People Are Awesome: Why Joseph Charles Spent 30 Years Waving to Passersby
Every morning on the way to elementary school we'd pass our favorite neighbor: the Waving Man. Outfitted in yellow gloves, a t-shirt, and khakis, the Waving Man held court on his porch daily. Located on busy Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd, where Oakland, CA meets Berkeley, Joseph Charles—his real name—had a simple, yet ambitious mission: to say good morning to every passing car on their commute to work, school, or otherwise. He'd greet us with his glorious, gloved, wave, as we traveled to our destinations, still wiping sleep from our eyes.
Most mornings my brother and I were pressed against the windows of my mom's Volvo, ready to greet our wonderful neighbor with our own waves for the split second we'd speed past. If we were lucky, we'd get stuck in traffic, allowing us to inch by the Waving Man and get in a good, long wave, and potentially even make eye contact with this magical man. We'd furiously roll down our windows, stick our hands out, and return his greetings of "Keep smiling!" or "Have a GOOD day!" We hope this made him as happy as he made us.
The Waving Man was like a neighborhood conductor, orchestrating our morning emotions, keeping them high. He was a beacon of light in an area that was at times rife with class disparity, tension and crime, coming off of the idealism of the 1970s and settling into the 1980s. Charles himself came to the area from Louisiana during World War II, to work in the shipyards, and also won acclaim as a talented first baseman for the Lake Charles Black Yankees, part of the negro leagues. We never knew why he dedicated the rest of his days—his life really—waving to his anonymous neighbors. But we loved that he did. He embodied the spirit of unconditional giving, introducing me to what a random act of kindness was, before I knew the world was in desperate need of them.
I always thought that the Waving Man was me and my family's special secret, but it turns out he touched the entire community. His gloves are now kept at the Berkeley History Center and every year from 7:30-9:00 a.m. on March 22—what would be his birthday—the entire area stands in front of his old house to celebrate his 30 years of service, despite it being 11 years since his death. People don yellow gloves and the same sunny disposition Charles had, and wave at passing cars.
Denisha DeLane, an NAACP youth council advisor told The Berkeley Daily Planet, on what would be his 100th birthday:
I keep asking myself, how can we keep his memory alive. I want to see people remembering him even after 50 years. He helped to build a healthy community, to make the day better for everyone, especially for southwest Berkeley. We need children to know who their neighbors are. We should be able to look out for each other.
What the Waving Man taught me, and countless others, is that we don't have to wait for an anniversary, or special reason to spread joy and extend a yellow-gloved, neighborly hand. We can do it each morning for no other reason but to wish someone a good day.
Hang out with your neighbors on the last Saturday of April (a day we're calling "Neighborday"). Click here to say you'll Do It, and here to download GOOD's Neighborday Toolkit and a bunch of other fun stuff.