Notes from September 18, 2001: Richard
That morning, I heard my three-year-old daughter wake up and say with delight, “It’s not dark out anymore.” I went in and saw her already sitting up in bed — the brilliant sunlight streaming in through the pink, translucent curtain of her bedroom — and saw how her head was haloed, as usual, by what resembled the pale, disorderly golden floss some people put on their Christmas trees. Angel hair — she was a tousled, blinking pink-and-gold person, recently emerged from babyhood.
“That’s right,” I said. “It’s not dark out anymore. Good morning.” She flopped back down and remained lying in her bed, even after I folded her white net safety-rail down. “What a beautiful girl,” I said, smiling down at her.
“I can’t get up,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“I can’t get up because I’m dead.”
My heart darted out of my chest, chirping and flapping and shedding feathers like a startled wren but somehow I managed to feign businesslike nonchalance and smile reassuringly. “You’re not dead.” The effects of the terrorist attacks one week ago had filtered all the way down to toddlers far away in Florida.
Well, later that morning, after dropping her at her baby-sitter’s, I stopped at a mini-market at S.E. 9th Street and University Avenue to get a bottle of water. As I pulled up, there was a guy tottering oddly across the sidewalk in front of the market, very tall and skinny, and his long, skinny pink tongue hung out like a dog’s, quivering with each stride. I hoped — no, prayed — that he would not speak to me. He stood in front of me at the counter to purchase a bottle of cheap wine with some very tattered, dirty money. His coins were coated with sand and dirt, and the clerk swept them into a pile then covered them with a napkin as he left the store. I paid for my water. Several middle-aged men stood talking energetically while their lottery tickets printed out.
After paying for the water, I walked to my car and there stood a tall, picturesque man, vibrant and attractive even though missing most of his teeth. He wore a black cap with stars embroidered along the front: three black stars, on a vivid yellow ribbon band. A paler yellow jumpsuit, a long beaded necklace — and long, luxuriant dreadlocks. He wore a couple of rings on his hands, a small silver nose-ring, and a gold earring in his left ear. He was quite handsome, though at the same time I could tell he’d recently been through some very hard times, and probably had been in those bad times for a quite a while.
For a second, I worried, because of the other man, and that man’s obvious level of dissociation with the world (I really had prayed to avoid him), but in a second of observing this man, I knew I was on much more solid ground. I wouldn’t be talking to a total lunatic. He held out to me a book — a Bible — and said he had just seen someone throw it in the trash, and God had told him to get it out and now pass it on to me. I took the book from him, bedraggled and slightly crusted on the cover with God-knows-what. I felt instantly ashamed for worrying what germs might be on the cover of the old, battered Bible, but I forced myself to disregard that, and act untroubled.
During our brief chat, he told me he was a Vietnam veteran. He pulled out a battered leather wallet and showed me his VA Hospital ID, which I knew to be genuine, as I have seen others: his picture was on it, and his name and date of birth. He was born Christmas Day, 1947. I cannot remember his last name, only his first name, Richard, the same as my father’s. I looked at the ID and then back at his face, and what I saw was an honorable man, intelligence shining out through his eyes, but also in his eyes a sadness that probably ran deeper than I could ever imagine. His radiance and his sorrow ran through me like a knife, because of my very-realistic fear we’ll now be in another war – one which will kill many young men and destroy the spirits of many more. I was suddenly and inexplicably paralyzed by grief for him, as a veteran, as a street person, as someone now obviously fairly troubled in life. I saw him as he must have been, all those years ago, young and strong and relatively unscarred, and the breath caught in my chest, seeing him both then and now in the very same instant.
After a few moments, he asked very gently and politely if I had any money I could give him to buy some coffee. I was so happy he asked for something, so I could give him something. Ordinarily, I would give someone in this situation a few dollars, but I gave him $20 — I just wanted to give him something. Nobody can give him back what he lost, and money is a poor substitute for what he lost, but it’s a substitute nonetheless. Money and kindness are all we can really give. He went inside, and I buckled my seatbelt, turned on the car, grabbed the steering wheel, but then sank down over it, clutching it, sobbing for the first time in a long time, not caring in the slightest who saw me or heard me. It felt like a release; I only wish it had gone on longer. He came out with his coffee, saw me hunched over sobbing, and got alarmed — he knocked on my window.
“Are you okay?” he asked. Genuine concern; sincere compassion. I can detect those things in other people from the slightest of nonverbal cues, unguarded genuineness and sincerity are so rare in this world. His sincerity made it better, but also worse at the same time.
