Guest post: A letter to our Riverside neighbors

Ben Piñon was a Hands On Nashville AmeriCorps member in 2019-2020. His Riverside neighborhood sustained significant damage during the March 3, 2020, tornado. With the help of countless volunteers, Ben and his neighbors worked to clean up, offer each other comfort, and put their lives back together. Ben also led tornado-recovery volunteer projects for Hands On Nashville across the Metro Nashville area through the end of his term in November 2020. 

Ben Piñon

By Ben Piñon

I’m going to miss Dave. I’ll miss each of you too, don’t get me wrong. But I’m really going to miss Dave. 

Dave would walk his tiny but feisty little dog past our house every day after work. Princess, he calls her. I’ll miss the care in Dave’s eyes every time he would repeat his signature phrase: “Anything you need, just call me, you got my number.” 

Every so often Dave would stop by with a box or two of donuts, leftovers from the store he manages. One day, he brought us 17 dozen. 

“Dave, what am I going to do with all these donuts?!?” 

“Every so often Dave would stop by with a box or two of donuts, leftovers from the store he manages. One day, he brought us 17 dozen.”

“Give ‘em away. You know people.” 

I really don’t know that many people in Nashville. I wish I did. Definitely didn’t before surviving the tornado — didn’t even know Dave before then. It probably looked like I knew people as I hugged several of you on your front lawns, directed volunteers showing up to help out that first week, let our living room become a donation storage space. I was just trying to be a good neighbor. It was over so quick though, and a year later, with all but that one remarkable week under the cloud of the coronavirus pandemic, it wasn’t so easy to keep building on those connections the tornado had brought into being. 

By the time you read this, we will have left. Moved out a couple weeks short of the one-year anniversary. I write this letter from our new house, still in East Nashville, only 2 miles down the road. Far enough though that we won’t simply run into each other anymore. Far enough that Dave can’t stop by with the same regularity, far enough that we’ll be just as anonymous to our new neighbors as we were to you 16 months ago back in October of 2019 when we packed up the car in Oregon and landed two weeks later, by some weird twist of fate, on East Nashville’s Riverside Drive. 

I imagined a whole lot for us even before the leaves on the broken branches had lost their color. It’s what we dreamers do. I imagined us having big block parties, coffee and tea in each other’s living rooms, emotional community forums, the fences separating us never getting rebuilt. I wanted us to be good neighbors. To stay good neighbors. 

“Stay Human. On the second day of the cleanup, I borrowed a can of spray paint and on a piece of plywood that used to live under your roof I wrote those two words as big as I could for the world to see.”

Recovery is not glorious as you well know. It’s not a neat fairy tale that magically ends happily ever after. I’m not sure it ever really ends. Remember how fast the tornado made us the center of attention? How we became yesterday’s news just as quickly? The world keeps turning, my friends, and it turns brutally. Another, bigger crisis made our situation no easier to solve and much easier to overlook. Some of you still haven’t moved back in. Some of you ended up out of work, out of money, low on your dignity. You lost family members, friends, or mentors since then, all while houses were still being repaired, developers were hawking, and landlords were itching to sell, raise the rent, or build back those destroyed rentals around the corner taller, skinner, and more expensive than the old tenants could afford. Just like you can’t stop a tornado from coming, you can’t just put all the pieces back together again once it’s passed. If that was the goal, we’ve lost. 

One of my favorite musicians has this song — “Stay Human.” On the second day of the cleanup, I borrowed a can of spray paint and on a piece of plywood that used to live under your roof I wrote those two words as big as I could for the world to see. 

The song starts like this: “I remember when I was just a boy, Mama said this world was not always a paradise.” Ain’t that the truth. 

I get sad sometimes about what might have become but never did, I can’t lie. But I also don’t feel like we lost. 

We may not have gotten our fairy tale, but we did what we had to do to keep moving. For me, it was growing a garden in our freshly cleared backyard — never before did it have the sunlight or open space to support one. We called it our farm. Like good neighbors, you graciously took all the cucumbers and cherry tomatoes we didn’t adequately prepare for off our hands. 

“Don’t you give up on me,” the song continues. “’Cause I won’t give up on you.” 

“You let us join your cookout on July 4th, gave us plates of leftovers to take home, treated us like family.”

How could I? You painted tree stumps with words of encouragement, so we stopped by on our walks to say hello, a thank you of sorts, only to receive even more nuanced advice on life. You let us join your cookout on July 4th, gave us plates of leftovers to take home, treated us like family. You were genuine with us, speaking openly on the pain of losing an adult daughter or son. And Dave, your vulnerability in sharing with me stories of the harassment you faced growing up Black in Nashville in the ’60s and ’70s, that was a real gift. You and so many of the neighbors held onto your generosity, your sincerity, and your humanity through just about everything. 

“All I’m trying to do, is stay human with you.” 

I found a lot of joy and comfort in sharing the same three square blocks of real estate with y’all for as long as it lasted. At least for me, being your neighbor helped me stay human through some strange times. I’m grateful to all of you for that. I can only wish some of that same peace befalls you as all our lives keep moving forward, if only just a little further apart. Oh, and I wish you some more good neighbors now that we’re gone. You deserve good neighbors. 

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