I just had a very profound experience.
Dante rang my doorbell.
Dante is a young man who lives across the street with a woman and two older girls. He’s sixteen years old. The woman he lives with is not his mother, and the two girls are not his sisters. From there, the story gets sketchy.
The best I could piece together without engaging in rumor, opinion, hearsay or calumny, is that Dante’s mother is in jail. His grandparents live in town, or nearby, but are unable or unwilling to keep him with them. The woman Dante lives with must be a saint, and her life with these three children is not easy. The oldest girl has a baby of her own.
Now, it’s been well over a year since Dante has knocked on my door. And here’s why…
Just at a year ago, Dante started expressing himself very loudly in the neighborhood, dropping F-Bombs when talking with his friends – more like groupies – and literally dropping his shorts in the yard in front of the girls who came over to do whatever teenagers do when parents or adults aren’t present. At least what they do in neighborhoods I grew up in. And, though our neighborhood is not like that from our corner on, vestiges of the hood still exist and Dante’s house is sort of on the border.
My first encounter with Dante’s colorful language was when I was outside doing yard work and he yelled “F**k!” while he was on the phone. I walked across the patio and yelled at him very sternly to not use that language and if he did it again, I was calling the cops. He settled down for a few days, but then did it again, this time with his personal Igor and some girls in the yard, while at the same time grabbing at his crotch and telling the girls what he would do with them if they were his.
Hearing this conversation, I walked across the street. It was after school but Legina (the woman who is Dante’s guardian) wasn’t home yet. I’ve slowly come to realize she does some in-home care for elderly folks, as best I can figure, so her schedule is flexible but still demanding. Anyhoo, I walked across the street and told Dante that his language was unacceptable, and told the girls they needed to steer clear of him and his myrmidon if they were going to treat them in this manner. The girls giggled and slowly walked off, and I told Dante that I was going to talk to Legina if I heard any more.
As I walked back across the street, I heard Dante and his minion talking, dropping other swear words and making the under-breath threats and promises to each other about me that cowards do when they are trying to show each other how tough they are when they aren’t facing a threat.
A few minutes later, Legina rolled up. So I walked across the street again. She and I have a “greeting” relationship – when we see each other we say hello and maybe comment about the weather, and that’s about it. But it’s close enough I could talk to her about this. As I was walking up to her and getting her attention, I could see that Dante was a bit nervous. I briefly mentioned to Legina the current situation and the initial one a few days earlier, and she got visibly upset.
She called Dante over and said, “Have you been cussing?” and he replied, looking at me sheepishly, “No, it was him,” pointing to the other boy.
Well, being parents, Legina and I could smell a lie a mile away and, frankly, she looked like she was about to go black mama on his butt. She’s a large lady and, like me, grew up in the hood, so no punk was gonna mess with her.
She told him to get inside and looked at me gratefully and sadly – the kind of look you would give if you had trusted your children with something and then they had broken that trust and then lied about it.
Which is what Dante did.
Things settled down for several weeks, maybe a month. Then in late Spring Dante was at it again.
So I called the police.
The process of getting the police involved took all summer. Not because I had to convince the cops that a breach of city ordinances was occurring, but because the cop on the neighborhood beat was unresponsive to my emails and phone calls. Whenever I called dispatch they were all over it, but Dante was never around so they couldn’t address it.
[If this article weren’t already too long, I would insert here the various stories over that summer of recording Dante on video, his continued habit even when I have guests on the patio, and installing video cameras on our perimeter just to keep him in line as his deviant language escalated into deviant behavior]
Finally, after four months, I got a return call from my neighborhood officer because I had eventually copied my councilman and the Chief in my email. The call came 45 minutes after I sent that email.
So the officer came over, bringing me a form I could fill out if I wanted to press charges. I didn’t want to do that, mainly because there would be a fine involved that Legina would wind up paying, and there would be no consequences for Dante. I spoke with the officer for about thirty minutes, and he said he would cruise the area occasionally looking for Legina’s car in the driveway – which it wasn’t at that time. He said he would talk with her.
He went over to the house and left his card on the door and, as he was driving away, Legina drove up. The officer parked his cruiser as Legina and Dante got out of the car.
I went inside shortly after they started talking. Legina didn’t need an audience.
I received a phone call from the officer about an hour later, explaining that he had spoken with Dante and Legina and describing the penalties for the misdemeanor the boy was committing. He said when he mentioned criminal charges, Legina lit up and he figured it was going to be a bad night for Dante.
As I was talking on the phone with the officer, an SUV pulled up to the house and an elderly man got out. Dante walked out of the house with his backpack and got in the car, looking at me on my patio and saying “Snitch” loud enough for me to hear and flipping the bird at me from the back seat. The car drove off. I noted that it was one I had seen before on an occasional Friday, and have since learned it is his grandparents. This was a Tuesday.
