July 1st 2015
I had a heyday.
A lot of them actually.
Sifting through every story submission I received after announcing this:
I chose the winners whose stories had swooned me most.
Here’s the first one.
Brian’s story and Olive present:
Have you met Manny?
He’s about 6’4, 250 pounds, with the hint of a belly poKing through his shirt. He’s a big guy. Born and bred in one of the impoverished areas of Detroit.
I’ve met him.
Senior year of undergrad.
But for a while.
I didn’t know one thing about him.
But here’s how we met:
I was working as a cook to support my…weekend habits, and Manny was the corresponding dishwasher—integral in the entire restaurant operation. Plates and cups were limited, so when business picked up, I needed Manny more than ever to ensure I had a clean dish whenever my meal was ready to slide off the frying pan.
And he always did.
Manny and I worked well together and our bosses were very pleased. Firstly because we rarely had issues, and secondly because my eggs over easy are without a doubt, out of this goddamned world.
It was a good partnership.
And with every dish, plate – dish – plate – dish – plate – interaction—Manny and I became friends.
And as it goes with anyone you start to become friends with.
I began to notice more about him.
How he talked. How he worked. How he ate. He was cautious and quiet; reserved in a way that belied his fear of others not liking what he said.
I tended to like what he said.
And he tended to like my choice in music because.
Well because, I always played up-tempo high-energy stuff that kept our spirits temporarily on cloud nine.
Truth be told.
We had nothing in common.
I was a white guy from the country who grew up hunting, fishing, and playing baseball with my brothers. Can’t stand cities and I avoid crowds with a serious and real passion. I didn’t grow up rich.
We always had enough. My parents love each other and my family works well.
And then there was Manny.
Grew up in the heart of a dying city—a different world from myself.
And that’s really all I knew.
And sometimes that’s all there is to it.
As time went on, I found out Manny walked to work every single day. So at one point I asked him about it and why, and he said,
“I’ve never had a car before, so I’m used to walking everywhere.”
I was perplexed but said okay, writing it off as something city-folk do…until I asked him where he lived and turns out it was right around the corner from me.
About 4 miles away.
“You walk 4 miles to and from work every day?”
“Mmmhmmm,” he said unassumingly. Drying the dishes so I had a place to put food.
And then I realized.
Rain, snow, or pitch black.
Manny never missed work.
He was always there.
He always walked.
No matter what.
There was this one day I noticed him leaving work in a different uniform. His shirt had a big “M” on it and when I asked him about it he told me he had two jobs, one full-time and one part-time.
…A full-time university student who worked about 60 hours a week and walked…everywhere?
I liked Manny more and more.
But not as much as I did this one particular 4th of July.
Here’s what happened.
And I’ll never forget it.
I requested time off from the restaurant for the holiday weekend, telling my boss I was driving home to see my family. It was true. And then I asked Manny in passing conversation if he was taking time off to see him family too, and he said he didn’t have a ride home.
“Detroit is only about 45 minutes off my route,” I told him. “Want to ride with me?”
He asked if I was sure, and I said of course.
And he was so happy.
And it felt good.
A couple days later I picked him up for the trip in my 2003 2-door Ford Escort.
And the trip was a breeze.
There really is something unique about conversations that happen on car rides.
I don’t know if it’s the proximity, being so close that you are forced to interact, or the inability escape using the excuse of the bathroom or that you’re too tired. But whatever the reason, Manny and I launched into all kinds of topics. Growing up in the city, race, relations, politics, college, plans, everything. Things turned deep and it was fascinating and humbling.
Manny was an epiphany for me.
He told me he had never known his father. But he grew up with a sister and a mother and a set of grandparents who moved North in the ’50s for work. Both his sister and mother worked two jobs to support the household. And his mother saved for years to send him to a reputable high school.
She wanted more than anything for him to escape the gang-riddled high school nearby.
And it worked.
Manny was the first person in his family to attend college.
And I was amazed by that, especially after he told me about the kids he grew up with. Most of them were in jail, dead, or career criminals. But somehow, through the guidance of his family, his mother especially, Manny avoided the life he was statistically destined for.
And then he told me.
The reason he was working two jobs, the one at the restaurant and the other that required the uniform with the big “M” on his shirt, was so that he could pay for his apartment and send some of the money back to his family too.
He didn’t drink. Smoke. Party. Or do otherwise collegy things.
Dedicated to being the first person in his family to graduate college. So he could work in business, and fulfill his dream of buying a house in the suburbs to put his family in—out of the poverty and crime he grew up in.
He was unassuming and humble about all of this.
