Mr. Newell, who lived next door, was a reflection of the man I someday hoped to be
Even as a child, I was his unknowing understudy. Mostly, I watched him without ever saying a word.
Mr. Newell speaks to me, mostly in my daydreams as an autumn wind blows, the chilly breath of an encroaching Chicago winter nipping burnt auburn leaves on bristling trees.
“Hey Johnny,” I can still hear his soft raspy voice calling, as he sits on the front porch in his rocking chair. With his old hound dog “Spot” at his feet, Mr. Newell puffs his mahogany pipe, cherry tobacco wafting sweetly like the melancholy serenade of Miles Davis’ horn in “Flamenco Sketches.” Miles plays over my stereo. Mr. Newell plays in my mind.
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A lifetime later, he still visits me, especially here lately, for reasons I don’t fully understand. His image smiles gently from his perch at the top of the stairs of his house on South Komensky Avenue on the West Side — not through a fog but clearly.
His eyes squint, filled with joy and satisfaction, which I now recognize as the eyes of a man fulfilled, of a man completely contented, having discovered the key to living and tranquility of the soul.
Mr. Newell …
“I’m proud of you, Johnny,” I hear his voice intoning.
I was in my early twenties, married with three children and on welfare. I was a college dropout on the rebound and obsessed with trying to extricate myself from poverty, searching for the meaning of life while caught in the drowning swirl of living.
A son of North Lawndale, I grew up in one of America’s poorest communities, where Dr. King once lived with his family to call attention to the poor. I had moved back to Komensky to recalibrate.
In outsiders’ eyes, I was among the “permanent underclass.” A statistic. “American Millstone.”
In Mr. Newell’s eyes, I was a potential rose among thorns. A reflection of possibility. An American dreamer.
In my eyes, Mr. Newell was a finely stubborn old man who acted as curator of his roses and garden, his emerald lawn and his precious sprawling apple tree that stood majestically in the middle of his fenced backyard.
Mr. Newell’s first name was Dewey. He was dark chocolate, thinly muscular and married to Bessie, a high-yellow woman whom I swore was white. They were inseparable.
Mr. Newell was our block’s elder statesman, a proud father and grandfather, and block club captain who organized the annual block club party. In hindsight, he was so much more.
He was an oak tree. Consistency — even in the midst of chaos. He was calm and reasoning, salt and seasoning for those receptive to the wisdom and grace that poured from his lips and that were embodied by the way, and in the spirit, in which he walked, talked, moved, breathed.
Even as a child, I was an unknowing understudy of Mr. Newell who lived next door. Mostly, I watched him without ever saying a word. I observed his attentiveness to the small things, to flowers and shrubs.
His gentleness. His love. Mr. Newell — who lived to be 100.
He was, in so many ways, a reflection of the kind of man I someday hoped to be. A man not enamored with, or consumed by, status, power and the possession of things.
A man resplendent in his Garden of Eden, even if his Eden was on the other side of the tracks.
Memories of Mr. Newell remind me, warn me, cajole me, to “keep pushing, Johnny.” To never let some outsider’s view “get the best of you, Johnny.” To never ever give up. To be, even in trying times like these, what I was meant to be.
With his mahogany pipe in hand, on a chilly autumn breeze, Mr. Newell still speaks to me.
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