Pay It Forward

Jerry: You ever been on the street?
Arley: My mom took us pretty close.
Jerry: Well, you can’t know. Not until you look at a dumpster. But when you climb into that thing for the first time and you pull those newspapers over you, that’s when you know you’ve messed your life up. Somebody comes along like your son, and gives me a leg up, I’ll take it. Even from a kid, I’ll take it.
Pay It Forward, 2000

Clyde was an African American man that lived in a condo at 3900 N. Lake Shore Drive.  His building was around the corner from where my roommate and I lived on Pinegrove in what is now known as Lakeview East section of Chicago.

Clyde was, to me at that time, a frightening looking man. He was very dark complected and I found the blackness of his skin daunting. He wore a great deal of gold jewelry (ala Mr. T) and what appeared to my naive eyes to be gang colors. He was loud, aggressive, overly friendly and at a time in my life when African American men regularly, consistently, hit on me, he did too. (Baby got back, you see). As a young woman, aged eighteen, living alone in a big city, I was easily frightened and intimidated by Clyde. I tried to ignore him and pretended not to hear his come-ons and rude comments about my back end or large chest or freckles.

Clyde and I used to run into each other at the corner convenience store. Making a run for ramen noodles (it was about all I could afford), or perhaps some diet coke, I would find Clyde leaning against the counter talking to the store owner, also an African American man (whose name escapes me but, like Clyde, he also dug me and hit on me regularly. Oddly he did not frighten me the way Clyde did).

During one of my many visits to the store I finally answered one of Clyde’s many questions. I believe I got tired of it all and hoped that by finally answering him he would leave me alone and stop commenting on my curvy figure or “lime green peepers” (his words for my eyes). I overlooked the “mmm, mmm, mmm” he muttered when I entered and tried my best not to notice his scanning me from head to toe only to stop momentarily on my cleavage.

It was during this conversation that I learned Clyde was a drug dealer and Clyde was also willing to give me a place to sleep.

Oh, no, not like that. I wasn’t into drugs but for some reason the fact that he dealt them fascinated the good little polite catholic girl from New England.  Nor did I sleep with Clyde or live with Clyde.

Clyde was interested in me. He had seen me and my “high yellow” roommate in the area and he was curious. Were we lesbians? Since we lived in the gay neighborhood, and together, a white girl and a “high yellow” ( a word I later learned is a offensive term for very light-skinned multiracial people who also have African ancestry) he assumed we were.  He hoped he we weren’t since he found me and my “yeller” roommate attractive and wanted to know us better. He couldn’t decide if he wanted me or her but wanted to meet us both so he could “figger it out”. (That made me feel a bit ill)

Clyde walked me the block down to my building and we continued chatting. During that conversation I seemed to spill the fact that my roommate and I were not gay (he was happy to hear that), but rather single, young, very poor girls rooming together. I omitted the fact that Yeller and I had met in a maternity home and we had left our children to strangers.  Odd, I was ashamed of myself even in the presence of a drug dealer. I did note that we had no furniture and that I had been sleeping on the floor of my bedroom for quite some time.

Clyde was genuninely disturbed by our situation. The once scary, dark skinned drug dealer, suddenly softened in front of me and told me he could help us. He had a few extra things and was willing to give them to us – no strings attached. I have no idea why he did this, perhaps he was drawing on his own very poor, pre drug dealing days. Perhaps he just wanted to pay it forward. I dont know.

Clyde gave me a boxspring and matress that weekend. Used (um, eww, but beggars cannot be choosers and I did cover it with plastic) but clean. He, and I and Yeller? We walked it out of his condo on Lake Shore Drive, down a block and into my two bedroom two bath roach infested apartment  condo on Pinegrove.

It is odd to think of now. Not sure I would do that now but of course, my life is different now. 

Clyde helped me for no reason at all back in 1986. He never claimed a thing, never again did he try to hit on me. He waved, smiled, exchanged pleasantries and asked me how I was doing. I suspect he watched out for us and if needed, we could have gone to him for additional help. We never did.

Obviously, I have never forgotten him.

This week, my fiance and I are giving away what could be hundreds of household items free (thank you freecycle.org). We have had many people contact us and share with us stories of divorce, job loss, starting over.  Each one of the stories is as heart breaking as mine probably was to Clyde in 1986.  Each time someone takes something from our pile, they express deep appreciation and thanks.

I personally want to tell them, dont thank me.

Thank Clyde.

4 Thoughts.

  1. Just lovely, Suz! I appreciate learning just a slice of what was going on with you back in those days and that someone who most just look down on became a piece of the fabric of your life.

    I know I’ve learned a great deal from the indigent people that I work with every day. They have been doctors, lawyers, business owners, learned people in their home countries, therapists, and social workers. I’ve learned we all are really just one or two paychecks from being just like them should the sh*t hit the fan and that we really shouldn’t judge a book by the cover, because we might miss out on a lovely story.

    I love you and appreciate you and I’m so glad that you are in my life!!!

  2. To echo what Suz mentions concerning freecycle.org, I had never heard of this site prior to Suz posting the stuff we have late Sunday evening, well imagine my shock at the tons of emails we’re receiving…
    I’ve found myself parsing through the emails and I’ve felt like, ‘WOW so many tales of woe’, as Suz has alluded to divorce, job loss, people just down on their luck, etc…
    So rather than try to Craigslist some of this to make a few $$$ it really is heartening to know that a lot of this stuff will find a new home, Pay It Forward, Good Karma, call it whatever you like, it just plains feel good to do something good for others & be able to help out in some small way.
    Great post as always Suz…

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