He wasn’t looking for pity. And he didn’t want it. Manny was a character out of a book that everyone roots for.
I was blown away.
And this was all from just one car ride.
We neared his exit and I noticed the buildings getting less and less modern, the foreclosed signs outnumbering the open. We stopped at a light and the Cadillac that pulled up next to us was driven by a young man who did a double-take when he saw me.
I was probably the only person with blue eyes for a few blocks.
If you catch my drift.
Manny politely told me to keep the windows up and drive straight >>>> to his house.
I was now Sandra Bullock in The Blindside in that one scene, except I can’t pull off a blue dress quite like she can.
I was completely
out of place
for the first time in my life.
I didn’t belong here.
And I knew it.
When we pulled into his driveway, I saw three old townhomes in
a row right
in front of us. Thick bars covering every entrance to the age old structures. His various family members poKing their heads out of all three.
We got out of the car.
He knocked on the door.
And from an upstairs window a lady stuck her head out and screamed,
Life chooses funny times to change us.
And for me?
This was one of those times.
Manny hadn’t told his mother he was coming home. And I realized this as she came gushing out of the front door, hollering to the rest of his family to come outside because, “Manny was home!!!”
Manny hadn’t seen his family in over a year.
Not even Christmas.
His mother was in endless tears. His grandparents came out in shock, amazed that he was there. His mother ran back inside to call his sister who was at work, and several aunts poured out of the bar-ridden townhomes as well.
I was in shock.
These folks were crying in joy over seeing Manny, at the simple happiness in being together.
I went home every month.
It was regular for me.
His mother came back and gathered everyone into a circle, telling us that his sister was calling off work to come home to see her brother. Manny let me know through a big grin that he hadn’t seen her in about 2 years.
His mother took my hand, his grandmother, the other, and they started a prayer.
I grew up Catholic.
And the Catholic religion, to me, is cold and distant, rote prayers and solemn observation. I’ve never been a religious person.
But this prayer was the most honest expression of thanks that I had ever observed.
Manny’s mother thanked the Supreme Being for bringing her son home, that he was alive and healthy and that he could spend time with his family. She was choked up throughout, and her pauses for composure were evidence of how incredibly genuine her joy was.
And then I thought.
What do people normally pray for? To win the lottery, to pass a test, to get a job, etc etc…
This was simple and raw.
She hadn’t seen her only son in a year. The son that she had worked amazingly hard to support and guide out of the projects. The son that now worked amazingly hard to succeed so that he could repay his family by providing a home outside the city.
This was prayer for the right reason.
She thanked me profusely for my sacrifice of driving him. I didn’t know what to say.
It was nothing to me.
For the next two hours I was treated to their entire family history. His grandmother had moved north to find work, meeting his grandfather in the process. Eventually, they relocated to the city because the schools were better (though not yet integrated.) They had both worked in the auto industry, like most folks around Detroit, “but they really did try their best.”
They were so proud of Manny.
And after a small meal, I cordially told them I had to head home, my folks would be expecting me. But before I could leave, I was on the receiving end of quite a few hugs and words of thanks that far outweighed what I felt I had earned. I locked eyes with Manny.
And I didn’t know what to say.
What does a person say when their concept of the world is upended?
I shook his hand and said I’d be back on Sunday to pick him up. And when we got back to school, Manny and I hung out a few more times. I showed him how to start a campfire and shoot a rifle. (He was too scared to try a shotgun.) Stuff he had missed out on being in a city. And not having a father. I offered to drive him to work but he said no, he preferred walking.
And then graduation day came.
And I didn’t talk to him for a long time after that.
I tried to find him and reconnect.
But social media was never his main event.
But the last I heard.
He was exactly where he wanted to be.
Working a job in business.
Coming home to a house he bought for his family.
And rumor has it, he splurged and bought a car too.
Here’s the thing.
Manny didn’t do a great thing.
He didn’t climb a mountain or win a medal.
His greatness was in his modesty.
He was dealt a shit hand. Born poor in a bad area without a father and with a mother who was rarely home since she worked so hard to provide. His peers were criminals. He often faced decisions that could have derailed him.
He should have been a statistic.
He should be in jail.
He should be dead.
But he chose to do better.
But better for Manny and his family was very little. Because all they needed to be happy,
Was to be together.
The thing about Manny is.
You’ll never hear about him.
He won’t be a guest of honor, he won’t be a billionaire, he won’t appear on 60 Minutes or have a building named after his name.
But if you’re lucky enough.
And only if you’re lucky.
You’ll meet him.
Or someone just like him.
Because greatness comes in all forms, ideas and mostly people.
And I needed to meet a man named Manny to realize that.