Inner City Diary
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A hug at the intersection of blame and best wishes
March 17, 2002
“It’s all your fault,” Gene told me.

I had stopped him on the street and asked how he was doing. “I heard you accidentally started a fire in the rooming house you moved into. Are you gonna be alright?” He said he’d be okay, gave some lame explanation for the fire, and then laid the blame squarely at my feet.

“How do you figure it’s my fault?” I asked.

He responded, “You kicked me out. If you let me stay, the fire in that other place wouldn’t have happened.”

I guess if he was living in his old apartment, there wouldn’t have been a fire in his new apartment. But that was the dead end of his logic. We had good reasons for evicting Gene.

When we took over the apartment block, we told him about the new house rules. No boozing, brawling or bullying. No more noisy harassment of neighbours.

It didn’t take long to get several reports of drunken bumbling through the hallways. Loud arguments late at night. Television or radio blaring all night because he had passed out in a drunken stupor. But despite his reputation, Gene was always nice to me. I liked him and harbored a grudging admiration for his ability to survive his own efforts at self-destruction.

We gave him several chances to quiet down, to get his behavior under control. To no avail.

I still remember one call on a Sunday night. I was watching TV with the family. The phone rang and it was another tenant complaining about Gene’s drinking and noise.

Feeling a bit grumpy, I knocked loudly and asked him to open the door. He tried to quietly pretend he wasn’t home, but I could hear him muttering quietly through the locked door of his apartment.

“If you don’t let me in right now, I’ll use my key,” I threatened. Still no answer.

As I put the key in the lock, He yelled, “All right, I’ll come open the door.”  After more shuffling and muttering, he unlocked and opened the door.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but there was no way to prepare for what I saw. There was Gene, close to sixty years old, standing stark naked in the doorway – with a hatchet in the hand at his side. The scene was bizarre. Trying to keep unblinking eye contact, I pointed down around his waist and asked, “What’s that for?” Noting the confused look on his face as he looked down, I clarified – “Gene, I’m talking about the hatchet.”

Lifting the hatchet to get a better look at it, he shrugged apologetically. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “Do you want to come in?”

I gracefully declined the invitation. Knowing him well enough to believe he wouldn’t harm anyone, I told him to put away the hatchet, get dressed and get to sleep. “I’ll come to visit you again tomorrow. You better be here and sober if you want any hope of staying here.”

He was sober the next day – and fully dressed. Hatchet back in the toolbox, he promised to stay sober and quiet. We gave him one more chance. It lasted until his next cheque, and the next lapse led to an eviction. I’ve learned that there’s a difference between grace and naiveté.

He moved into a rooming house across the street. The drinking worsened and during one of his binges the couch caught fire. Gene was facing another eviction.

So when he said, “It’s all your fault,” I responded, “Is this where I’m supposed to feel guilty for you screwing up?” Moving his face very close to mine, he glared at me for awhile in silence. I stared back. Suddenly his scowl gave way to a smile. He gave me a hug. I hugged him back and told him to be careful.

I’ve seen Gene several times in the neighbourhood since his eviction. We’re past the blame game. Now we just wish each other the best, understanding the limits of both blame and best wishes.
Copyright 2002
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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