Way Backstory (continued)
After James died, I spent a lot of time in the mailroom talking to Kevin and Louie. It was really the only place that I could talk about James that felt safe and empathetic. My office administration had moved away from the death pretty quickly and had rejected my idea to hang a picture of James in the office.
My feeling was that the idea of memorializing a black man who’d been murdered didn’t reflect well on the company. And maybe that’s so, but for me we had lost a well-loved office colleague to a tragedy that he had very little to do with.
What was left of James’s family picked up and moved back to North Carolina, where they were originally from. Kevin told me one day that James’s three-year-old son was having problems. He kept jumping into ditches and lying down because he wanted to be with his mommy and daddy.
At some point in our grieving process, Louie asked me out on a date. I was totally flattered that this cute Latino, hipster kid from Harlem would ask me, an older white woman, out on a date. I agreed and one night after work, we went out to a Chinese restaurant in the East Village where I lived. When we sat down and the waitress came over to our table, Louie jumped right in and ordered his dinner of fried rice. I was a bit taken aback since I hadn’t even been given a menu and he seemed oblivious of the kind of dating protocol I was accustomed to.
His food arrived before mine and Louie began to eat straight away—directly off the serving platter. I remember thinking, What are you doing out with this guy, we are from two totally different worlds?! But I hung in there because I knew Louie was a good guy, and eventually I had food too, and as we ate, Louie told me about his life in the Lehman Projects. With no drama, he told me about how his sister died in their family apartment, from an asthmatic attack, because the paramedics took too long to get to her. He told me about the building jumpers that couldn’t take the stress anymore, and how one of his close friends head was cracked open by man wielding a baseball bat and Louie held his scull together as he was taken to the hospital. As I was sitting there listening, I thought, Holy shit, just put all of your bullshit and judgments aside, because this man has a lot to teach me. And I did. I put my white middle class judgments down and as I did, I could feel my center moving from my head to my heart, and I became still and acutely attentive as Louie shared his life experiences with me.
We went out for about six months, and eventually it became clear that our interests were too varied to sustain a meaningful relationship. Louie wanted to be an elevator operator or a bounty hunter and I was on my way to graduate school in art. We really were from two different worlds, but the glimpse into life in the projects that I gained through James, Louie and Kevin never left me, and I knew that somehow, someday, I was going to find my way into that world because I couldn’t ignore what I’d learned…