There I stood in an empty art gallery on an early spring morning in Northeast Minneapolis. Dressed in my best suit, I was filled with the kind of nervous excitement that a person feels when they are about to take the next step up the ladder of their career. This day was the culmination of years of struggle, at last, my very first book signing. I could only hope that the place would soon be packed with people willing to their hard earned dollars for an autographed copy of my book. The owner of the gallery had entrusted me with the keys so I could come in early and get everything set-up for the big event.
As I began to stack new books on the table I saw in the window a fleeting image, his shadow falling across the well-worn hardwood floor. He quickly turned around and peeked his head in the door.
“Anyone else here?”, this man asked as his eyes scanned the gallery. His hands clumsily tugging on a leather tool-pouch and as he walked closer the smell of cheap wine escaped through missing teeth.
“Just me” I said, “We open in a half-hour.”
We stood in silence for a moment, I could tell his wheels were turning as he was trying to formulate a wine-dazed hustle.
This man walked towards a windowless hall, stopping in front of one of my friend’s paintings, a scene of an old boat resting on a peaceful shore.
“Come here for a minute. I got a question about this one.” He said, slowly pulling a scratched blue pry-bar from his belt.
“What would you like to know?” I asked cautiously, inching further away and closer to the door.
His eyes shifted nervously from side-to-side and his breathing quickened. “Umm, there’s offices back here right?”
“Let’s come outside and talk” I said, wanting nothing more at that moment than to find a witness. He ran outside to meet me.
“Man that’s cold!”, he said as his eyes bulged and stared me down with what seemed a half-hearted rage. “A man want to look at paintings and because of the color of a brotha’s skin you ask him to come outside and talk!”
We stood face to face outside the gallery door and the pry-bar made its pendulum swing just inches from my face.
“You nothin’ but a racist motha fucka!” he said. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll kill you and make your coffin!”,he yelled as he pulled a hammer from his leather pouch.
“If you want to fight, we can fight, but put down the tools. I don’t have anything to defend myself”, I said. Suddenly this man’s face registered a kind of surprise as if this response wasn’t at all what he expected from a guy in a suit. The pry-bar hit the grass with a dull thud. Then his eyes softened a bit. “Man, I done seven years in the pen. They beat me more times than I can count.”
“It doesn’t have to be like this, man. Why’re you so angry?”, I asked in a voice as calm as I could manage.
“I’m the wrong one to fuck wit today. I been livin’ on the street for two days. My girlfriend threw me out, the bitch.”
“Life can be hard sometimes.”, I said. “What happened?” The hurt began to show as his eyes pooled. “We have a son together, you know. She was makin’ me breakfast and we just started arguin’.”
“I’m sorry about that. Maybe you can go back and talk to her?”
“Come here a minute.” I said as he followed me into the gallery, still toting his claw hammer. “This is yours to keep”.
“What’s this?” he asked, looking as if kindness was a stranger.
“It’s a book of my poetry, go back and read her this one”, I said with a wink and opened the flimsy book to a poem called Imaginary Embrace.
A childlike-look washed across his face as a tear streamed down his cheek
“You alright!”, he said, looking at the book and then back at me. “Maaannn, you wrote all these?”
“Yep” I said. As we stood and talked I began to slowly see the real person emerge from behind the armor that allowed him to survive the days in his world. We shook hands and he made his way around the corner.
Seconds later he peeked his head around the corner of the building, blind anger again beginning to reclaim his soul.
“You know what? Tomorrow you’ll be gone but I’ll still be out here livin’ in these streets.” Once again he disappeared into his world, I was speechless.