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Joe was walking home one day when a man across the street yelled, “Hey, pal!” This was about two years ago.
Joe waved cautiously. The exuberance in the man’s voice seemed wildly out of place—an indicator of either insanity or impending assault. As the man crossed the street, Joe saw that he was built like a linebacker. Joe fumbled for the Mace in his pocket. The man stopped a few feet away and asked him if he wanted to buy a fireplace.
He repeated the question slowly, as if talking to a child. As Joe stood there in silent puzzlement, the man ran into the alley and came back carrying a huge plastic hearth.
“You wanna buy a fireplace?”
“Uh, I don’t think so,” said Joe. This was his first encounter with Spriggs.
The second time Joe saw Spriggs, it was a sweltering afternoon and Spriggs was walking down the street with a 6-foot-tall purple stuffed bear on his broad shoulders, the kind of thing you’d win at a carnival.
“What are you doing?” Joe asked.
“Same old thing,” said Spriggs wearily. “Just trying to sell this motherfuckin’ bear.”
Joe, 27, began to see the guy so often it became a running joke. Kyle, Joe’s best friend and roommate at their 3rd Street NW home in Shaw, used to sit on the back porch and work on his novels until dawn, and even then he’d see Spriggs traversing the alley en route to some errand.
One day, the boys mentioned that they needed some furniture for their still-unfurnished apartment. Spriggs, 42, said he’d come by that night. Not only did he show up with several pieces, but the prices were right, too. A sofa bed for $10, two recliners for five apiece. After he delivered the furniture—he was the only one strong enough to carry everything up the stairs—he gave the boys an impromptu lesson on pleasing a woman, using one of their new chairs as a prop.
Joe, who works part-time at a framing shop, reenacts the scene by standing next to the recliner and pummeling it with his crotch. He lifts one leg like a dog pissing and frantically pumps his hips. On the other side of the room, Kyle gets up—“No, it was more like this!”—and assumes the push-up position on the other chair, a look of pinched ecstasy on his face as he gouges the air with his pelvis.
“The whole time, he was narrating,” says Joe, still thrusting away at his chair. “ ‘Hit it from the back! Flip her over! Do her in the face while she yankin’ it! Turn her around! Put it in her butt! Now she put it in yo’ butt!’ It was great. I laughed so hard I almost puked.”
Those were the good times with Spriggs. “When that guy was in a good mood, he was the funniest guy on Earth,” Kyle says. “We loved that fucker.”
The boys aren’t into sports. They don’t go to bars. They don’t go to movies. They don’t watch television. They don’t read newspapers or magazines or listen to the radio. They aren’t into music. They haven’t got any friends.
When they get a phone call from home, they sit by as Mom or Dad leaves a beseeching message on the machine. Kyle, 27, leaves the house so rarely that he jokes that he’s forgotten how to get to the front door. On a typical day, Joe sits on the sofa reading the latest draft of Kyle’s book as Kyle sits by the unscreened window in a dishdasha, chain-smoking and watching passers-by. When Joe goes to take one of his frequent naps or have phone sex with his girlfriend (she lives in Baltimore), Kyle idly flips through a comic book or his shoplifted volumes of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.
Joe, Kyle, and Alex, Joe’s brother, moved into Shaw about three years ago. They grew up together in rural Kentucky, way out in nowhere country. The boys met in Sunday school and formed a lifelong friendship even though their parents were polar opposites. “Joe and Alex’s parents were educated and sophisticated. My dad was a preacher,” explains Kyle. “When he realized that there was no money in preaching, he became a used-car salesman. He failed at that. Now he sells pesticides out of a truck he drives around Indiana and Kentucky.”
After high school, all three continued pursuing enlightenment—Joe went to Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore; Kyle studied illustration at the Ringling School, in Florida, before dropping out and moving to Louisville, Ky.; and Alex went to the University of Chicago and studied English and philosophy.
After finishing their studies, they all decided to converge on D.C., for reasons that none of them can remember. They took the apartment in Shaw because of its central location, and because it was the only place they could find that didn’t require a ton of paperwork, co-signers, etc. It’s the three of them in a two-bedroom—Kyle sleeps on the sofa in the living room.
The cramped quarters can feel even smaller when Spriggs is added to the mix.
