No Place Like Home
‘Honey I’m Home,’ he would yell with a smile on his face and then continued, “I always wanted to say that.” For the six months he lived at Phoenix Place, a home for persons living with AIDS; this would be how Harold came home. Harold was a proud ex-Marine. He had served his country. He was a small man but he had that erect posture learned and had polite mannerisms mastered through the crucible of basic training at Parris Island, one of two boot camps for Marines in the nation.
He had been the hometown hero of his small town in South Carolina. He grew up in a black community where most never made it out of the oppressive racist town that was caught in an age that most thought America had left behind. But he was the example of a black man whom teachers, family, and neighbors talked about as a light that a better day was coming. His mother would beam with pride every time he came home for family gatherings. He would, as his busy life permitted, lead volunteer efforts to support the neighborhood. Harold was small but his aura would fill any room he was in. His only flaw: he was too chatty. He could talk your ear off as, they are want to say. He had stories, mostly unbelievable, but they were worth listening to. Everyone liked the bubbly personality of Harold until the chatty would wear you out.
Sometimes in the early mornings before anyone was awake and it was only him, he was silent. He did not like the silence because it was in those moments when the guilt and disappointment would corner him and leave him no room to escape. He was no longer the hometown hero; he was the man with AIDS. His mother had cried and told him he was a disappointment. She did not say it but he knew she preferred him not to be around. His brothers and sisters did not look up to him anymore but looked at him confused. The man who had showed his small hometown of how to pull yourself up by the bootstraps saw him now as one more black man lost to the ravages of a white world. Then the day for others would start and he would lift the spirits around him and plot how to give back to Phoenix Place.
He was one of our best representatives. He would make even the staff believe in what we were doing. He was an encourager and you could see he was a natural born leader. But he also, I suppose, learned from his Marine Corps days to follow. He would do anything I asked without hesitation because I was the man in charge and he always followed the chain of command. Some mornings he would enter my office mockingly, standing ramrod straight, and salute me and ask for his duties for the day. He was the one man esprit de corps of the house. He was a man’s man but he was also a fluffy pillow. The fluffy pillow endeared him to the women of the house.
It was easy to see how he could be seen [you have used 2 versions of same verb see and seen] as a hometown hero, because he was heroic. He had his demons but only the few and the chosen ever saw them. He inspired and encouraged everyone he knew, for any length of time, to be a little bit better. He never judged, as he had been by his hometown. He strived to be the best man he could be.
I was scheduled for a much needed vacation when he was hospitalized. It was the day before I was to leave town. I went to the hospital; the news was not good. He was dyingI glimpsed him before he saw me. He was alone and had the early morning look on his face that I had noticed so many times before. . I entered the room and said ‘Honey I’m home.’ He laughed. His whole demeanor changed as I came in. The change was not for me particular although we had become friends. He sat up straight in his bed and shook my hand.
We talked for thirty minutes or so. He was scared, I could tell. He was hiding his physical frailty from me. I felt bad knowing I was to leave town tomorrow. Sensing this he asked me about my vacation plans. Asked what my adolescent son wanted to do most on the trip. He proclaimed, if anyone needs a vacation it was me. He poked fun at me, saying how I was being a pain at the house because I was too stressed out; all the residents had been holding specially called morning-prayer sessions for me and were so looking forward to some peace and quiet when I left. At this point I reminded him he was the Chatty Cathy and how, for real, the house was quiet now that he was in the hospital. After razzing each other for a while, it was time for me to leave.
I clasped his hand in mine. Told him as soon as I came back, I would be there to see him. He looked at me and said do not worry I will still be here when you get back. Besides he was going to milk this dying thing as much as he could. He said the nurses loved a dying man and all his friends were coming and telling him how much he meant to them. This was a great gig. He stopped and looked me in the eye, “You enjoy your vacation; that is an order you hear.” I smiled. Yes sir, I replied. We prayed and I told him he was a good man. I turned to leave; as I left I caught a glance of him out of the corner of my eye. He had collapsed on the bed; he looked very ill.
