In the summer of 2011 I was hanging out with a guy named Darwin (a pseudonym). I won’t say much more about his personal life other than it was less than ideal. He had known great loss and heartache—the kind I haven’t had to know yet—but he was incessantly upbeat.
He was a skinny kid. He wore loose denim shorts, button-down short-sleeved shirts that were two sizes too big with loud-ass designs, and a black fedora over gelled-up hair. He also wore glasses. In terms of his fashion, he was the perfect fusion of thug and geek, but that was Darwin. We met at karaoke and bonded over Kanye West’s “Heartless.”
He didn’t have a car. He didn’t have a job. He didn’t have a high school diploma or a GED. In so many ways, he was the personification of so much of Albany, Georgia, but he was trying.
The night that Darwin drew this napkin, we were at Mellow Mushroom. The NBA playoffs were on, and Darwin pulled hard for the Miami Heat. He also pulled hard for the New England Patriots during football season (a major source of strife between us). He seemed to pull only for the winners, which is fine. Watching sports gives us a chance to escape, and sometimes we need a little victory with our escape.
Darwin was one of the best friends I made in Albany. He never passed judgment, and he always listened, especially when I couldn’t talk to the rest of the world about what was happening. I knew that whatever I told him and whatever he saw would never be repeated.
One night, I was asked to leave my apartment so my ex could pack her things. It was much uglier than that, really. But I left. I stayed at a hotel that night. The next morning I took Darwin to Mellow Mushroom so he could apply for a job (we spent a lot of time there that summer…mainly because she didn’t).
While I sat with Darwin and worked with him on his application, in another place, my ex was working hard to hurt my career and livelihood, but this isn’t so much about what she was doing. She was reacting to a break-up. She was reacting in a truly terrible way, but she was still reacting.
But when Darwin reacted, it was in a truly noble way. He opened his home, which he was possibly on the verge of losing (he didn’t). He offered his couch and his television. He offered jokes and laughter and a crudely-drawn cartoon of a basketball player I don’t recognize. He was there to offer catharsis, because unlike that cartoon basketball player he drew who had just lost out of the playoffs, I was not going home—not for a while.
And he taught me, as did the other people who helped me when I needed it most, that kindness is often wrapped in the most unrecognizable package. He was the kind of person who couldn’t be robbed of his kindness. Even when life was unbelievably cruel, he could be found laughing uncontrollably over a slice of pizza, singing the words to his sentences and bobbing his head to the beat of the music.
The caption on this napkin means a great deal. “Go Big or Go Home.” Sure, it’s a sports cliché. Sure, we’ve all heard it a million times. But it was that summer that I adopted the Nomad Shane moniker. I didn’t identify any place as “home” necessarily. I floated for a while, looking for somewhere to put roots down. I would finally find that place, but not for a while.
That summer, Darwin helped me understand that I could survive, for little while, without a home. And I did.