Thursday, December 7, 2017

Quickies: Lil Money

In my old neighborhood there was this small boy, maybe around 8 or 9, who everyone-- and by everyone I actually mean all us other kids-- used to call “Lil Money”. He earned this moniker from always having more cash on him than most normal boys and girls his age. We would watch enviously as he came strolling into the nearby liquor stores or markets where he would buy anything he wanted. Or would have a blast playing the arcade games for hours. You could not get much cooler than Lil Money. He was out as late as he wanted, came and went when he liked, and always had cash on him to do whatever he wanted. Even when it was time for the rest of us to go home at night he would just shrug and wander off to seek some other adventure to get into.

We rarely understand the full context of situations and actions in this world as children. The nuances and complexities elude us. On the surface Lil Money appeared to have everything we thought we desired as kids; money and the freedom to do or eat anything we wanted.

I only accidentally stumbled onto this truth after overhearing two of the neighborhood mothers partially discussing him while walked by across the street. One sadly mentioned there being something “not right” about his mom and the dad not being around to help. The other talked about the mom giving him $100 a month and no supervision being dangerous. Both agreed something had to be done soon.

There it was. That truth shattered my perceptions of Lil Money, instantly rearranged the fragments, then put them back together after changing it from a colorful fantasy to a dreary documentary. He was basically a kid being forced to take care of himself. He came and went as he pleased because there was no one to enforce a curfew. He did whatever he wanted because there was no one to offer guidance and rules. All those times we watched jealously as Lil Money bought candy, ice cream, chips, soda, and other snack foods in large amounts to eat was him having his breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Neglect can eerily mimic freedom.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Quickies: Of Frogs and Ghosts

I spent a large portion of my early life in Oakland. 79Th & Hillside in East Oakland to be exact. Just a few blocks away from my neighborhood stood a large Catholic church/school surrounded by a high chain-link fence. For years there were these big red, plastic letters, top center of that fence spelling out, “We Love Ray” serving as a sort of makeshift memorial for a faculty member who passed away.

Behind that church was a creek a lot of us kids loved visiting. There was nothing special about it. Oakland has numerous creeks located all over. But this particular one really felt like ours. When the waters were low, some friends and I, would go down to catch frogs or search for ghosts near the darker tunnels. Now, one may imagine that searching for small amphibians is a totally different ballpark than searching for verified proof of life after death through finding lingering souls-- an odd combination but we made it work.

Unfortunately, some waterways and creeks were cleaner than others so we knew to avoid the more questionable ones. However, water systems are connected so we still occasionally came across one unpleasant surprise or another during our searches. The infrequent used syringe or pipe was never very shocking. We sometimes spotted such things abandoned near dumpsters or parking lots. Now, the more memorable discoveries were a few knives, the mostly rusted-out remains of a handgun, a wallet with a lot of money in it but no I.D, and even a couple of ounces of crack-cocaine wrapped tightly in plastic baggies. Besides for the money, none of the rest were frogs or ghosts so we threw them back.

Sometimes people heedlessly discarded bigger things into the creeks like refrigerators or ice boxes. There were a lot of dark warnings, rumors, and hearsay about why these particular old appliances were dumped in isolated places. Adults frequently warned us to stay away from things like that. The first and most rational as to why is it would be easy for one kid or another to entertain brilliant idea of climbing inside, becoming trapped, and tragically suffocating to death. The second and far more ominous warnings was that opening the doors on these old appliances may reveal a lot worse than rotting groceries within.

As a kid I never witnessed such a horrible thing personally but some adults told stories about police receiving calls concerning 'strange smells' emitting from one abandoned fridge left in those lonely places. Perhaps, it was a precautionary tale meant to scare us away from possible dangers. It would not be the first time elders stretched the truth in a sincere effort to express how potentially scary and dangerous the world is. Then again, there was an incident when one of the older teens in our neighborhood made a gruesome discovery while cutting across a creek to reach school. He found a dead prostitute tossed into the waters below with a bottle cruelly forced between her open legs.

My friends and I stopped searching for ghosts for a while after that. We were genuinely afraid and sadden we might find her angry ghost near one of those dark tunnels if we kept searching.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

By Any Other Name

Mr. Namahage's, an African-American man standing at 6'7, possessed a no-nonsense demeanor but also was known for being tough but fair. He was the sort of P.E teacher that was genuinely encouraging and would frequently run laps with his students while making certain everyone kept pace.

He and I were not each other biggest fan. It was not so much outright hostility or genuine disdain as opposed to we each possessed traits and opinions that occasionally vexed the other. Admittedly, our biggest point of conflict was my obscene lack of effort or interest. But to be fair his genuine concern for my well-being and beliefs that I could do better were equally abrasive-- so it takes two to tango.

On the day in question, it was an overcast morning and I was early for once. Of course, that gesture was made moot by the fact that I had not changed into my P.E clothes. Instead, I took a seat on the bleachers where eventually my friends Dolos and Akhelios came to briefly join me after being among the first students finishing their 4 laps around the track.

“Walter,” Mr. Namahage began irritability upon finally taking notice of me. “Why aren't you dressed for P.E?”

“Because I sort of hate this class,” I responded flatly.

“Yeah. I noted that.” He frowned.

“Look, it's not you. It has nothing to do with you,” I continued. “I just really hate P.E.”

“You hate having to be physically active?” Mr. Namahage asked with some curious disbelief.

“No, No,” I began with more frustration. “What I hate is waking up, taking a shower, getting dressed, rushing here to school, then coming to this class, getting undressed, putting on the P.E stuff, running around until we're all sweaty, then having to get undressed again, only to take another shower, put back on the clothes I put on this morning, and go to my next class!”

“Look, Williams. It doesn't matter if you don't like it. It doesn't matter if you find it frustrating. Welcome to the real world, son. We all have to do stuff we don't fully enjoy all the time. That is just how it works.” He replied matter-of-factly.

“Yeah. But you get paid for all the stuff you don't like doing.” I quickly reasoned.

“But not nearly enough for these types of conversations.” Said Mr. Namahage. “Look, I don't want to have to fail you, kid. But I will if you don't at least try. If you aren't dressed the next time we are taking this matter up with the principal. You get me?”

“Yeah. I guess.” I rolled my eyes and slumped further in my seat with an intentionally folding of my arms to express clear outrage.

“Yes. I know this is all just absolutely killing you.” Mr. Namahage offered with a sugary amount of sympathy that was anything but genuine before he turned to leave with a shake of his head and a small laugh.

Akhelios nudged me with his elbow. “I keep telling you it would be a hell of a lot easier to just participate, homie.”

“That's what I've been saying since day one,” Dolos added. “Then at least you wouldn't have Namahage on your ass every morning.”

“Please,” I smirked and gestured to our teacher. “That nigga would just instantly find another reason to breathe down my neck.”

Mr. Namahage froze and quickly turned back towards us. His expression was startled and angered. This surprised me because I was uncertain what exactly was wrong as he stared at me.

“Williams,” He began evenly. “I want you to get your stuff and go to the principal's office.”

I looked between Dolos and Akhelios who only shrugged with equally bewildered expressions. “Wait. What did--”

“I said now!” Mr. Namahage ordered more sharply causing some of the class to pause in the middle of what they were doing in order to watch us.

“Ok.” I stood and snatched up my backpack. “That just took a really dramatic turn. But whatever. Fine. I'll go.”

As I stormed off I felt confused and aggravated by the sudden turn of events. Mr. Namahage seemed like he had been in a rather good mood even during a brief exchange about the P.E clothes. Did he have a sudden change of heart? Why? I thought he would wait to be upset the next time I decided not to participate. All this was still going through my head by the time I arrived at the office.

All of Alvarado's campus-- to me at least-- had this sort of small town, rustic aesthetic because of the wood framing of the buildings, the colors and all the trees. The interior of the main office reflected this more so than everywhere else on campus. With all its woodwork, counters, and shelves it reminded me of a small town municipals building.

“Back again, I see.” The receptionist, a Caucasian woman with short brunette hair, acknowledged me upon looking up from what she had been doing.

“Yeah. I guess you can say that.” I shrugged with a sigh.

“Principal or assistant principal this time?” The receptionist asked with a hint of sympathy.

“Assistant,” I mumbled.

“What happened?” The receptionist inquired.

“I’m not sure.” I shrugged. “This time I didn’t do anything.”

“So, are you admitting the last couple of times you were in here this week you did actually do something?” The receptionist asked with an amused sort of smile.

“What?” I asked quickly. “I didn’t say that.”

“Then why did you put such an emphasis on this time?” The receptionist challenged.

“I’m just going to sit here and be quiet now.” I motioned to the row of chairs before moving over to them and taking a seat. The receptionist just laughed a little then returned to what she had been doing before I arrived. It felt like the 100th time I had taken a chair in that office.  I had developed a terrible habit of speaking my mind. Not a good look for a kid in school.

Mr. Eudaemon, the assistant principal, arrived a short time later from whatever other tasks he had been doing on campus. He did not appear even remotely surprised to see me there waiting for him. “Well, Williams, here we are again.” He motioned for me follow him into his office so I did. “What's going on with you?”

