The Art of Being Un-Wired: Chapter Six

(Read the other chapters here.)

Benny called two days later from of all places, Times Square.

I never wanted to laugh when it came to Benny’s exploits.  But most times I couldn’t help it.

“And how’d you end up on this bus going to NYC?”

“I followed the Marines, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Bus was crazy. Chainless and outrageous, girl.”

In the background I heard, “Benny Boy, com’on we’re heading to a club on West 58th. Get that skinny ass of yours over here.”

“Oh, my God! These Marines are losing it, Stell.…” Then I heard what sounded like several yelps (Benny) and barks (Marines?). Then silence.

I put the phone down and did a panoramic turn, taking in the landscape of cardboard boxes still needing to be unpacked. There was so much more to be done before the Minnesotans arrived in two weeks, and here I was in this big, yet skinny Baltimore rowhouse, set adrift in a place where the welcome basket consisted of a cracked tea cup filled to its rims with cigarette butts.

Alone with only my boxes and dreams, I couldn’t help but to think of Francisco, and even as I did, I also thanked God I had no idea where he was or how to reach him.

It had been almost a two full years since we had last seen each other, twenty months and counting since he had kissed my forehead and said, “I was never right for you,” and I in turn, as by rote, ventured yet another tired, “Timing is everything in life – that and preparation.” The preparation part, I knew he took as a dig at him having never made it past seventh grade, and giving him little credit for being as he labeled himself a “scholar and graduate of the school of hard knocks.” But to my way of looking at things, he simply had a hard head, coupled with a supreme lack of initiative.

Francisco, birth name, Clarence, but who Glory referred to only as that son of well-known drug dealer, the miscreant, who would never find his own rhythm or purpose in life. But a person she said she would nevertheless get down on her knees and pray for because even heathens, deserving or not, are loved by the Lord, and so are presumed redeemable–“though those of his ilk rarely are, God bless his lacking soul.”

We met at a Northeast D.C. art gallery.  Francisco moved large pieces of art for the gallery owner, a gay fellow named Proctor, who, truth be told, would have paid Francisco the $8.50 an hour just to lounge on either one or both of the gallery’s dual tangerine “leatherette” sofas as long as he could gaze at Francisco, his muscles, his handsome face and soft eyes. He was I kidded Francisco, Proctor’s live, interactive art to be viewed and admired for his (and select patrons’) exclusive pleasure.

Proctor’s cadre of boyfriends, four to five regulars, stopped by the gallery at least once a day for wine klatches, and, of course, to stare at Francisco. For his indulgence, Francisco on occasion received small envelops filled with what Proctor said were “bonuses” for exemplary work, bonuses of fifty dollars, and one particularly gushy day, a $50 bill, along with seventeen sweaty and wrinkled singles.

Before the gallery Francisco had tried his hand at every criminal activity listed under the District of Columbia penal code, including, but in no way limited to, dealing drugs, boosting, check fraud, along with a short stint at playing at pimp, his least successful incarnation. His “girls,” many well past their strolling prime, he’d often end up feeling sorry for: “My baby boy, Francisco…,” “My chipped tooth…,” “It’s slow and cold, Francisco. Can we make a night of it?,” where with hearing their sad tales, he’d often end up loaning them money. Most of these activities, what he called “economic civil disobedience,” produced not even the smallest measure of success, which now seems right, considering he was once even hauled in for “jaywalking.”

These exploits he told me during the height of our relationship, the period he laughingly called, “life before Estella.” That’s when we met. Right after his last “pinch” and the start of yet another two year parole period. I had purchased a large piece of art from Proctor, a portrait of James Baldwin that really didn’t look like the writer. But even so, I purchased it and then needed help carrying it around the corner to the Tudor.

The next day Francisco didn’t show up at the gallery, or ever again.  I, for my part, was banned from the gallery for life, blackballed from Proctor’s and three others galleries in D.C. owned or managed by his associates.

No longer working at the gallery, I got Francisco a job at my publishing house as a mailroom attendant. And, of course, he moved into the Tutor with me. I had thought the mailroom was a good fit, a natural progression from interactive art model, only to have him explain after a week on the job, “This ain’t me, babe. I’d be better suited to assisting old man Dickerson with the actual running of the mailroom. Not all that passing out the mail business. He don’t know it. But what Dickerson needs is someone to keep them clerks in line. They’re getting over on him big time, Stell.”  Hearing this, I immediately went to Supervisor Dickerson to ask if Francisco could be assigned a job more in line with his skills, duties that would provide him  more direct interaction with people. “He’s really a people person,” I explained, smiling.

Robert Dickerson laughed.  He had been supervisor of Gaitlin Publishing’s office operations for close to twenty-three years, and as he explained to all new employees, “I’ve seen ‘em come and I’ve seem ‘em go.  This may not be a career job, but you’ll earn a decent wage, and the days aren’t so long you won’t get home in time to kiss your kids good night.  And if you do just a half way good job, you can count on me giving you a good reference when you’re ready to move on.”  This was his spiel. He gave it to them all, some listened, some grumbled, some mumbled under smoky breath and through yellow stained teeth what old Dickerson could do with his good reference.

“Estella,” he said in answer to my reassignment request, “most of us have to learn to crawl before we walk. Now your friend…” whatever he was about to say made him chuckle, “let’s just say he’s someone who has trouble just keeping himself steady, upright, if you know what I mean.”

I nodded my head.  I knew there were times Francisco wanted to move faster than I warned him he should.  I also knew that he was not necessarily someone who felt the need to “pay dues.”  But I also knew he was intelligent, and could be a hard worker when presented with the right motivation.

“Perhaps, there’s something else he could help you with?  I know he’s good at delegation.  He very good at staying on top of people,” I said.  I knew this because of the many times he had dodged doing what we had decided would be his share of the household chores, somehow convincing me that for all concerned, we’d be better served if I just did them.

Mr. Dickerson laughed.

“I had him delivering mail, plain and simple.  If he can’t keep straight Jonas from Jones, or 203 from 302, that ain’t my fault, Estella. I don’t have time to teach him his numbers and alphabets, or how to tell their difference.”  I nodded. Before leaving his office, Mr. Dickerson took me by the arm, speaking to me in warm tones as I imagined he would one of his daughters.

“I don’t know just what your business is with this fellow.  I know what people are saying, but this place is always buzzing with old women’s gossip…”   I didn’t want to get factual on him, remind him that the office was almost entirely made up of men, mostly old farts, and that other than myself and the receptionist Donna, the only other women on staff were in the art department, and they worked out of the Pittsburgh office.

“…he seems like a nice enough fellow. But, if this is someone you plan on hitching your wagon to, don’t do it, Estella.  He can’t carry the weight.  And I can say this because I know the type – nice enough, good looking, but he can’t go the distance, never learned and don’t want to…but that’s just my take on things, Sweetheart.”

to be continued…