Craig in Montana is Right

I haven’t kept my word about moving my online world back to the circus. More importantly, nobody wants to read a blog that starts out whining about not writing a blog. While this tiny ember of hope from the election, and real talk of vaccine development is something, 2020 continues to deliver its unmerciful bludgeoning.

There is this one thing I’m stuck on though, so I might as well get it out there.

I feel like I had this recurrent experience and I’m wondering if anyone can relate to it.

If you aren’t familiar, we had a little cat visit us a few months back. We adopted him and named him “Ronie” and he fit right into our little family. I called him Justin Timberlake, because his charisma was just too powerful to deny.

Anyway, one morning way after we let our guard down, Ronie went out in the morning and never came back. It sucks.

So this other event is connected to Ronie disappearing, and it’s this guy Noah.

We met him at our local low dollar golf course, the venerable Jake Gaither aka “The Jake.” Three of us were playing, and as usual it was all backed up and everyone was struggling to get any rhythm going. There was a single dude behind us, and someone suggested we should invite him to join us and do the right thing to tighten up the pace of play. Well, myself and one buddy said, nah, fuck that guy. Let’s just keep going, but then Paul, a real golfer and a gentleman, chastened us and we acquiesced to the invitation.

You see where this is going probably. Noah turns out to be this solid dude. Very Ronie-like in personality. Just a guy from Peoria, Illinois, which is a town name that really lends itself phonically to good story-telling. So Noah has this mighty swing that wooshes by like a freight train, and lord jesus when it connects it is a real thing to see. He’s got the golf jones real bad too, which is contagious, so after a round full of highlight shots from all of us we trade numbers and just like that Noah is in the crew.

This crusty crew does not excel at making new friends, and then just like Ronie, Noah waltzes right in like a breath of fresh air.
Then he left, just like Ronie. Tallahassee didn’t work out for him. Not this time. He’s back in Peoria hanging out on a real goat farm instead of our pretend one at the Jake.

I think this pandemic, and misery in general, creates a lot of movement. As the situation changes, anyone on a margin or edge, is bound to get disrupted and seek a new equilibrium. Until it’s your turn, others will rebound and ricochet off of you in search of that new level ground.

That’s what I think.



I drew this picture while spending some time at the local youth shelter, my old alma mater. I’m sitting with two of the nicest kids, and a staff person. She gets out the big box of art supplies and we all set out to draw something. I’ve got Ronie on my mind, and I’m thinking about how sad Melissa is so I start drawing this picture you see. About half-way through, this twelve year-old boy asks me what it is. I tell him it’s a cat. He says, it looks like an owl. He sees I am crestfallen, and quickly encourages me, “It looks like a cat too.” I ask him what he thinks I can do to fix it. He tells me, “Just keep making it look more like a cat.” He shrugs his shoulders unaware of his genius and returns to his mastery of illustrating anime hair. His advice got the above result.

I’m going to resist the urge to point out the obvious lesson in the homily, but it ain’t easy.


Revenge of the Herd

The cattle were lowing in the valley below
dark water was rising, they’d nowhere to go
On the wind did their song fly
of hardship and woe
but no ears did hear it
in the valley below

But the cattle weren’t fearful
The cattle weren’t weak
Together they swam
through the storms raging peak

One by one they did climb
back onto dry land
and set out for revenge
on the lazy cowhand

They found him sleeping
wrapped in his poncho
head swaddled in dreams
Came they creeping on hooves
wading up through the stream

He woke as a bull’s steamy breath
crossed his cheek
A herd set for murder
He dove for the creek

The ranch hand now gone
there was nothing to stop
the herd from marching
to finish the job

As the sun slowly rose
on the grand hacienda
The cattle were charging
in triumphant splendor


Monday, October 5, was the birthday of Stetson Kennedy. I thought to honor him by rushing over here and sharing my appreciation, but then I realized absent from social media there is less urgency to get my thoughts and opinions out there. Before I get into the life and work of Stetson Kennedy, let’s check in about the exodus. Melissa asked me how it felt to be off of social media. The overwhelming emotion is relief, like exiting Interstate 65 between Montgomery and Birmingham and just taking U.S. 31 up to Pea Ridge and enjoying the slower pace. My days are longer, and a single thread of thought can develop and grow throughout the day. The books on the shelf are no longer anachronistic decor, but voices whispering to me from faraway places and moments in time. Their pages do not blink with advertising or the knee-jerk opinions of unqualified dolts and bores. “HOLDEN NEEDS TO STOP WHINING AND GET BACK IN SCHOOL, ANNOYING, DO NOT RECOMMEND.”

