By Israfel Savid
Artwork by Coe MacFarlane
“I want to talk to you about racism and gentrification,” was the first thing the man walking down the sidewalk said to Matthew on that summer day. The younger white man had stepped out on his stoop to enjoy the sunshine, and he’d just begun reading for his required classes starting that September. Now, it was December a year and a half later. If there was anything last year had taught a law student like Matthew about December, it was one thing: stress. From exams and Christmas. His exams were taken care of for the moment. Matthew had left the Georgetown Law Library about fifteen minutes earlier. He’d been sitting there since early that morning, trying to concentrate on the intricacies of Constitutional Law. Now, it was evening. Outside, the sky had already turned a dusky gray, but Matthew was inside walking through a crowd in the Metro station at Gallery Place, waiting for a green line train to take him back up to Columbia Heights. He wanted to pick up some cards for his family that night, and he figured the Target in his neighborhood might be a good place to start. Living off of loans, he’d really stretched himself thin the year before when he’d tried to get presents for his parents and younger sisters. He didn’t want to do that again. Besides, this year he had a girlfriend.
As he descended an escalator to the station’s lowest level, his mind swam with contradictions about how one could interpret the foundations of the United States’ government. No god had delivered these rules inviolable throughout millennia. No tablets carried them writ in stone immutable through all the centuries. Laws depended upon human experience to create them. They needed human minds to understand them. They required human beings to enforce them. It was something Matthew had always known, but it wasn’t something always so translucently clear. Suddenly, the significance of his ability to form his own interpretations of the massive case law books in his backpack struck him with the force of a Metro train. The implications had never been so apparent. He would be one of an elite group of citizens responsible for the curation of these concepts passed down from generation to generation for more than two hundred years. He would argue ideas predicated upon how the past had understood these regulations for governing such a massive body-politic as the United States of America. He would assist in determining how the future might elucidate these collections of complex sentences that could give or take life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness from any man or woman.
With such lofty thoughts swirling through his brain, Matthew reached the bottom of the escalator. He wasn’t paying much attention to the world beyond his own mind. So he didn’t notice the man standing at the platform’s edge, staring over the ledge as if he wanted to jump. Then, the man came to life. With bloodshot eyes, he spun around. Matthew stumbled. But instead of accosting Matthew, the man approached a light-skinned girl blocking the law student’s path. She started in place as the man said to her, “Trains sure take a long time, don’t they?” His lips curled with a coyote’s grin.
The girl stepped back a pace. “Yeah… yeah, they do,” she stuttered. The man was old enough to be her father.
Matthew didn’t want to look the situation head on. He recognized the man. He remembered a story his grandfather had told him about getting his shirt slashed as a young man in New York City simply because he’d interfered in an argument between a man and a woman in the subway. The man had pulled a knife on him. The woman had told the police there was no need for Matthew’s grandfather to interfere in their family squabble. So Matthew righted himself and simply kept on walking. But out of the corner of his eye, he saw the man proffer a grizzled hand from out his oversized coat’s sleeve as he said to the girl, “I’m Larry.”
Matthew would be starting law school in less than a month. He’d just moved to Washington, DC a few weeks earlier. Things felt fresh and invigorating. He’d never lived in a real city before. Moving into the top floor of a converted row house in a neighborhood called Columbia Heights, his roommates had told him to be careful crossing 13th Street at night. One of them had been mugged on the other side of the block. The young man’s phone had been taken. Living in the city was awfully different from State College, PA where Matthew had completed undergrad. It was even more different from the York, PA suburb he’d grown up in.
That particular day, a slight breeze swayed the lone tree beyond Matthew’s window. From the third floor, it looked a little cooler and maybe even a bit more overcast than DC had been in the previous few weeks, but it still didn’t look like rain. So Matthew gathered up his books for Civil Procedure and Criminal Justice and headed down to the stoop outside to do some reading. He wanted to get a solid jump on his classes. He knew from family, friends, and reputation that soon there would be more work than he could handle, and he wanted to be prepared.
The building’s shadow sliced across his stoop. Matthew positioned himself beneath its shade. Even though it wasn’t as sunny as it had been, the day was still bright. Matthew slipped on his sunglasses. He felt like he cut quite a cool figure out there on his stoop with his books in his shades and his shirt untucked.
Matthew wouldn’t have been able to tell you what specifically he’d been thinking about when the man approached. He hardly noticed him at all strutting down the sidewalk, his chest out, his arms flailing beside him. In jeans and a white tee shirt, with a flannel wrapped around his waist, the black man faded into the city’s backdrop, another piece of the urban landscape. He may not have been dressed quite right for the heat, but there was no reason to think he was completely out of place. Not after the things Matthew had already witnessed in his first couple weeks in Washington, DC. However, after mumbling to himself as he walked past Matthew sitting out on his stoop, the man abruptly turned around. He pointed one finger directly at Matthew. “I want to talk to you about racism and gentrification,” he said.