“What's the matter with me?” I asked with some confusion as I followed him before sitting in one of the two wooden chairs in front of his desk.

“Yes. I want to know what’s bothering you.” Mr. Eudaemon questioned me again.

“Nothings bothering me.” I quickly bristled at what felt like an odd line of questioning. I expected to be reprimanded or lectured.

“I just figure with this being your 3rd time here this week that maybe something is going on...” Mr. Eudaemon trailed off as if to leave an opening.

“Things are fine, Mr. Eudaemon,” I replied flatly. They were not. Things were rarely fine at that age.

“If you say so.” He nodded before continuing on. “Now, if I remember correctly, the 1st period is P.E for you. So, besides for not dressing for your class, why did Mr. Namahage send you here?”

“I don't know. He said he was alright with it for today. But said I would need to dress tomorrow. Then suddenly he changed his mind and told me to leave.” I explained.

“Hm. Well, that is odd.” Mr. Eudaemon admitted thoughtfully before reaching over and picking up his office phone.

“That's exactly what I said,” I added.

“No. I meant him suddenly changing his mind,” Mr. Eudaemon continued. “You must understand it is annoying to have a student constantly breaking the rules, Williams. Not to mention it feels incredibly disrespectful even if that isn't the intent. You have to participate like everyone else.” He returned to dialing Mr. Namahage's class then waited.

“Hello, Mr. Namahage?” Mr. Eudaemon began. “Yes. I have, Williams here. I was curious as to why--” He paused listening then blanched as if someone had verbally slapped him in the mouth. It was an odd thing to see as he was a figure who was always composed and deliberate in his actions. “I see,” He responded with what sounded like a hint of discomfort in his tone as he glanced at me and then out the window to his right. “Yes. I see. That-- yes that is serious. But--” He listened a bit longer before turning his chair away from me and lowering his voice. “Yes, I do understand the seriousness of that word. Yes. But you are both-- well-- you know? Does that still make it a racial slur?”

Somehow, I had still not connected the dots while sitting there trying to make sense of the conversation. I was at a loss to what they were talking about or what possible racial slur or insult could he had possible mistakenly believed I said. This was only further puzzling because we were both Black so why would he assume I was being racist towards him?

“No. No. Of course, I do not think that makes it less offensive.” Mr. Eudaemon replied defensively then continued to listen a while longer. “Wait, listen Mr. Namahage, I get where you are coming from. I do. I know where you grew up at. But have you considered Williams is unaware of this? Perhaps it would be best to have him come back and talk to you about this one? Maybe you could then educate him on what that word means to you and why you find it so offensive?”

“Wait, after school?” I asked quickly. “Like detention?”

“Yes.” Mr. Eudaemon held his hand up as a gesture for me to be quiet even as he finished his conversation. “I think this would be for the best. I would like him to hear why this upset you. Are we in agreement then? Good. I will speak to again shortly. Thank you. I do appreciate this.”

“Wait. I said something racist? When? Why is he saying that?” I demanded irritability.

“Listen,” Mr. Eudaeamon began carefully as he hung up his phone and looked towards me. “I think it would be best if you discussed this issue further with him. Listen, it was just a terrible misunderstanding that I am certain the two of you can straighten out with an amicable conversation.”

“I wouldn't say anything racist to anyone!” I continued with growing alarm. “What did he say--”

“Williams,” Mr. Eudaemon interrupted with more finality to his tone. “I told you it will be discussed between the two of you. Now, from what I hear it sounds like a terrible misunderstanding between younger and older culture. I believe the two of you will be able to talk this out. When you speak with  Mr. Namahage after school-- and you will speak with him-- be mindful and respect what he has to say on the issue. Am I clear?”

“Alright.” I nodded despite still being just as uncertain to the situation as when I first arrived.

I departed from Mr. Eudaemon's office to continue on with the rest of my classes. I barely paid much attention to what was happening around me while constantly replaying the exchange I had with Mr. Namahage in my head. The rest of the day passed unbearable slow as if time was dripping through a tube terribly knotted my own anxiety.

When the final bell rang I both anticipated and dreaded going to speak with Mr. Namahage as I wanted to at once demand what he was falsely accusing me of but also shrink away from being accused of something so ugly. I still could barely wrap my mind around the situation. We were both Black so why would he even entertain the idea that I was being racist against him? I reasoned there must have been some sort of mistake as I made my way across campus. He was not in the gym so I walked to the basketball courts next.

I arrived just as all the other students were departing and Mr. Namahage was collecting the basketballs into one large net. I hesitated momentarily and considered leaving. Then for reasons unknown, the situation suddenly annoyed me so I gathered my courage and walked over to confront him.

“Mr. Namahage,” I began after finding my voice while approaching. “I am not a racist. And I didn't call anyone here a racist name earlier.”

“Williams.” Mr. Namahage turned expectantly and slung the sack over his shoulder. “As diplomatic as ever, I see. And I never said you were a racist, kid. Where are you getting that from?”

“I was told in the office that you said I used a racist slur,” I explained upon stopping a few feet away.

“Yes. You did.”  Mr. Namahage nodded.

“When? Who was I being racist towards?” I asked with disbelief.

“I feel as if you are intentionally only hearing what you want to hear.” Mr. Namahage said.

I motioned to him in growing frustration. “You literally just said--”

“I said you used a racial slur. I never said you were a racist.” Mr. Namahage quickly corrected me.

“Which is what?” I asked.

“Nigga. You said, Nigga. That is a racist slur.” Mr. Namahage replied firmly.

“Wait,” I laughed in disbelief. “Wait, what? Is that why you sent me to the office?”

“You heard me correctly the first time.” Mr. Namahage confirmed.

“Seriously?” I asked again with no less disbelief.

“Yes.” He repeated.

“How? How is that a slur?” I demanded.

“You are a smart kid, Williams,” Mr. Namahage began with noticeably less patience. “So, something tells me I don't have to explain the entire history of that word to you.”

“And I think I don't have to remind you we're both Black!” I reasoned.

Mr. Namahage went to reply then paused as if he was reconsidering whatever he was originally about to say. Shifting on his feet he released a calming breath and motioned for me to follow him to the nearby bleachers. “You kids always say that like it's a huge difference that changes everything.”

“There is a difference. There is a huge difference.” I laughed with all the indignation of an offended 14yrs old kid. “In fact, the difference is so huge that you would need to catch a plane to reach one from the other.”

“Nigger and Nigga is basically the same thing, Walter.” Mr. Namahage explained patiently during one of the very rare instances he ever referred to me by my first name. “What? You really think because you take the 'er' off the end it's somehow better? Or that make it ours now?”

“Yes!” I replied quickly. “Why should Whites have the power to declare when and how it should be used? Why can't we as Black people choose what it means now?”

Mr. Namahage released an exasperated sort of short laugh before he sat the basketball down to the right. “Kid, where I grew up I only heard one version of that word. It was just Nigger with all the ugly, hate, and violence that went along with it.”

“Well, that is not how we use it,” I explained matter-of-factly.

“Let me ask you something, Williams,”  Mr. Namahage began again more solemnly. “Nigga or Nigger. It doesn't really matter. It still comes from the same place. You ever stop and honestly-- and I mean honestly wonder how many of our people heard the word Nigger before they were shot? Or heard the word Nigger before they were burned alive in their homes? Or heard Nigger before they were lynched? Or heard Nigger before being raped?”

“That is true...” I seriously pondered his explanation momentarily as I had never considered it that way. “But can you also not see that when we are using it for one another it is not being used hatefully?”

Mr. Namahage laughed a little and it seemed sort of sad as he turned his eyes towards the track far across from us. “Funny you should mention that, kid. Because in a lot of the songs I hear it feels like someone is always talking about shooting or killing niggas. It might not be a lynching but its still Black folk dying and the word nigger being thrown around an awful lot.”

We were both quiet after that for a short time. I cannot say for certain why he was quiet but I was considering his words while thinking of my own counter-arguments. I really enjoyed engaging in debates at that age. Part of me wanted to press on but another part of me could tell the subject truly disturbed and bothered him. I began to imagine he had a lot of really ugly memories attached to the word nigger. So many, in fact, that it made no difference how it was pronounced for him.

“I'm sorry.” I finally said. The moments the words left my mouth I realized it was perhaps what I should have said the moment he explained what was bothering him.

“I know one discussion is unlikely to change your mind, Williams,” Mr. Namahage began again as he looked over at me. “But maybe think about it, huh? And I only ask you don't go using that word around me. Thanks for coming back.” He stood up from where he was seated and began to depart. “And make certain you dress for class next time.”

Of course Mr. Namahage was right. Throughout a majority of my teens I used the word nigga and saw nothing wrong with it. It was not until my Early 20s that I felt too 'enlightened' to even use such an abhorrent word and was staunchly against its use. Now, in my 30s I give the word nigga no energy, and while I prefer not to use it, I also do not judge those among my people who do as I do not believe it is my place to regulate how they view or use word among themselves.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

My Friend the Monster Excerpt

“And yeah, I went to Eurydice’s house today.” Argus suddenly said as he glanced over at me then turned back to the water.

“Oh.” I was not really sure how to respond because I had forgotten about the earlier topic and it seemed odd he would bring it up again so suddenly. “Is everything alright? Did something happen?”

