Shortly after Yvonne and I arrived in Cincinnati in the fall of 1971 I landed a job as a counselor/educator at the Cincinnati Job Corps, which was, and still is, located in the former Sisters of Mercy Convent next to Union Terminal.
The year and a half I spent at Job Corps was an interesting experience and I developed strong friendships with several of the young men in the program, one of whom was Big John.
John had lived a troubled life. He lost his mom to cancer at an early age, and a few years later his dad took his own life. At 16 John was a bruiser of a fellow but his personality was more like that of Baby Huey, a gentle spirit who needed a friend. I became an unofficial big brother to John, and my supervisor, Jim, became an adopted father.
John successfully completed the Job Corps program, which included getting his GED. In the course of time he married and moved out of state, still staying in contact with Jim and me, but less and less often.
After not hearing anything for several years, I received a call from John at the office late one Friday afternoon. He had returned to Cincinnati with his wife and children and was having a hard time finding work. He asked if we might be able to help with some groceries, which, of course, we were glad to do.
John’s housing situation was temporary so he suggested we meet him at Jim’s house in Cincinnati the next afternoon. After a trip to the grocery store on Saturday morning, Yvonne and I headed for Jim’s house, with Adam, age 6, and Emily, age 3, in the backseat. It was a good opportunity for them to be a part of helping someone in need.
When we arrived there was no answer at the front door and no sign of Jim or John. I decided to try the backdoor, which to my surprise I found unlocked. It probably wasn’t a good idea, but I figured it would be better to go in and leave the groceries than to take them home and come back later. Once in the house I placed the groceries on the kitchen table, then found a pencil and paper and left a note for Jim explaining the call from John, and that he should be coming by to pick up the groceries.
With our good deed done, I returned to the car and started to pull out of the driveway. As I did, Yvonne and I both noticed a neighbor standing in her driveway across the street. She was staring at us and talking on the phone – using one of those now vintage wireless sets that looked like an Army walky-talky.
We didn’t think anything of it at first, but after we’d gone a few blocks it occurred to us that the neighbor might be calling the police, thinking that this strange man had broken into Jim’s house. “We’d better go back and explain,” I said.
I quickly turned the car around, drove back to the neighbor’s house, and pulled into her driveway. When I go out of the car and approached her, her face turned pale and she looked at me like I was the grim reaper about to whack her head off with my scythe.
She frantically waved her free hand in the air and shouted into the phone, “Yes, he came back and he’s standing right here in my driveway, please hurry.” She clung to the phone like it was a weapon and took a step backward, almost stumbling as she did. “Don’t come near me, the police are on their way.” she exclaimed.
The words were barely out of her mouth when two Cincinnati Police cruisers screeched to a halt behind our car, with sirens blaring as they arrived, and lights still flashing as they exited their cars with guns drawn.
One officer approached our car and the other rushed toward me. As he did, I started to explain what had happened, and made the mistake of making a gesturing motion toward Jim’s house, which was also in the direction of the policeman. The officer stopped, raised his gun, and said, “Keep your hands at your side.” His voice was calm but commanding and I promptly obeyed. Meanwhile, the neighbor was excitedly pointing at me as she said, “Thank God you’re here officer. I know he came back to hurt me.”
Being careful not to make even the slightest movement with my hands, I said, “Office, there’s been a huge mistake. I didn’t do anything and that’s my wife and children in the car.” The officer glanced over his shoulder at the officer talking to Yvonne through the open window of the car, and the officer nodded his head confirming my statement. He had already holstered his gun, and the other officer, now standing between me and the neighbor, lowered his gun and placed it in his holster. “Sir, do you want to tell me what’s going on here.”
I quickly explained that I used to work with Jim and told the officer about John’s phone call and the groceries. “If you go in the house, you will see my note to Jim and two bags of groceries on the table.” I said. My explanation seemed to satisfy the officer without needing to check out my story.
“It’s okay, Ma’am, his story sounds legit,” he told the neighbor. And then he added, “I don’t believe he would have brought his wife and kids along to break into your neighbor’s house in the middle of the day.”
“Thank you officer,” I said as he escorted me to our car.
Finally, we were on our way. Adam and Emily were both talking excitedly about the officers and their guns. “They both thought we were going to jail,” Yvonne said, “and for a minute there I did too.”
I took a deep breath and squeezed her hand. “I did too,” I said.
Jim found my note when he got home and called to let me know his neighbor had told him what had happened. “Boy, I’m sorry about that,” he said, “But she was being a good neighbor to look out for me.” And then he added, I must have left the door unlocked.
John called the next day, apologetic about what had happened but thankful for the groceries. I’ve only heard from him once since then, about 10 years ago, and he was doing well. Yes, it was a good deed gone bad, but I’d do it all over again, if asked. But if there ever is a next time, I’ll leave the groceries with the neighbor.
George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.