The Stranger

It was a rainy Saturday morning in the winter of 1937. I was five years old. We had recently moved to a rented house on Dohr Street in Southwest Berkeley. Earlier that morning Daddy went to work at his then part-time weekend job as a Red Cap baggage handler for the Southern Pacific Railroad in San Francisco, and Mother and I were home alone. I was watching rain pelt the outside of our living room window when I spotted a tall Black man walking on the sidewalk in the direction of our house. I had never seen him before.

The tall stranger’s trousers were torn from his knees to his ankles. Draped over his shoulders was a gray, button less overcoat, which was caked with dirt and streaked with jagged black lines that looked like grease. I could see several gaping holes in the broad brimmed brown hat, which was pulled down to the middle of his forehead.

He stopped in front of our house, bowed his head slightly and stood motionless for several minutes. I could see his lips moving, and I wondered what he might be saying to himself. He then turned and slowly ascended the front stairs of our house. I ran quickly to Mother and Daddy’s bedroom window where I could see our front porch more clearly and thereby continue to observe the stranger. I saw him ring our doorbell. Then he moved back from the front door and stood near the top step of the porch, where he took his hat off his head and clutched it to his chest.

Mother answered the doorbell by partially opening the door. The man thanked her for acknowledging his presence, and he apologized for the intrusion. He then asked my mother if she would please give him something to eat. He said he hadn’t eaten in three days, and he had no money to buy food.

Mother, without hesitation, said yes, that she would give him something to eat. She told him that he should sit on one of the front steps where he would be sheltered from the rain, and she would bring him a plate of food and he could eat it there on the porch. He vigorously nodded his head in ascent, and said, “Thank you so much, Madam.”

I continued to peer through the window at the hungry stranger. He sat very straight, and very still on the top step of our front porch, looking straight ahead, apparently at the lone birch tree across the street in the front yard of my best friend, Harold Takahashi. His head never moved to the left, or the right. I wondered if not eating for three days made a person sit so straight and still. I guessed he might have been thinking about what my mother would bring him to eat. I knew I’d be thinking about whether I’d like whatever she was preparing for me. But I somehow sensed that this hungry grown man was different from me in that regard; that he wouldn’t be as picky as I was about food.

Mother returned to our front door carrying the tray she brought food to me on when I had a bad cold and had to spend the day in bed. Instead of a dinner plate the food filled a large serving platter. She had warmed left over dinner from the two previous nights, chili with kidney beans, ground beef, and rice, along with a stack of collard greens, with onions and ham. I hated collard greens. The tray also held two large pieces of corn bread, a cup of coffee, and a large slice of lemon meringue pie. I loved Mother’s lemon meringue pies, and so did Daddy. And I wondered whether there would be enough left for Daddy and me. Somehow I knew even at five years of age that that was not a very charitable thought, but still, it was Mother’s lemon meringue pie, and she made the best.

My mother had put so much food on the platter I wondered if the hungry stranger could eat it all, and the corn bread, too. Maybe he wouldn’t have room left in his tummy for the pie, I thought.

I watched him eat as he sat on the top step of our front porch. He hunched his shoulders as he bent over the platter resting on his lap. And he ate steadily, repeatedly digging the fork into the mound of food and shoveling its contents into his mouth, while periodically taking a sip of coffee and a big bite of corn bread. On two occasions he momentarily raised his head to the sky and closed his eyes. He sure did like that food, collard greens included, and, alas, there was evidently plenty of room in his tummy since he unhesitatingly gobbled down that large slice of beautiful lemon meringue pie.

After the stranger finished eating every morsel of food my mother had served him, he rang the doorbell, and when Mother answered, he handed her the tray, and thanked her again for her kindness and the wonderful meal. He then bowed to my mother, turned and stepped down our stairs to the wet pavement below. We never saw him again.

Later Mother explained that there were many thousands of men, Negro and White, like the hungry man who came to our door. She said that those men didn’t have homes or regular jobs, and not because they didn’t want to work, but there just weren’t enough steady jobs in the country for all the people who needed them, even though President Roosevelt had created many new jobs for poor people, including one for your uncle Edward, and he plans to create even more. But people like the man we fed, Mother said, are the poorest of the poor. President Roosevelt’s programs haven’t reached them yet, but in time I believe they will. In the meantime God wants all of us to be charitable to those who have less than ourselves.

Mother then took me in her arms and held me close to her chest. She softly patted and rubbed each side of my face. And she asked if I had any questions about what she had explained, or our experience with the hungry man. I said no, but I hoped President Roosevelt makes a job for that man. I then asked if she would make another lemon meringue pie for Daddy and me. She laughed, kissed me on the forehead, and said yes, she’d be happy to make another pie later that day.

When I said my prayers that night, and many nights thereafter, I asked God to take care of the poorest of the poor, and an image of the tall, Black stranger in ragged clothing entered my mind whenever I offered that prayer. And I was very proud that my mother had done God’s will that day.

About John A. Martin, Jr.

John A. Martin, Jr. was raised in Berkeley, California, where he later spent the bulk of his professional career, as the general director of a social service agency. His life journey has included four years of service in the U.S. Air Force, B.A. and M.A. degrees from San Francisco State University and the University of Omaha respectively, post Master's degree study at Tufts University and the University of California at Berkeley, and a wonderfully satisfying professional life working in anti-poverty programs, social service, education, and civil rights organizations. Martin is currently retired and resides in Novato, CA.
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14 Responses to The Stranger

  1. Lloyd A Edwards says:

    Beautifully written essay and very done website! Congratulations!

    • John A. Martin, Jr. says:

      Hey, Man, Thank you so very much. She was, in the final analysis with all things considered, a terrific woman, and a loving mother.

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    • John A. Martin, Jr. says:

      Thanks for your comment. Sorry for the long delay in responding, but an overload of spam has turned me away from visiting my own website. Interestingly, Glenna was the name of my first girlfriend in middle school–a lifetime ago.

  5. Enid Ferullo says:

    Good one friend. THX

    • John A. Martin, Jr. says:

      Thank you for your compliment, and please pardon the long delayed response. I’ve been so overwhelmed by spammers that I partially gave up on my own website.

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