“We were fuckin around, you know? Just kissing, touching, and that sort of stuff.” Argus explained while still staring down into the water.

“And that bothered you?” There was a small pang of jealousy but such did not out weight my concern to why he seemed so sad and distant.

“No. No.” Argus hesitated for a moment and glanced over at me.

“Dude, seriously, what’s wrong?” I asked with building concern.

“Nothing.” Argus turned his eyes back to the water appearing more distressed. “Just, well, I got her shirt and bra off, you know? So we kept kissing. Then she started acting all funny and shit. I had unzipped her jeans and slid my hand down into her pants-

“Whoa,” I stopped Argus with a nervous laugh. “I’m not sure she would want me hearing the details to all this, besides-

“Walt, just—just listen.” Argus tone suddenly became irritated as he looked over at me.

“Yeah, ok. Sorry…” I rubbed the back of my neck becoming concerned again.

“No, it’s cool. Just,” Argus shook his head and concentrated on the water again. “, she kept grabbing all over my dick, and stuff. You know? But when I got her pants off she started acting all funny, Walt, like she suddenly didn’t want to anymore.” He shook his head. “She was just playing goddamn games like always.”

“Ah, so that is what the argument was about I take it?” I asked curiously. “Look, maybe you should call her and-

“We didn’t have a fight, Walt. She just kept fucking with me.” Argus said angrily as he turned his eyes to me again and stood up straight from the railing. “I got tired of that shit finally. Know what I mean?”

“Don’t tell me the two of you broke up?” I asked in disbelief. I was not totally innocent in that situation. Yes, I sincerely wanted Argus and Eurydice to be happy, but that jealousy poisoned some of my intentions. The moment I felt that small spark of hope I instantly regretted it. I desperately wanted to be a better person than that.

“Yeah, we kind of broke up I guess or something.” Argus glanced down and found a rock on the bridge. Picking it up, he easily chucked it to the water below.

“Do you want me to talk to her for you?” I asked surprising even myself. “Maybe there was some sort of misunderstanding, you know?”

“ Like I said, I got tired of her fucking with me, man. She thinks just because she looks good, I have to take her shit all the time.” Argus chucked another rock into the water below. “So, I was like fuck it.”

“Wait, I don’t understand. What happened?” I asked in confusion.

“I pulled her fucking panties off anyway.” Argus began again with noticeable agitation. “So she started whining and telling me to stop. I told her she shouldn’t been grabbing all over my dick all afternoon like a cock tease.”

“Argus?” I asked with a voice quieted by a sudden dread that slithered from the back of my skull, down my neck, and over my spine, thick and icy. The end of the story already seemed apparent but I was in denial.

“She was a cock tease, right?” Argus continued on angrily but still was not looking at me. “Eurydice, that bitch, just kept playing with me every day. Acting like she wanted to go all the way, I show up and she changes her mind. What kind of shit is that? How is that right?” He finally looked over at me seeming to search my face. What was he searching for? To this day I am not really sure. “So, I took off those panties and got what I wanted.”

“Argus?” I asked once more without being sure exactly what it was I was questioning.

Things went quiet between us for a while. That tense silence was filled by the flowing water and a train passing in the distance. Argus kept staring down at the creek, concentrating, and focusing on it far too hard. I was surprised by a sudden and bitter laugh of seeming contempt that that rose from him.

“Eurydice screamed but I didn’t give a shit. I just kept fucking her even when she told me it hurt without lubrication.” Argus was still laughing but it was a sound without any humor. “I was fucking pissed by then so I told her ‘oh, here comes your lube.’ And I busted a nut in her and just kept going. Fucking cock tease started crying, dude. Started to say some shit about how she loved me and wouldn’t tell if I stopped. I told her stupid ass I would stop when I wanted to.”

“Wait.” I laughed as I suddenly caught on and some small relief washed over me. “You’re just fuckin with me, right?”

“Nope.” Argus said flatly as he looked me in the face once more. “I fucked her right there in her living room, on the floor, by the couch. She got what was coming to her. After we finished she started blubbering about how she felt like she couldn’t walk or some bullshit like that. Whatever, she enjoyed that shit and just didn’t want to say it.”

“Dude, seriously, enough now. Stop playing.” I wanted to hear him suddenly burst out in laughter at me for having believed him. Deep down I was praying he would. I needed him to laugh. I knew it was coming at any moment and I was waiting for it with all my heart. I stared at him waiting for it. “Argus-
“I’m not fucking playing!” Argus nearly yelled at me in sudden anger that caught me by surprise. “I told you I fucked her and that is what happened. It’s not my fault. She wanted it anyway.” He stood up from the railing again and turned to face me as he grew more irate. “What the fuck you trippin so hard for? I don’t give a shit so why do you?”

“What did you do?” I asked a question that had already been answered. I stared at him in continued disbelief. The full understanding of what he had said was slowly dawning on me, and I just could not believe Argus, careless, funny Argus, who I looked up to, would do something to Eurydice. That he would do anything so horrible to anyone. I saw this kid return a wallet full of money. I heard the ugly words clearly but they just made absolutely no sense coming from him. “You raped, Eurydice…” I trailed off as the words touched the air between us for the first time.

“What are you talking about? I didn’t rape anyone!” Argus snapped angrily. “Eurydice wanted it. Why the fuck else would she let me take all her clothes off? Huh?” The question seemed to be aimed at both of us as there was a look of confusion added with his anger.

“Dude, she was crying. You even fuckin said she told you to stop. You raped her!” The words were an incantation that razed and salted our friendship with a curse that could never be broken. “What the hell is wrong with you? You raped, Eurydice!”

“Shut up!” Argus ordered furiously as he took a step towards me. “I didn’t rape goddamn, Eurydice. Why are you going ballistic over this? I’m supposed to be your boy, remember?”

“You don’t get it. You raped Eurydice. What the fuck is wrong with you?” I looked him over trying to understand what the hell had just happened to my friend. “What are you going to do? How could you do that to Eurydice? She’s our friend. She trusted you.” I wanted an answer and at the same time I felt selfish for some reason. Argus stared at me for a while as if he did not quite get what I was saying. It was the look of a deer trapped by the oncoming glare of headlights. For the briefest moment of time I felt sorry for him.

 “Fuck you, Walt.” Argus suddenly said viciously with a mixture of anger and hurt. “You can go and kiss her ass if you want then. Maybe you just have a hard on hearing about Eurydice getting fucked? Is that it? You liked hearing about that cock tease getting what she wanted!” He laughed bitterly and the sound was hideous to my ears. It managed to both hurt and repulse me at the same time. I did like Eurydice. I had feelings for her that tittered between that uncomfortable place of friendship and romance.

I am not completely sure what happened during those few seconds. The sudden explosion of hatred and anger took me across the short distance between us with an uncontrolled scream, before I snatched him by the throat and threw Argus with as much strength as I could gather. He tumbled hard when he hit the ground several feet away.

Scooting backwards when I took a few steps towards him, he watched me with disbelieving, wide eyes. I caught myself somehow. For a moment, for a split second in time I truly understood the urge to kill. I thought about wrapping my hands around Argus throat, and just squeezing until the life was milked from his lungs.

“Fuck you!” I yelled furiously at Argus while trying hard to restrain all the dark, ugly things suddenly poisoning my every thought. “I should kill you!” I took a step towards him as my fist tightened, begging relentlessly to be introduced into the equation. “I should kill you where you are sitting you worthless, fuckin bastard! Eurydice was our fuckin friend! She trusted you!”

I felt enraged and saddened at the same time. I was not sure what else to do. Part of me wanted to continue the fight but another part of me was yelling not to. I looked between Argus and the way home. I hated him for hurting Eurydice and for ruining our friendship. Those were the last words I ever spoke to Argus. I turned walking away as quickly as I could.

I was some distance away from the track when I suddenly felt nauseated. Maybe it was all the strong emotions exploding inside of me or maybe it was the thought of Eurydice being violated. Whatever it was it caused me to stop and become sick near the track wall when my stomach lurched forward. 

It might have lasted less than a minute but I felt as if I was throwing up for an hour. By the time it was done I needed to lean on the wall to remain standing. Raising my face to the sky, I closed my eyes and began trying to control my breathing. I still felt so much hatred and anger. Reason ignited and burned under the mixture, and suddenly I was angry at both Eurydice and Argus. There was a vicious stab of jealousy lodged in my heart, green and fiery, spurting and churning like an insane lime fissure.

“Eurydice should have choose me!” I suddenly reasoned inside of my head. If she had been with me none of this would have happened. I respected her. I supported her. I looked out for her and that clearly made me the better choice. Eurydice went with someone more popular and such was her undoing. It was a poor goddamn decision and she was paying dearly for it.

Then as suddenly as it had begun the pure hatred that corrupted my thoughts were gone and the green-eyed monster won a definitive victory. Though no one was there to judge me for those private thoughts, I felt terribly guilty and partially sickened with myself. Who was I to be hurt in all this? How could I think that way about someone I cared about?

