We are pleased to have author Stephen Foreman visiting with us today as part of our Celebration of Authors, Readers & Books – 2017. Let’s get started with the guest post, below:
COME SEE WILLIE LEE
August 26, 2017
My best guess is that he’s dead by now. Maybe not, though. He knew how to survive, that boy. His wiles came from his heart and got him by. Fifty years have passed, half a century since I last set eyes on him. Summer,1964. Willie Lee Sampson, 11 years old, a Black kid on the gritty streets of Baltimore. His thought process shut down before the age of seven. I met him on the streets. I left him on the streets. I’d never seen him cry before but he teared up when I told him I was moving on. Another job. Another state. Another city. Because Willie Lee hadn’t the capacity to think beyond a few minutes ahead, he couldn’t understand so much about the future or, to be specific, why one would make plans to go away? And do what? “We be here. Why we be some where when we be here?” Willie was functional, but Willie was retarded. Today’s jargon concerning the mentally “disadvantaged” would not necessarily use that word, but we’re talking fifty years ago, amigo. Willie was my client. I was a social worker in the emergency squad, children’s division, dept. of public welfare, city of Baltimore City’s Department of Public Welfare. We were a squad of five, each having instant access to a car if the situation warranted it which, in most cases, it did. A report would come in of a child that had been starved, abused, abandoned, injured or, as was usually the case, all of the above. One of us would find the child and get him or her to care and safety. Then we’d work to reconcile the family or to prosecute. Mainly we worked to keep the child warm, fed, dry, and kept from further harm. Each case as horrible as the one that followed, and the one that followed that was even worse. I can’t remember a single incident in which poverty was not a factor. I’d known war zones. These streets fit that description. The place was booby trapped. A citizen had to be cautious with each step taken not to trigger one. When was being poor a choice? When was it a moral failing? Come on. The civil rights movement was underway, although it hadn’t quite exploded into the days of Black Power. Stokely Carmichael, not yet center stage, waited in the wings. I went to work each day in a suit and tie, and spent most of those days “in the field” making my way through the teeming streets of the poorest sections of the city, mostly Black, some hillbillies, a smattering of gypsies. No Jews or Episcopalians in sight. I’d go through alleys, cross the parks, ride the battered elevators up to the top floors of the projects, funeral homes, jail, bars, churches, and pool halls, but I honestly cannot remember fear. I went where I needed to go, and that was that. Would I do the same today? Have to think about that one. Different times. Many of the homes I visited had pictures on the wall of JFK, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Lincoln all decked out in aluminum foil frames. Who would be pictured now? Reverend Ike? El Chapo? Like I said, different times. Not the same amount of overt hostility. Times when, after a civil action – a demonstration, the picket line – Blacks and whites put their arms around each other’s shoulders, swayed, and sang, “We Shall Overcome”. It was a hot day in July when I walked down the bedraggled street listed in Willie Lee’s file. This would be the first time we’d met even though his file told me quite a bit about him. On either sides were the red-brick row houses, battered, filthy, chronically in need of pointing and painting. An empty carton sized for a refrigerator sat on the street in front of Willie’s address. I walked up the few steps and knocked. Even the wooden door was hot. It was opened by a very tall, very slender with cocoa skin. “Here for Willie Lee?” “Yes, ma’am,” I replied, “Is he around?” “He ‘round but don’ know where he ‘round’ now.” Willie’s file described her perfectly: functionally retarded, thirteen kids, all mentally deficient to a greater or lesser degree. Nothing negative. She was a loving mother. That was apparent. She told me, “Come inside”, while she went into another room to fetch the health documentation I needed in order to do an educational evaluation. Unless you are poor you have no idea how hard life can be, regardless of what John Calvin concocted. There was very little furniture – a shabby armchair, a tattered couch. Another large packing crate, this one wood, sat in the middle of the living room floor. I walked over for a look. An infant, maybe six months, lay there kind of listless while a large, black rat hunkered in one corner. I reached in and lifted that baby up and out of the crate. The mother returned with the proper piece of paper and saw me holding her baby. She held out her arms and collected her with a “Give ‘er here.” “A rat was in there with her,” I pointed at the crate. “She OK,” said her mother. “You got a shovel or a hammer, something like that?” “Hamma?” “Fine.” She left the room and returned with a three pound mallet in her hand. Perfect. I took it from her, crept with supreme stealth to the crate. Very cautiously, very, I leaned over the crate and slammed that evil critter over its black, pestiferous head, except I missed, so it ran towards the far side of the crate, jumped over it, and went wherever rats go after a near death experience. She looked at me. Her face bore an expression of great concern. “Where I’m gonna go?” I had no answer. Well, actually I did: nowhere. This was it for Missus Sampson. She told me her daily prayer was to “stay alive ‘til my chillun don’ need me no more.” “No Willie Lee, huh?” She shrugged. “Some place cool and shady. Ain’t no dummy. You here to take ‘im? “No, ma’am. No way would I do that?” “You