So if you are wondering what it might feel like, there is nothing to fear. You will feel like yourself, except more so.

Now, William Stetson Kennedy. I searched my site for references to him, and he has a feature in the Clydesdale Hall of Fame, and some cameos in other posts. As a writer he is able, striving for clarity and function over literary device. A social activist born during the first world war, he died mere months before American troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011. I met him just a month before he died.

He was 95 years-old, and the feature act of an art show titled The American Dream. He was gracious with his time, and at least two-hundred of us clustered around him sitting on the floor, or craning our necks to see. A month later, he died.

His books, The Klan Unmasked, and Southern Exposure, are seminal works of the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century. Do they matter now?

As a white man, looking to not make matters worse, or enjoy the mantle of privilege without the responsibility to use it subversively, Stetson is a role model. There are many, many others. James Reeb, John Brown, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and Charles Moore. They all died for the cause of racial equality. Martyrdom is not a requirement though, to apply one’s white skin to the purpose of liberating darker skin. Senator Doug Jones, from Alabama, who sent murderers Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry to prison for the rest of their lives for the murder of children at the 16th Ave. Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL is a living example.

It’s great to admire Medgar Evers, Nelson Mandela, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. I consider it my personal responsibility to defend Rev. Al Sharpton from his moronic detractors, teeth full of bread, necks shiny from grease, as their spittle-soaked recitation of stereotypes and urban legend land on screen or pavement.

Those leaders are not our role models though, as honkies and cracker-ass-crackers. We have plenty of examples who look just like us, and we would do best to learn their stories, and aspire to their ranks.



I asked Melissa to hold my hand while I did it because it feels like a betrayal. The greatest fun that Facebook offered was documenting ourselves being happy together, mostly with food, drink, and animals. We recorded countless road trips to Pea Ridge, AL, Savannah, GA, back home to Walker County, and stopovers in Birmingham. That photo of a black and white striped King snake in Joshua Tree and the fantastical landscape of Noah Purifoy’s outdoor museum, I can close my eyes and see them. It is odd though. A thousand or more photographs, but none to hang on the wall, or tuck into a wallet. They are just out there, owned by a corporation, and indiscriminately cluttered with photographs that are without purpose or meaning. Of course she still has all of these memories online, and she is the better photographer because I will readily admit as she puts it, I never “wipe off the hole.” I downloaded the entire contents of my recorded life on Facebook, but the message said it could take a while to get me the file, and ultimately I did not wait for it.

We held hands and I clicked, “delete my account.” The irony is that even still, it is not gone. I am granted 30 days to reconsider, whether I need it or not. I can return without consequence at any time during that period. It doesn’t matter. It’s over.

In these last 48 hours on social media, I really lived it up. There was no time to say proper goodbyes to so many people I value, some whom I may truly lose forever. In that way it is like a death, and like death, it must be accepted.

I tried to listen to the chorus of my better angels, but I put my fingers in my ears to tell someone that reading his political thoughts was like watching a dog eat its own poop. That felt great, probably like that sweet, hot toke on the meth pipe feels great. The comedown is a real son of a bitch, but the ride up is worth it for a while.

Anyway, I do not intend to write about social media ad nauseum. Quite the opposite, I want to gently close that book and put it on the shelf. It is too soon, and I am too close to it to understand what I have done, and what will be different. Time is sometimes called the 4th dimension, and that is the one that grants the best perspective. We shall see.


Exodus: The Final Chapter

How fitting, on this, my last day on social media, to be writing about exits. A departure far more significant is happening today than mine from Facebook.

30 years ago I hit the road for Spring Break as many college students do. I wasn’t going to Ft. Lauderdale, or Panama City Beach, but to Plymouth, WI, hometown of a new friend I’d met at Food Glorious Food, where I worked. The trip itself is quite a story. We left town in a Mazda and arrived in Wisconsin in a Saab, but that’s not germane to my point here. During our week in the Middle Western region I met another friend, who quickly joined us in Tallahassee. Since he arrived at 247 Lipona Dr. in a red Nissan Pulsar, we’ve been inseparable with a few exceptions. We’ve lived together in four houses, been neighbors five times, across three states: Florida, Montana, and Oregon. We both spent time with the first friend I mentioned, and other brothers, in Bosnia, although never together. I was passing through, he stayed quite a while.

