Go West, Young ... Man? Part 2
On Saturday I'm boarding a plane from Nashville, Tennessee, to Charlotte, North Carolina, and then flying to the capital of Italy. It'll be just my second time leaving the United States. The first was back in early May, when I flew direct from JFK to Ireland and drove on the left side of the road, swerved out of more than one roundabout, poured my first Guinness from behind a bar counter in Fishertown. So, physically speaking, I know exactly where I'm headed—existentially speaking, well, I'm still as uncertain as when I left The Worldwide Leader in January and applied for a passport at the post office in Hartford, Connecticut.
I reckon a lot of us would say the same about this country of ours, that we aren't quite sure where it's headed, just what to expect next. I bet some folks would even say it's one of those times you think you'll never live to see, sort of like you never think you'll hurt the ones you love, right up until you break their hearts. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I imagine to those folks this juncture in our nation's history must feel like it did to the white folks who never thought they'd sit in a classroom with a black person, much less live to hear their great-grandchildren call sitting cross-legged anything other than "Indian-style."
Truth be told, I don't have any business talkin politics, seein as how this election will be my first ballot ever cast, at thirty-one years old. For those just joining Uber Nights, you did read that right. It was an admission I made in Part I of my "things about me you oughta know" trilogy, when I revealed what lies at the heart of this existential journey. And I reckon those who've been followin along think they have a decent idea about which way I'm leanin. I can't help but find it funny though—in that ironic way—that who I'm voting for has become what defines me in this America, that it has not only become where I'd like for this country to be headed, but that it has become my creed, my sexuality, my race, that the faces of this man and this woman on buttons pinned to our chests have damn near come to represent two different species of human being. And for those of you exercising your democratic right not to choose one, or to not choose at all, then, to hear some tell it, you might as well not exist.
Maybe I'm misremembering. Maybe this is the way it's always been. The twenty-year-old girl who cuts my hair told me she thinks people are just sayin what they want a lot more, and a whole hell of a lot louder, cause what have they got to lose now. So maybe it's me, maybe I'm the one who was hidin behind a desk, disconnected from social media, disconnected from society. Maybe I just haven't been desensitized yet to the Facebook and the Twitter, to all this hollerin and hatefulness and finger-pointin. Or maybe not. Maybe the fact that there's a 50/50 chance we end up with the first woman runnin the White House has folks dreadin more change, dreadin that this country might go sixteen years or more without a white man in the Oval Office. But regardless, wasn't there a time when what happened inside that booth stayed between you and the lever?
My father, God rest, always joked that if you don't have any money, then there ain't any sense in bein a Republican. (Oh, how times have changed.) My father was born in Georgia in 1926, when a Republican lawyer from Vermont named Calvin Coolidge was POTUS. My father told me his philosophy about bein a Democrat when he was sixty-six and I was seven, the year William Jefferson Blythe, a lawyer from Arkansas, ended the Republicans' twelve-year reign, back when I wanted to take up the sax thanks to ol' Bill, back before ol' Bill and Monica did whatever they did in the Oval Office.
But I also seem to remember my mother and my father telling me to never ask a person who he or she was voting for, that it wasn't any of my business. I also seem to remember that my mother and my father did not vote the same that election. I guess I seem to remember—as a seven-year-old, mind you—that we all figured we'd get through this together, no matter who we decided to put in the White House. Nowadays, I ain't so sure.
Truth be told, I didn't talk to many folks on my trip out West, other than former colleagues and classmates and an old, old friend—folks who already think the same as me, or if they don't, then whatever face is on that button on our chests, well, it doesn't change what we believe has always been behind it, in our hearts. There is a common misconception that I can Uber everywhere, as the rap song goes, but I actually cannot accept rides outside my home state. That is to say, it was an awful lonely 7,500-or-so miles I traveled, eight states in all, not including the length of Tennessee.
I'd like to tell you that the sole reason for my introspection was to appreciate the scenery and the sounds, or the lack thereof, out there in the vastness of our great country. And I did stop often on backroads, somewhere in New Mexico, and somewhere in Arizona, and somewhere in Utah, stretches with no cell service, stretches when I didn't spot another person or piece of machinery for hours and miles. Just me and that endless length of yellow-lined asphalt, somewhere between the mesas and the tumble weeds and the cacti. Just me and that expanse, underneath a sky as clear as a window cleaned with newspaper, underneath a flame so burnt-orange that you'd surely singe your retinas to stare straight into it. But still, you can't keep from tryin, can't keep from wanting to behold this ball of ever-evolving colors as it sinks closer and closer to eye level, afraid you might never get this close again, or it might not rise tomorrow.
