The second installment of a piece I’m writing that is “my story”. Please read part 1!
I mean, really? Who the hell let me dress myself as a kid? I was such a nerd. Standing next to Danny it was so clear too. It was like God decided to leave all the “smooth” on the table for him. He wore the West Philadelphia uniform of the time. Crisp polo shirt. Levi’s. Timberland boots. “Sharp” shape up. Those flannel jackets. He was, by definition, what every kid on 63rd Street looked like. Subdued and only loud when needed. Funny. Tough as hell. I don’t even know how to explain it. Remember those pre-teen and teen years? Fitting in was a way of life. In West Philly it was a survival instinct. I was clearly not born with any of that.
Being a Black man in America is a cultural third rail, just like the EL, but if you were built to be powered by Black Culture. It powered you as you churned through the city. If you aren’t built for that, it can kill you with enough electricity to light up a stadium. That was the difference. Danny naturally fit into his role as a Black man in America. For me, being of mixed race was my defining characteristic. Danny had no struggle with this, with blue eyes and an almost blonde ‘fro when he was younger, I had curly “good hair” that was brown and made me look more Hispanic. Once in school the “Espirita” club almost kicked my ass for not having any pride in my Latino roots. True story. I was so racially confused as a kid. In fact, I don’t remember meeting anyone of mixed race until much later in life other than Danny. For his part, he wasn’t much interested in exploring what that meant for us. He rightly figured the cops, teachers, and anyone with a semblance of authority treated us like we were black (read poorly). Case closed. If white America was going to treat us like everyone else in our racial context, there was nothing to explore. We were Black. I rather naively felt different. I felt we represented something new in the American experience. That we wouldn’t have to be tied to the old racial boundaries. Danny thought I was just strange.
To be clear, Danny was right. It was strange that I had a language to express this idea of racial inequity, in a not very dissimilar way from what I’m using today, at age eleven or twelve. That is a strange state to live in; to be acutely aware of race but without the fellowship of peers. I stood out and that is a capital punishment as a kid. Only fools try not to fit in. I wore it like a badge of honor. But to be honest, I would probably shake 12-year-old me for behaving that way if I had a chance until he listened to reason.
I wore all black all the time. I staged a one-man protest against the first Gulf War and wore a sign taped to my t-shirt all day. I was the anti-war sentiment. War is an abstract concept in a foreign land to a bunch of kids with semi-automatic gunfire going off regularly in their presence. I listened to strange music. In the summer of ‘89 I walked over to the thrift store and found the album that would send me into fits of music exploration. My dad had a record player and I couldn’t touch his albums. I really enjoyed vinyl. I mean he had an original pressing of Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” and I remember being mesmerized by the books of lyrics inside, the names of the producers and writers credited. The message from Stevie inside. His signature. If you ever get your hands on one of these cultural treasures, take time to open it up and explore. This relic led me to begin exploring music. It’s funny because now that I collect vinyl that I’m interested in, the best place to go is somewhere located completely outside the music’s context. In my case, it was the Talking Heads’ album, “Remain in the Light.” So, my music taste from the day I blew the dust off that record took a tangent most my peers weren’t ever going to head down. Combine that with nerd qualities that wouldn’t be part of popular culture in a positive way for at least 15 years and you have a recipe to get chased home. Every. Day.
That’s one thing, among many others, that millennials got right compared to Gen X cuspers like me. They embraced the arts, oddities, and academic achievement in a way that was just shit on when I was a kid. They made it mainstream. Safe. They hung up the 27 club. I think part of it was the fatalistic worldview we had as Gen X’ers. I mean, Biggie and 2pac taken in their prime. Kurt swallowed a gun. The constant bombardment of the slacker lifestyle by popular media into our already thoroughly recreational chemistry drenched brains. Also the constant reminder of everything the boomers had achieved. Every time something in the 90s gained steam, some adult would point to the 60s.
From my perspective, the 60s were an abject failure. In my puberty fueled intellect, the 60s had the world systems by the throat. Civil Rights, the anit-war movement, spiritual experimentation, and they all sold out to have us. A generation they couldn’t be around to raise, latchkey rejects running wild. They traded the chance for real social change for Brooks Brothers’ suits and pensions. Most kids in my neighborhood didn’t know MLK from the day we got off from school. Black history mostly talked about the thousands of uses for peanuts and the invention of the traffic light. The First time I heard the term “reparations” was from a white activist teaching in the San Francisco County Jail. Let me be clear, this was in a predominately Black neighborhood. For one month I was taught of a total of maybe 10 noteworthy blacks. In one textbook, Marcus Garvey received a paragraph. One paragraph. I heard “I had a dream” about a 1000 times but never once was directed to read “Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence.” If I was to believe the Philly public school system, a system already a horror story that could fill a whole book by itself, there were like five Black people America liked.
Between all that and the fact I was already painfully aware of not fitting in., I was in fairly bad shape. I had the early stages of alcoholism going on. This is the spiritual side of it that most rehabs don’t talk about. It manifests itself in exaggerated sense of “separateness.” Imagine as a child the theological apartness from God was something you were consciously aware of. I mean, you didn’t have shared language to describe it, but you just knew. Now, granted most teens feel that way, but with me it never left. Ever. It can creep up on me now if it wasn’t for simple spiritual exercises. In the toxic stew that was my inner psyche, I can only look back at myself in wonder. What was I thinking? That’s the point of this chapter right?
I was thinking that God abandoned us. My Family. My generation. Black America. My Mom, who by this point was taking almost nightly beatings from my Dad. My brother, who was already having his first brushes with the criminal justice system. He was being counted, measured and weighed, and found wanting by a society that had already decided his fate before he ever lashed out. I once read the Bible from cover to cover. My family was really disturbed by this. I just sat in my room and read from Genesis to Revelation only skipping genealogies and the endless rules in Leviticus. If God wasn’t kissing my Mom’s black eye. If God wasn’t in the back of the cop car with my Dad as the police took him away for a few days. If he wasn’t in the look of disgust in the cop’s eyes as he looked at my Mom for being with my Dad, not because he was beating her, but because he was black. If God wasn’t in my school on the other side of the metal detectors. Well he had to be in this book, right? I searched.
I’m convinced we experience Christ most fully within community, but I didn’t know that then. I tried everything. Books on witchcraft, hanging with 5%ers who were followers of a form of Islam that broke off from the Nation of Islam. Why not the Bible? But I didn’t know that discipleship comes with following others in the body of Christ. It also comes with a cost.
I was thinking that I got the short end of the stick. I was thinking the Pledge of Allegiance was a joke. I was thinking that my Dad was a monster. I was suspecting my Mom would never wake up and leave. I was thinking my brother was going to end up dead in the streets. I was thinking that River Phoenix was a role model. I was thinking that I was worthless. I was thinking that my extended family had to know what was happening in my home. I was thinking David Bryne was a genius. I was thinking Biggie was a victim of COINTELPRO. I was thinking maybe I would be better off on my own.