published Friday, June 6th, 2014

Cook: Where the sidewalk begins

This woman named Donna doesn't have two nickels to rub together, but all she can talk about is her friend Carl, who doesn't even have one.

"Please help him," she said.

Keats said beauty is truth, and it seems truth is most beautiful when expressed as selflessness. Generosity. Acts of kindness, with nothing sought in return.

Even more beautiful are acts of generosity among the down and out: when one person, with so little, acts on behalf of another, who has even less. The widow and her mite compared with the billions Gates gives away.

So when I first met Donna, and saw her drive up in a huff-and-puff car with smoke pouring out from under the hood, and then pieced together how sick she'd been, and still was, I figured she'd want to talk about her needs and wants, not someone else's.

Instead, she took me to meet Carl. Along the way, she laid out of a list of his troubles, and listening felt like watching a runaway train speed by: he's had cancer, then brain surgery, another surgery, more cancer. He's retired, and living on fumes.

In his younger days he used to build bridges and dig ditches. Now Carl needs an electric wheelchair to get around. The bus stop on Hixson Pike is not 40 yards from his house, which is good.

The bad news: he can't get there.

There's no wheelchair ramp off his front porch.

Sure, someone's laid down a piece of 3/4-inch plywood as a makeshift ramp, but the last time Carl tried that, the plywood buckled and he fell out of his wheelchair.

"Please build him a sidewalk," Donna said.

Oh my. If Carl needed a wordy paragraph, or some similes, then I'm the guy. But a sidewalk? A wheelchair ramp?

So I called Tom Bartoo, owner of Method Architecture and my main compadre. He's the brains of our friendship. And the brawn.

"When do we start?" he said.

A few days ago, we snuck out of work early, and shoveled and pick-axed up Carl's front yard, digging out a trench that sloped from his porch to the driveway, making sure the measurements were ... were ... what's that word?

"Plumb," Tom said.

Right. Plumb. Then the concrete truck came and a guy named Rick poured concrete into our trench. Turns out, Rick's boss heard what we were doing, and gave us a cut rate on the concrete. Then, even though he didn't have to, Rick stepped in with his trowel and started helping.

That's when it hit me.

Not the concrete.

But the truth.

Poor Donna's concern for Carl isn't the crazy exception. It's the norm.

Rick? He could have stayed in his air-conditioned truck and watched us work. But when he heard about Carl, he pitched in, too. Hadn't met any of us five minutes earlier, but now's out working like we're all old friends.

(Oh yeah, Rick's also a volunteer fireman. Isn't paid a penny, but risks his life for others.)

Tom and I? It felt right as rain, digging that sidewalk for Carl.

There in his yard, as the concrete hardened, this golden thread emerged: each of us, acting on behalf of someone else, for no apparent reason.

Logically, rationally, it makes no sense. I shouldn't give two hoots for what happens to Carl. He's no kin to me. I gain nothing by helping him.

So why did I? Well, why do you? Why did you help out those folks -- strangers to you -- whose homes were destroyed by the tornadoes? Or the earthquake in Haiti? Or the floods in New Orleans?

Why do you give away time and money? Hold the door open for strangers? Serve breakfast at the Community Kitchen? March, protest and petition for what's just and right?

Why? Because that's the truth of things: We are connected, intertwined, beholden to one another in ways profound and mysterious and glorious.

Service reminds us of this. It rewrites the script, helping us remember that the human condition is best defined not through animosity, but rather cooperation and connection.

Sometimes, it's bloody tough to remember this in our tough and bloody world, but in the remembering, we redefine the terms of life. We shorten the distance between us, which helps us get to the other side of things.

Like we're all walking down some common road.

Or maybe it's a sidewalk.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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