Richard Woods and I were security guards together in the late 1980s. I was putting myself through college. He was trying to raise a family on the paltry salary.
We spent many nights discussing race relations. Woods had lived in Harlem his whole life. He worked hard and was the proudest black man I have ever met. When he was younger, he was a heroin addict. He did a five-year bid upstate that cured him of using drugs. He had been clean for over 30 years when I met him.
One day he asked me to come to his house because he thought I could help his son, Jamal, who was facing a future as a crackhead. Knowing I grew up in the Bronx and had some familiarity with drugs, he figured I could give the kid a good talking to. He asked for my help and I gave it.
We drove up Madison Ave. and turned onto 119th St. On an abandoned stoop, a group of about 10 middle-aged men drank beer. As they finished their bottles, they threw them in the street. Woods told me to pull over, got out and confronted the men.
"Why don't you get a broom and clean this mess up?"
The men laughed at Woods and kept drinking.
"Why don't you mind your own business, old man."
Woods got hot. "This is my business. Harlem is my town, and I remember when it stood for something good. Something to strive for. You're just playing a stereotype."
"Well, I'm going to get more beer, Uncle Tom."
Woods waved them off with disgust, and we drove to his apartment on 121st St.
"Look, kid, I trust you. I need you to show my son there is a better way."
"I'm just a security guard trying to finish college."
"Yeah, but the point is you are working and going to school."
I got out of the car and went into Woods' brownstone. His son sat on a couch. He was a crackhead, all right. Six-four and all of 130 lbs. We talked for a while; then he asked me for $30.
I smiled at him and said, "I grew up near here. I have no white guilt. That $30 is for crack. You are a stone crackhead, and until you go to rehab, a mental institution, or jail, that is not going to change-you are going to live for the next hit. You will be a skinny-ass pipe smoker with nothing to hope for."
The son got angry and said, "What do you know? You ain't nothin' but a white boy."
I stood up and said, "First off, I'm a white man, and before you're black, you're a crackhead. So go beam up to Scotty and leave your poor father alone."
The son walked out and the father sat down on the couch and cried.