When It Rains... Part 2
You can read Part 1 here, although it's not a requisite. I figure you'll be fine without the context, or maybe not. Free will and all...
With Mark and Mary Anne in the rearview, I switched the music to my "white boy" album of the year, I Had A Dream That You Were Mine, a collab between the lead singer of the now-defunct The Walkmen and the musical maestro who left Vampire Weekend. There's a song in particular that resonates with me, "You Ain't That Young Kid." It's ostensibly about the dissolution of a relationship, a man attempting but failing to find closure with a past life that he can only reconcile in pictures, him dancing with her in a blur of ghosts he can only see now in hindsight.
Then I received a ride request from "Albert." Almost instantly, I received a phone call from Albert, who recited to me the same address he'd entered into the app, as if he'd never used Uber, or thought I was technologically illiterate.
"I'm at the downtown library," he said. "I'm traveling to the Sequoyah Hills neighborhood. I just requested you."
"All in the phone," I said. "I'll be there soon."
The rain had subsided again, but there were still enough drops accumulating on the windshield to click the wipers every half mile or so. I figured Albert was anywhere between forty and fifty, an older white man who preferred a library card over Amazon. Instead, I rolled up to find a twenty-something in a canary yellow rain coat, holding an iPhone 4 and a planner that was encased in a zippered cover. I consider myself an old soul, but Albert had me topped. He said things like "pleasure to meet you" and "are you sure this is correct" and "I must answer this text, it's quite important," without a hint of irony or self-awareness. Albert was en route to meet a high school friend he hadn't seen in years, a high school friend who had a day job but was still a part-time drummer with a recording studio in the garage.
"I'm going to scout out the studio," Albert said. "I'm recording an album there soon."
"You a solo act?"
"For this one," he said. "I've been writing this one for some time."
"What's the name of your usual band?"
"I haven't played with these guys in eleven years," he said, "since we were sixteen years old. We called ourselves The Transformers."
Albert rested his phone and his planner on his lap, his hands clasped over them. His hair was a black bob, so black that it made his whiteness stand out more, accentuating the canary yellow trench coat and the plaid-patterned pants I now noticed. He wore slip-ons that matched his pants, probably both Polo, if I had to guess. I don't know if it was the plaid or Albert's long, downward sloping nose, but he might as well have stepped off a plane from the other side of the Atlantic. And it wasn't an affectation. Albert was Albert.
"I've been saving," Albert said. "This is the album I was destined to make."
"We must be kindred spirits," I said. "I left a comfy corporate job to finish my collection of short stories, maybe write a novel one day, or a memoir."
"I was a writer too," he said. "I took creative writing courses until my professors said I ought to pursue music, which is my passion. I've self-published two books, but they weren't very good. I'm not surprised agents didn't come calling for a third. I went back to my guitar, back to my notepad." He held up his zippered planner. "These songs wouldn't be what they are without those two books, though. Lessons, all of it."
Albert asked me what I wanted to write, and I said I wasn't sure—whatever I want, I said, at the moment. I told him I was an editor in a former life. I told him that while sitting behind a desk and fine-tuning the words of others, I'd become a pro at reading the notes, but it was someone else’s music. I’d forgotten how to pen my own melodies. I’d lost touch with my own heart. So I walked out the door, I told Albert, and I just started playing. I said that I like to think of this as my "John Coltrane year," the year Miles Davis reportedly fired him over drug abuse, and Coltrane went home to Philadelphia to detox and decided to just … play. Coltrane wasn’t afraid to miss a note, wasn’t afraid for his tongue to slip on the reed. Maybe you’re not a fan of jazz. Maybe the distinction between Kind of Blue and Coltrane is simply noise that will drown out my point. Which, I told Albert, is that I’ve found my music again, and now I can't imagine a world without it.
"Keep playing," Albert said. "Playing—that's exactly right. It should be fun, what it is we do. The proudest I've ever been is when I wrote a poem about Lou Reed, and it was accepted by a Dutch journal. I have a picture of Lou Reed's wife holding that journal. And that's enough for me, that made it."
"Figure Coltrane and Lou Reed ever had their doubts?" I asked.
"That's what the drugs and alcohol are for," Albert said. I waited for a wink or a grin, but neither came.
