This memoir took the Second Place prize in this year’s Ventura County Writer’s Club’s Memoir Contest.
After I dropped out of Western Illinois University I volunteered for awhile at the St. Joseph Catholic Worker House, a homeless shelter in Davenport, Iowa. We served breakfast, lunch, and dinner to as many as 50 people and offered shelter to about 20 of them every night.
One night the Director, Margaret, hung up the phone, and said, “That was the Moline police. They want us to pick up Baker*.”
“What’s the problem?” asked Bob, one of the volunteers.
“Found him sleeping on a park bench,” Margaret said.
Bob, Tom and I – the three male volunteers drove over to get Baker. Bob was happy to have me along in case Baker was passed out. Baker was quite a big man and it might take more than two people to wrestle him into the car if he was passed out.
As it turned out Baker was not unconscious, maybe a little drunk, maybe not. When the Moline police found him he said he lived at the Catholic Worker and asked if they could give him a ride there. The police were familiar with the Catholic Worker house. It was on their list of homeless shelters to call so they called us.
We walked Baker to the car. He sat in the back seat, with me.
”Baker what were you doing all the way over here,” I asked, just trying to make conversation. Usually, the men who stayed at the shelter never strayed too far, rarely more than a mile away.
“Personal business,” Baker said as Bob started the car.
“You okay back there, Baker?” Bob asked as Baker fidgeted in the seat apparently trying to get comfortable.
“Oh yes, fine, jes fine,” Baker said.
Actually, he looked like something in his back pocket was bothering him and he was reaching around trying to straighten out whatever it was.
“Did you walk or take a bus over here?
“Walked,” Baker said.
“Well I can understand… “
I was about to comment about the four miles between where we were and where we were going when Baker waved his hand in front of my face and a switchblade knife snapped open.
To say that scared me was an understatement.
“You know…” he said in a very hushed voice. “You know, I could kill you, real quiet like.”
The car was moving now. Bob and Tom were talking; unaware of what was happening in the back seat.
“You know, Baker,” Bob said, turning his head a little toward the back, “Margaret’s going to check, make sure you’re not drunk.”
“I know,” Baker said, not sounding like someone with a switchblade who’d been talking about killing me.
“And if you’re not sobered up by the time we get back, you can’t stay.”
“I ain’t drunk, so you can keep goin’.”
“Sounds good,” Bob said. Awhile ago Bob told me he empathized with most of the guys who stayed there because it was just a matter of luck he wasn’t one of them.
When Tom and Bob resumed their conversation, Baker turned back to me. “What you gonna do if I stick you with this?” he said softly.
“Not much I could do. Outside I could jump away, but here, there’s no place to go. So, I think you’d have me dead before I could do much of anything.”
“You ain’t afraid?”
“I don’t know,” I said as calmly as I could while I was thinking: Afraid? I’m terrified. I’m sitting here shaking, wanting to scream, but he might kill me if I do. I can hardly breathe.
Long before, when I was in the army I learned how to have a poker face. Unless I was extremely happy, meaning I had an unbeatable hand……. the other players couldn’t tell if I was bluffing or if I wasn’t. They almost never knew by looking at my face if I thought my cards were good or not, so I won more often than I lost.
What Baker was looking at was my poker face. It automatically locked into place whenever I was in a difficult, poker-like situation. I didn’t look like I was afraid.
“You don’t know? Damn, you ain’t afraid.”
Maybe I wasn’t afraid. The knife scared me, that’s true, but this wasn’t making any sense to me. There was no reason for Baker to be doing this. Although he and I weren’t friends, we also weren’t enemies. In the food line, where we’d had the most contact, I served him just like everyone else, even giving him extra food when he asked.
We’d talked a couple times and I knew a little about him. Originally from Nashville, he’d lived in Chicago for awhile so we had talked a little about the city, the L-trains, and the Chicago sports teams. I thought he was an intelligent, gentle man who didn’t belong in a place like this, that he was here more because he was Black than any other reason and that didn’t seem like enough reason to be threatening me.
“You know I could kill the three of you and take this here car to Mexico. Never been to Mexico, but I’d get by.”
“You speak any Spanish?”
“See Senyoour,” he said and laughed, “gimme some tacos.”
“What are you planning to do when you get there? Eventually you’ll need some money.”
“Well, I got this blade. I’ll get what I need.”
“You’re talking crazy, Baker. Maybe you should learn some Spanish first. You’re smart enough you could learn in a few months, then you could go and you wouldn’t have to be killing people.”
“Man, you be nasty. You sposed to be beggin’ for your life, squealin’ Baker don’t kill me and Baker put that knife away. You sposed to be cryin’ and screamin’ but you talkin’ ‘bout learnin’ Spanish. Man, you takin’ the fun outta this.”
As we turned the corner onto 5th Street, just a few blocks from the Catholic Worker Baker said, “You know, Robb, I like you. You okay. Then he folded the switchblade and put it back in his pocket.
I breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Baker, you are a mean, mean man.”
“Yeah, maybe so. Had you goin’ a little there, didn’t I?”
“More than a little.” I said.
“Yeah, to tell you the truth, I was petrified.”
Baker stared at me as if either he wanted to remember my face or there was something wrong with me.
“Now you the one bein’ mean,” he said.
Bob parked the car and we went into the house. Margaret met us at the door.
“How’re you feeling Baker,” she said. This was how she determined if someone was drunk or not, a short conversation was all she needed.
“These guys treat you alright?”
“Jes fine,” he said, winking at me. “Me and Robb here, we had a nice conversation about Mexico.”
“Mexico,” I heard Margaret saying as I walked away. “Have you ever been to Mexico, Baker?”
I climbed the stairs up to my room and eventually managed to fall asleep. In the morning I saw Baker sitting around with the other guys waiting for breakfast. He smiled at me and I nodded back. I never told anyone about his knife and never talked about that night in the back seat until now. There was no need to talk about it. Baker was killed a few weeks later crossing a busy street in Moline.
* Not his real name