One day, Spriggs showed up with a garbage bag full of pornographic videos and magazines. The price? $5.
It felt like a bargain when the goods were changing hands, but then the boys realized that they came with a condition—Spriggs got to watch the stuff with them. Kyle recalls that nearly every day after they bought the porn, Spriggs would show up at their house.
“I need to watch some of that porn,” he would say with utmost seriousness.
Out of a feeling of obligation, they would let him in, and they would all sit on the furniture he sold them and uncomfortably watch the porn he sold them. The tapes were copies of copies of old, low-production-value stroke films.
“You could barely tell what was going on sometimes, it was so blurry,” said Kyle, a writer who has completed the first four installments of a 10-book series titled Demonworld. “And the women were hideous. They looked like my mom’s friends or something. Still, it was better than nothing.”
Spriggs and the boys would watch a couple of movies, cracking jokes and keeping up a running commentary, and then after a while, as if by some unspoken signal, the boys would all retire to separate rooms. Spriggs stayed in the living room, his eyes fixed on the television.
Shaw isn’t a bad neighborhood anymore. It’s in that in-between stage. People won’t fuck with you, but they will fuck around. Bottles are thrown but not really aimed, teenagers talk shit to pedestrians but don’t bother to follow through, and if you ride a bike, a car will sometimes swerve toward you and then away at the last second, the occupants laughing as if to say, What are you so mad about? We didn’t even touch you.
The tensions that sometimes do trouble this historic plot of stately town homes and apartment buildings break down along the predictable lines of class and race—lines that Spriggs steps over with indifference. When pressed to explain why a hard-boiled D.C. street tough would hang with a clique of rural white boys from Kentucky, he bristles at the mere suggestion that there is anything unusual about the situation.
“Look at bricks,” says Spriggs one autumn evening. “Bricks are made by mixing together straw and—and some other shit. Don’t tell me no human being discovered how to make bricks. No, God taught us how to make bricks. And God wants us all to get along. Love. Love! So if all these white people—I’m sorry, Caucasian people—want to move into the neighborhood, then no one can tell me I can’t chill with them.”
“Yes,” responds Kyle. “Absolutely.”
“But not the gays, though,” adds Spriggs, apropos of nothing. “God said no butt-butt. No peanut butter! No rectum!” He pauses and then turns to me. “Make sure you write that down.”
When Spriggs enters the room, people tend to grin a lot. This is partly because of his energy—and partly because your instinct for self-preservation demands that you establish in no uncertain terms that you are no threat to him. There’s a fine line, though; if you come off as too weak and deferential, he’ll mock you and bleed you as much as he can. On the other hand, if you come off too overtly tough, he’ll feel compelled to establish his alpha-dog status with a calculated barrage of bodybuilding poses, staredowns, and invasions of personal space.
On a warm October night, Spriggs makes a visit to the boys’ place. His fan base is on hand, as are the standard exhortations. “Give us some knowledge, Spriggs!” prods Kyle. Spriggs complies.
“It’s bigger than all of us. Who invented words? What…the…fuck? Words? A dead body? What’s deader than a dead body? Sometimes I’ll just get to thinking, and I’ll wonder—” Spriggs sits on the recliner and strikes the pose of Rodin’s The Thinker. “Is we aliens?”
Spriggs is now free-associating. “The elbow is the strongest bone in the body,” he continues. “You can hit a brick wall, and you ain’t gonna break anything. Maybe it just swells up a little bit, hurts a little bit.” He stomps around the room like a petulant child, pouting theatrically and demonstrating the effects of a theoretical “injured” elbow.
Then he whirls and drives the point of his elbow into my knee. (The next morning, I have trouble riding my bike to work.) “Pa-pow!” He dances away smiling, to indicate that this is all fun and games. He pivots and elbows the wall, leaving a dent. “Pa-pow!” Kyle and Alex laugh.
Spriggs returns to the center of the room and strikes a rigid, bug-eyed posture, glaring at everyone. He holds this pose for several seconds as Kyle and Alex titter. All of a sudden, Spriggs swoops down and asks me, “Are you a cop?”
Spriggs’ face is an inch from mine. This is his “mad dog” look, perfected by years on the street and on the inside. This look is why white people move to Virginia. It’s the look of someone who Does Not Give a Motherfuck and has Nothing to Lose, and in Spriggs’ case, its power is derived from the fact that you’re never sure if he’s acting or if he’s just lowered the mask for a second. Spriggs repeats his question, emphasizing each syllable.
