I have a long story to tell in a short space.
From 1985 to 1999 I lived in a low-income neighborhood in New Orleans. One day I met a nine year-old boy named Brandon Jones who became my lifelong friend and I his. He taught me what it is to be poor, what it’s like to be on the team with no power. Not many people get that gift in life. He gave me insight and understanding; made me laugh until I cried and cry until I couldn’t any more. He raised me up from a nice white girl to a woman with eyes in my heart that I couldn’t have gotten any other way. He was my heart.
Me, I tried to give him a level playing ground to start from. I gave him a place to live when there was no other and beat the truth into him: That he was brilliant. That he could be anyone he chose to be. When he was eleven and had to go to the stricter school for bad kids, on his application under What do you want to be when you grow up? he wrote, “Football coach and writer-director.” I smiled at that, knowing he was listening. When he was sixteen I used my power to get him a job at Whole Foods Market. That was my contribution. He used his own power to work his way up to head cashier.
Brandon’s mother Regina used to take care of me, in the old days, in the neighborhood. Made sure people knew I was okay. She saw me talking to the wrong person she’d say, “Huh UH! That’s MY white woman! You hear me? That’s Nan. She’s MY white woman. You can’t have her.” And people in the neighborhood knew. People in the neighborhood didn’t mess with no Regina Jones.
Later on, Regina had a second child named Justin Jones. One day, in my old house I heard a three year-old voice outside, shouting, “Nan Parati! I’m peein’ on your house!”
I looked out at the street. “Justin Jones! What in the world are you doing?”
“I’m peein’ on your house!” he said proudly. And indeed, he was.
“You’re not supposed to pee on people’s houses,” said I.
“You ain’t?” Justin Jones was truly surprised. But you know, that’s how you learn.
A year later, Regina and Justin and I were at dinner. Justin Jones sat on my lap, looking at my hand while Regina and I talked. “Nan Parati!” he suddenly yelped. “You white!”
“Justin!” admonished his mama, “Don’t say that to Nan! That ain’t nice!”
“It’s all right!” I said to Justin Jones, “Indeed I am!” There is something to be learned every day!
Brandon, in his early twenties would come to my house and sit on my porch and eat milk and cookies. “I got issues,” he’d say, and we’d sit and talk until late in the night, working out the issues. He wanted to be somebody. He was working and he was saving. There were a lot of obstacles in the way, but he wanted to make it. By now he wanted to be a music producer, but was studying massage therapy because it turned out he had the touch. And then, at age 23 he was killed, on his way home from work by an off-duty cop who was speeding, trying to put miles on his squad car before turning it in that night. The cop T-boned Brandon and his friend as they drove home from work, from Whole Foods like anybody else. No drive-by shooting, no angry violent end, just a really stupid accident that took out my boy. My life on this earth has lasted a lot longer than Brandon’s did, but his impact on me was carved deep.
I talked to Justin Jones last week on the phone, the first time in several months now. He is now 14 years old and is as good a kid as he knows how to be. After Brandon died, Regina lost all the power she had, threw it to the wind and gave out. Didn’t care anymore. Before Hurricane Katrina she managed an apartment building in a scary part of town, trading the handling of tough tenants for free rent. She went back to her job after Katrina, but in June she had a falling out with the owner of the building and she was out.
Regina and Justin are living in a homeless shelter now. As people on the edge are hard to keep up with, I didn’t know this until last week. Justin says it’s not too terribly bad—he and his mama share a room and they share a bathroom with everyone else on the hall. He’s in the eighth grade and plays the tuba in the school band. He knows how bad off his mama is and he thinks that, if he is good enough, and does everything he can to be the best child in the world she will come back to him the way she did with Brandon. So far it’s not working so well. Regina has lost her will to care.
So here’s the end of my story: If you were just sitting around thinking, “If I knew of a great kid who truly, truly needed a Christmas and I knew that someone would make sure that every bit of any money I donated would go directly to that kid, I would send him a little!” then Justin Jones is your man. Justin Jones has learned a lot in his young life and every time I think of him I think that Justin Jones, trying so hard to be good, trying so hard to grow up and be somebody, needs some help. Needs some nourishment and encouragement. Needs to know he can be somebody.
There is no admonishment in this: it’s just if you were thinking about kids who need a Christmas. If not, there is no guilt. There’s not a lot of extra money this year for anybody and I know that. I’m going to do what I can do, for him, from here, myself. If you were thinking the same thing, just let me know. I can get it to him, safe and reliably. That’s my whole story.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nan is the proprietor of Elmer’s Store in Ashfield, MA. A New England transplant from the Deep South, Nan shares her southern wit, wisdom and charm every week in her column, “Notes from Nan.” Share dinner with her every Friday at Elmer’s. Menu’s are posted with her column. firstname.lastname@example.org