“I’m okay,” I choked out between sobs. “It’s just this whole thing.” He didn’t have to ask what I meant, because of course he already knew. The power of these events to affect us has crossed every kind of barrier — sex, race, socioeconomic status, education level, sanity level — we’re all family right now. I rolled down the window and he embraced me. I was grateful for the human compassion, pure and simple. His smell was strong and complicated, some of the notes pleasant, some sour, but oh, so real and human and I drank it in, all of it, the bitter and the sweet, a primal metaphor for this crazy life itself. He asked, tentatively and graciously, could he sit with me a while.
“Yes,” I answered. “Please.”
He started to talk, and I listened, giving him my fullest attention. I bonded with him in a way I’ve never bonded with any stranger in such a short time. I guess we spent about an hour together. Richard, from West Virginia. He is a Vietnam veteran, former Marine, former POW. He talked generally about what he was trained to do in the Marines, but said he didn’t want to tell me anything too specific about his experiences during the war — he said women shouldn’t ever hear such things. We talked about everything there is for human beings to talk about and he read to me from the Psalms and Matthew. So devout, so earnest, he held my hand in his while he read Scripture, ministering to me like a Sister.
In fact, he had been in the past a minister, he said, and from his familiarity with the chapters of the Bible I knew he wasn’t exaggerating. He has two living daughters, now grown, and another daughter who died at age two, just two years ago, from a heart ailment. He has his deceased baby’s name tattooed on his shoulder, plus three scars from cigarette burns — two for each of her birthdays, and a third for the day she died. He cried twice with me, once while talking about her — Zaidyn — and a second time while talking about how his stepfather used to beat his mother, years ago. He told me he still calls his mother “Mommy” when he calls her on the phone.
“Do you think that’s stupid?” he asked. “For a grown man to say, Mommy?”
“Absolutely not,” I answered. “I think it’s wonderful. I think more grown men should.”
He has been barred from our local homeless shelter, St. Francis house, for two years for giving food he obtained there to someone else. It’s a rule there, you’re not supposed to do that, share your rations. What a dehumanizing policy. It’s our basic need, to share. Damn them for that. He lived in Jamaica at some point for five years, his grandfather was born there. One of his grandmothers was a full-blooded Cherokee. He had played conga drums with Bob Marley.
I felt, I think, something like the presence of what human beings call the Divine. Divine love. I comforted him, he comforted me. I gave him another $20, all I had left in my wallet. He blessed me, I blessed him back with all my heart.
He still played conga drums around town. He knew of Ajamu Mutima, another drummer. “Another tall, skinny dude with dreads,” he said, laughing. As Richard and I spoke, I thought often of my father, and my stepmother Dorothy (his African-American wife), and of the rich heritage from Africa we all need to embrace.
He spoke of his lost two-year-old saying to him “I love you, Dada.” As a fellow parent, I knew how precious those words were. His pain at her loss, I felt it palpably, physically.
He knew when to end the interaction, and for that too, I was grateful, as I was overwhelmed and needed to go off and write it all down so I would never forget. Though I didn’t want to break our contact, I somehow understood it had to be broken, because it had been so miraculous, we had gotten so much from each other, we didn’t want anything to detract from the miracle. We didn’t want to descend into ordinariness with each other. He didn’t want it to end, either, but he was gracious enough to know to end it. Restraint can be admirable; sometimes, less is indeed more. But we were both reluctant to leave each other, and when I started the car and put it in reverse, he approached the window one more time. And that, too, was perfect.
Because he asked me, at the end, the question that made it all even more clear, more passionate and more profound. The question that made it, well, I don’t use this word much, but there is no other word to use in English — perfect.
“Did you feel it, too?” he asked me. He looked at me, searching my face with his deep brown eyes, eyes that held the world in that moment. Eyes I wanted to fall into.
I knew precisely what he meant, and I had indeed felt it. He had asked a question I couldn’t even have begun to formulate, so overcome was I with my feelings. “Yes,” I answered. “Yes,” I repeated, nodding to him with absolute recognition, and with that he leaned in and embraced me with joyous intensity for one final moment. I returned his affection as I would return my own child’s, or my mother’s. I am profoundly grateful, and I will never forget him. It’s true, Mystery can manifest in the most unlikely ways. We fell together like long-lost twins, then slowly let each other go. Without saying much of anything but “Did you feel it, too,” and “yes,” we both knew without doubt that he was a noble person with an eternal soul, and so was I, and we had finally found each other for all eternity in a single hour. The force resonating through our bodies was Divine.