My thoughtful daughters gave me colorful flowers and a lobster dinner, but the most memorable part of my Mother’s Day was helping to save a young man from himself while simultaneously betraying him.
I first saw him through my front window, when my daughter came inside after retrieving something from her car and told me there was a man out there who needed help. She said he had fallen, she had offered to help him up, there was something wrong with him and she was afraid he would get hurt.
Looking through the window blinds, I saw a man wearing dark gray baggy pants, a light gray jacket and a black ball cap with the bill turned backward. He was facing away from me, standing almost against my neighbor’s car, wobbling as if he would fall down any moment.
I called 911 and described the situation, saying I was afraid he was going to be hurt. As I talked, I saw the man fall down in the open parking space. “He’s not moving,” I said to the dispatcher. “Please send someone quickly.”
As I went outside to check on the man, he rose and started walking down the sidewalk to my left, toward the pool. To my right I saw several people, neighbors from the block around the corner. A man with shorn hair said, “That guy just drank a whole bottle of Thunderbird, smashed the bottle in the street and cussed out a lady!” Pointing to his right, he continued, “Then he broke the window on that truck and took something.” I noticed the man had many old and new scars on his head and face, including an eyebrow and a scalp wound that were held together with small staples. Nearby there were two teenage boys, who were wound up, having witnessed these events. They ran off toward the wobbling man, their laughter edged with malice.
I went back into my house and called 911 to report that the man had moved, that he had reportedly smashed a bottle in the street and broke into a vehicle. My daughter was very concerned. She, too, had heard the malice in those boys’ laugh. I grabbed my cell phone and walked in the direction they had gone. Excitedly, they told me the man had fallen down in the street twice, was now on the other side of the bridge that crosses the creek, and the bag he carried was something he had stolen from the truck.
A group of about a dozen young people were hanging out in front of a house, and the man in gray was standing on the sidewalk in front of them, his torso veering right and left, forward and back as he tried to maintain his balance. I assumed they knew him, and had some concern about a crowd mentality, but I approached calmly and respectfully.
When I saw the young man’s face for the first time I was struck by his eyes, which were remarkably large, clear, deep and intelligent. His handsome features included smooth skin, angled cheekbones and a snappy little goatee.
“Are you OK?” I asked him.
“Yes, ma’am,” he answered respectfully.
“You’ve been drinking, and I saw you fall down. Did you take anything else, anything that could hurt you or make you OD?”
“No, ma’am,” he replied, his voice slow with intoxication. I was not sure I could believe him. He was swaying in effort to remain on his feet. I took his arm and asked him to sit on a nearby stump.
“We don’t know this guy,” said one of the young men sitting on the steps in front of the house.
“Can you get him out of here?” asked another. “We don’t need the police here.” I understood what they meant. The group of people was black, easy “profiles” for the police.
I noticed that bag that the wobbly young man had reportedly stolen was in the dirt at his feet. I could see that the bag contained the repair manual for the truck. I picked it up.
“I’m going to take this back to the truck where you got it.”
He reached for it and held it firmly. “I need to take this with me” he said. I looked him in the eye, giving him a “Mamma stare” and he eased his grip. I asked him to come with me and I helped him up. Afraid he would fall down again, I held his arm firmly, noticing through his jacket it was hard muscle. He began to lurch in the opposite direction from my house, the weight of his muscular frame yanking me along.
“Where are you going?” I asked him.
“Going south,” he replied.
“You are really drunk and you fell down a lot of times. I am afraid you are going to get hurt,” I told him. “Do you want me to come with you?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he said.
I figured that I could move him away from the group that didn’t want him around, and then when the police came there wouldn’t be any issue for them.
The young man nearly fell down again. I moved him away from the group, toward a tree, and suggested that he sit down until he feels better, so he would not fall and get hurt.
“I’m a’ sit right here,” he said, looking at the curb that edged a storm sewer upon which an outdoor trashcan was located.
“OK, I’ll sit with you,” I told him. He stepped off the curb and tried to sit, but crashed into me, almost knocking me over. I thought about how he was solid muscle and fall-down drunk, but docile at the same time.
I asked his name, but he was so intoxicated I had a hard time understanding much of what he said. I believe he said “Jerome.”
“Hey, Jerome,” I said, “What’s up with you that you drank so much today?”
“My mamma died on Feb’rary 11th, 2002 and it’s Mother’s Day.”
“I’m very sorry,” I said. “What was her name?”
“Rosaletta,” he answered, reverently.
“That’s a very pretty name,” I said.
“How old were you?”
“Thirteen, ma’am. I been on my own since.”
I felt bad for him. Wondered what he had been through between that time and the present. What had he been through even before his mamma died?
“I see your hat has a Batman insignia. Do you like Batman, Jerome?”
“Did you ever wear a cape and pretend to be Batman?”
We chatted a bit more about his childhood, during which Jerome told me he was from Detroit, and that he had owned a Ninja bicycle that was blue and silver, and he rode it very fast.
“Where do you live now?” I asked.
“I got no place, ma’am,” he answered.
“Where do you sleep?”
“I find a place,” he said.
Jerome was saying that he was homeless, but he didn’t appear to be so. It had been only a couple of days since he shaved. His clothes smelled fresh, and his hair was arranged in neat new-looking cornrows that terminated in a fringe of short braids hanging down in the back. The young man’s eyelids began to flutter and he stopped talking and fell asleep, elbows propped on his thighs, head hanging. He started to fall over and I put my arm across his thick shoulders to steady him.
“Do you want to lean against me so you don’t fall?” I asked. Jerome responded by putting his arms around me and pressing his forehead into my neck. He reached for my hand and for several seconds he held it tight. I noticed that he had the letters D-O-R-E tattooed on his right hand, one block letter inked in black upon each nut brown finger. Two of his knuckles bore dried blood where they had been broken open.