As if they’d known one another for years, the man immediately took his place leaning against the hand rail leading up the side of Matthew’s stoop. Matthew swallowed hard. Not yet used to living in the city, he had no idea how to handle such a sharp statement concerning two things polite company would never discuss. Especially from someone of another race himself. Matthew simply answered, “Okay…” But h was taking note of his options for a quick exit if the situation turned violent. There was nowhere he could run to other than back into his building, and that would require getting his key out and having to struggle with the knob on the door. The only real option might be to fight if it came down to it. The black man was smaller than Matthew, who stood a few inches above six feet, which usually gave him the courage to face almost any situation. But the way the man held himself with his off-center eyes and his narrowed brow as he spoke out of the corner of his mouth gave him the appearance of being quite scrappy. Unlike how he’d always carried himself at college parties, Matthew felt inadequate to the situation. He glanced up and down the street to see if there was a policeman on patrol somewhere who might monitor the situation. There wasn’t.
“I grew up in this neighborhood,” the man said. “Right around the corner over there is where my moms lived. I went to grade school across the street at that school there. And my aunt, she lived right around the corner, too. My grandmoms, she came from down the block. And in fact, she used to go to church right here,” the man said, pointing at the large, brick building bordering on Matthew’s building’s property. He’d known it was a church, but it had never really struck him that people might actually attend services there. Even though he’d heard singing coming out of it on the two Sunday mornings he’d lived in the city thus far. It just didn’t seem like the kind of place where you might find spirituality. “This building you’re sitting in front of, this used to be the church offices.”
Matthew nodded like he already knew that, but in fact, he didn’t. “I live here now,” he quickly interjected as if that gave him some sort of legitimacy to claim over the stoop.
The black man narrowed his eyes. He cocked his head to the side, but he quickly kept right on talking, “But I ain’t been in this place in over 20 years, now. You see, I’ve been in prison. And things just ain’t the same here.”
At that one word – prison – Matthew started in place. His stomach dropped a bit, and he felt a twinge of fear course through his limbs. Images of words he’d heard in gangster movies and rap songs filled his mind, words he’d laughed about with friends in high school and college, words like shank, hooch, broomstick, bitch, and rape. He tried not to look too shocked. He removed his sunglasses for a second and wiped his eyes. He felt a little sick and like he might cry.
“This used to be a black neighborhood,” the man declared, and Matthew immediately felt even more uneasy than he had before. “But nowadays, you ain’t the only white person living in it. Hell, you ain’t even the only white person living on this block. In fact, I bet you ain’t even the only white person in that house. You see, I used to own this neighborhood. That’s why they had to put me away. I was making too much money, now, you see. So, riddle me this, Batman… Why is it that the Italians get to have the mafia? And the Jews got to help start Las Vegas? But a black man dealing drugs to his own people, building himself a nest egg for his family has to go to prison for 20 years?”
Even though all his muscles were tense from the man’s tone, Matthew shrugged as if this were a perfectly normal conversation to be having at this moment on this sunny Saturday afternoon.
“I ain’t proud of what I done to my own people, now,” the man continued. “But I was an entrepreneur. Just like the people who bulldozed all those blocks down there sometime while I was locked away and put up that Target and all those luxury high rises you and your white friends get to shop at and live in now. I was an entrepreneur.”
Finally, Matthew found his voice. “You sure were,” he nodded.
The black man looked at him askance. It was like he was reading Matthew’s intention from how he held himself on that stoop. Somehow sensing Matthew’s sincerity, he went on, “Now, all my peoples are gone. My moms, my aunt, my grandmoms, they’re all dead. I did 20 years. I got out yesterday. I came home, and I ain’t got a home to go to no more. All my people, they’re all gone, either dead or moved away. I just came out of prison, and now I’m all alone. You can’t take everything away from a man like that. It don’t matter what I did. That just ain’t right.”
“I’m really sorry to hear that,” Matthew said feeling genuine empathy for the man’s situation.
“I didn’t ask you to be sorry for me,” the man snapped, but at Matthew’s blanched expression, he softened his tone for the first time that afternoon, “But thank you for saying so.” The black man moved around and sat down at the bottom of the stoop as if he and Matthew were old friends reminiscing about their years together. “They diagnosed me bipolar in prison, you know. They said that’s why I did all those crazy things. But I don’t know about all that. This was a crazy place back then, and it was a crazy time. I did what I had to do to get mine.”
Matthew nodded like he had some sort of idea what the black man was talking about.
