Russell L. Goings speaks in the rhythms of a poet, and the men he addresses, prisoners in an outpost of the county prison system at 17th and Cambria, nod in response to his calls.
In grade school, he tells them, he was poor and black, with dyslexia and a stutter.
"They sat me on a stool and put a dunce cap on my head. The teacher said I was slow, and the kids called me Little Black Sambo."
He flunks kindergarten, and in sixth grade still can't read.
But one day he will graduate at the top of his class. The Air Force will send him to Japan to train pilots in escape and evasion. He'll be a stockbroker with a client list that features Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Sarah Vaughan.
In time, he will lead one of the first African American brokerage firms to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange; he will be a trustee of the Studio Museum of Harlem. He will help start Essence magazine, and at 76, he will write not the Great American Novel, but the Great African American griot.
Goings' 250-page epic poem, The Children of Children Keep Coming (Pocket Books, 2009), is the true story of a miraculous struggle - the tale of a people kidnapped and stripped, even of their language, who break free from bondage and reclaim their dignity.
Told in words that snap and coil, in phrases familiar from the Bible and the Odyssey, the poem links Harriet Tubman to Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and brings Ethos and Pathos to life, pitted against Cain and Bull Connor.
To the prisoners Goings addresses on this day, the story is both familiar and vague. They know and they don't.
But mostly, they can't figure out how such a dumb black kid will end up anything but incarcerated.
For two hours the man with the worn chocolate skin and the rumpled sportcoat speaks to them, the pace of his words as intoxicating as his unexpected message:
"You don't need money to make money," he says. "The concept of giving back is wrong," and "Don't carry your color. If it's a detriment, let somebody else carry it."
They've never heard his name before, but they know he has something they want.
"I was born at the height of the Depression," Goings begins. He grows up in Stamford, Conn., but his people are from the Carolinas.
His father, an often-unemployed heavy-equipment operator, and his mother, who tends other people's houses, come north in the Great Migration.
Russell will be the first of their six children and one of a handful of blacks in his elementary school.
"Here's the toxic brew," he tells his audience of inmates. "I'm black, I stutter, and I'm dyslexic."
The prisoners know that kind of background either makes for fertile ground or quicksand.
In sixth grade, Goings tells them, he is on the verge of being sent to a reform school when a school psychologist steps in.
"He inspired me to read."
After school hours, Goings shines shoes in town.
One day he is kneeling with his shoe-shine kit at the feet of a man in an office. The phone rings, and the man whispers into it. The man writes something down on a piece of paper and takes it to a window, then he returns to let Goings finish the shine. The man pays Goings 50 cents for the five-cent shine. He shows Goings the slip of paper and tells him what it is worth.
"He made $400 in the time it took me to shine his shoes. So I ask what kind of work he does. He made that slip of paper valuable, and I want to know how to create value like that."
"I'm a broker," he says.
Goings doesn't know what that means, but he knows that's what he'll do for a living. He doesn't know there is a Wall Street Hall of Fame, but one day he will be in it.
He graduates high school with honors and goes to Princeton University for an admissions interview. Lacking etiquette, Goings eats the casing on the smoked Gouda and drinks from the finger bowl.
Shame drives him away and into the Air Force. He excels academically there, too, and is dispatched to an elite training school in Japan.
Next, Goings gets an athletic scholarship to Xavier University in Cincinnati. He finishes a four-year undergraduate degree in economics and finance in two years and completes all but six credit hours toward a graduate degree.
Meanwhile, he marries early and adopts two children. (Russell III is an investment banker, Rodessa a nurse.)
Next stop: Wall Street. The first month he earns $37.50, but ends the year topping $100,000.
"You want to know how I did it?" he says, rising from his seat, "Think about it. What black Americans earn a lot of money? Athletes and entertainers. And nobody was going after them. I got to know everybody in the NBA Players Association."
"I learned how to whisper into the phone," he says, and the men nod knowingly.
When he is weary, Goings says, he leaves Wall Street.
Poetry was always in him, and now he develops a friendship with collage artist Romare Bearden. Their bond will extend to Bearden's death in 1988, and the artist's images will illustrate Goings' book.
"There is a great inferiority that exists in me," Goings says, "But Romare's friendship set my spirit free. He freed me to be an artist."
Oct. 16, 1995: Goings attends the Million Man March.
He is warmed by the camaraderie but chilled by questions about the reasons for the march. Why don't more participants know their backstory - and why isn't that backstory ingrained in the nation's academic canon?
For 13 years, Goings commutes to Fairfield University in Connecticut, where he studies with poet Kim Bridgford and others. All the while he writes, with Bridgford as his editor. Finally, she tells him "put the pen down."
In West African culture, a griot is both thing and person, story and storyteller. Before history was written, it was remembered in verse and in music. So it is with Goings' griot.
"It sings the story of who we are," Goings tells the men, his voice booming now. "It is the collective music that is below the level of consciousness and at the bottom of the sea.
"My ancestors drowned in that sea in the Middle Passage. They are down there still, and they are not quiet." His voice pounds thunder into them, and the audience erupts in applause. "How dare we not pay homage to my ancestors!"
They are on their feet now, clamoring their understanding and their gratitude. He calls for questions, and a hundred hands rise.
One man says he wants to be a tailor. He has the training but not a certificate, so companies won't hire him.
"What would happen if you dressed up the people you know? Put your minister in a suit you made, and let people ask about it."
Another asks about giving back to the community.
"I think the concept of giving back is wrong," he says. "All you have in life is this moment, so I try to enrich the moment. It's likely somebody in this room will be enriched."