My Friend Fred

As I sit here with dishes waiting to be done and the dogs chasing the kitten around the living room, I will tell you a tale from Maryland Street…

I can’t quite remember the first time I met “Fred”*. Maybe it was the day we painted the house yellow….and green…and orange. He wasn’t one of the usual “vendor walkers”; the people who pass by our house with bags full of empty beer cans only to walk back in the other direction with a king can or two. Stopping at our fence, half bowing, holding his hand palm up and out to the side, with body language he tried to indicate that he was a friendly, safe person, he said “I mean you no harm,” one of his sayings oft to be heard. Respect was evident as he whipped off his ball cap and held it against his chest to speak to me with a twinkle in his eye. And his laugh; oh, it is a laugh that would either peel the bark off trees or work its way into your heart until you find yourself, surprisingly, giggling right along with him.

Fred is a native man. Fred is a gay man: effeminate in presentation, well spoken, extremely tidy, every hair in place and clothing always clean and presentable. He lives in a rooming house down the street.

Ever since Fred learned that my name is Jodi he has jokingly referred to me as the actress Jodie Foster. Every time he passed by he would stop and say things like, “Ms. Foster, you’re back in your vacation home, I thought I saw a limo go by.” Then laugh and laugh. Or, “Miss Foster, I told my cousin, ‘You know who lives in the neighborhood now? Jodie Foster!’ And he said, ‘Nooo.’ And I said ‘yes, in that yellow house, it’s her vacation home.’” Fred thought this was all very funny every time he said it, and it was often.

At first I was a little nervous with him, but he never entered the yard without first asking permission and he always took off his hat to talk to me. One night last fall I was home alone and sitting at the kitchen table when there was a knock at the door. I looked up to see Fred smiling and waving at me through the kitchen window. I opened the door and pushed past him and invited him to sit on the porch with me. He was drunk. He told me he’d been to Europe: London Paris, Amsterdam. I was impressed. I wondered aloud how he’d managed that, thinking it would have been some kind of program or perhaps a job he’d held. “Because I’m a whore,” was his response. Well, what do you say to that? His lover had been wealthy and sent him on these trips. Fred is very proud of having traveled to these places by himself and he loves to talk about what he saw there and tells his tales well.

He has had a difficult life – most of which I have to imagine – yet he continues to laugh and be happy a lot of the time.

He would walk by with an older gentleman and once they were nearly past hold his hand up beside his mouth conspiratorially and point at the man, mouthing the words “this is my lover”. Another time he was walking past with a particularly gregarious fellow – a housemate – who barked at my dogs and told them he would eat them. Later Fred was quick to tell me “he’s not my partner you know”.

My friend Fred is a movie connoisseur. He loves the old glamorous movie stars and says he has posters of them all over the house. He knows all the old movies and who has starred in them. Fred came by one day and leaned on the fence and said “I have something to tell you.” He then looked up in the air and bounced his finger as if trying to remember something. It was lyrics to Madonna’s “Vogue”, but changed to suit the occasion:

“Grace Kelly; Harlow, Jean
Picture of a beauty queen
Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire
Ginger Rodgers, dance on air
They had style, they had grace
Rita Hayworth gave good face
Lauren, Katherine, Lana too
Jodie Foster, we love you!”

Just thinking about how proud he looked and how he laughed and laughed makes me smile!

My friend Fred has an intense serious side to him. Some days he’ll march right past me with his head down, muttering to himself. When I call out to him, he looks up as if I’ve pulled him out of somewhere else and he’s not quite sure what’s going on. Then he’ll wave or say hi and continue on down the street.

One day Fred discovered that we had a dog walker. He said, “I’ll walk your dogs for you. I’ll come Sunday morning and take them to the Forks.” I was nervous, but George and I decided to have faith that this man was sent to us by God. That he needed to be trusted and believed in. So I told him that if he came by sober and that if he had bags with him to clean up after the dogs he could take them. He did and was gone for quite some time. The dogs had a fantastic walk that day. It was to be their only one with Fred, though. When he didn’t come by the following Sunday to take them and didn’t say anything about it the next time I saw him, I wondered. Finally, one day he talked to George about it. He said as he was walking, people said to him “those dogs look expensive,” as if to imply that he had stolen them or that they may take them. That was it. Fred would not jeopardize our dogs and sadly lost a small pleasure for himself.

