Things About Me You Oughta Know, Part 1
"I don't make songs for free, I make 'em for freedom." —Chance the Rapper
A year ago this month, I gave the student address at my MFA graduation in Mystic, CT, and I said then that I'd just as soon the speech gods put a moratorium on using Merriam-Webster to make a point. But I've been thinkin an awful lot about the word "change." There's no denyin that I needed a change, that up and leaving The Worldwide Leader and returning to Tennessee was about the only way I was going to find my better half, become whole again. The word stayed on my mind often this past weekend, as my mother turned 60 and the United States turned 240, as we celebrated our independence, our freedom, maybe forgot for more than a few beers the predicament we find ourselves in. I'm inchin toward 750 Uber trips, from Hartford to Knoxville to Nashville, and I believe I've talked to enough folks, canvassed enough generations to tell ya that this is the most monumental year in America's relatively short history. It seems like a lifetime ago that Brother Obama told us our country could use a "Change," doesn't it? In the spirit of this existential journey, and in the spirit of this relationship we seem to have goin, I'll admit that I didn't cast a ballot in that historic election. I'll admit that this November will be the first time I've ever voted, at 31 years old. Like I said, I'm doin my damnedest to get over this apathy, to change. It's a simple word, with a simple definition: "to become or to make different." But the concept, for me at least, is still as complicated and convoluted and confounding as I assume it was when Sam Cooke crooned that it was gonna come more than half a century ago. I guess what I'm sayin is, it ain't easy.
Those of you who've been following along (and I appreciate it) might remember that I have an affinity for a talented young rapper named Vince Staples. I'll sneak in a track or two of his for the twenty-somethings, between Drake and Chance and Future. And while I don't suggest everyone go out buy his debut LP—this Long Beach kid ain't for the faint of heart—I'd at least ask you to indulge me by considerin these lines of his, a Sam Cooke-send up, albeit less hopeful: "School wasn't no fun, couldn't bring my gun/Knowin' change gonna come like Obama and them say/But they shootin' everyday 'round my mama and them way/So we put an AK where Kiana and them stay/And that's for any n---a say he got a problem with me." I'm not sure when Vince penned those words, but his album was released last year, so I imagine he wrote them at least a couple years back, back before we could've foreseen a clash between The Donald and Sister Hillary, back before Orlando, back before Brexit, back before Facebook Live was invented to capture police shooting Philando Castile, back before talk of walls and my momma bein scared to death for me to get on a plane again, back before 2016 became a watershed year for us, although I'm startin to wonder what "us" means to us anymore. And whether or not the "them" that Vince raps about will do much for "us" after November. As Vince would probably remind ya, I, like most white folks, don't have a damn clue about growin up near Ramona Park, wouldn't have the slightest idea what change might look like to him and his momma. But I do know what it is to be indifferent, fatalistic even, to balance my patriotism with a heavy does of proverbial AK—to question just how much "them" can change the disconnect between "us."
For the first time in a long time, I spent the entire July 4th weekend in Kingston, TN, with family, with the people I love, people whom I believe would take a bullet for me, people whom I believe would shoot one for me, if they had to. I'd like to believe I'd do the same, if it was us or them—course I'd have to borrow one of their pistols. I listened to some of them reminisce, as I often have, about that vague, rose-colored era before this country "went to hell in a hand basket." My mother, God bless her, would later tell me, sittin on my screened-in front porch, that that's all we know, that we'd stop on the side of the road to change a tire for any person, no matter their color, that she's seen it with her own eyes. My mother told me that we only wish everyone, whatever their creed, had to work hard for a living again, that everyone, no matter what letter of LGBQT they fall under, had to be held accountable again, that we only wish children could pray in schools again, that we only want to feel safe again, that we carry guns on our hips or in our boots because you never know anymore. (I don't pretend to be on The Donald's wavelength, but I'd be willin to bet he's whisperin, "Make America Great Again," in whichever of his towers he's leanin back in.) My mother told me that most folks aren't gonna change, no matter what I write, that people, in her experience, don't tend to change anyway. And so I asked her then if she hadn't watched her son change these last six months. I asked her then if I ought to just give up on this nonsense, drivin people around for almost nothin and writin about it for free, if it ain't gonna change nothin no how. My mother, God bless her, pursed her lips and was quiet for a minute. She shook her head no. She shrugged her shoulders and told me to go on and do what I'm doin, that I'm going to anyhow. My mother said, "I'll be behind you, even if people quit readin."
