His first name was Mister. His last name was Newell. A dark-chocolate, thinly muscular man, he smoked a pipe whose scent of cherry tobacco hung on a summer’s evening breeze.
His real first name was Dewey — something I never knew as a kid. Back then, every adult male had the same first name: Mister. His wife was Bessie. But every woman’s first name back then was Miss or Missus.
Out of earshot of adults, we kids referred to Mr. Newell as “Old Man Newell.” We didn’t mean any disrespect. He was the elder statesman of the 1600 block of South Komensky Avenue, the block club captain, and a green thumb.
Mr. Newell was proud owner — and protector — of a sprawling apple tree whose sun-drenched green and red ornaments each summer became the envy of us boys and sometimes the objects of petty theft. But at summer’s end, Old Man Newell opened his backyard gate and invited us to climb the tree, shake its limbs and shower the entire neighborhood with apples.
He sometimes seemed obsessed with his emerald lawn, fussing at any kid who dared walk across it.
“Young mannn, get off my grass!” he used to say in that thunderous but silky tenor voice.
The Newells were always kneeling and clipping, digging or tugging, fussing over rose bushes and rainbow-colored beds of flowers. He sauntered from the front yard to the back, sometimes wearing dress trousers and a handsome straw hat as if he were going out on a date.
When all was immaculately done, he sometimes sat on his porch, his jaw swollen with chewing tobacco, spitting brown juice with a squirting pucker, accompanied by his sidekick, a black-and-white spotted hound dog, “Spot.”
Or he sat puffing a mahogany pipe, wearing the same proud look I would later recognize in young men on my block after they had spent the day waxing their cars into a hot shine.
Except Mr. Newell’s grass always sparkled so much brighter than their chrome wheels.
Later, as an adult, I became friends with Mr. Newell. And I came to better understand him. To appreciate and even admire him as we sat sometimes talking on his porch in the cool of summer evenings.
He even let me borrow his garden tools to dig up the bald yard and plant grass at the apartment building next to their house where I — with my wife and children — had moved in. Mr. Newell would later confess to me that the yard had been barren for so long he wondered whether grass would ever grow again. It did, along with the flowers I planted.
Mr. Newell told me how proud he was of me, not just for my care of the lawn and the building where I lived — but for taking care of my family, for trying to do better, live better, be better. His words were like water to a wilting plant.
I still hold dear the lessons I saw Mr. Newell live out in his garden: Dig, plant and water — it will grow. Care, nurture and protect — it will survive. Take time to breathe in the beauty and fruit of your labor — it will sustain you.
And this lesson most of all: Just because you live in the ghetto doesn’t mean the ghetto has to live in you.
I breathe in these sweet lessons, like the scent of Mr. Newell’s cherry tobacco.