Leaving: The Junk Man
In the years after WWII, after the Korean War, we always had work: My mother was a domestic, as she had been down South. In Chicago, in Cicero, in Hyde Park and on the North Side, she cleaned white people’s homes, beautifying areas that the white boys chased me out of when I wandered off the El and into their neighborhoods far from the black ghetto. My father had had an array of jobs: He worked for the city as a garbage man by day, while evenings he was a taxi man for the ghetto, where licensed cabbies would not venture. He drove his Caddy through the black West Side and South Side streets ferrying folks home from work, over to the grocery store, back from the clubs. Weekends, after his taxi work, he served as janitor for the bar above which we lived. He dusted the counter tops, varnished the wood, cleansed the restrooms of their stains and vomitous stench. And he drank too much and argued with the stragglers and fell into knife fights with the switch blade that had come back from Europe with him. In school, I wrote a story about how I had witnessed him make a grown man cower with his blade, only for the man’s friend to sneak up behind with a hammer and blast his head bloody. This happened not at the bar but several blocks away, where I had gone to get him to bring him home from his carousing. He staggered back, semiconscious, propped against my shoulder. I was big enough by then to bear his weight. I ended the story with the morning that followed: How he somehow woke with the sunrise and got dressed for work, wearing his church hat to hide his hammer scar, and how he bounded away to his next day and night of labor: An ox hid in that man.
Back then, I hated him like I hated Chicago. They were my enemies, along with the Vice Lords. Unlike the gangs, my father and the city followed me home and I could never long escape them. The Vice Lords didn’t mess up my mother, didn’t leave her swollen and weeping, didn’t pin me to the ground, arms laced behind my back like a crooked cop running my pockets when I tried to intervene.
So I escaped: I rode the Els each weekend back and forth across the city, memorizing its vistas, low-ceilinged flats giving way to skyscrapers and smoke stacks as the train clanked northward. I was desperate enough to glory in the city’s emotionless, steel-colored skyline, anything to be anywhere but home.
It was by my train rides that I got to working for the junk man.
Apparently, they now call such people scrappers and their line of work is associated with scavenging drug addicts and thieves. But it never occurred to me that what the junk man was doing was wrong. I never saw him shooed away from scrap. He was known in the neighborhoods wherever he went, his vulturing a necessary sort of street sweeping that kept all of us clean. He walked the streets of the city, hoisting what metallic refuse he could onto the carts he had lashed together like a street Arabber. He was thin like my father, but where the head of my house was six feet tall and broad-shouldered from his labor, still able to manhandle me despite that at sixteen I was full and deep through my chest, my arms and my legs, the junk man had a reed-thin, vulnerable, penetrable quality to his body. His limbs twisted and lurched in sections and at odd angles, as if his body was not aligned quite right. I was used to bodies moving fluidly, gracefully through space, whether it be my buddies on the field of play or my father in a fight. But each time I saw the junk man heaving himself and his catch about, he looked less graceful than before.He rode the El every Saturday, every Sunday. And so did I.
Over time it got into my head that the junk man was my hero: After all, he was doing what I wished I could do by traveling to every corner of the city. I was years away from being able to drive a car, let alone actually purchasing one. The junk man didn’t have a car either and went by foot like it was 1863 not 1963, as if practicing an ancient art. I liked the artfulness and the ancientness about him.
One day I decided I was man enough to follow him off the train and down the rickety stairs and into the street. It didn’t take but a minute for him to realize I was tracking after him. He had probably been watching me watching him every Saturday and Sunday, wondering what was up. He turned on me. “What you want, boy?”
His voice was Tennessee high and thin as his frame. Staring at him now, I saw how his high yellow skin betrayed all of his years and scars. His eyes, gray at their edges, jutted from an old, drawn face.
I became conscious of my muscularity. I was the size of a fully grown, athletic man. The junk man was a frail scavenger.
“What do you do?” I responded to his question.
He turned around again and lugged his things away. “You knows what I do, boy!” he hollered over his shoulder. “I’m the junk man.” I saw him spit out the toothpick he’d had housed in his mouth.
The next day when it came time for his stop, he eyed me and nodded. I got off the train in tow.
“Where you be goin to every weekend day?” he wanted to know.
I told him I was headed nowhere in particular. And then I disclosed myself, opening like only something already broken can come free and I told him about my fight with my father and his fights with everything on two legs and about other issues, too, about the Vice Lords and the West Side and the city itself.
“Sound like every other black man alive,” he said.
I had never thought of myself as a man. Manhood, I always figured, meant freedom. But now, out the junk man’s mouth it meant only my father’s failings, our struggle, our suffering.
The junk man seemed free from everything, but especially family. He could literally get on his roll and go anywhere. My father’s steps were haunted by his wife and by me and by his other children in Cleveland and Gary and Birmingham. And I was haunted by him. I didn’t know a single free soul in the world. Not a single person who up and went wherever it was they had a mind to go. So I followed after the junk man through the quiet streets, the warehouse back roads. He did not say much. Neither did I.
“Look, I can teach you the trade,” he finally declared, “learn you scrap from shit— but you still got a momma who care about you. We gots to go see her first.”
I’ve read Baldwin’s account of how he was turned out by a predatory Harlem crook. The narrative is one that predates, in tone as well as time, the tense public service announcements of my son’s childhood warning against the kindness of neighbors and strangers alike. Even with decades of distanced reflection, Baldwin cannot quite believe that the middle-aged hustler targeted one as mild and unprepossessing as him, when in fact that was likely the very reason the man was drawn to him. Shy as I was, I might have been prime material for a man like the one that Baldwin as a boy followed into Harlem’s underworld.
But the Chicago junk man made sure he met my mother. They prayed together. She made him dinner and asked him about himself, his past, his family, his children, his sins, his God. I came to understand that he had had a family and that he was no more free from worry and regret over them than I was when it came to my people. He was as bound to the world as we all were. This, my mother knew, was not a bad thing. She believed men were as imperfect as women allowed them to be. There had been a time when she had acquiesced in her youth and love and softness, and now she and her children were paying for her simple love. Marriage and migration had changed her. The city and its traumas had changed her.
Unbeknownst to anyone, she was readying to leave my father and take her children to California. She had measured her man for who he was and it was from the lesson of him that she could judge tin from copper and steel, and men.
The junk man was fine by her, she said that night after he was gone.
In the months that followed, my last months in the city, the junk man proved her right: He was not a pervert or a heroin smuggler. He was as he said he was, a simple junk man, and the simplicity of his trade provided a rhythm to my life that is the closest that I’ve ever come to religion, even though back then I figured it as no more than tagging along and killing time and things to carry and scrap to sell and so many frozen suns and black mud snows and makeshift memorials to that crucible of a city.