THE DOORBELL rang and there stood a stranger -- a tall, slim man with close-cropped hair and clean brown eyes, whom I'll call Troy. ''Mow your lawn?'' he asked. I said yes and we negotiated a price. Troy did the work, I paid him in cash (of course) and away he went, in search of other patrons with overgrown grass.
For years my husband and I have been willing co-conspirators in Baltimore's thriving underground economy. Men like Troy come by often. Men who either do not hold steady jobs or do not make enough to make ends meet. And yet they're committed to playing by the rules. They still believe in exchanging honest labor for an honest wage. And we choose to honor that commitment by hiring them for odd jobs.
It's obvious that these men aren't looking for blood money or drug money. They've got to put food on the table, or buy diapers for the baby. They need the money now, tonight. So they enter into a complex covenant with strangers. They risk humiliation and discrimination to stave off immediate want, and we risk -- what? opening the door to a criminal? Unlikely. Staring into the eyes of real desperation? Yes, all too often.
This cannot, and never will be, an even exchange. We have our own lawnmower, for goodness sake, so getting the work done is beside the point. Our covenant is straightforward only on the surface. From our perspective, it runs deeper. For every $15 or $20 that changes hands, we pass along a silent but charged message: ''We know the world is an unfair place. We know you're trying. This is how we acknowledge the imbalance."
Call it noblesse-oblige. Call it liberal guilt assuagement. Call it a hedge against the day when men like Troy give up on door-to-door salesmanship and turn to more radical forms of economic salvation. When it works, no one is worse off than before. But when the covenant breaks down, the thin veneer of civility that glues haves and have-nots together frays with terrifying quickness, and can only be rescued by a leap of faith by both parties.
Only hours after he had cut our grass, Troy returned to our house asking for more money. There he stood, thin and tense on our front porch. We flinched. This wasn't the deal. We said no, and felt sick as we closed the door on him.
Weeks later, he came by to mow again. No hard feelings. Again he reappeared at night. ''My brother, he just got shot. His brains are all over the street.'' How horrible, we said. Troy mumbled something about money. We flinched again, harder this time. Why us? Troy's face was frozen, expressionless. Cash for lawnmowing, yes, but cash for tragedy? We didn't understand the question, and again said no. That feeling in the pit of your stomachs was a suppressed question: Truth or scam? The evening news reported the shooting -- yet we felt no better.
I was relieved when Troy came back two days later. His brother had died. He wanted to bring his sister up for the funeral. I gave him all I had in my wallet, $20, and he promised to mow again in a few weeks, as repayment.
A few days ago, as I was driving through our neighborhood, I saw Troy walking his lawnmower. He spotted me; we smiled and waved.
A covenant is more than an exchange of promises. It is also, of necessity, an expression of trust.
Amy L. Bernstein is a freelance journalist in Baltimore.
Pub Date: 10/08/96