Mr. Jefferson

I was on my way to the bank the other day, when I passed this gentleman sitting on his front step.  It’s not often that you see folks sitting in front of their houses, just watching the world go by.  It reminded me of a scene I’d see in Louisiana.  I had to stop and introduce myself.

Turns out, his name was Mr. Jefferson.  I asked if he was responsible for the Halloween decorations and he explained that his grandson had put them up. How about that?  How many people do you know who live with their grandchildren? How many elderly black folks do you see in San Francisco? Not many.

When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, just across the bay, I’d drive into the city on Thursday afternoons to visit my uncle Louis, my father’s uncle. He was originally from Louisiana but moved to San Francisco in the ’30’s to work in the shipyards. Uncle Louis lived in the Fillmore, a neighborhood which until the early nineties, was historically black. Before each visit, I’d stop at Safeway and pick up a couple steaks.  I remember being horrified and infuriated at the poor quality of the meats, the limited produce selection.  But Uncle Louis was always happy to see me, and even happier to have two free steaks. After I graduated we lost touch. He died in 1995.

When I moved back to San Francisco eight years ago, I tried to find Uncle Louis’s house. I drove up and down Lyon Street looking for the orange, two-story house with the wood stairs up the side, but never found it.   I learned, a few months later, that the city had bulldozed his block in the name of urban renewal.

Something about seeing Mr. Jefferson sitting on his steps made me feel a calm I hadn’t felt in a long time.  There was something reassuring about seeing an old black man, something comforting about seeing a man wise enough to just sit and watch the world go by.

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