He was a December baby; born on the thirteenth, which coincidentally happened to be Friday in the year of his birth. From the very start, his mother called him her little prince, which very quickly became simply Prince, and everyone called him that. By July of his fifth year, just before he was to start school, and his mother died, he no longer remembered the name that was appended to his birth certificate, if in fact he ever knew it, for he’d never been addressed by that name.
His father died six months before he was born; knifed to death in a bar fight, so he never knew him, and his mother had no known relatives, so he was shuttled from foster home to foster home for two years.
A few days after his seventh birthday, the second year in a row when he’d had no celebration to mark the passage of time, he ran away from the elderly black couple who were his ninth or tenth set of foster parents. He no longer kept track.
For six years, he lived on the streets. He became the unofficial ward of the homeless; men and women who wandered from street corner to street corner, from alley way to alley way, subsisting off the castoffs of a society to whom they were invisible.
In January of his thirteenth year he had become more than a mere mascot for his ‘family.’ Small of stature, looking much younger than he actually was, he’d become expert at gaining the sympathy of pedestrians rushing to work, who were made to feel virtuous for giving a few coins, or the occasional bill, to the cute little brown-skinned waif who accosted them, looking up at them with liquid brown eyes that could shed tears on cue. Tourists from out of town were especially easy marks. To them, he was part of the ‘local color’ of the city, and they often asked him to pose for photographs; which he was more than happy to do, for a fee of five dollars. When none of this worked, he could still separate them from any loose change in their pockets. His small hands could dip in and out without even disturbing the wrinkles or folds of the fabric.
He didn’t bemoan his life, or agonize over his fate. This was all that he knew.
One day in late January, after a slow day during which he’d only picked up – or picked out – five dollars, he spotted a wealthy looking white gentleman with a fancy leather briefcase, heading his way. This worthy gentleman was obviously late for some important appointment, for he walked purposively, his eyes on the cracked sidewalk in front of him. He wore an overcoat, unbuttoned, and Prince could see the bulge of what looked to be a roll in his pants pocket.
Like many of the wealthy, he abhorred the street people who impeded the progress of decent people who worked for a living, this gentleman did; thus, Prince’s liquid brown eyes, filled with salty tears, moved him not at all. He made to walk around the diminutive apparition before him. Realizing he would not get a handout, Prince decided to put his hand in. He moved forward and bumped the man, slipping his left hand into the pocket with the bulge.
Unfortunately, in this case, on this day, which, had he taken the time to check, he would have realized was Friday the Thirteenth, Prince’s hand was not small enough, nor fast enough.
“Here, you dirty little ragamuffin,” the gentleman shouted. “Are you trying to pick my pockets?”
Prince sprang back, trying to put an innocent look on his brown face. “Uh, no sir,” he said. “I sorry, I bumped you.”
“I don’t believe you,” the man said, and reached for Prince. “I’m turning you in to the police. You should be at home studying instead of out here on the street robbing decent people.”
Prince’s hands were slow, but his feet were fast. He darted around the man and ran as fast as his short legs could carry him. Behind him he heard a shout ‘Police! Help, that boy tried to pick my pockets.’ The shouts of the man were soon lost in the dim alleyway into which Prince darted, but even then he didn’t slow down. He ran until his lungs were burning; dodging up one alley and down another, looking for an unlocked door into what he hoped would be an empty or abandoned building, where he could hide until he was once again just one of the invisible nuisances of the street.
He finally spotted a door that was ajar by about half an inch, and he could only see darkness through the crack. He pushed the door open, ran into the darkened space, and shut the door, leaning against it, and sliding down to sit on the dusty floor. His heart was racing, and he had to take several deep breaths before he felt normal again.
Leaning his head against the door, he listened for sounds of pursuit outside. Hearing none, he breathed a sigh of relief.
Suddenly, his newfound sense of security was shattered. Directly opposite from where he sat, a door opened, and an apparition, lit from behind, appeared.
“Who is in here?” a deep voice asked.
Prince held his breath, hoping the stranger would only think a stray breeze had caused the door to slam, and would go away.
