Column: Early Morning Earthquake Brings Thoughts of an Old Friend By Susan Parker

Tuesday May 17, 2005

Did you feel the earthquake two weeks ago at 4 a.m.? At our house there was pandemonium. Andrea ran into my room and threatened to jump into bed with me. Willie woke up and asked what was going on. Downstairs, Ralph and Whiskers slept through it, but upstairs was ablaze with light and activity. It was like a hysterical pajama party.  

Shortly after the shaking stopped, something weird happened. The lights went dim and then came on again. I attributed this phenomenon to the earth’s movements, but Andrea had a different theory. “It’s that old man who used to live in Willie’s room,” she said. “He’s tryin’ to make contact.” 

“I don’t think so,” I answered, but her hypothesis gave me pause. 

Leroy Ligons was 82 years old when he passed away of lung cancer in our back bedroom in 2003. A retired bartender, avid card player and sports fan, he moved to the Bay Area from Omaha over 60 years ago. It was during World War II, but Leroy didn’t serve in the armed forces because he was the sole provider for his younger brothers and sisters. Back in Nebraska the government had trained him to be a machinist, but because the union didn’t allow African Americans within their ranks, Leroy was out of work. Then the government taught him welding skills and Leroy found a job in the Richmond shipyards. In 1958 he switched careers. He bartended in a series of low paying clubs patronized by African Americans. In the early seventies, Leroy and a handful of others sued the Local 52 Bartenders Union and broke the color barrier. He became a homeowner, a husband and a father.  

But that was a long time ago. When we met Leroy, introduced to us by our then live-in employee, Jerry, Leroy’s house was gone, his ex-wife deceased, and his children scattered and only marginally in touch. 

Leroy moved into our home temporarily. I drove him to the North Oakland Senior Center to get housing advice.  

Shirley Sexton, who is in charge of Information, Assistance, and Referral at the Senior Center, asked Leroy a series of questions.  

“What is your full name?” 

“Salathiel Lee Ligons,” answered Leroy. “Do you know what my name means?” 

“No,” said Shirley. 

“King of the Black Jews.” 

“Are you Jewish?”  

“No. I was raised Catholic. Now Jerry takes me to Downs Memorial church every week for a free lunch.” 

“Where were you born?” asked Shirley. 

“Portsmouth, Virginia. Moved to Philadelphia, and then to Omaha. Spent my childhood there. Colder than a you-know-what’s-what there, if you know what I mean.” 

“I know what you mean,” said Shirley. 

“Seventeen degrees below zero when I left in 1942,” added Leroy. “Haven’t bothered to go back since.” 

“I understand,” said Shirley. “Have you been employed, Leroy?” 

“All my life,” he answered. “I was a meat packer when I was a kid. Then a machinist, a welder and a bartender. Worked at the racetrack and Spengers for years. Retired in 1987. 

“What’s your income now?” asked Shirley. 

“One thousand a month. Sixteen dollars over the amount needed to qualify for MediCal.” 

Shirley shook her head. “Yes,” she sighed. “Do you take any medications?” 

“None,” answered Leroy. 

“Do you have any savings?” 

“Not a penny.”  

“Do you own any property?” 

“Not anymore. I’m a rolling stone.” 

“Yes,” said Shirley. “It appears you are.” 

“And I gather no moss.” 

“I hear you.” 

“And there’s somethin’ else you should know about me,” said Leroy. 

“What’s that?” 

Leroy looked around and then leaned forward in his chair, so that he was close to Shirley. “I don’t like bein’ around old people,” he whispered. 

“That could be a problem,” said Shirley. 

“I know,” answered Leroy. “But I’ve got to be able to run.” 


“Run free,” said Leroy. “You know what I’m sayin’?” 

“We all do,” said Shirley. 

“But I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.” 

“Yes,” agreed Shirley, “I’m afraid you are.” 

Soon after, Leroy qualified for MediCal, and took up residency at Harriet Tubman Terrace on Adeline Street. But when he was diagnosed with lung cancer and given only a few months to live, he returned to our house. And now Andrea thought he might be trying to communicate with us.  

“I hope you’re right,” I said. “I miss Leroy and I’d love to chat with him. He probably wants to talk politics. I know he can’t stand the fact that George is still in office.” 

“No,” said Andrea. “He’s tryin’ to tell us to go back to bed, and that’s exactly where I’m goin’.” 

The lights haven’t blinked since the earthquake, but I suspect that we’ll be hearing from Leroy again soon.e