Won't You Be My Neighbor?
When I decided to move to Dallas, I knew I would struggle with the endless number of cookie cutter houses and identical strip malls, I just didn’t know how much I would struggle with them. Despite—or perhaps because of—the number of people who live in Dallas and the number of consumer choices, it seemed to me like everyone drove the same car, ate at the same restaurant and wore the same clothes. There is an outward glean of congruity here, yet it’s a congruity that leaves me feeling lonely and longing to know the unique details of other people’s lives. This isn’t a Dallas problem or even an American problem. It’s really just a me problem that isn’t doing anyone any good. It turns out that assuming I know people because they appear similar to me or similar to everyone else creates a very isolating reality.
It’s only when I make the effort to spend time getting to know someone that assumptions—true or not—concerning their identity can become actual conclusions. By definition, a neighbor is not someone you are required to interact with. You often don’t have a say nor a choice about who you live near, but you absolutely have the choice to ignore and avoid them. This makes it pretty easy for me to disregard God’s call to love my neighbor, to engage them as I go about my daily life, to know and appreciate them. It’s always going to be easier to hang out with people I already know how to love and appreciate.
As I fight the notion to write off everyone living in the Metroplex as a walking, breathing clone, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it would take to cultivate relationships with people in my neighborhood. What would it look like to knock on doors, introduce myself and ask questions about the lives of those in closest proximity to me? My guess is that it would be difficult, strange and probably very uncomfortable, but worth it in the end. I may meet someone crazy or someone really nice. I may also meet someone who thinks I’m really crazy or really nice. Either way, I’m giving it a shot to see what happens.
By knocking on doors, stopping by shops and getting to know the people living within a square mile of my home in Richardson, Texas, I can now introduce you to a few of my new neighbors.
Neighbor: Kim, Kim A. Tailor
A bell rings as the front door swings shut. Kim rushes to the front with a big smile on her face and a greeting soon to follow. She offers fresh fruit, a bottle of water and then brings out a pack of gum as an extra surprise.
Kim is happy. It’s one of the first things you notice about her and one of the first things she’ll tell you. It doesn’t take long to wonder if she’s happy because she works hard or if she works hard because she’s happy—the emotion and the action seem perpetually intertwined as she talks about her life.
In 1994, Kim moved to the United States from Vietnam. She came in order to work hard and be happy—to find opportunities, get a better job and receive an education.
“I love this country because you have a lot of opportunity if you do the right thing and work hard,” Kim said.
It wasn’t easy. Right before she left Vietnam, Kim questioned whether she was making the right decision. She already had a job and she was at home in the only home she knew.
“In your own country, you speak your own language, you feel comfortable,” Kim said.
Her older sister had already been in the U.S. for 20 years and convinced Kim she should still move to Texas. When she arrived in the U.S., Kim didn’t know much English and didn’t have a job. She did, however, know how to sew.
Kim stayed with her older sister in Plano, working as a seamstress in Dallas factory during the day and attending English as a second language (ESL) classes at night. Although her new life was difficult, she continued to work hard and that made her happy.
While attending ESL classes, Kim eventually met her future husband and he encouraged her to figure out how to use her sewing talents. With his help, Kim was able to afford to attend school for fashion design and received her degree after two years of studying. Both her diploma and one of her originally designed dresses are now on display in the waiting area of her shop.
Kim and her sister have owned their tailor and alteration shop for 14 years. Kim says she doesn’t make a lot of money, but she’s also not trying to.
“We enjoy it because we don’t try to be rich. We enjoy working and having a simple life,” Kim said.
This simplicity Kim speaks of is a life stripped of unwanted and unnecessary distractions, a simplicity that truly allows for happiness throughout the process of hard work rather than happiness only produced by the fruits of hard work. Kim, her smile and her small shop in Richardson are a reminder that less is sometimes more, and contentment is often found when you decide to be happy right where you are.
Neighbor: Sylvester Hooks, Hooks Vacuum Co.
Richardson’s Main Street is filled with an eclectic assortment of shops, bars and restaurants, but one storefront in particular—its entrance lined with several multicolored vacuum cleaners—jumps out at the thousands of drivers whizzing past. It’s the dissonance between these machines and the concrete sidewalk they sit on that draws you to Hooks Vacuum Co.—something business-savvy owner Sylvester Hooks is fully aware of.
“All I have to do is set vacuums out every day and people come,” Sylvester said.
People have been visiting Hooks Vacuum Co. since it opened in 1992 out of more than just curiosity, however. I watched as Sylvester assisted two new customers in his store, quickly dissembling their machine and identifying the problem, instructing them on how to change the wheels on their vacuum and then finally giving them vacuum bags free of charge to take home.
“This is my life. Every day I look forward to coming to work,” he said.
It turns out the vacuum repair business requires a lot more than scraping dirt out of old Kirby models. As he passionately described his work, I began to realize the importance of this shop for Sylvester, his family and those he serves.
When Sylvester was still young and struggling to make ends meet, he says he would ride the bus to downtown Tulsa, Okla., at lunchtime, tuck a newspaper under his arm and walk around pretending to be a successful businessman.
“I knew I was important, I just didn’t know who I was supposed to be,” Sylvester said.
Vacuum repair is not just important because it requires long hours of work and specific technical skills in order to be successful. It’s important for Sylvester because of what his job and his talents have allowed him to do—provide for and spend time with his family and work for himself.
