The Standover Man, Bert and Petey

{Proberbs 28:13 esv – Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.}

The elaborate chase for illegal street drugs can be as powerfully addictive as the expectation of the end effects produced by them. Navigating the dark streets of Chicago’s ghetto’s, dressed in full camouflage, while looking for shifty eyes to connect with is an elaborate ceremony all unto itself. Successfully steering through gloomy urban terrain requires an astute situational awareness; noticing changing surroundings and reading the movements of pedestrian traffic takes time to master. Hunters become victims on these missions quite readily. Mission conscious, mission focused through mission completion.

**********

I began my career as a drug addict the day I came home from the United States Army in April of 1994. When Mama and Papa met me at the airport, I asked them to borrow their car.

“The car? Where are you going? You just landed and we haven’t seen you for two years!”, Mama’s anxiety couldn’t be restrained.

“Far away, Mama. I’m going far away.”

Papa shook his head in disgust. He handed me the keys, anyway.

**********

In the early days of my career, I was an easy mark for street thugs, hustlers and gangsters. I was unaware of the logistics of buying dope. Too many times I handed my money over blindly only to be standing empty handed at the end of the transaction. Eventually, I evolved into a fearless “standover man” – aka a thief of thieves – aka a white-boy version of Omar Little in Chicago. In other words, I made my living through the high risk role of strong arming drug dealers and robbing “high end” grocery stores.

In the open air market of Chicago’s street drug sales, dealers pay a “tax” to the gang chiefs for “property” to safely work their trade. Every corner, gangway, alley and vestibule that drugs are sold from has been paid for in advance. These properties are then monitored and guarded like a military perimeter. Where ever there is one drug dealer, waving down traffic and calling out street prices, you can be sure there are far more soldiers in the shadows – observing. They watch from rooftops, parked cars and they silently stare out from behind darkened windows in abandoned buildings.

My technique had no military prowess nor logistical design to it. I simply rolled up to a transaction in my car with money in plain sight, snatch the illegal “merch” from an outstretched hand and drive off as fast as I could.

As time went by, during this career, I had no real care concerning my own personal safety nor did I give any thought to what could possibly happen to me if I was caught. Quite simply, I was on a self-imposed death march with no real desire to push on in this life. I was already dead on the inside, I believed. I was without hope.

Crack cocaine was the only “medicine” that quieted the screams which echoed from my past. Soldiering, as a profession, can haunt even the most seasoned of veterans. I had found out early on, while stationed at Ft. Benning, Georgia, that I could weather the storm of screams with some medicine. However, I couldn’t always financially afford to treat the dis-ease that had me in it’s grip. So, as a result – sometimes – I just took what I needed and ran.

Looking back, some twenty-five plus years later, I have a criminal rap sheet as long as my arm. I’ve been in and out of jail, stayed multiple times in modern day sanitariums (drug treatment centers) and have found myself homeless on numerous occasions for extended periods of time. I’ve lost way more than I can remember, in this life. And, I’ve caused an ungodly amount of harm.

Regardless, God still had plans for me that were good.

**********

{Psalm 51:1-2 esv Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!}

Today, Meldie and me went shopping for our outdoor “friends” that congregate in our backyard. Back there, we have squirrels, raccoons, a few wandering outdoor cats and an abundance of different species of bird. We attempt to feed them all, yet “Bert” – our resident squirrel that rules the food intake back there – seems to have his way with whatever edibles find their way to the feeders.

Meldie has never smoked crack. Nor, has she ever taken anything that didn’t belong to her. We met at a Church, a few years ago, that I stumbled across while living in a local homeless shelter.

Nowadays, I earn my living honestly by working construction.

Together, we co-parent a Betta fish named “Petey”.

My Foundation of Papa & Abba

Sometime during the month of December, late 1971, my father accompanied me outside for a well planned and highly anticipated “stroll through the snow”. It just so happened to be my first time exploring the crystallized vapor as a newly walking human being; I was barely one year old.

According to family legend, I wasn’t that excited about snow escapades. Using my limited vocabulary at the time, I did my best to talk Papa out of this adventure.

“No, Papa! I no wanna!”

“It will be alright, pal. I will be with you every step of the way.”, he attempted to reassure me.

Helplessly, I looked to Mama for an intervention. Due to an odd familial political system, however, Mama’s hands were tied. Papa worked long hours during the week and he – mostly – used his time at home to eat and sleep. The weekends were his to do with as he saw fit concerning children, chores and obligations.

I was going outside in the snow and that was all there was to it.

**********

My father served in the United States Air Force Reserves as an Operating Room Technician for six years. He enlisted, according to him, to avoid being drafted into the more rigorous branches of the Army or Marine Corps. He viewed his time in uniform as somewhat of an embarrassment; he spent most of his contractual years of military service at the bar in Chicago’s O’hare Airport.

