Stung by the insult, I told him he needed to move out. I didn’t understand why he’d want to stay, I said hotly, “when this whole arrangement is obviously broken.” But he didn’t react, and in the end, I backed down. Maybe he was right. Perhaps I had been selfish and insensitive. Over my objections, he installed a lock on the bedroom door and left his radio playing WNYC around the clock to discourage intruders. I complained to friends. “He sounds crazy,” they said. When I griped to Don about the lock, he made me out to be the lunatic. “You said it wasn’t a good idea,” he argued. “You didn’t say to take it off.” Once again, I gave up. I needed the money.
In June 2004, Don was missing again, and he had been gone for weeks. E-mails I sent him began to bounce back, and his cell phone was not taking calls. June 21, rent day, came and went. I let two more weeks pass before changing the locks. I then broke into my own bedroom, turned off the radio, and, for the second time, angrily set about packing up the possessions he had left behind.
In his bed, I discovered a laptop and a bulging manila folder that seemed innocuous enough, though I couldn’t help but look inside. There, to my total shock, were scraps of torn-up preapproved credit-card offers I’d received in the mail and tossed in the trash. That wasn’t all. On a sheet of notebook paper, he’d scribbled the names, addresses, and phone numbers of my family members; my mother’s maiden name; the date my parents had married; and the name and address of a contractor I was working for, apparently copied from a pay stub. He even had the name and number of a woman I’d met at a party. Equally alarming were notes on my credit-card information, along with my sign-in names and passwords to various Websites.
In an instant, I felt like an idiot, a sucker, the Jersey boy I am. Why had I trusted this stranger? I burned with shame and anger as I pictured him listening for me to leave for work in the morning so he could methodically search my trash and boot up my computer. A ghostwriter? What a moron I’d been. I’d never seen him write a word. But who was he? I searched everything in the room. A letter from JetBlue addressed to a Brandall Platt confirmed a flight to Oakland, California, in November 2003, the time of one of his previous absences. There were photocopies of Social Security cards and California driver’s licenses of a Charles Brown and an Andre Holmes and others. From the photocopies, I couldn’t tell whether the pictures were of my roommate. I found nothing bearing the name “Don” had given me: John Williams.
His bike was gone, but a bunch of withered bananas suggested his absence was unplanned. Had Don been in an accident? A detective from the local precinct suggested I contact local hospitals. When that didn’t work, he said he’d start checking jails. I called my banks and credit-card companies. Thank God there were no unauthorized charges and no new cards in my name.
I searched the closet, where I spotted a classic composition book that looked like a diary. Seething over how he’d invaded my privacy, I tore it open, looking for revelations amid his cramped scribblings, rife with misspellings and sentence fragments. On one page, Don had mapped out a movie of his life story: “He learned to drive at eight, he could do anything with his hands, and throughout his life, he could become invisible . . . ” “Met with Spike Lee today,” read one entry. “He’s really interested in the story, and wants me to send him the articles.” His journal said he once met Danny Glover by chance in the street and tried to sell him his story as well. He had even cast the big-screen version of his life: He was to be portrayed by Denzel Washington. Laurence Fishburne would appear as his brother. Angela Bassett would take on the role of his wife, and, of course, Halle Berry (“the sexiest woman in the world”) would be his girlfriend.
The diary also contained transcriptions of text-message exchanges with real girlfriends—“u have hurt me 2 many times,” one wrote—and vague laments over his kids: “I don’t even know who I am anymore . . . all I know is I’m the father of three beautiful, innocent children. . . . My babies, my babies . . . your dada cries every day.” Apparently, he also had reason to fear the police: “I’m only now just starting to get over being afraid every time someone looks at me twice in the street . . . every time a cop looks at me . . . thinking they know.” Know what?