The Real Reuben Keys

In the McCall-Malone Mystery series, Reuben Keys is a flamboyant black pimp who, even though he’s also a drug dealer, insists that his prostitutes not use drugs. The tough guy pimp with a good heart. Kind of a cliché, yes? Yes, but then again I knew the real Reuben Keys.

His last name wasn’t Keys, but it was a short name like that. He didn’t live in Portland, Oregon. I got to know him after I co-founded and became the educational director (i.e., principal) of a private school in Oakland, California.

Reuben was indeed a flamboyant black pimp. I vividly remember the real all-pink outfit that I describe in one of my books. Also like my character, he was a drug dealer as well as a pimp–though I don’t actually know what his attitude was about his prostitutes using drugs. I do know he said he would kill anyone in his neighborhood selling drugs to kids.

Reuben loved kids, which is why he became a very odd hanger-on around the school.

He didn’t start out that way. When the school was new and had few students (all high school level), one of the things we did for extra income was take government contracts. One of those contracts was to teach illiterate adults how to read. Reuben was a member of the class I taught.

I will never forget that first day. I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the classroom. What I got was about 18 black guys, all young, all (to my eye, that first moment) big and scary. But, no choice. Gotta do it. I passed out the books and started the class.

By the end of the morning, of course, they were all individual people rather than big scary black guys. With one exception: the one who called himself Reuben was still a big scary black guy. He was dressed all in purple that day, as I recall, and there was a sense in the room, not only from me but from all the other men, that this was someone you did not want to cross.

Their attitude toward me, on the other hand, was that I could be crossed any damned time they pleased. I imagined that in their eyes I was this young bespectacled Midwestern white boy who wouldn’t be able to find his ass with both hands out on the street. Which would have been exactly right.

These guys, after all, were just as much part of a government contract as I was. Few of them were thrilled to be stumbling over sentences the equivalent of “see Spot run.” Midway through the second class meeting, I was struggling to keep their attention, to pique their interest, to simply hold them in their seats. The noise level was rising and my spirits were sinking.

Until Reuben decided to be my enforcer. He wanted to learn to read, by God, and they weren’t going to stand in his way. Which meant they weren’t going to mess with me. From then on, I taught reading and he handled discipline. Somehow during the course of the year-long contract, Reuben and I became…something. Not quite friends because our worlds simply never touched, but there was a mutual willingness to put differences aside when we were together at the school.

And he hung around the school now and then after the reading class was over. It was almost like he wanted to be the regular kid, the good student, that he’d missed being and didn’t know how to be.

He even went along on a few field trips. He went with us to Big Sur, for instance, and I vividly remember standing with him as he looked out over the ocean for the first time in his life. Keep in mind, this was a man who’d lived within a few miles of San Francisco Bay for more than twenty years. Before our field trips, his neighborhood had been not only his territory but his entire world. Besides attending my class and then going on the trips, he’d never been further than twenty blocks from his home, as far as I could tell.

Then, after another six months or so, he stopped coming around. He had things to do, no doubt, that didn’t fit with a school full of well-to-do white kids. I often wondered what finally happened to him and, obviously, I still think of him now and then.

If he’s still out there somewhere, I imagine he would be pretty amused to learn he’s a continuing character in a series of detective novels. Maybe if the world is small enough he’ll recognize himself one of these days. He does know how to read

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