Remember to love each other like Rufus Valentine

Rufus Valentine hands As I’ve mentioned before, I lived in the South for 10 years, with six of those years spent in the suburbs of Atlanta. In the early 1990s, I was a restaurant chef operating in one of Georgia’s largest shopping malls — three stories of glass, sale banners and merchants spanning six football fields’ worth of mall space.

As you can imagine, I’ve dealt with as many personalities as there are seats in a 280-capacity dining room. The fact that Rufus Valentine dug such a deep groove in my memory should tell you a little something about the man’s character.

I’d like to tell you more.

The first time I saw Rufus Valentine was during the Braves’ heyday in February of 1992, when all of Atlanta was anticipating the spring — and a run at the World Series. Essentially, you could be completely naked; but as long as you had a Braves cap on you were considered properly attired by most Atlantans.

So, when Rufus appeared in his red tights, heart-shaped wings, and Braves cap at the west entrance of the Lenox Square mall, most assumed he was there to express his love for Atlanta’s baseball team.

I know I did. At least until I saw the bow and arrows. But even then, I could see that he was harmless. The arrows in his quiver were tipped with foam rubber —red, of course — and in the shape of hearts.

Considering the date, I made the connection and realized we had a Braves-loving Cupid on our hands.

I’d dealt with worse things.

The complaints started soon after we opened. Since our restaurant was situated closest to the mall entrance, we got the brunt of unhappy mall dwellers.

“Hey, there’s some guy shooting people with rubber arrows out there,” one of them said, brandishing the arrow in question and rubbing his cheek.

With security nowhere to be found, I decided to settle the matter myself and strode out the door — and was immediately tagged.

“Got you! Spread the love, brother,” Rufus said, as if he’d tossed me a box of chocolates instead of nailing me with a rubber arrow.

“Excuse me, but you’ll have to stop with the arrows. My customers are complaining,” I said.

In that same instant, he plugged a passerby who turned and gave me a dirty look, spouting something about restaurant promotions getting out of hand.

A sudden ebb in the shopping current allowed me to grab his attention. “Hey, it’s almost noon. How about lunch on me?”

“What’cha got?”

“Come in and find out,” I said, ushering him inside and up to the counter in hopes of containing him through the lunch rush. Sitting there at one of the stools, his wings protruding from either side of the chair back, he drew more than a few stares.

Handing him a soda, I noticed that his black hands were worn and callused. His fingernails had dried to the point of splitting. He gave me an appreciative nod and sipped, then blurted “fettuccini Alfredo.” He laid the menu down and pointed to the item, as if I wouldn’t know it otherwise.

“Coming right up,” I said, and took the menu. As I turned to ring in his order, I saw him reach for his quiver.

“Hey,” I said, one hand on his drawing arm. “Here’s the deal. No matchmaking until after lunch.”

He studied me for a moment, then set his bow on the counter. “I’m no matchmaker. I’m just tryin’ to spread the love — one brother, one sister, at a time.”

“That’s a nice sentiment; just don’t do it in here, OK?” I said, and released his arm.

I think everyone has said things that they wish they hadn’t. In the top 10 of my own regrettable phrases, that one ranks right up there. First, because of my tactics to control him. Second, because he called me on it. And, third, because I wouldn’t get the chance to take it back.

With the smell of parmesan and cream sauce in the air, this obviously hungry man stood from the counter, grabbed his bow and quiver, and left the counter.

“People need love more than I needed fettuccini Alfredo,” he said, and exited the restaurant. When he kept going, I considered myself lucky.

He could become someone else’s headache.

Unfortunately for Rufus Valentine, that’s exactly what happened.

When my shift ended, it was near dusk. Along the sidewalks, automated lamps had started humming to life. As I approached the parking tower, I noticed flashes of red and blue spilling from the shadows of the underground level where I was parked. The closer I got, the more patrol cars I saw. At the edge of the drive, yellow crime scene tape had been strung. Taking a spot among a crowd of onlookers, I saw a white sheet — and the callused hand of Rufus Valentine protruding from beneath it. Next to him, his wings lay in a crumpled pile.

