Office hours

Without a real office, I told my students that I’d be available at Grand Central coffeeshop on Tuesdays after class. Rushing in just after 3 p.m., I quickly glanced around and saw no students. One man did catch my eye. Leaving his table, he nodded and smiled at me, and I returned the almost-greeting. Just being friendly — or is he someone I should know from some context? He is African American, roughly my age. That is, he’s not a college student, nor yet doddering off into senility, but somewhere in the grand middle ground, tending to older rather than younger.

He greets me in a friendly voice. “Hi, Mary.”

I think that’s what he said. He knows my name, but I still can’t place him. “Hi,” I reply.

We chat about the weather. Yes, it’s still cold, but not as cold as it will be tonight. He asks if I have a minute to chat. I tell him that I may be meeting some students, but until they arrive …

We sit down at a table. I notice that he doesn’t have coffee, and I haven’t yet had a chance to order any. He is dressed in an olive-green parka, the kind I think of as Army-style, a Yankee cap, and one black knit glove. He carries a section of today’s newspaper and a printout about a program that’s coming up at Macalester on Saturday, a reading of Ntozake Shange’s “For colored girls who have considered suicide: When the rainbow is enuf.”

Two sentences into our conversation, which turns out to be a sad monologue, I realize that he doesn’t know me, but is just desperate to talk. Peter is 54. He has lost his mother, father, brother and son in the past six years. And maybe his wife? That part isn’t clear. He has no home, no family, no hope. He asks me repeatedly if I think that things will get better — things for African American men, things for children, things for the poor, things for the unemployed. He tells me that he believes in God and in Jesus Christ and that nothing will shake this belief. Tears leak down his cheeks, and he unselfconsciously brushes them away with a balled-up napkin.

He says, early in the conversation, that he was struck by a light around me when I came in. He sees a light in my eyes. I know I see something in his eyes. It is not light, exactly, but more like burning, pain, and resistance to despair. He speaks well, like someone who has been college-educated, though he says he has not.

I ask whether he grew up in St. Paul, but the answer gets convoluted and somewhat confusing.

He talks about the disparity in unemployment in Minnesota, and how it’s worse than elsewhere. He says that if I walk along Grand Avenue, from Hamline to Cleveland, I probably won’t see any black people. It’s the rich side of the divide. It’s not their fault, many rich people are good people, but there it is. There is a divide of money and of race.

He talks about speaking at Macalester, telling some part of his opinions about race and unemployment and the side of life that privileged Macalester students do not hear, and a promise of a hot lunch and $80 for his part in a panel. Then someone gave him a script, but he wouldn’t follow the script, even if it meant no money, because he had to tell his own truth. And then a story about someone at Hamline recording his life story for some video project.

It’s all believable, as is his account of shelters, where you have to put your name in a lottery and maybe get a bed and maybe not. He says he walks 20 miles a day. He might.

After half an hour, he does ask for money. Enough for a $6 bed at Union Gospel Mission, instead of the lottery for beds. I don’t have much cash, but I have enough for two nights. I don’t know whether he will use it for a bed. I don’t care. He is a sad person, and he has connected with me, and I owe him this much.

Before I leave, I offer to buy him a cup of coffee. “Would a small hot chocolate be okay instead?” he asks. Of course. And I add a brownie.

As I leave, he is at the counter, asking for a job application form.


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