I pulled into the driveway and followed it around back to the three-car garage. One of the doors was open, ready for Albert, who wished me well with my writing, with telling my stories. "Keep playing," he said. I offered the same, two artists, both cheering for the success of the other, although if it could only be one...
Albert dropped his phone onto the wet concrete and said, "Aw, shucks."
I cued up Coltrane's A Love Supreme and retraced the turns out of Sequoyah Hills, a neighborhood of generations who'd been raised with multi-level homes and circle drives and three-car garages and in-ground pools. What with the rain, I couldn't go more than a few minutes without another ping, this one from "Sean," who was ten minutes away in a hilltop community consisting primarily of higher-end student apartments, an area also named for the Native Americans who once inhabited the land, the Cherokees.
Night was falling on Knoxville, and I clicked on my headlights. Coltrane was riffing on a sax solo, up tempo, pulsating, his face illuminated on my phone in black and white. "A Love Supreme, Part III - Pursuance." When I arrived to pick up Sean, he was on the phone. The rain had let up again, a drizzle. He motioned for me to roll down my window, and I did. Sean was tall, broad-shouldered, hair down to them, blond and blue-eyed, like maybe his name should be "Leif."
"My girlfriend is kicking my dog out," he said. "Are you OK with bringing a dog back?"
I said that I was, that I had a blanket in the trunk for such occasions, although more for seeing-eye dogs, not cast-offs. Sean paced in the parking lot of the complex, then punched "END" on his phone. I rolled up the window, and he sat in the front seat.
"Are you getting booted too?" I asked, high-pitching my voice to ensure Sean knew I was in this thing with him, that surely there are other fish in the sea.
"That remains to be seen," he said, like a kid who was young, but a kid who'd seen some things beyond this college life he was living. "She says she wants to talk now, so I'll just call another Uber back. It'll be a while."
"It'll all work out," I said. "Maybe not how you want it, but it'll work out. Live life in semesters right now. The rest can wait."
"I just want my dog," he said.
"That's the most important thing right now," I said. "The dog."
"I had someone before her," Sean said. "Probably the one, but I listened to everyone else. And now I'm stuck with this."
"You heard what you wanted to hear," I said. "At least you're learning early. Myself, I was a serial monogamist, didn't learn how to pick and choose. Now's the time, the stakes are low—just a dog."
"I like her cats too, though," he said.
"OK," I said. "Cats and a dog." I nearly laughed, but out of confusion, or perhaps to mask the envy for the genuine, the ability this college kid had for human emotion. "I wish I'd dated more at your age," I said, "learned how to move on and compartmentalize."
"How old are you?" he asked.
"Thirty-one," I said.
"No f***in way," he said. "I thought you were my age."
"Which is what?"
"Twenty-two," he said.
"Get the dog and go," I said. "Best advice."
"You have a dog?"
"I don't," I said. "There's a cat in Brooklyn who loved me, in a former life."
Sean wasn't sure whether to laugh or nod, so he chose the latter, not sure if the humor was dark or light. The sun had been behind the clouds all day, but it wasn't there anymore. The rain drops appeared and disappeared through my high beams. I pulled into the gravel drive of a one-story brick house on the outskirts of campus, a neighborhood of chain-link fences and cars parked in yards. Sean was solemn.
"It'll all be better in the morning," I said.
"OK," Sean said. He got out and folded his arms and slouched toward his girlfriend's front door. I realized now that he was wearing pajama pants and house shoes.
I received a request back near campus, an area I lived in as a senior in college, a historic district know as The Fort, where house parties rage and the homeless pillage. There's a boutique shop downtown that sells T-shirts that read: "The Fort -- Watch Your Back." I picked up a black woman. She was short, maybe five feet and her dreads were twisted into a beehive weave on top of her head. She was going to the university theater on campus.
"What's playing?" I asked.
"A Christmas Carol," she said. I heard island in her voice, perhaps Caribbean—it was smoky and seemed to twirl up and out of her mouth, filling the car.
"I'm the Ghost of Christmas Past," she said.
"No s***," I said.
The Ghost of Christmas Past laughed, deep, guttural. "I've performed it four times—I've got Dickens down. Can we go to the gas station first? I need to pick up some snacks for backstage."
