Donjuan’s Story

An artist from Philadelphia works on a photography project: Four Seasons in a Day.

“I wasn’t homeless. I had a home. I had a life. I had a business. I had everything. I literally walked away from everything to freaking write, to take pictures, to just get in my body and bring something out.”

[Intro noise, crowd talking, fades out]

I just got on the bus. It was – I didn’t – I actually was going to come, go to the winner of the Seattle/Denver Super Bowl. That was the first time, initially. Seattle won. Something stopped me. Something stopped me when I – so I didn’t do it then. Then it was just like I was just going to little places, going to places, go back home. I went to see. I went to St. Louis, Portland. I was traveling. 

It was just like – I looked something up online about Denver and it was – I can’t remember what it was. But all of a sudden, I’m in Denver. It’s just like it was so weird because it was like I literally was like, “I want to make a trip. I want to go do something. I want to go explore.” But I think the proximity of Denver to New Mexico and other places kind of helped me choose here versus a Seattle or versus a Portland, which if I went to Seattle, I was going to go to Alaska. 

I was just going – I’m just gone. Just go do some different things. I didn’t think I would be here this long. I did develop a love for this city in aspects, because I love South Broadway, like down – like on the other side of 1st Street. It was worth – that’s where I generally go.

I’m originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That’s my hometown. It’s the best. It’s like – it was rough but it’s so cultural. So, you have – there’s like – we probably made up half of these books in this African-American library, this museum, because we were so culturally rich and put a lot into the world through art. Teachers, future leaders, musicians, of course. You grow up in there – then, at the same time, when you have a patriarchal family structure, where a man and woman in there, so you just molded a little different. I mean it’s just – I mean I don’t think I may have appreciated it as much growing up, but as I got older and was put into the world and seen like the makeup of me and how I was made up, it was like, “Thank you, Philadelphia.” “Thank you, Mom and Dad,” at the same time. All of them, everything comes together. I think it was beautiful, now, especially because for a whole totally different person.

Then I got – I don’t know if I told you – it turns out I worked at the University of Pennsylvania when I was younger. My mother was a librarian there. she was in the reference department. So, I couldn’t really take nothing out of there. Well, I could. But we had – I had started finding other books. I got really into Aldous Huxley and Albert Camus and different people just from being in `the libraries. I just thought that was a real cool thing that really kind of – John Foils. 

It’s a lot of – Anais Nin – it was just reading. Just books in every freaking – there. Architectural books. That’s what I’m saying, you have contributions because, to this day, I still love Catholic cathedrals. I just always loved architecture. So, it’s just like people’s contributions. You just do it. You still have to be proud of yours. You should want, as an individual, want to bring contribution as well.

So, she got me a job, a custodial job position there. That just – I was just open to the city. The city was just like crazy. I just loved the city, especially young because you just run around so much. There’s so much to do. So, much music coming in, so much art that’s coming in, everything.

Because we had all the books in my house. We had – we still do because it’s just like my father – my mother was real literary. Father is, too. But he’s got this segment of like ’60s, ’50s maybe, ’50s through the ’60s, where he would just like – he like – I called my father the blackest man since Malcolm X. 

Like, Malcolm X is my father. It’s not a racial thing. It’s just a pride thing. He’s very big on being dealt with and being held in reverence for what he do, his contributions, which is part of – my father’s the only person in my head right now, not my mother, because I grew up like my mother. But my father is – since being here, all in my head. That’s why I have even moments of snapping on in those places because I fear he’s going to meet me where I come out of here. 

Whatever I exude—boomerang—reciprocate that. Don’t put me in a box with the homeless. Don’t put me in no box with junkies. I’m not even trying to beat over anybody. It’s just me. I don’t talk with nobody else. I don’t speak with no one else. I don’t behave in certain ways. I like to see that come back. That’s my father. That’s all my father. It’s strictly him. 

I’ve never been a strong youth. I’m telling you, I grew up like pretty much my whole life my mother. The artsy stuff, that’s all her. The reading, the poetry, everything, all those voicings from her – with the exception of my father having that infusion of just love for black culture and love the black voice. That’s my all. That’s just how I come off, you know what I mean? 

I love it. Especially now, seeing the lack of it. It’s like – I don’t know. But I’m going to carry mine. You have to have – by no means when I say Nikki Giovanni is my favorite because she helped me hear a voice in my own head. But by no means do I discredit Sylvia Plath. You know what I mean? 

And I think sometimes people get misinterpreted like that. I’m just saying black culture, I love it because I grew up with it. A lot of it is our contribution to the world. Everybody got a contribution. You know what I’m saying? Everybody does. Everybody should be proud of that contribution, period. Just simply like that.