While George and I were away on our honeymoon, my mom came and stayed with my kids. One night a big man came into the yard and knocked on the door. Mom did not answer it. Later I asked Fred if it had been him looking for me. He assured me he would never do that (although he already had after a few drinks) and that he would talk to his housemates about it and tell them to stay out of the yard. Fred also told me that if he ever saw anyone trying to steal our stuff or break into the house he would protect us to the best of his ability. I told him not to put himself in danger for the sake of “things,” that he was more important. I told him that we appreciated his concern and respect. I can’t tell you how he touched my heart by showing his care for our well-being.

One of the last times I’ve seen Fred was fun. He yelled, “Okay Missus (he’d taken to calling me that since he found out we got married this year). The trip is booked to London and Paris for Christmas.” “I’m in”, I told him, grinning. “The only hard part is how you’re gonna sneak out without George knowing,” he said. We laughed and came up with scenarios to fool George.

The last long conversation was a tough one. It was a summer afternoon and I was out on the porch as usual. Fred came by with no swagger, no smile, no gleam. He asked if he could talk to me. He sat on the edge of the porch and began to tell me that his lover had died. The poor man had just leaned forward to get out of a chair and his liver had burst. Fred was lost. They’d been together for 17 years. He told me that his cousin had told him that drinking was not the answer for the pain. I reached out, touched his shoulder for comfort, his and mine. He told me that he’d seen 34 men die from AIDS. He told me that he’d been helping in the kitchen at a food bank and that he enjoyed that. He told me that waking up in the night alone was the hardest thing.

The weather is changing. I’m not on the porch every minute I have free like I was all summer and I haven’t seen Fred in a while. George said he’d stopped by the other day and sat on the porch with him for a few minutes. He’d told George he was sad.

We take everything that Fred says as true. Some of it sounds incredible, like his story of his brother, the cardinal in Rome. But, why not? I wonder why God has chosen this man to be part of my journey. On the outside it would seem that I am here for him, but on the inside I think I might supposed to be learning from him. I wish with my heart that I would see him sober more often, that we could have coffee on my porch. But that is not Fred’s way.

One day, I asked Fred if he had faith. He said oh yes, he’d been raised Catholic. Then he told me, “do you know why I am the way I am?” He was molested in his church by someone with authority, someone trusted to nurture, a familiar enough scenario. When he finally got up the courage to tell his mother, she dragged him along the ground back to the church to apologize to his molester for smearing his good name. I felt so bad for him – for the child he had been. I told him, “Fred, you know that response is “religion” and not faith, right? That comes from fear (his mother’s) and not God’s love.” I hope he understood what I was trying to tell him.

Now spring is here again. Fred and his housemates stroll by with their empties and back with their king cans. He is laughing again and lives, if you can call it a life. For what it is worth – it is his. And yet, if you look closely the sparkle is still in his eye.

Jodi Penner has been attending saint benedict’s table since 2004, taking an active role both in our music and our art ministries. She finds both traditional stained glass and glass mosaic to be colourful mediums that express the emotion and spirituality she seeks to convey in her art. Her mosaic piece “Anamnesis” – a meditation on the meaning of communion – has become a fixture beside the communion table at worship. Occasionally she uses words to mosaic a story or tale and the result, like her glass art, is colourful and interesting.


*Name changed to protect the privacy of the individual.


3 Responses to My Friend Fred

  1. Jodi Penner says:

    A little Maryland Street literature for those interested.

  2. Catherine Pate says:

    Fred sounds like a good neighbour (as are you). Lots to learn from this story. Thanks Jodi.

  3. Adeline Berg says:

    Aw Jodi, that is an awesome story because you are an awesome person!

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