Then, the room was awash in yellow light. The stranger, an elderly black man, dressed in black, was staring down at Prince.
“Well, well,” the man said. “And, what do we have here?’
Prince pushed himself to a standing position. “I sorry, sir,” he said. “I didn’t know this was a occupied building. I be going.”
“Not so fast, young man. First, you must tell me who you are, and where you come from.”
“My name Prince,” Prince said. “I don’t come from nowhere.”
“Well, Prince from Nowhere, do your parents know where you are right now?”
“Ain’t got no momma or poppa,” he replied. “They both be dead.”
“Who do you live with?” the man asked.
“Don’t live with nobody.”
“Where do you sleep at night?”
Prince was unaccustomed to being interrogated. The street people never asked you who you were or where you came from. They never told you about themselves either. One part of him wanted to flee, but the old man’s voice was gentle, and it was warm in the room, which he could see now was some kind of storage space, with stacks of Bibles and hymn books, crosses and rickety wooden chairs and tables. Although Prince had not been inside a church since his mother had taken him to be christened; an event he didn’t remember in any case; he recognized the paraphernalia. He couldn’t read, but he recognized the thick, leather bound books as Bibles, and the hymn books, he knew to be books of songs because of the funny looking symbols on the covers.
“I sleep wherever I find a warm place,” he said. “Mostly a different place ever night.”
“Precious Lord,” the man said. “You sleep on the street. I imagine you don’t get regular meals, do you?”
“I do okay. Restaurants throw away lots of good food. Sometimes, I even get enough to buy a hamburger.”
“Well, we can’t have that,” the man said. “I was just about to sit down to supper. Why don’t you join me?”
A warm place to hang out for a few hours, and a free meal; Prince was not about to turn that down. “Okay, I eat with you.”
“Tell me, Prince; what is your family name?”
Prince hesitated; then he figured out what the old man was asking.
“I just Prince,” he said.
The old man shook his head, a sad look crossing his wrinkled brown face. “Okay, just Prince,” he said. “Come with me.”
He stood aside and let the boy precede him through the door. Closing the door carefully, the old man walked beside Prince, guiding him along a dimly lit hallway to a small room containing only a small stove, a refrigerator, a sink with cabinets affixed to the wall above it, and a table with four chairs in the middle. On the table was one plate, heaped high with slices of ham, red beans, rice, and a large biscuit. Beside the plate was a glass of water. Prince felt his mouth begin to water as the aroma of the food wafted across his nose.
The old man went to the cabinet and took down another plate and glass. He filled it with food, and from the refrigerator took a pitcher of water and filled the glass. He sat this across from his own food, and motioned for Prince to take a seat. The old man then got a knife and fork from a drawer next to the sink and placed them beside Prince’s plate.
Prince grabbed the fork and was about to shovel a large portion of beans into his mouth, when the old man held up his hand. “Wait, Prince,” he said. “We must say grace first.”
“What grace?” Prince asked.
“Why, that’s thanking the Lord for what we are about to receive. Don’t you say grace before you eat?”
“I don’t know what no Lord got to do with it,” Prince said. “Didn’t you cook this yourself?”
“My, my,” the old man said. “I can see your spiritual education has been as lacking as your academic education has. Why, son, everything we have we have the Lord to thank for it.”
Prince didn’t understand what the old man was talking about, but if listening to this grace, or whatever, was the price he had to pay to fill his empty stomach, so be it. “Okay,” he said. “I sorry. You go ahead and say your grace.”
The old man made a grunting sound. “Thank you.” He bowed his head and steepled his hands in front of his chest. “Thank you Dear Lord for the bounty before us, amen.” He looked up at Prince. “Okay, you can eat now. Oh, I must ask your forgiveness, I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Reverend Jeremiah Parker, and this is All Souls Church. I’m the pastor here.”
“Please to meet you, sir,” Prince said around a mouthful of beans. “This sure is some good food.”