Harold died the night before I returned from vacation. I did not go to his funeral in his hometown. I knew it would not be a celebration of a remarkable man but an unnecessary judgment of a good man. I grieved in my own way. Early in the morning sometimes I sit in the darkness awaiting my “Honey I’m Home” moment to begin my day.
They Grow Up Too Fast
I am away writing on my new book so I offer you a past post. I hope you enjoy.
I was the new Baptist preacher come to town to help run the HIV/AIDS program. I had been reared by a Marine Drill Sargent, and was entering into a world I vaguely knew. The community saw a straight Baptist minister who had come to town to 'work' with Persons Living With AIDS to say the least there was sincere skepticism if I was up to the job. My first call for assistance was from a sister homeless shelter asking me to come down and help them with this new resident at the shelter. It was the early nineties and the word AIDS scared people. So I waited in my office for the new client. The door opened and my heart sank; before me was a kid. He was sixteen years old. He was being kicked out of a government program called Job Corps. Job Corps was a program where you lived a semi military existence while you worked and gained employable skills. As far as Job Corps was concerned, he was gay and had another problem--AIDS. He was capable of infecting the whole Job Corps unit they proclaimed. I tried to explain AIDS was only contracted through sex and blood to blood contact. Regretfully, the social worker explained that he was sexually active. ‘”Very,” the young kid in front of me spoke with a huge smile on his face. The expression and his general demeanor told me he could have all the sex he wanted. “I do tell them I have AIDS and insist on protected sex but they do not seem able to resist me,” he continued with a sultry grin.
I would discover through many conversations that he had been abused as a child and thrown out of the house at eleven because he was exhibiting gay behavior. Along the way someone thought Job Corps could correct his wayward path. He was black, poor and abandoned at an early age, first by his family now by the government. I told the social worker we did not take minors. In saying that, I knew there was nowhere else in the state that would take him either. He looked at me and said, “I will be real good.” I thought that is just the problem I am afraid of.
Despite my misgivings we took him in. There was nowhere else and I would be damned if I rejected him too. The next day I went to my office in our group home. A young attractive woman in a pretty dress came up to me and said, “Hey Dad.” I looked at the woman closer and then my jaw dropped. It was JJ, the youth we had taken in yesterday. He started, “So yesterday you said you wanted to have a father-daughter talk with me.” I replied sternly, “That was not exactly what I said.” “But Dad, if you ask to talk that means we are going to have a father-daughter talk,” he nonchalantly said. “I prefer you did not call me Dad,” I answered, trying not to be charmed. But I knew this moniker would stick. She saw how uncomfortable it was making me. For her part she said, “If you insist, Dad,” she giggled. So we continued with the father-daughter talk about what was expected of her while she lived at our group home.
Talking about house rules to someone who had been living on the street since they were eleven was not the most fruitful conversation I have ever had. Curfews were missed, clubs were attended, but everyone loved her. I tried to counsel her about her anger with what God and life had given. At least I did until I realized she did not have anger. She only wanted to enjoy life; she didn’t have time for anger and hate. We were constantly at odds because there was no rule she would not break. Despite liking her I was slowly being forced to evict her. By now the staff and other residents loved her. But the choice was becoming clearer every day. My criticism of the government program that had rejected her was true but now it was seeming a little hypocritical. To my relief she came into my office with one of her other transgender friends. She started, “Dad I want you to meet my new roommate.” I looked at her quizzically. I knew there were no new residents moving in. She continued, “You and I both know you are going to have to kick me out of here. A girl’s just gotta have her fun,” she offered. “So I am moving in with Jill and a couple of other friends.” Somewhere inside I felt a sigh of relief. But my heart broke. The only place she could find acceptance was with other marginalized people. I knew that was why she attended the clubs. It was the one place on earth she felt comfortable and was totally accepted. Our house was filled with older gay men who too often felt uncomfortable being in close proximity to transgender people in those days. I, “her ‘father” was older and just now figuring out the variety of gender issues. She was sixteen and moving out on her own.
