We all cross paths with a person we can’t forget. It can be a chance encounter or a day-to-day type thing. And that person doesn’t have to be a celebrity, wealthy, or powerful. A simple man can stay with you all your life. And so, a man by the beautiful name of Moses Corley lingers in my mind. If every life is a song, then Moses’s life was a sad, sad ballad.
Moses was old school, you could say. An Uncle Tom others might add. He worked as the janitor in the library of a small college where I once taught. He loved his job. Said it was the best job he ever had. Hoped to retire there.
He always referred to me as “Mr. Tom” and peppered his speech with “Yes sirs” and “No sirs.” It was a habit I couldn’t get him to break. It was ingrained, a way of life. He’d laugh at my jokes and slap his knees and his infectious laugh was unforgettable. That was long ago … 1977.
Even now I can see him sweeping the lab in the library basement where I taught. His snow-white Afro was stately and a cataract gave him an owlish gaze. His left eye, white as milk glass, stared into space. When he looked at you, he was there and yet he wasn’t. But he was memorable for his sweet nature, a prince of a man. He had a wife with diabetes and he talked about her constantly. He doted on her. She was his sun, moon, and stars. She was bedridden, had lost a leg, and her chief joy in life was watching TV.
Back then I taught Education 155, Audio Visual Methods, for aspiring elementary education teachers. The days of the computer were light years away and the technology was embarrassingly simple. One method I taught was how to make colored overhead transparencies. Like I said, embarrassingly simple. My students use colored acetate to give their transparencies impact. They’d cut out shapes and the acetate would cling to the transparency thanks to static electricity. At the end of the day, colored scraps of acetate littered the carpeted floor like some image from a kaleidoscope knocked askew. It was a mess, but a colorful mess.
One day just before the Christmas break a few students were working late when Moses came in to clean the lab. I noticed how closely he watched one student work on a food group presentation: red apples, yellow bananas, oranges, and so forth. She’d cut the shapes out and stick them onto the clear transparency. He watched her position the acetate and after a while he began to clean up the scraps.
Each day, Moses had done just that: clean up the scraps and trash them. So when I noticed Moses was picking up scraps of acetate and carefully placing them in a box, I was curious.
“Moses,” I said, “what are you going to do with those?”
“Mr. Tom, my wife’s got one leg and has the diabetes. All she can do is lie in bed and watch TV. I promised her I’d give her a color TV some day. I’m gonna make her one for Christmas. I’ll take these home and stick ’em on the TV and she can see in color!” The excitement in his voice was something. He’d figured a way to make good on a promise to his beloved wife. A special Christmas gift. It was such a sweet thing.
Not long after that, Moses asked me a favor. Could he borrow $10?
”Sure,” I said, and handed him a ten. He asked other faculty members too but one ratted him out. A new janitor took his place. He’d been fired. A few months later I got my first writing position and left the college and began working downtown. I assumed Moses was working somewhere else too. I tried to find him but had no luck. He stayed with me though. I couldn’t forget him.
A few years went by. One cold, windy November day I ventured out for lunch at a small Italian restaurant. As I walked past the bus station, I saw a pair of legs sticking out of a green dumpster just beyond a dieseling Greyhound. Out popped Moses Corley, bedraggled, and in need of a haircut. Seeing him was a joy, tempered by the obvious fact that he was in dire straits.
“Moses, it’s me, Tom!”
Slowly he walked over. He couldn’t look me in the eye. He began to talk. He had lost his home and his wife had died. That infectious laugh had died too. His spirit was broken. I gave him some money and offered some useless advice on jobs. We talked a bit and parted ways. He had no phone, no address, a refugee exiled to the streets because he had asked the wrong person for a lousy $10. I never saw him again.
I drove past a group of homeless people once, a self-important woman alongside for the ride. “You’d think those men would get a job,” she said. “Any job.” In a way she was right, but I knew too that for some there is that high-water mark. That job that is the best you’ll ever have and if you lose it … well life can sure go downhill.
I know other Moses Corleys are out there, homeless, hungry, and heartbroken. I’m sure the Moses I knew left this green earth long ago to join his wife. And I know they are together again, up there, watching the biggest, most colorful flat screen TV ever imagined. It’s warm, food’s on the table, and there’s no need to borrow money and even if you did no one would care.