We didn’t see Dante the rest of the week. And, frankly, haven’t seen much of Legina or the girls since then, either. We still pass each other while driving in the neighborhood, wave as we are leaving and they are in the yard, but it is still a bit tense – the way it would be if you called the cops on your neighbors. Legina and the girls have continued to be cordial, but there’s just that uneasiness – like getting your hands caught in the cookie jar.
Since that discussion with the police officer, Dante has been relatively wary when I have been in the yard, and I have told my boys not to be on the same side of the house when Dante is across the street if they are playing because I didn’t want them influenced or harassed by him. All things considered, Dante was going down the wrong path.
And I had gotten in his way.
Obviously there is no Man in Dante’s life. Which denies him a ManHusbandDad. So he has nobody to learn from, and nobody to teach him. Seeing the men who do frequent the house, and the occurrence of one of the girls having a baby, Dante’s got a tough set of influences and no Man to tell him when he is out of bounds.
Except, apparently, me.
Since that time late last summer, Dante seemed to have been on some regular schedule. He wasn’t hanging out in his yard with his homies, talking on the phone in a braggadocio manner, and seemed to have some sort of job he went to regularly. I think Legina explained some things to him.
This morning I went to the convenience store and the rare moment of Dante being outside while I was leaving the house occurred. As I usually do when he is outside, I waited for my garage door to close completely before pulling out of the driveway and driving off. Dante was on the phone and was on my blind side as I turned to drive down the street, so I didn’t make eye contact with him.
But, honestly, the thought went through my head, as it always does since our last encounter, to flip the bird back at him in retort for his flip when he called me a snitch. That’s the tension and angst that his actions have caused in the neighborhood. But, since that’s what I basically called the cops on him about, I didn’t do it. I did amend the thought to giving the backward victory symbol, which is the equivalent of the bird in Australia, but didn’t. I do have a sense of self-restraint, and I wasn’t going to let my frustration with this boy start my Sunday off poorly.
By the time I got home twenty minutes later, Dante was gone and while I had come down our street expecting to see him on his bike – riding on the wrong side – I did imagine swerving the car in his direction to make him flinch. But since he wasn’t there I wasn’t put to the test on that.
I never said I was perfect. I’m on this ManHusbandDad journey, too.
A half an hour later I’m sitting at my desk and the doorbell rings. I called out to Mama, “Are you expecting anybody?” She said, “No,” so I went to the front door and looked out through the peephole.
Dante rang my doorbell.
I had visions of him doing this a couple of years ago, when he was a good kid looking to borrow some tools or asked if he could mow my lawn for twenty bucks. Him coming to my door used to be a regular occurrence. But it had been eighteen months since those happier, simpler times.
This was going to be interesting.
I opened the door and said, “Hey, Dante, what’s up?” in as friendly a tone I could muster. I knew whatever he was coming to the door about wasn’t an easy thing to do. The last words we had exchanged were a year ago when he lied to Legina about swearing in front of me – long before the cops showed up. He needed to know how a ManHusbandDad responds to adversity and, frankly, to a beaten opponent. Forgiveness, in the long run, is the order of the day.
“Can I borrow some tools for my bike?” He asked me this while looking me in the eye briefly, then hanging his head.
“This must be a hard thing for you to do, Dante,” I said, and he said, “Yeah.”
I told him, “Let’s go to the garage and see what we can find.”
As we walked around the house I asked how he’d been, and he volunteered that he was straightening himself up and couldn’t wait to get out of high school to join the Marines…the he’d already talked to a recruiter. He has his ears pierced so I was able to tell him about my five piercings in my ears I got in high school and college, and that seemed to help him see that we might have something in common.
We small talked a bit and he confirmed that he had a job, and was doing some BMXing, which is why he needed to adjust his bike. We found the right size of hex wrench and he made some adjustments while we talked.
When he was done with the wrench, he handed it back to me and I told him to keep it, since he may need to make other adjustments when doing other BMX work. He thanked me, we shook hands, and I told him it was good to see him, and let me know if he needed something else.
I came back inside and sat down; marveling at the courage the young man had taken. And, frankly, giving myself a little credit for doing what needed to be done: Getting in Dante’s way.
Dante and I have a lot in common in terms of the conditions in which I grew up. The one man who should have gotten in my way when I was growing up instead chose to be my friend and live vicariously through my immoral life – encouraging me all the time in that lifestyle. He was my father.
But I had other Men get in the way. ManHusbandDads who actually called the cops on me. One ManHusbandDad who was a cop. ManHusbandDads who didn’t leave it up to someone else when a young man went down the wrong path.
That’s what a ManHusbandDad does. He gets in the way.
Even when they aren’t his own kids.
I hope and pray that this is a new leaf for Dante. He is definitely a changed person. I had the rare gift given to me to see that change, and to see the effect of my getting in his way. I’m probably not the only one, and the part I played was the part God gave me to play. It wasn’t easy and it was uncomfortable raising the bar each time Dante did.
But it was the right thing, as taught to us in Matthew 18: 15 – 17:
“If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”
I followed that course – First Dante, then Legina, then the authorities – and left it at that.
God did the rest.
Thanks be to God.