I pulled up to the gas station and she told me to be careful in the turning lane, said that people were reckless. We made it into the parking lot, and she went in, and I put Frank Ocean's new album on in the background. I turned it up. The Ghost reappeared with a brown paper bag and asked where I was from. I said a small town west of Knoxville, and she said that my accent sounded muddled. I told her that maybe it was smoothed out up North, my time in New York City and Connecticut. She said that she was from Philadelphia, did her undergrad at Penn, came south for Tennessee's graduate acting program.
"Do you miss home?" I asked.
"It's safer here," she said, "fewer distractions."
"You goin back?"
"I haven't thought about it," she said. "I don't really want to. What about you, what do you do?"
"I'm a writer," I said. "Not professional, but I write."
"I couldn't act without writers," she said.
"I hadn't thought of it that way," I said.
I stopped at a red light and leaned against the head rest. Frank Ocean's song "Good Guy" was playing, a piano-laced acapella track about Frank's infatuation with another gay man who didn't reciprocate. She asked who was singing, and I told her Frank, told her that this was my album of the year, told her how evolved it was from Channel Orange, when Frank was still boxed in by the ambiguity of his sexuality. I told her of my affinity for early Frank Ocean, for Nostalgia, Ultra, for his days with the Odd Future gang.
"How do you know so much about Frank Ocean?" she asked.
"Music is the last hobby I have," I said, "the thing I can't make, just love."
"You can love what you do," she said. "The world is big—but it doesn't have to be any bigger than what's in your heart. Stay there, live inside it. Make that what you do."
We pulled into the parking lot of the theater. "Nice to meet you, LaRue," she said.
"Where do you live, do what you do?" I asked. "Inside your heart?"
"I have to," she said. "Always have. It was the only safe place sometimes in Philly."
"I have to ask: Are you Tennessee's first black Ghost of Christmas Past?"
She smiled: "I'll ask. I hadn't even thought about it."
I turned off the Uber app and drove to a local brewery and had a few beers and a bowl of jambalaya with a new friend. We exchanged some laughs and some poignant lines.
I drove home and cracked open another beer and sat at my dining room table. The blinds were closed, the harsh yellow of the bulbs above me the only light. If there was rain, it was faint, nearly gone. I opened my laptop and checked my email. Nothing. I began to write, to try and make sense of this Wednesday, the people I'd met, the rain. I reread a previous post I'd written for inspiration, about President-Elect Donald Trump, about the symbol that some of us perceive as a sign of regression, and that some of us cuddle up with as a safety blanket—less change. I reread the subsequent comments about my post, the folks who told me that I'd see the world differently if I ever had a family, if I ever married a woman and had a child. I reread the comments of a man who told me I seemed to be searching for an answer but didn't seem to know the question.
I wondered if a wife and a child were simply convenient answers to stave off questions. I wondered if he and I hadn't been born in the Bible Belt, hadn't been raised in Roane County, Tennessee, if our questions would be different, if we'd have a different set of priorities had we grown up in, say, on the west side of Philly, been born a different color, a different culture, had a child earlier than we were prepared to—or if we didn't believe the Lord had made us, if we prayed to Allah, or were governed by Sanātana Dharma.
I could stop asking these sorts of questions. I could. I could quit letting anyone in my car who isn't a believer, in whatever it is we're believing in, whatever it is we're protecting our children from. Some folks who read this blog tell me I'm running, and I wonder if they're running, if they're more uncomfortable because of what they haven't said than what I've left unsaid. I wonder if these familial relationships, this "me and mine" mentality, isn't as detrimental as it is beneficial. I wonder if these children who will change me will ultimately change their parents who are resistant to change.
I volunteer for the Boys & Girls Clubs of East Tennessee, and I had a boy come up to me and ask if his sandwich had ham on it. I said that it did, and he said that he couldn't eat ham, that he was Muslim. There was no other kind of sandwich to give him, not in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the other kids, black and white and other, pooled together and gave him their cookies and apples and carrots. I was hopeful, but I couldn't help but wonder how many more ham sandwiches this kid would have to turn away in life, how many more times, God forbid, his being Muslim overshadowed him being a man with convictions, whether or not Brother Trump would eventually ship him out, for nothing more than his distaste for a pig.