I detoured to the Gulf coast, and upstate New York without him. He set up camp in Gainesville, and rural Marion county for a time. Other than these brief solo sorties Joey has been right there, so close I can reach out and put my hand on him, which I’ve needed to do more times than I can count.

Last night we broke protocol and hugged in his driveway, where he’s lived a mile away for close to 10 years. He, and his good and able companion, Paige, are off to North Carolina, to live in the mountains.

I’ve been thinking about friendship, and writing about it, for even longer than I’ve known Joey. Saying goodbye to friends is so hard. I’ve been lucky enough to experience that sense of loss more times than I can count. Learning Spanish, I was delighted to realize one day that the expression, “I miss you”, is so much better said in español. It more literally translates, “I am less you” or “I am minus you.” Let me tell y’all, I am very minus Joey.

What I hang onto, what holds me together, is an idea I’ve honed all my life; that we live many lives simultaneously through the lives of those we love. I am here in Tallahassee, doing non-profit work from home. Sometimes I ride my bike. I am also a plumber in Montana, a rock star in Portland, a data specialist in Orlando, a cartographer in North Carolina (soon), a paramedic in the Adirondacks, a bon vivant on the shores of Lake Ontario, a senior strategist at the Gates Foundation, and a horse trainer in Reddick. I’m a school teacher in Lee County, and I own some Melting Pots in DC. I lived in Singapore for a while, and I am an award winner photographer in NYC two times over. I save lives every day in heart surgery. I never came back from Bosnia, and I have many cherished children. I am a farmer and a librarian. I teach tolerance and humility in Colorado. I’ve saved countless children in countless places. I am an artist in the low country of Georgia, a scratch golfer and a stone cold pro of a drummer twice over. I have a little dog named Winter. I sell restaurant equipment and shred a Fender Strat or a Gibson SG. I am a nurse, brave and capable in a pandemic. I make ceramic totems for peace and kindness. I am the greatest wedding cake artist from the mountains to the deep blue sea. I’ve climbed the peak of the Grand Tetons, and wisely bailed on Aconcagua. I’ve made beautiful works of glass and read 10,000 books. I know Charles Mingus’ oeuvre by heart.

Those are just a few of the lives I live.

So yes, things are changing, which is all things ever do. Wherever you are today, and whatever you’re doing? I am there, and I do that too.


Exodus part one: The banned and the banished

Exodus part one: The banned and the banished

Here, encased in an amber of shame, are the 102 people I blocked in my time on Facebook.

Thomas Croom Ed Smythe Debbie Mealus Robin Springer Deena Jones Garry Batto William Hayden
Jason Berks Pat Newman Jay A Smith Dalton Dollarhide T.j. Newsom Jean Ashley Crawford J.D. Kristoff Alex Kolkena Rose Craig Fran Anne Greg Johnson Robert Hill Joe Bene Diana Frankfurter Mike Boz Scott Kuli Gary Howard Georgiano King Debbie Josi Anne Johnson Dawn Ganey Matt Biddington James Bugsy Balderrama Barry Kidd Arika Lauren Michael Sherbert Bill Nichols Rick Pfeifer Jonathan Hilton Thomas Oliver Kopian Carolina Corpus Richard Harkins Mark J. Shipley Martin Jacobs Joe Soukup Joe Hudson Vicki Coke Randy Berkland Roberta Martinez Michael Brooks Tracy Seifert Yanni Kratsas Regina Daniel Lisa Ness Kevin Thiem Brett Knower Caden Barber Mike Yates
Norman Duffell Bob Le Bras William J R Hall Randy Brown Tracie Rsu Wayne Kemper Marilu Winn Clifton
Dave Almquist Jeremy Hintz Kathy Lorenzo Steven Pope Rick Ogilvie Sanford Schwartz Cletus Rambuncticus Robert Weigel Sarah Dewberry Robinson Robert E L Bowman Kent Goodwin James Lindsey Daniel Fyffe Margo Carmichael Tom Abell Tonya Olson Otterness Lonnie Mark Hall Matthew Borman Michael Pendergast Jr. Alexandra William
Dennis Irwin Rusty Harris Levi Calvert Eric Mocker George Miller Dave Walker Michael Oluwadarasimi
James Murphy Brian Hobbs Lourdes Hernandez Lynn Tramel Tom Hoover Cee J Hazen Ibrahim Quyum Mickey Warhola Ann Pollak Beth Brockhoff Shelia G Matheny Jack Milton Robbie Jax William Hayden Tyler Hayes Riechman Hubert Woodard Shawn McKellop Daniel Ros Peggy Maynard Mark Wilson J.D. Kristoff