It was dark on the tracks and nothing but a few distant, orange-yellow lights stood as sentinels against the night. Some belonged to the isolated factory across the field and others surrounded an expensive, gated community across the creek. I decided to walk to the corner store Argus did not want to go to earlier. There is no poetic way to describe how I felt while walking to my new destination. I felt like a monster. I felt diseased. I felt like I did not want to be me at that moment because I felt like an utter fraud to the very core of my being.

It seemed like I was floating as I left the railway and began down the silent street. My thoughts kept drifting back to Eurydice. I wanted to go see her. To tell her I was sorry for everything that happened. The thoughts constantly repeated themselves over, and over even as I arrived at the liquor store. I stepped through the entrance and out of the night.

I found a lime soda.

I paid the man.

Then walked back out into darkness.

I washed my mouth out with the drink, spitting into the grass beside the store before beginning the walk home. I thought about going down the street to visit my cousins or back across the creek to see my friend Dolos. Then I decided I wanted to be alone so I walked back down the tracks and hopped the fence leading to my backyard. For the first time ever that brick wall felt like a challenge but I still managed. I stepped onto the cement of the basketball court and stared ahead at my own home. Most of the lights were out except for the upstairs light in my mother’s room. It pitched a faint, pale glow into the backyard like a weak spotlight to an opening play.

Instead I went over to the gazebo and walked inside before sitting on one of the large white wood chairs. Leaning my head on the back, I closed my eyes, feeling guilty, bitter and lonely. I seriously contemplated calling the cops to report what happened but I wondered if that would have been what Eurydice wanted. What if I told what happened but she denied the whole thing?

I considered going to talk to her about it. But at that age I honestly did not know how. I did not know how to tell her I knew what happened. What if it made the situation worse somehow? I did not want to try and carry the weight of that decision. So out of fear and uncertainty I remained inactive. God forgive me, I remained inactive. It stayed that way until the dawn began chasing away the darkness of the night.

I ended my staring into nothing and silently slipped into the house through the side entrance. It was early but I already knew I was going to spend the day alone. After entering my room, closing and locking the door, I fell onto the bed. While lying there my thoughts eventually drifted to Eurydice again. I still wished I could tell her I was sorry. I wanted to hug her and let her cry into my shoulder if it helped any. I wanted to make everything better. I wanted nothing more than to make everything right.

However this was not a situation from a story book or sitcom. There would be no final dramatic moment. No swelling score of indies rock or pop music as a quick resolve arrived to clear up the entire tragedy before the next adventure. There was nothing but pain and suffering with no real resolution.

My room always felt like a haven from the world but it was no sanctuary from my thoughts and conscience. I lie there until the thin black veil of sleep fell over my face and a monster far worse than the green beast arrived to make sleep a nightmare.

Turbulence II

That brief altercation with Coach Ahti left me feeling tense and sort of emotionally bruised. Regardless of getting what some would have considered the 'last laugh', I did not feel that way. I did not feel that way at all. Normally our frequent but limited banter did not bother me much. On occasions, we would both exchange maybe one or two smart-ass remarks but nothing more. Merely warning shots across the bows before returning to our routine holding pattern.

That day felt more akin to two ships exchanging extended fire. At best it was a Pyrrhic victory, her anger an erupting explosion from a direct hit, with the laughter of the class acting as rising smoke and raining debris all around us. Yet, I was no better off as I drifted away on a turbulent sea of self-doubts and uncertainty. I felt deeply embarrassed by it all.

I decided to spend the rest of what was supposed to be my first-period class in the library. Libraries have always felt like some sort of sanctuary. The quiet, along with the smell of the books, promises a sort of comfortable solitude. This is especially on rainy days. I gathered a few books from the paranormal/horror section and settled at one of the rear tables announced the beginning of the second period. I selected the books I wanted to borrow and walked over to the librarian's desk.

Two women, one middle-aged and Caucasian, the other younger and Asian, sat next to one another while conversing in their library voices'. The second woman distractedly accepted my books and began the check-out process. It was a few moments of waiting that I noticed there was a radio playing near them. It was a news broadcast talking about that abducted girl, the discovery of a suspect, and a possible sighting. Though I felt a measure of sympathy for the girl, I began to wonder, with so much news circulating around the story, if such meant she was the child of someone famous or important. After the books were returned to me I turned and departed the library.

“Walt!” A familiar girl's voice called from behind as I stepped out into the hall.

I turned to find Sariel hurrying towards me wearing a white dress, gray winter coat, and cradling a large stack of books in her arms. She was a tall, slender, dark-skinned Ethiopian girl, who was surrounded by a popular consensus that she would go on to become some sort of model or movie star someday because of the grace and beauty she exuded.

We frequently chatted during breaks and walked to class together. I agreed with the opinion that she was beautiful. But to me, Sari was just a girl I enjoyed speaking with on occasions. I was puzzled by how often someone suggested or urge that I ask her out. But that felt silly because I harbored no deeper emotions for her. She was only a friend.

“Hey, Sari.” I smiled a little despite the persistently dour mood that had yet to abandon me.

“What's the matter?” She asked curiously as we began walking towards the shared English class together. Considering James Logan HS was about two city blocks in size, it was an unwritten rule that one should always seek the shortest route in-between classes. The adjacent, large, brown stone building where the library was also housed had a long hallway that would lead to the rear of the school much faster, where our shared class waited.

“No. Nothing is wrong. Just sort of annoyed with something that happened this morning.” I explained.

“What?” Sariel asked with piqued concern.

“Coach Ahti” I stated simply.

“Ugh! God, she is so annoying!” Sariel proclaimed with a laugh.

“Tell me about it. I wish I could just skip P.E altogether. I really, really hate that class.” I replied. “She has been a pain in the ass since the first day.”

“Yo, Sariel!” A guy, who was originally passing by from the left, abruptly made a U-turn and stopped directly in Sariel's path causing us to both stop walking. “You looking good today. But you are always fine as hell.”

“Thanks. I guess.” Sariel shifted on her feet after taking a step back to place more room between the two of them. “Listen, we are on our--”

“So, what's up?” He began again immediately while giving me noticeable side-eye as if I was possible competition. “Why don't you let me walk you the rest of the way to class? So we can talk about me and you.”

“Oh.” Sariel began after drawing her books closer to her chest. “No thanks. I'm already walking with my friend, Walt.”

“Damn. It's like that?” He said with a small laugh then glanced over at me again. “It's cool. There's always tomorrow.” Then he turned and left.

“Anyway,” Sariel shook her head with only a small frown as we began walking towards class again. “What were we talking about?”

“That was irritating,” I remarked irritably.

“You don't know the half of it.” Sariel managed a small laugh.

“I was telling you about Coach Ahti and how it may be a sign this is going to be a crappy day.” I reminded her.

“Oh, right! She can be sort of mean. This one time, I was running laps and on about the third lap my chest sort of started hurting. So, I slowed down, and you know what she did?” Sariel explained energetically before answering her own question. “She yelled at me! I tried to tell her my chest was hurting and she was all like,” She dramatically deepened her voice. “You need to suck it up, and keep going, princess! Run it off!”

“Well, if nothing else at least she's compassionate,” I replied flatly causing her to laugh.

“I sometimes feel like she doesn't like certain students even without provocation,” Sariel added more seriously. “Like, anytime--”

“Hey, Sariel!” Another boy suddenly interrupted. I glanced over to find him sitting on a bench with what I assumed were a couple of his friends. This only caused her to roll her eyes and continue walking on a little faster.

“As I was saying,” Sariel rose her voice to speak over the new distraction. “I think she signals--”

“Come on, girl! I know you can hear me!” The boy jogged over and stopped in front of her with a big goofy smile as his friends laughed. “Don't be that way.”

“Be what way?” Sariel asked as she came to a forced stop. “You are going to make me late for class.”

“Not if you just give me your number so we can both be on our way.” He grinned at her.

“I told you yesterday-- not to mention a few times before that-- that I don't give out my number.” Sariel patiently reminded him.

“Come on. You at least owe me a chance before shooting me down. Don't be that way. Just give me your number.” He stepped closer to Sariel.

As they were talking I looked down at my watch with growing impatience before groaning aloud. “We have about 2 minutes to get to class.”

“Then, go on! You don't have to wait for her.” The boy replied angrily.

“What the fuck are you getting angry about?” I laughed as I looked him over. “We were in the middle of a conversation. One that you interrupted.”

“Sariel can talk for herself.” The boy challenged.

“I don't want to talk. And I don't want to give you my number. I said that more than once now.” Sariel added more firmly as she stepped around him to indicate she was preparing to leave.

“And there you have it.” I motioned towards him. “We done here?”

The boy looked between Sariel and me with indignant anger then tried to laugh it off but the sound came out awkwardly. “Fuck it. Whatever. I didn't even want the number anyway. I was just doing you a favor.” He then turned and tried pimp walking back to his boys as if to show how unaffected he was. I laughed a little watching him because it was all so weird.

Sariel and I began walking together again. She was noticeably quiet and withdrawn now. I was uncertain what to say to lighten her mood. We were halfway through Colt Court when she suddenly smiled a little and looked over at me.

“Thanks for that.” She said.