I was – I was super reserved. Not really shy, but it was just like – I was always genuinely by myself. I had people in my neighborhood, but I didn’t really do nothing that everybody was doing. I didn’t play basketball. I didn’t rap. I wasn’t no dancer. I wasn’t like a real extroverted person. And my block is very extroverted. We had block parties and all that. I had more of my mother’s demeanor – I mean my father’s demeanor of – he’s stoic. But he has way more of a physical presence as me. So, I’ve got his stoic just, (sound), then I have my mother’s temperament, or, like, interests. So, I would be myself. You got my like my mother, my sister, sister. I lost one three years ago.

Interviewer: Oh, no. I’m sorry to hear that.

Her birthday was just on the 11th. I forgot about – I mean I forgot about her birthday. I was crying like three days prior. Right? But like three days prior to her birthday, like every night, it was like I was naturally walking into her birthday. Every night, every night, it was like some way or another I end up talking to somebody about it. Then – or maybe it was just something I didn’t see here.

Jamila – I’ve got Jamila and Niara. Both are my – as you can tell by their names, Jamila, Niara, then Donjuan. That’s from my mother. Their names are not my father. I always asked. I’m like Why y’all — I asked it because during them times, you have – coming from the ’60s, you have such a heavy Islamic infusion in a black community, especially in Philadelphia. It was rich. So, my father wasn’t a person to claim a religion, nothing like that. But he was one to take ideologies from things to define him or his personality. 

I think he more than – black management just didn’t free Muslim anyway — but he had those things. So, you had this time. So, my older sister’s name is Niara. My second sister’s name is Jamila. I guess my mother just went off to New Mexico somewhere and just was into this little culture of some shamanism stuff and named me Donjuan like out the blue. She got away like, she like, “This one mine.” It is.

Interviewer: You had said it was from the Carlos Castaneda – I don’t remember if it was a novel or a book of non-fiction.

Yeah, it’s a novel of a Yankee shaman, which I keep on me.

Interviewer: You showed it to me. Yeah, it’s cool.

Yeah, I was crazy to find it back a while, because everybody always want to go to this Don Juan DeMarco and Don Juan some old other stuff since I was a kid. I was like, “No, no. I’m more shaman than –” I mean like I was named toward that where you’re going to find some sort of truth than trying to womanize or whatever.

But I was always kind of in the gut of the city, so to speak, looking for things, trying to – curious. Even here, just curious and roaming. I’ve already seen different book stores, art stores, everything. Just trying to find a meaning. So, you had these respectful relationships out here. But they so spotty. So, when I go through a day where I don’t have that type of relationship, I usually get upset because I’m watching everything and I’m seeing everything. I’m seeing relationships between people out here from – what do I call them – civilians and homeless relationships or black/white, or Mexican/black. The dynamics are so crazy here. I just ain’t used to that in a city where you don’t really have to – normally, I mean you can just – I don’t know. I just don’t – I’ve never been that person. So, I don’t really understand that thinking. I don’t understand my frame of not being civil or just being human.

                Interviewer: You feel like that happens –

Oh, so much.

               Interviewer: – so much here, maybe more here than –

Everybody. It’s so uncivil, this place right here. I mean both sides. I mean everywhere, everywhere. It just bugs me out. Like I said, you do have those moments, but those moments are fleeting, for real. So, you go through a day of meeting –  the greatest thing that actually did – gave me four seasons in a day. Because that’s like my mentally, literally. Because it goes like that. It can be real drab or whatever, then it can be sunny, and it can light. I’m talking about in my spirit. So, that’s – I be like, “Thank you Denver for that,” because it’s definitely what I go through in the night.”

When I came here, I start working at the botanical garden. Worked – laid off in November. The season changed. But I found – another greenhouse called me, called Tagawa Greenhouses in Brighton and this is like a dream because it’s like running a nursery. This is the cultivation with seeding. I’m like, “Ahh.” But then, it’s in Brighton. So, really, that’s what I’ve been doing today, like coming to terms on – like I was looking at low apartment systems like that where – like I only put $1,000, just $1,000 is my max. I just looked at little apartments. I found something. Called some up, sent some emails and stuff like that to people. Just wanted to see how close I could get to getting a spot in Brighton. I don’t like to commit to nothing that I can’t do. You know what I mean? I don’t like to waste nobody’s time. So, if I don’t find a little place – it had to be the one time I called my parents because I have to file my income tax and I got a nice little one coming because I haven’t filed in two years. 

