Mixed media, Shall We Dance, by Todd
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2012)
A friend recently wrote to me about his philosophical discussions with a Jehovah’s Witness, and his letter brought back boatloads of memories of my friend Woody, an African American Jehovah’s Witness, an elder in his church, who visited me every month for the eleven years I lived in Berkeley.
The first time Woody came up my stairs and knocked on the front door, I intended to say to him what I had been saying to Jehovah’s Witnesses since I was a boy. “No thank you. Please don’t come again.” That was the little speech my mother taught me to say to Jehovah’s Witnesses when they came to our house, and those were the words I dutifully repeated to every Jehovah’s Witness who called on me until I was forty-five and opened the door to Woody and the young man accompanying him.
Woody was about fifteen years my senior, handsome, honey brown, bald, slender, wearing a beautifully tailored suit and a royal purple tie. Before I could recite my oft-repeated rejection, I found myself totally disarmed by Woody’s mischievous smile and charming southern accent. “Good afternoon,” he said pleasantly. “We saw the moving truck here last week and wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood. Where did you all come from?”
“Sacramento,” I said, struck hard by the realization that this stranger was the first person to welcome me to my new home.
“Awful hot up there in the summer,” he said, nodding knowingly. “You’ll be glad you live here and not there come August.”
To which I replied, “Amen,” and then immediately regretted my choice of words.
“This is Aaron,” said Woody, introducing me to his companion. “He’s helping me spread the word today and we were wondering if we might share a short passage from the Bible with you, something I think you will find quite interesting and relevant to the situation in the world today.”
“Sure,” I said, enjoying the company. “Read to me.”
So Woody opened his well-worn leather bound Bible and read something about the terrible state of the world and how God was going to clear things up any day now. And though I was not moved by the words themselves, I was deeply touched by the halting way Woody read, as if he had only recently learned to read, and each word was a challenge to him.
When he finished reading the brief passage, he smiled like a boy who has accomplished a difficult feat, his eyes shining with pleasure at having conquered the troublesome words. And then, for reasons I have no explanation for, our eyes met and we both burst out laughing, and we laughed until tears ran down our faces.
Thereafter, every month, Woody would stop by to deliver the latest editions of The Watchtower and Awake! and to share a passage from the Bible apropos of the terrible state of our society. If Woody found my door ajar, which it often was, he would call to me as he climbed the stairs, “Tawd! It’s Woody. You home?”
I admit there were times I did not answer the door when Woody came to visit, times when I was in no mood for a Bible reading or for hearing brief synopses of articles in the latest Awake!, but I usually opened to him, and I was always glad when I did. Woody was a beacon of friendliness in a largely unfriendly world, and I greatly enjoyed our few moments together—moments filled with appreciation for each other.
For two of those eleven years, Woody came to my house with Clarence, a very serious man who was learning to grow vegetables. If the weather was good, Clarence and Woody and I would go out into my little garden and I would answer Clarence’s questions about my methods for growing vegetables and garlic, my tricks for catching earwigs, and what I thought about various methods of composting.
Now and then, after Woody read to me from the Bible in his halting, innocent, enthusiastic way, I would read to him from Buckminster Fuller’s Critical Path, which I told him was my Bible. I vividly remember the time I read him Fuller’s passage, “I assumed that nature would “evaluate” my work as I went along. If I was doing what nature wanted done, and if I was doing it in promising ways, permitted by nature’s principles, I would find my work being economically sustained,” and Woody frowned and pondered and finally said, “Well…that’s what God does, isn’t it?” And then we burst out laughing.
Only a few times did Woody urge me to come to a Bible interpretation meeting at his church, and each time he invited me, I said something along the lines of, “I appreciate the offer, but I’m not really interested in studying the Bible. I’ve read the good book, and I’m glad I did, and now and then I dip into Psalms, but I’m more interested in Buddhism these days.”
“Oh, Buddhism,” he would say, nodding thoughtfully. “We have a number of former Buddhists in our congregation. Wonderful people.” Then he would smile his mischievous smile and say, “Well, you let me know if you change your mind.”
One day, Woody came to my door accompanied by a beautiful and vivacious Eurasian woman with long black hair and black-framed glasses. “This is Carmen,” said Woody, gesturing to her in his gallant way. “Carmen, this is my good friend Tawd. I’ve been coming to see him for seven years now and it’s always a pleasure.”
Woody then asked Carmen to read a passage from the Bible, and she did so beautifully, her voice melodious and full of passion, her enunciation perfect. What’s more, Carmen proved to be the only one of Woody’s many companions who laughed with us when he and I laughed, which was almost every visit, and I flatter myself to think Carmen really liked me, and I know I really liked her. Yes, it was like at first sight, and being single as I was and seeing she wore no wedding ring, I often regretted I hadn’t met her at a café instead of over religious magazines featuring silly drawings of grinning people picnicking with tigers and lambs.
Carmen came with Woody four times, and the thought of seeing her always propelled me to the door with a greater than usual momentum. Alas, the last time she came with Woody, as I was enjoying her graceful descent of the stairs, Woody tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “I know Carmen would sure like it if you came to Bible study. She told me so, Tawd. Yes, she did.” And when I didn’t go to Bible study, Carmen ceased to accompany Woody on his visits to me.
During my last two years in Berkeley, Woody’s congregation fulfilled their dream of building a new temple near the North Berkeley BART station, and Woody invited me to attend the grand opening, but I did not go. Looking back over the years, I wish I had gone to the temple opening because I know Woody was immensely proud of that accomplishment.
When I told Woody I was moving away, he put on a sad face and said, “Where are you going, Tawd? I’m gonna miss you.”
“I’m moving to Mendocino,” I told him. “On the coast a hundred miles north of here.”
“I have heard of Mendocino,” he said solemnly. “And though I have never been there, I hear there are some very good people there, and I hope you meet them, I do.”
Then much to my surprise, we did not burst out laughing, but shook hands as tenderly as hands may be shaken. I cannot explain what it was about Woody that so appealed to me, or why we recognized each other as kindred spirits right off the bat, or why our good feelings for each other never waned. I just liked him and he liked me. He never once asked me about my personal life, nor did I ever ask him about his.
I especially remember one cold wet winter day as I was kneeling on my hearth and failing repeatedly to get my fire going due to lack of newspaper, when I heard Woody and a companion coming up the stairs, and I thought, Oh, good. He’ll leave an Awake! and I’ll be able to start my fire.
With that shameful thought in mind, I opened the door to behold Woody and Clarence, their raincoats soaking wet, Woody saying, “We can’t stay long today, Tawd, but we wanted to make sure you got the latest Awake! and Watchtower. Some very interesting articles.”
“You growing anything in your garden this time of year?” asked Clarence, ever serious. “Besides your garlic?”
“Lettuce and kale and chard,” I intoned. “They grow year round in Berkeley.”
“See,” said Woody, handing me my fire starter, “I knew he’d have something illuminating to say on the subject.”
Then, as we were wont to do, Woody and I burst out laughing, with Clarence perplexed as ever by our inexplicable gaiety.