I resist the urge to speak on this, these events of the day.  I do so now with a sigh, acknowledging that to respond to the news is to be governed by the news.  I speak now only because I have something to share that I have not yet heard.  Something I learned from a friend, that I repeat any time the conversation turns toward the interests and activities of Black Americans.

In the years between my departure from Tallahassee in 1993, and my return in 1998 I covered a lot of territory.  As young people will, I set out into the world to test myself.  In a culture and time where the rites of passage were poorly defined, or unappealing, I sought experiences that I hoped would reveal to me the limits of my courage, the depth of my character.  Mine was a mad run, with the responsibilities of adulthood stalking my trail.  I refused to sign leases, obtained no credit, and owned few items I would not abandon in an instant.

For a young man interested in testing his character, in plumbing his courage, there are only two arenas. There is the choosing of the harder path, the physical inanimate world and the timeless tests of nature, or there is positioning oneself counter to others, and bracing for the intimate struggle of one’s will against the will of another.  In my five years of wandering I found both.  Much of what it is written here is an accounting of that first arena.  The snow-blind drive over icy Interstate 90 to watch the sun rise from a natural hot spring, naked in sub-zero temperatures, bleating Wapiti a few hundred feet away.  The first trembling steps up a rock face, chalked and taped fingers driving into cracks until they bled. Backpacking for days along the Bridger ridge, hunkering down in fear as lightning crackled both above and below and the rain threatened to scrape you from the mountain.   Descending down a line into ancient tunnels formed 350 million years ago.

Then, onto the world of humans and the challenge of surviving among them.  I took a job as a bicycle messenger to glide through the city of Portland, one steadying hand on a bus as the rain splatters in the polished, granite gutters.  Loafing in coffee shops testing the merit of your thoughts, your wit, sullenly measuring yourself against the other clownish knights errant, little boys playing dress up in daddy’s wardrobe.  Pretend businessmen holding fingers over their lips like mustaches before slinking back to our dish-washing jobs and bailout checks from mommy.

These experiences are not enough for a young man still not fully formed, perhaps rattled by how hard it all is!  How to become a somebody when the world is full of nobodies?  I don’t want to be a nobody, but maybe that is all I am up for becoming. These are the thoughts that keep a young man awake at night, gripping the sweaty bed sheets as he feels the uncaring earth hurtle through space.

Desperate, in a panic to find my somebody-ness I fled the country.  I malingered in the streets of Barcelona, shacked up in a flat full of worldly students who all seemed to know exactly who they were and what they were out to become.  One of them a doctor already, and sixty-two years old, a woman from Cuba who cooked sometimes and explained that in Cuba one had to know how to cook if one was to make arroz con pollo delicious sin pollo.  As they went off to school each day I rode the metro to a language school where I whiled away the hours with delightful students as we blew off the textbooks in favor of vino tinto and tortilla de patat.

Finally, for my grand finale, I swung by the destroyed nation of Bosnia-Hercegovina, to get close, but not too close, to the horrors of war.  Thinking perhaps a young man’s character could be tested by proximity to suffering.  I heard stories of hideous atrocities and smoked cheap cigarettes with the people who survived them, while my own test was constructed more of enduring the rattling and endless train rides, the warm beer, and the shame of a passport that could end my tour while others would live out this misery to its final end.

So all of this background, forgive me, to bring us to a moment on a porch in Tallahassee, FL.  Taking in the evening with my co-worker, Dwayne back in 1998.  We worked together in the evenings at a shelter for runaway teens.  A place full of noise and tears that reminded me of the busiest nights I worked in the busiest restaurants where the overwhelming requests for un-met needs ran together and the only thing that separated me from the weeds was the ability to stay in the zone.  Table nine needs butter, food is ready for seven, fresh round of drinks for fourteen, drop a check on ten, Double-sat on five and two, Tamika wants to call her mom again, Daniel needs his meds, Anthony and Theo want to go outside to play ball, Michaela and Steven are trying to make out in the TV room, and nobody knows it yet, but the newly arrived 12 year-old Kiya is trying to set herself on fire with a curling iron under her pillow in room 2.

Dwayne and I thrived at this work.  By helping these runaways I found the courage to stop running away.  I found out what kind of somebody I was meant to be.  He and I quickly connected, able to read each others’ thoughts during crisis and choreograph interventions on the fly.  At the end of a shift at midnight we sometimes talked in the parking lot for another 20 minutes, debriefing what went through our minds during one episode after another.  Eventually we moved those sessions to Dwayne’s porch on 8th Avenue, a cute yellow house two blocks from my own shabby dump on 10th Ave.  One Saturday, after a few Lowenbraus on the porch we were swapping stories of our pre-shelter lives.  I opened up my hymnal and sang to him about the big skies, the bike rides, the fresh powder daze, throwing everything I had at him to impress him and further earn his respect.  He just shook his head at me over and over, in a continual negation of all I had done to make myself me.

A little bit hurt, a little bit annoyed I asked him, ” Dwayne man, haven’t you ever wanted to try any of these adventure sports, to see what you are made of?” and that is when he explained to me, “John man, you don’t get it, being a black man in America is a full time adventure sport, I don’t need to do anything to decrease my chance of survival.”


He called me the day after Thanksgiving.  It was good to hear his voice.


8 Responses to Lessons

  1. Truth. It always makes me cry because, well, my daddy knew it and I didn’t want to know it: It’s hard out there in the real world. No matter how much we camouflage ourselves, hide, or run away, we always get caught — and get undone — by truth. And maybe just being true to ourselves and looking out for others is enough. Then again, maybe it isn’t.

  2. This is absolutely beautiful and absolutely true.
    Not quite the same but I remember once telling a friend of mine about another friend of mine who was into this sweat lodge thing. Some sort of (possibly faux) Native American was going around and doing these sweat lodge rituals with people and anyway, my friend I was talking to about it said, “Well, sure the Native Americans did things like that. They didn’t have to drive in five o’clock traffic.”
    Which sort of struck me as profoundly true.

  3. It’s one thing to say “walk in another man’s mocassins,” but in so many ways, we just can’t, can we?

  4. Yeah man! This one goes in the book. Well done. During the time of the aquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King to death I recall a serious from the heart discussion I had with my friend Leotis MacNeil. I said to him “What can we do Mac?” He said, “You stand up and speak truth to your own people. Mine already get it, but yours don’t want to hear it from us.” He was right and you just did that.

  5. Cops blasted through my neighborhood yesterday. As they accelerated past my house, their blood-up faces relaxed for a split second to give me the “hey fellow citizen” nod.

  6. I heard what you said. This post has bobbed up to the top of my thoughts several times now. Perhaps Dwayne might have more use for cycling as a vehicle to get from the tragically mundane suffering of being a black man in America to the surprisingly complete joy of rushing thru the woods on a life-affirming bike ride.

    We got to get that Happiness where we can…