“Oh. No problem.” I replied. But the truth is I was not completely certain what she was thanking me for. Guys trying to get her attention or ask her out seemed sort of annoying but natural back then. Boys chase girls, right? Isn't that how it has always been? I honestly only interrupted because I was impatient with someone constantly interrupting our conversation. It was not an act of chivalry on my part.

That is how it frequently went when walking across campus with Sariel. But despite a seemingly constant string of vocal male admirers attempting to either ask her out and/or wanting her phone number on a daily basis, she always kept a bright smile and an incredible amount of patience while explaining-- often to the same groups of guys-- she was not interested. Back then I was amazed at Sariel's mysterious ability to remain so polite despite facing this persistent pestering and occasional harassment.

It is only as an adult do I now realize the secret behind this ability stems from the social conditioning that dictates girls and women are supposed to suffer unwanted advances and catcalling with good humor as to not offend anyone for 'complimenting' them. New knowledge has a way of dimming the once innocently bright skies of old memories.

Restless Dreams Excerpt

We continued talking off and on while making our way back towards where the shops were located.  Though only subtly, Pomona's mood appeared to sour the further, and longer we continued walking. At first, I suspected it was perhaps a mixture of all the heat, noise and being forced to wade through the constant streams of people. Finally when  I asked Pomona if she was alright the first time she did not hear me, remaining focused on whatever was bothering her and our surroundings. I had to repeat the question to get her attention.

“Yeah. I'm fine.” She nodded tensely.

“Are you certain?” I asked.

“Yes and no. Its actually a combination of things,” Pomona began as we stopped at the corner to wait for the light. “I was thinking about this conversation I had with a friend of mine earlier today and at the same time I just started noticing something while we were walking.”

“Mind if I ask what it's all about?” I asked.

“I called to check on her because of all those storms happening where she lives. We talked for about maybe an hour, and she said everything is alright. So far, in her area at least, there have been no serious damages or flooding. Plus she prepared in advance in case there are any emergencies.” She explained.

“And it bummed you out to learn she's safe? I have to admit that you are not being a good friend right now.” I lightly nudged Pomona with my arm causing her to laugh a little.

“Oh, shut-up. You know that is not what I meant.” She rolled her eyes and continued on. “No, the part that made me think, and sort of depressed  me--” She abruptly paused seeming to either weigh if it were appropriate to divulge the rest of the conversation or maybe how to best explain what was discussed. “She mentioned feeling silly because there have been a few times she caught herself  really wishing there was a guy around because that would make her feel a lot safer.”

“I'm not completely sure if I follow.” The light finally changed in our favor and we began crossing the street with the rest of the crowd. “Did those thoughts upset her? Or is it bothering you that she felt that way?”

“No. I don't think any of that is upsetting. In fact, I'm kind of grateful the topic came up because it led to a much deeper conversation after I asked why she felt that way. We sort of explored what was behind those feelings and unpacked a lot of stuff. It's not like she does not know how to take care of herself. She's strong, smart, independent, and confident.” She explained.

“Maybe having someone else around is also comforting?” I asked.

“See, I would have said that too,” Pomona replied quickly. “But it was specifically wishing to have a man around. After we talked about it for a while, I shared my theory as to why she maybe felt that way.”

“Which is?” I asked.

“Well,” She began somewhat morosely. “I told her that even as little girls we are conditioned to believe we are automatically safer when there is a male presence. Like they will protect us.”

“How does that fit into the observation you mentioned earlier?” I asked with some confusion.

“Walt,” Pomona began with a noticeable hint of frustration. “Normally, when I walk down this very same street by myself or even with other friends that are also women, I never make it more than half a block before some random dude is yelling to get my attention. Or starts walking with me while asking if I have a man. Or nagging the ever-loving shit out of me about getting my number. And if it isn't any of that then its several guys, one after another, telling me that I should smile.”

“Oh. I'm sorry to hear that. It sounds extremely irritating.” I offered sympathetically. I went to add more but honestly, did not know what else to say. I felt out of my element. I feared saying the wrong thing so I opted to listen mostly.

“Irritating is a dramatic understatement.” Pomona shook her head then motioned to the shoe store we were approaching. “We can check out this place. Maybe they have a pair of running shoes that don't look like they were rubbed with skittles and glitter.” 

However, we did not immediately go in upon arriving and instead stopped outside as she continued on with the discussion. “You know, the sort of thing I'm describing to you happens so often that when I'm out I have begun to mostly ignore it. Or I have grown used to it. But lately, more and more, I begin asking why do I, or any other woman in this city, or matter-of-fact anywhere at all, have to learn to ignore this sort of inappropriate, rude behavior? Opposed to it not happening.”

“Can't say I know what that is like. But no one should have to learn how to live with others lack of impulse control or poor manners.” I nodded in agreement. “Plus, I doubt just ignoring it will ever make such change or go away. I'm honestly amazed more women don't completely lose their shit by the third guy.”

“That's exactly it. So, while we were walking here I suddenly realized that there were no random guys approaching me, or asking for my number, or telling me how much I need a man that will make me smile every day. I started feeling good about that.” Pomona laughed but it was a rather humorless, disappointed sound tinged with a bitter edge. Folding her arms, she shifted on her feet and sighed quietly while looking around. “Then the actual reason to why things are different right now dawned on me. It's most likely because I'm walking with you. So its like I'm only being afforded enough respect to be left in peace while I'm going about my business because those guys assume I 'belong' to you.”

“Wow. I don't know what to say to that.” I replied honestly. It was at that moment I thought back to a couple of earlier occasions we happened to pass a group of young guys cat-calling young women passing by. I had noticed but primarily ignored it as standard childish behavior in the city. I realized having the privilege to ignore belligerence and rudeness of others render those actions obscenely inconsequential. I know at my very core that Pomona was not judging me. But that revelation secretly embarrassed me.

“There isn't much you can say to it, Walt.” Pomona shook her head then moved closer to the store's entrance. “But if nothing else, at least you listen, and ask genuine questions when subjects like this come up.”

“Kind of you to say but I doubt I deserve points for merely listening. You are one of my best friends. Of course, I listen when you have something you want to talk about.” I explained.

“A lot of men, at least in my experience anyway, become really defensive when I have brought this subject up. This has happened even with guy friends I have known for a while.” Pomona with seeming disbelief. “But you know what really pisses me off? How they not only get defensive but then act like it is their duty to remind me 'not all guys are like that' like I wasn't already fucking aware. The entire topic always gets derailed from how intimidating, or just plain scary it can be to have some random dude aggressively harassing us and invading our personal space, to debating why it is so important to remember 'not all men are like that'.”

“Do you maybe want to find somewhere to sit and keep talking about all this?” I asked. “I have nothing but time today. We can always look for more shoes a little later.”

“No, no. I really need these shoes before next week because that's when I leave for my trip.” Pomona waved the suggestion off and took in a calming breath. “Wow. I guess I just needed to get this all off my chest. I didn't realize how much it was bothering me until we started talking. I'm really sorry for suddenly dropping all this on you, Walt.”

“You didn't drop anything on me. I can understand why that sort of thing was weighing on you so much.” I reasoned.

“Thanks.” Pomona smile seemed small, sad, and self-conscious. “I guess everything today sort of accumulated. I definitely don't want to sound like I was being a jerk to my friend and judging her for wanting a guy around. It wasn't that at all.”

“Then, what was it that upset you the most?” I asked.

“Well,” Pomona paused for a brief moment as if collecting her thoughts. “The part that really upset me the most was coming to the conclusion as to why she wanted a guy around. She, like a lot of women, are not scared of the actual world at large. They want a guy around to possibly protect them from other guys. Just realizing that makes me sort of sad.”

“Its an incredibly sad thought.” I agreed. “This sort of reminds me of a debate I had with this kid in a social studies class I attended a long time ago.”

“How so?” Pomona asked.

“When people below the poverty line speak out about the struggles they face, it never fails that you have a variable army of critics rushing out to remind those 'ungrateful' people that they are a lot better off than those others living in Third World countries. The same thing happens when women talk about sexism in the U.S. There is always some scholar of jackassery ready to remind everyone that U.S women are a lot better off than women living in places like Saudi Arabia.” I explained.

“So basically victim shaming.” Pomona rolled her eyes in disgust.

“Yeah.” I nodded. “But I would take it a step further and say its sort of a defense mechanism. Instead of acknowledging or addressing the issues we make ourselves feel better by absurd comparisons. The impoverished in our country is not a shame when we compare it to that of far less wealthy nations. Our sexism is not so jerk-ass when we compare it to a country where women have fewer rights or virtually no rights. So we look great in comparison.”

“Like trying to stand next to an ugly friend in hopes of making yourself look attractive?” Pomona busted out laughing and it was like seeing an ember suddenly reignite. It felt good to see her laugh. I only hoped it was not for my sake. “Maybe you have a point.”

“These critics never stop to question just how bad of one is if they need to immediately make those sort of comparisons.” I pulled the door open for her. “Anyway, let's get in here and find you some sparkly-skittle shoes, you can proudly wear on your hike.”

“Tell you what,” Pomona began as she entered the store and I followed. “I swear I will buy some if you also buy an identical pair to rock with me.”

