Friday, March 30, 2007

The Guild of St. Jude or The Men of Hopeless Causes

He was across the hall when I moved into my apartment, a black man in his seventies at the time. I'll never forget our first conversation, but that's coming up.

Being reared in the country I learned at a very early age that it didn't matter if you knew the farmer on the tractor, the boys on the hay wagon, the driver of the pick up truck or the woman in the car, you waved at them. To fail to do so was considered rude in our household. I recall seeing my father at work in the yard when he would throw his hand up in the air and wave at a non existent vehicle, “passing by” in an effort to make up for the ones that he had missed, that's what he claimed to be doing any way. When we went to town we spoke to folks, many our neighbors, old school chums and most certainly a nod to folks we didn't really know, we didn't take a chance at offending someone by failing to be friendly. It was in these situations that I come to learn the true meaning of community. If you were friendly in cases of simple greetings then there was every chance that you were going to be a good neighbor too. Putting up an errant cow that found the only place in the fence that was down, helping to push a car out of a snow bank, an offer to help when there was illness, extensions of sympathy in a covered dish was practiced where I grew up.. This is how I was raised, and I have no regrets for it.

That being said, my first conversation with Mr. Miller was at the mailboxes in our apartment building and it went something like this: I simply said hello to him and inquired about his health, safe subjects generally. (Mr. Miller, by the way is never referred to by his Christian name, Robert, it is always Mr. Miller, not because he says so, but because we say so.) His response to my greeting seemed odd to me, but honest and I have a tremendous respect for straight forward honesty. Mr. Miller said, “I don't take well to people and they don't take well to me.” Since that day, nearly eleven years ago I have made it my personal policy to see that I was friendly, not intrusive, but neighborly, living up to the code that I was raised by.

The forecast on that January morning was for a dusting of snow. When I left for work that day, I could see where it would be just a dusting, but as the day went on, dusting became six inches with some ice to boot. Three o'clock in the afternoon and it was nasty with a capitol N. True to my rural upbringing I phoned Mr. Miller, “Mr. Miller, this is Don Bryant, I live across the hall from you.”

“How did you get my number?” he asked in a tone of voice between annoyed and cynical.
“You're in the phone book,” I replied.
"How did you know you had the right Miller?”
“Your address is the same as mine.” I didn't chuckle out loud, but I saw humor in it, he wasn't seeing the humor. “Mr. Miller, I'm stopping at the grocery on the way home I need a few things, I was wondering if I could get you anything?”
I believe they call it a pregnant pause, a very vacant space followed my question. “I could use a loaf of the cheapest white bread they have on the shelf.”
“Consider it yours,” I told him.

From there on in we have been cordial neighbors, passing brief pleasantries in the hall or on the front stoop.

Last summer the front stoop came into its own. Mr. Miller would often sit on the stoop and he engaged in conversation with several other gentlemen tenants, it was one of the first times in the 11 years that I have lived here that I felt that I was part of a community, I was proud that I was invited to join in the conversations which ranged from politics, movies, (the man knows his Oscar winners, even the obscure ones,) medicine, the current condition of the neighborhood and the world, cooking tips and there were comments on the beauty of the “humanity” that passed us. I got to hear tales of what it was like on Indiana Avenue in the late fifties and early sixties when he would take his wife out for a little stroll on the Avenue. (The man knows his music too.)

Yet by Mr. Miller's choice, not everyone was welcome to just step up and toss in their two cents worth, and passers by and fellow residents seem to know it and took no offense by it. In fact there was nearly a sense of being in the presence of someone great, someone who was due this kind of respect. Frankly, I think he is.

One evening it was just the two of us and we had a wonderful discussion on the merits of pie. Chess pie was what started it off. He shared this tidbit, “black folks don't go so much for pumpkin, we make sweet potato.” I chuckled, he asked what was so funny, I told him, “you're a lot smarter for doing so, pumpkin takes too much work to prepare to make pie out of, sweet potatoes are a lot easier. Not nearly as much work involved.” He told me that he was surprised that I knew that pumpkin didn't grow in the can.

I learned during our front stoop visits that he didn't like the term African American. He told me, I'm an American, my skin color has nothing to do with that. I served in the Navy, I answered the call of my country to defend it. And besides, who do these people think they're kidding, they couldn't tell you the last person in their family who came here from the African shores. They need to get over it and move on and be glad that they are here.”

The men who gathered on the stoop last summer were dubbed The Guild of St. Jude by a self proclaimed, “Mackerel Snapper.” The Guild of St. Jude or the men of hopeless causes. It seemed a title aptly applied.

At 81 years old Mr. Miller has taken ill. Recently hospitalized there was a buzz amongst the guild trying to figure out what his illness entailed, was he in the hospital because his diabetes acted up? Maybe a TIA, did his knee lock up and he fell? Every notion was entertained. We learned that he has brain cancer, that was how it was told to us anyway and I believe that any of us could have been taken out with a feather. That's twice in the last year that I've been introduced to the true meaning of shock.

Now, I feel more than ever that what I first called, “The Front Stoop Menses Society,” was more appropriately named The Guild of St Jude. I don't say this because I believe that Mr. Miller is in a hopeless condition, but the rest of the guild feels that way, we feel that we are the ones in a hopeless condition, not him. We are the hopeless ones. We feel like our leader has left us, or that's how I feel. I feel like the hopelessness might be better described as helplessness, I think we are all feeling it. What can we do, what can I do? Yesterday after learning the diagnosis I closed the door to my apartment and tears ran down my face. I'm truly a member now of The Guild of St. Jude.

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