KEYES — 'Tis the week before Christmas, and Rick Holloway's artificial tree, topped by a dirty blonde angel in a crushed-velvet red dress, is jammed into a rotting oak stump perched near newly paved Seventh Street.
A poem about fear, forgiveness and spiritual light is scrawled in blue ink on a flap of cardboard, also attached to the gnarled stump.
Nursing a beer in a nearby chair, Holloway, who lost his Keyes home of 37 years a few years ago and has never found a reason to leave town, is in a holiday mood. Which means that a story is coming.
"A little old lady in an electric wheelchair wanted to cross the street over there," said Holloway, 57, who watches comings and goings all day from his chair on the new roadside. Next to him is an empty chair in case somebody wants to stop and sit and chat.
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"A guy in a big Caterpillar pulled out and stopped traffic so she could cross. I tell you, Christmas cheer is alive in Keyes."
If the rains come, Christmas will be a whole lot less muddy in Keyes this year. Most streets in town were torn up so crews could put in storm drains. Almost all have been repaved.
"No floods or puddles. It's real nice," said Michele Butler.
David Vasquez Sr., a former mine worker, suffers fewer flat tires on his bicycle since the streets makeover. It also brought curbs and wheelchair ramps at each corner, but no sidewalks in front of most homes.
Crews seem to be ahead of schedule on the $18.2 million project, launched earlier this year with an official guess that it might take as long as two years to finish. Drain pipes of 84 inches, large enough for the 6-foot-5-inch Holloway to walk in without bending, were sunk into trenches long ago. They lead to a basin at Keyes' northeast end. It isn't done, but someday it will double as a park.
Stanislaus County was criticized in a high-profile bias lawsuit for spending the money on Keyes instead of bringing sewer systems to predominantly Latino neighborhoods in unincorporated portions of west and south Modesto. Federal appellate judges in October rejected the discrimination claim, saying the county doesn't have near enough money for needs in many underserved neighborhoods.
Lower court judges noted that Latinos make up nearly half of Keyes' population of 4,575, according to the 2000 census.
The lawsuit is ongoing.
Martha Ruiz said she'll probably use bricks to hold back a dirt bank left exposed by the recent work at the side of her house. "Everyone's happy because it looks nice," she said.
Butler said her 102-year-old grandmother can't afford sidewalks in front of the home they share with a tree swing in the yard. The government estimates construction costs of $500 to $1,000. Officials will reimburse permits running $120 per 250 feet for the first 500 applicants or until $60,000 set aside by county supervisors is gone.
Leon Edwards, a retired electrician, might have been among the first in line. His house was the first on his block in 1964. He's been waiting for street improvements ever since.
Edwards recalls a tent city on Keyes' outskirts after arriving from Oklahoma some 20 years before, back when the town was vibrant with several markets, his uncle's blacksmith shop and the Starlight drive-in theater. He said he's happy to pay the new $160 yearly assessment added to all homes to cover maintenance for the drains and new park.
Holloway also arrived in '64 and is cheered to have new streets to live on.
"This is my town. This is where I live," he said. "I know everyone here, their kids and their grandkids. And everyone knows me."
On the Net: www.keyesimprovement.com.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.