THE COMPANY WE KEEP
By Damion Michaels
In high school in rural Mississippi, I worked three jobs, supported
a household and had my eyes set on college. I learned that I could
get a substantial scholarship to college by joining a club called
the Optimist Oratorical Society, writing speeches and giving those
speeches in competitions. Now don't ask me what the Optimist Oratorical
Society is, I have no idea to this day. All I knew was that this seemed
like a pretty easy gig to get a scholarship.
So off I went, writing speeches, getting dressed in a second-hand
suit and delivering these speeches to well-meaning older people who
looked like holdovers from a VFW meeting. I knocked them dead, talking
about what, I cannot remember, but I do know that I ended up in the
final competition in Jackson, Mississippi. Now this was a big deal
for me. I was no country bumpkin but Jackson, Mississippi was a real
city compared to where I was living at the time.
I took time off from my jobs with my employer's
blessings. I was endowed with a new suit, courtesy of the generous
man who chaired the local Optimist Oratorical Society, and I traveled
with a classmate and a student from another school to Jackson, Mississippi.
That Friday night, I wowed them with a speech
I wrote in the stockroom of the grocery where I worked. But I did
not wow them enough. A kid who gave a speech about trees beat me.
Trees? I won second place and $1000 in scholarship money. I was terribly
disappointed. My classmate and I commiserated for about 15 minutes
when we realized that we could leave the hotel. No chaperone. No adults.
No parents. See ya!
We went for a walk in the chilly night looking
for trouble. Any kind. Okay, we were easy to entertain. No sooner
did we get two blocks from the hotel when we heard this soulful, mourn
of a clarinet. Just a few notes were played. As though the music were
a passing thought. We strained to see a white bearded black man sitting
on a concrete planter. We walked past the man and he heartily greeted
us with a "Good evening, gentlemen." My classmate was petrified
and wanted to be anywhere but there. I returned the greeting.
"Do you play?" I asked the gentleman.
"When I ache I do," he replied.
My friend immediately stated that we must be
Naively, I asked the bearded man, "What
is there to ache about?" Thinking I lived a pretty difficult
The gentleman responded, "Life, love, regrets,
take your pick."
Now I had learned early on that conversations
with older persons lead to an education. And somehow I was not afraid
to talk this stranger. He was amazingly dignified, well spoken and
was not looking to bother anyone. He asked nothing of my friend and
me. He only offered a salutation.
I turned to the bearded man and asked again
if he played the clarinet. He lifted the clarinet and played a sweet,
powerful melody that immediately made me sit down on the planter opposite
When he was finished, I asked, "What are
you doing out here? Taking a walk or something?"
"Yeah. A very long walk my friend,"
he laughingly replied. "My name is Jedadiah," he said.
"Nice to meet you," I replied.
"Your friend looks nervous," he said.
"Don't worry he is always nervous,"
Jedadiah laughed and said to my friend, "Don't
worry. You have your whole life to be nervous."
"Where did you learn to play?" I asked.
"In France," he replied.
"In France?" my friend asked incredulously.
"Yes, France," Jedadiah replied.
"We were looking to get a bite to eat.
Is there anything open?" I asked.
"There is a diner around the corner,"
"Can we bring you anything?" I asked.
"I would like hot coffee, but I have very
little money and I need to save it." Jedadiah replied gently.
"But thank you very kindly for asking," he said with a soft
"Why don't you join us?" I blurted
out. With this my classmate shot me a "are you insane?"
"I would like to but as I said, I can't."
"I would love to hear more about France,"
I said. "It's my treat."
Jedadiah sized up the request. What harm could
two high school kids pose? He said, "Okay. If you are sure it
We proceeded around the corner to the coffee
shop and were given piercing stares upon our entrance. In the light,
I suddenly became aware that Jedadiah was tatterly dressed yet exuded
an air of dignity and respect. And Jedadiah was homeless. I had never
seen a homeless person before.
I suddenly was not hungry. I had very little
money but told Jedadiah to order anything he wanted. It was on me
and I wanted to hear all about France. At first, Jedadiah resisted.
But hunger ruled out and he soon acquiesced. Jedadiah ordered black
coffee, eggs, ham, biscuits and grits.
Jedadiah then began to regale us with stories
of his life. Jedadiah was a World War II veteran. How he decided to
stay in France after the war because of how he felt the French better
treated his people. How he studied art and opera. Even was an understudy
in a production of "Porgie and Bess" in France. And how
he played the clarinet for extra money.
For me, it was an amazing conversation. It was
an eye opening conversation. And just as the evening began, it abruptly
ended. My classmate and I found ourselves out in front of the café
wishing Jedadiah all of the best.
"Where will you sleep tonight?" I
"I have enough for one night at the Church
Mission several blocks from here." Jedadiah replied.
"Good night and thank you both for letting
an old man ramble on," Jedadiah said sadly.
"We enjoyed talking with you," my
classmate stuttered out. This time I gave him a look of shock because
it seemed as though the only people who conversed were Jedadiah and
As Jedadiah turned and walked away, I suddenly
felt an urge to do something for him. "Quick, how much money
do you have on you?" I asked my friend. I knew good and well
that he had emergency money (he came from a wealthy family).
It took a full block before I could convince
my classmate to give up his emergency $100 bill. I had to promise
to pay him back as soon as possible. I rushed back to Jedadiah playing
the clarinet and handed him the money.
"I can't let you do this," Jedadiah
insisted. "Thank you but no thank you."
"I want you to have this," I said.
"Please don't consider it as anything other than my thanking
you for a great dinner conversation," I said. "Please, I
wouldn't insult you with pity"
Jedadiah reluctantly reached out and took our
offering, thanked us profusely and wandered off into the night.
Now it is a dangerous world these days and I
am not preaching that any one should take people on the street to
dinner. I am simply saying I had one of the best dinner conversations
that I have ever had.
Remember that in this coming new year, sometimes
the company you invite for dinner is as important as the meal itself.
Happy New Year.