A Hard-Working Neighbor, with Style

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Commentator Lauretta Hannon introduces us to Miss Martin, one of her neighbors in Savannah, Ga.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Commentator Lauretta Hannon has lived all over Georgia; in the mountains of the northeast, near Atlanta, and she grew up in the center of the state. Here is a story about one of her neighbors when she lived near the coast in Savannah.

LAURETTA HANNON reporting:

Try to imagine a rutabaga wrapped in a floral polyester dress and you have Ms. Martin. She's barely five feet tall and her knees quiver underneath 250 pounds of Southern fried fat. She waddles, but she gets around.

At least she did when Mr. Higgins was in his prime. He was her dog, a homely little pug with a constant tubercular cough. She walked Mr. Higgins five times a day on some of the most dangerous streets in Savannah. It was a hard haul for her, but her whole life had been a hard haul.

She covered a lot of ground on those walks, stopping to talk with the crack dealer next door, then crossing the alley to speak to the shady storefront preacher. She treated everyone with respect. It was one ragged, mixed up mess of a neighborhood, but she was a friend to all of us.

When my water was cut off because the slumlord didn't pay the bill, she brought water to me, carrying a metal bucket in each hand, teetering like a seesaw. I was invited to her sagging house many times. On the wall was a light up Jesus whose bulbs had burned out years before.

Ms. Martin couldn't afford a clothes dryer so she ran wires across the living room and hanged her things there to dry. Once when I came over for supper, I had to duck underneath a massive line of underwear or be knocked down by big mama drawers the size and heft the circus tents.

Our suppers together always began the same way. We'd take our seats at the Formica table and wait for the macaroni and government cheese to finish baking. She'd heap sugar on her portion while it was fresh from the oven and still bubbling. Mr. Higgins took his with sugar as well.

One time for dessert she pulled a frozen pie out of a blank cardboard box. I recognized it instantly from the emergency food bank where I volunteered. A big black date stamped on the box warned that the pie had expired ten months earlier. I did consider the possibility of food poisoning, but I wasn't about to hurt Ms. Martin's feelings by refusing the pie.

She'd hurt enough in her life, raising four girls while living like a gypsy. Moving their trailer from one campsite to another, always broke yet always working. Then when she managed to get a home, it had to be in this place.

Eventually I moved to a better neighborhood that wasn't nearly as good. I was able to leave, but Ms. Martin won't be going anywhere. There is nothing good about poverty or the miseries that come from it. It breaks many more people than it strengthens, but not the polyester rutabaga woman. Ms. Martin might bend, but she never gives.

SIEGEL: Lauretta Hannon lives in Powder Springs, Georgia.

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