Lennis L. McDuffie smokes a square on the steps of an apartment building at the corner of 14th and Burleigh. The 63-year old stands out in his oversized coat, faux fur-lined hood and flat-brimmed hat. But, despite his city-like sense of style, McDuffie’s heart is in the Arkansas woods where he spent his early years.
“I went down there every summer,” says McDuffie of his grandmother’s place, about 50 miles outside El Dorado, a city of almost 19,000, where he was born. “They would have to pry me outta there.”
That’s exactly what happened, though. In 1957, his mother brought them to Milwaukee in search of “a better living” — there wasn’t much he could do about it.
“I wanted to stay in Arkansas but, you know, when you’re five years old you can’t do what you want to — you gotta go where the gettin’ is good,” says McDuffie.
They stayed with his uncle until McDuffie’s mother got their own place on Center Street near the I-43 bridge.
He attended Riverside University High School and, after that, did janitorial work for the Milwaukee School Board for almost two decades. “You meet interesting people, kids and adults — it was nice.”
But after 18 years, McDuffie quit. “I got into drugs,” he says. “I was too far in it.”
“[I was] tryin’ to be accepted by a group of people, that’s all,” says McDuffie. “And, then, once I got started, it’s hard to quit.”
Eventually, though, he was able to pry himself away. “I’m drug-free now.”
“If I knew then what I know now, I never would’ve got started,” McDuffie says. “People come and go, you know, especially when you find out that they ain’t your friends.”
He has five children and has been married more than 40 years.
McDuffie, who is retired and says he travels a lot now, seems to be searching, once again, for the woods of his childhood. He doesn’t have extravagant hopes, just to “live comfortable … praisin’ God and waitin’ for what else is to come.”
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