A few are cherished grudges that I take down off the shelf and polish like old bowling trophies. Most though, are random persons or not persons at all, but programs that emulate people. Horrible people. A few are relatives of yours, not mine. What they all share in common with only one exception, is that without Facebook, I would never have encountered them.
Sure you can say I am thin-skinned, unwilling to hear opinions different than my own. You would be right about that. I do not want to encounter, as William Butler Yeats said,
…somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
I do not recall signing up to engage in futile slogan-slinging with the impacted tarry stool of the internet, yet they seem to be everywhere, or I am unable to protect my borders enough to only have my personal photographs and pithy comments exploited. The hard truth that I am ashamed to admit, but must own to be free, is I’ve hardly read a book or written a thought of my own since I discovered this dark mirror that only tells me I’m pretty no matter my wart-riddled, ruddy complexion.

For all that it takes away, it has also given me so much. Without it I would not be reunited with my first and always love, Melissa. For that alone, I can agree to disagree with Mr. Zuckerburg,and not go away mad, but instead just go away maybe for a while, or maybe forever.

For now though, in this final week of engagement, this data cow is going to kick down the fence and free the moron brigade. That’s right. I am unblocking them one and all, and I trust they will each meet a deserving fate, as will I.


Keep Totin’

It is the routine you hate, and it is the routine that will save you. It struck me walking into my local market. It is small, and we almost lost it entirely last year. How would we eat without it? There is already food in the house. I can cook anything with anything. Bag of cole slaw, 4 eggs, packet of McCormick’s brown gravy mix? Egg Fu Yong.

We live by heat index in summer. Actual temperature is a launch pad. 93 today established the baseline for a misery velocity of 102. It is, as we say, close.

Why am I at this market then? Why am I out here dabbling in risk, in conditions that only remind me how many more of these days we have to endure until rumors of fall begin when the dew point and the current temperature drift apart?

I feel safe here. I have since the first day I returned wild-eyed from Detroit like a street-corner prophet ranting about the coming plague. It was worse there first, and now it is worse everywhere equally.

I pick up some summer squash, 2 heirlooms dripping. I have friends who work here, but as a customer I think of them all like that. It occurs to me I come here almost every afternoon because it is deeply grounding. They try to out-nice me, but I have been alone, physically, all day and my niceness is welling up and oozing like the tomatoes.

Do I want to round up for charity today? They ask. Do I want to round up for charity today? Do you want to feel a shiver in November and pull on a wool sweater you stole (He knew of course) from your grandfather’s closet the last time you saw him, smelling of tung oil?

I talk to them the whole time they ring me up. They must get this all day. The weather. Who will win the helicopter ride. Things to do with burdock root. Anything. Every word is a coded message passing coins of pain and threads of fear that we share when we see someone eye to eye.

I wish them a nice day and within it is a surge of hope, gratitude, encouragement, a hearty clap on the shoulder to say if I must die I die with you my friend on the battlefield of common decency and the courage of the trench-digger, not the rushing bayonets. It probably just sounds like have a nice day to them, but when they say it to me it I load it with everything I need to keep digging.

The routine is so familiar you may not see it for what it is. Shining shield of silver. Oaken ramparts. Stiletto in your boot. Trojan Horse you hide within shoulder to shoulder with your lean legionnaires awaiting darkness and a storm from the east to cover your attack.

It feels like madness, but it is the opposite of madness. Madness is deciding after one hundred and sixty-eight days of survival that one-hundred and sixty-nine is too many so you bolt for daylight clawing out of the trench and run screaming headlong into the relief and certainty of quitting.

Don’t you do it. The routine is working.


These Days

I am no fan of baseball. I did not play little league, or round up the neighborhood lads for a pick-up game as a child. The briefest thought of attending some endless contest abbreviated by trips to the mound by some shuffling manager to mumble into his hat while the pitcher nods like a bobber is enough to send me into narcoleptic shivers.