Parker and Prince ate in silence; well, not complete silence; Prince made sounds like a herd of pigs eating slop as he shoveled beans, ham and biscuits into his mouth, chewing with his mouth open, and wiping his lips with the back of his hand. Reverend Parker ate more slowly, chewing each mouthful before swallowing, and while Prince washed his food down with large gulps of water, Parker swallowed his food first, and then took small sips.
When they’d finished eating, Prince sat back and rubbed his belly. He hadn’t eaten so much for as long as he could remember, and he seldom had the opportunity to eat indoors, and at a table at that.
“Tell me, Prince,” the preacher finally said. “How do you get by?”
“You mean how I make money? You see all them rich white folk out there on the street? I gets money from them, that how I get by.”
“Don’t you have any ambition beyond begging on the streets, or stealing?”
“What else I gon’ do, preacher?” Prince rubbed the back of his hand. “I black, and I ain’t got no learnin’ so nobody gon’ give me no job. ‘Sides, I ain’t growed up yet. When I all growed up, maybe I get a job over one of them construction sites. I hear they pay pretty good.”
“Prince, there’s more to life than that,” Parker said. “You strike me as an intelligent lad. Uneducated perhaps, but I sense a native intelligence. You just need a chance.”
“Black folk ain’t get no chances, preacher,” Prince said. “We just take white folk’s leavings. That the way it always been.”
“Long ago, that might have been the way it was, but times have changed. Thanks to a lot of brave and dedicated civil rights workers, black and white, black people don’t have to wait at the back door for handouts anymore.”
“Where it be like that?” Prince asked. “I ain’t never seen nothing like that.”
“That’s because you’ve been living in darkness. You just need someone to show you the light. Living on the street, with people who’ve given up on life, it’s no wonder you’re so pessimistic.”
“I don’t know what pestimistis is,” Prince said. “I just know I got what I got. And, I got it by myself.”
Reverend Parker looked profoundly sad; his dark brown eyes hooded. For so many years he’d borne the misery of the members of his congregation; the working poor, scrabbling to make ends meet, but, none were as lost and pathetic as this undersized, but over-aged young man sitting before him. A lifelong bachelor who had dedicated his life to bringing the word of God and some sense of hope to his people, he suddenly realized where life had been leading him for the past sixty three years of his life.
“Prince,” he said. “I’d like to make you an offer. Why don’t you come and work for me here in the church. It needs a lot of cleaning and dusting, and the Bibles and hymn books have to be put out for service, and then back in storage when service is over. I have an empty room that you could sleep in, and regular meals. I can’t pay you much, maybe ten dollars a week, but you wouldn’t have to look for a place to eat and sleep every day. What do you say?”
“You gon’ pay me for just sweeping and dusting and stuff, and you gon’ give me a place to sleep and free eats?”
“That’s correct,” Parker said. “There is one more thing; I would also want you to enroll in school. You need to get your diploma if you want to make something of yourself.”
“I never been to school,” Prince said. “I be too old now.”
“You’re never too old to learn, Prince. We can start with lessons here at church, so you can perhaps get advance placement, considering your age. Can’t have a boy your age in first grade, now can we. I know some of the congregation would be happy to help tutor you. They might be poor, but they value education, and every one of them has some skill that they could share with you. What do you say?”
Prince looked curiously at the elderly preacher. Never in his life had anyone offered to do anything for him. Now, here was a total stranger offering him room and board, and pocket money to boot. He would like to learn to read, and maybe do sums. He could count money, but any other calculation was beyond him. Maybe, just maybe, it would be worth hanging out here for a few months, he thought. Can’t be any worse than being out on the street, worrying whether or not one of you companions might sneak up while you’re sleeping and relieving you of your day’s take. He’d seen the civil rights people from time to time, walking up and down the sidewalk, talking about everyone being equal, and everyone having a chance to live the dream. He’d even heard about that dead preacher, Martin Luther King; the one that got shot by some crazy white man down in Tennessee; who went up to Washington and told folks about his dream. Maybe, Prince could begin to dream after all.
He reached across the table and clasped the preacher’s hand. “Okay, preacher,” he said. “I say we got a deal.”