The Hidden Life of Woodrow Baker


Author: Patricia Booker

Woodrow Baker uses a wooden spoon to prop open his door on the days when he knows I’m coming. That way he doesn’t have to hobble over on his scratched wooden cane to let me in. He can stay leaning on his bed, gazing out the 10th floor window and listening to talk radio, where he learns a lot about the world. Just recently he learned that Hillary Clinton might well be a lesbian.

Today he isn’t hungry because he just rustled up a huge breakfast of eggs, grits and bacon. He uses Maxwell House coffee because he heard it’s the best. It’s the only top-quality purchase he’ll splurge on. He asks me if I drink Maxwell House and I say no, that I grind my own beans every morning. What for? he asks.

Woodrow has a little black-and-white television set that he doesn’t watch because it hurts his eyes. He has cataracts. He can’t read the newspaper’s fine print, either, but he scans the headlines with the concentration of a chess player, and in this manner he keeps abreast of local news.

The cataracts have turned his brown eyes a pretty deep-water blue that does not make up for the fact that the filmy tissue has robbed him of much of his sight. He could have had surgery years ago to remove the cataracts, but he said no thanks, he needed his eyes.

I bought him a Bible because he lost his. He doesn’t read it, but he loves to hold it in his long brown bony fingers and gently turn the crispy translucent pages. On the inside page he wrote his name and the names of his brothers and mother and father. He left out the name of his stepmother, although he loved her very much.

Woodrow was married once, briefly. He caught his wife flirting with another man soon after they were married. He let her know how mad he was, and she left him. That was more than 60 years ago, but they never got divorced. One time a few years ago she traveled up from Miami to visit him in the old rental house where he lived back then. She shyly intimated to him that it would not have been a sin for them to sleep together since they technically were still married, but by that time Woodrow had found God and he didn’t think it was the right thing to do. So his wife slept in the guest room.

Long bones hold together Woodrow’s tall frame, and they are covered by skin stretched taut. He is so thin that his joints swell out bulbously from his limbs. He wears his hair nearly shoulder-length in a brushed-back Afro. It’s black and white and gray; he cuts it himself, so the ends aren’t the least bit even.

His father was black, his mother part Indian — a Cherokee. Strong cheekbones jut out from his elongated face, and his big eyes sit back in rounded sockets, just above a proud chiseled nose.

He lives in a public housing complex that is the nicest place he has ever lived. My husband told him he has a better view of the city than the mayor, and he feels proud of that. The apartment has two rooms, plus a little galley kitchen and a bathroom. Woodrow moved his single mattress from the bedroom to the living room because of a squeaky noise of unknown origin that kept him up at night. So now the living room contains a bed, a card table, a stool, a wardrobe and two rickety chairs.

Most days he wears shorts and a knit shirt. But he keeps his many suits and hats ready to wear. He’s very proud of his clothes. “There ain’t a thing in there secondhand,” he says. There’s a banana-yellow blazer, blue-and-white pinstripe seersucker pants, a shiny black double-breasted suit and a brown plaid jacket. He has hats for all occasions: wool plaid, felt, cotton. Some have colorful feathers sticking out of the brim.

He takes care of his clothes because he always has. When he was a boy, he wore rompers — short pants — like all the other boys. “I told my daddy I want me a large pair of pants,” Woodrow relates. “He said, ‘If you buy ’em you can wear ’em.’” So in the morning before school he used scraps of bread and onion to catch fish to sell until he had enough to buy himself his first pair of pants.

Woodrow’s little apartment is full of plants. He bought a little green leafy plant with white blooms a couple of years ago at the grocery store, and it stayed pretty all year long. So he bought another one. He used a shoot off of it to make a third. He couldn’t remember the name of the plant.

But the other day he saw yet another of those plants at the grocery store, and so he bought it. He showed me the little plastic marker that identifies it. It’s a peace lily.

I met Woodrow when I was doing a story about the Florida city of Jacksonville buying up dilapidated properties and evicting the tenants so that the structures could be bulldozed into pretty green land that looks rich instead of rotten.

He had lived in the same sorry rowhouse for 17 years, paying $200 per month in rent. In his 17 years of faithfully delivering his rent on time, he had received precisely no maintenance on his house. The locks had long since been broken, jimmied and rendered useless. The window screens were torn, the windows themselves jagged and sharp. Woodrow had found some vinyl flooring to place over the floorboards that had rotted through, and that seemed to control the rats for at least a while.

His toilet did not always flush. He had no shower and his bathtub was cracked and rusty. He lived in one bedroom, where he kept his bed, a hot plate for cooking his nightly can of soup and a bedpan that he used at night. Sometimes robbers came at night to dig through his belongings, and when that happened he laid in his bed beneath a wooden cross and prayed.