So long ago we were in Savannah, sharing pizza on the square, strike squads of drunken bachelorettes marauding through the front lines of industrious hustlers looking to cop a cigarette, dollar, or drink for a palmetto rose. It is a spring wedding on a Monday morning. I’m swirling the ice in a greyhound, hugging the grooms-people and bride-persons smiling over a shoulder at a knockout brunette. She is my wife and to watch us you would think all we do is attend the events of the season and show strangers photographs of our apricot poodle.

Now I am on a plane to Detroit. My eleven-year old best friend and I on an adventure. It is her first flight, and my first flight responsible for a child. She is excited and I am nervous. She charms the TSA agent, the flight attendants, and our somewhat milquetoast seatmate from Ohio. Oh she is really something, showing no mercy disarming all she encounters like she is dizzying pheasants and gently laying them on the mulchy cool ground.

That night I lay back on a creaky futon,victorious, while she and her dad execute the Country Pretzel in a living room of temporary housing.

The next morning the world stops. A sickness envelopes the land, everywhere. Savannah, GA is sick. Detroit, MI is sick. New Delhi, Sao Paulo, Moscow, and Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska are sick, sick, sick. We walk empty streets and get the best table in every restaurant. We sit in the apartment watching the news. I surreptitiously reserve a car in case the airlines shut down. Escape from Detroit by any means necessary.

The airlines do not close, but they may as well do so. We fly down I-94 in a black Excursion. Our driver says not in 30 years has he seen the roads so empty at this hour. I pay him sixty dollars and tip him another twenty. Competence is cherished in dangerous times. “Bil-tawfiq” he says as he hands us our luggage. “What does that mean?” whispers the eleven year-old. “It is Arabic for listen to your uncle very carefully today and do not touch your face.”

The next two weeks every day is Monday morning or Saturday night. I convince myself I feel the virus niggling at my mind, or is that my chest? I wake up sweating, but it is only anxiety and I wipe my face with a cold, damp washcloth, staring at the mirror, asking the face in front of me if I will get it. Do I have it? Two weeks go by without incident or symptom. The clock starts over at the grocery store, when I went to my mother’s house, Walgreens,-restart the clock, the gas station, -re-start the clock. I am even now only six days into a fresh two weeks because a friend touched my door knob and entered my house in search of alcohol. A mistake akin to lighting a cigarette in the trench at night, punishable by death, but whose?

Every evening is the same. The leash, the collar, the lush green trail, then the park. We walk as long as the dog wishes. I carry a beer in my hand, another in my back pocket. These walks are celebrations. Every one we take is a defiant stand against the disease. We are fine. We will be fine.

Due to my disdain for the game, I am caught off-guard when the ping of an aluminum bat shanking a foul over the fence into the playground catches in my throat. Ping! Again. Ping! Again. A father, round as a bowling ball, is lobbing balls in with finesse, and his son swings a split-second too late, over and over, sending ball after ball over the side fence. We stop on the sidewalk across the street and watch. I want this for them both so badly it is ridiculous. I wipe tears away to focus on that point of contact, bat to ball. They pause. Dad summons the batter to the mound and he murmurs. His son nods along, bill of his cap poking to the ground like an Egret spearing fish. Back at home plate the bat comes to his shoulder. I notice his father’s fingers fanning out just so as he releases the ball and then ping, the ball is stinging low and straight beyond dad’s reach and landing between second and center field. I’m clapping and cheering, they pause confused. Dad raises his mitt or glove in a mild salute, not necessarily appreciating my fervor. I can’t help it though. I am now a fan of everything.


Just Outside the Frame

We went to a parade on Saturday morning, for military veterans, which would draw him like a wise man to Bethlehem. We walked from our home on Redberry Farm through the neighborhood of Woodland Heights into Cascade park. I had him on my mind, and I would name him here, but I fear I have no right to do so– the boy that would sleep in the woods, and the man on the go loping across Tallahassee knapsack unraveling, weighing down like a sack of wet cotton. From the park we climbed the bank of the highway onto the shoulder then the sidewalk, police officers already stationed to block the traffic below the Capitol. Just the other side of the road is the hotel where he used to sleep– not in it, but behind it by the retention pond where the big red buses idle in the night. That’s where he was staying right before I started solving problems he didn’t have, me the one unable to bear him being homeless, which he told me time and again was a bargain price to pay for intellectual freedom and a currency of time and self-determination I could never understand.