So, I got a humongous – like I will be able to live. Whenever that go through, if it go through, whatever. But this place call me back. Like I told them, I’m not doing another freaking – see, they go credit and I don’t have the best credit. I don’t have no credit. Never did anything. Okay? So, you have these people that want to do these checks. I’m like, “Man, I might as well just be sitting – put $1,000.00 just for application fees, because I literally went through about $600.00 but I ain’t buying no stuff.” 

So, I literally told them – I’m not doing a – I’m not paying an application fee. So, it won’t be for me. I guess the tone in which I was talking to these people was like, “I’m not double-backing.” So, at the Brighton little thing, it’s a little small, little store-front apartment, which is beautiful because it will just be me. No neighbors. Just like the store downstairs and just roast. Yeah, right? Then it’s literally ten minutes from the greenhouses. So, that, right there, is weighing heavy on me. It’s just all about seeing how the ball roll from there. It’s like I said, I got that – then I’ll just come and furnish it and be like, “Yo, I need $1,800,” first and last, which I haven’t did at all, at all. I will do that then because that just totally – then, again, that’s upon just getting a job. You know what I’m saying, securing a job. 

Then I secure that place. But shit, I secured that place first. It’s because I don’t necessarily need to be out there if I’m not doing a job, but I need to be out there if I get the job. Like I say, I just call in prayers. I need $1,800 voucher, $1,800 please, ASAP.

Interviewer: Tell me a little bit more about your interactions at St. Francis. I feel like they’ve been all over the map for you, kind of. 

All over the place. I like – it’s like – it’s sometime-ey. It’s very – it’s just like one minute we here, the next minute, we there. The reasons why is like I don’t get anything from them. I may come in there – now when I first got here, I was working. I didn’t even know about them. I got here July 1st. My ID literally says 10-2-2018. So, I was doing my thing. It was slow coming to me where I couldn’t afford like living, living situations. Then I’m just doing rooms for rent. I run around, but I got – I needed their address. So, I got a mailbox over there. But then, as things would get harder for me, it seemed like I couldn’t ask – it’s like I wasn’t mentally challenged. I wasn’t disabled enough. I was freaking addict-y enough or whatever. I wasn’t mentally – whatever it was, I wasn’t enough of it to get anything from them. 

I wasn’t homeless. I had a home. I had a life. I had a business. I had everything. I literally walked away from everything to freaking write, to take pictures, to just get in my body and bring something out. Hence the film school, hence school and all that. it was just, literally, for what I’m doing. So, because I had – you have to find a place where you can dig into yourself. I don’t know no better place than in a shelter or just homelessness or – like you can go – some people don’t have the experience to know what they do, know what it feel – be creative enough to dig, put yourself in that place. But sometimes, it’s like the truth, like to really get the aesthetics. I do. I get in. It’s what’s worked for me. This is all a part of everything. It’s not for nothing. That’s why when I didn’t do Montana, it didn’t really hit me, because I kept saying, when everybody saw me again later, people that I actually – I have no relationship with nobody, but I talk to people. I’m cordial. “Man, we thought you were going my town.” I’m like, “No, I’m not going to cheat the process.” I don’t want to cheat the process.

I’m here to bring everything about. I write every day and take pictures every day. I’ve been doing my thing. The only thing I’m kind of upset with the – not the Denver experience for me, but it’s definitely a Denver experiment. It’s like I haven’t got in my academic world. That’s a part of my thing. I have academic – I’m always in class. I’m always going to school. So, you got that. Then I’ve got to work with plants. I have to have some musical people, like, jamming at the house. 

Like I say, you got to have a home, but I’ve got to have all these different elements. I’ve got to have a real – like a real small bookstore. You don’t need a thrift store here because they just thrift stores everywhere. But it’s like the relationships, these things are mandatory. I’ve got to have a botanical garden. Fortunately, I was able to work there. My own little park. My own little tree. Every little thing in my world, you know what I mean? But this is my life. This is my life.

I didn’t really want to go back to work. I was like, “I didn’t come here to work for anybody.” You know what I’m saying? “I came here to do my thing, get my truck.” I would work – I do landscaping. Do tree removal. I used to work catering. There’s so many different little things. I was a custodian groundskeeper. I got slight maintenance, tech skills, because my father has a construction company. My grandfather has a construction company. My father just runs it. Just came down to him. So, I get little stuff from him. So, I was going to piece it altogether; landscaping, maintenance, grounds keeping, custodial and just try to find me an apartment complex where I could be like a senior jack of all trades type things when it comes to grounds keeping, landscaping, and being on the site with maintenance. I package this position up and was presenting it to them. 