It makes you shed real tears, the untamed beauty, fills you with hope that we haven't plopped down a factory that went to Mexico instead, or a Wal-Mart, or a yoga studio, or a farm-to-table restaurant and an organic coffee shop that will attract rich folks who will build pueblo brownstones. The man I call my grandfather, a man who drove semis after twenty years in the military, said to me that you almost feel like, standing alone in the stillness, the Indians will ride out and snatch you up any minute. I didn't tell my grandfather that those caricatures on horseback aren't called Indians anymore, or that most of the Native Americans I saw walked along the side of the road, or rode around town in beaten-up pickups, drinking tall boys to turn the clock, cause a wreck likely wouldn't hurt anyone but them, maybe knock down a cactus or two. I just nodded and kept sippin my coffee on the screened-in front porch.
Friends and former colleagues and classmates who read this blog, some of them writers themselves, many of them college graduates, ask me why I do not correct my grandfather even though his words were said without malice, why I do not speak up when my family or my friends or the riders in my car say something politically incorrect, or something asinine, or something completely misinformed. They ask me why I do not preach my gospel. I'm ashamed to say that I did not interact with many folks on my trip West out of exhaustion, that I simply wanted to hike and drink beer and listen to the Pacific Ocean rather than hear about Sister Hillary v. The Donald, fearing that I might be misunderstood or misunderstand my fellow Americans. In my car, I'm in relative control—there are pleasantries and pre-set parameters, there is a destination, a start and a finish, and I tend to steer the conversation, mostly toward the passenger, because this journey is about nothing if not listening, about hearing all sides, no matter how asinine. Because in the war against ignorance, one has to pick his battles.
If I spoke first, drew a line behind which to stand, then I might never have found any common ground, not with the young black man who I often drive to the post office for his nightly shift as a janitor, the young black man who has opened up to me with each passing trip, told me that he's not sure what to think or how to feel about this election, that he respects and admires many of the white men he works alongside, many of them veterans, many of them voting for Trump, who this young black man believes has not an ounce of respect or admiration for his people. This young black man admitted to me this week that he is not the "normal black person," that he doesn't listen to rap much, that he prefers books, mostly ones about fantasy or worlds beyond this one. But he told me that he listened to Kendrick Lamar's album, "To Pimp A Butterfly," for the first time recently, and he told me that it inspired him to write, to seek out poetry, that it got him to thinking about what it means to be black in this America. I told him that I listened to that album many times myself. I told him to follow that instinct, to put his thoughts on paper, to figure out where he fits in this America, why it is that he even feels the need to qualify that he isn't a "normal black person."
And if my story does become the focal point of the lens, as it did during my confessional trilogy, as it has during this two-part episode, then, well, I'm aiming that lens squarely at yours truly—unlike Mr. Charles M. Blow of The New York Times fame and Mr. Dale Partridge of Facebook fame, men who have decided to point fingers, men who have decided that they've done whatever soul-searching they need, that they are ready to tell us, the American people, the way things are.
A friend of mine from grad school told me that he is proud of me, proud of my growth as a writer, proud of my soul-searching and my seeming honesty, but that as a fellow writer, he isn't completely convinced of my truth-seeking. He told me after the post in which I confessed to cheating on my girlfriend of six years that he wondered if my "truth" wasn't simply a version to be written now and edited later, for a space that could handle a harsher "truth," for a space where I could ponder how I affected the lives of those two women, how it has "truly" affected mine. He told me that he believed I was an editor by nature, always in pursuit of the perfect version, that he questioned whether I was actually after the "truth," or just pandering to a willing audience. His was an honest assessment, I believe, an honest assessment from a man who married the woman he loves, a man I admire and respect. And he is right about one thing, that this "truth" of mine could and probably should be edited later, that it will take on a different form in another space.
I've referenced breaking the "fourth wall" before, of pausing and speaking directly to you, the reader. But I guess it never dawned on me that perhaps I should tell you, the reader, that all writers self-edit, that most all writers also have editors, that any words you read, whether on a blog or in a book, have been crafted, the story specifically structured to fit between those two covers or on your smart phone. I sincerely hope, as a writer, that you as readers do not assume for a second that my life stops after each post, that I do not reconsider every word I've written after I've hit "publish," that these posts are a literal recording of each ride, that the young black man who is a janitor at the post office might very well have a different version of our story.
