Every few months, usually in the late fall or early winter after the day’s light has drained away, there’s a knock on my door. I’m in the kitchen fixing dinner, the girls are at the table doing their homework, and the knocking barely registers over the radio, and the clang of pots on the stove, and the post-soccer-practice chatter. I wipe my hands, scold the dogs for barking, and head down the hall, wondering what neighbor has locked herself out or stopped by to let me know I left my headlights on. And sometimes, it is a neighbor, embarrassed at her absent-mindedness, or happy to have spared me a morning’s frustration. But usually, it’s a young black man or woman in a pressed shirt or blouse, shivering against the cold, and seeing them through the window, I think to myself, “Oh right. It’s that time of year.”
But Autumn is long gone, and it was barely six o’clock, so I wasn’t thinking about dinner or neighbors or headlights when I heard the knock earlier this evening, and upon answering, discovered two young black men in shirts, ties and jackets standing on my porch. They stood at a respectful distance–the older guy a few feet from my door, the younger one, just a kid, really, behind him, on the second step. I guessed that standing a few feet from the door was part of their training: Give people a chance to get a good look. Don’t make them feel threatened. The older guy introduced himself as Jeff Ford. He asked me my name, extended his hand to shake, then he launched into his speech. He wasn’t asking for money or trying to sell me anything, he said. They’d come all the way from Virginia, with a program called Best Success or High Achievers or something like that, and he was mentoring the young man, whose name was Tywon. They were out practicing their communication and sales skills to build self-esteem so that hopefully, one day, young Tywon could find a job.
Do you remember your first job? Jeff asked. What was it?
I had to think back. I couldn’t remember if my first job was selling shoes or digging pearls out of oysters to mount on cheap gold-plated settings for tourists at Marine Land. “I sold shoes,” I said.
“Did you learn valuable life skills? Skills that made you the success you are today?”
I nodded vaguely. “More or less,” I said, deciding that under the circumstances, it probably wasn’t a good idea to admit I got fired from the shoe store (business was slow) and quit Marine Land gig because I felt guilty every time I convinced a tourist to spend an extra twenty-five dollars on a ring I knew would tarnish in a week.
Jeff continued with his spiel. He hadn’t always been on the straight and narrow path. He’d been in a gang, done drugs, served time in jail. But eventually, he saw the light. He got his GED and went on to business school. Now, he was helping young guys like Tywon turn their lives around.
Like I said, Jeff and Tywon aren’t the first people who’ve knocked on my door. There was Vanessa, a wiry young black girl from Alabama who fell in with a similar organization after they recruited her at a bus station. And before that, there was another young black man from Mississippi whose name I’ve forgotten, who was working to support his grandmother. And before that, there was an even younger girl from another southern state who was just trying to make enough money to get back home to her six-month-old daughter. Each one of them delivered a variation on the same speech. They were all working on their communication skills, building their self esteem. They all wanted to do something with their lives.
Every time I open the door and see a young person standing there, my heart breaks for them just a little. It can’t be easy, traveling from city to city, sleeping three-or-four-to-a room in dingy airport motels, knocking on doors which, more often then not, get slammed in their face if they’re even opened at all. And then there are the organizations–Success Builders, Leadership Masters, whatever they’re called–that are really all about inflating the subscription prices and keeping the profits. They recruit kids from the inner-cities or small towns with promises of travel and making more money than they’ve ever had. Then they give the kids a daily quota, make them pay for their meals and shelter out of their meager commissions.
I’m only sharing the highlights here, but I can tell you Jeff’s speech lasted a good seven minutes, and included references to Dr. Martin Luther King and the negative effects of gentrification. He talked about something called, “Root Shock,” which he explained was the inner-city equivalent of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “It’s why you see all those guys hanging around on their stoops or standing on street corners doing nothing,” he said. “It’s because it’s not like it was before, when you were a kid who maybe did something wrong, and all the grown-ups in the neighborhood saw and got on you themselves before telling your mama even before you got home. Those days are gone. Everything’s been bulldozed. We’ve lost our sense of community.”
I waited till Jeff finished his speech, then said, “Okay, how many magazines do I need to buy?”
Jeff laughed, and behind him, Tywon laughed too. I guess they didn’t expect me to get straight to the point. But there’s the thing: Sometimes I give money or buy magazines and sometimes I don’t–it depends on my mood as much as my finances. But I always listen to their speeches and I always wish them good luck. What made me take the bait today? Jeff’s speech. For all his spotty historical references and questionable scientific terminology, he was speaking the truth. And there was no denying his passion. I believed him when he said he’d turned his life around, that he wanted to help Tywon find his way. I saw the enthusiasm in his face, heard it in his voice. He’d found a place for himself in this world. His life had meaning and purpose. And maybe I am naive and Jeff was just one hell of a salesman. Maybe that’s so. But I don’t think so. I’m a pretty good judge of people. I don’t think what I saw was an act.
After Jeff and I agreed on which magazines I’d buy, I turned to Tywon. He’d been standing quietly in the background listening the entire time.
“What about you?” I asked. “What you are interested in? What do you want to do?”
“I want to build up my sales skills,” he said. It was the line he’d been trained to say. Then he added, “But what I really want to do is be a poet.”
“You look like a poet,” I said.
Tywon’s whole face lit up. You’d have thought I told him he won the National Book Award. He thanked me, then stepped forward and shook my hand.
And that’s when I knew how I could make a difference, a real difference, and it wasn’t about buying magazines or listening to speeches. “Hold on,” I said. “I want to give you something.”
A. Van Jordan and Terrance Hayes, both black men, both brilliant, are two of my favorite poets. I ran upstairs and pulled their poetry books from my self. I gave them to Tywon, along with my card, and made him promise to stay in touch. I told him about Cave Canem and VONA, two conferences just for writers and poets of color, and encouraged him to apply for next year. I had to stop myself from offering to pay the registration fee if he’s accepted. Tywon was so happy he hugged me.
It was starting to get dark. The wind had picked up. Not too long after I gave Tywon the books, he and Jeff were on their way.
I hope Jeff and Tywon make it, whatever that means. I know Jeff will, he’s charismatic, and I think he’s seen enough hardship to stay the course. But my fingers are doubly crossed for Tywon. I hope he reads the poetry and finds something in the pages that speaks to him. I hope he writes. If he does, it’ll be the best hundred bucks worth of useless magazines I’ve ever spent.