This is the story of Noel’s Knoll and how a Group of Neighbors Came Together During the Pandemic
It was early December 2020 when I was arranging my solar powered holiday lights and saw my next-door neighbor Marianne. She was coming from across the street in the dark. She stopped to chat and share the news that our neighbor wasn’t doing very well. She had just delivered some Tortellini Soup for him made by her husband, Craig. She and another couple, Gary and Mary, who live nearby, had been taking turns fixing meals for our neighbor, Noel.
Noel who had become ill, was an interesting character and had lived in our neighborhood for decades. A bit crusty on the outside, but he was actually very sweet to my sons and to me. He always knew what was going on in the neighborhood and he shared his thoughts and concerns with anyone who would listen. I liked him being our neighbor because I knew he didn’t miss anything. His house is in a deep corner of an otherwise open lot. Most people think it is a vacant lot because it is clearly not maintained in any way. The area between the sidewalk and the street (tree lawn, parkway, road verge depending on where you are from) is public property but is supposed to be maintained by the homeowner. His was often overgrown with fennel and other wildflowers which sometimes obscured the fire hydrant which I periodically trimmed. Many years ago, Noel brought in dirt to make a small road course for the neighbor kids to use their remote-controlled dune buggies but when neighbors complained, the idea was abandoned. Thus, the corner of Avenue C and Juanita was left for plants to grow wild, as they did in the time when the area was called Clifton.
Early in the Pandemic, someone, perhaps seeking some outside relief, trimmed much of the overgrown 5 foot tall fennel on the tree lawn and threw it into the lot. There were huge piles of it. Having no rain for months, it became dry and prickly, smothering anything that may have tried to grow beneath. Trash was caught in the tangle and the overgrown lot became even less appealing. Most neighbors just became used to walking by and ignoring it. I did not, as I live diagonally across the street from the wild lot and can see it from my front porch.
Noel and I had many chats over the years and he always told me to feel free to pick what I want for my floral design business and I did. He once gave me very unusual Nasturtium seeds and offered me a Loquat tree from his mother’s garden. After years of this neighbor being very self-sufficient and very much walking to the beat of his own drum, Noel experienced health issues. Neighbors began looking in on him and bringing him hot meals.
I realized this was the opportunity to start clearing the debris that was so thoughtlessly thrown on the lot. He told me I could pick whatever I wanted…so I thought I could start at dusk in a little corner and maybe he wouldn’t see me fill my bin with compost material. I brought my bin over and I started picking up the piles of dry sticks. It did not take long to fill up one green bin, so I rolled the compost bin back across the street and parked it in front of my house and grabbed my other one. For whatever reason the city thinks I need two compost bins, I am grateful. I continued to rake. I filled another bin quietly as the darkness started to fall. There were no inquiries from the House of Noel and no neighbors walked by. This was fun. I grabbed my rake and rolled my full bin across the street parked it in front of my house and went in while darkness fell and the streetlights came on.
A week went by and I repeated my Sunday plan at 4pm with my compost bin, rake and gloves and I continued to work in the northwest corner. I filled another bin then I returned with my second bin. Again, finishing much more like the week before, no one said anything no one yelled out the window. It was dark so I rolled everything back across the street and went into my house. All of this was repeated on the third Sunday, but this time a neighbor who lived on the other corner of Avenue C gave me a wave and a nod. I knew that he and his wife (Gary and Mary) had also been supplying Noel with meals. The following Sunday (Week 4) I felt a little bolder as I worked further into the yard and I asked a few of my neighbors if their green bins were empty. They had all seen me working and they quickly offered up all of their green bins. I filled my two bins, 1 from Kim, 2 from Craig and 1 from Audrey.
On my 5th Sunday, I was able to collect the six green bins from my neighbors and went to work filling them. A neighbor, whom I had met early in the pandemic, when he and his wife had walked by stopped to talk. My family had been sitting on the front porch and we had a very pleasant chat. However, this is the first time I had seen him since that meeting and sadly he told us that his wife had passed away from cancer a few months after that and he had heart surgery just two months earlier. This was sad news to learn and clearly not a pleasant time for this gentleman but, unselfishly, he was curious to what I was up to. He had not seen Noel in a while and had not known he was not well. He had lived around the corner for 40 years and known Noel all that time. His name was John. He wanted to help and he gave me his phone number. That same week, on Wednesday, John was out for a walk and stopped to say that he thought it would be better to fill bags instead of waiting to fill green bins once a week. We met on the next night and as we got started another neighbor was walking by who knew John, he went home and came back with a rake and his gloves. His names was Marvin. I told him what we were doing and with no questions asked, he joined in the task of filling bags. He too had known Noel for decades. This was the second phase of the Neighbors for Noel effort. It was going to rain over the weekend so Marvin, John and I worked swiftly and filled 20 bags.
