If we dismiss the “love means never having to say you’re sorry” nonsense, love at fullest flower means giving of self and saying to someone, “However I can serve you, you’re worth it, no matter how great the effort.”
The other day I met a guy more important than Tom Brady’s footballs, more intriguing than the titillation on tmz.com, and more touching than politician John Boehner’s tears.
I found him in a modest rental home on a crowded street in City Heights.
Walking up to his small green house, I asked myself how a young man such as Darrius Johnson could muster the love and determination to put his own life and ambitions on hold, take responsibility for three teenage sisters and make himself the man of a house he didn’t create.
I had no idea what to expect.
When I knocked, one of the girls answered. I introduced myself and then said, “How are you today?”
She answered, “I’m doing well, thank you.”
Likely as not, in a wealthy part of town you might hear, “Uh, I’m OK.”
Darrius is a shortish, quiet, black man of 24. If you saw him walking by in his white T-shirt, you might think he’s just another guy on the street.
But you’d be so wrong, you’d swear off snap judgments.
The press loves stories of minority youths who straighten out their lives and become model citizens. Well and good. However, that’s not Darrius. His life was never crooked, although Lord knows, he had all the standard excuses.
Darrius has finished his associate degree except for two classes, but he’s put his education and ambition to be a child psychologist on hold for reasons of love and duty.
You know you could have gone the way of the streets, Darrius.
“Yeah. I could’ve. But my grandma was the biggest reason I didn’t. She taught me right from wrong, and paid attention to me. She died when I was 12.”
Even so. In your neighborhood, drugs and gangs were inviting and plentiful.
“I knew who did drugs and who was in gangs. Like, I have friends who are in gangs now who I grew up with. They never asked me to (get involved). I was never peer-pressured to do anything.”
Darrius was raised with no father in his life and a mother who was often out of the home working. That’s a family fracture often found among prison inmates.
Darrius says in the past he telephoned his father, who has four other children with another woman by his accounting, and was rebuffed each time.
“Now, I don’t want to meet him at all. I think I’m done with that chapter of my life. He decided not to answer my phone calls. So I basically said OK, I’m going to get over it.”
In October, Darrius’ mother, Sherelle, 43, fell victim to a brain aneurysm, followed by multiple strokes. Today, she lies in the hospital in tough shape. Darrius says it will be a struggle for her to ever leave the room she is in.
Left at home were Darrius’ three teenage half-sisters — Ranada, now 19 and about to go to community college; Anaja, 17; and Anaya, 16. The girls were suddenly adrift with no sustenance on a day-to-day basis.
To support them, Darrius works as many hours as he can get at a pizzeria at minimum wage. At home, he pays the bills, supervises homework, monitors TV use, makes out grocery lists, does almost all the cooking not done in the microwave, and cleans house when he returns from work.
The girls help, but often it’s just easier to do it himself. Every mother reading this will understand that. He wants them to concentrate on their schooling.
Kristina Moriarty is a volunteer at Urban Life Ministries. She met Darrius through one of his sisters who is in Kristina’s Bible study. She says, “He is a lovely young man. (At his workplace) he just won employee of the month. At home, he stepped up and did whatever was needed to keep the girls together and provide for them.”
With Section 8 subsidized rental assistance and food stamps, Darrius gets by on his wages and his mother’s disability income — a total of about $1,500 per month.
He also does the grocery shopping but says he sometimes gives the younger girls a list and sends them to the store. One of their favorite dishes is mac and cheese. Plus, there are a lot of noodle cups in the cupboard.
He says the girls do a good job shopping, but teenagers alone with a list and money at Ralphs? Don’t expect elective tofu.
Don’t you worry about them buying junk?
“Not too much. I give them a list. They’ll call me — ‘Darrius, we got everything on the list. We have some money left over. Is it OK if we get something?’
“ ‘Yeah, y’all can get a limit of something for $5. Y’all can get that, if you want.’ And they find deals. Anaja, she got a deal on a huge thing of juice. It was like $1, so she got two of those and she still had $3 left over to get whatever she wanted.”
A decade ago, there was some question about the conduct of his mother’s boyfriend around the girls, Darrius says. Consequently, all the kids ended up in foster homes for about 15 months.
Darrius was first sent to a gay couple’s home.
“That was my first time I had actually seen a gay couple. Amazing. They treated me like I was one of their own. They spent money out of their own pocket to buy me clothes.”
As with his other experiences, becalmed Darrius returned home from foster care intact and unruffled, his gyroscope steady.
The boyfriend tried to move back in a few weeks ago, but Darrius showed him the door. “He tried to move in without asking me and tried to take over. I kicked him out. I don’t really like him.”
Do the girls ever test you?
“Every day. Lately, whenever they need money from me, they’ll try — ‘Oh, can I clean this, or I’ll do this.’ If they need money, they’re really nice.
“But when they don’t need money they will test me.
“We do get into arguments, like siblings do. They love Netflix. The Netflix account is in my name. So, like right now, they haven’t been cleaning at all. I come home and the house is dirty, I have to clean it; I’ll be sleepy. So now, I changed the Netflix password and I cut them off.”
Tough-love Darrius sometimes clashes with big brother Darrius: “I’m thinking of buying them a Nintendo Wii, but they might not get it.
“They have to earn it, so I’m going to buy it, show it to them and put it up. I’ll be like, ‘This is y’all’s, but you can’t play with it. I’m not going to open up the box until you can prove to me you’ll get to school on time, get (good) grades, help clean and behave like you want it. If not, I’ll keep it or sell it. It’s up to y’all.”
He’s understanding of their occasional tardiness because, “I wake them up and I be lazy to get out of bed at 6 a.m. because I get home at like 12 or 1 (a.m.). Then, I sometimes have to clean and don’t go to bed until 4 (a.m.).”
He knows he spoils the girls somewhat, but he also knows life has been tough on them, and he wants them to enjoy these years.
Darrius rides city buses wherever he goes, which makes his logistics tiring and time-consuming. But he shrugs it off; an auto is as likely in his near future as a spaceship.
If someone said to you, I’ll give you a job with more money than you’re making now, would you take it?
“I’d take it, but the job I have now, I’d still work there. Not that many days, but my boss knows my situation. He’s been really amazing to me. I’m a loyal person.”
Do you worry about the girls and pregnancy and drugs?
“Me, them and mom all had talked about all that when we lived in our hell of a (former) apartment. A two-bedroom, roach-infested slum. When we lived there, we all talked about it because my sisters loved to see the (TV) shows ‘16 and Pregnant’ and ‘Teen Mom’ — shows about how if you get pregnant, there’s a high chance the dude will leave you and you’ll be stuck raising a kid by yourself.
“My mom said, ‘If y’all get pregnant, you’ll have to grow up fast.’ So I’m not worried about none of that. So I feel like they’ve really got that concept in their head. Anyway, all three of them, they’d rather go shopping.”
He knows he’s got to get better at mastering the rabbit-warren burrows of welfare bureaucracy, which can seem more daunting than a teetering stack of dirty dishes.
For example, he is certain the girls’ Medi-Cal insurance is intact, but confesses he needs to nail that down. “Honestly, I have to check on that. I’ve been slacking on that. I know they had it, and I have to make sure they still have it.”
Darrius visits his mother at the hospital as often as he can. He is hopeful that she will one day walk out and return to the family, but in his heart, he knows her outlook is challenging.
In society’s race of life, Darrius Johnson, self-effacing as he is, would approach the starting line as a tortoise, elbowed on either side by a hare and a fox. But if the finish line is human quality, and you bet all-in against him, you might have to walk home.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is [email protected]