Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Friends in Desperate Times (R.I.P. Joseph Newell)

"I wanted you to know because you're the only friend I have left," she said.

We stood alone in the small room adjacent to the Resource Center on Haskell Avenue, where today hundreds of people are waiting in line to receive groceries from Central Dallas Ministries.

"You're the only person that I thought would care."

Her hand felt so much more rough than it had three weeks earlier, when she and her husband had come to tell me she’d been fired from the job that I got for her.

They made the long walk to my office just to let me to know that they would be OK.

I gave them what little I had -- ten bucks, maybe. I also snuck them into the Resource Center after hours and got them each a bag full of food. I am not supposed to do that; but I did not know what else to do.

I thought I would have time to figure it out.

Time ran out today.


"Barbara is here to tell you that Joseph is dead."

Our receptionist's head had cautiously stuck itself into our Monday morning exec meeting. He delivered the words apologetically, as if we should not have been interrupted. I sat stunned as he read the words off a note in the same way that he might have told me that my parking meter had expired... as if it was something I should probably attend to, but not something so urgent that I would have to leave my meeting.

I suppose I should not blame him. We're in a war, after all. Only it's turning out to be more like Apocalypse Now than I'd realized when I signed up for this fight.

The shit piled up so fast in Vietnam you needed wings to stay above it.

Barbara and Joseph did not have wings. They, like the rest of, fell off their clouds long ago.

She had returned to tell me that Joseph had been electrocuted, probably while trying to steal some copper to sell as scrap. She still does not know where his body is being kept.


At this point, my mind returned to a conversation that I had nearly two years ago with another woman who was living on the streets. She was a Catholic, and came to the pantry in utter panic asking if there was a Catholic she could talk to. Somehow, she found me.

We prayed together, during which time she told me about how she had been attacked by a group of men the night before... and it had not been the first time. She went into the sort of detail that not even a criminal investigator would want to know.

I could not stop her. She told me that she just had to get it out. I wanted to ask how I could help, but she just kept telling me more and more of the things that had happened to her.

That's when I remembered that she'd asked for a Catholic. She was not looking for help: she was looking for confession, for Salvation.

She blamed herself for all of this happening to her. She said that she wanted to die, but that it was a sin to kill yourself.

I do not have the words to explain the horror that lived in her deep, dark eyes.

I finally got her to stop for long enough that I could ask her what I could do to help -- she had only one request.

"Just pray that they don't eat my body when I'm dead."

She was serious.

“They’re vampires. They’re going to eat me when I die. Please pray they don’t find my corpse.”


I was born rich and white. These two facts alone are almost enough to ensure that I will never become like one of my three friends above, all of whom were born poor and black.... and at least one of whom has died the same.

I have not seen my Catholic friend since that day. Our parting was a confused mix of tears and her shouting, during which I could not think clearly enough to even ask her name.

I will not pretend to understand how frustrating it is to be looked at differently on the street because of skin color, or how infuriating it must be to be denied jobs, housing and basic rights just because of race.

But to think that all of my hopes might be reduced to nothing more than a single desperate wish that a stranger will pray that my corpse be hidden forever in shade. . . ?

This is beyond anything I could ever fathom in even my darkest imaginings of hell.


I did not know what to say, so I grabbed Barbara and pulled her close. Our tears stained each other's shirts. We must have been an odd pair, emerging from the small warehouse room with red eyes... me in my suit, her in her torn and muddied clothes, skullcap pulled down tight in the hopes that she will look like a man.

She had not seen Joseph for two weeks -- I had heard a rumor that he had left one night with all of their money, plus some cash from their friends at the camp, to go buy some more crack. He had never returned.

Street justice is swift and harsh. The men took their revenege out on her. I won't describe what that entailed.

But the beast was not fully fed. Joseph would still have to pay.

Barbara tried finding him to let him know he was a marked man. Before she could, he was dead.


Barbara is a drug addict. So was her husband, Joseph. I am convinced that the only difference between me and them is that I am surrounded by friends and loved ones who would not let me throw myself into such a dark place.

"You're the only male friend I have in my life," Joseph had told me a few weeks earlier. We were talking about relationships, about our desire to take care of our loved ones, and about work. He shared with me like few people have before.

I gave him money to get a haircut. I assumed he would use it for drugs.

But before he died, I saw Joseph. He’d gotten a job helping out at the Farmer's Market. He smiled when he saw me, and proudly took off his hat to show me his hair.

He looked nice.

He looked proud.

He looked . . . hopeful.


Rest in peace, Joseph. I will never forget you.

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