ain’t takin’ him!” “No, ma’am. He’s all yours. Tell Willie Lee I’ll be around. You all got enough to eat?” “We fine. Say “Bye, man,” she said to the infant and waved the baby’s hand, “Bye, Bye.” It was listless, limp. I instantly registered, “another one”, an assessment not a judgment. I closed the door behind me and stepped out onto a stoop so hot I could see the heat waves. That refrigerator-size carton was no longer in the street but now at the curb. Noticed but not given much thought. I had turned to walk back up the street to my car when Mrs. Sampson came outside, baby in arms, a jelly glass of kool-aid in the other. She bellowed so loudly the whole neighborhood could hear – her purpose, of course. “Willie Lee Sampson! Come git your kool-aid. Don’t you git too hot, hear me? Hear me?” The voice of a young boy answered, “Yes, ma’am.” It came from under the refrigerator carton by the curb. “Come on now. I ain’t wanna stand here all day!” The box moved, lifted off the ground, and there he was: Willie Lee Sampson with that canyon-wide smile of his. A fixture. Available on the instant. I watched him walk right by me and take the glass from his mother. “You want one?” she called out to me. My first instinct was to say, “No”, give some excuse – appointments, doctor’s office, etc. – but a red flag popped into my head like a flag from the barrel of the magician’s trick pistol. “Yes, ma’am,” I said, “Thank you.” “Set right there,” she said, pointing to the stoop. “Willie Lee, set with this man so he ain’t be lonely.” She went inside, and Willie Lee dutifully sat down on the stoop beside me. “Want some?” he asked, offering me his glass. “No, thanks,” I said, “Got some coming.” Then that smile. “Lots of sugar,” Willie said happily. “Way I like it,” I said. “Way I like it,” he replied. If his smile could have grown any bigger, I thought it just might have done that. He then startled me by abruptly asking, “Does you believe in God?” I didn’t, but I also didn’t think now was the time to come out with it. “Sure,” I said, “You do, right?” “Yessir!” “What’s He look like?” “Ain’t never seen him.” “Do you know who He is?” “’Course I know!” “Tell me. I’d really love it if you could.” “God,” he said. His face changed in the instant. He held my eyes. I could not turn away. In a soft, sure, positive, almost matter-of-fact manner, he said, “He the man what take me by the hand and lead me ‘round this world.” No smile but a simple expression of peace and quiet pleasure.
TO BE CONTINUED
Author Bio: When I was seventeen, 1958, three things happened that turned me into a writer: 1. I read Kerouac’s,”On The Road”. 2. I listened to Miles Davis”Kind of Blue”. 3. My heart was broken for the first time. So I wrote my first poem in the Beat style called, “Love Is A Feeling”. It “launched” my career as it landed me reading gigs on the east coast coffee house circuit. As I also failed out of college that year (the first of three) and promptly enlisted in the Marine Corps. Upon discharge I attended Morgan State College, a traditional, historical Black college. It was at the beginning of the civil rights movement, and I was the only white guy matriculating there. One day, in the middle of a romantic lit class an idea for a poem came right at me. At the end of class my professor wanted to see what I had been doing when I was supposed to be paying attention to him. He read it. “Finish it,” he said, whereupon I raced to the library and wrote until they turned off the lights. The next day I gave what I thought was a poem to my professor who, without my knowledge, gave it to the drama prof who read it and called me into his office. “This is a play,” he said. “It is?” I said. “Yes,” he answered, “And we’re going to produce it here.” He did then took it to New York. Finally, “Look, Ma, I’m a playwright!” Grad school at Yale followed plus summer stock as an assistant stage manager wherein I got my Equity (union) card which meant steady employment. Among other jobs, I was Edward Albee’s stage manager. I loved it but I wasn’t writing. Not good. So, for the next four years I taught in the university system, West Virginia and University of Connecticut. While in West Virginia I was asked to write a full-length drama for public TV in Pittsburgh, “The Resolution of Mossie Wax.” As usual back then, I didn’t know what I was doing, however it was broadcast nationallly, won awards, and got me thinking, “Why not write a screenplay?” Talk about naive. I’m still in West Virginia, had never been to Hollywood, knew absolutely nothing about either the business or how to write a screenplay. Never stopped me. Eventually, I wrote that screenplay. I was teaching at UConn, and had just been offered tenure. The very same month my agent sold the screenplay and, voila, I had a three picture deal at Universal Studios. I snagged my ticket and went west to a whole new life. Writing screenplays was lucrative. I wrote a lot of them for a lot of famous people (Try Sir Laurence Olivier for one). Yet, to me, it was not creatively or emotionally rewarding, not remotely. Really, it’s not a writer’s medium. The writer creates the blueprint, but he or he doesn’t make the movie. The director does. So, I began nurturing an idea I’d had for some time: I wanted to write a novel. We were in Los Angeles. When the kids were no longer in school and out of the house, my wife said, “Go home and write your novels.” This was 2004. I went home to our place in the Catskills, bought a new computer, and went to work. Since I’ve been home I’ve written four novels, three published, the fourth still in the “fiddling with” stage. Stay tuned.
List of published works:
Toehold, lit fiction, 2007
Watching Gideon, lit fiction, 2009
Journey, lit fiction, 2017
Find out more about the author and their work by visiting their website.
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