New Year’s Letter to a Fellow Black Man in Santa Fe, Who Told Me the End is Coming Soon
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington
I’m an ambulatory man, usually without a car.
This may seem like a minor factoid about someone: that while I can drive, I prefer not to drive. It actually says a lot about how I live, in the blocks where I possibly can live. Except that I’m a Black American male ( or various childhood traumas) nothing else about me has so significantly impacted my habitual experiences surrounding race, prejudice, status, inclusion and exclusion. I walk the cities I live in, usually urban areas, resisting gentrification. A car wouldn’t necessarily bolster my particular line of work anyway, a middle-aged writer, surviving on a low income. My circumference is a stretch of blocks: its haunts, corner groceries, sidewalk pennies. The street: its vendors, nee’er do wells, bums, hustlers, bus riders, bicyclists, its low income wanderers trapped in a love/hate relationship with the weather, its denizens stuck praying the bus lines don’t push us further past the main routes; its pedestrian spiritualists and Gnostics – like you, Charles.
P.S. Be careful, Charles, assuming you’re still ambling with your slowpoke shuffle. Breathless shuffler, friend, look both ways crossing the streets. I intuited that you were a bit absented-minded. It’s a common quality among people with heavy convictions, like us.
From your perspective, you probably in turn intuited info regards me, like that I love meeting characters lending “streetwise” its philosophical, democratic and unsavory associations. I walk these streets – where we met – with a plan to wander pointlessly, or arrive belatedly. I am not an exercise walker. Instead, like any raconteur, dilettante, pedestrian habitué, I am looking for challenges. I am looking to see sociological points ( usually foraged from books) disentangled, disputed or justified in front of me. They’re played out at street level where strangers say “hello” bum cigarettes, hustle small change, and/or offer you an extra water bottle. Its denizens are often slightly broken, looking for work, or lost (in a blur that can stretch between hours and years). I get to know them, sometimes by sight, or brief salutations, sometimes personally.
If they have a car, it’s wheelless. Or they’ve given up on cars after too many lemons. Its denizens frequently disappear (up the block) then reappear (down the block) oftentimes months later, sometimes leaner, or more desperate-looking; they’re recognizable by their walks. The employed can be found here, too, less consistently, munching on fries during a lunch break; and the elderly whose cars sit disemboweled at Pep Boys This is unscheduled time spent “between the cracks”— enervating/ liberating time-in-absence, where freedom and lassitude meet indigence. The “street” is a lonely, impoverished depressant that stimulates me, like alcohol. It sustains highs I must otherwise achieve from too much coffee.
It stimulates me because I am a sociologist, in the long run, recording the paths that led us to meet. You might feel that spiritual powers led us to cross paths, Charles. It in either case had an inevitability about it. But while I met you, briefly, I can’t reach inside your skull to know whether you at least concur that geography, spirituality and sociology all delineate fates. There were a limited number of routes in the neighborhood, or a limited number we could have taken, before a caffeine -addicted sociologist turned a corner. And a sweaty, slowly lumbering spiritualist answered the call.
Charles, I spotted you in a parking lot. Noon blazoning. Approaching the Santa Fe State library building. I suppose the location might have hinted that the meeting would be special. But it was ‘special’ already in another sense. I see color. It mattered most to me that you were an uncommon vision in Santa Fe, outlier city of Spanish/Mexican influence, where I presently live (which you wouldn’t have been in New Orleans, or Brooklyn.) The Black American population of New Mexico is less than 3%. I know several dozen Blacks in Santa Fe by sight.
The number didn’t include you before I spotted you.
You were a balding, semi-suited pedestrian ( a bit like me). You were not much of a moving target, my brother, mon friere, huffing, puffing up the Santa Fe State library stairs – laboriously enough that I knew that while we were both mid-fiftyish Black men, Charles, you were in a lot worse shape. I caught up with you, harboring an unstated question. We (Blacks, Browns, Jews, or women too ) must engage in relative comparisons of intangibly private experiences. Question: brother, who were you? How could I have missed you, a conundrum linked by ships, boats, historical roadways, to Who am I?
Charles, did I begin too quickly to weigh our sympatico blackness? Immediately saying something that implicitly evoked brotherliness, loneliness, isolation, or racism? Did I begin with a two-step? I couldn’t believe the local Hispanic hipsters driving past hadn’t shouted at you, too, slow-moving Charles, hey, my soul brother! but how often did you hear a heckler’s heavily accented Nigger! Did you feel that you had escaped racism in New Mexico? Or been provided with a cheap cloak of invisibility? “Yeah, I occasionally get the racists,” you murmured. The library entrance was shuttered. An under construction notice indicated the room should be accessed via other portals nearby. Smart guys like us shrugged – huh?
“You go this way. I’ll go that way,” I proposed. But pudgy, slumbering soul, I knew I was in charge of finding the unfamiliar door. I suppose my politeness surprised you. But I honestly wanted to return to having our conversation, black bonding, so to speak. I showed a deference I wouldn’t have paid you if you weren’t Black like me. But perhaps – for you – the sequence of events resembled a Biblical parable, Charles? I was a nonbeliever. But in Bible lore, did this ever really matter? The Good Samaritan located the right way; then I snagged you by the arm, O stray sheep, habitually breathing through your mouth, sweat beads breaking on your forehead, sparing you unnecessary steps.
