We moved from Woolsey street to Bonar street in Berkeley, California in 1980, I was thirteen years old. It was a two story four-plex and we didn’t know anyone there before moving in. Come to find out though, my grade school chum Rebecca Ellis just happened to live directly behind us one block over and I could see her front door from my bedroom. I never did go over to visit. Our other neighbors in the building came and went through the years, but I will always remember one unique man who lived one house over. His name was Baby Lee Dawkins and he had an incredibly strong boxer dog named “Tiger” that he use to call “Tike”. They are both long dead now but for as much longer as I have to live, I will never forget them.
Mr. Dawkins was an eighty year old black man who was from his adopted city of Los Angeles. He was a former pimp (among other things, including a cop) and had moved to Berkeley for his final days. He had a huge family and I think I remember him saying once that he had moved to get away from his daughter. His dog Tiger was a boxer mix, tan in color with white socks and muzzle. This dog was incredibly strong, probably the strongest dog that I have ever met. Mr. Dawkins did not cut his claws either, so when the dog put it’s front paws on you it absolutely gouged you with those claws. The fact that the dog was so strong made it even worse. I forgave the dog every time though, simply because it was so friendly and usually peed itself when it saw you. Mr. Dawkins was black, tall, skinny and usually a little grungy with a raspy voice. Hey, the guy was eighty years old and still under his own power. Give him a break. He also had ill fitting dentures that made it hard for him to talk. He also used “Sea Bond” denture powder that didn’t work very well and caused his mouth to be covered with a perpetual film of mucous. When he talked to you he was always wiping it away. Most of the time it was hard to understand what he saying which would really make him mad, he would then proceed to ask you if you were deaf and berate you. If you dared to start laughing he would become even more furious, throw his hands up and walk away from you. Since I don’t like disrespecting old folks, I tried to keep the giggles to a minimum even when something he said was funny, which was very frequent. I would just nod my head and pretend I understood, I would only ask for clarification if he asked a question.
Originally, Mr. Dawkins was from New Orleans and had all the southern mannerisms one would expect. He usually called me “boy” even though my name at the time was “James” (I was using my middle name then). I had forgotten about that. Strange the phases teenagers go through. My first name is Eldon and my middle name is James. I had decided I didn’t like Eldon and made an informal change. Probably because I didn’t like myself very much at the time, it was a very awkward period for me. Anyway, Mr. Dawkins had a way of talking that I found to be imminently entertaining. If he was sitting on his well worn Lazy Boy recliner at the bottom of the stairs, he would be very animated and emphatic in his gestures. If he standing, he would stomp his foot when making a point, rest the back of his hand on his hip and shake off Tiger as the dog tried to pull him away by the pants leg out of jealousy. He would mostly ignore the dog, sometimes gently admonishing “Here Tike” while swatting halfheartedly. Once or twice I saw the dog almost pull him off his feet he was so strong. Mr. Dawkins would then turn and the dog would run back up the stairs to watch on the porch from a safe distance.
Sometimes Mr. Dawkins would be hanging out of his window looking out over the neighborhood. Every so often, I would be walking home and pass under his window to find the barrel of a flash suppressed shotgun sticking out of the window, Mr. Dawkins with a blank stare. I would say “hi” to him as usual, sometimes getting a look, sometimes getting a quick “hi” back and sometimes no acknowledgement at all. I never did find out whether the threat that Mr. Dawkins was guarding against was either real or imagined but the popular consensus among neighbors was that it was some long ago memory come back to life in his head. He demonstrated the shotgun’s shell ejection capacity to me once, causing Tiger to run and hide from the expected blast. It would seem that the dog had gotten some prior experience having it’s master let off a few. I however, never knew him to actually fire at anything nor anybody.
Mr. Dawkins would always end up telling me “What am I gonna do? It’s just me and the dog.” after explaining some fact about his long life. He said that he had witnessed many horrors in his time, including watching two men stand toe to toe and just hack each other to death with knives. He said that he used to ride Harley Davidsons and had pimped women at one time. He had a caretaker whom he was constantly trying to get to sleep with him and would complain to our mutual neighbor Dave, “She won’t f*ck it, she won’t suck it, what do I need her for? I can cook and clean for myself!” Yeah, that Mr. Dawkins was a real character alright. If he saw you leaving the house he would always accost you to get you to go to the store for him, “Doan’s! Doan’s pills! Ain’t you ever heard of Doan’s pills boy? They back pills for back pain. Are you deaf? Can’t you hear??”. I could actually hear very well, I would only act like I didn’t understand if I was too busy to go to the store. I knew that he would eventually get angry and give up. I didn’t do that very much though and usually made a trip just for him, even though I had no intention of going to the store when I had left. I can’t remember if he ever gave me anything for going, but I’m pretty sure he did. I am an admited softy and could easily be persuaded to help others, even in my teenage years.
