If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
I was in the old neighborhood tonight and passed a house where the meanest man used to live. I've written about him on social media before, many times. Mid-seventies, alcoholic, angry drunk. White, medium build, yellow teeth, hard green eyes. Smelled like piss and stale clothes and cigarettes. Owned a brownstone around the corner with POW-MIA and Old Glory and other flags in the windows. Racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist, you name an "ist" or an "ic" and he exemplified it. Archie Bunker multiplied by Nick Nolte, if you can imagine that. (I'm not usually squeamish about language, but this man was so vile that if I don't break the dashes out, this story will be too unpleasant for mass consumption.)
He used to taunt people walking past his house, to get them mad enough to come up on the steps to hit him, hoping he could use the baseball bat he kept handy to kill them and plead self-defense. He insulted anyone he felt like insulting. One time he called me a "f----t k---" (homophobic slur, antisemitic slur) as I was walking past the house with my son, who was nine at the time. I was so stunned by the surreal nature of that particular insult that it took me half a block to realize he was directing it at me.
He prompted one of the greatest comebacks ever. My daughter's friend, who's half-Irish, half-African American, was walking past his house to see my daughter one summer day, and this guy called out from the stoop, "Hot enough for you, n-----?" She said, "Not as hot as you're gonna be sucking Satan's d--- in hell, motherf-----."
I yelled at this man one time when he was in a bodega, not only insulting the Jordanians who ran the place but also insulting gay people by saying he'd stopped eating in nice restaurants twenty-five years ago because there were too many gay waiters and cooks and he didn't want to contract AIDS from the food they handled. I'd gritted my teeth through his mutterings on previous occasions, but this time something in me snapped. I meant to just chastise him for his noxious thoughts, and for expressing them with my then-young son right there, but I lost my temper and started screaming at him and cursing him (completely defeating my original point about not talking that way in front of children) and telling him that the only silver lining here was that people like him were dinosaurs, and sooner or later he'd vanish from the earth and nobody would mourn him.
He responded that he'd fought for his country in Vietnam and he was entitled to say whatever the f--- he wanted. He also yelled, "I got a wife in Argentina!" Which I thought was an odd detail at the time.
Well, I passed his house tonight. There were no more flags or decals in the windows. An African-American man was in front of the house, bringing empty garbage cans in from the curb. He turned out to be the superintendent of that building and others in the neighborhood.
I said, "What happened that old vet who used to live here?"
He said, "Oh, he's gone."
I said, "Did he die?"
He said no, he just moved away a couple of years ago and sold the building not long after. Apparently he got very ill with some kind of respiratory infection -- maybe pneumonia, but the super wasn't sure -- and went to a VA hospital in Queens for treatment. He was there for over two months. This super told his employers (friends he'd been working with for over 20 years) that this would be a good opportunity to buy the property from the owner. So they made an offer for well below what the house was probably worth, which the super conveyed to the vet by going up to the VA hospital in Queens. The super negotiated a finders' fee plus the right to live there rent-free.
The super told me that the vet's name was John Valley*, and that he got kicked out of the Queens facility for being nasty to the staff and for sneaking booze and cigarettes in. He got transferred to a different VA hospital in Manhattan and stayed there until he sobered up. The real estate people paid him actual cash for the house, and he used part of it to bring his wife in from Argentina -- yes, she was real! -- and put her up in a sublet. This woman stayed long enough to support him as he went through rehab and then went back to Argentina. He's back in Queens now, renting a room near the previous VA hospital, but he came through the old neighborhood a couple of months ago and saw the super and told him that he was thinking of moving back.
"I hope he doesn't," he said.
"Me, either," I said, "that guy was a menace."
He said, "He seems better now. I just mean it's bad for an addict to come back to where they had the problems."
Then he asked me if I wanted to see a picture of the guy.
Of course I did.
The man I saw sitting in the passenger seat of a rental car was almost unrecognizable. He looked ten years younger. His complexion was good. He was clean-shaven and wearing a white polo shirt and sunglasses. His hair was properly combed and he was smiling. In the driver's seat was the estranged wife who had briefly returned from Argentina to support him in his recovery.
My first thought was, "How dare he be happy." Which I know is a petty thing to think about another person. But this was such a hateful man, a man who caused so many people I know so much pain, the kind of man you'd cross the street to avoid. A man who tried to bait people into killing him or being killed by him. It was galling to me that he could look that contented and that well-preserved after such a short time clean.
But these things happen. And that's how recovery works. You're a terrible, vicious, self-destructive person for a long time, then maybe you have that moment of clarity and do the work and stick with it, and come out the other side improved, or at least intact.
The superintendent said, "Doesn't he look good?"
I said, "Yeah. But I gotta admit, I'm a little surprised to hear you talking about him with such affection."
He laughed in my face and said, "I said he was in recovery, I didn't say he'd turned into a nice person!" But then he admitted that yes, he was rooting for him.
"I thought he was the worst," I said.
"He was," he said. "Called me all kinds of names, all the time. N-----, scumbag, everything under the sun, except 'child of god.'"
He told me he had intervened to save John three times, twice when he was baiting other black people and they moved to attack him (once he physically restrained a young "crackhead" from attacking John), and the third time when he and one of his friends were walking home from a neighborhood bar and passed John's house to see him being mugged. The mugger ran off with John's wallet and the two men chased him, caught him, beat him up, and took John's cash from him and brought it back.
"I think everybody deserves a second chance," he said.
I extended my hand and said, "My name's Matt."
He said, "John Tate**. But people call me Messiah."
I said, understandably, "Get the f--- out here."
He stared at me coolly and explained, "There's no 'the.'"
I said, "Oh, right, of course," even thought that explanation didn't really satisfy me. I said, "So you're telling me you're trying to carry on the teachings of Jesus or something?"
He said, "Well, I would never put myself on that level. I just think we're all children of God."
It's true. Jesus wouldn't have swept in like Messiah did, cutting himself a sweet deal in the process. But all in all, he was more compassionate towards John the Vet than I was prepared to be, especially considering that he'd borne the brunt of the man's anger and bigotry for a much longer span of time, and felt the sting of his rage more keenly than I could imagine.
I confess now that I have very mixed feelings about this conversation. This man spread so much ill will in his little corner of the world -- he was probably the meanest man I've ever personally known and had to live near -- but the other John is right, we're all children of god and deserve second chances. I think it was easier to write him off as a waste of human potential, because then I could pity him, in place of hating him. But now I see that there was a tremendous amount of pain there, and I still don't know the roots of it. Not that that gives anyone license to be a hateful bigot or bully, of course. But he didn't come out of the womb like that. A lot of forces probably combined to forge that hateful person. I have no idea what they were. I hope the recovery sticks, though I personally don't feel any desire to have him try to make amends to me. I'd rather just never see him again.
* Name slightly changed for privacy.
** Ditto, though the two men do have the same first name, which is utterly bizarre.
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