A litter of brown leaves swirls in the wind, then settles back onto the sidewalk where the fences meet. Beyond the fences lies a weed-knotted vacant lot that fronts an abandoned building, a broke-down palace of boarded windows and crumbling bricks. Sitting on a short wall next to the sidewalk, a man smokes a cigarette and types on a laptop. He is older, an African-American, wearing a thick coat and what looks to be a beret of some sort.
I'd pulled over to take a phone call from my daughter. We'd discussed her Christmas visit for a few minutes, then said goodbye. When the call ends, I don't pull away. I'm interested in the man with the laptop.
I watch for several minutes: He writes, pauses, writes, takes a draw on his cigarette, writes again. I don't want to bother him, but I'd like to ask him: Aren't you worried, sitting in this sketchy neighborhood, that someone will come up and steal your computer? What are you writing? Can I read it?
In 1990, I interviewed August Wilson for a story. I lived in Pittsburgh then, Wilson's hometown, and the great playwright took me to his childhood neighborhood, that city's Hill District. The television show Hill Street Blues was set in this area. It was a rough place when Wilson was growing up — much like the street in Memphis where I'm parked, watching a man write on a laptop.
Wilson showed me the boarded buildings, the weeded lots, the mean streets where he was raised in utter poverty, nurtured only by a strong mother and an indomitable intellect. I have no idea how he took that experience, the pain and hardship of that upbringing, and turned it into beautiful and powerful words, into plays that will last generations. But he did.
There is a lesson here, I suppose, as there always is — a blueprint for how to take full advantage of what life deals, no matter how hard or senseless the hand. And a reminder that those of us who've been dealt a full house need to appreciate it and share the ante.
As I pull away, the solitary writer is hammering away on his keyboard, his head circled with smoke, his mind putting thoughts into sentences, I suppose. Is it gibberish? Great literature? I don't know. I do know his coffee shop is cold. His office needs a little renovation. But maybe, like August Wilson, he gets what he needs here, where the brown leaves lift and settle, there in the corner where the fences meet.