By mid-day Sunday, Taqueria San Jose was packed. The gorgeous restaurant feels air lifted from Mexico and is bigger than you’re currently imagining, with an outdoor fountain on the rarely used and kind of small brick patio. I ordered lunch and armed myself with chips and salsa. As I hit the door to leave, right at that moment, Kevin is walking up the street and passing the entrance, calls my name. He’s so close to me at first I don’t see him. But we fall into a warm greeting. And quite frankly, as quiet as my weekend had been, I was open to greeting anybody.
Kevin is fair skinned with huge searchlight brown eyes. His beard quickly shadows his cookie complexion. His lashes are so pronounced and dark it appears if he’s wearing a touch of mascara, but really his eyes betray some Middle Eastern or Indian ancestor. His hair, which I remembered to be naturally wavy as if his mother drank curl activator while she was pregnant, was covered with a knit cap pushed back high on his crown. A bulging jacket sloppily dripped off his shoulders. Beneath was a V-neck T-shirt opened nearly to his liver, revealing long black and white gray hairs blossoming wildly across his narrow chest. Damn, we’re all getting old, I thought. A black liquor store bag hung from his fingers while he took steady shots from a huge bottle of grapefruit juice.
I told him I was just getting lunch then going home. He told me he was on his way to visit his mom who was staying in some elder hospital ‘down the street’. I clearly remembered his mom, and naturally thought of my own and how I knew several people who once stayed at that senior facility he vaguely pointed to. He was quick to complain about the staff, about the conditions of some of his mom’s hording neighbors. He talked and talked then stopped and said: Am I keeping you from somewhere.
I was just going to catch my bus, I said.
He agreed to walk with me, dumping stories and complaints I knew well about senior care, about nurses, about smells and ‘I better not see no damn rat in my mom’s room’ until we stopped a full block away from my bus to talk more. When a ghost cloud of marijuana passed between us, he surprised me by quickly getting away from there and asking again where I was going.
Somehow, it occurred to me to ask if he remembered Dru, with whom we both went to grade and middle school with and who’d just called me two days prior. Years ago, Dru sat with me on my front porch the afternoon of my mom’s funeral. As a child, I remember alternating my after-school afternoons between Kevin and Dru, but Kevin didn’t seem to remember the only white kid in our class. Dru, in comparison, doesn’t forget anything or anyone.
And we kept talking, though what we talked of wasn’t worth tracking. Flash cards as conversation. I remember and regret the last time I saw Kevin. It was lunch hour in S.F. and I was coming from the pizza place with a very good friend, and looked up to see Kevin approach in a wifebeater. Kevin, without question, would wear a wifebeater. As he approached, I regret whispering to my friend that I didn’t want to dwell with Kevin, didn’t want to be stuck in conversation. I regret dismissively telling my friend, Kevin’s crazy, because I wasn’t sure he was. I kind of regret, many years before this while I was in high school, asking class president Harold about Kevin– because they had the same last name. Turned out, they were cousins. I regretted asking Harold about Kevin because his answer was a distinct non answer. A shaking of his head, a defeat as if I’d just caught him doing something awful and he couldn’t lie and get out of it. I don’t remember what Harold said, only that I immediately regretted asking and I never asked again. I asked Harold a question and in turn Harold gave me a puzzle piece and clamped his mouth shut.
Kevin walked me over to the bus stop, having successfully filled my 25 minute wait for the next one. He asked me about movies, the last one I saw. I couldn’t remember. I hadn’t even seen Spectre yet. I remember many years ago going to see Prince’s Under The Cherry Moon when it came out. When I got to the theater, Kevin was already there and told me he was planning to stay the day and watch every showing, which he did. I told him Denzel is in the new remake of The Magnificent Seven and he nearly holy ghost danced. I told him Don Cheadle is doing Miles Davis and he almost fainted. (Not spilling even a drop of juice in the process, though)
We passed in front of a bus shelter where a Mexican woman sat with two small children climbing over her. We walked down to the stop I needed. Kevin’s eyes had swollen and glazed over from the woman. Though she’d been seated, he began describing her black pants. Ohh, boy. He said she knew he was looking and he stopped seeing me for whatever he was seeing in his mind. Ohh boy. He licked his lips and smiled knowingly… though I didn’t know. How did he see so much from a woman sitting down, children tumbling from her arms. He saw her and only her and stood facing me and describing her pants and body for a solid minute. Swig of juice. Smile. Kevin is not ugly, yet there is so much ugliness around him. The woman was first to get on the bus, lifting her kids onto it with the diligence of a marine. We looked at the same woman and saw two different people and two different things.
When I remember Kevin, beyond the vest and striped shirt and bow tie he wore in our class picture, I remember him alone. We didn’t spend a lot of time together as kids, but enough. We were friendly without the burden of ever being close. Our mothers knew one another and would talk from time to time, though I never knew about what. His mother, I’m sure, had her hair done a few times by mine. As I got older, I would see Kevin at random, on a bus or on the street, downtown Oakland or downtown San Francisco. He was usually armed with a complaint about wherever he was staying– for a while, a resident hotel near the Tenderloin on Market. But what to make of the story he told me about some woman who’d once seriously, specifically cut him, nearing cutting IT off? What to make even of his life? His reticent family? What does he do day to day? Has he ever worked? How is his mom, really? He’s never had any kids. I don’t believe he’s ever been married, even but for a month.
We kinda said goodbye, finally. Exchanging a quick pound or whatever. But mostly I remember climbing onto the bus, turning and seeing him still talking and quizzing the day and what else it wanted to bring him. The black bag pendulum swinging from his fingers. He kissed juice out of the bottle.
Who is he really? I’ve known him more than 30 years. I still don’t know.