In contrast, I enlisted in the United States Army, for five years, as an Airborne Combat Medic. I spent my contractual years of military service on active duty, deploying to combat and trudging the ranks of a rapid deployment infantry brigade.

Our relationship was strained for most of our time together during this life. Papa’s father abandoned him and his mother when he was an infant. As a result, he was raised by an angry Catholic grandfather who referred to him as “bastard”. The Catholic Church, itself, abandoned Papa, as well. Children with no fathers – or more specifically – children of divorced parents weren’t accepted into the “Church” during Papa’s time as a child.

This left Papa with a defiant stance toward organized religion and a unique view of parenting children.

I came home from my time in uniform, at twenty-three years old, a defiant – yet deeply tortured – drug addict struggling with untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The complexity of our individual worldly experiences and the way we each internalized those experiences, were magnified when we dealt with each other.

He simply couldn’t understand why I had chose the life that I followed.

I couldn’t understand why he didn’t accept my choice.

**********

Mama bundled me up for my walk in the snow so well that I could barely move, I was told later on. She kissed me goodbye and told me to have fun. Papa didn’t appreciate all the fuss and verbalized his disgust out loud for us to hear.

“Stop babying the child, woman. He’s only going outside for a few minutes.”, he grunted.

He carried me down the stairs from our third floor apartment and released me to do as I wished once we were outside. As the story goes, all I wished was to go back inside. So, Papa picked me back up and ventured a little farther away from the building. Then, he gently placed me back on my feet again.

“Go, pal. I will be right here beside you – everything will be ok.”

A few steps later, I fell face first into an embankment of icy slush. According to Papa, the blood curdling screams that were birthed from my throat ended our tour through the wintry wonderland immediately. He carried me back up the three flights of stairs, straight away.

**********

Over the next forty-five years of my life, no matter how many times I fell face first, Papa never left my side. However, in early 2016, when the frustration of being his son became too great for me to bear, I threatened his life and pushed him away. I didn’t speak to him for almost two years. Then, when Mama called and let me know that he was sick, I decided to go visit him again. At the time, I had been living in a homeless shelter for six months. And, I was now drawing close to Abba, or “Daddy”, our Father in Heaven, through reading His living Word.

I decided to tell Papa about Daddy. I brought Meldie, my then girlfriend, with me. Meldie knows Daddy real well, you see. I needed her faith as reassurance. Papa spent my youth chasing the Catholic Priests away from our home. “Keep it moving, Padre! There’s nothing here for you!”, he would bark as they roamed our neighborhood of Chicago’s south side. To say I was anxious about talking faith with Papa would be a gross understatement.

I spoke to Papa about the bleeding woman, from scripture, who sneaked through the crowd just to touch the cloth of Jesus’ clothes. Her faith awarded her healing and Jesus was in awe of her. I also told Papa about Jesus’ view of the Pharisees; the religious leaders of His day.

Papa looked to Meldie for acknowledgement.

“It’s true!”, she exclaimed. “He is the Healer, the Way to the Father and the Sacrificed Lamb of God!”

I wasn’t sure of his response, right away, to being saved through belief on Jesus. All he kept saying was how impressed he was with Meldie.

“She seems to really like you! Like, for real, she seems to really like you! You don’t find that odd, son?”

“No Papa. Daddy sent her to me. He sent me here to show you.”

For the rest of his life, Papa called himself a “Jesus freak”. It was the oddest thing I had ever heard him say. But, he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior that very day. He told Meldie and me as much before we left. In other words, Papa confessed his belief through his own mouth.

We went back to visit him, a few times, after our initial visit. He always spoke about Jesus and he never missed an opportunity to kiss Meldie on the lips.

**********

In late December, 2017, I held Papa’s hand as he left this life and returned Home to Daddy. “Go Papa. I will be right here beside you – everything will be ok.”

Meldie, Mama, my sister and one of Papa’s granddaughters were there, too.

me and Papa walking through the snow – late December,1971,
the homeless shelter I lived in. That’s my bed, there, on the left under the exit sign

Day Traveling with Meldie

Meldie, my wife, gets seemingly “struck starving” for breakfast on most days. Like a wildly dancing child who has cross-legged their potty for too long, Meldie oozes panic when she realizes that she hasn’t ate anything for a while. It’s an amazing thing to behold, really, considering how intelligent, accomplished and petite she is. She raised and home schooled three boys (now healthy young men). She has three grandsons, now, too. She makes my lunch every day, she makes my supper every night and she sends me off to work – with a perfectly brewed mug of coffee – every morning at 3:30 am.

Still (or maybe I should say “therefore”) she violently “comes to” at the same time every mid-morning when the realization that she needs to eat sets upon her.

“Are you hungry babe? You must be starving!”, is the alert she speaks when the panic has hit her.

My role (in these moments) is to stay calm, get us moving and (ultimately) find food.

“Yes Dear, I can eat. Do you have anything in mind?”, I reply.

