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Thu, April 25

Column: Knock, knock: Please save me Mr. Ken

The 15-year-old neighbor boy knocked on my door one day. I was living in west Baltimore at the time, you know, the location of the first season of HBO’s "The Wire." Those housing projects were located about 2 miles from my home.

“Mr. Ken,” he began, “a guy could get into a lot of trouble on the streets.”

He looked at me, then looked down.

“A lot of trouble.”

I don’t know if Tavaughn knew it or not, but that was pretty much the perfect opening to a bleeding-heart liberal like me. Here was a young black man who was on a path that would likely end with him being in jail or dead by the time he turns 30, and he was on my doorstep asking for help.

He wanted a place to hang out, watch television, surf the Internet. Someplace safe away from that trouble on the streets. I think he also wanted someone, anyone, to care. He mostly watched professional wrestling and black family comedies. He liked playing a wrestling game on my Xbox.

Tavaughn didn’t meet his father until he was 16, and after a few hopeful months that they would develop a relationship, the father was once again out of the picture. His mother, who I did meet, had her hands full with two much younger children and a job.

I would learn a year after they moved off our block that she had quit paying rent on their place almost immediately after they moved in and they were eventually evicted. So there were other issues as well that I knew nothing about. What I did know then was she didn’t care about Tavaughn.

He wasn’t very bright. The one time he asked me for help with homework, that was obvious.

I had hopes of inspiring him to a different path, trying to change his future. I took him to movies and events. I introduced him to people who I hoped might inspire him. I made him ask his mother at first before I took him anywhere, but over the years that stopped when I realized he could go a week without seeing his mother and she probably wouldn’t notice.

When Barack Obama took the oath of office to become the first African American president in our nation’s history, I took Tavaughn to witness the inauguration. That had to inspire him, right?

There were many times when I feared what I tried to do for him didn’t matter. He lied easily; I rarely knew what was true. I suspected he dropped out of high school, but he knew enough not to let me confirm that. It seemed his only ambition was to become a con man, and there were many times when I felt he was playing me.

He stole from my change jar often. He would unlock my basement door, wait until I went to work, then let himself into my house to hang out for the day while I was at the office.

One day I checked his Internet history on my laptop’s browser. He was searching for a gun on Craigslist. I told him next time I saw him that he was no longer welcome in my home. There are no happy endings for young black men with guns in the inner city.

After a few months, he convinced me he wasn’t getting a gun and he was back watching my cable, eating my food.

One fall I went on my annual vacation. My roommate called, saying someone had broken into my home. They didn’t steal anything, they had just gone into my roommate’s bedroom and made a mess, tossing everything around.

I eventually suspected it was Tavaughn, who was probably trying to scare my roommate so he would move out. Then, I’d need a new roommate and Tavaughn would be available (he was 18 by then).

I finally grew tired of all the lies and the lack of ambition. For more than three years I had been trying to help this kid, and I wasn’t seeing a lot for my effort. I banned him from my home.

I came home from work one day and my front door was open. There was a note from the police, a neighbor saw someone breaking in. I checked, my Xbox was missing. The neighbor confirmed it was Tavaughn, who had apparently made a copy of my spare house key.

I believe now that Tavaughn had no intention of stealing from me that day, he just wanted a place to hang for a few hours. A neighbor saw him and called the police. He had to make a quick exit, and thought if he made it look like a break-in, suspicion wouldn’t fall on him since we hadn’t seen each other in months.

I called him that night, told him I knew it was him. His brother called me back and asked me not to file a police report. A day or two later, there was $200 in my mailbox. I didn’t file the report.

More than a year went by before I heard from Tavaughn again, though I did see him on the streets. He called me only months before I moved to Arizona.

“Mr. Ken, I just want you to know I’m doing good,” he said. “I’ve got a job, working as a janitor at the hospital. You don’t have to worry about me. And thank you.”

Was he lying to me once again in an effort to get back into my life? Or was he being genuine? I’ll probably never know.

Email Ken Sain at


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