I sincerely hope that you do not assume a writer's "truth" will remain steadfast, that I will not look back at this blog many years from now, God willin, and say, "What was I thinking? Who is that kid writing?" I sincerely hope that you do not assume that any autobiography in the Library of Congress chronicles the entirety of a person's life. I sincerely hope that you do not assume that we, as writers, are not meticulous in considering what to include and what to leave out, that we are not cognizant of the pain we might cause others, the people whose truth is inextricably linked to ours. I sincerely hope that you do not assume we can "truly" explain or assess another person's joy or another person't heartache or another person's regret. Try as we might, we as writers can only glean from our own experiences and sympathize or perhaps empathize, but that is all.
Only you know your "truth," only you can "truly" tell your story, and while an autobiography or a novel or a poem or a speech might inspire you, might resonate so deeply that it opens a door in your mind that will lead to a better understanding of your own "truth," it remains yours and yours alone. I sincerely hope that you never take any author's word as gospel, only as his or her version of the gospel, his or her explanation for this existence, his or her attempt to burst this bubble that we're living in.
Truth be told, my mother tells me that people just want to be entertained. She says that the majority of the few readers I do have aren't going to be worried about the finer points of essay and memoir, that what little readership I have wants to read about this guy and these five women and Leroy's mother (who's doin fine, by the way), that any newcomers I might gain from this web site certainly won't want to be subjected to uber-meta diatribes. My mother tells me that I shouldn't worry about my writer and editor friends, who are borderline geniuses, like me. (Her actual words. And don't worry, writer and editor friends, I'll thank her for the undeserved compliment.)
If you've been following along (and I appreciate it), then perhaps you noticed that I didn't qualify my mother with "God bless her." Many of you have told me that you tend to agree with her more than me, and admittedly, I do use her voice for effect, a stabilizing counterbalance to my "what does it all mean" petulance. But it's more than that too—I have likely hurt my mother's feelings during this process, and I have subjected her to a form of voyeurism she did not ask for, watching her son grapple with parts of life that most mothers aren't privy to, and for good reason. My mother did not ask to be a part of this process, did not ask for things she has said or moments in her life to be put on Facebook or on a web site for anyone who has the Internet to read.
A lot of writers will tell you that "their" story is theirs to tell, that if another person disagrees with their version of the "truth," well, to hell with 'em, that person can go and write "their" version of the "truth." I don't know if I disagree or agree, but I do know that I've been given a gift. I would be silly not to admit that, to not admit that I can string together words better than some. We all have gifts, and the best of us put our gifts to use in the name of good. My mother, God bless her, loves me unconditionally. In this time of all my questioning, that is something I do not question. My mother will be there for me, no matter if I never write another post, no matter if I never manage to get my name on a spine in the Library of Congress. I will always have my mother's heart. But there are two women out there in the world trying to construct lives without me in them, two women who are protecting their hearts because of me. There are two women out there who have a version of a story that is likely quite different than mine, two women who might be reading these words at this moment, or have friends who will relate to them my words, perhaps out of context. I have to be cognizant of those women, two women who are searching for their own "truth" and their own "true happiness," which I hope they find.
As a writer, I have an obligation to you, the reader, an obligation to open doors in my mind and bring you inside rooms, to let you look around and pick things up and examine them, to rub the fabric of the comforter between your fingers, to try and explain to you why the room has been decorated in a particular fashion or design. Yet some doors must remain closed, at least for now, rooms that are filled with unpacked boxes and discarded furniture, rooms that are under construction, rooms where I still have some decorating to do. Those relationships I left behind, my father's death, my relationship with my mother, they live in those rooms, and the doors to those rooms, at least as this blog is concerned, could remain shut for a long while, maybe a lifetime. Maybe I will open those doors one day, in the form of a poem, or of an abstract image, or perhaps I'll learn guitar and write a tune, sing about those rooms in a song.
That is to say, I am often envious of other artists, those artists who can connect with us in abstraction, who transport us to a space where proper nouns are irrelevant, those artists who can wrap the saddest of stories inside a sweet melody, those artists who can step aside and let us attach our own meaning to the emotions their work conjures up. That is certainly not meant to say that those crafts are any less arduous or painstaking to create, but the written word, raw and unadulterated and presented as fact, well, it carries with it a burden, the burden of a society that believes anyone can and should be able to read those words and to write them down. And here is where I must be careful, must be deliberate with my words. Because I agree with that sentiment, in theory at least, that every person's words are worth hearing, that every person's story is worth being written down.