We set up on the corner, sunshine dripping on this caramel apple of a day, citizens lining themselves along the route with folding chairs, cotton candy, and strollers. A woman selling boiled peanuts and water from a cooler in a wagon caught my attention and I swear I saw him slip behind her. Cold needles ran down my arms and legs, sweat beading on my scalp, knowing it could actually be him, as this whole long year I’ve yet to find the evidence he died. It could also be his ghost, which will surely haunt me to my own deathbed, and if I see anyone waiting across the gauzy haze it will likely be him.

I follow him with my eyes until I see in profile it is not him at all, but one certainly of his kind– sliding through the crowded downtown absorbing all around him with a curious bespectacled eye. He loved Tallahassee, or he loves Tallahassee, and Tallahassee loved and loves him too. When I learned of his death, rumored to have occurred on a bridge in Mobile, AL I searched all combinations of “bridge” “John Doe” “Black Male” “Suicide” and I still do, and still I find nothing. The trail cools quick and we must accept it.

When someone precious is lost, and we all of us are precious, I swear to my own heart I will build a towering monument of fire to the heavens in their honor, commit countless acts of noble grace in their name, devote my dwindling days to guaranteeing they will not be forgotten– then,the dream deferred, explodes; and the falling ash frosts my lashes as guilt and regret, because the thing you want to do can’t be done. There is not enough time. Not enough me. The person is actually, and matter-of-factly, gone.

Others out there remember too, but there is no social club for mourning, no projections of the deceased’s face on the clouds across the sky, no tattoo or car window decal in memoriam. Somewhere around town there must be others who still see him too? Head down in a pained posture as he perseverates on the collapse of our civic institutions, striding like a knight through Frenchtown towards the library and anywhere else a prince remains welcome in his kingdom that forgot him.

I Shall Sleep in the Woods

He was eleven or twelve years-old when his caseworker dropped him off at the shelter. That is what we call the people who we pay, barely, to stand in for the missing parents who would otherwise tend to the menial needs of their children. These children are cases, and someone must work them.

“I shall sleep in the woods” he told me, his chin imperiously lifted as high as he could, deigning to deny this nightmare of humiliation. His caseworker went inside the shelter to sign his intake paperwork while we stood in the dusk of evening at impasse.

“What will you eat?”

“I will forage for edible plants and roots.”

“How will you stay warm?”

“I will build a shelter and insulate my clothes with leaves.”

He squinted at the trees bordering the parking lot. He wouldn’t get glasses for many months yet. Caseworkers have more than one case, more like forty at a time, and all of the unclaimed children must be worked according to the most acute need of the given day. The paperwork for acquiring prescription glasses for a ward of the state is daunting, and hard to accomplish on the dashboard of a car.

“What should I do?” I ask the boss.

“Let him go to the woods of course. He will get hungry eventually and come inside. It has to be his choice”

He sits in the woods, cross-legged, scooping leaf litter and pine needles up against his legs and busying himself with close inspection of the flora for potential sustenance. I sit with him, uninvited and unwelcome, and try to appeal to reason. There is nothing to be done about his situation today, and why not come inside and eat dinner, take a shower, and watch a movie with the other kids? He explains to me very slowly, as though I am not very bright and he must simplify his words so I can understand their meaning– “I did not ask to come here.” A co-worker brings us each a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some kool-aid. I eat mine. He does not acknowledge his at all.

It got dark. I don’t remember when he decided to come inside, but he did, and confirming his worst fears, he stayed with us for a long time.

He introduced me to the the poem Mother to Son, by Langston Hughes. He had copied it word for word on notebook paper and he carried it, and many other things, in a backpack bursting with words and ragged at the seams. I bring him my 1935 Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, one of my most treasured possessions, and tell him he can keep it as long as he stays at the shelter. He tries to refuse it, reminding me that the place is full of filthy children who do not know how to act right. Undisciplined and driven by pop culture and hormones, they have no respect for other people’s things. I tell him I don’t care and he wraps it in a plastic garbage bag and hides it far back under his bed when he is not using it.

Maya Angelou came to town, and by virtue of being in social services, we get tickets. He, another resident, one of the few he could tolerate, and myself.