The conversation gradually returned to its earlier jovial nature for the remainder of our time together. It would not be until late into the evening we would finally part ways with our normal promise of seeing one another again soon. The conversation left me with a lot to think about on the return trip home.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Do not pull the Race Card

At 9, I had an Filipino teacher that clearly did not like her Black students while constantly showing favoritism towards any Asian students. On more than one occasion she made it clear she expected the Black kids to fail. The one exception was a Black girl who was half Japanese. Early in the school year, when I did well on tests or managed to write a story that she thought was exceptional, she would ask if I was adopted or mixed with something. But don't pull the Race Card.

At 10, I watched a cop, a White woman, slam a Black teenage girl on the hood of her car for the brazen, life-threatening offense of “having a smart mouth”. She then casually explained to her partner that, “the Black ones grew big quickly and could not be treated like children”. They laughed together as she finished with. “I wonder what they are feeding them?” But don't pull the Race Card.

At 15, two of my closest friends were Lakshmi a Black girl, and Cassandra a White girl. We frequently hung out together at the latter's house together after classes and I often conversed with her father on a number of topics. It seemed we were on friendly terms. One rainy afternoon Cassandra, Lakshmi and I were watching the new Bone Thugs video “Crossroads” when the father returned home from work. Lakshmi and I were sitting to the left of the living room so we were not visible from the garage entrance. Angered by the music and seeing only Cassandra, her father angrily yelled from the kitchen, “Hey. Turn that off. I told you I don't want you listening to that street thug, nigger shit.” Cassandra turned off the television and stared at the floor with a mortified expression. When her father walked into the front room he froze upon spotting Lakshmi and I. He tried to apologize but we both picked up oue backpacks and left. But don't pull the Race Card.

Again at 15, my cousin, a friend, and I were walking on our way to a pizza parlor when a motorcycle cop, without warning or provocation, made a u-turn from rush hour traffic, pulled over to the curb, drew his sidearm and demanded we get get on the ground. We were forced to lie there on the hot sidewalk for nearly a half an hour before being nonchalantly dismissed without as much as an apology. But don't pull the Race Card.

At 16, I was on my way to visit a girl I had a crush on when I found myself suddenly surrounded by 3 to 4 cops brandishing their sidearms. They demanded I keep my hands where they could be seen. After being roughly slammed to the ground and handcuffed I was told I was positively identified as someone who vandalized something. To this day I still have no clear understanding what crime I was actually accused of. All I know is that an old White woman said I did something there for I did it. I was given a public defender who did not care and told me to take a plea bargain or my mother would be forced to pay for all the damages. So I did. But don't pull the Race Card.

At 19, I was desperately searching for work to support my daughter. After what felt like countless applications and calls I finally received a call back. I was incredibly excited by this prospect. The manager was an older White woman who initially seemed courteous and professional. We spoke for at least 10 minutes sometimes joking and laughing whereupon she invited me for an interview because she had a strong feeling I would be perfect for the job. But upon introducing myself in person at the office her smile faded and she became cold and aloof. We barely spoke for a full minute before she apologized and said the job was no longer available. My disappointment must have been clearly visible because as I leaving an older White man briefly pulled me to the side and gave me a couple of business cards to try else where. He tried to smile but looked embarrassed. “She's not a bad person. She's just really old fashion about some things. She just thought you were something else when you spoke on the phone because of how you sounded. You know what I mean? Don't take it personal.” But don't pull the Race Card.

At 21, I enrolled in a class called the Tragedies of Shakespeare. I noted I was the only POC in the class but thought little of it. At the end of class the professor waited until most of the students had left and asked to speak with me whereupon he questioned if I were in the right class. When I inquired as to why he was asking he explained that Black students never took his classes so he wanted to make certain I was not making a mistake. When I asked him if he thought such a line of questioning was appropriate he apologized and the matter seemed settled. However, later that week he referred to me as a Moor in the middle of a lecture causing a number of students to audibly gasp. We had a long talk with the Dean after that. But don't pull the Race Card.

At 22, I was asked again, on the same college campus, by two other professors if I was in the right class because I was the only Black student. But don't pull the Race Card.

At 24, during the end of the semester in one of my favorite classes, I had a professor speak to me in private as to apologize. As it turns out she secretly believed I would fail because I was Black. That was deeply disappointing. But the good news is I inadvertently taught her something about herself... so there is that. But don't pull the Race Card.

People of color are told time and time again, "Do not pull the Race Card". The final insult being it is an ineffectual card forced upon us, placed in a stacked deck, held in a rigged game, and being hosted in a corrupt casino. Its a card where all your failures are doubled as yours alone and any achievements are blamed on affirmative action.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Purity and Sin

I faithfully attended Bible study until about the age of 16 or 17. One Friday evening, during youth bible study a guest pastor was introduced to us. There was nothing unusual or special about this as it was customary for young pastors to occasionally visit as guests speakers while honing their craft. He was 20ish, tall, blond, and clean shaven, wearing a dark suit without a tie. This guest youth pastor was communicative, friendly, quick to smile, and laughed easily. All were merits that lent themselves well to quickly winning over the group of teens.

After a short sermon, the boys and girls separated. The girls went off with a married couple who were nearly at the end of their studies to become pastors. Us guys went with the visiting youth pastor because he said he wanted to “rap with just the fellas”. His words. Not mine. After taking our seats the evening's sermon began. The youth pastor said he wanted to talk openly about sex and dating. Not exactly something I was eagerly anticipating.

After clipping off a piece of scotch tape, he carefully folded the strip so that the adhesive was on both sides, then asked us to pass it around twice. Despite finding the request peculiar everyone followed his instructions. By the second pass, most of the adhesive was not only noticeably absent but fingerprints also visibly smeared the entire surface.

“Do you see this fellas?” The youth pastor began with some noticeable amusement as he took the strip back from us. “Not exactly clean, is it?”

Everyone agreed with obvious puzzlement and confused laughter.

“And you might notice,” He attached one end of the tape to the top of the paper and then attempted to hang the other on the wall, but the worn tape could purchase no hold, and it all fell to the floor. “It is not only dirty. It is also no longer reliable, is it?” He retrieved the paper, crumpling it up. “Now, I'm going to be straight-up with you all here. This is exactly what a loose woman is like. Unclean, unreliable, and of no use to God-fearing men. You keep this filthy, used tape in mind when any of those girls start throwing themselves at you.”

I sat there staring at him in stunned disbelief. I quickly deduced this incredibly mean-spirited example was obviously some sort of test. Clearly, he was baiting us for some sort of clever lesson. He would wait until we began agreeing with him. He was patiently waiting for us all to begin casting our stones, then he would call us out on the hypocrisy of judging. After convincing myself of this scenario I anxiously waited.

The youth pastor talked more about the lost value of loose women. He explained why women who traded in their precious virginity for earthly pleasure before marriage could never make a good wife. Many of the boys laughed and agreed. But there were those few that seemed as uncomfortable and puzzled as I was. Maybe they were waiting for a big secret reveal as well. One that it was increasingly clear was not coming.

Perhaps, I would have remained locked in my stunned silence if the sermon had ended there. Yet, he continued on and it was the last comparison that struck something deep within me as he equated the situation to taking someone's used, worn running shoes. My disbelief began to evaporate under the roiling intensity of a new emotion burning through me. My thoughts and words occurred unbidden as I stood from my seat.

“I have a question,” I announced interrupting his sermon.

“Sure. I'm here to answer anything you need to know, brotha.” He said as he turned and smiled at me.

Throughout his Q & A, he used the term 'brother' frequently when addressing each of us. I suppose it was an attempt at camaraderie by declaring a sort of spiritual brotherhood through Christ. While that is all well and good, I also quickly noted he referred to all the White kids as “brother”, and me alone as “brotha”. Some would find this inconsequential. But much the same way of hearing a joke that was not funny the first time, repeated over and over throughout your life, it is a situation that grows incredibly annoying. As a Black person it is extremely irritating when dealing with a White person, who is clearly speaking properly with other Whites, yet when they begin directly addressing you, suddenly slide into either partial or full 'Ebonics'. I had to bite my tongue. This was irksome but it was not the thing I wanted to address. So I let it roll off of me and continued.

“Yes,” I began after a quiet breath out in an attempt to control myself. “Do you think it's right to compare actual living, feeling human beings to inanimate objects?”

The laughing in the room died off as everyone began looking between us. The atmosphere was suddenly a lot less jovial.

“I can clearly see this upset you.” The youth pastor began more seriously. “But what is wrong with calling out sin? Or truly confronting just how ugly the consequences are?”

“But I thought this was supposed to be done with love and compassion?” I asked.

“And it is. I am warning each of you out of love.” Explained the youth pastor.

“By warning us that any woman who has had per-martial sex is as worthless as a filthy pair of sneakers?” I asked with continued disbelief.

“It is clearly just an analogy to drive home the message, brotha.” The youth pastor laughed in a way that felt dismissive.

By then one of the youth pastors, Lauma, had arrived to watch from the doorway with crossed arms and a concerned expression. She normally taught the girls during evening Bible study. Perhaps she was passing by and heard what was happening.

“Regardless. You could have chosen any other way to explain this but you took the sickest route possible.” I continued. “Why?”

“Frankly, it is my lesson so I can choose how to teach it. And I believe you are so focused on the analogy that you are missing the message.” The youth pastor replied.