This was then. But I just start roaming. I mean like, literally, I go down to Colorado Springs, take pictures. Since November. It’s just like get up. I check my email. I go – I walk around looking for something to take pictures of and I write in my notebook. I keep my notebook on me. I got like nine of them, full, a backpack full. Then I transfer it to a composition notebook or that was my – I have my camera with me.

I wanted to be – literally, I’m working on a thing called “Four Seasons in a Day.” “Four season in a day,” is literally dedicated to my family. It’s not for nobody else. It’s strictly for them, because they always wonder where I’m at mentally. Everybody always wondering where I’m mentally. So, I just want to show them. You know, like, my whole family, like aunties, everybody, cousins. It’s like, “Here. Okay. Finally, you all understand now? You all see? This is what I’ve been doing. This is what I enjoy doing. This is what me.” 

Then you see like – I can see – like yesterday, I was trying to find – I was writing these – it was like a crazy, little snippet or something. But it was like a black versus white thing. But it wasn’t “versus.” It was really just the dichotomy that really does exist in the world. I need to write that word down because that’s really what it was. These, I got a bunch of these on me, a bunch of that. So, this be pretty much like – I’m looking at somebody, I may get a set vibe or relationship. Something I see out here. I might enjoy something. I might have a good conversation. That’s my thing. I just do what I want to do. I’ve had money most of the time that I’ve been here. I literally just ran out of money last week. It was dumb of me because I went out. You know what I mean? 

I just went out one night. I’m going to go to Historians, took my friend out there. No, no. I just ran out of money from Christmas break – from Christmas Eve, went crazy, all the way to New Year’s. I was in the world with people. I was out there. I was jamming. You know what I’m saying? I was just blowing money. I knew I was at my last from the Botanical Gardens days and all that. Thank you very much, last you don’t want to go back to work. So, what do you do? You go blow it. You know what I mean? I want to be part of – it’s Christmas Eve. It’s Christmas. It’s New Year’s Eve. It’s New Year’s. I enjoy both of them days tremendously. I hated Christmas, but I – I hated Christmas. Anyways, but New Year’s all that, man, I was out here with real people.

I actually not even going to say I feel better, but actually I was feeling more normal like when I was just working at the garden and stuff like that, because I was able to go do what I wanted to do. But it also put me in a position to where if I wasn’t homeless, I wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of those things because the cost of living. So, I’m just able to – like I ate Ramen and Wheaties. I got massages, my feet done. Just like real things. I went out on Fridays. Went to the beer festival. It was just like – that’s the juxtaposition. So, honestly, if you’re going to pay then don’t have no funds. So, it was nice. But I enjoyed it. 

But then, when it came down, when I got laid off, it became, okay, now, reality. My birthday’s in November. Normally, in November, I go in the dark place. But it’s like my favorite time of the year, because in Philly, it get dark. But it didn’t get dark and the sun is still pink. It made me feel like autumn. I’m like, “Damn, this –” it almost made me happy. 

So, I was happy in November versus being a normal November, because that’s my time to write, normally, all winter. I’m like – a person get winter homes in Florida? I’ve got to have a winter home in Philly because – “I’ve got to have my winter home down where it’s warm.” No, I have to have it in the darkness. But the homelessness gave me the darkness, that place to go versus the beautiful, freaking autumn days. 

I got some tremendous – I went down a street that was literally covered with leaves on the whole street. These are small streets. Every street was a different color. It was like all burgundy, dark red, this one’s yellow, this one’s orange. I was like, “Did I see that correctly?” So, I walked back down there. I didn’t even – I took some pictures. But the film just showed like these really like consecutive streaks. You know what I’m saying? It was off the chain. It was like down Colfax. If Colfax is 14th, it was like 13th or something like down and by Colorado.

               Interviewer: So, the winter’s depressiveness kind of fuels your creativity?

Yeah. It get real, just the drabness of it. But then, at the same time, it gets so many people out of the way. So, you left – because I roam in it. That’s my time. I roam in it. But you got all the, the parting of the seas, so to speak, when you get gone. I’m like, “Thank you. So, I need that.”

I can find a way to get to Colorado Springs and get there and get in this place and go work with plants and go trimming. You know what I’m saying? And cataloging. It’s a great guy, matter of fact, I’ve got to remember him because he’s maybe fourth on my list of inspirational people for me. Mr. Lufrial, number one, World History teacher. He was also New Greek, New Latin. He had an archeology degree and he was an anthropologist. He took pictures with his family every summer all over the world. He number one. Piet den Blanken, my favorite photojournalist. Awesome. Then, Anthony Bourdain was number three, because he stole my job. That’s my freaking brainchild. I guess he had it before me. [Laughs] 

But that was it. That’s what I went to school to – Piet den Blanken, photojournalist. My high school teacher, anthropologist, archeologist, take his family to take pictures and write stuff all throughout the summer. Anthony Bourdain. All three of them carry the core of what I enjoy doing.