Jerome quickly became heavy, and I pulled out my cell phone so I could use my left hand to text my daughter, asking her to tell the police where we were.
“I think they are not coming,” she wrote back.
“Call them again!” I replied. “He needs help.”
After several minutes Jerome seemed to be in a deep sleep, so I decided to try to lay him down on the sewer top. “Let’s lay back here,” I said, moving downward with him, until his head was resting on my arm. He did not protest. I moved my arm from beneath him and felt concern at his lack of response. I was afraid he might have alcohol poisoning, or have taken some drugs. I watched his chest carefully for the rise and fall of his shallow breaths.
“He has to get out of here,” said one of the young men from the nearby stairs. “He’s messing up the neighborhood.”
“I know,” I replied. “But he’s too drunk to walk. He might get hurt.”
“Somebody should call the police,” he said, too loudly.
“That’s been done,” I answered, trying to answer in a way that wouldn’t alarm Jerome.
Some of the other young people started moving in closer to us. They ran past just a little to close, on purpose. One of them, standing about 15’ away, said, “Dude if you break into that van over there, you will have hell to pay.” The closing crowd emanated anger toward the stranger in their midst.
Jerome began to rouse. I kept my hand on his shoulder, encouraging him to stay where he was until his head cleared. But he had heard the word “police.”
Trying to distract him, I gently teased Jerome about getting drunk, which caused him to grin with satisfaction. This did not last long, though.
“I have to go now,” he said. “I can’t be here when the police come. I just got out of prison two days ago.” He tried to rise, and a set of Allen wrenches fell from one his bulging jacket pockets.
“Did you take these from that guy’s truck, too,” I asked?
“I got to go,” he said. He wouldn’t tell me that he had done anything wrong.
I still had my cell phone in hand, so I surreptitiously dialed 911 and left the phone on while trying to keep Jerome from noticing. I expected the phone would give our location and the police would come if I gave them some hints in my conversation with Jerome.
“You stole some things when you broke into that van,” I told him. “We should go give these back to that guy.”
Jerome suddenly looked more sober and he began to quickly empty his pockets into the trashcan. He threw in another set of Allen wrenches, some socket wrenches and other things I didn’t see.
My phone rang with the alert “unknown number” and I answered. It was the police from the next county over. The man asked if I had dialed 911 during the conversation about stolen property and I affirmed without letting Jerome know it was the police. The voice on the phone asked where I was and I tried to downplay that I was giving an address of a nearby house. He said he would patch me in to the local county police and I should tell the dispatcher what I had said. I told him I wasn’t sure it was a good idea, that I had already said what was up.
A woman’s voice identified itself as being with the county police. She was talking loudly.
“Who is that?” Jerome asked.
“It’s my daughter,” I said. “She is wondering where I am.” I gave the address to this dispatcher.
“We have cars in the area and they will be there soon.”
Jerome was becoming agitated and anxious. He grabbed the bag with the repair manual, moving away from the street.
“This has to go back to the guy you took it from,” I said.
“I’m taking it with me, sweetheart,” he said, looking me in the eye. I looked back at him with greater determination.
“No, we need to do the right thing,” I said. “Don’t you want to do the right thing?” I asked?
“No, sweetheart,” he said, words still slurred. “I got to do what I got to do and whatever happens, happens,” he said. “Give me a hug,” he asked, and ex-convict held me tight for several seconds as three police cars pulled up. Jerome moved away from me as five or six officers walked toward us. The young man just stood there, accepting his fate. The police questioned him and he answered respectfully, but in a flat tone. They put the cuffs on him and I began to move toward the young man. I wanted to say…something.
“We’ll be with you in a few minutes,” a male officer said in a firm voice that also told me to stay back.
Jerome looked at me, and for a second I saw that he felt I had betrayed him. Then his eyes went soft again, he turned his head away from me, swaying slightly until two police officers escorted him to one of the cars.
My daughter walked up, visibly upset, tears in her eyes. We both felt helpless and sad even though we both knew we had each done what we could for this young man, what seemed like the right thing to do–what nobody else was willing to do. Still, it felt like it made no difference.
I went back home to my Mother’s Day flowers and my by-then cold lobster dinner. Though it had been a long time since I ate my favorite seafood, I was unable to fully enjoy eating it, as I could not stop thinking about Jerome, the polite young man, who had lost his mamma at 13 and still felt the pain of her loss so greatly that he tried to quell it with Thunderbird. A young man who had gone to prison and was released with no place to go and nobody to go to, in an economy where jobs are scarce, into a world where it seemed nobody cared.
My friend Sonya later told me that, “it may be a turning point in his life because someone cared enough to become involved.” She went on, “Sometimes we can’t save someone from themselves, but if our intervention gets them thru another day, the next may be the one that holds the change for them. We may never know for sure what happens, but we can take comfort in the fact that we reached out in compassion, empathy and love for a fellow human being, and that matters.”
As I expressed my feelings about this experience, Sonya suggested that I could “be comforted that you reached out…and set an example not only for Jerome, but for all who were witness to the situation.” I hope so. Mostly, I hope that Jerome at least had felt, for a while, a sense of being cared about, as any human being deserves. As drunk and disoriented as Jerome was, he probably won’t remember me, but I will not forget him.
PS- About a week later I encountered the gentleman who owns the house where the group of young people were hanging out. We chatted about the Mother’s Day events, and he told me that his grandkids were ready to beat up Jerome, even though he had told them to leave the young man alone. He is sure the young man would have been attacked, had I not been there with him.