I’m not crazy. I’m not lazy or shiftless. I’m old and retired. I know today’s date, the name of the president. I can hold an intelligent conversation with anyone, from the guys at the barbershop to the officials at City Hall. I do it all the time. I don’t have any children. I was married once. I watched my wife die. Cancer took her and left me here, alone. She and I got to enjoy a few of our retired years together before she got sick. We travelled a little. We never ran out of things to talk about. I miss her. I still talk to her when I feel lonely.
I collect a small pension and social security check. I spend most of my time at the library, or sometimes I go to the movies. When I’m not reading or watching movies, I walk through the city. I take my time. I don’t rush. I’m not like everyone else. I don’t have to rush. My days belong to me. I usually stop by the liquor store, grab a soda and take the opportunity to talk to the young guys hanging out in front of the store. They aren’t bad guys. They are just young and foolish. Some are a little discouraged and scared. They are street philosophers. They think they have things figured out. The know every government conspiracy. They know all about women, they games they play and how to beat the ladies at their own game. They know how to hustle and be slick. But, they don’t know a darn thing about life. They don’t know how hard this world can be. Not really. But they give me time. They listen. A few have come back and told me about changes they have made.
They call me Douglass. That’s not my name. My name is Quentin Blackstone. I asked them why they call me Douglass.
“Man, it’s because you always come around here giving speeches about how to get free and stuff. You like that guy Frederick Douglass.” They all laughed. So did I. The name stuck. Everyone in the neighborhood calls me Douglass, now. Even my landlord, the guy that owns the corner store I live over, he calls me Douglass. I think he’s forgotten my real name. But it’s ok. I take it as a compliment.
In the mornings, rain or shine, I stand outside in front of the store and watch the city wake up and start it’s day. I watch parents come to the corner and wait with their kids for the school bus. I don’t say much. Just, ‘hello’ and ‘good morning, how you doing.’ Most people are wary of an old man just hanging around. I know this. I just watch. I notice when the mother’s stopped brining their kids and when the fathers and uncles started dropping them off. It didn’t bother me. I understood they needed to protect the kids. Many of the men started talking to me. They wanted to know my background; where I came from, if I had family, kids. They wanted to know if I had ever been locked up. They even talked to my landlord. One of the guys came straight out and told me he didn’t trust me and was going to check my background. He never told me what he found. I wasn’t worried about it. I knew he would find nothing. But he felt like he accomplished something. I don’t say much. But they came to understand that I was not a threat to them or their kids. When you talk too much, people start forming opinions about what is true about you, or fabricate ideas about what they think you may be hiding.
There was one woman, who lived across the street from the corner store who didn’t trust me any farther than she could fling me. She never said anything to me directly. But I noticed that she didn’t bring her little girl out to the bus stop until the bus was at the corner. She usually sat on her front step with her daughter until the bus came. Then, as the other kids got in the bus, she would walk her daughter across the street and watch her as she climbed on and took her seat. The other parents talked about her, joked about her sheltering het child too much. At some point, they drifted off into who they used to sleep with when they were teenagers and even their current escapades. They laugh about the messes they’ve made of their lives and their kids lives. They don’t envision being my age. They think they are going to be young forever.
After the school bus pulls away, some of the guys leave. A few stick around to talk. They have dreams; big dreams. They think life is better in the suburbs. They talk about the safer neighborhoods, big houses and garages to put their fancy, imaginary cars in. They don’t realize they can’t take their city mentality into the suburbs. That’s like walking into another country and expecting them to change their laws just because you arrived. If you have a downtrodden attitude in the ‘hood, then you will have an even more downtrodden attitude in the ‘burbs. You can’t put new wine in an old skin. When they ask for my input, I tell them as much.
About a month ago, the woman across the street had an argument with her daughter on her front porch. The little girl is about eight years old. All I heard her say was, “I’m not a baby anymore, MOM! I can stand across the street by myself!” She stomped her foot and put her hands on her hips when she said it, too. Then she turned her little, frustrated self around and marched down the steps and across the street to the bus stop. She leaned against the wall right next to me, folded her arms across her chest, huffed, and glared at her mother across the street. Her mother looked stunned and mortified. I took out my newspaper and began examining the letters on the page to avoid looking at the little girl and her mother. The fathers at the bus stop fell silent and watched. The other kids at the bus stop made no move to greet the little girl. They remained in their cluster. Some of the other little girls made comments, trying to sound grown and sensible.
