Having my neighbor Joe in my life has been one of the greatest blessings to my reintegration back into society. Getting out of prison has not been easy and it certainly hasn’t been what I envisioned in 7 years of incarceration.
So many expectations weren’t met. I had many lonely moments and plenty of frustration with the system. It all could have easily derailed my recovery and sent me back to prison to serve year number 8. Instead, I met Joe and I didn’t have to look far, since he lived right next door.
First, he introduced me to his friend, Ray who’s in recovery and who became my sponsor. Ray comes over every week to work through the 12 steps with me. With over a quarter century of sobriety behind him, Ray understands what I’ve been through in my recovery journey.
Joe and I do projects either in his yard or mine, and we jokingly formed a construction company, NinJa Construction. He calls me “Nin” and I call him “Ja.” Our first project was fixing another neighbor’s fence.
Using nothing but a couple of mallets and screw drivers, along with some super cheap hardware, we put it all back together. As we stood there looking at our work, I told him, “It looks like crap.” He told me not to worry, he had the perfect thing, and he took out a new shining plastic cap and crowned the corner post. I started to laugh and sang, “Shine bright like a diamond, shine bright like a diamond.”
After that we started landscaping, he taught me how to lay fabric and mulch, as well as sod. Whenever I mow my yard without using the bagger, I catch him going over it again, this time picking up the grass clippings. I always tell him he doesn’t have to do that but he says, “You are half of NinJa Construction. We can’t have the neighbors thinking that we’re struggling.”
Working out has also become our thing. But Joe is not an early riser, so working out at 6 am is not our thing. We compromised and now 7 am is our sweet spot. Like I have with my brother, I’ve shared some of my prison workout knowledge and maybe pushed him a bit.
All summer we grilled out. Joe spoiled me with filet mignon. I didn’t know meat could melt in your mouth. We both love sweet potatoes and are equally addicted to sparkling water. We call them “Cold Ones.”
And we have bonfires, too! My mom’s outdoor fireplace was small and in rough shape. It was probably perfect for a backyard fire in the city, but I didn’t grow up in the city.
I would end up cramming so much wood in this pit that we had to trim back the trees above it. Joe was sure that we would burn the neighborhood down. Finally, Joe just bought a new fire pit that I could build my big fires in and now the neighbors are sleeping better at night.
My mom was excited to have a strong male role model in my life. She hoped Joe’s traits wear off on me: he’s a great father and a caring friend. But what she didn’t expect is that some of my traits – like my sense of humor – would wear off on him.
We don’t just joke about NinJa Construction, we joke about everything. We like to say that our morning workouts are causing traffic jams because the neighborhood women are rubbernecking at the extremely attractive men working out in the driveway. We also don’t miss a chance to give my mom a hard time when she says something awkwardly Mom-like.
Sometimes I call him dad and he calls me son, and I call his two teenage kids, brother and sister. They both think Joe and I are pretty weird.
All jokes aside, having Joe next door has been a huge blessing. I go to him when something isn’t going right. I count on his advice and he helps me to keep my eye on what is important in life.
In fact, my mom and I are not the only ones that think Joe is pretty special. Melrose loves Joe, too. When I was getting out of prison, Melrose only told two people: her teacher and Joe.
I almost forgot to include Bentley, Joe’s goldendoodle, who would be pretty upset if I didn’t mention him in this post. Bentley and I have also formed quite the bond. Wednesdays when off of work, have become our hang out time. Mel and I also like to take him to the park and play fetch. This can prove to be challenging at times, because even though he’s only a pup, he has terrible eyesight and his natural instinct is to play keep away.
When I got out of prison, I had a bunch of ideas about how it was going to be. Most of those things haven’t happened and it’s been disappointing sometimes. But one of the greatest surprises has been having Joe as a neighbor, a friend, a mentor, and a dad.