STEVE // Moving to Spokane.
Spokane was not the easiest place to move to. I often joke that it's the "biggest small town" I've ever lived in. I laugh awkwardly as I joke about it, quickly adding "but its not that bad" as fast as I can before those who were born and raised here can start a riot, screaming emphatically "HASHTAGSPOKANEDOESNTSUCK".
Spokane almost has the feel of a big city. It has several "big city" amenities. It has a vibrant, growing art scene, incredible restaurants, and several large buildings. It has vegan options. It has distinctive neighborhoods. It has history (a definitely shady history but history nonetheless). But what it doesn't have is anonymity...and that has made it the loneliest place I have ever lived.
In a big city, you get used to being a little lonely. After a day spent being just another person in a sea of faces, your tiny apartment and pint of Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream is a place of solace. Nobody talks after yoga. When you accidently make eye contact with someone on the street, you nod politely and move on. They know they don’t know you and they don’t care. And it’s totally okay. People keep their shit together, and if not, they at least keep it to themselves. You never run into the person you saw last week outside the coffee shop, who is a friend of a friend of someone you met last week and is a bridesmaid in the wedding of the check out guy at your favorite grocery store. In Spokane, everything and everyone is connected. I’m sure its lovely if you’ve grown up or attended school here. But I promise you, if there is one thing Spokane has taught me, its how excruciatingly painful it is to be surrounded by people and still feel entirely alone.
My closest friend in spokane is, in fact, the only normal person I have ever met at a dog park (Note: dog park people are WEIRD, regardless of what city, state or planet you're from. It's just a fact). I had just had one of the most embarrassing moments of my life at the farmer's market with some coworkers. I won't get into details but it involves a broken sandal, a misunderstanding, a dropped ice cream cone and the biggest dog shit you've ever seen in your life. It was bad to say the least. As Devon and I began chatting I learned that she was from Florida and had moved to Spokane around the same time I did. I surprised myself by telling her what had happened that day, finding it much funnier in retrospect. She was funny and honest. Devon has a way of laughing at you and with you, all the while remaining intensely sincere. As I was commiserating with her about my day, I half jokingly said "I just wanted to make a friend". Devon looked right at me and said some of the kindest words anyone has said to me.
"I'll be your friend".
Just like that, like kindergarteners on the playground, we became friends. Seriously. It was that simple. Two strangers bonding over not going school with everyone else and not having dated each other's cousin one time. I had just started taking photos again after a long stint of having no creative energy. Devon encouraged me to keep shooting and even modeled for me several times. We explored Spokane and the surrounding areas a lot while her boyfriend and my husband were busy with law school and building careers. Spokane started to not suck so bad. I met her at just the right time and it was real life magic.
Right around this time I went on a walk with my dog to take photos around the neighborhood. I live in the most eclectic and beautiful neighborhood in Spokane, Cliff Cannon. There are half way houses, apartments where many of the refugee population here live, rental homes and historic mansions all on my block. I sometimes have a tiny woman who goes through the neighborhood dumpster in my alley. She sells the things she finds in other people's trash. I wave to her as I drink my coffee. There is a man who always greets my german shepherd at the fence, letting her lick his face for several minutes before he continues on. I recognize the kids who ride bikes down our street and I nod hello to my neighbor who takes extraordinary care of his lawn. And yet, I do not know anyone's name. And nobody knows mine.
As I'm walking down the street, I come across a beautiful garden. This garden was unlike anything I had ever seen before. The yard was small, but the dozens of rose bushes stood almost as tall as the house. There was a small pathway through them, tiny stones marked the trail, guiding you through the different variations of roses. They were all meticulously placed so that you wouldn't be pricked by a thorn but could reach even the tallest rose. On the east side of the yard were apple and plum trees! All perfectly planted. Next to those, (careful not to have too much shade) were the tomato plants, they were just flowering at this time. I was trying to take photos from the other side of the fence, in awe of how beautiful it all was, when I heard a man chuckle.
"Are you taking photos of my garden?"
I was totally unaware there was someone there and quickly stammered a hello. He laughed even harder and told me I could come in the gate and take as many roses as I liked. The man who grew this incredible garden introduced himself to me as Steve. Steve was an older gentleman, about 65 or so. He had grey hair that was handsomely long for his age. He was thin, but muscular. Healthy. He moved around the garden with ease, showing me his favorite plants. The day we met he was helping his neighbor put together a yard sale. "She's all on her own, you know", he told me. "She doesn't have a whole lot of help".
I would learn that Steve grew up on a farm where he cultivated his green thumb. He and his brother would work on the farm but then also get to sell fruit and vegetables at the local farmers market, his favorite part of the week. He used to hate farming but as he grew older, he began to appreciate the ability to grow his own food, trying to grow as much as he could in his own garden. He explained to me that he grew enough vegetables to not only get him through the winter, but to donate as well. He would anonymously leave baskets of tomatoes and plums at the local supermarket with a homemade sign saying "free". I smiled, knowing that I had seen that basket several times, but was too sheepish to take anything from it.
Steve invited me to come, whenever I wanted, to pick flowers. He showed me where to find the clippers and the several glass jars he kept on the porch in case someone didn't have a vase. He taught me how to clip the stems properly and invited me to come back when he had more time so he could teach me how to grow tomatoes. He was gentle and unimposing. Genuine. He was friendly but reserved, not out of skepticism, but I think mostly from a life used to growing things and then letting them go. I thanked him as I left, flowers in hand, as I closed the gate carefully. I told him that I would see him soon and walked home feeling grateful to have made another friend.
A week or so later when Devon came over, I told her that we just had to see Steve's garden. We walked the few blocks as I described to her the sweet man who's garden made me feel like Alice in Wonderland and who's kindness made me feel a little less small. When we arrived at the gate the sun was low in the sky and the summer light was gold and dusky. I began showing her the garden, explaining to her where the shears where when a girl around our age came out of the house.
"Hello!", I said somewhat nervously, "Steve said we could come pick flowers." She looked at me blankly and asked me, "did you know my dad?".
"Steve?", I asked, "I met him a while back".
"Steve is my dad. Was my dad. He died."
My heart dropped to my stomach as the girl in front of me sat on the porch with her head in her hands, softly crying. I looked at Devon, totally shocked. We learned that Steve, who was in great shape, who ate organic food from his own garden, had died of a heart attack in front of his young grandson while on a run. His daughter and her family had come to take care of his house and manage his estate. I hugged her and told her how sorry I was, that her father was so kind to me during a time I was so lonely. She insisted that I take some flowers, even when I protested.
"He would want you to have them", she said, "that's who he was". I looked at her and smiled sadly. I couldn't disagree with that.
We put the flowers in a vase in my house. After Devon went home I sat on my porch for a while. I hadn't realized I was crying until Herman came home. I pulled out my camera and took these photos of Steve's roses. They aren't my best photos, the most clear or the most technical. They're emotional. And for that reason, I love them.
I didn't know Steve well. I didn't know him long. But he made such an impact on my life. I learned that lesson you keep learning as you grow older: life is short. It can end in an instant.
However, these photos of Steve's roses are a reminder to me of something even more essential. They are a reminder to keep your gate unlocked and to invite people in. To give freely and offer tools. To be open to a friendship regardless of the city (or maybe even dog park) you're in. And most importantly, when you create something beautiful, to share it.