(As editor of a small community newspaper, I feel we have a responsibility as journalists to inform readers as well as inspire conversation about the things that matter to us as a community and as Americans. To this end, we have devoted a large portion of today’s edition to Martin Luther King Jr., offering perspectives on his message, his legacy, and how the echoes of his speech from 51 years ago are returning to us with even more relevance today. Along with columns from other local writers, activists and letters from readers, I’m offering this very personal piece that is equal parts inspiration and regret…)
As I’ve mentioned here 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.
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, like most people, I assumed he was there to express his love for Atlanta’s baseball team.
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?”
“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, portruding from beneath it, the callused hand of Rufus Valentine. 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 instead, 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.
Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist for News Media Corporation and editor at Siuslaw News. He is the author of “Humor at the Speed of Life” and “Pearls of Writing Wisdom: From 16 shucking years as a columnist.” Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org