Friends without labels: A new neighborhood brings an unexpected friendship

I'd never seen a gun. That is, until I saw him.
It was a hot, humid July morning, and my husband and I had just moved into our new home. While taking a break from unpacking, I went out to check our mail. With my back to the rest of the world, I dug deep into the black abyss of our mailbox, when I heard a voice right behind me. He was so close that I could feel his breath on my shoulders; this mysterious person sounded like a hybrid of Larry the Cable Guy and LL Cool J
A bit taken back, I froze. My heart palpitating out of my chest. I tried to move, but my fear had glued my feet to the hot asphalt. Before I could catch my breath, this shadowy voice confidently spluttered, "How you be's doing, young lady? My name is Joe." I made a 180-degree turn as fast as I could, with my ponytail lashing me in the face. Standing six inches in front of me was an African-American man, about 50 years old, nearly 6 feet tall, with a big grin and a BIG gun dangling loosely in his right hand as if he was carrying around his car keys. I gasped and screamed, "OH MY GOSH!" while jumping back about three feet. 
Before I could pass out from panic, he let out a hearty chuckle. Half laughing, half talking, he said to me nonchalantly, "Oh, honey, I was just letting you know that I would watch out for you and yo' house. This ain't to hurt you. It's to protect you." 
Still stumbling to find words, I lightly swept the sweaty strands of hair out of my face to make sure I was really seeing this correctly. And I was. 
That was the beginning of my friendship with Joe. 
You see, in the financial brilliance of two suburban-bred kids who had just gotten hitched, my husband, Seth, and I decided to buy the nicest house on the not-so-nicest street, in the not-so-safest-part of town. We weren't even trying to be the cool, yuppie kids moving to the trendy part of town — there was nothing up-and-coming about this street. There was a barbed wire fence in the backyard, and railroad tracks about 100 yards to the left of our house. And we were definitely on the wrong side of them. 
That old house taught me more than all the books in the world. I had spent most of my life categorizing people that weren't like me. And here was Joe — a Vietnam vet with enough gunshot wounds that you could play a good game of connect the dots — always reeking of whiskey, dropping enough curse words to have his mouth washed out ten times over, and smoking more than the Marlboro man. But that man became my friend- my very good friend. 
Over the course of a couple years, Joe would come take care of our dog, Sonny, when we were out of town. He'd clean our pool when he thought we hadn't done an adequate job or give me the 411 on who to stay away from in the neighborhood. He even pulled a gun on my brother-in-law one afternoon when we weren't home because he thought he was trying to rob the house. 
He'd greet me when I walked out of the door in the morning and say hello when I got home, nicknaming me "Baby Girl" and calling Seth "Big Boy." Ever the lover of all things unhealthy, Joe always wanted to give me unsolicited cooking advice, so one day we decided to trade recipes. He taught me how to make a good barbecue rub and I tried to teach him to cook with coconut oil. "What in the world?" he exclaimed. "Coconut oil? What are you...Hawaiian?" I laughed and decided that we were better off being friends than culinary partners. With time, I realized Joe was by far the best neighbor I ever had, even though I had spent most of my life in peaceful, safe neighborhoods, avoiding people like him. 
One day we had some friends over to swim. One young woman in particular — who had been staring at our house with a what-the-hell-were-they-thinking-buying-this-place look the entire time — went to her car to get a towel. She came back, face full of disgust, and uttered, "Um, there's some old, creepy man outside in your front yard. You better call the police." 
Instantly, I knew who it was. I went around front to find Joe picking my flowers, as he did so often, to help me grow my petunias. I knew he was bored and was just trying to help my brown thumb turn green. 
I came storming around back and quietly roared, "That's my friend, Joe. He's actually helping me." 
As I walked away from that encounter I realized that I, too, was once like that girl. Before this neighborhood, before I met Joe, that was me. Most of us spend our lives labeling people, not ever recognizing that, out of fear, we may be mismarking human lives. And the reality is that those lives that we are so quick to shelve are just blessings waiting to be opened. 
I will never be able to repay Joe for what he did for me: He broadened my view, grew my heart and taught me that living on the wrong side of the tracks has nothing to do with location. It has everything to do with who you live with. It was then that I grasped that I lived on the right side of the tracks. 

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