We were talking about everything and nothing, Tiger and I (click here for our first conversation), when he hit me with the news.
I'd been commenting on how cold it gets in Minneapolis, where I'd recently visited. "And they got a homeless situation there just like we do," I was saying. "Which I don't understand. Forty below? Where do these guys go at night? How do they live?"
"Well, you probably gotta look at the death toll over there."
"That's no joke."
Then he remembered. "Oh, you probably don't know, if you was gone last week. The window washer died. You know that guy, he always had the window washing gear, real tall?"
"Yeah." I paused, recalling his name. "Milard."
"That's the one, Milard."
"What? Are you serious? Milard, dead?"
"Yeah man, he got hit by a car."
"Hold up, I need to think about that for a second." I pulled over. Empty bus, after hours. You can do this at nighttime.
I could feel my brain– slowing down is the first impulse to describe it as, but it was really an expansion, my mind reeling out to take in the massive size of death, the eternal reminder that almost everything we normally think on is so much smaller.
Milard. The tall and lanky and lovable neighbor, whom we knew as a character because he wasn't a character, just a reliably decent man, who'd dress crisply in a variety of styles, somehow able to elicit admiration from youngsters and old-timers alike. He was a man from the generation that will always exist in spirit, but sparsely: the reflective sort, your friend who thought before they spoke, who really did treat others as they'd wish for in return. Who covered their mouth when they yawned.
I couldn't believe it. I stared at Tiger, and he looked back at me. We knew each other's silences then, the twin sensation of a world on pause; something was missing, and in its place was merely negative space. But Tiger had more to share.
"Bro," I said. "Tiger, you got me in a state of shock. Milard? I love that man! I picked him up last– two weeks ago!"
"Two weeks ago that's right. I'm tellin' you. And check this out. Lemme tell you what happened, 'cause this is crazy."
I pulled back into traffic. He cleared his throat.
"So this car hits him. He's jaywalking, it's dark. It's right by the tree, by the store. You know. And the white lady driving the car sees what happened and pulls over, over there by the laundromat."
"By the laundromat okay yeah."
"I was already there, I was trying to perform CPR on him, but it was over. Wasn't nothin' you could do. Wasn't nothin' there, man."
He gestured to his stomach and said it again. "Wasn't nothin' there."
"Man, that guy was the picture a health," I mused. "He was always dressin' sharp, clean-cut dude always with a good word. Everyone loved Milard."
"His funeral was today."
"I woulda gone if I'd known. Love that guy."
"It was big, man. It was a whole lotta people there. He had twelve brothers'n sisters."
"I bet it was big. Twelve? Gosh."
"So get this though. The white lady pulls over, she gets out her car. I'm trying to do CPR on Milard, but ain't nothin' happening. And then all of a sudden Nathan, instantly, all these African guys come running from everywhere. And they pissed. They be pointing they finger at her, like 'she killed him she killed him, the white lady killed him.' They's trying to kill this lady. And I had to make a decision, bro. I stepped in and said, 'oh hell no. All y'all need to get the fuck on.'"
"Man, thank you. On behalf of humanity, thank you. Cause it ain't like she meant it."
"She just made a mistake."
"Naw, not even that. She didn't do nothin' wrong. He jaywalked. He's wearin' black, it's nighttime. There wasn't nothin' she could do. And the African guys is trying to run up on her– and by the way, I don't know where the fuck these guys came from. There was a ton of them, I mean lots. And I'm out here all the time. You're out here too– you know. There ain't never a whole crowd like that."
"Yeah, there never is. I don't see big groups of dudes anymore on Rainier."
"But I was like 'stay back, fools. It ain't like that.'" He snorted. "Trying to make it a race thing, shit."
"Tiger, seriously. Thank you. Because that lady probably woulda gotten killed, which wouldn't have helped anything."
"Exactly, man! I tried to help him, but he was gone. So I made a decision. I can't help him, so I'm gon' help her. I had a decision to make. It's good it was me. Everybody knows me, but they were still pissed."
"And when it's a mob like that, that's when people get killed. You know, the mob mentality, makin' people crazy."
"Right. I had a decision to make, man."
"I'm so glad you were there. You know she ain't ever gonna forget you!"
"I was there when chief John Williams got hit, remember that, the native American dude got hit by the black guy driving a car? It was in the paper. I gave John CPR!"
"You're a guardian angel, Tiger."
"I'm the 'hood doctor!"
I tried to help him, but he was gone. So I made a decision. I can't help him, so I'm gon' help her. The endless wisdom of those lines. Tiger just wanted to help, to further Life, never mind who's who. In a split second he could enact what takes so many of us years of therapy and processing to grasp: Tend to the Living.
Yes, there will be the pain of the family, and the pain of friends. I've written extensively on that sort of loss elsewhere.* There will also be my own confusion and deep sadness at driving on Rainier without ever seeing one of my favorite passengers again. No one was like Milard. He was expert at what I try to do– he made you feel comfortable and appreciated, like you were special. Knowing people by name, and always a kind word for me. You couldn't tell if it was his workday or weekend, because he was equally and consistently happy on both: a fifty-something man who looked thirty-five, with strong defined features and ageless dark skin, plus that irresistibly wide grin.
I'll mourn for Milard later. I get the feeling he'd prefer I just remember his best traits. What I found myself instead returning to that night, amid thoughts of missing my friend, was the car driver.
I thought about what she must be feeling. The guilt she'll carry for the rest of her life. The possible manslaughter charges, legal fees and even jail time; but worse, the gnawing question that she might've destroyed a family's belief in a just universe, and that on her lowest days she may term herself a murderer. Be kind to yourself, fellow human. Milard would. In a decade of knowing the man I never heard him raise his voice, and saw him calm down quite a few irascible souls.
I realized also that she would be forever affected in a positive way. Tiger may not think she made a mistake, but I know she thinks she did. In her mind that night she'd just made the mistake of her life, and every witness but one wanted her blood. She was at the mercy of an angry mob on the wrong side of town, and who saved her?
She will always remember who saved her.
A black American man in the 'hood, who saw her for her core, the common humanity they both shared, who understood her. Who helped her in a time of tremendous need, gladly and significantly risking his safety to do so. A black American man who walked, talked and dressed just like any number of movie villain stereotypes we've grown up with, hard-fronting media figures the youth so baldly try to emulate, and real-world criminals I happen to know.
She will always stick up for a certain type of person now, give them the benefit of the doubt, moreso than before no matter what her views were to begin with. She will have a comprehension of how wide love can run in a way even her closest friends may never comprehend.
I was down, she may think. I was hated by the mob, by God, by myself.
But not by Tiger.
It shouldn't be a pattern, but for whatever reason it's getting to be one. Other stories involving African-American men and myself wrestling with shattering personal loss, here, here, here, here, here, and especially here, a four-part series that turned out rather differently than I ever thought it would.