I was about to get mugged or harassed.
That’s what I assumed the evening in 2003 that I was hunched over in my front yard in West Palm Beach, Fla., fighting with a shrub. I looked up to see a guy get out of a beat-up car that had other people in it and come barreling toward me. The sky’s last light was arguably long gone, but I hadn’t been ready to cede the battle to my yard for the day. It was the tropics and the yard was usually winning.
This was my first house, a tiny Spanish-style cottage in a mostly low-income immigrant neighborhood just off of Dixie Highway. The term highway in this case was a misnomer. It was more of a road really, and by day the antique stores that lined it welcomed Palm Beach’s ultra-wealthy and their decorators to purchase $30,000 antique tables. By night, those same antique stores’ parking lots welcomed prostitutes and the homeless trying to scrape through another 10 hours. This was my neighborhood and it got sort of dodgy after dark.
So I’m hot, I’m annoyed (the shrub) and now I’ve got some guy in a baseball cap pulled low waving his hands at me in my neighborhood that has just slipped into “transitional” mode with the setting sun. I was considering my options when I realized he looked apologetic. He was about to have a conversation with someone who wasn’t likely to understand two-thirds of what he was saying.
He smiled and pointed to my American flag, which I always flew from a wooden pole attached to the front gate. Using his limited English and the universal “money” hand gesture, he asked to buy the flag. “You want to buy my flag?” I asked, confused. He nodded. I repeated the question, unsquinching my face long enough to add, “Why?”
He explained. He’d been in the U.S. for a while and his buddies were driving him to the airport that was just a couple miles away. He was going back to Ecuador. He had to go home. He’d wanted to buy an American flag but ran out of time and the stores were closed. I will never forget what he said next, although time has likely smoothed the broken patches in the way he said it: “I love America. I want to show them the flag when I go home. I love it here.”
My throat caught instantly. I paused long enough to be able to talk without letting a snuffle escape.
“Dude. Take the flag. You’re not paying me for it.”
I reached up and unfastened its worn metal clips. I folded it, wishing I knew how to do a proper triangle fold. The moment deserved better than the clumsy work I made of the slippery nylon. He ran to the car and came back with a torn piece of looseleaf paper and a pen. In a shaky scrawl, he wrote an address. It was the town where he and his family lived in Ecuador. More hand gestures. I was supposed to come visit some day.
The whole exchange lasted less than five minutes. He headed off to the airport and I stood there in the dark, covered still in dirt from the yard, under the now-bare wooden flag pole.
I still have the piece of paper with the address of a stranger’s house in Ecuador. I have a new flag.
I think about that night every Independence Day.