JJ did not become a stranger. She continued to come to us for other services and to say hi. It was quite the scene as she came to see my colleague and me, dressed to a T. The jaws of the men at the shelter would drop and eyes would bulge out at the sight of this beautiful woman. As her “father,” I did not appreciate the looks and murmurings of lust they whispered to each other. I received some consolation with the thought, if they only knew where their testosterone was taking them they would be questioning their sexual identity. JJ still addressed me as Dad to see my discomfort. There was less discomfort now; I looked forward to her visits.
She broke her probation, they told me over the phone. She was carrying a gun. I thought of course she was, do you know how dangerous the streets can be for a transgender person? The threat of assault from local soldiers or rednecks was a fact of life. You would be unwise not to have a gun. Yet I could never see JJ using it. The judge showed no mercy and sentenced her to a year and a half in jail. The perfect place for a transgender youth. We tried desperately to get her out. And then we tried even harder to get her the medicines she needed. We visited her but she did not want visitors. It was beyond my imagination what she must have gone through but she never complained. Her spirit stayed intact. Finally after a year we were able to get her out on early probation.
When I saw her, my whole being was filled with anger. She looked almost anorexic. Her face was worn with wrinkles at seventeen. She had a cough. We took her to the group home. I was not sure if that was going to work out but was determined to make it so. She again told me she would be good; now the sass in the tone was gone. The first time she saw me after coming out of jail she called me Dad but never again. She was older than me now, at only seventeen years of age.
JJ became the mother of the house--checking on the other residents and even staff, and giving advice about how to handle situations. The other residents teased her by calling her mom. She still had fire but less now. The rules were not as easy to break. Her hair began to fall out. She either had a scarf or a wig on when you saw her. The slow process of death was coming. Still she had no anger. Still she was full of confidence in who she was. She had dignity about it all beyond her years.
One day she broke curfew. She had not broken curfew during this stay. I fretted, pacing the hall. Finally, a car drove up; I went outside as the worried parent ready to chastise yet so grateful she was safe. She got out with her dress disheveled. Looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and smiled. She showed no evidence of alcohol or drug use. “Momma just needed a night out on the town.” After all it was her eighteenth birthday. JJ died two months later. She died happy and content. She was mourned by all of her children in the house.
Sometimes when I feel like justice is too hard to fight for and I want to bail on life, I remember JJ, my daughter and mother, and a fire reignites in my soul. But mostly I long to hear those uncomfortable words “Hey Dad.”
Cars and Me Part 2
This is a continuation of the cars and me trilogy.
Many people may suspect or have their theories of why my first marriage ended. The reason for the ending of relationships tend to be complex, I squarely place the blame on cars. Let me explain and see if you do not agree. It all started simple enough. We each had our cars. I was a poor student and she was a lab tech so by my standards she was rich. My car never had gas; in fact I remember on one of our first dates coasting down from the top of Chehaw Mountain (the highest point in Alabama) because I did not have enough money to pay for gas, something I only realized as we set out for our return. So we coasted down the mountain of twisty roads. We were young and thought it was somehow romantic to not know if we had enough gas to make it home. Later in our marriage our car broke down in some god-forsaken backwoods of Georgia. The one mechanic who worked out of his home’s garage did not have the part to fix the car, which meant he would have to travel to the big city to retrieve the part. This determined we would have to stay overnight in the god- forsaken town. We saw a hotel in our future; the town saw a truck stop’s rent-a-room by the hour in our future. It was our only option.
The foam we slept on was not exactly soft. The room was not exactly bug free. The noise of truckers was not exactly quiet. And the door to the room was not exactly secure. To make matters worse the diner under the ‘hotel’ put the greasy in greasy spoon. It was the only vegetarian option or should I say option in town. Being vegetarians we ate fries that, although we did not ask, were not vegetarian, and a salad which supposedly had lettuce and a tomato. We went to bed hungry. I slept with one eye open watching the door, knowing that somehow this was all a plot to rob and kill us. Unlike the Chehaw Mountain venture neither of us found this romantic. The times they were a-changing.
