As some you know from reading my brief bio below the pieces I have written and posted for HELLO POETRY, I have spent a good part of my life as a
human-rights advocate. I'd like to share with you a special recollection of mine with you now so you'll know that the way I share my humanity with those who need some kindness is different often from the ways others do.
It was the spring of 1992. I was in New York City to attend a meeting of Columbia College's Board of Directors of which I was a member. I was walking down Broadway toward Tom's Restaurant, one of my haunts when
I was an undergraduate. I was going to have breakfast, my all-time favorite meal. As I walked along, I saw ahead of me a tall black man holding a styrofoam cup hoping those who walked by him might drop a quarter or two into his cup. When I got to where this man was standing, I stopped in front of him. My stopping right in front of him surprised him, I'm sure. I stuck out my right arm hoping to shake his, and as I did, I said, "My name is Tod Hawks. What's your name?" This man was incredulous. Finally, after a long, awkward pause, he said "Hechamiah." I said "Hechamiah what." There was another long pause. Finally, Hechamiah said, "Hechamiah Moore." I then said, "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Moore. I'm on my way to have dinner at Tom's Restaurant. Would you like to join me and be my guest?" Mr. Moore was stunned. Another long pause. Finally, Mr. Moore said, "OK." So we began walking together down Broadway toward Tom's Restaurant, and as we walked, we started chatting. I found out Hechamiah was from North Carolina, had married his sweetheart when both were 16, then came to New Jersey
where Hechamiah got a job in some kind of factory. But ten years prior to our meeting, his wife died unexpectedly. Hechamiah told me he just couldn't stand it, so he started drinking and didn't stop. Eventually, he was fired, and for the last eight years had been homeless.
At this point, we reached 112th Street and needed to cross Broadway to enter Tom's Restaurant. We crossed half of Broadway, in the middle of which there was sort of an island where there were a couple of benches. There, Hechamiah just stopped. I asked him, "What's wrong, Mr. Moore?" Hechamiah, after another pause, said to me, "I don't think they want me in there." I paused this time, then I said, "Mr. Moore, there are two reasons why you are going into Tom's with me. First, you are my friend. The second is the United States Constitution." Another pause. Hechamiah stepped off the island's curb and began to walk across the other half of Broadway. I joined him.
We entered Tom's, first Hechamiah and then I. I saw an empty booth in the rear of the restaurant. I walked ahead of Hechamiah to the booth, then we both took a seat. I could see and feel that Hechamiah was extremely nervous. A lovely middle-aged waitress came over and handed each of us a menu. When she returned a few minutes later, she asked what we would like to order. I told her Mr. Moore was my guest. She looked at Hechamiah and asked him what he wanted. "A cup of Manhattan clam chowder," said Hechamiah. "That's all you want, Mr. Moore?" I said with surprise. He nodded yes. I ordered breakfast.
Hechamiah and I continued chatting. I told him I had been spending the past year traveling around the country seeing and talking to people who were hungry and homeless and hopeless. Politicians, I told him, were interested only in polls and percentages. I was interested in people's pain, so much of which I had experienced, and hoped to help find ways to allay it. I told Hechamiah I had delivered a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, had traveled to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the southwest corner of South Dakota--still the poorest place in America, to Houston where several hundred black men slept on folded cardboard boxes that lay on cold cement sidewalks along both sides Prescott Street, 24/7, to Atlanta where I met with Martin Luther King III and former President Carter at the Carter Center, as well as other places and other people.
The waitress had brought us our meals in the interim. We both had finished eating. At that juncture, I said to Hechamiah, "Are you sure you don't want something else to eat, Mr. Moore?" I could see and feel that Hechamiah was becoming increasingly at ease as we shared food and conversation. He said, in fact, he would. When our waitress came by again, Hechamiah was so relaxed that he started to joke with her as he ordered a full meal, and our waitress was so sweet, she just joined in the fun.
Hechamiah finished his meal in short order. It was time to leave Tom's. When we reached the entrance, Hechamiah began to push the door open, but as he had the door just half open, he turned around and said to me, "Mr. Hawks, you are a kind man." I said to Hechamiah, "Mr. Moore, you are a good man." We both stepped onto the sidewalk and shook hands and began to walk in different directions into the darkness, but with our stomachs, and our hearts, much fuller than they had previously been.
Copyright 2020 Tod Howard Hawks
A graduate of Andover and Columbia College, Columbia University, Tod Howard Hawks has been a poet, a novelist, and a human-rights advocate his entire adult life.