“Are you a cop?”
The room falls silent. No one is sure what to do. Perhaps 10 seconds pass, and then Spriggs produces something he has been holding behind his back.
It’s a banana.
Spriggs stands up straight. “The Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but—” He levels the banana at my face, like a gun. “Pow!”
He staggers backward, acting out the violent recoil of his banana-pistol. His foot lands on a box of graham crackers.
“Oh, snap!” Spriggs exclaims, plucking out a package of biscuits and tearing it open. “These two go together like peanut butter and jelly! And I don’t even have to ask—this place is just like my second home.” He immediately starts taking alternating bites of graham cracker and banana.
“But it would be nice if you did ask,” says Kyle.
Spriggs pauses just long enough to laugh, sending a chunk of masticated banana flying out of his mouth and onto the floor, which makes him laugh even harder.
Back when Spriggs was a regular visitor, the boys estimated they were soon dropping 20 to 30 dollars a week on him, partly out of sympathy, partly because they liked it when he came around, and partly because he got them what they wanted.
Just don’t ask where he got the stuff. That was the unspoken rule regarding all purchases: no questions. Once, Joe was walking home from the Metro and saw a kid playing with a sparkly yellow toy truck. Later that night, there was a knock at the door. It was Spriggs.
“Thought you might want to buy this little thing I found,” he said, holding up the truck that had caught Joe’s eye. Joe felt a twinge of guilt but bought the truck for $5 anyway. Stolen or not, it was cool. It sits on his desk to this day.
Knowing the boys’ eccentric tastes, Spriggs often brought toys and curios. One day he came by with a stuffed-parrot hat, with felt tail feathers that fanned out in a threadbare, multihued mullet.
Joe said he’d buy the hat, but all he had were 20s. Spriggs suggested they go to the Giant on 7th Street to get change. As they left, Spriggs, on a whim, put the parrot hat on. Joe was aghast but secretly thrilled. “I figured he’d find out what it felt like,” he says. Which is to say, being white in Shaw is roughly analogous to walking around wearing a plush parrot hat.
Thing was, nothing happened. Even wearing the parrot hat, Spriggs still looked hard enough to silence any potential wiseacres.
“I couldn’t fucking believe it,” says Joe. “Even those kids at the projects over there [Kelsey Gardens] were completely silent. Inside the grocery store, all these women were laughing and saying, ‘Oh look at you, playing the fool!’ Spriggs just turned to them and goes, ‘Polly want a cracker! Squawk!’ And they ate it up. They loved him. You know what would happen if I wore that hat out of the house? I wouldn’t last 30 seconds.”
The boys were becoming a big source of “cheese” for Spriggs. Cheese, according to Spriggs, comes in denominations of “dubs” (20), “dirty thirty,” “nifty fifty,” and the mythical “meatball” (100). For whatever reason, Spriggs talked most often of getting “dubs.” Dub this, dub that, all the time. Cheese was Spriggs’ obsession. In idle moments, walking somewhere or just sitting on the sofa in the boys’ living room, Spriggs would often mutter “Gotta get that cheese, gotta get that cheese,” over and over and over again.
Kyle stays up all night writing and sleeps all day, and he says that many afternoons he would be startled by Spriggs’ voice: “Wake up, cheddar-man!”
One day, Spriggs summoned the boys downstairs. It was important, he said. When they opened the door, he laid a single object on the doorstep with a flourish, stepped back, crossed his arms, and nodded his head while smiling, as if to say, That’s right, I’ve done it again.
Joe picked up the object. It was an old floppy disk—the installation diskette for some generic printer. It was scuffed and dirty. Joe studied it for several seconds, turning it over in his hands.
“I don’t think we can use this,” he said finally.
Spriggs was incredulous. “Look at it, look at it,” he kept saying. “Just give me $10 for it. Come on, white people love computer shit.”
“He was right, though,” says Joe, breaking off from his reminiscence. “White people do love computer shit.”
“And we can’t run fast, jump high, or dance, either,” Kyle chimes in, straight-faced. He’s sitting on the floor nearby, playing PlayStation 2. “And we love mayonnaise. And ‘skinny-ass bitches.’ We love ‘skinny-ass bitches.’ Put that in your story.”
