A Caged Bird No Longer

IMG_0775Today was Lester’s birthday. I met Lester on August 15, 2009. We moved into Cornerstone Community only a few days apart. I wrote about Lester and my first days with the guys right after moving in. Cornerstone was the home that Lester and I shared for almost two years, along with other homeless men working through recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. I had never known the hell of addiction; I lived at Cornerstone as a Community Builder, a staff member whose primary job was to build relationships with the men and support their recovery. Lester and I could not have been more different. He was black, in his late 50’s, had lived on the streets and in prison for much of his adult life, and had done hard drugs. I was a 23 year-old white kid, fresh off a year learning about community, hospitality, and prayer from friends at the Rutba House in Durham and Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM. I wasn’t new to homelessness or addiction, but sharing life with people who had literally just begun to emerge from that world has profoundly changed my life.

From the beginning, Lester and I developed a pretty good relationship. He was always very laid back about most things, as I tend to be. He kept a lot to himself during the days, content to stay in his room and listen to music or sleep. He was an incredible pool shark. He could make all kinds of impossible bank shots. He’d never even finished high school, but when it came to pool, he knew his geometry and physics better than I’d ever known. I’m sure that shooting pool was how he’d earned a lot of his money at one point. He was a hustler, no doubt. He had this smile, kind of slick, when he knew he was playing you and you thought you had the better of him, whether it was pool or just about anything.

He liked telling stories. Sometimes he would recollect his youthful days, running the streets, getting in gang fights, messing with the cops. He told us one night, after dinner, of his harrowing experience at Attica State Prison, home of the famous prison riot in 1971. He’d been beaten, had his front teeth knocked out, and forced through an unrelenting, horrific nightmare. He described the way the police came in firing, and he saw people left and right being mowed down. Lester was later responsible for helping gather and move the dead bodies.

In 2011, Lester moved into his own apartment for the first time in his life. Soon after, he started working with me at Sitar Arts Center as a custodian. We became coworkers, which I think really tickled Lester. He got to experience a work culture that was fun and encouraging, that challenged him to work hard but supported and loved him. I don’t think he’d ever worked at a job consistently for as long as he was with Sitar, which was over 2 years.  He couldn’t carry a tune, but he loved to sing. He sang constantly, doo-wop songs, in his tenor, raspy voice. He loved the O’Jays and all kinds of music. Or he’d make up his own lyrics half the time.

I’ve tried to think about what I learned from Lester but it feels selfish. It feels too easy, like I can find one life lesson from him and carry it with me and forget the rest. Even as I started to write this, I tried to look for some dramatic imparting or wisdom that I’ve gained from him, or some easy story about how different we were and how unlikely our friendship was, but all I could find myself doing was saying who he was, what his life looked like in the time I knew him. Lester was my friend. He is the only person I’ve ever been close with, outside of family, who has died. He was a kind man who loved children, stylish clothes, and a perfectly arranged apartment. He enjoyed eating Frosted Flakes at all hours of the night. He loved to take pictures with disposable cameras, almost always at an angle. He was the kind of person to walk nearly two miles with you  so that you  did not have to walk home alone in the dark, and then turn around and walk the two miles back. On Thursday nights, as part of our weekly community meal and prayer, he was always nearly moved to tears with gratitude for the community and for his life. I never knew Lester-the-heroin-addict. I knew Lester-the-community-mate, Lester-the-friend.

But I suppose that if I had to name one thing that comes close to describing Lester’s life, I would say that Lester was always torn between freedom and captivity, and toward the end of his life he was finally coming to a place where the nourishment of freedom was taking hold. Maya Angelou’s poem I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings occurred to me as possibly the most apt summary of his life.

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
an the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

I am blessed to have been a witness to Lester’s song of freedom.

EDIT: I would also like to include here a wonderful poem by my sister, Amy Caruso, that she wrote for Lester’s memorial service last June.  I think it fits nicely.

In Memory: A Place for Lester

When the scrapbook is put together many years from now,
and my child ventures to open it one summer lazy afternoon
I want him to find a picture of Lester.
“Why Lester?” Oliver will ask.
Why? Because, when you were little, he would peak curiously at you, fast asleep in the baby carrier.
Why? Because, while we sang and danced in your baby music class, he swept, took out the trash, and cleaned the bathrooms.
Why? Because he had the friendliest “Hello” and a big heart.
Why? Because he was a friend to your Uncle Brian.
There are those reasons and many more, dear child.
Our story and his story are bound together.
His freedom and our freedom, one and the same.
His humanity and our humanity, inextricably linked.
For that, a photo.
For that, a place for Lester
in our scrapbook and
in our hearts.

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