“What’s wrong with her mother? My mom would have slapped my face,” one girl said.
“She was wrong for talking to her mom like that,” said another.
“Y’all just need to mind your business. Trust, her mom will sort it out.”
I continued to read my paper, and pretended I didn’t hear a thing. But I wanted to laugh. All of a sudden, the center of my news paper collapsed under the weight of the woman’s hand. I didn’t even hear when she crossed the street. I looked up, astonished. Her beautiful face was filled with hurt and rage and fear.
“If anything happens to my child, I’m coming for YOU.” She turned her daughter and said, “Go stand over there with those kids and don’t you talk to any of these men.” She turned and scorched every adult on the corner with an angry glare. She marched back across the street, opened her cell phone and sat on her front step, watching me. I had a very bad feeling about who she might be calling.
“Yo, Douglass,” the man who threatened to check my background came over, “We know you ain’t gonna harm these kids. Don’t worry about her. She’ll come around.” I nodded. But I was still in shock over the verbal attack. The school bus pulled up and the children stepped onto the bus one by one. As the bus pulled away, a police car pulled up in front of the house across the street. The men moaned. I shook my head. The officers stopped and talked to the woman. They looked across the street at the gathering of men, and over at me. Then, they walked over to where I sat.
“Hello, sir. The woman across the street has some concerns about your presence at the bus stop. Do you drop off a student here?”
“No,” I said.
“Are you waiting for the city bus?”
“Is there a reason why you sit out here in the mornings?”
“Yes.” The officer looked at me expectantly. The other officer, questioned the other men in similar fashion. But, it seemed that he had one eye on me also.
“Why do you sit out here in the mornings, sir?”
“I live here. Is there something wrong with me sitting outside my door and reading the paper, officer?”
“Well, the lady across the street is concerned that you seem to be hanging around the kids, but you aren’t dropping anyone off. I’m sure you can see how that might make her feel uncomfortable.”
“Well, she came short of accusing me of being a pervert. I’ve never hurt anyone. I’m not that man. I’m doing what I do everyday. I sit outside my home and read the paper. Is that a crime?”
“No, sir. No it’s not. But do you think you could adjust your schedule so you are not in contact with the children?”
Why should I give up my right to sit outside and read my paper? I didn’t bother anyone. While I understood this woman’s concern, I did not want to give up sitting where I wanted sit. I didn’t want to come off as a stalking pedophile either.
“Officer, do you think I could talk to the lady? I think this all a huge misunderstanding.” The officer looked at me thoughtfully, and nodded.
“Let me see if she is willing to talk.” He walked across the street, where she stood with her arms folded, supervising. The officer spoke to her. She looked surprised. She glanced in my direction, then nodded. She and the officer came back across the street. Some of the men left. They didn’t want to be questioned any further about their reason being on the corner after their children were already on the bus. She stood beside the officer, lips pursed, looking smug. I stood up.
“Ma’am,” I started, “I think we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. My name is Mr. Quintin Blackstone. You can call me Douglass. Everybody around here calls me Douglass. I’ve lived here for about a year. I notice you moved in about three months ago. That makes us neighbors. Not enemies. I’m not out to hurt your child, or anybody else’s. As best I can tell, you are a single woman raising her child alone. You want her to be safe and will go to any lengths to protect her. I don’t blame you. If I had children, I would be just as protective. Listen, I just want to enjoy my retirement. Part of my enjoyment is sitting out here in the mornings before I go on a walk. I read my paper, talk with my other neighbors. I sit outside my door, just like you stand outside of yours. We both have that right. We both have the right to be respected and not falsely accused of being criminals, or even potential criminals. You called these officers out of fear, which I understand. But what would have happened if you came over and simply introduced yourself, said hello, maybe? We might have had this discussion without any tension. We would be behaving the way neighbors ought to behave. As much as it will hurt me to do so, I’ll do as you requested. To keep the peace, I won’t sit out here anymore. Enjoy your day ma’am.” I nodded to the officer, folded my rumpled newspaper and went up to my apartment.
One week later, there was a knock at my door. I opened the door to find the woman from across the street holding a carrier with two hot coffees, a bag of pastries and a newspaper.
“Mr. Douglass,” she said, “We got off to a bad start. I’m…I apologize for the way I treated you. I brought some breakfast. Maybe we can sit outside together?” I smiled and nodded my head.
“Sure,” I said, “Let me put on my shoes.”
Copyright 2013 Nike Binger Marshall