Early in the Spriggs era, when it was still all peaches and sunshine, Kyle had a steady girlfriend. They broke up about a year ago, after Kyle totaled her car. He was driving drunk and lost control of the wheel while making out with his then girlfriend’s best friend, who was sitting in the passenger seat, in an attempt to sell his girlfriend—who was sitting, uncooperative, in the back seat—on the idea of a threesome. He still misses her. “She let me put it in her butt,” he says by way of explanation.
Kyle’s girlfriend used to come around the apartment, sometimes with her girl clique. On these occasions, Spriggs would go into a frenzy of prurient scheming.
“He always wanted us all to take the girls in the laundry room and ‘put their heads in our laps,’ ” says Kyle. “Even if they were sitting right next to him, he’d openly talk about it. Sometimes, I’d be like, ‘Spriggs, they’re sitting right there. They can hear every word you’re saying.’ But he said that’s how it is ‘in the streets.’ You don’t talk to the ho—you go through the pimp. We’d tell him that these girls aren’t hoes and that we weren’t their pimps, and he’d just look at us and say, ‘You so green, pal.’ ”
Spriggs has had a lot of experience with such setups. “Way back in the day,” he’d say, “we used to fuck all the girls. Pass ’em around. My brother was the talker; he’d get the girls to come over. I’d put my grandma to bed early, give her a glass of water and a pisspot to piss in, and shut her in her room. ‘Now don’t come to the front of the house ’til morning, Grandma!’ Then we’d all get down to it. Take off our shoes so we wouldn’t make no noise. Some of us smoke some weed, some drink a little drink, some a little freebasing. And fuck all night!”
“That’s awesome, Spriggs,” says Kyle, shaking his head in disbelief.
The boys fed off of Spriggs’ yarns, his presence. When he didn’t come around, they missed him. They worried. They found out things about him—including the fact that Spriggs isn’t his real name, though they say they can’t disclose what his real name is.
“Rules of the street. Spriggs said you can’t tell anyone what your real name is,” says Joe. “He’s kind of like a black Rumpelstiltskin in that way.”
When the boys found out that Spriggs’ birthday was coming up, they decided to get a cake and throw him a little party. When they told Spriggs about their idea, he was taken aback.
“I have a better idea,” he said. “Why don’t you just give me the money for the cake?”
The boys laughed it off. That Spriggs, what a cutup! They got a cake from the grocery store and wrote happy birthday spriggs on it with yellow frosting. When Spriggs came over the night of his birthday, he was uncharacteristically quiet. While Joe was in the kitchen lighting the candles on the cake, Kyle asked Spriggs what was wrong—was he feeling a little depressed about getting older, or what?
“You should’ve just given me the money you spent on the cake!” Spriggs said angrily. Right then, Joe came around the corner holding the candlelit cake on a tray. Spriggs studied it with exasperation.
“At least put a dub on it, goddammit!” he yelled.
As in any relationship, familiarity breeds contempt. When Spriggs came to the door and the boys didn’t have any money to spare or weren’t in the mood to socialize, they just wouldn’t answer. They figured that even though he could hear and sometimes see them moving around upstairs, he would take the hint and go away. They were wrong. He would just keep knocking, alternating between the front and back doors, for as long as an hour.
“If someone did that to you or me,” says Kyle, “your pride would tell you to go away and leave them alone. They obviously don’t want to see you. But Spriggs doesn’t have the luxury of pride—he’s a hustler.”
Finally, one night, Joe went downstairs after a good 30 minutes of continuous knocking to lay it out for Spriggs.
“When someone is home but doesn’t answer their door, that probably means they’re busy doing something,” he told Spriggs.
“True dat,” Spriggs replied, unflustered. The next night he was at it again. Ten minutes at the front door, 10 minutes at the back door, on and on.
One day, Joe was supposed to meet Spriggs to go find a part for his truck. They met up in the alley, but Spriggs had forgotten something and went back to his place. He’d be back in a minute, he said. After almost half an hour, he still hadn’t returned. Just when Joe was about to go home, a white guy in office clothes comes walking down the alley.
“Obviously an undercover cop,” says Joe. The guy walked over to Joe and asked him if he was waiting for Spriggs.
