William on Spearing Street

by Tim Gilmore, 8/30/2022

We brought him some fruit and some soda that day. I’m sure we should’ve stuck to what was most nutritious. He’d have appreciated it either way. Right? Or is that assumption insulting? We’d come upon William by accident, asked him what he liked to eat. So grateful, humble, gracious, he was so sweet.

Perhaps assumption, by definition, is insult. How guilty is my supposed innocence? I’d thought a question was openness.

I’d had my eye and Janie kept her eye on that Spearing Street house. She’d wanted to check it out, didn’t feel safe. I’d want to venture in, lacked only a reason. The house was for sale, but also condemned, and Janie specialized in historic real estate. Men and women inhabit the same space, I’d learned, but not the same place. I’d once walked the Northside after midnight, about three miles, trying to imagine and empathize where pseudo serial killer Ottis Toole had walked before me.

This house stood for sale for nothing, having provided families their own worlds safe, secure, six bedrooms rambling hardwood over history, long ago a preacher’s house. Recently Aiden McClendon, not two years old, had died by stray gunfire in a parked car.

William said he’d grown up nearby. He didn’t want a thing, nothing, finally said he wouldn’t mind some “flavored soda,” his favorite kinds “pink and blue.”

Janie kept checking on William. He’d spread his humble belongings the depth of the porch. She brought him sandwiches and grapes and carrots and the next time she came, the house was gone. Or, rather, the house remained. In splinters. Beneath a bulldozer. Too easily demolished. So vulnerable. So fragile. Home.

When William was growing up, these streets had not been paved, just beneath the entertainment district and football stadium, no city sewage, a third-world black Jacksonville beneath even white moderate wealth. If a teacher mentions such facts in a classroom as late as the fall of 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis says parents should sue for making white students feel “discomfort.” But William wasn’t homeless. He had his own pride. Cared not for politics, nor parents. He lived on the porch of a house condemned and for sale, but had never been either.

Then Janie asked me if I knew what had happened. I felt ashamed about how I’d moved from story to story. She’d taken a picture of us, me and William, back when I drank a bottle of wine or two a day. She’d snapped me standing like a capsized airship in the midst of my native swamp. William stood the size of his skeleton, arc’d to the side and into his smile, reminded me of the way my older daughter placed her face upon folded hands on her top bunk as a child when she slept.

The line between a good man and bad man, I reminded myself, was tenuous if not arbitrary. The census can’t count the souls it’s lost and I’m trying to count the unaccounted for. For seven million years now, we’ve walked upright, but remain, if we look into ourselves and each other, eschewing politics and gimmicks and “culture wars,” in good faith, beautiful mysteries to each other and to ourselves.

William didn’t have to be kind to us that day. I didn’t know his life history. He could’ve resented us and maybe, perhaps probably, he did. He didn’t want us bring him anything. When we did, he seemed to give us the thing we wanted. It’s not the exchange we sought. We wanted to be generous. I don’t know what, if anything, we meant to him 15 minutes later. I don’t know just what he means to me now. But I’ll keep asking. I’ll keep asking. And hope I’m not wholly selfish.