I also believe that sentiment has always been up for debate, and that it hits at the core of our current predicament, the idea that one person's words, one person's story carries more weight than another's. Or that there are places where such words do not belong, places where those words that we deem worthy of hearing or of reading will lose their nuance and their meaning, places where those words will fall on deaf ears. Some of those writer friends and editor friends of mine have questioned my experiment with the socials, questioned why I'm relegating arguably my best work thus far to the Facebook and to Instagram, places where the nuance and the meaning might go unnoticed, places where these words could be rendered ineligible for literary journals because I chose to publish them for free, unedited and unvetted.
I am conflicted about this. I have a desktop full of unpublished short stories, enough to fill another blog, enough to self-publish a collection. And yet I wait, I wait for people I've never met and might never meet to send me an email and say that whatever "truth" I was seeking in that piece of fiction is worthy of the world's time. And yet I write to you with all of my heart, I seek a version of my "truth" for all the world to read, or to not. I risk hurting my mother's feelings, or losing friends and perhaps even relatives, because of these words that could disappear tomorrow, could be deleted from my web site and my Facebook page, as if they never happened. And what to make of that? What to make of their worth without an ISBN number, without living in posterity on the shelves of the Library of Congress? Why write these words if there is no promise of praise? Why write these words if there is no promise of forgiveness?
Truth be told, every word I've ever written has been written for my father, not for any editor or any check. I realize now that he is the reason for this public display of soul-bearing, for these Uber Nights, that he is the "truth" I seek, the "truth" I might never find.
My father was fifty-nine when I was born, a man who I've always assumed wanted another child to correct any imperfections he might've had as a father to my much older brother and sister, who had a different mother, who were the children of a much younger man, perhaps a man who had yet to learn from his mistakes, unlike the man I called dad. He was semi-retired when I came along, a man who had made a fine living as an editor and part-owner of small-town newspapers, back when words in ink were the country's only true source of information, the country's only true source of communication, a community's only true source of record, of its stories.
In every apartment and condo I lived in after leaving Tennessee, I displayed a black-and-white photo of my father as a young man in his late thirties or early forties, the man I never knew, someone else’s father. I did this, I believe, because it was easier than staring at a color photo of the man I do remember, the one who I believe would be disappointed in me, some of the things I've related in these posts. That black-and-white man has a long, handsome, chiseled face, the kind that you rarely see now outside of an old film. He is wearing a dark suit with a skinny tie—the ones that have since come back into style—and he has a pipe in his mouth. He has the cleanest, crispest flat top I have ever seen. I like to look at that black-and-white photo every once in a while and pretend I can ask that man his regrets, his outlook on the life ahead. I like to pretend that I could ask that man what he thinks of the man I’ve become, if he thinks my father would be proud.
My father was of another generation, of an era when picking up a person on the side of the road was the polite thing to do, no matter who they might be voting for, a time when a cup of coffee or a beer and a story was what passed for entertainment on the front porch. My father never left this country, although he served his four years in the military, jumping out of airplanes, a basic-training instructor during World War II. When they tried to convince my father to stay, to be a career military man, he put a nickel in the jukebox and played a song I cannot remember, and said to them, "Boys, I'm going home to Tennessee."
He rarely left after that. He told me he flew to New York City once on business, and instead of hanging around to see the sites, he climbed in the cab and went straight to the airport. My father never drove the Pacific Coast Highway or peered down into the Grand Canyon, but my father was an asset to Kingston, Tennessee—he told the stories of its people in the newspaper; he was the public address announcer at high school football games (the press box bears his name) and the clock operator at basketball games; he was the man who folks, both black and white, would call when they needed a loan to help pay a month's mortgage, right up until he had to say that he was doing well to pay his own. My father was a Democrat who served as the Republican press secretary in the Tennessee state capitol. My father would drive just about anyone anywhere for free, would listen to his or her story for sustenance, would ask questions instead of proselytize because he believed that was how you learned something, that was what you owed a fellow American.
My father wrote me a letter on April 19, 1998, three days before I became a teenager: "You are a very delightful young man: a good student, a good athlete and most importantly, a person of good character and judgement. I am confident you will retain the latter and grow up to be a real asset to the community in which you choose to live." My father wrote, "You will be what you will be by the company you keep, or better said, the friends you choose for yourself." My father wrote that life would be enjoyable and profitable if I continued to follow what I knew to be the right road, and not leave it for temporary acceptance by those who could lead me astray. My father wrote to continue to believe in the Lord.