“I was too scared to lie,” says Joe. “I thought they were going to arrest me. Guilt by association. I just said yes.”
“He won’t be coming back,” said the cop before walking away.
Spriggs’ scrape with the law involved a strange narrative. The way Spriggs tells it, he was at dinner when someone began seriously shooting off his mouth. At that point, Spriggs says, he hadn’t slept for several days. He says he was holding a plate when suddenly he blacked out. When he came to, the loudmouth was on the ground, his face smashed in and cut up by a broken dinner plate, and Spriggs was being held down by several people. When Spriggs got back to the neighborhood, he told the boys that he had to go back inside. Six months in a residential drug-treatment facility. (Spriggs openly admitted to a past fondness for the “love boat,” i.e. PCP.)
Kyle says the boys were devastated when they heard that Spriggs had to go away. They offered to do anything they could to help him. They were convinced that there had been a miscarriage of justice. Maybe it was the stress of his impending absence, or maybe he just needed to sock away money to buy cigarettes at the canteen, but for whatever reason, Spriggs kicked his hustle into overdrive. He also became markedly irritable.
“Spriggs started treating us like we were fucking idiots,” says Joe. “He was always telling us how green we were, how we didn’t know shit.”
Spriggs derided them as weak, even as he exploited that weakness on a daily basis. He accused them of being gay, even after he met their girlfriends. (“Three dudes living together? Come on now!”) When they didn’t give him money, he called them cheapskates. When they did give him money, it wasn’t enough. Even when he had nothing to sell, he refused to leave without money. Five dollars here, 10 dollars there. It added up. When the boys expressed reluctance, Spriggs made references to his being “family,” and when that didn’t work, he often resorted to throwing tantrums. This behavior might have been amusing had the tantrum-thrower not been a volatile, bull-necked ex-con.
Kyle had been in a similar situation when he lived in Louisville. There was a neighborhood hustler named Tex who would come around asking for money in much the same manner. He was short, malnourished, and weak, and when Kyle got sick of him, he told him in no uncertain terms to get the fuck lost.
“So he disappears for a while,” says Kyle. “Then one night he comes back. He needs money bad, anything. He’s crying, but I’m stonewalling him. Finally, he’s like, ‘Kyle, I seen your pretty eyes; I know you’re gay. Let me make love to you for 20 bucks.’ So right there I decided I had to deal with him. I said I’d give him 20 dollars if he let me punch him in the stomach as hard as I could. He didn’t like the idea, but he was like, ‘OK, I know you’ll take it easy on me.’ Little did he know. I was lifting weights back then, and I was secretly ripped. We went in the backyard, and everyone in the house came out to watch. I drew back and got him right in the gut. I actually felt his intestines collapsing around my fist. He screamed like a girl and fell down, holding his gut. I threw the 20 on him as he laid there and went inside. A few hours later, a neighbor knocked on my door. He was like, ‘What’s wrong with your friend? He’s out there moaning and puking blood.’ I went out and looked, but he was gone. I never saw him again. I guess he learned his lesson. Or maybe he died.”
This was emphatically not an option with Spriggs. Joe and Kyle would lift weights in the apartment, Danzig blasting, and Spriggs often came up to show them weightlifting tips he learned in prison.
“He was incredibly strong,” says Kyle of their workouts. “We’d seen him lift sofas by himself, but we had no idea. You should have seen how much he could lift, without even trying. And then he took his shirt off….” He trails off. “This fucker was hulked out like Mike Tyson. Things were cool back then, but when Spriggs got his cheese goggles on he could be pretty hard to handle. After I saw him with his shirt off, I knew that if he ever set his mind on taking something from us, there was nothing we could do to stop him.”
One night, Spriggs showed up at 2 or 3 in the morning. Kyle was the only one awake, and when he answered the door, Spriggs said he was there “to get the $10 that Joe promised him.” Kyle knew of no such arrangement, and besides, Joe was fast asleep and had to go to work in the morning. He told Spriggs to come back the next day, but Spriggs insisted that he needed the money right then. Kyle tried to hold his ground, but when he saw that Spriggs was actually angry, he yielded.
