Yale University dining hall worker Don Greenlee grabs my pen and starts drawing. He’s sketched three characters in less than two minutes. There’s a ’70s Jackson 5 character playing a guitar in bell bottoms and platform shoes, an “Ol’ Skool” guy from the ’80s in hip-hop regalia and a guy from the ’90s dressed in an outfit focused on the perfection of his shirt collar. Since he was three years old, Don has filled random bits of paper with thousands of sketches like these. Now, at 38, he feels like a self-proclaimed “slacker,” as if he really needs to make something of his talent. Working at Yale “is a decent job, but it’s not my life,” he says. When he goes home after swiping Yale students’ dining hall cards and moving boxes from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., that’s when life begins. He is creating a cartoon based on days spent on 174th Street and Morris Avenue in the Bronx. The cartoon is about the people he hung out with; many are now either “locked down or in the ground.” I ask him, then, if his cartoon is going to be sad. No, he says, it’s going to be “hilarious.”
When Don walks into the Calhoun College dining hall, people smile and wave. They shout out to him and he greets them back, walking from one end of the room to the other.
Don hopes his cartoon will break down racial stereotypes. He’s “tired of turning on the TV and never seeing any black cartoons.” And he’s “tired of all the negative images of black people” the media portrays. It’s going to be about his friends’ everyday lives, stories they would tell each other when toward the end of the day they would meet up on the block and recap, “like a family at a dinner table.” Each episode features an incident in a character’s life; there will be one about this friend who was really into bodybuilding and became a stripper to pay off his student loans.
“This can’t fail,” Don says. “My plan A is my plan B,” he says. After just one meeting, I have faith in Don’s success. He’s seen things he doesn’t want to talk about; he’s lived through both his older brothers dying in the same year. Though these life experiences may be far removed from many people’s, Don’s history of being a charmer, “a real cool cat,” indicates that he knows how to engage people. He knows how to tell a story. And he has the drawing part down. “I can draw with my eyes closed,” he says, “To me, it’s just like breathing.”