They're closing the theater where black men made friendships

February 09, 1994|By Michael S. Weaver

IT WAS a 14-mile race, a mini-marathon as they billed it, but you had the option of making it a mini-mini-marathon by turning around after a fourth of the run. At that one-quarter point -- at the base of a hill -- smiling ladies at a table handed out Gatorade. That's when I made a decision to make it a mini-mini. I asked Donald about it. He was ahead of me. As my memory comes into focus, perhaps it was he who suggested it. He called back to me.

"Hey, Mike! How you doin'?"

"It's a little rough, Duck."

Duck was everybody's nickname for Donald. He was concerned about me, aware that I was not a strong runner.

"You wanna turn around here? Makin' seven miles ain't a bad run for you. I don't mind."

I was ecstatic. I was relieved of thinking how every fiber and cell in my heart and lungs might explode, sending bits of me into the air.

But then I was transformed again when I realized I had to climb the seemingly vertical hill that had deposited me so generously at the table with the ladies holding out Gatorade.

Donald helped me make that run. He coached me up the hill, just as he had been coaching me for a year in the art of long-distance running. And together Donald and I taught each other the difficult science of being friends.

We worked together in the warehouse at Procter & Gamble. That section of Baltimore near Fort McHenry is like a museum of the industrial past. Driving around Key Highway, I remember what it was like 20 years ago, when men streamed across the street at the change of the shift at the shipyard.

The place where I made good friends with Donald and several other African-American men is about to disappear with the shipyard; Procter & Gamble has announced it is closing the plant.

Near the end of my tenure in the warehouse section, Donald and I often worked the graveyard shift together. I picked him up at his house at 10:30, and we headed for South Baltimore, stopping at a 7-Eleven on Light Street for coffee and pastries. Once we were in the warehouse, we sat and talked for half an hour, or we sat in silence. There is nothing quite so important as black men sitting in peace and silence together. Throughout the night we stopped our work for conversations, going out back near the gas pump at the mechanic's shop for fresh air and a glimpse of the sky.

Now that I am so far from the men on that job and other men friends I have in Baltimore, I realize how important it is for a man to speak with another man about whatever is on his mind. Sometimes we do it directly. We do it through games and rituals, but what's important is that we value these friendships. What's more important than that is that such healthy friendships among black men only strengthen communication in the African-American community.

We need a space, an emotional space, where we can talk.

Donald taught me that loving involves repeated acts of forgiving. He also helped me see I have high standards for other people. He taught me what false humility is.

These lessons are golden. They can only be learned in the context of experience. What Donald taught me has helped me develop the friendship between my father and me.

After my mother died 12 years ago, my father and I became the oldest two on the pew, those closest to old age and death of our little group. I met my father in the emergency ward where my mother's body lay partially covered with a sheet. I put my arm around him and walked with him down the hallway. Our hearts were weeping. It was the first time I had hugged him, and now we talk at least twice a week by phone. From Baltimore, he gives me family history and gossip from ages past. After he has stunned me with a bit of news, he asks if I want to hear more.

"Naw, Pop, that's enough for tonight."

Years ago, my father lost one of his friends from the steel mills. When that man died, my father grieved as he did over his brothers. I was puzzled. He said to me, "One day you will understand how I feel."

Donald died five years after I quit the job at Procter & Gamble, and I did understand.

When I remember Donald now, it is often something he did or said at work in a place that will soon die.

I remember the other men: Richard, who came always with a book and conversation about the struggle of African-American people; Furman, whom we called "Father Divine," a man who was a real uncle to me and who was a great story teller from New York; Ernie, who died early but was a man who only wanted to keep the ladies happy; Ray, from Mississippi, whom I called "Tougaloo," who had a visceral sense of black history and could make me laugh no matter what; Tommy, now a preacher, who would talk you to death and then talk you back from the dead; Amos, our resident blues artist, and so many more.

That theater where we played the play of black men making friendships is about to close, but I hope the connections never die.

Michael S. Weaver teaches at Rutgers. His play, "Elvira and the Lost Prince," recently completed a run in Chicago.

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