I had an experience this past Thursday that needs to be recorded. But words failed me and I haven’t been able to translate the gut feeling into a story worth sharing.
I’ll try again.
Four year old Caleb, two year old Juli and I had stopped by this park we never visit, in what is a very depressed neighborhood in old West Columbia. Litter lined the streets, collected along the perimeter of the park’s chain link fence. Small houses circling the block were in disrepair. Debris lay in random spots. Broken toys, scattered. Vegetation, overgrown.
The playground structure there is amazing though. Huge. Tall. Fun. The grassy fields and two basketball courts, wide open. Oh, and there are terrific old fashioned swings.
Roughly twenty five minutes into our visit, a lone unkempt man cut through through the park on a bike.
He circled back ten minutes later and approached us, introducing himself as Tyrone. Age 53. He was dark as coal, thin as a rail, wearing a dingy pale blue threadbare jacket, with a proud, upright air. And his entire front row of bottom teeth were missing.
Juli was swinging to my left.
Caleb was swinging to my right.
I held my iPhone tight in my hand.
He spoke of how great it was to see a mother out at a park caring for her children.
Said he had been watching us.
He called me Baby Girl.
And asked my age.
My personality prompted civility.
Intuition prompted deflection of personal questions.
And social anxiety prompted me to text my best friends our location and say “if I turn up dead, this is why”.
I eyeballed the grassy area where the handcuffs Caleb and I had snapped a photo of still lay. I was completely alone. With two small children. That fine line between precaution and paranoia mocked me. Called my name even.
Mr. Tyrone definitely wasn’t part of my social circle norms or sphere of every day experience.
He kept talking.
He spoke of his lady friend of twenty seven years.
And how they’ve been having troubles the past three years.
He spoke of God. And faithfulness.
And he asked if I went to church.
And if I had a husband.
Told me to keep God close.
And in the same breath he dove into a speech on how true intimacy is just as much a man’s responsibility as a woman’s.
And it’s a man’s job to please his woman.
He wasn’t vulgar.
But it was not a “typical” social conversation you’d have with strangers.
You know, small talk. Conversations where coiffed, polished humans chat mindlessly about weather and pets and then don’t remember the person’s face, much less their name, five minutes later.
This man reeked of hardship and struggle. And in less than 5 minutes he’d hit the most taboo topics of our society – sex, religion, intimate relationships…. and requesting a woman’s age.
He didn’t ask anything of me. He kept his distance physically. He didn’t threaten or loom. He didn’t “sob story” his life.
He just seemed…. lonely.
In need and want.
Much like we all are.
After a few minutes, we said goodbye and he rode away on his bike.
I was anxious to leave, so the kids and I soon made our way back to our SUV. And as I sat in the driver’s seat, door locked, trying to decide where to go next, Mr. Tyrone reappeared at my window.
He had an old baseball in his hand.
He looked tired. Humble.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry I came at you like that and spoke out of turn. Do your children like to play sports?”
“Yes Mr. Tyrone! They do indeed.”
He handed me the baseball through the window and smiled kindly. His 53 year old face looked far older. It was 12:38 pm.
“Have you eat today, Mr. Tyrone?” I asked suddenly. I looked into his dark eyes.
He glanced down. To the left. He didn’t answer.
Childhood images filled my head of my father standing with people listening to their life stories. Offering kind words or a funny joke. Pulling out cash to give to a stranger. And I use to get so angry at him for wasting money like that.
“Don’t you know you’re enabling them, Daddy?” I’d say to him. “Don’t you know they take your money, laugh at you and use it for alcohol or drugs?!”
“Baby,” Dad would say, looking off into the distance, “Life is hard. For them. For me. For all of us. My $10 bill will never save a life. Or change someone’s mind. Existence is far more complicated. So if they need a drink to escape screaming demons a few hours….so be it. I’m just showing them that someone is still listening. And that someone still cares.”
And then I thought of my mama.
I’ve witnessed her take earrings, bracelets and even shirts off her own body to give to someone. And the first thing out of her mouth when someone would come to our house would be “Are you hungry? Have you eaten?”
I felt the cash in the back right pocket of my jeans. I never carry cash. Only reason I had it was because I had just left a school party for Maggie’s teacher and needed cash to put in a gift pot. So I had stopped by the ATM for the first time in months that morning.
I pulled it out. Handed it to him.
And held onto his hand.
“Mr. Tyrone, go get something small to eat. Or a drink. Whatever you need right now.”
And I held his hand still.
It was old. Leathery.
He sniffed. And sniffed again. Looked at the ground.
Then he began stumbling through his life story.
He talked of his life path, starting in Orangeburg.
And then on to Newberry at age 14.
He spoke of his 5 sisters.
“Life is hard,” he said sadly, looking away.
“Life is tough on us all. In so many ways,” I concurred.
“My family don’t believe I can change. After the felony, they don’t believe I can change. They don’t believe in me no more. But I still gots a good heart though,” he continued, looking into my eyes.
“I gots a good heart” he repeated twice more, nodding, as if reassuring himself.
And he spoke of his mama.
And described her with adoration.
Like a little boy would have.
I held his hand still.
Other than my few closest loves, I haven’t held anyone’s hand since childhood.
And he spoke a final time:
“My mama use to say, ‘Son, if you hang around the outhouse too long, you’ll start smelling like one. But if you hang around the barber shop, you may just get a haircut. Thank you for being a barber shop. Please take care of those beautiful babies.'”
We said goodbye.
And then I drove away.
Straight to my mother and father’s house.