Two and a half years later, in December of 2000, my father stepped awkwardly off the sidewalk as he was leaving one of my high school basketball games. He hit his head on the concrete and his brain would unknowingly begin to hemorrhage, and he would eventually go into a coma, a coma that would last a week before we pulled the plug and brought that seventy-four-year-old man home, to the one-story, red-brick house atop a steep hill in Kingston, Tennessee, the home where I rocked with him on the front porch and sang about a weeping willow tree, the home my mother left the day after I graduated college. My father stopped breathing on a Sunday, and I didn't shed a tear, didn't miss a day of high school, even the day they buried him, telling my fifteen-year-old self that is what he would've wanted, convincing my fifteen-year-old self that I had a legacy to live up to, a dead man who so many had admired to not let down. I have the perfect attendance plaque packed away in a box in a room.
Most all of his life, my father was known as “Boots,” a nickname given to him as a kid for no other reason than that's what came out when his infant brother tried to say “brother,” or so the legend goes. My parents named me after my father, named me "LaRue" to carry on the legacy. I have fallen so utterly short, of it and that letter's promise. I have a resume that would impress many, yet I have not been an asset to any community in which I've chosen to live, save for maybe that campus in Bristol, Connecticut, all those hours I poured into The Worldwide Leader, a paycheck and my own self-worth the selfish motivations. I still do not believe I am an asset to any physical community, not yet, but I believe I am an asset to this one, this space of our stories and our daily lives, this space where, to hear some tell it, words of any real substance need not be wasted.
My grad school friend, the one who said he was proud of me but uncertain of my truth-seeking, was right: I am searching for the perfect version of every post; I am toeing the line between hopefulness and despair; I am doing my damnedest to keep that camera lens pointed squarely at yours truly; I am revealing the version of my "truth" that might open up doors in your mind, might cause you to examine rooms that you've decided aren't worth redecorating, or that will always be the one closed off from company, the place where you stash the boxes you'd rather not rummage through. I have purposefully made what little name I have on humility, almost to a fault. And so it seems arrogant of me to admit that, that I believe my words will mean something to you, will inspire you in some way, albeit minuscule. But I have been afforded an opportunity that few are given, the opportunity to write without fear of a bottom line, without fear of reprisal from an employer, without fear for the well-being of the partner and the children I do not have.
A woman I met recently, a woman who is about my age, sent me a direct message and told me that she started my blog from the beginning, that she read every word and that she was inspired to start her journey, to discover herself anew. I have heard writers say that their pursuit is to touch even one person, regardless if that person is a paying customer. And while I can't speak for them, I can speak for myself, and I can tell you that her direct message is reason enough for me to wake up and write some more, that all I've ever hoped for was to make someone else believe in his or her own story, to believe that it is worth telling, on whatever platform, even if it is simply on a front porch or at a bar counter.
I believe my father would agree with that. I believe my father would be proud of these posts, although not what prompted them. I believe he would admire me for them, for driving folks around, albeit for a fee, although he would worry about me, much like my mother.
Truth be told, I do not know who my father would vote for in this election. He did not live to see a black man become president, and I do not know how he would feel about a woman being in the Oval Office. I was fifteen the last time I saw my father. Fifteen is young, but it can also feel like a grown man. I am thirty-one now, and I miss my father, have not heard his voice now in a long, long time. I realize that the "truth" I am seeking is the man I've become, knowing that I'll never have his approval, that I'll never have his praise or his forgiveness.
My father, of course, did not live to see Facebook, and I do not know what he would say about social media, about how it has affected our society. So I do not know what he'd think of a video in my timeline this week, a video of a young black man giving "free hugs" to police officers wearing riot gear in Charlotte, the place where I will layover for about an hour on Saturday, as if there is nothing to see. This young black man is being screamed at by other black people, being called a traitor, being told that he is just another n***a to these officers. And then tear gas is fired off camera, perhaps gun shots, and the camera shakes and the person filming starts running, as does the young black man trying to give "free hugs."
I do not know what my father would think of this, what he would think of those black people having to resort to protest, the fact that we've let their words and their stories go unheard, the fact that anyone would have to give out hugs for free. But the man I've become can't help but wonder: How the f*** did we let ourselves get here? How can we blame anyone but ourselves? How much longer are we going to keep yelling and keep hating and keep pointing fingers from inside our own four walls, how long are we going to keep waiting on someone wearing a badge on their chest or with the security clearance to get into our nation's capitol, until we go out and fix it, until we go out and listen to someone else's story, hear someone's side who might not vote for the same person?
I am a man with many faults, a man whose words you can certainly take with a grain of salt. But whether it is Sister Hillary or whether it is The Donald we decide to put in the Oval Office on Nov. 8, not a damn thing is gonna change in Charlotte or in Dallas or in Orlando or anywhere, not until we decide we're going to get through this together. I believe my father would agree with that.