I later learned that Rufus Valentine — born Rufus Jones in 1936 — had left the mall that day and taken his message to the parking garage. It was there that he encountered a street gang and attempted to “spread the love.”

He met the faces of prejudice and hatred instead.

With the approach of Martin Luther King Day, he always comes to mind.

And, also, no small measure of guilt. Had I left him alone to do his work, or brought him lunch, things might have turned out differently.

Even though he’s no longer here to sling his arrows, I hope we can take his message to heart — and spread the love: one brother, one sister at a time.

_______________________________________________________________

image Note: This column was originally published in 1998 during my first year at Siuslaw News, where it has appeared on or before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day each year since. I have done the same on my blog, which began three years ago this week. It’s my way of honoring Rufus Valentine and carrying on his message of love — one brother, one sister at a time…

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62 thoughts on “Remember to love each other like Rufus Valentine

  1. This is so sad Ned. What a tragic ending to his life. Although his actions may have seemed annoying to some, his intentions were so very genuine. We could all use a little more of his spirit in our lives, spreading love everywhere we go.

  2. Oh, Ned. My heart sunk when I read the ending. I didn’t expect it to end sadly. Wow. There’s one that I’m sure stuck with you. Thanks for sharing his story–I don’t think I’ll forget him either now.

  3. Beautiful. I’ll think of this story every time I eat alfredo from now on. Maybe it’s Rufus’ legacy. (And I mean that sincerely – no smartassery intended.)

  4. His story will stick with me now, too. It’s a beautifully poignant reminder to engage with others everyday in small but meaningful ways with tolerance and love. We’ve all had days where it falls on deaf ears. We need more people like Rufus to remind us. Thank you for the story.

  5. Always expecting to laugh. Always so moved when I don’t.

    This was really good, Ned, and I’m so glad I read it.

    Almost every one of us would have made the same choices you did.

    But I appreciate so much that you wish you’d made different ones.

  6. Have you posted this piece before, Ned? Yup, we have all acted in haste and wish we’d taken more time to change our actions. Maybe Rufus’ reason for being was to find one mindful observer who would pass his lesson along, one brother, one sister at a time. I am going to believe that mindful observer is you.

  7. Well…that mighty arrow (pen) of yours reached out and got me thinking this morning. I love your humor which makes me appreciate poignant pieces like this even more.
    I’ve encountered a few Rufuses in my day and often think how I could have been more compassionate. This is a powerful piece with an timeless message.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Michelle

  8. Reblogged this on Life After 50 and commented:
    Ned is one of my favourite fellow bloggers. Often his posts contain a hilarious sense of humour but he also possesses the ability to write straight from his heart.

    May we learn from the example of Rufus, continue to seek ways to live in harmony with another, to resolve our issues in a peaceful manner & to spread love everywhere we go.

    “One brother, one sister at a time”

  9. So heart breaking Ned. I cried at the end. I cried for Rufus and all the others like him that are out there that we pass by and call kooks. You know, as a species, we humans have a bad habit of killing those who bring us the Truth, be it Rufus, MLK, Kennedy, Jesus, Socrates, among others. Truly a wonderful post and reminder, Ned. Thank You, it was needed.

  10. I loved the story…. so sorry it happened to you. We do need to have more Rufuses and less dufuses!:-(
    There are times when we do and say things we regret and can never take back. All we can do is learn from them and pray we never repeat our mistakes. I know I try to be more patient with people now. You get so much more out of life by being kind than by being mean. Thanks for sharing Ned. 🙂

  11. Ah, very touching. It’s one of the many times, I think about how timing in our lives is so crucial. One minute here, thirty seconds there, all our fates would be drastically changed. Why, if I hadn’t looked at Freshly Pressed at the exact moment I did, I never would’ve found your terrific blog. 🙂
    Stephanie

  12. This is a powerful story. Thank you so much for sharing it here, and sharing it every year. If you don’t mind, I will spread the love by re-blogging your post on February 14. One brother and sister at a time…

    RIP, Rufus. Next time I say “no thanks” to anything alfredo, I’ll be thinking of you.

  13. Pingback: Spread the Love, Rufus Valentine Style | DirtNKids

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