Whenever Mr. Dawkins would have me come up to his apartment for some reason or the other, I was always struck by how dirty it was. I would feel both repulsed and sad that this man who came from such a big family would now live in such squalid conditions. The owner of the building, Mrs. Wade Jones, didn’t seem to care but I later found out after going to work for her husband that she really didn’t like it at all. She understood though that he was old and unable to do any better so she decided to just ignore it. I was always disgusted though, and wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. Tiger the dog was also very territorial and would growl menacingly whenever I was in the apartment. I didn’t like that much either. Normally a sweetheart of a dog, when it came to the castle he got kind of scary. Mr. Dawkins told me to retrieve something from his apartment one time with the dog in there and I can tell you, that dog was carefully examining everything I touched and everywhere I went, all the while growling. Never did that again.
The funniest memory I have of Mr. Dawkins was the time that I did come up to his apartment while both he and the dog were in there. Tiger got so excited that he began urinating right on the floor behind Mr. Dawkins. Here Mr. Dawkins is seriously yapping away about some thing or the other, hand on hip, and the dog is just spewing a deluge of pee all over the floor very loudly. Splatter, splatter, splash it went! I thought for sure that Mr. Dawkins could hear it but he couldn’t! I looked on in amazement as this fairly small dog was just releasing this unbelievable amount of urine onto the hardwood floor. I looked at the dog, looked back at Mr. Dawkins then looked back at the dog again. Nothing, no reaction from Mr. Dawkins. When I finally looked back at Mr. Dawkins just yapping away I couldn’t help myself, much like the dog, and starting laughing. The more I tried to stop, the harder I laughed and the more the dog peed. It was just so absurd! Mr. Dawkins then said “What’s the matter with you boy? You sick or somethin?” “What, am I talking funny? You laughing at me?” All I could do then was point and I pointed down at the dog behind him, BUT HE STILL DIDN’T TURN AROUND! This made it all the worse and I was now doubling over, the dog’s stream still as strong as when it began. “What’s the matter boy! You need a doctor or somethin?” “Boy, I declare I just don’t understand you.” Finally, finally he turns around and looks at where I am pointing. “Gotdamn!!” and he jumps like he has been shocked. “Tike, get in there!” Mr. Dawkins didn’t see the humor at all. He then turns to me with an embarrassed look on his face and says “I got to take care of this dog James.” As a teenager it was funny to me then, now I see it for the minor tragedy that it was. Mr. Dawkins later told me that it took him the rest of the day to clean up. The owner of the property and my former boss told me that after Mr. Dawkins died and they were cleaning the apartment, they had to reinstall all the hardwood floors due to all the urine damage.
Even though Mr. Dawkins could sometimes be a minor nuisance (he would talk your ear off with no respect of your time), I came to miss him after he was gone. I had already moved out of my mom’s and in with my future wife Beverly, who is now deceased also. He was one of those people that you meet that is so outside of your typical experience that they leave an indelible impression upon your memory. Mr. Dawkins was solely responsible for me becoming saved, notwithstanding Jesus Christ of course. He would talk to me about Hell periodically when I first moved there, just as you would talk to an adult. For all his seeming uselessness, he will forever be invaluable to me. Were it not for his scary talks about hell and my need to be saved, I would have never have taken myself down to the local church, all at thirteen years of age. He made it sound so urgent, as if I could die tomorrow and then end up going there (to Hell). It must have been God working through him because I had no prior exposure to religion or church until he scared the bejesus out of me. I knew there was a God but I didn’t know that I needed to be saved. To ask Jesus Christ to be my lord (meaning I live the life) and Savior (meaning I ask him to be). After about a week of his warnings, I got up one Sunday morning, put on my only suit, told my mom that I was going to church and walked three blocks down to “The Lilly Of The Valley” and attended service. After the service, the people there asked me where my parents were and I just told them that I was there by myself. They accepted me and “The Lilly” became my church home. I was eventually baptized there by Pastor Williams who is also now deceased. Yep, good Ole Mr. Dawkins started my Christian journey and I will forever be grateful to him for that.
His death was very sad. Tiger died first (of a heart attack), then Mr. Dawkins kind of went crazy and died about one week later. Me and my mom went to go see him at Herrick Hospital in Berkeley where he had been admitted for heart trouble. I suspect the dog ate the same soul food as he did and it got them both. They said at the hospital that Mr. Dawkins had smeared feces on the walls and that he had to go. He was in the process of packing up when we got there that evening. His mood was very somber and reminded me of someone in shock. He seemed lucid but anxious, as if lost but determined to remain in control. I hated to see him that way, I felt so sorry for him. I knew what Tiger had meant to him and our mutual neighbor Dave had always used to say that if the dog went first, Mr. Dawkins would soon follow. Truer words were never spoken. Dave had been to see him in the hospital too and told us that the prognosis was bad “Everything is gone, the heart, lungs, everything” as he waved up and down on his own body. Mr. Dawkins was still standing up though and moving around as always. You could see that he was lost though. Not but two days after we visited him in the hospital we got word that he had died. My wife was good about it and didn’t push me that day. She seemed to understand that a significant part of my life had just been lost forever. That was the last time I saw Mr. Dawkins and is the last memory I have of him. May he rest in peace.