Darnell is interesting. He happens almost every day. Darnell has been waiting to be our neighbor in a substantial way. I think now that his home is about to go up for sale he’s feeling like he needs to reach out.
Here’s Darnell and my impressions of him. Darnell is a regular sized guy, in good shape, not heavy, but not lean either. He’s a dark complected black man with a trim haircut, he is usually wearing shades and either a baseball cap or a fedora. He’s always dressed sharp, but not flashy. He’s 53, he told me. He has more swagger than a white guy, but nothing outrageous.
He is a boarder in the house down the street. The house down the street was owned by an older guy who rented out rooms. This older guy (Andy) died last year. His relatives are planning to sell the house and I think it’s a safe bet that Darnell will not be in their target market. I base this on a few things. First, Darnell seems to be unemployed. Second, he’s been renting a room for the whole time I’ve been here. A room. Third, most people who’ve been living here for more than a few years couldn’t afford to buy into this neighborhood today.
When Darnell first introduced himself officially to us, after walking by and tipping his hat for more than a year, he didn’t mince words. “My name’s Darnell and I’m an alcoholic.” He was on his way to the liquor store. You gotta make room in your heart for someone so friendly with his own demons.
So we greeted him by name and shook his hands when we were in the yard or the park and he walked by. We know his route and we know what’s in the bag that looks suspiciously like a bottle that he’s carrying back home. He doesn’t drink in public, isn’t a belligerent drunk or a sad-sack drunk. He’s just a well-lubricated Darnell.
Darnell has some things on his mind, though. Some of them strike more of a chord with me than others. First, he’s thinking about the Bird Flu and what advantages a neighborhood like ours has, what with all the churches and schools (infirmary and check-points). We’ve talked about it more than once. He gets pretty worked up, nostrils flaring and sweat starting to drip down the side of his face (usually he’s got a kerchief ready). I’m not so worried about the Bird Flu, so I just try to let him know I’m glad he’s making plans. And I am.
Second, Darnell is thinking a lot about race. And I’m so relieved to have a black guy around who is up front with that issue. It took him many years, but now that he’s started, he needs to let off some steam. The last three times we’ve stopped to chat, he’s brought it up. We greeted him on our way down the street one day, and asked how he was.
He stumbled, swayed just a bit and said, “Well, I wasn’t expectin t’see no white folks today.”
Another day, we saw him on his way back from Grand Avenue, just before the annual Grand Old Day parade was about to start. We asked why he was heading away from the parade. “They let black folks up there on Grand? With all those white folks?” I told him I was pretty sure they did, but if he wanted he could go with me, I’d pull some white-people strings and get him in. “Me up there with a white woman? Y’all sure they ain’t gonna be non lynchin’ up there? I don’t know… Nah, I’m just playin’.”
Lastly, I suspect Darnell cannot really read or write. He’s brought it up a couple of times and then slapped his thigh and said, “Nah, I’m just playin’ witcha.” But I don’t think he is, any more than he’s playin wit’ me about race. Today he asked me to please lend him a paper and pen. I went to get them and invited him in. When I did, he put his hand on my arm and said, “Another favor, I’m gonna ask you to write it fuh me.” And I did, and he signed it.
Darnell can’t last long here, not after that big old Victorian we’ve all been drooling over since forever goes on the market and is sold to yet another literate white family with money. Do you want to invite him in to rent an extra bedroom? I do. But then again, I want to adopt every stray human and animal, and a person just can’t. And maybe what I see of him walking down the street every day is about as much as I can really take. I’m starting to miss him already.