“What’s your name?” the black man suddenly asked from where he was squinting up at the bottom of Matthew’s stoop. He held his hand over his brow to shade his eyes from the sun.
“I’m Matthew,” Matthew answered honestly.
“Nice to meet you, Matthew. I’m Larry.”
It was a few months later, when he was coming home after sharing a couple drinks with some of his new law school colleagues, that Matthew bumped into Larry again. In the distance, he could see a man approach a woman walking past him on the sidewalk. The woman started and paused. She held her hands close to her body before quickly shaking her head and starting off again. The man trundled back dejectedly to where he’d stood leaning against a fence, puffing off a cigarette. Matthew saw the thick smoke hanging in the air beneath a streetlight like warm breath on a cool night. Hoping to avoid this apparently homeless man who couldn’t be doing anything but spare changing, Matthew crossed the street. When he heard a shout echo, “Matthew! Matthew, right? It’s me, Larry.”
Just like the woman who’d been walking a short distance ahead of him, Matthew started in place. Larry bounded across the street after him. “I need help, man,” the man said as he slowed to approach Matthew standing slightly buzzed in the fall night.
Matthew didn’t extend his hand. Instead, he stiffened in place. He tried to smile. “What’s up, Larry?” he asked, hoping he sounded as cool and nonchalant as a man could.
“I need my medication. They’re telling me I need to pay fifty bucks for it down at the Dupont pharmacy. I didn’t have to do that last time, and I don’t have that kind of money. Look at me. I’m out on the streets. I’m hoping to start this job Monday laying concrete, but even then, I won’t get paid for another two weeks. Help me out, man. I need my medication tonight. I’ll get you back as soon as I get paid. I promise. Word is bond.”
Matthew leaned back and rested his hand on the fence behind him. “What’s the medication for?” he quite rationally queried as if still discussing the intricacies of case law with his associates back at the bar.
“It’s for my bipolar. If I don’t get it, I don’t know what’ll happen to me. I might just go off. Who knows. I feel like I’m about to go off right now. I could do something that sends me right back to prison. I don’t know.”
Once again, it was that single word – prison – that Matthew heard loud and clear. Whether he heard that solitary word because of where Larry was afraid he might wind up or what the man might do to get back there, Matthew had no idea. He blinked. He took his hand off the fence behind him, and he stood back up straight. “What do you need from me, then?” he asked soberer even than before.
Larry tensed up. “What do you mean, what do I need from you? I’m asking if I can borrow some money.” He finished emphatically, “Now, can you help a brother out or not?”
Matthew stood up on his tiptoes. He fished around in his pocket. “I think I might have a five or so in here,” he whispered absent-mindedly.
“Five dollars? What the fuck am I supposed to do with five dollars?” Larry pleaded. He narrowed his eyes and shook his head.
“Well, how much do you need?” Matthew asked.
“I told you, man. I need fifty dollars.”
“Oh, you need the whole amount, then?” Matthew asked as if he hadn’t heard the man the first time.
“Well, I’m sorry, then. I don’t have fifty dollars on me,” Matthew said.
“There’s an ATM right down the block. You could get that kind of money out of there now, couldn’t you?”
Matthew looked around. There wasn’t anybody else on the street. He and Larry were all alone. “I’m a student,” Matthew told him. “I can’t spare that kind of cash.”
“Please, man. Like I said, I should be starting work on Monday. I’ll get you back. I promise. If you can do it at all, help me out. You’re my only hope,” Larry pleaded.
Matthew looked around like there was somebody there to help him make this decision. After nobody finally responded, he sighed. He asked, “You promise you’ll pay me back?”
“Cuz I need that money,” Matthew said, trying to judge Larry’s sincerity.
“I promise,” Larry told him. “I’ll keep the first fifty bucks I make right here in my pocket, and I’ll come right back here to this street every day where you live. As soon as I see you again, I’ll give it all right back to you. Every last cent. I promise. I don’t want to be beholden to no man.”
Matthew shook his head. He really couldn’t believe he was about to do this. He was living off loans. He couldn’t afford to lose fifty dollars. “All right. Let’s go to that ATM,” he said. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Larry never did show up to pay Matthew back. By the time Matthew finally saw him again that spring, after a harsh winter, he had completely forgotten about the man and how he owed him money. The lost fifty dollars had never even come up, much less stressed Matthew out. But when he did finally see Larry again, instead of worrying about how the man could have survived that winter – what he must have had to live through: the cold, the snow, the shelters – Matthew simply remembered the money he was owed. But he didn’t want to bring that up with the homeless man. Instead, he simply wanted to walk right past him.
