me one day when I came home to find the trash cart at the side of the house rather than all the way at the back.

Sometimes, I do things for him. When he wants to write a letter to one of his buddies from the service, he is more comfortable if I am the one who puts the words down on paper. He thanks me as if I have done a big favor. But I just ask him what he wants to say. He says it. I add a comma here and there.

Mr. Whitfield likes to tell me that he was mean in his younger days. He asks Pearl to back him up on that point, and she does.

He grew up in a culture in which fighting was considered recreation. One story comes from his days in the Navy toward the end of World War II. When the ship was in port, he said, the sailors would go out drinking and looking for trouble. They would get into fights, and the MPs would come round them up.

In San Francisco, the MPs had limited holding space and rowdies galore. They would round up a batch, put everyone in the holding area and go back out to round up more. When they returned, they would release the first batch so that they would have room for the second batch.

With a distinct note of pride in his voice, he told me that he set a personal record once by being rounded up and released three times in one night.

When I reminded him of that story the other day, he said, “There was a time when I could have held my own in most any fight. I had the staying power. The staying power is what wins most fights.”

It’s coming up on 20 years since Mr. Whitfield and I became neighbors. When I bought my house, I didn’t have the good sense to wonder what the neighbors would be like. All I did was look for a house that I liked and could afford in a neighborhood I was willing to live in.

When I moved in, I didn’t even know the bare neighbor basics – that my house was flanked by brothers – R.L. and his wife, Pearl, on one side and Bill and his wife, Lumae, on the other. As it happened, without even realizing that I was buying a lottery ticket, I won big.

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