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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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

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

  1. Whoa! That just nailed me right in the heart. Can’t even think of what to say other than thank you for sharing this again, and again, and again. Don’t ever stop sharing it. Thanks.

  2. Oh, Ned. Poor Rufus, and poor you. But in a way you’re spreading Rufus’ message simply by sharing the story. Maybe it was meant to be that way. He could just as easily have gone to that parking garage before stationing himself outside your restaurant.

  3. Reblogged this on Shamanic Paths and commented:
    What the…? Ned Hickson! I come here for light relief. This is heavy, man. It touches my feels. Beautifully executed, incredibly touching, heart-wrenching… Sheesh! Why would anybody share this? :p Other than to highlight that there really aren’t enough Rufus Valentines in the world, spreading a message of love, one brother, one sister at a time…

      1. My pleasure. Everyone should know Rufus’s story. 🙂
        Glad back to normal service tomorrow: can’t allow too many feels all at once… 😀

  4. I never grow tired of your Rufus post. The fact that I’m sitting in the airport waiting on a flight to Atlanta further accents your valuable and loving message. Thank you, Ned!

    1. Thanks so much, Michelle. I’m not sure if the Lenox Square mall is still there in downtown Atlanta, but if you should find yourself there, please give Rufus a prayer for me 😉

  5. Rufus merely wanted people to love and, sadly, it was hate that ended his life. There’s a Rufus in all of us, we’re just too damn chicken at times to be that person. This is a very sad story with a pertinent message: Love others, unconditionally, even if they sling arrows at you.

  6. First time I’ve heard this story. And glad you shared it again. As my husband would wisely say, there are no accidents. You couldn’t have changed Rufus’s fate any more than he could change that gang’s. But you share his message, and that too, is no accident. ❤

  7. Ned, you were there to give him a gift he probably was very grateful for. Cupid went to sleep on a full belly because of you. We all know there are many out there on the streets that go to sleep(one way or another), on an empty belly. You shared the love he was spreading that day. Thanks for sharing!

  8. I remember this from last year Ned… It is a sad story and sometimes we do and say things we regret. Going forward, all you can do is continue to honor him by remembering we need to all try and spread the love around instead of the hate. :-/

    1. Thank you, Robert. It was difficuklt to strike that balance in writing, but that’s exactly how that day felt from moment to moment. Thanks for sharing the moments with me here.

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