“So, any woman who has basically had pre-martial sex is just basically a whore?” I asked.

“I think we both know what is written in the good book about loose women,” He began with less patience. “You may not like it. You do not have to like it for it to be true.”

“What about your wife, pastor? Are you certain she was not a loose woman before you met? What about your mother? Or your sisters? Would you call them filthy if you found out any of them had per-martial sex?” I demanded.

“I think you are out of line.” The youth pastor's face visibly reddened with his tightening jaw.

“Walter!” Lauma gasped audibly. “You stop this!”

“How so?” I continued on with the youth pastor. “It is alright to cast harsh judgment on every woman, everywhere, ever? Except those who you love?”

“Stop it! Stop it, right now!” Lauma raised her voice as she stepped further into the room.

“What?” I asked with feigned confusion as I turned to her. “Me and the pastor are just rappin back and forth?” I looked back at him. “Isn't that right, brotha? I mean, isn't that what brothas do?”

“This is disrespectful. What has gotten into you?” Lauma asked with a disapproving scowl.

“Right. I'm the one saying crazy stuff.” I shook my head. Suddenly I felt this deep and nearly overwhelming disappointment swelling up inside of me. I was genuinely disappointed by this exchange. I thought better of him.

“You should apologize,” Lauma added as she continued watching me.

I looked at her and the youth pastor. Then I gathered my stuff and walked out of the room without another word.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

An Obscured Struggle

“She had light skin and long hair...”

“She was light skinned, with straight hair...”

“She had really light skin and good hair...”

I often heard these sort of phrases countless times while growing up. Such utterances were always the code words proceeding judgment if a Black girl was worthy of being granted the lofty title of beautiful. My older brothers, cousins, their friends, and many other guys around the neighborhood began or ended their stories this way when bragging.

On uniquely rare occasions they sometimes mentioned seeing or speaking to a dark skinned girl they found attractive but this came with an indication of surprise. “She is really dark skinned but still really pretty” or “she's a chocolate/dark thing but still fine as hell” was their way of explaining what was treated like a rare phenomenon.

It would be exceedingly easy to vilify these individuals or rush to heap scorn upon them concerning their perceptions about light skin vs dark skin. However, such ire would be equally misguided. Why? First, because all of these young men were only teenagers who were just easily misguided, presumptuous, and ridiculous as so many kids are.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, their own perspectives of what constituted beauty in Black women/girls were drastically distorted by older men-- who themselves were the products of a colonial education in self-degradation-- and an endless stream of potent media.

As recently as the 80s and 90s there were few, if any, dark skinned women depicted as beautiful, attractive, or desirable in films, on television, and ironically even in rap videos. It is a tragic irony that media created by us would be so frequently guilty of carrying the most venom and disdain towards Black women.

Of course, there has always been a number of positive and intellectual artists in rap and hip-hop. However, their much-needed presence does not negate or detract from the more blatantly poisonous elements of the art that eagerly encouraged young Black men to stew within a toxic form of masculinity. A mindset where musical idols are celebrated, wealthy, and famous for demeaning, insulting, and callously dismissing Black women as little more than masturbatory aids to be used, abused, and ultimately cast aside.

Black women are routinely denounced for being stubborn, 'hardened', suspicious or uncompromising. But before making such broad, superficial generalizations do their accusers ever stop to examine what it is Black women have experienced for generations? And continue to experience daily? Women, in general, must struggle against the many burdens and obstacles placed before them by both overt and covert sexism. However, no other population of women in this country is so harried by persistent scorn, double-standards, vicious judgment, harsh accusation, and seemingly endless ridicule as Black women.

Caught between what can easily be described as an immovable anvil of centuries old, systemic racism, and the relentless hammer of struggles in our own community, Black women are forced to be made of sterner stuff, as fragility would only lead to drowning in utter despair.

This understanding is not presented as a carte blanche for the actions of every individual Black woman. Nor, is this the automatic blanket condemnation of all Black men. Instead, this is a sorrowful admittance that our community suffers from centuries worth of grievous wounds that have left lasting scars. Perhaps the deepest and slowest healing of these wounds is the way we view ourselves. The way we have negatively judged our hair, skin, and features.

Not only do we exist in a society where women are constantly judged predominately based on their perceived physical desirability but it is also a nation where White women are advertised as the ultimate expression of feminine beauty. Our community has been saturated by the constant deluge of this message for generations. This is why it is a unique pain Black women have predominately carried. Acknowledging this does not somehow mock, belittle, or lessen the overall struggle of Black men. Added knowledge brings only strength.

But where does it come from? What breeds this prevalent disdain of Black women and girls that infects parts of our own community? Maybe it starts early for young Black boys. Indoctrination is not always intentional but that never makes it less dangerous when it occurs.

As kids, we frequently played a game called “Capping” or “Playing the Dozens”. In layman's terms it was a game of exchanging comedic insults like, “You so stupid, when you read a sign saying 'Airport Left' you turned around and went home” or “You so broke you have to put a color TV on layaway because you can only pay off one color at a time”. To the more nonsensically abstract ones like, “Yo momma has only 1 eye and 1 leg, and they call her Ilean”, or “Yo momma have a wooden afro with leather sideburns”. We would eagerly gather to watch two verbal combatants battle for the biggest laughs until someone gave up. For the most part, these games remained friendly-- but sometimes wounded pride could dictate otherwise.

The topics varied wildly. But mothers, sisters, and Blackness seemed to fuel a major portion of these disses. More precisely, there were a vast number of insults about how hideous, comical, or pathetic dark skin was, especially concerning women. Some believe mothers and sisters were frequently targeted because they are held in high regards thus making it easier to possible offend one's opponent. But people want to believe many things despite the contrary. There are times you cannot see what is directly in front of you for any number of reasons. Sometimes it takes someone else to show you what has always been painfully obvious.

In my 5th grade class, the moment the daily 20 minutes of free time arrived, many of us boys would gather into a circle at the back of the class to play the dozens. Like a vicious verbal equivalent of the old gladiatorial games, mercy was only granted when someone tapped out allowing a new challenger to take on the winner.

A substitute teacher, Mr. Edwin, an older Black man from NY, was monitoring the class. During his extended stay, he enjoyed frequently talking about subjects like the Harlem Renaissance and all those figures who contributed to making those times so memorable through art, music, and literature. I found a great deal of enjoyment listening to these stories because I had never heard of the Harlem Renaissance up until this point in my life. Before his small lectures, my understanding of Black history was always centered around slavery, MLK, Rosa Parks, and little else.

On this day we were having a particularly brutal exchange when Mr. Edwin moved in closer to watch with what appeared to be mild amusement and interests. For the first few minutes, he remained silent and only observed.

“Yo momma is so black,” Began Eshu to Kappa. “when she jumps into a hot bath it turns into coffee”

Everyone in the large circle laughed.

“Yeah?” Kappa smirked at Eshu. “Yo momma so Black when she spits oil comes out.”

Everyone laughed again.

“I've got one!” Mr. Edwin finally jumped in with a jovial tone to all the kid's amazement.

“Really?” Eshu asked in surprise.

“Yeah. It's a good one.” Mr. Edwin nodded. “Ready?”

Everyone nodded excitedly while encouraging him to say his joke as well.

“Yo, Momma is so Black,” Then Mr. Edwin stopped without finishing the joke.

“She is so Black, what?” Asked Kappa in confusion.

“That's it.” Mr. Edwin shrugged as he looked between us. “All of your mothers are so Black. That is why each of you are so Black.”

“That's it?” Eshu asked in disappointment.

“I don't mean any disrespect Mr. Edwin but that was wack.” Kitsune chimed in causing many of the boys to laugh under their breath.

“Oh. That's not the running joke? I thought the funny part of all this was being Black.” Mr. Edwin explained.

“What? No one said that.” Eshu replied defensively.

“Of course you did,” Mr. Edwin continued. “All of you were. You simply do not understand that is exactly what each of you are saying.”

“But there were a lot of other jokes.” Kappa reminded him.

“But not nearly as many as the ones about Black skin. Or why our mothers and sisters are comical, gross, or ugly because they are Black women and girls.” Mr. Edwin countered.

“But it's just a joke.” Eshu rolled his eyes with clear impatience.

“Let me ask each of you something.” Mr. Edwin pulled up a chair to sit with us. “Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why is it that Blackness is funny? Or why we demean our women for having dark skin? What is so funny about our natural state?”

“It is all just a joke. You are taking it way too serious.” Kitsune groaned with irritation.

“Only because I am old enough to remember when White folk were saying all those things about us in person, on the radio, the stage, and television while there wasn't a damn thing we could do about it.” Mr. Edwin continued patiently. “I'm not trying to stop any of you. I already know you would all just go running out at recess and continue there even if I told you to stop. I just want you all to think about what it is you are saying. I want you all, if even just for a few minutes, to seriously think about why is it that every punchline is little more than Black folk are funny looking or comical for being nothing more than Black folk. Or why is it that so many jokes are about how ugly our sisters and mothers are for being Black.”

Everyone was quiet as he looked between each of us sitting there in that circle. After glancing down at his watch he stood from his chair. “Free time is about up,” Mr. Edwin continued. “Now, can each of you promise me that?”

