Don't tread on our concrete: a vigil's notes

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Yes, that was me you drove past the other day -- the crazy lady in the folding chair, baby-sitting a sidewalk on the North Side.

The new stretch of concrete was so long in coming, really, it deserved an armed guard. Maybe a Special Forces team.

It didn't get that, not quite, but I wasn't messing around.

Our community group had been trying to get a new sidewalk installed for more than two years, waiting for this contract or that grant, pleading with our insurance company for more time before they canceled the policy covering our community center and its crumbling concrete edge.

The funding never came through, so finally we bit the bullet and wrote the big check ourselves. Winter weather lurks just around the corner, but -- glory be! -- permit and contractor and sunshine converged last week in heartening fashion.

We were told the pour would start at 11 a.m. and finish at 3 p.m., so I sent an email around to other local do-gooders asking them to sign up for a late afternoon shift on our impromptu neighborhood watch.

This is a high-traffic corridor in an officially "distressed" community, where lots of distressing behavior occurs. I wasn't letting any no-goodnik walk through, handwrite in or otherwise ruin our wet $7,000 investment.

But when I happened past at 9 a.m., the pour was almost done. The cement truck had arrived early; now the crew thought they'd be finishing up around noon.

So at noon I returned, armed with hot tea, canvas chair and a stack of magazines. I set up camp on the opposite, slightly older sidewalk, looking up from my reading any time a pedestrian entered my peripheral vision.

It happened to be -- honest! -- The Atlantic Monthly's November issue, listing the top 50 breakthroughs since the wheel. No. 37 is cement. "The foundation of civilization. Literally."

And I really, truly felt that civilization -- my little outpost of it -- was what I was protecting.

The first car to stop in the endless stream of highway-bound vehicles contained our community council's resident wag. His jaw dropped so far he could hardly speak. "You mean your email was serious?"

"Darn tootin'!"

He's an indefatigable volunteer, but he shook his head. "Sorry -- there's stuff I gotta do."

Well, of course. I know that. Other people have lives and schedules. Other people have real jobs.

I freelance, I'm finally an empty-nester, and I usually spend Friday and Saturday reading and writing; so why not do the reading while I guard some fresh concrete?

An older fellow stopped on his walk west, across the highway, to a store. "Do you really think this is necessary?"

"I'm not taking any chances," I replied.

"Nobody's going to mess up that concrete!"

"I hope you're right, but I'm here to make sure."

A striking redhead who lives nearby shook her head sorrowfully as she strolled past. "They're gonna mark it up as soon as you leave."

"I'm not leaving any time soon."

"They'll get it anyway."

She wasn't wrong, but it turned out the wind was my greatest enemy. With a cold front hurtling in, I wasn't a half-hour into my watch before the wind knocked one of the contractor's orange cones over; it scraped the concrete's combed finish in two places. Denise, our public safety coordinator, responded to my call within five minutes, armed with a plastic whisk broom. We minimized the damage.

For four hours, it was me against the wind, the falling cones and the flailing caution tape.

Four hours and nine minutes in, I called it quits. I was the dirtiest I have ever gotten without nursery plants and a shovel in my hands. No, dirtier: Even the back of my neck was gritty.

On the upside, this experience underscores the wisdom of our neighborhood's "Comprehensive Plan." It calls for buildings three to four stories tall along our western and southern edges, which the experts tell us will lessen the noise and dirt from the highways. Goodness, I hope so!

Twenty minutes after I left, my sister arrived to stand watch for an hour, and then darkness fell. A few lame scratches appeared overnight, and the two culprits were stupid enough to inscribe their names.

I'm about to enlist two new friends in the fight for civilization.

Ruth Ann Dailey:

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