This importance first grew out of necessity. In 1975, Sylvester completed job corps and was looking for an electrician position in Tulsa, but there weren’t any openings, he says.
“I had to do something,” he said. “I couldn’t wait.”
Although overqualified, Sylvester was soon working as a janitor at a vacuum repair shop in order to provide for his young family. He kept his head low, worked hard and watched as the technicians in the shop repaired vacuums.
“I would put all the parts on the bench for the technician,” Sylvester said. “I would check it out, and then the technician would come in and repair it.”
It didn’t take long for Sylvester to learn how to make these repairs himself. One day after a year and a half of janitorial work, the shop Sylvester worked in was short on help and busy with customers. Sylvester jumped in to help the owner and quickly proved he was a qualified technician. “I’ve been repairing vacuums ever since,” he added.
Although he was happy working as a technician, Sylvester says he still felt called to do more and one day bravely told the shop owner he was quitting in order to open his own repair business. Surprisingly, his boss not only encouraged him in this decision, but he also promised to help support Sylvester, eventually helping him find a good store location and providing Sylvester with his first vacuums to sell.
Sylvester continued to work at this shop and his own until he moved his family to Richardson in the late ‘80s. Throughout the years, Sylvester says there have been many ups and downs. Once while still in Tulsa, he went two weeks without lights in his shop. He continued to seek out business and do his job until he had enough money to turn them back on. When he opened his store in Richardson and construction took over Main Street, Sylvester told his customers to bring their vacuums to the back of the store in order to not slow down business.
Sylvester says his wife and his family keep him going. Now his daughter, Ashley, works with him full time and plans on taking over the business some day. She says one of her favorite aspects of her job is getting to spend time with her dad.
Sylvester Hooks is a very important man, for his family, his business and his customers. His work is not only important not because he is one of few in the vacuum repair business, but also because of what his work signifies—an importance built out of necessity but claimed as his own.
“I guess I did good,” Sylvester said.
Neighbor: Thomas Worthy, Renaissance Man
“Renaissance man” is the title usually bestowed on a man-made aficionado of all things cultured. Calm, collected and diversified, he’s master of all trades, jack of none. He is patient and kind and has wisdom and insight to bestow on those of younger generations.
Thomas Worthy is just such a man. Throughout his 91 years of life, he has managed to serve his country in two wars, marry one wife and raise two children, consistently cook meals for his family for over 20 years, publish poetry, work for an oil company and run a floral shop, and babysit his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And for the majority of these accomplishments, he’s lived under the same roof.
For almost 58 years, Thomas has lived in the same three-bedroom home. He remembers when his family was one the first on the street. Neighbors knew each other quite well back then, he says.
“We used to have a lot of children on our street and now we have quite a fewer number,” Thomas said. “We were young couples, all of us had children, and were raising families.”
Although Thomas doesn’t know some of his neighbors as well anymore, he recounts those he’s known throughout the years. The list is extensive, and although he refers from time to time to his address book, he doesn’t hesitate on many of the details of these people’s lives. Some of those he has kept up with still live in the area, but no one comes close to competing with his stint on the street.
When asked what his favorite memories of this place were, Thomas lists a flood of every day moments, good and bad—taking care of and worrying about his wife while she was sick, spending time with his grandchildren and watching them after school. Thomas’s day-to-day memories are what stick because they are the fundamentals of his life in Richardson and of the lives of so many in his family.
Thomas met his wife, Joyce, while stationed in Oklahoma during World War II. The two were soon married in 1944 when he was 22 and Joyce was 19.
“My wife, she was a real smart woman—not because she was my wife but just because she was,” he said.
The couple moved to Dallas to begin their life together, and when Thomas was transferred to Richardson branch of Sun Oil Company, the pair moved with their two young children to this neighborhood in 1955. As Joyce worked her way up through management of a department store, Thomas would daily ride his bike to work just across Central Expressway. For several years, he also owned a floral shop on Richardson’s Main Street.
“I always loved flowers and when I was younger, always had flowers in my yard,” Thomas said.
He watched as his children, Pam and Bill, went to the newest schools in the neighborhood (built so fast the pair each attended different schools), graduated and then began having families of their own. Slowly, more houses were built and the little street became what it is today. Thomas’s niece eventually bought a house across the street, and now Pam lives there with her husband. She called during the interview to make sure he was okay, probably wondering about the unknown car parked out her father’s front lawn.
Thomas exudes patience and kindness. Because he would return home earlier than Joyce, he was always the one to make family meals in the evening. After retirement and Joyce’s passing, he continued to do the same for his children and even his grandchildren, babysitting them regularly after school.
“I have a good family,” he said. “We weren’t a very big family, but what we have I appreciated.”
While he talks softly about caring for his wife during her battle with Parkinson’s disease and humbly about caring for younger generations, Thomas makes it clear his friends and family members have also cared him for. Piles of birthday cards are stacked on his piano in the front room from his recently celebrated 91st birthday.
“The family showed me much love,” he said. “I want to pass on a good life to them.”
As Thomas points to different family members he knows so well in the numerous photographs hanging on his walls around his living room, it’s evident his true talent lies within caring for those closest to him. Thomas has chiseled out his Renaissance expertise in areas such as cooking and caring for others, not through boisterous triumphs and accomplishments, but rather through the day to day details of living life faithfully to God and to others. As he puts it in his poetry…
Life is made up of the good and bad, bitter and sweet, happy and sad…
Takes both sides the wrong and right, to prove us faithful in God’s sight.