In the words of Langston Hughes, “life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”
Still, despite a humble start, the absence of my father, and being exposed to some of the cruelties of life earlier than anyone should, I am mostly content with my lot in life. I’ve even come to understand that perhaps my journey has been more meaningful because of those experiences.
Recently, I was reminded of Hughes’ words when I ran in to my best childhood buddy.
For the sake of both his privacy and dignity, I’ll just refer to him as “Big Rob.”
I met Big Rob while playing on a mound of dirt in my front yard. I must have been about 8. The phone company had piled the dirt there while they installed a pay phone near the curb. One day, while I was jumping up and down on the dirt pile, Big Rob walked over and challenged me to see who could jump the highest.
From that moment until shortly after high school we were the closest of pals.
But we drifted apart, as people often do, and except for someone mentioning him in conversation from time to time, Big Rob existed only in memory, and I still envisioned him as he looked in high school.
So to say that I was shocked at how Big Rob looked when I ran into him this past summer while driving in downtown Durham would be an understatement. I wasn’t even sure that it was Big Rob. But, as I drove past the weary figure there was something about him that reminded me of my old pal.
I turned the car around to make sure my eyes were seeing what I thought they had seen. As I drove past slowly this time, my heart sank. The man walking as though he was trying not to tumble forward was Big Rob.
Guilt, excitement, sadness and anger all came rushing down on me like a warm waterfall. The ravages of time had not sparedmy friend, and to see Big Rob looking defeated was more than I could bear.
My first thought was to just drive on and just be thankful that I wasn’t somewhere walking aimlessly in the street, but I couldn’t.
I pulled over, got out of my car and began to walk toward him, “Hey, Big Rob! It’s me, Kelvin Allen.” What’s up, man?” As soon as the words rolled off my tongue, I realized how lame I sounded.
“I know who you are, Kelvin, good to see you, man,” he said slowly, almost muttering.
Still, I was relieved.
As I stood in front of him, he looked much the same as I remembered, except for a few missing teeth and some middle-age balding. He looked like he was eating well and was physically strong. His clothing was soiled, though, and a good shave and shower were in order.
What disturbed me most during our brief encounter was how slow of speech he had become.
After a few handshakes and slaps on the back, we were silent. I really didn’t know what to say and I suppose he didn’t either. So instead of continuing to question him about what he had been up to for the last 35 years, some of which I could probably figure out, I gave him my telephone number and a crisp $20 bill.