It was well past 10 on a Sunday night, one of those final weekend hours when I rankle at any disturbance, when the fantasies of the young "Michael Jordan" across the street again took flight. As the thud-thud-thud of his basketball dribble caromed off the walls of my sidewalk-level bedroom, I smoldered. "It's Sunday night," I thought. "Do I have to listen to this for the next hour?"
But after a moment, I stifled the urge to make the traditional neighborhood response -- flinging open the window and yelling at the kid to cut out the racket. The black kid across the street is from a poor family, one that's probably struggling to remain in what has become an expensive neighborhood in lower Adams Morgan. His house has no real front yard. The alley behind his house is full of discarded wine bottles. He wasn't really causing any trouble.
I remembered my own youth, as another black kid, and found the differences chastening. The basketball courts near my home were covered with broken glass and paper bags from the glue sniffers. So my father, by then a six-figure income earner, had a basketball court built in our yard.
As I listened to his ball-handling outside, I thought that the best thing I could do for this young man would be to introduce myself and walk him -- some day -- to the courts on 18th Street to shoot baskets. Maybe then, he'd be worn out on Sunday nights.
Too often, we have a knee-jerk response to street kids whenever they are engaged in some activity we consider rude, noisy or inappropriate. We yell at them, we chase them off, we call them names. Worse, perhaps, we silently look down our noses at them, questioning their upbringing, and consider them incorrigible or uncivilized. We seldom look beyond the fact that they are disturbing us or threatening our property.
I've seen it many times, some adult angrily ordering the kid across the street or some other kids to stop doing what they're doing immediately -- or else. The kids usually yell right back or go on with what they're doing. Of course, that only makes the neighbors angrier. But many of these kids are not bad eggs and respond when they are treated with respect.
One afternoon, the kid across the street and his friends were throwing pebbles at each other, oblivious to the fact that these projectiles, so poorly launched, were chipping the paint off cars -- includ- ing mine -- that were parked on the street. I could have yelled at them, but instead, I pulled up the window screen and waved them over. I was shocked; they promptly came.
"You know," I said calmly. "You're damaging these cars. What if that was your mother's car? Would you like it if someone was bouncing rocks off it?"
They said no.
"Which one is your car?" one asked. "We won't throw near that one," he said.
"No, no, no," I said. "That's not the point. You shouldn't throw rocks around any of the cars."
This seemed to make sense to them, and they started a less destructive activity -- a game of tag. End of problem, at least for that day. No epithets or threats required. I would be lying if I said I wasn't surprised.
"Of course they responded well to you," a white friend later said. "You're a black man."
Well, no. These kids, at least, would respond as well to any adult who is willing to treat them as human beings whose options, in terms of entertainment, are severely limited.
I know that because of the stories of a black woman who volunteers twice a week at the local elementary school. I know it, too, because of a white guy who invited a neighborhood kid to the YMCA on his guest pass recently. The young man behaved perfectly. I'm sure he was ecstatic about going to a place where memberships can cost as much as $82.89 per month, but I could see that he was equally happy that the man had befriended him.
"They have programs for local kids here," I heard the man tell his young buddy. "Maybe you can join them."
"I like coming here with you," came the answer. -- Ronald D. White is a member of the editorial page staff.