Scowling his best urban countenance, Matthew looked straight ahead as he approached where Larry was standing there on the sidewalk in the sun on Matthew’s way to the Giant grocery store. Larry’s eyes were closed and his face was turned towards the sky. Light bathed his forehead and cheeks. He was wearing dark blue jeans and what looked to be the same flannel he’d had wrapped around his waist the day he and Matthew had met. His lips were moving, but he wasn’t speaking to anyone at all. In fact, he didn’t seem to be making a solitary sound. Matthew hoped he could sneak by completely unknown.
But right as he approached, as if sensing Matthew’s proximity, Larry’s bloodshot eyes opened. He looked straight at Matthew caught completely unaware. Larry smiled with yellowed teeth. It wasn’t a friendly smile. It was more like a coyote spotting prey. “I remember you,” Larry said.
Matthew nodded. “I remember you, too,” he responded nervously, suddenly hoping against hope that maybe Larry had his fifty dollars. “I loaned you that money a few months back,” he said. His palms started sweating from the potential confrontation.
Recognition dawned on Larry’s face. “That’s right. You sure did.” His countenance turned more severe. “That’s why I want to talk to you right now.” He stepped closer to Matthew and grabbed him by his short shirt sleeve. “Come here,” Larry begged as he pulled Matthew back behind a blue dumpster some construction crew had set up on the edge of the street for the wreckage from the latest building they were demolishing on that block.
The two of them weren’t that far off the sidewalk, but they were somewhat hidden from the views of most passers-by. “I need you to help me, man,” Larry said.
As Matthew blinked and braced himself for another financial request, Larry drew a long piece of sharpened metal from out the waistband of his jeans. The knife scintillated in the sunlight. Matthew wanted to cry for help, but all that issued from his throat was a vague squeak. He tried backing away from the grip that had moved from his sleeve to now hold his arm tight, but Larry was a lot stronger even than he looked.
Matthew’s stomach plummeted. He didn’t have the wherewithal to fight, which was something he’d always imagined himself completely ready to do when confronted by a situation like this. Moreover, he didn’t have the wherewithal for flight. All Matthew could do was stand completely still. Holding the blade inches from Matthew’s cheek – so the law student had a good look at its edge from the corner of his eye, Larry said, “I need you to throw this thing away for me.”
Matthew stuttered, “Wh-What?”
“I was just standing there praying when you walked up, man. I was begging the Lord not to make me do what I wanted to do, and then you showed up. And I remembered you. I remembered those times we talked. I remembered how you helped me. And I knew. I need you to throw this thing away for me.”
Matthew shook his head. “What’s it for?” he wondered, not even wanting to know the answer, which on some level he felt like he already knew.
“I don’t want to admit to what I was thinking about doing with it,” Larry said. “Please, just throw it away for me before somebody gets hurt.” He held the knife by the handle and proffered it to Matthew, blade side first.
Matthew didn’t know where that knife had been. He didn’t know what Larry’s plans for it were. His mind was racing. Picturing past and future violence, he thought back to his Evidence class. He said to Larry, “There’s a dumpster right there. Why don’t you throw it in there right now if you want to get rid of it? I shouldn’t touch it…”
An almost child-like awe sounded in Larry’s voice. “Do you really think I can do that?” he wondered. This was hardly the same man Matthew had met over the past summer. He had no idea what had happened to that man in the intervening months.
When Matthew didn’t respond, Larry wiped a non-existent tear from his own eye. As if reading something in Matthew’s face that the law student didn’t even know he could convey, Larry stared at his terrified countenance. Matthew couldn’t meet his gaze. Larry said, “You’re right. I should throw it away.” He tossed the knife up and into the dumpster.
As the knife landed, falling into the trash with a few slight pings, Larry laughed. His sudden gaiety sounded of immediate salvation. He wiped both his hands down his cheeks. “That was a close one,” he said, still smiling. “Thank you,” he added, and he turned around to walk away as quickly as he’d initially approached.
That was the last time Matthew had seen Larry before he bumped saw him that day on the Metro platform as Matthew was heading home from the law library to pick up some Christmas cards at the Target in his neighborhood for his immediate family. Again, Matthew had never really thought of Larry in the intervening months, of which there had been many, something like eight or nine. He turned as the man said his name, but he immediately wished he hadn’t. He thought Larry might have recognized him from his gaze.
If he did recognize him, though, Larry didn’t say anything this time. Matthew wanted to tell the girl Larry had accosted to step away from the man. He was certain he was probably insane, but Matthew was afraid if he did that he might look more like the one who was crazy. People didn’t just talk to people on Metro platforms for no reason, and Matthew was no good Samaritan. Plus, the last thing he wanted was any of Larry’s attention directed more sharply at him. The man left a pit draining all the feeling from Matthew’s stomach. He remembered how physically strong Larry had been and how intense his gaze had always felt. The best way to handle this situation was to keep on walking as if nothing were happening at all.