This I Believe
This I believe- that nobody is all bad. Regardless of the face we present to the world, regardless of the tough meanness our choices may require of us, I believe that as surely as the heart beats and the lungs draw breath, there is a thread of goodness within each of us, however small it might be, that is part of what is essential for keeping us alive.
When I was young and newly married, we were living in a combination loft and studio in Oakland. The good news was that the space was creatively inviting, let us rearrange things endlessly as we were discovering how we lived together as a couple and large enough to host fabulous dinner parties. The down side was that we were in a fairly seedy neighborhood, decidedly not safe after dark and sometimes the daylight hours were questionable as well.
One fall mid afternoon walking the 2 blocks home from the BART station, I watched a young man, swaggering down the street, a 20-pound boom box hoisted on one shoulder. He was singing along, shouting really, at the top of his considerable lungs when he wasn’t hurling obscenities at other guys on the sidewalk and the carloads of guys cruising around. I definitely got the sense that there was territorial marking going on. A silver car went by, slowing down enough to respond to his loudly flung words and though I wouldn’t say he was disturbed by this, it was pretty clear he wasn’t expecting to be talked back to. A minute later I was about to the cross the street to my building when the silver car came round again. This time the guys were all shouting at each other when the car was still ½ a block away and when the car came alongside him, there was the shocking sound of 2 quick shots, singer and boombox crashed to the ground, the car sped off. I was half way across the street when I felt myself drawn straight to this man. I knew without knowing that he was dying and that it was my job to hold him while he did. Suddenly people were everywhere. More than one voice was shouting for someone to call 911. A voice answered from somewhere that someone was doing it. It seemed everyone around me knew this guy and I was surrounded by people talking about how he was nothing but trouble from the time he was a kid, that he was just like his brothers, that he had it coming to him. I had reached the street where his life blood was gushing out of a chest wound and I slid my lap under his head. A couple of people shouted at me that he was bad news, that I should get away before the cops came, that it wasn’t worth risking anything on a dead man. Even as all this shouting was going on, I sensed more than saw, the street emptying of people. Then my focus spiraled into the whisper of a voice coming from the young man in my lap. I shut out everything else as best as I could, and started hearing the words. They were promises really, “O there you are, I’ll make sure Otis gets you a plant on Easter, I was saving up for lilies for you –the money is in my pillow case. Let Bethany go on the choir field trip-she has a crush on Johnson. I love you, you know.” As his voice got weaker and the speaking became nonsensical and then inaudible, I realized he thought I was his mother, that he was saying goodbye to her, however he could. As his voice faded entirely I understood in a flash that he needed to hear his mom speak back to him. So I told him I knew about the pillowcase money stash, that I’d take good care of Otis and Bethany and that I never doubted his love for me and that I loved him too. The peace that crossed his face as I said I loved him told me I’d said the right thing. As his body went limp and a long breath exited from him, I knew he’d breathed his last.
Vaguely aware that someone was directing traffic around us, I prayed to God to take this man Home. Then there was a hand on my shoulder. I turned to see a paramedic, squatting next to me, in front of his ambulance, talking to me. I heard myself say “He’s dead now”. Someone was checking for a pulse and then they were loading him into the ambulance. A man had appeared from somewhere and was telling the story to the paramedics. In a bit of a daze, I got up and walked into my building. In retrospect I’ve often wondered that nobody stopped me. As far as I know the cops didn’t come. Or at least I didn’t hear their sirens and no one was knocking at my door, while hot water sluiced the blood and tears of a dying man down the shower drain.
What has always stayed with me is the fact that with his last breath this young man, so hard and mean and formidable on the outside, wanted to make sure that the people he loved would be taken care of and to be sure they knew he loved them. This is what I believe-no one is all bad.
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