The men on her side of the family were famous for their handiness. They were part mechanic, carpenters, engineers (her brother worked on several Apollo spaceships), electricians, plumbers, and the list could go on. I was a theologian wannabe who had no discernible gifts in any of the above arts. I was constantly a disappointment to her family as they were amazed at my ineptitude at all things handy. This all came to a head on a cold and dark night in Louisville, KY. My six-months pregnant wife was scheduled to go to work that evening. The weather forecast said freezing temperatures were coming to town. I knew I needed to flush out the radiator and put antifreeze in to ensure the car worked for my pregnant wife. It was the least my male in-laws would expect from me. So I put on my heavy coat and gloves and went to flush out the radiator and add antifreeze. I successfully emptied the fluids from the radiator and was ready to put the plug back in the radiator. My hands were freezing. I tried for several minutes to put the plug back in the radiator so I could fill it with the antifreeze. But I could not; my hands needed defrosting. I went into the house of our next door neighbor, another young couple, to warm my hands. I warmed my hands and went outside once again to plug the radiator. On my third time back in their house trying to thaw my frostbitten hands, my wife was there waiting for the car. It was time for her to leave for work. I explained to her why she could not, but I assured her that I was going right out and would finish the job. She impatiently rolled her eyes. Thirty minutes later I returned. I was an icicle and had not plugged the radiator. It was then she gave me the look that only a future ex-wife could give. She, all six months pregnant of her, brushed by me and said with total disgust ‘I will do it’. The couple looked worried. She was back in in five minutes to announce she had fixed the car and was going to work. Our couple friend snickered and my future ex-wife shook her head in disbelief.
The final evidence was back when we lived in the inner city of Louisville. I was working as a minister with the homeless and living semi-communally in the center where I and others worked and lived. We lived across from the biggest government housing project in Louisville. It was a nice place with a drug buy walk up alley and a drive-up drug street. One night well after midnight (which technically means it was morning) I awoke to the most horrible screams of “do not kill me” coming from outside the building. I looked out the window and saw five to six men with bats chasing another man across the street, meaning to do him harm. I looked at my future ex-wife and said, as I placed my pants on, to call the police I had to stop this. We lived on the third floor and so I flew down the stairs and shoved the steel door open to confront the men who were trying desperately to harm the stranger. I immediately told them to stop and that the police had been called and were on their way. The men with the bats surveyed me carefully. I parted them and grabbed the man who had rolled under my car for protection and told him to go in the center. I said “men I do not want any of you to get arrested.” I told them they needed to go back across the street. They said he owned them money. I said they could collect some other time. The police were coming. After a brief stare down they left. I ran back into the center and found the man frantically sitting on the stairs. He did not want to be there. But I also noticed he did not have a scratch on him. I waited patiently for the police. After several minutes of waiting and holding the victim captive, I told him I needed to go upstairs and see why the police had not arrived. I went to our apartment and found my wife sound asleep. I woke her and said how long had it had been since she called the police. She looked at me with no shame and said she had not called them. I felt faint. “You mean I was facing off five angry drug boys with bats and you did not call the police?” She said, “No you call them yourself” and rolled over and went back to sleep. I called the police. I went downstairs. As I expected the victim had fled. I now stood in the street and waited for the police, who soon arrived. They arrived and I walked out to the police car and told them what had happened and said I guessed there was nothing for them to do anymore. They were about to leave as I turned to look at my recently purchased car that the victim had slid under to protect himself from the bats, and gasped as the whole side of my recently purchased car was bashed in from the bats. My car had been mugged. The victim was unscathed because my new car had protected him. The police were indeed needed. In the next few days I tried to convince the new insurance agent that the exclusion clause for riots was not applicable. It was a mugging, I exclaimed, not a riot.
Amazingly my future ex-wife blamed the assault on the car on me. This accusation and the lack of a certain phone call should have been enough of a sign to know she was my future ex-wife, but it would take a few more years before the eyes of my young self were opened. So now you have the evidence set before you and I am convinced you will agree that the divorce was because of cars.