“Thing was,” says Kyle. “Spriggs could be insistent, but he always did it in a very cajoling, nonthreatening manner. Like, ‘Aw, come on, guys.’ That was the first time I ever felt like he was trying to directly intimidate me. When I saw that he was actually pissed, I got out of his way.”
Spriggs woke Joe up. Joe has only hazy memories of the night, but Alex and Kyle remember it well. Joe said he never promised to give Spriggs $10. Spriggs insisted that he did. Joe then said he didn’t have any money anyway. Spriggs didn’t believe him. He then went on a rampage through the house, going through drawers and cupboards, overturning boxes. By chance, he came across Joe’s wallet. When he looked inside, there was no cash. He came back to the hallway, where Joe, Kyle, and Alex were standing, too shocked to do anything.
“I’m 42, and I’ve spent half my life behind bars, and I don’t wanna go back.” Spriggs screamed. “But any time I want to, I can put a ladder to your window and clean your place out.”
Spriggs stood there expectantly. Even if they had wanted to give him money, the boys really were broke. But they knew he wouldn’t have believed them. They all stood there in silence. Spriggs looked from Alex to Joe to Kyle, his eyes bugged out with intensity. “I was so scared, I almost went pee-pee in my panties,” says Kyle. After a tense staredown, Spriggs turned on his heel and left.
The boys were now freaked all the way out. They could not believe that their friend—a member of their family—had turned on them. Joe and Kyle discussed buying guns, but then they realized that the only person they knew who could procure one was Spriggs. They recalled an incident months earlier when Joe had asked Spriggs to get them an AK-47. Why? Just because. Despite the fact that Joe was offering serious money for it—hundreds of dollars—Spriggs refused.
“Your mind is your weapon,” Spriggs had said. “What do you need a gun for?”
Had he refused to get them a gun so they’d remain his proverbial bitches? Serious paranoia. They stayed away from the windows. Spriggs came by and pounded on the door so hard that the windows rattled in their frames. They all huddled silently in the living room, holding the only weapon in the house—a katana sword Kyle had gotten from a pawn shop—and praying the door would hold. Joe and Alex scoured the apartment listings, going so far as to look at a place in Columbia Heights, but there were so many hurdles for renters, and they were broke anyway. Maybe they should just get out of town, go back to the farm, back to Kentucky?
Just when they were at wits’ end, they realized Spriggs hadn’t been around for several days. And then, through the neighborhood grapevine, they heard: Spriggs was gone.
Months later, Kyle was in the kitchen and heard a commotion in the alley. He looked out the window, and there was Spriggs, beaming, surrounded by a crowd of well-wishers.
“You ever see those pictures of Jesus surrounded by all the kids, when his flock comes unto him?” Kyle asks. “It was just like that.”
The boys braced for the worst. They’d just relaxed into a Spriggs-free life, and now it was about to start all over again. But Spriggs wasn’t the neighborhood fixture he’d been before. Rumor had it that he lived out in Maryland and that he had a whole new set of hustles. He seemed to be avoiding them as much they were avoiding him—maybe because he felt bad, or maybe because he figured that well had run dry. Then one day, there was a knock at the door—a pounding.
Joe was the one who answered. “It was pouring rain out,” he recalls. “And there was Spriggs. He was soaked. I mean, completely soaked, with water running off him in streams. In this really sad, pathetic voice, he was like, ‘I thought maybe you could help me out, pal.’ I was like, ‘Nah, sorry.’ ”
Before Spriggs could protest, Joe closed the door.
The boys aren’t looking to move out of the neighborhood any longer, but they are changed. They never leave the house without their extendable metal batons, triple-action Mace, and, in Kyle’s case, a serrated Navy SEAL knife. They don’t walk anywhere, no matter how short the distance—they always bike it.
“We still like Spriggs,” says Joe. “We just like him from afar. It’s like, now I know the meaning of the phrase, ‘Good neighbors keep good fences.’ In our case, 10-foot-tall, barbed-wire fences.”
But they do have a new mentor in the neighborhood. “He’s the real deal,” says Kyle. “He’s schooling us in the ways of the street. He says Spriggs was disrespecting us. He has his own things going on, plenty of action. He doesn’t ask us for nothing. Not like Spriggs.” He pauses. “Well, once he asked to use our credit card—did you know there’s a conspiracy by the banking industry to deny black people credit cards? But other than that, he never asks us for nothing.”