I always start thinking about John Minor at Christmas time. This is not just because I last saw him on a chilly Christmas Day several years ago. It has at least as much to do, I think, with his triumphant life.
John was a handyman -- a builder, mender, cleaner and polisher, who worked periodically for me and a number of other householders in Washington, a southern-born black man, already pretty old when I met him, who could give anybody lessons in how to live. And did: John was, to put it mildly, neither humble nor self-effacing, and it is most assuredly not all those stylized department-store angels that make me think of him at Christmas time. He was no angel. But he had all the more important virtues, which is different. John was a tireless -- and often tiresome -- insister on the values that we renew at this season: human kinship, aspiration and grace.
Now, if you are preparing to settle into a nice big sugarplum, look out. John's story is not that of the poor but generous-spirited, long- suffering down-and-outer of the guilty-rich imagination. Not on your life. He was, most of the time, a true crank. He worked for a dozen or so rich dowagers and matrons and other hoity-toits of Georgetown, and at any given time he was not on speaking terms with at least four of them. He would push you around and pick endless fights over the terms of his engagement and then stalk out, not to be seen or heard from again (one would be much too proud and furious to call him) for at least two years. Then one day would come the familiar voice on the phone, saying that Mrs. X or Mrs. Y had said you were looking for him. This was a fiction. It meant only that he had by now picked three new fights and was considering restoring your account. Desperate for his craft -- nothen he was gone -- you would lie and say that was right. He would come back . . . until the next blowup.
It was interesting what John chose to fight about. He was especially partial to accusing his "ladies," as he called them, who were surely in the top percentile of finicky-clean housekeepers anywhere in the world, of being slobs. Invited to the garden wedding of a client's child one spring, he did not behave as wedding-guest servants generally do, huddled off together somewhere looking shy and uncomfortable. He took the occasion instead to stroll around, observing that the back windows of the house next door, where he had used to work for a client with whom he was currently feuding, were "filthy." John also started fights by demanding to be served lunch by a maid or the proprietress of the household in a most elaborate manner. And it needs finally to be said that from time to time he expressed, with an unmistakably amorous leer, a certain wolfish appreciation of his employer that was rather unsettling.
Well, we are rather a far piece from the Cratchit family or the Trapp family or any of the other gingerbread-house families one associates with Christmas kinship, you will be thinking about now. How true. But I would argue that John's roughneck spirit, his insistence on being perceived and acknowledged as a fellow human being and his endless calling of attention to the profoundly human nature of his employers was in fact a brilliantly relentless assertion of kinship. He did not allow any of those strategies for condescension or indifference, masked by cheerful, empty, seeming concern, to come into play. When you were with John you were obliged to credit his existence, to contend with him as a fellow human creature, to defend yourself, to engage, to come alive and stay that way whether you wanted to or not. Somehow, by his claims and demands, he validated not only his own existence but your existence, too.
It was as a craftsman that John made his mark, and this is where the aspiration of the man came into play. He did what he did better than anyone else. He was painstaking and yet sure. He made things beautiful; he made things work; he had a perfect sense of order and more keenly developed esthetic standards than most of us for whom he worked. He was patient beyond belief at any given task, often taxing his employers' patience to get it done. He wanted everything to be better than it was and wasn't prepared to settle unless he had to. Some of his walkouts were over this -- his "ladies" asking just how long, at his exorbitant rates, he was going to spend on restoring a particular object to beauty or workability.
I mentioned "grace." John got cancer and had to retire. I went to see him when he was bedridden. When I would give him a little money, I would be careful not to offend or patronize, talking about an advance against his return to work, though we both knew he wasn't coming back. On that Christmas afternoon I mentioned, I drove over there after a festive and luxurious lunch. What I remember most was my growing sense of self-satisfaction as I approached his apartment house: wasn't I a wonderful person doing this lovely thing for an unfortunate on Christmas, etc.
I should have known that nothing in John's life would allow me this much advantage, allow me to see him in this lesser, dehumanized way. The apartment was festooned in Christmas decorations and a child, maybe six years old, who had an unspecified ailment, was present. Called "grandbaby" by John, he was no kin but rather the child of a poor woman at John's church, and John had taken him in, was himself committing charity, assiduously and with great concentration and commitment. Toys were being madly propelled around the apartment and quickly busted by grandbaby, who would then howl, waiting for John to put them back together. Much howling. Much repair. Much happiness out of sorrow in that household.
So I came to do charity and found charity. There was no one-upping John Minor. There was only dignity, fellowship, excellence, crankiness and grace. The scene in that apartment has become its own special Christmas scene for me. I never saw John again. He died a short while thereafter.