A knot that can't be untied

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Posted: June 15, 2012

My father died when I was 9. Part-time pimp and full-time philanderer, he was larger than life. He played hard, laughed harder, and hit harder still. A few years before his death, I stood transfixed before our living room window as my father, then 50, beat two men half his age unconscious in front of our Northern California home.

He could be as charming as he was intimidating — something like Sidney Poitier, if the actor were 6-foot-4 and given to capricious fits of rage. More than three decades after he died, people who knew my father still whisper his name; he was just that kind of man.

Jesse Fernandez was not that kind of man. Hardworking and reserved, Jesse might use five words when the situation called for nine. The son of Mexican immigrants, he was born in the cheerless, jerkwater town of Firebaugh, Calif., in 1938 — facts that undoubtedly contributed to his abiding humility. He and his lifelong love, Dee, would eventually settle 150 miles north of there, buying their piece of the American pie.

Though he raised his family less than a hundred feet from my home, and though his sons would become my best friends, there is no evidence that Jesse and my father ever crossed paths. So I can't really explain what compelled him to take up the mantle of surrogate father to me, the biracial son of a struggling, single white mother.

Maybe Jesse was a gambling man who realized the long odds I faced. Or maybe, with four sons of their own, he knew Dee would hardly notice one more mouth to feed. More likely, he simply relished playing the sage to my apt pupil. With a minimum of words — and in ways that neither he nor I could have appreciated at the time — Jesse offered lessons I would rely on throughout my life.

Jesse was one of the few men who ever called me "Son" after my father died. He gave me my first job, teaching me about hard work and accountability. And if things grew turbulent at home, he would let me crash on his family's couch.

Jesse also taught me how to tie a necktie. I can remember him saying, "There are a lot of different knots in the world, Son. This just happens to be the only one I know, but it's gotten me this far."

Whenever I have occasion to wear a tie, I think about Jesse, carefully folding the fat end around, up, and back down again. It is not lost on me that this lesson — a ritual I have repeated thousands of times — is relevant today only because he intervened when I needed him most. I never saw Jesse wear a tie, but he clearly hoped that I might one day. And I do.

When I greet a group of students or enter the room of a gunshot patient as director of a Philadelphia violence prevention program, I am not only tacitly conveying Jesse's sartorial teachings; I am also extending the grace he so generously bestowed on me. I believe one's life is determined largely by first lessons and second chances. I am fortunate to have had a male figure in my life who offered me both. And I am fortunate to have a job that occasionally allows me to do the same.

***

When I booked the flight, it had been more than a year since I had been back home. It was February 2007, and I was due for a break from the cold and violence of Philadelphia.

As I checked the weather on my hometown newspaper's website, I nearly missed the headline: "Grandfather latest victim of gang violence, cops say; He's killed in his house by a shot reportedly intended for family member seeking refuge." If not for the accompanying photo of the bullet-riddled Fernandez house — and of the 20-year-old studio portrait of Jesse, in its cheap drugstore frame, placed in memoriam atop his favorite outdoor seat — I might have missed the story altogether. At 69, Jesse had lost his life where he had spent so much time quietly saving mine.

A few weeks after Jesse was laid to rest, I found myself back in Philadelphia, working with a gunshot patient as he prepared to stand trial on a drug charge. At 6-foot-5, "Broadway" is as charming as he is tall. We had procured him a suit, and I was loaning him my favorite tie. Standing on a chair behind him, I made sure he took note of each of the tie's twists and turns as I knotted it before him.

"There are a lot of different knots in the world, Son," I said. "This just happens to be the one that matters most to me — and one that has brought me a really long way."

Scott P. Charles can be reached at scottcharles@verizon.net.

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