When their paths crossed 25 years ago, the two men didn’t seem to have anything in common.
Joe Wider was a talkative and curious guy from New Jersey who’d moved here to teach film at USC’s department of media arts. He was making commercials and documentary films, too.
For exercise, he’d run long distances, ending up back on Huger Street, where he’d rest and sometimes shoot the breeze with a guy in overalls, tinkering in his yard.
That was James Oswald.
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For most of his life, Oswald made a living keeping the huge machines at the nearby textile mill running. He worked with his hands. He was a veteran of World War II. A widower, he met his wife at the mill and “married the same woman twice,” with the second vows at the church wedding she’d always wanted.
The first conversation between Wider and Oswald occurred, they now recall, as “Mr. O” was sowing millet in his side yard.
From that casual meeting in 1986, the two became fast friends.
One tends to keep to himself; the other makes a living as a storyteller.
But over the years, Wider and Oswald have worked side-by-side to fix up near-identical houses in a community they both love, Columbia’s Granby mill village. They share know-how, plant annuals to brighten shady spots, pick projects for Sunday mornings.
It’s not that they spend a lot of time together, but that they are fixtures in each others’ lives.
Wider summed it up: “I’m happy I got a good neighbor and a good friend.”
The relationship between the two reflects the easy mix of residents in Granby, people living along narrow streets in homes built close together. It’s a compact community, close to the river and close to downtown, that has attracted lawyers and college professors, artists and working class folks.
When Wider and Oswald met, they lived a few blocks from each other.
Wider had taken it upon himself to encourage people to buy and renovate the turn-of-the-century mill houses. In the past 20 years, he figures he has found homeowners for about a dozen houses that previously were being rented and are now restored.
He had taken a shine to Williams Street, an interior street with a median, and was part of a group that planted grass and flowers there.
Oswald was working on a house he owned on Williams Street. So Wider made a deal with him: He would buy the place next door but only if Oswald would agree to live in the house he owned instead of renting it out.
That way, Wider figured, he would have a homeowner on either side of him. The street would stabilize.
“I liked Williams Street,” Wider said. “The house’s orientation was perfect for me. It was wonderfully light, wonderfully bright.
“So I was dead-set on being his neighbor.”
Oswald said he agreed to the idea because it put him closer to the house where he lived when he was first married.
Oswald, 85, is one of the last remaining mill workers in Granby. The landmark textile mills, now renovated into apartments, employed thousands of people during a century’s operation that wound to a close in 1996.
Wider, 59, remains fascinated by the history and culture of mill life.
Joel Hughen said a love of Granby is their common bond. “They’re pretty different with the exception of where they live and their interest in preserving their neighborhood,” said Hughen, a friend and business partner of Wider.
Williams Street neighbor Lloyce Nelson said both are men of character. “They are both honest, direct people, so they’re different in a lot of ways and alike in a lot of ways,” she said. “They both have a strong sense of loyalty.”
Resident Bob Guild calls Wider “a brusque Jersey boy, very much on the cutting edge of technology,” but a man who knows how to be a good neighbor.
The other morning, Wider and Oswald talked about the early days of friendship, cemented with borrowed tools and renovation projects. Subtle compliments came through in conversation.
“I know how to do a lot of mechanical work – almost anything – but I don’t know computers,” Oswald said. “I can build a house from the ground up.”
“And I had never really done any carpentry,” Wider said. “I was an artist. After about six months of him holding my hand, I got my carpentry chops. He was a big help.”
“He learned fast,” Oswald said.
Basically, they just hit it off. They worked at their friendship, too, of course.
Early on, Wider offered to paint the trim in Oswald’s kitchen. When he was done, his neighbor offered to pay him.
“I said, ‘I tell you what: You got a list of friends?’” Wider recalled.
“He said, ‘Yeah.’”
“I said, ‘Put me on it.’”