At 7:07 am this morning, the doorbell rings. The doorbell never rings. My friends come to the side door rather than the front, because that’s where the house opens from, and where I go in and out. Getting to the front door also involves opening a door, going down a short hallway, and then stepping onto the porch.
On the porch is a short African-American woman with a short frizzy haircut. She’s dressed in a gray-brown dress, a sort of black jacket over it. She’s beautiful, but she’s looking off into the distance, away to the east, as though her mind is on other things, other people.
“Hello. I won some money in the Publisher’s Clearinghouse. Can I have a stamp?”
I’m about to say no. I mean, inviting her into the hallway invites her into the house, and this is behavior I’ve seen before — in drunks, in addicts… my spider-sense is tingling. I think my house is being cased for a robbery.
I say “yes, hold on.”
I shut the door, and go into the living room. Wasn’t I using stamps yesterday? Here they are. Poets. The next stamp in the series is Gwendolyn Brooks, the next one to be used. Of course it is.
I bring the stamp book and the stamp out to the porch. Sme’s still waiting. I put the stamp on the envelope that she holds out proudly, and I nod as she says, “I’ve already won. $45,000. Maybe more, after my name gets into the larger drawing on February 12.”
There’s so much to be said. There’s so many things that could be said. I don’t say anything in response to her claims of imminent wealth, how she’ll share it with me.
Instead, I say. “That’s Gwendolyn Brooks. On the stamp. She’s one of the great poets. An African-American woman from Chicago. She was Poet Laureate of the United States in 1985.”
Her head swivels, and she’s regarding me intensely. She sees me for the first time: orange sweater. orange tie. What can I say? It’s Wednesday: it’s all about communication and business today. Her attention is still on something further down the street, there’s someone or something there that I can’t see, but for the first time it feels like I’m a real human being to her, I think. I’ve suddenly become a person to her, a living flesh and blood person. She’s been real to me since the moment she rang my doorbell, startlingly real. Encounters with strangers who deliberately push on my private space are rare enough that they’re all memorable.
“Here’s one of her poems,” I say, flipping over the stamp book. “It’s called Sermon on the Warpland:” And I read it to her.
Build now your Church, my brothers, sisters. Build
never with brick or Corten nor with granite.
Build with lithe love. With love like lion-eyes.
with love like morningrise.
with love like black, our black —
— Gwendolyn Brooks, “The Sermon on the Warpland”
She breathes. I realize that she’d been holding her breath. Here she was, pulling some sort of a scam — maybe, I have no idea what, maybe she thinks she’s going to win the Publishers’ Clearinghouse. And here I am, reading her poetry on my doorstep.
She looks at me. “Thank you. Thank you for the stamp. I gotta. I gotta go mail this.”
I hold out my hand, step onto the porch, shake hands with her. “My name is Andrew. I wish you well, and good luck to you.”
“I’m going to share my $45,000 with you,” she says. “You’re nice. Money is coming to you soon.”
I shrug, and wish her well again.
I don’t think I’m going to be robbed today. And whether money comes to me or not, I feel a little bit wealthier for having been seen, really seen, by someone who a few moments ago had been looking right through me as though I were a ghost.