“Hey, Nashville” he called to me. He lifted a large hand in greeting as we met to walk into the shelter together. I had mentioned on previous visits that Nashville was my home town. He had lived there for a while after his first stint in the Michigan state penitentiary and this had given us some common ground. He joked easily and dropped names of country music stars he’d met that I didn’t know because I don’t follow country music too much.
We were meeting that evening after dinner in the shelter where he was temporarily living. I had an appointment to help him work on his resumé. We were chatting more than working when she walked up, another shelter client, Joyce. I could tell right away there was bad blood between those two because his whole temperament changed when she walked up positioning herself facing me with her back toward Derrick. “Do you have a copy of the resumé we worked on last week?”
I started fumbling through my folder when he exploded. Moving to another seat at the table facing me he barked, “Are you gonna let her interrupt me? I didn’t interrupt her when you two were talking last week.” He glared at me for response. I gave her the papers and she walked away. “Evil, that woman is evil. And you just let her interrupt me like I don’t matter.”
I apologized but had only seen her behavior as a brief interruption. He did not want to let it go. “It’s just not right. People think they can just jump right in.”
“I don’t know what else to say, Derrick. I am sorry. Let’s get back to your resumé. I won’t let it happen again.”
“Everybody thinks they can get up in my business. Everybody’s killing the black man. And you just sit there and let her interrupt us, you and that smile like everything is fine. You’re delusional. Like Southern women are. Delusional and you don’t know reality.”
I felt my heart pounding inside and focused on staying calm. The anger of this very large man seemed to increase the more he vented. I avoided eye contact with him and tried to pull his attention back to the resumé but he ranted on with a litany of grievances from police brutality to his hatred for Trump. With time and Joyce nowhere to be seen, he finally began to joke around again and we got back to work on his resumé.
I learned about a severe job injury he’d had when he was 19 that left him on disability. He’d done odd jobs in spite of severe health challenges. He showed me a leg injury from a car accident the day before. I began to realize how much pain he was in. As the mood calmed, he told me he was an artist but had to put his art supplies in storage; he missed painting while he’d been in the shelter. He wanted to start a non-profit to help teens stay out of prison because he loved working with kids. He played the piano. We talked about blueberry pies and how organic tomatoes had a depth of taste missing from hothouse tomatoes. I mentioned that I gave up gardening to write poetry.
Suddenly he surprised me, reciting, “Whose woods these are I think I know…”
Stunned that someone else knew this poem by heart, I added the next line. “His house is in the village though…”
His face smiled as he concentrated on what came next. I started, “He will not…” and he joined in nodding his head with pleasure as we finished the first verse in unison, “see me stopping here to watch his woods fill up with snow.”
We stumbled through the rest of the poem together, laughing as we filled in gaps that one or the other had forgotten. We ended in harmony with the chorus of “…and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
We hadn’t made much progress on the resumé even after two hours of work that night. But we had made progress toward connecting two people from diverse situations. He had memorized the poem when he was 12 years old living in Detroit he told me. His father had insisted. I had memorized it when I taught English to 12 year olds living in rural Tennessee.
The next week, once again he greeted me with “Hey, Nashville,” a big smile and a wave of his large hand. I handed him a copy of the poem which he read quietly, mouthing the words before folding the paper and putting it into his wallet. He nodded a thanks and said, “Let’s eat.” We chatted in the line to get food, ate dinner together with others in the dining hall, then we finished his resumé.
Here’s a link to the text of the Robert Frost poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I took the photo from a poetry collection I have enjoyed for many years.