“Thanks a lot.” “No problem” “But you showed a lot of graciousness.” “Sure” “Tell me. What is your spirituality?” I thought: Uh oh. I shouldn’t have forgotten that street people often included street evangelicals, who spoke like you. “Did you know these were the last days? It’s in the Bible.” And while you still looked harmlessly avuncular, Charles, furrowing your brow, with a sobering mien, you also looked like you could see the Biblical passages blazoning nearby. You were at least a distinctly Afrocentric apocalyptic – concerned with the struggle – which made everything you claimed more palatable.
“It’s written in Hebrews. The last days are going to bring justice for us. All of our suffering since the middle passage. It’s written right here on this card” which you handed me. The card which purportedly forecast the spiritual resolution of Black historical trauma displayed an obscure three-pronged symbol on one side; on the other side the lettering was so miniscule I couldn’t tell whether the alphabet was Hebrew, Greek, or English. You reassured me on the point that there was no need to fear the unforeseen upshots of justice, retribution, chaos and confusion. “The end is coming. But if you have this card, you’ll be safe.”
It is eight months later. The meeting recorded above occurred last February, 2020.
I write this now, looking at the New Year 2021 coming soon, privately singing auld lang syne, with wary circumspection, still not knowing whether the ‘last days’ have come (or may be swiftly coming.)
Charles, I think of you gently ( as I often have) since February. Since? The world transformed shortly thereafter. The Covod19 crisis that began internationally struck the USA. The country quarantined. The crisis by mid-March, 2020 had shuttered American cities, including Santa Fe. It introduced us by the skin of our teeth to a world of interior spaces, families trapped indoor, online schooling, Zoom meetings, social relations on Facebook. It was all interiors. The traffic emptied from the highways; sidewalks severely depleted. The streets that formerly belonged to the inbetweeners, the estranged pedestrians, now were populated only by the truly lonely and psychopathic.
Don’t you agree, Charles? Or have you still wandered the avenues? Charles, who at our first and last meeting I pegged for a semi-indigent. I can’t totally say why, but maybe it was your sweatiness, perspiration, slightly disheveled clothes. Nevertheless, I honestly wondered after our brief encounter whether you were destitute, maybe homeless?
I think of you more often since the Covid19 crisis struck (no wonder) given the coincidental strangeness that scant weeks after we met millions began reluctantly believing in an apocalypse, and ubiquitously pondering in the wee hours, What does the world in the time of an apocalypse look like?
Like millions, I read the newspapers to find out.
For months, before quarantine restrictions shuttered them, I still visited Santa Fe restaurants most mornings, perusing headlines that reported sickness in the public body, sickness in the body politic, and reactionary racism, too, Charles, often perpetuated directly from the White House under President Trump. I gradually became less interested in breakfasting in public places; the headlines became indigestible. National schisms reached an apogee in June, when the USA became the site of protests in every major city following the widely disseminated video footage of the killing of George Floyd, a Black man kneed by a renegade cop.
The killing ignited an anti-racist momentum unprecedented since the late sixties, or the anti-slavery sentiment leading to the Civil War. But the nation veered back, forth. The protest marches subsequently met the classic white backlash, triply reactionary, triply vitriolic pro-Trump racism. Charles, I can barely read anything without gauging the national winds – the headlines spinning like weathervanes –whether swaying readers left or right. Some breakfast mornings, Charles, I could barely hold my water glass steady.
Trump thankfully lost the November 2020 election. By then, however, the country resembled a fissured glass, half-empty, half-full, possibly near shattering. Covid19 death tolls risen, skyrocketing, past 200,000, 300,00, nearly 400,000. I think of you sympathetically when I read any story about the tragedy specifically for us – Black Americans.
Early reports underscored that the number of Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans victims of COVID-19 astronomically outsized other communities. And the explanations invariably blamed racism, not racism endemic to the Covid19 virus, rather, a kind of pervasive systemic racism in terms of the paucity of healthcare resources available to African Americans. How do you put the pieces together, Charles? How else can you? These burdens delineated a Black healthcare crisis, Charles, not a timely spiritual ascension.
I don’t speak to disillusion you (albeit we believe what we both believe) and I see the irony. I have been told that given my ethos of the streets –where complaint is constant– my passion lacks faith. You? You must believe the chaos is a harbinger, Charles, actually the fulfillment of a prophesy. And holocausts, struggles, contests-with-life, or life-against-death meaningfully cohere, on the basis of faith.
I occasionally spot the card you handed me. It’s in a desk drawer. I stuck it there – probably initially feeling disappointed that you put such trust in a Biblical passage – but I have gone back to it since, and stared and squinted until I knew it was indecipherable. And my eyes get sore. And vision blurred. And I just can’t see it! Faith, alright. The closer I get to it, that is, indulging my human weakness for it, my vision blurs, and the beauty in faith bleeds to nebulousness. You said “But if you have this card, you’ll be safe.” I sighingly slip the card back inside the drawer. Faith led you to profess an untruth Safe? In the COVID-19 era, no one is safe.
I look back on meeting you, Charles, with a certain contentment – which means your conviction helps me although it isn’t mine – but please realize that reality challenges me with fear, doubt, dread, and hope, too. They don’t give me peace. Call me atheist, agnostic, unbeliever. Know this, Charles, I am street-savvy, whether my faith is strained. Desperation empowers me, whether I live on a dime and a prayer. The uncertainty, the indignation, the longing and the viscera challenge me on a daily basis to keep on challenging America.
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington: “I am an African American poet, journalist, and playwright, currently living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I have previously published poetry and fiction in Boston Review, Drum Voices, Pedestal, Turtle Island Quarterly, Bloodtree Literature, Heavy Feather Review, and other places. My first full length book of poetry Psalms at the Present Time will appear in November 2021 from Flowstone Press.”