“Yes.” Most of the boys groaned out collectively as it was clear the mood had shifted.

“I know you all think its just a joke.” Mr. Edwin briefly tapped the side of his head. “But why does it have to be a joke at all our expense? Why does it have to be a joke about our women?” After that, he clapped his hands a couple of times to begin getting the rest of the class attention while walking towards the front of the room and announcing free time was over.

“I never thought about that,” Kappa admitted out loud causing some of the other boys mumbled their agreement.

“He is taking this way too serious,” Kitsune said with dismissive anger. “All that Black Power shit is so stupid. Who needs that?”

With that, we all returned to our normal seating arrangements to begin the next lesson.

I learned something incredibly important that day. There is no oppression greater than when the oppressed begin to see themselves through the eyes of the oppressors. Shamefully, even within our community, it would seem it is a cruelty Black women continue to fight and resist even to this day.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Fall

The sudden loss of a loved one is a lot like abruptly being unable to breathe. Every moment, of every day, we perform this essential but automated function without ever thinking much about it. It is only when some form of misfortune seizes this ability do we truly understand just how wonderful it feels to draw breath into our lungs. Much in the same way, when a loved one dies unexpectedly we come to understand that we may have loved them deeply, and even wholly, but we did not realize how truly special it was to have them in our lives. We took for granted the gifts of being able to see and talk to them so regularly. Now that access is revoked, we are suffocating in our grief, and we would give almost anything to breathe.

It was this harsh lesson the world thrust upon me at the age of 12 when my father was murdered.

On the morning of the funeral, I had to drag myself out of bed. The entire time I felt broken and fragmented while getting dressed, like pouring shards of a shattered mirror into a suit shaped sack. As my mother, siblings, and I drove to the mortuary the sky was a funeral cliche if there ever was one. It was gray, cold and raining with dark, heavy clouds sluggishly floating above the city like a wounded armada.

Upon arriving my sisters, and second-oldest brother all climbed out of the car to go inside. Perhaps they were each far braver than me that day because as I went to follow, I instead hesitated, then simply remained seated. Suddenly the courage to face the indisputable evidence of this awful truth had fled me. My mother noticed this of course and instead of immediately going into the funeral home with the rest of her children, she walked around the car and sat with me. We did immediately begin speaking. Maybe she was gathering her thoughts on what to say. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult that must have been for her.

I am not trying to push you.” My mother began gently with some noticeable hesitation that seemed uncharacteristic for her. “But he was,” She paused as if to reconsider her words. “, is your father, Walter. I know you said you do not want to see him this way. That you want to remember him the way he was... before he died. But if you do not come in to say goodbye, you may regret it later for the rest of your life. Just think about it.”

Perhaps a majority of parents and children would have exchanged a hug at the conclusion of such a statement. However, after saying what needed to be said, she climbed out of the car and went inside. We were not a very emotional family that displayed physical signs of affection. However, I never felt less loved in spite of this because she constantly demonstrated how much she loved us through her constant sacrifices that held more power than any words ever could.

I am uncertain as to how long I sat outside alone that day. I only remember I did not want to go in. I did not want to see my strong father, a man I believed could do anything and could survive anything, lying there in death. So, instead, I sat there staring down at my hands for a long time. I thought I would cry. I wanted to cry. But the pain was so intense it felt as if it was somehow inhibiting something deep within me.

The funeral home was on International blvd. A busy area constantly buzzing with activity. The garbled conversations of passing strangers on the sidewalk, and the constant sloshing of tires traveling across the wet asphalt, mixed with the non-rhythmic strumming of the rains falling against the car. But despite it, all my world was just my hands on my lap, that uncomfortable suit, and the gray shadows filling the vehicle.

How did this happen?” Is a question that haunted my mind again, and again. The world never felt as harsh, and heavy as it did on that day.

Occasionally I found myself unwillingly picturing the way my father must have died. I imagined what his murder must have looked like as the knife went plunging into him. It was a painful and infuriating train of thoughts with no brakes. Each time I allowed myself to think about it for too long a swell of primal, raw emotions howled from the darkest depth of my being and consoled the hurt with visions of potential, bloody revenge.

How did this happen?” The question repeated itself again as I lifted my eyes from my lap to stare at the building containing my father's remains. I was a child but I also was not completely naive. I knew the answer. His death was as violent as his life. But while I understood he was no saint this knowledge did not reduce the love I felt for him. It did not make the loss hurt less.

It was while staring at the large pair of decorative doors of the funeral home's entrance, that a new question occurred to me unprompted. “Where has he gone?” I firmly understood he was dead. I knew his body was lying inside. But that all felt like only part of an answer to this new, puzzling question. I was raised Baptist so of course, I knew and partially believed the teachings concerning the possible fate of souls in the afterlife.

But at that moment, while invisibly writhing in pain, at the bottom of that emotional impact crater, those teachings did not offer complete solace.

Was my father in Heaven? Hell? The purgatory my catholic neighbors sometimes spoke of? Or what if it was none of these. What if he was simply gone? Or wandering Downtown Oakland as some unfettered ghost? I was painfully desperate to know. I found myself wishing I could see where he had gone for just a second. But from the bottom of my heart, I urgently wanted to believe and hoped that maybe my father was finally with his mother, and brother, both who he loved so much. I briefly wondered, if there were such a place as heaven, would he have to walk there. My father loved walking and wandering from place to place.

I closed my eyes, and for a short while, it was all so easy to picture. I could see him walking with his hands in his pockets, a cigarette in his smiling mouth, and that brown hat he often wore resting on his head. He was walking down a path, surrounded by trees, through hills made gold by the summer, with the warm afternoon sun hanging overhead. My father was happy there. I think I finally began crying for a while.

There was a doubtless morbidity accompanying that sweetness. If even briefly, I found myself thinking that if I could just die at that moment, then maybe I could catch up with him, and we could walk together. It felt so profoundly real. Those hills, trees, fields, path and sun were all just a little ways away.

Come on, Walter.” My father would call out while patiently waiting along that mythical trail. How I wanted to feel my hand in his as we walked along, while he told me one of the seemingly endless jokes he remembered, or what he thought of a Stephen King book he had recently read. There would be the sun on my shoulders, and him at my side.

The wailing of a passing ambulance yanked me out of my head and away from the Elysian fields I was trying so hard to see. My fantasy was dashed against the rocks of life, stranding me once more in a reality of rain, wet cement, dim shadows, and sadness. I watched the ambulance speeding off towards whatever emergency or hospital it was trying to reach. As I wondered if the person they were responding to was dying, or dead, I truly hated Oakland for instance. I hated all the violence my city had shown me. I hated all the death I had witnessed. And I hated every selfish soul that helped usher in our collective misery.

The anger quickly abated. I was alone with my grief again. I began feeling sharp pangs of guilt about not going inside. It now felt terribly wrong just to sit outside while my father was lying in that building. Somehow, I finally managed to climb out of the car and close the door behind me. But even then I did not immediately begin my approach. I just stood there in the rain staring at that funeral home. I was realizing that more than just my father was being laid to rest. My dreams of having him around, of hearing his thoughts about my own writing, of being able to have him in my life more often, all of it was dead now.

Finally, I did go inside to face the awaiting reality. Low, yellow-orange lights, like the sad imitation of candles, lit the dim place of whites and dark browns. Orchestra music-- something heavy, slow, and sorrowful-- was playing over the speakers. I paused at the entrance leading into the chapel. I even considered turning around and going back outside. Then I opened the last door and entered.

There were not many people at my father's funeral. Perhaps even describing it as an intimate gathering would be an over-exaggeration of numbers. Most of his real friends had all died violently long before him. The only two members of his family that loved him, his older brother, and his mother were also gone. So it was just a few of us. My mother, sisters, brother, a couple of relatives, and a family friend. We all stood there around his white and silver casket. The truth is the casket was not remotely as fancy as it appeared. That was just an illusion. My family could not afford much so the funeral home opted for a sort of casing to make the plain wooden box appear more elegant for the ceremony.

I felt like I was floating on the air made nauseatingly sweet by some sort of incense. I finally stood there before my fallen hero. How utterly broken but peaceful he appeared to me as I looked down upon him with everything from love, to hate, to regret, and so many other things I could scarcely understand.

My father was dressed simply in a nice suit. The funeral home tried to make it appear as if he was only sleeping. But I understood that was as big a lie as the fake casing over his casket. He was dead and gone. As I stared down at him I remembered the last time we were together. He was laughing, joking, and talking. He gave me $5 dollars to go to the arcade but was gone before I returned. My mother relayed that he explained he had to go but would see me later. Later never came. I felt a terrible pain as I realized none of that was going to happen again.

Once more, I thought I would cry but nothing came except a grim epiphany in the form of understanding perhaps life would always be painful. Despite it all, I sincerely hoped my father was somewhere better than the hard life he had experienced. I hoped it was peaceful there. I wanted people who loved him to greet him as he arrived.

I thought about reaching out to touch my father but I dared not. It just felt inappropriate. So, instead, I settled on being able to do nothing more than stand there motionless as he waved one last time, then left down that long road.