We sit in the balcony at Ruby Diamond auditorium on the campus of Florida State University, in Tallahassee, Florida. When Maya takes the stage the formal theater erupts in applause, but rising above the clapping is his hooting and shouting. His smile so wide with joy I thought the top of his head would fall off. He points at her, raises his hands to the ceiling, testifying all the while shouting, “You go Miss Angelou!” I am shocked. I have never seen him act like this, without reserve. The people around us all smile, supportive of this young, gangly black boy losing his cool over an elderly poet. Below us, in the spotlight at center stage, hearing the cheers of children, she looks up at us with her own huge smile and she bows low. This stands as one of my greatest memories in this life. After the performance, we wait with a throng outside to watch her exit the theater to her waiting limousine. A security perimeter is established and when Ms. Angelou appears the crowd breaks out in a quiet, subdued applause.

Movement flashes in the corner of my vision and then the other young lady in my company is at the door of the limo, leaning in, and a police officer is scrambling to catch up when he stops in his tracks, at a word from inside the car. My young ward and I watch aghast, as our audacious companion receives a hug and a few whispered blessings from this icon. Later, when we beg her to tell us what was said, she says, “I can’t. It was just something between black girls.”

Years go by.

I see him around town from time to time, always on the move, always with that over-stuffed back-pack. He is a writer now, and an autodidact of the highest order. Politics, jazz, literature, he has pieces underway on all fronts, but he is hard-pressed to finish anything he says, because he is so swept away with David Mcullough’s biography of John Adams that all he wants to do is finish reading it. I ask him where he is staying and he is evasive.

He shows up at my door unexpected. I’m not sure how me found me. My profession is expected to draw firm lines between professional and personal boundaries and this is clearly one of those times. He is now 25, and I have not worked a shift in a shelter in 8 years, and anyway what would you do? He is coughing with a deep rattle in his chest, and his face is ashen. I bring him inside, self-conscious of my personal space, but it is cold and wet outside and there is just no other option. I issue him a towel, soap, wash cloth and harangue him to go clean up while I find him some clean clothes and heat up some food. It’s like we are back in the shelter, which for me are such good memories. He does not want help, but he does need it. He spends a few days on the couch, going to the library during the day while I work. He gets better. I explain that he probably needs to work on a permanent living situation. He apologizes for the intrusion, I say “No, no, no it’s not like that.” It’s too late, I have offended his delicate pride. Again. This is a recurring mistake on my part.

Years go by

He works at Wal-mart as an overnight stock supervisor. He loves it. He has an apartment. We bump into each other and chat about local politics. He arrived at the shelter a child, but with a fully mature belief in the principles of small government and conservative values. He is enthusiastic about the campaign of a local journalist aspiring to a county commission seat. He spends most of his free time volunteering to help her win, which she does. I see him the night of her victory party and it is November, and cold, and he tells me he has lost his apartment until he can pay some back rent. I bring him home, but by now I am married. My wife has met him, and shares the same affection for this eccentric, absolutely bafflingly original person that I do. It is no trouble to have him at the house except we have a new dog who barks relentlessly, and our place is a shoebox, so he recuperates for a few days and then he is off again, because we can’t just move him in of course, not that he would accept the offer anyway.

Years go by

He leaves Tallahassee. He is not well, and he believes I am conspiring against him through secret chat boards, in league with his arch-nemesis at Wal-mart. I correspond with him by email, pleading with him to know that this is not true. He is scathing in his condemnation of my own faux-intellectual posturing, my adherence to charitable largess that only serves to keep people beholden to a state that does not have their best interest heart, a state that is not satisfied with just keeping him down, but that is in actuality designed to destroy him. Due to his towering intellect and bottomless pain, he is ruthlessly accurate and specific in his assessment of my abilities as a writer, a social worker, a man, and a human being.

I remember my training from working at the shelter. Spring-loaded front teeth was our creed, a metaphor for absorbing the verbal attacks and the ugliness that comes from children who understand that their footing in the world is slipping beneath them, and therefore those of us whom they meet as they fall are by definition bad. It’s true. The best youth crisis shelter in the world is a horrible place for any child to find themselves. They can knock our teeth in, but our teeth are spring-loaded, and pop right back out. I mourn the loss of our friendship, but I understand that is irrelevant now. He is in trouble, and as ever, he does not want help.

I heard that he left for Atlanta, and was living downtown in the Sweet Auburn area. I take that to mean he is homeless. He was never afraid of being homeless. He accepted it as a necessary sacrifice to pursue his independent studies, to be beholden to no person, to answer only to the self.

And now I learn that he is dead. Gone. I don’t know what happened. I hear he was last residing in New Orleans, which for him must surely have been heaven, and equally hell. It doesn’t matter where he was, or how he died, not much anyway.

What matters is that we failed him.

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Langston Hughes