December 24, 1996
“Shame about the bike,” I said to the strained young black man at the bus stop. His head was down and he was staring hard at the ground.
He grunted, a sound that conveyed two ideas: “I heard you” and “I’m not listening.”
“Just as well, I guess. A bike like that…”
He looked up for a moment, piercing me with hard, angry eyes. “What about it?”
“Oh, you know. Wouldn’t last too long, now would it?”
He scoffed, and that was that. Or so he thought…
What happened was this: I saw a bike going in to Toys ‘R’ Us, about a week before Christmas, and that’s the kind of thing I just have to follow up on.
It was a girl’s bike – a girly bike. Sixteen inch white wheels. A white frame speckled with iridescent pink and purple flakes. An iridescent pink and purple flaked saddle. And matching pink and purple flaked streamers cascading out of the white handle-bar grips. It was the kind of bike Toys ‘R’ Us loves to sell: Thirty-five dollars worth of bike with three dollars worth of plastic ornaments is priced at sixty bucks. Ten dollars extra for professional assembly.
The bike had been dragged into the store by my companion at the bus stop – tall, thin, with an expression of anger etched into his face. Maybe twenty years old; certainly not twenty-five. He was wearing a Michael Jordan warm-up suit and Michael Jordan basketball shoes. That sounds very casual, but we’re talking three hundred dollars, maybe more. At first I thought he might be bringing the bike in for a minor repair, but something about the way he was dragging it – sideways by the saddle – made me think again.
I didn’t go into the store, but I stuck around to see what would happen. Sure enough, he came out bikeless and stalked over to wait for the bus. Three hundred dollars worth of Michael Jordan haberdashery but no car.
I said, “A little girl has a bike like that, she’s just bait on the hook. Doesn’t have a father around to stand up for her, does she?” He didn’t answer, and I hadn’t expected that he would. “A little girl gets a bike like that, she thinks it’s the best Christmas present ever. But then she takes it down to the street, and all the little fatherless jackasses crowd around. The little five- and six-year-old boys start breaking off the streamers one at a time, just to hear her shriek. Then some older boy will have to prove he’s meaner, and he’ll tear off both streamers all at once. And they’ll ride that bike up and down the street, with that poor little girl running behind them, crying, trying to get her bike back. But what can she do, really? She doesn’t have a father around to stand up for her, does she?”
He rubbed at something in his eye. I’d like to think it was a tear.
“But that’s just the way of it, isn’t it? People never kick so hard as when they’re down. They don’t want to take your stuff away, they just want to take it and break it. So nobody has anything. Any little treasure you might have in your life, you have to squirrel it away where no one can see. Not so they won’t steal it, but so they won’t destroy it. Deface it. Desecrate it.”
Despite himself, he spoke. He said: “Word!” Indeed: Word.
“But what good is a bike if you can’t ride it? If that little girl takes her bike down to the street, it’ll be destroyed. Not for any good reason, but just so a gaggle of fatherless jackasses can giggle at another tragedy.”
He glared at me, his lips a tight line. I was pissing him off in the worst way, telling him the undeniable truth.
“Won’t last long, anyway. A month. Two months. Six months? I don’t think so. One day one of those fatherless jackasses will ride the bike around the corner and the bike will never come back. An older fatherless jackass will turn it into a vial of crack, and that will be that.”
That got to him. Bus riders have to pay the Michael Jordan clothing bills, don’t they? “Why don’t you just shut the fuck up?”
I ignored him. “Besides, there’s no one to teach that little girl how to ride a bike, is there?”
He stood up and leaned way out in the street, hurrying the bus along.
“She your only kid?”
“She’s not mine!” he blurted. He sat down, his elbows on his knees. “Or maybe she is, I don’t know.”
“You gonna get her anything else?”
For the briefest instant his face was awash in shame, and that was enough. A street guy. A would-be bad-ass. Maybe a part-time drug dealer. Probably a fatherless jackass himself. But he was human enough to be ashamed of himself, and that’s a start.
“You know what she needs, don’t you?”
He ignored me. His face was like stone. Dirt is not food and next Wednesday is not an umbrella, but you can’t get a liar to agree to that. When people are embracing the lie, they will not acknowledge the truth, no matter how obvious it is. It’s as if they regard speaking the truth as an impossibly huge commitment. As if saying the truth creates it. And refusing to destroys it. Defaces it. Desecrates it.
“She doesn’t need a bike, she needs a father. To stand up for her when she’s right and dress her down when she’s wrong. To put all those fatherless jackasses on notice that they have you to answer to. To take them aside when they’re older, one at a time, and explain that you will happily cut their balls off if they can’t keep ’em covered.”
He chuckled despite himself.
“If you give your daughter a father she can be proud of, then one day she’ll bring home a son-in-law you can be proud of. And then you’ll know for sure that your grandchildren will have a father to look out for them, too.”
He said nothing, just stared at the ground. I’m sure he was listening, just trying hard not to show it.
“The great part is, she’ll do as much for you as you do for her. The government is destroying black America by making it easy for fathers to escape their responsibilities, but the destruction starts with you. All those fatherless jackasses end up on a slab, unless they turn their lives around. If you stand up for your daughter, you’ll stand up for yourself. And there ain’t no bad in that.”
I thought I saw an aborted nod.“You give your daughter a father for Christmas, a father she can be proud of, and in ten or fifteen years, she’ll put a lump the size of a grapefruit in your throat. Every day is a new beginning, and mastery takes practice. But you grit your teeth and get after it, doing what you can today and picking up the slack tomorrow.” I pointed at my chest. “The cycle stops with me. Justice starts with me.” I thumped my temples with both index fingers. “There’s nobody in here but me. There’s no one who can run my life but me. If I refuse to live, I’m just the same as dead. Haven’t you had enough of being just the same as dead? Your daughter is life. Her father – when he is her father – is life. The choice is life or death, over and over again, a hundred times a day. And everybody’s gotta take a side.”
He said nothing, but he looked at me a long time, his lips in a tight line.
The bus pulled up and he stood up at the door. He said, “You comin’?”
I shook my head. “I’m on foot. I just wanted to talk with you.”
He smiled like a man who has just gone fifteen rounds – and survived. He said, “Thanks.”
I nodded. “Merry Christmas.”
He nodded in return, a gesture of seriousness and solemnity that gives me hope for his daughter – and for him. He said: “Merry Christmas.”