He pops up here and there, directing traffic at street corners, helping kids off school buses, sweeping up hair at barbershops. Wherever he is, so too is his bicycle and signature bright orange and yellow safety jacket, complete with silver reflective stripes.
Who is he? A crossing guard? City employee? No, a neighborhood volunteer. If you don’t know him, and you really should, just ask. Pretty much everybody knows him. “That’s Tata,” is the response with a knowing shrug.
Tata. He’s a man with a slight body and burly spirit who walks with a pronounced limp and an arm constantly contracted against his body. Tata can’t speak, his love evident through actions, not words.
He takes care of the neighborhood, and the neighborhood takes care of him.
Natalio “Tata” Fernandes was born 40 years ago in Cape Verde. “Eight days of pain,” his mother, Audilia Fernandes says. Four days of labor at home. Four at the hospital. He didn’t breathe for at least five minutes, resulting in neurological problems.
Every day at about 11 a.m., he pedals to Ashley’s, where he sits at the end of the breakfast counter. Chico, the owner’s son and one of the few people aside from family that can communicate with Tata, takes his order. As Tata waits for his French toast already cut into bite-sized bits, Chico’s brother removes Tata’s glasses, wipes away the smudges, and replaces them.
Many a night, Tata’s mother waits for her son on their second-floor porch. Hours passing between his morning departure and evening return.
She knows if it gets too late, someone will call and tell her where he is. “Everybody’s watching him,” she says.
Still, she waits.Akilah Johnson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.