Pine Cone Hand Grenades

Our condominium complex on University Avenue truly looked like hell a year ago. It was never the most upscale of places anyway, but the real problem is that we live within our means, discuss priorities, and actually plan out our finances. Gradually, over the past half decade, we've replaced all leaky PVC plumbing with copper, put in new flat roofing with styrofoam-like material, and replaced rotting stairway steps.

Once the loan for that was paid off and the reserves built up a bit, we decided to focus on more cosmetic stuff. The city finally put a concrete gutter in front of the place, so that the parking lot entrance doesn't erode away every three or four months. It was a common sense thing to do, but nobody would get on it until I finally talked to one of Marti Emerald's aides at a Rolando Community Council meeting some time ago. Then we suddenly got a letter from the city, informing us that the project had been planned for quite awhile and was going to get underway within a month.

I'm not sure I believe a word of that, but bless Marti Emerald just the same.

Since last summer, we've patched up the stucco and re-painted it all. It's been a fairly wet winter, and the jade bushes and pear trees are in full bloom. The pine trees that were planted on the center island between our place and the Kroc Center are starting to mature. Everybody, owners and renters alike, seem to be putting in landscaping and planting flowers. I was sitting out on the steps around dusk one Friday night recently, and realized how lush and verdant and colorful the place actually is, especially since this is University Avenue we're talking about.

One of the residents is providing free labor as we paint the crummy looking black metal railings white. It looks pretty damned good, and I commented to the guy that it's really the first time I've been proud of the place since buying a unit in late 2000, while the Kroc Center was going up and everything was noisy and dusty. He used to be kind of a cranky, argumentative fellow who mixed things up at HOA meetings, but nowadays he's a mellow guy who's as likely to casually shoot the breeze with you as gripe endlessly about all the deferred maintenance. Partly it's that he retired a couple of years ago as a city employee, I'd imagine, and partly it's that the stuff he was always complaining about is gradually getting done.

Around the start of rush hour one weekday evening--the only time of day we realize acutely that we live along a busy thoroughfare--I was standing there shirtless with a bottle of beer in one hand and a week's worth of useless junk from the mailbox in the other, talking to the guy as he finished up another section of railing. To passersby, we probably didn't look like the classiest act around, but we're happy campers and paid no mind to anything but our own business.

Suddenly, a medium-sized pine cone fell out of one of the trees and landed at my feet. We were mildly surprised but that was all; it hardly made a blip in the conversation. After a few moments, I bent over, belched silently, picked it up, and asked the guy, "Eh... When you were a kid, j'ever use these things as hand grenades?"

This fellow is as fully bilingual Spanish/English as his mixed first/last name combination, and I was fully prepared to repeat my sloppy, apropos-of-nothing inquiry in either language. He didn't miss a beat, though. Looking up momentarily from his work, he smiled slightly and replied, "All the time, man. All the F'ing time! Used an old car muffler for a machine gun too."

I'm not sure why, but sometimes I think of that moment and smile to myself. Then I look around at all the rounded river rocks we use to landscape the place. It was a vacant lot with a Unimart across the street when I was a kid at Henry Clay. My folks gathered up a pile of the rocks from here to landscape the backyard of their new house in 1966, and explained to me that they were rounded by the actions of Cholla Creek, which University Avenue more or less follows. We used to ride our bikes through the six foot square storm drain that ran under the Unimart, and thus was I the only person unsurprised 35 or so years later when workers building the Ray & Joan Krock Center struck ground water. It makes me feel like I truly belong here, in this place and time, and that life can be pretty cool.

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