But this past weekend, I sat at the dinner table and did what I told myself I wouldn't do. I turned my eyes down and kept on eatin my ribs and cole slaw, lettin apathy get the better of me. I licked my fingers and stacked up the cleaned plates and went on, without saying a thing. I went on and rocked in a rocker on my grandmother's front porch and thought about my ride with Ms. Johnson, a black woman in her sixties whom I took to physical therapy the week before. Ms. Johnson and her son had been in a car accident. They were at a stop sign when a flat-bed truck carrying metal beams went in reverse. "My son looked at me and said, 'Momma, he ain't stoppin,'" Ms. Johnson said. "My son said, 'Momma, you're gonna have to jump.'" So Ms. Johnson and her son dove out of the car, just before those metal beams smashed through the windshield. She handed her phone to me, so I could see the damage in a picture. "Why was he backin up?" I asked. "The policeman asked the same thing," Ms. Johnson laughed. "I said, 'Mr. Policeman, I sure would like to know too.' I bet ya he was on them pills that keep a person up all hours. Lord knows them truckers are always poppin them pills, tryin to make a paycheck, you know what I'm sayin?" I nodded. "You don't pop them pills?" I said that I didn't. "So this all you do, drive folks here, there, and yonder?" Ms. Johnson asked. "For the moment," I said, "until I figure out what's next. I drive and I volunteer. Matter of fact, I just started today, with the kids over at the Boys & Girls Club."
Ms. Johnson said that she was a volunteer herself, now that she's retired, that she even brought a few of the kids home with her when parents had to work late, fed 'em Kool-Aid and PB&J, kept 'em away from "all that nonsense" for a night. "Can't tell kids nothin today, you know what I'm sayin?" Ms. Johnson said. "They're a handful," I said, "but they won't let me discipline them anyway, not as a volunteer." "Wouldn't matter," Ms. Johnson said. "They wouldn't listen." We let that thought hang there. "Just like my grandson," Ms. Johnson said. I saw Ms. Johnson shake her head slowly in the rearview. "Came walkin up to me the other day, then I see his momma and daddy trailin. I said, 'Oh, Lord, what you done now,' you know what I'm sayin? I said, 'You got a girl pregnant? You in trouble with the police?' My grandson said, 'No, ma'am. Grandmamma, I'm gonna join the Army. I'm tired of these dead-end jobs, Grandmamma.'" "So you don't like that idea?" I asked. Ms. Johnson shook her head some more. "I don't like it atall. Says he wants to be Military Police, says he's gonna get trainin, learn another language," Ms. Johnson said, her voice rising an octave. "He don't have to tell me—he's talkin bout that Pakistan. Just ain't safe in there no more." "Not much safer out here some days," I said. "You know you right," Ms. Johnson said.
"So you ain't got no wife, no kids?" Ms. Johnson asked. "No kids," I said. "No woman?" Ms. Johnson pressed. "I had a couple serious girlfriends up North, back where I used to be," I said. "They leave you, you leave them?" she asked. "Left 'em both, lost 'em both," I said, giving Ms. Johnson about a fourth of the truth. "They stay mad at ya," Ms. Johnson asked. "I apologized," I said. "They forgive ya?" Ms. Johnson asked. "Believe so," I said. "But you still runnin," Ms. Johnson said. "May be—guess I ain't sure I deserve it," I said. "Son, even the worst of us still got some good in us," Ms. Johnson said. "You'll get right, in your own time."
"You ought to be proud of your grandson," I said, "wanting a better life, fighting for our country." I looked up in the rearview. Ms. Johnson was staring out the window, then she turned here eyes to mine. "You probably right," she said. "But I just don't see no reason, all this ISIS, all this Pakistan stuff. Let 'em in, now we can get 'em out." I sat behind the wheel and did what I told myself I wouldn't do. I turned my eyes down and just drove on without saying a thing, not even to the good Lord. Although I thought then, Just how many more chances are you going to get?