The following weekend Marvin and John and I started as usual when another neighbor, Chad, gave us his green bin then Wilma nextdoor to him came over with her green bin. Gary came over from across the street to check on Noel, he had been bringing him food, and since all of us were working in the yard, more neighbors were finding out that Noel was not well. We had been working over a month at this point and had not seen or heard anything from the house of Noel. Gary had gone up to tell Noel that others wanted to help with his meals, upon his return to the yard he shared with us that Noel was so grateful and thankful for what we were doing. This was the first time we had heard that he was aware and happy. It was very good news. This was week 6.
The next night Eric, who lived up the street, rode by on his bike and asked if he could help. He returned with a shovel and starting moving dirt. Honestly, I felt like a kid playing in the dirt with my friends until dark. I had a lawn service when I was 13 and this felt like that. We would bring all our own toys (tools), wear our masks and work until dark and then we have to go home for dinner. My Mom is not calling me to come home, I am the Mom. Our core trio is John-Paramedic, Marvin- Welder and me — a floral designer. Both of these fellows are retired now and older than I am but the three of us worked in harmony on this plot of land cutting back thorny plumosa, saving baby Nasturtiums, and Statice and newly planted Milkweed. We laughed, told stories, joked a bit and talked to anyone who walked by who cared enough to say something. Just about everybody who walked by knew John or Marvin or me. Our standard reply was that we’re simply helping a neighbor who isn’t well and that it is his property.
The comments from the neighbors walking by were varied and vast and too many to recall. “Oh my gosh, that is such hard work!” “Are you planting a community garden?” “FINALLY…SOME ONE IS FIXING THIS.” “I liked it before, it looked like Neverland. “ “ Is there going to be a giant trampoline” “You guys are neighborhood heroes, thank you for doing this” “Bless your Heart” “Gosh it looks better every time I walk by” “A great place for a Bouncy House.”
The week after Valentine’s Day we three, who have shared this common ground, started on that Wednesday on a 5 day roll. Rain was coming and we wanted to clean everything up. Starting daily at 3:30 until dark, we cleared most of the property and shaped the rest of the former dune buggy mound in the middle of the yard. I had named it Noel’s Knoll and had called our coming together a “grass roots effort.”
The Figs walked by with their dog Lemon, Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan, at the same time every night, always sharing a wave, a thank you and appreciation, Eileen and her pandemic rescue dog, Fauci, visited as usual, Chad, Kyle, Don, and Gary brought meals up to Noel. Jen, a local teacher, waved and thanked us. The immediate neighbors rolled over their green bins when we started working.
It had been two months since I started alone on the NW corner patch with my rake and 2 bins at dusk. We had grown to almost 15 bins weekly and 3 of us steady workers. On the 6th day of this roll. I went over earlier and alone and started throwing seeds for a potentially fabulous Spring Super Bloom of California Poppies. The yard was a blank canvas and the dirt ready for the rain that was coming. I had to get those seeds in. Suddenly there was a familiar, albeit surprising booming voice from the upstairs window.
“WHAT ARE YOU PLANTING? DON’T YOU THINK WE SHOULD TALK ABOUT THIS? COME UP HERE”
I had not seen or heard Noel in months, but at this moment I knew he had been watching and listening. If I just threw seeds in and it rained, then we would be finished with this undertaking. There would be no more socializing in his yard within his earshot. No more people asking how Noel was feeling. No more laughing and story-telling. I climbed up and pushed the door open. He was sitting with a hat on and a jacket. He could not stay warm, his face was unfamiliarly thin, but his voice was the one I have known for a decade. I stayed in the doorway and we chatted. I told him that we had thought we would just build on some of the great wildflowers he already had and so he could look out and see color and flowers. He tersely replied, “I DO NOT WANT THAT” I told him that we wanted to make him happy so what would he like. He put his head down and he softly said, “I want a vegetable garden with fruit trees for the neighbors who have helped me these past few months. I don’t know what it will take to do that, but can you help me with that?” I said of course we can, I will talk to Marvin and John and see what we can do.
A week later Noel was taken to the hospital.
This truly was a very tight group who became involved to help. They only knew about it if they walked by or looked out their window. Not one text or tweet, or post on FB, IG or Nextdoor ever occurred. We would just make a plan at dusk for the next gathering. If anyone saw someone working there, they could just join in. I now have the most wonderful relationship with my neighbors because of this experience.
Noel’s last words to me were to have the people whom he had learned cared about him to have the use of his yard. He wanted a vegetable garden with fruit trees for the neighbors who had helped him. He passed away soon after our conversation. Our neighbors bloomed and made his yard colorful for his last few months on this earth.