When he went to church on Sundays, he paid a neighbor $5 to sit on the porch to prevent looting. He later discovered that the neighbor had been one of the looters.

Every morning Woodrow cleaned his house. Inside, he swept the floors to rid them of dust and the plaster that had fallen from the walls during the night. Outside, he used a hoe to clear the sidewalks of dirt and trash. He uprooted the occasional weed that surfaced in the gray sandy yard.

When the city bought the house and told him he would have to move, he got mad and for a while he stopped keeping up his pitiful yard. But a city inspector came by and posted a “Notice of Violation” on his front porch because of the accumulated trash that was not his and the weeds he had grown too weary to pull. So he went back to his arduous routine, wishing the city would have sent his previous landlord a “Notice of Violation” for the rotting floorboards, peeling paint, shoddy plumbing, leaky ceiling, broken furnace, missing windows and defective appliances with which he had lived for two decades.

When the city discovered it was kicking poor elderly black people out onto the streets, it scrambled to comply with state law and find them affordable, decent places to live. Since Woodrow had been featured in a newspaper article I wrote, his placement became a high priority and that’s how he landed in Cathedral Towers.

Woodrow lives on the 10th floor of a 22-story building. The lobby has a nice sitting area and is monitored by a front desk guard who screens all visitors. Two meals per day are served in the cafeteria for a couple of dollars, which Woodrow finds too expensive. He eats at odd hours, anyway.

His apartment is small but clean, with beige wall-to-wall carpeting and white walls. He has air conditioning for the first time in his life, although he prefers to open his windows and breathe in the air and life of the city streets. The tiny kitchen has lots of cupboards but mostly they are bare. Woodrow has two pots, two pans, one plate, three bowls, one plastic fork, one knife, one regular spoon and one slotted spoon. In his pantry he keeps cans of soup and corn flakes and a loaf of bread that he feeds to the pigeons. He recently has discovered Pringles potato chips, which he really likes.

I have tried to interest Woodrow in a microwave so that he can store meals in his freezer, but he says he prefers old-fashioned cooking. I suspect he does not think microwaves are safe.

Woodrow worries a lot about me because he doesn’t believe I’ve been saved. He got saved when he stopped drinking more than 20 years ago. He had started drinking when he was a teenager; his father gave him whiskey to kill stomach worms. For most of his adult life he drank and caroused, although he always held a job. Finally, God intervened. “I was walking down the street, and it dawned on me that what I was doing was wrong,” he says. He hasn’t touched a drop since.

For a while he was a deacon at the Second Missionary Baptist Church. But since he moved away to his apartment and with his recent health problems, he isn’t able to attend regularly.

Recently he asked my husband and me to take him there for Sunday services. We arrived at his apartment complex at the appointed time and saw him waiting out front in his electric scooter. He wore one of his finest suits and a felt hat. His black nylon socks stretched taut over his ankle bones, and he had polished his black vinyl shoes to a spitshine gleam.

He left his scooter behind and hobbled into the car for the five-minute ride to the church. When we arrived, a man nearly as old as Woodrow ran out with a wheelchair.

My husband was the only man not wearing a tie, and I was the only woman not wearing stockings. Heavy perfume and cologne further burdened the steamy summer heat; and women pushed the air around using paper fans marked Beale’s Funeral Home.

After the sermon, the pastor recognized Woodrow as a former deacon and welcomed him back to the church. Woodrow stood up to say a few words. “I’m so grateful the Lord has blessed me enough to come here,” he said. “I’m here with these white people sitting behind me.”

Several hundred black faces smiled at us.

When it came time for the offertory, Woodrow discreetly tried to hand me $10 for the basket. “I didn’t know if y’all brought any money,” he said. My husband put away the 5-dollar bill he had ready and pulled out a 20.

Woodrow does not usually speak well of black people, although there are plenty of black people that he loves. All in all, though, he believes white people are nicer, smarter and more attractive.

He doesn’t understand why I disagree with him — he’s black, after all, and I’m white. But I don’t argue with him any more. Through his words, I have come to understand how decades of bullying can wear a man down — how if you tell someone a hundred or a thousand or a million times that he’s just not good enough, well, eventually he’s going to believe it.

Woodrow asked me the other day if I pray, and I told him no, not very often. That doesn’t bother him so much because he spends a lot of time praying for me. He thinks I’m the nicest white person he has ever met because I visit him and bring him household items like blankets and slippers.

I am not that nice a person, I want to tell him. I would not do this for everyone. But for you, Woodrow, I keep coming back, and the reason may surprise you. It’s because when I look into your smooth brown face, I see God in your cloudy indigo eyes.

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