I’m mourning the passing of a friend that I did not know very well, and yet when I reflect upon our conversations, I realize that perhaps we knew each other better that I thought.
He was a homeless man who basically lived at Wickers Field and hung out at the softball field. I am angry with myself because I realize I never knew his real name until now. The ball players would call him “Wolfman”, “Kimbombo”, “Sanbibi” and other monikers…not in a demeaning manner, just in a in-Key-West-everyone-has-a nickname sort of way; but then again, I think that maybe part of it was that none of us wanted to take the friendship any further than that; an occasional conversation at a ballpark between well-adjusted athletes and a “bum” who rarely bathed—because he had no access to facilities—and who panhandled for money to get an occasional beer.
Not that he was a raging drunk; he was actually very gentle and well-mannered and was not over-the-top with his requests for funds. He’d usually ask for $0.75, and he usually got that and then some. He would often tell me his food stamps had come in and offer to buy me some steaks to repay my generosity, which I would always decline, thanking him for pursuing our friendship as a two way street.
I once called him “My Nigga” – in the affectionate way that those of us who have lived in poor communities and Black neighborhoods use that word to promote kinship and love – as opposed to vitriol and racism. He smiled, and when I reiterated the context of my greeting. He told me that, in any event, he was not a black man! When I kidded him and asked him if he was Chinese, he smiled and told me that he was part Norwegian. I laughed and thanked him for opening my eyes to the genre of black-skinned Norwegians!
He liked to call everyone “Chief” and was proud of retrieving balls that were hit out of the park and brought them back to us proudly, confident that he had done his job well. I learned a few months ago that at one time, he had been a well-respected electrician and contributing member of society.
I sadly overheard someone say that the black bum from the ballpark had died. What a shame! You either did not have the opportunity to get to know him as a person, or you are just too shallow to understand that one does not measure the value of a fellow human being by the amount of money in their wallet or their position in society.
Many years ago I was walking downtown and made a snide remark about a panhandler. My godfather, who was walking with me, stopped and spoke to the man briefly and handed him a few dollars. When I inquired, he told me, “There for the grace of God go I!” He told me that things can befall even the best of us and could change us practically overnight and leave us in the gutter! He taught me an unforgettable lesson.
Over the years my Norwegian friend lived at the park, he gained the trust and affection of the ballplayers and their families. I wish we had known he was sick. I am sure that the people whose lives he touched at that field would have rallied to help him. He, of course, would have never asked anyone for anything, other than maybe the $0.75. Homeless, hungry and lonely as he was, he was a proud and caring human being who enriched my life; I am proud to have had Charles Brown call me his friend and quite sadly, I will miss him.