My cooking abilities are limited to barbecuing beef or pork on the grill and making eggs with toast in the mornings. It’s late December in the American Midwest so the arctic air has closed my outdoor skillet for the season. Meldie has burned out on my morning culinary menu; she gently, and in her own way, informed me of that recently.

” Oh boy, I don’t think I can do eggs n toast today, babe. We can head up to Monroe (Wisconsin) if you’d like. Maybe we can stop along the way if something yummy jumps out at us.”

Three minutes later, we were in our car heading north towards Monroe.

*****

For both Meldie and I, this is our second marriage. Meldie was married to her previous husband for thirty-two years. He wasn’t good to her. They have three sons together and three grandsons through those sons. She married young, grew increasingly tired of the man and left him (Readers Digest version). He moved to Tennessee, a few years later, when he reconnected with an old girlfriend from High School.

My previous life is far more “colorful”. I will cover everything relating to that life, in depth, over the course of the upcoming months. For now, let me just say that Meldie and I come from completely different worlds. However, we fit perfectly together. It appears to us that God, Himself, had paired us. And, that is precisely what we believe. I will cover that in the upcoming months, as well. We’ve been married for slightly over one year now.

*****

On the way up to Monroe, Meldie and I spoke of things both big and small. We enjoy each other’s company yet my work schedule has me away from home for roughly twelve hours per day. We view our time together, any and all of it, as a gift. Before we knew it, we were in Monroe – we conversed through every opportunity to stop for food along the way.

“Babe, let’s stop at Poncho & Lefty’s! You must be absolutely famished by this point!”, Meldie commanded as we passed the “Welcome to Monroe” city limits sign.

She was getting desperate for nourishment. I’ve been warned.

Poncho & Lefty’s Outlaw Grill serves Tex-Mex BBQ food, craft beer and wine in a quaint, yet small, warm atmosphere. We had yet to eat there. Located on the east side of the historic Monroe, Wisconsin downtown square, Poncho & Lefty’s is always packed full of enthusiastically patrons waiting to be served. The restaurant is a large draw for northwestern Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin. Folks travel for hours just to dine here. It was a roll of the dice concerning whether or not we would find seating. Regardless, Meldie had spoken in her own kind of way. She doesn’t ask for much and she rarely complains, about anything, unless she’s hungry.

Upon arrival, we were informed of an hour wait to be seated.

This, absolutely, would not work.

“Sweetie, let’s go next door to the Walnut Kitchen. There is nobody in there and we can eat right away.”, I inserted.

Lips quivering, Meldie swallowed hard and groaned her response to me. I was running out of time; she was letting me know.

“Ugh.”, she grunted.

Neither of us had heard of the Walnut Kitchen. However, en route to Poncho & Lefty’s we passed the deserted business. Every table was empty and the waitress stood blank faced, behind the cash register on her phone, like an emotionally detached ex girlfriend. It didn’t look promising but it did look clean. I was out of options.

I prayed (silently) for a hearty menu, opened the door for my weary wife, and crossed the eatery’s threshold behind her.

We were greeted by a photograph of two young women, standing side by side, smiling while in military camouflaged uniform. My heart began to warm over almost immediately. Meldie’s demeanor changed instantly, as well.

“Hi. We’re starving. What’s the story behind the photograph? I know my husband wants the full details behind it. Don’t you baby?”, Meldie spoke for the both of us.

I nodded in agreement – my tongue too heavy to form words.

“That’s Stephanie, the owner of the Black Walnut room, on the left. She’s a lieutenant in the Naval Reserves. She deployed to Africa, back in March, for what was supposed to be three weeks. She was just informed that they extended her deployment for another year. We’ve been running her Kitchen since she left hoping that she would return shortly. We are closing our doors in five days – we just can not do it anymore. We have a limited menu since all of our stuff has been packed up and moved out. All we have to offer is eggs n toast. Is that ok?”, the waitress explained to us.

Without hesitation, Meldie put her hand on mine and answered bravely for the both of us.

“Perfect! I’ve been craving eggs, with toast, all morning.”

Once our meals came, the waitress brought us some stationary, along with a stamped envelope, and asked us if we would consider writing a thank you letter to Lt. Stephanie. Meldie smiled, greatly, for the first time all morning at this request. She nodded to the waitress in my direction.

“Sir? Would you be interested in writing to our friend overseas?”

Fighting my emotions, I cleared my throat and answered her with as much fortitude that I could muster in the moment.

“I would be honored to write to your friend, ma’am.”

I pushed my plate of eggs n toast to the side, and began writing to Lt. Stephanie – owner of the Black Walnut Kitchen and mother of an eight year old boy currently living with his grandparents.

“Hi Stephanie. I served in the United States Army, on active duty, from 1989 – 1994….”

Stephanie on left.. Unknown on right
Black Walnut Kitchen, Monroe Wisconsin