Dreamer 'n the 'hood

From a tiny food counter in South Dallas, Delvin Gray struggles to change the world

Delvin looked at the plate of nachos and saw another $4.21 disappearing. He might as well have taken the money out of the register and burned it. Furious, he cursed the woman, but she didn't even hear him. She walked away, grumbling about food and shit and standards.

It isn't the first time someone has come to the window and cursed out Delvin Gray. Homeowners welcome him, but he doesn't expect--and rarely receives--gratitude. This community stuff is a lonely business. Some of the men and women from the projects prove more than a handful, but Gray doesn't take it personally.

"A lot of them don't have the social skills," he says. Gray has been threatened, shoved, and screamed at. He's had his share of fights in front of the kitchen. He keeps a gun on the premises.

His girlfriend, Carolyn Stafford, gets tired of it all. She was brought up in the country--East Texas--and she's often intimidated by the things she sees, and wonders when they can leave. It causes friction in their relationship, because she's chained to the store--and his beloved community. When Gray goes on errands or networks with other black groups, she stays and runs the place. Sometimes, he takes the baby. But he rarely takes her anywhere.

Yet he won't even discuss moving the business. If he loses it, he'll be out on the street. He stays, he says, because so many others have not.

"South Dallas suffers from the educated people leaving South Dallas and not putting anything back into it," he says. "For me to come over here and suck the economy dry and leave, that is the most nauseating thing."

Sometimes, though, Community Kitchen feels like a prison. He calls it Cell Block 5309 Bexar. He writes about it in his newsletter.

One day he wrote: "From my Cell Block 5309 Bexar, I can hear the voice of those on the other side of town saying, 'see, those people in South Dallas are all worthless and shiftless in their ways.'"

And are they?
"Go to Minyard's," he answers impatiently, "And count the number of kids who will run up to your car trying to wash your windshield. They'll work for a decent wage. They want the same things you do."

One day, he says, he got in his beat-up Plymouth and drove a group of inner-city children through the Park Cities. "Ooooh, these are nice homes," one little girl said. "These are real nice."

Gray says he stays in Cell Block 5309 Bexar and takes the abuse because he wants to teach that little girl she can live in one of those homes some day if she works real hard. She's smart and clever and inquisitive. She can live wherever she wants. And since professional black people are virtually invisible in the Ideal neighborhood, Gray stays to be an example.

"Teaching our youth how to serve others less fortunate than themselves is the central theme," he says. "We all need to learn to serve others."

Gray's journey to Bexar Street was long and convoluted. Born to a single mother, his childhood--as one among 16 children--was difficult. Gray's mother was uneducated and suffered from emotional problems. "I look back at it now and I realize she was paranoid-schizophrenic," he says.

Although she tried to keep her family together, Gray's mother was not always there for her children. His childhood is filled with of memories of constant moving--from Waco to New York to St. Louis. The cycle repeated too many times to count. Mostly, they moved during his mother's paranoiac fits, to elude her unnamed fears. He and his little sister Harriet spent many nights playing in parks, waiting for their mother to return from work as a maid.

Gray rarely went to school, mostly because he was too tired from the night before. His mother never forced him to go, too preoccupied with her own demons. There was no structure in his childhood, no rules, and no expectations.

Gray was a bright child nonetheless, his sister Harriet Latimer, now 34, recalls. He earned a reputation for being good with appliances. Neighbors would bring them over, give them to Delvin, and the boy would fix them even though he had no training in electronics. Yet he didn't have any concept of future, or goals, or anything. "I think if my mother had been able to encourage him, things might have turned out very different," Harriet says today.

But she wasn't. Gray recalls one vivid day in St. Louis--April 4, 1968. He was nine years old. Two men stopped their car in the middle of the street in front of the house Gray's mother rented, removed the tires from the car, positioned themselves in the street, and began spraying the area with gunfire.

"I was running around and my mother was calling me to come in," Gray says. When he asked her what was going on, she said simply: "That boy died. That King boy got killed." That was it. She had no concept of King's message of peaceful resistance, no knowledge of civil rights. Gray would be an adult before he understood the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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