I became the lobby stalker. They burned the lobby stalk – I’ve had good ones and I have bright ones and I’ve had covers be thrown on me. I don’t care of none of this stuff. My thing literally is I go sleep in a – I haven’t slept in two nights, like sleep. So, I go – but then I met a chick from – I met people. At the same time – because I ain’t nuts. I met a lady from Palau and when I tell you like one of the most radiant women I’ve ever seen in my life. This is crazy. That island produces something that is exceptional. We got cool. She was like – the first time we met, she was just like, “I haven’t hung out in a long time.” We mob the city, hopping on busses and everything. We were just running around. I went over – we came over here to Wells Fargo. I grab like $100.00. This most do kind of just like early or something stupid, real cool. 

I got $100.00. Got two bus passes, day passes. We just went out and ate places and got this and did this. We were just darting around. That shit felt great. You know what I’m saying? It felt great.

Because I have one friend and that’s it. There’s people I talk to, but I only have one friend and we together. We with each other like every day. Me and him, we got a good way with each other. He’s from South Bend, Indiana. Grew up on Notre Dame Ave. Was raised by Nation of Islamic parents. He older than me. Just like me. But he’s raised by Nation of Islam. It’s like he study on Notre Dame Ave and he’s a D1, black D1 tennis player. The irony of just being – he got so many things that’s so related to me. He’s got so much wisdom and all that. So, that’s my guy right there. That’s my friend.

So, I end up chilling with her, like, the lady from Palau. When I’m with her, I do like two nights at her apartment, and then I be gone. Then an old guy that I met here who’s pretty cool. A kind of navigational person. Do a night over there. Then I do a lobby. Then it’s like – I go to Elijah’s van. Elijah is my friend. Everybody – that’s the guy I was telling you about, the tennis friend. So, I go over there, his van, which has been exceptional for me because I’ve actually been able to store stuff in there. 

Like, I’m doing what I came to do. I signed up for this. But I didn’t sign up for just to envision – I didn’t know it would be – there’s some Neanderthals in here, man, in this city. I mean for reals. Some serious cavemen. Then you’ve got people catering to a Neanderthal, but I can’t get nothing, and I’ve been civilized. 

I, actually – I see my business. I see my business picking back up. Like landscaping. I had my own landscaping company. I worked for another. I worked for Anderson Gardens back home. But I owned my own landscaping and my own tree removal. I built decks. I worked for my father, and that type of stuff. I did patios. I built Japanese gardens. I mean like, ponds. Everything dealing with horticulture, landscape architecture. I actually would like to get a degree just to get it. Just like boom, architecture. 

So, I’d like to get it, but I’d like to get it while I’m travelling. I like to do some urban farming and I’d like to do – so, do some urban forming. Give me some acres, I need some acres. But I need them – like I would rather – I would love to do Seattle summer, because they summer’s the best. I can do Denver. I want hubs in places. Philadelphia winter. Part-time Denver winter. You know what I’m saying. I got to travel. I got to see people. And at the same time, write. Then, I would not – the way I did it before, like say you get – there’s tornado season, you go to Kansas right afterwards. I’m not trying to be like no agent of freaking destruction like getting money off of –

But I’ve had nice jobs. You give me $2,500.00 on Monday, I’m going to work into the next month. But I’m one to keep it consistent, consistency. Less me being free to just take the money and do whatever I want to do, because that’s what I did. So, I’ve had this and it was like – but I’ve also took the next week off. So, you know what I’m saying? So, the consistency, the more functioning – I mean to be more professional. I got to be more my father, less my mother. I felt that I’m here in order to live here. 

The freedom of it, the beauty of it, the pride of it, the artistic side of it. You get so many things. The introspection type because it’s just me and plants, digging. I’m just digging. I’m talking and singing, whatever, and dropping trees there, putting boulders over there. Then I’m by myself. You have the freedom. I got the freedom to go to the nursery or go get soil. I load my whole bed up with soil. I don’t get bags. I go to the place and get three yards. Just load the back of the cab. 

So, it’s – I want that. You got so many different levels of your personality that come through there. You know what I mean? Or it can be like saturated because I’m getting the introspection part of just 6:00 in the morning, which I like a little. I like the sun – I like to welcome the sun. In the springtime, 6:00, 6:30 is about when to welcome it. I’m out there. It’s just beautiful. I might sometimes play music. It’s just me. You know what I’m saying? It’s just me.

[fade back to crowd noises]