FERGUSON, Mo. — They weren’t at home, thank God, when the tornado hit. But the tree that crashed through the roof of their house that spring evening in 2011 left my friend and his young family a palpable message.
Welcome to the neighborhood. They’d practically just moved there.
My friend was 30 at the time, a full decade younger than me, though our sons had been classmates in elementary school, teammates on the baseball and soccer fields, and always easy pals. We’d been part of the same community in University City, Missouri — call it the Evanston of the St. Louis area — but now my friend, his wife and their three children, including twin 2-year-old girls, lived 6 miles up the road.
“Why Ferguson?” he began the other day, riding shotgun as we drove the streets and neighborhoods of this city of 21,000 that’s become the epicenter of America’s social discourse.
We stopped at the spot where, two weeks ago, Michael Brown died by police bullet and then, seemingly a world away, stopped at a rebuilt home on a quiet, pretty street at one end of which sits the perfect little park.
“We wanted four bedrooms,” my friend went on. “When we came across the house, it was very beautiful and the price was decent. In U-City, for what we paid for our house, we would’ve gotten a fourth of the house, but the school districts were comparable.”
“And my wife loved it.”
What more could a guy ask for?
After Mother Nature paid that visit in 2011, it was hard for a while, though neighbors were eager to help. In the wake of Brown’s death, the summer storm of 2014 has been far worse. Human nature can do a lot of damage, too.
What will come of relationships here between the police and the citizenry?
Will schools, public programs and home prices suffer along with residents’ morale?
Will Ferguson be hit by one last, decisive wave of white flight?
My friend, who is black, wonders about all these things. Meanwhile, he disagrees with the national media’s overall portrayal of Ferguson. All the pain and unrest is bad enough. To feel misrepresented and misunderstood on top of it only makes it worse.
“You would think, from how the picture is painted of Ferguson, we have ‘ground zero’ and then we have maybe a couple nice streets,” he said. “But it’s the opposite.”
Gesturing at his neighborhood — which looks, truly, like the sort of place most folks would want to live — he said, “This is Ferguson. We have a farmers market. We have parades. We have pony rides. We have concerts every Friday. They’re trying to paint this as [Los Angeles’] South Central, but it’s so not like that.”
My friend asked me not to use his name, but there’s a lot more I can tell you about him.
He is a father who once fought long, hard, expensively and successfully in court for sole custody of his eldest child. That boy is 14 now and has something his old man didn’t: the very stablest of homes.
He is a small-business owner who taught his wife, the mother of those precious kindergarten girls, to cut hair and now has her working alongside him in his U-City shop.
He is a major presence in his church, a willing mentor who encourages young people to develop their interests, find work they care about, believe in themselves.
For a few really nice years, he was our sons’ baseball coach and I was his assistant. I’ll always remember one game we trailed early on, after a cascade of walks and errors, by a score of 5-0. Something came over me in the dugout, where I summoned the boys’ attention and turned into Knute Rockne for a minute. I assured them they’d win the game, and they did.
The coach put his hand on his assistant’s shoulder as the boys celebrated and, with friendship in his eyes, said something very simple:
“I appreciate you.”
I think of our little team and the spirit and resilience they showed that night. I think of our melting-pot roster and our practices in a certain park — on the very edge of Ferguson — because a diamond is a diamond, especially when there’s no rental fee.
I think of a guy I know 6 miles up the road, whose community needs more like him.
He appreciates me?
He has no idea.