Things About Me You Oughta Know, Part 3
“We cannot escape our origins, however hard we try, those origins which contain the key—could we but find it—to all that we later become.” —James Baldwin
Last Monday during rush hour, I picked up a blind man. He was not in fact the first blind man I've given a ride to, although my only previous encounter with a person who could not see where I was going, could only trust that I would do the right thing, was merely a three-minute drive. That blind man spent most of the time on his phone, asking the folks at Cracker Barrel if someone would be kind enough to escort him through the crowd in the country store to his seat. I had so many questions then: How it was that he’d read my texts, how long he’d been without vision, what had caused him to lose his sight? But those are questions that require a certain amount of trust, a trust that I must build on every trip, if my passenger and I are going to have a conversation of any substance.
It’s a characteristic I pride myself on, being someone who people feel they can open up to, who they can trust, at least for the miles that they’re in my car. I imagine the ease lies in my seeming lack of judgment, the quick admission of my own sins, in my ability to crack jokes about having gone to jail, while also discussing the finer points of Young Thug’s aesthetic and the downturn of The Black Keys’ catalogue and how De Sica and Truffuat and Bergman altered the landscape of American cinema, not to mention where to get the best catfish and fried green tomatoes, other than my grandmother’s house. And, well, let’s not ignore the mirror: I’m a baby-faced, bespectacled, fair-haired, thirty-one-year-old white man with a Master’s degree who drives a 2012 Honda Civic with leather interior. As society’s standards tend to go, I’m about as harmless and, dare I say, vanilla as Larry on the first season of Orange is the New Black (of course, that all depends on who I’m voting for, but I digress).
The blind man I picked up on Monday, however, couldn’t see any of that. He could not gauge my demeanor, could not size me up by my pigment, could not do anything other than judge me based on the sound of my Southern drawl, which is returning slightly after seven years up yonder. As for myself, I settled in for the twelve-minute ride, intrigued by a potential story, a story I hadn’t yet heard or been able to tell. I already assumed this man was educated, having emerged from a children’s hospital in blue scrubs and a white coat. He also appeared to be of Native American descent, his skin a deep, dusty brown, his shoe-polish black hair knotted in a single braid that reached the middle of his back. What might we learn from one another, what commonalities might we discover? But we never got there, never got any further than the initial pleasantries. We never found the common ground that I like to pride myself on.
I’m reminded now of how heightened a person’s senses become once they’ve lost one. So I can only assume that as we were politely conversing—he’d been held up at work and was rushing home to change clothes, asking if I’d give him a lift back to town—this blind man must’ve felt the movement, must’ve been able to decipher the exact turns. “Which way are you going?” he asked with uncertainty.
My GPS app had sent me to the nearby interstate to avoid traffic, but the blind man told me that I wasn’t going the direction of the interstate, a hint of hurt in his voice, a hint of panic that I was taking advantage of him. I resented the insinuation, although now I fear that the perceived slight might’ve simply been in what Ms. Claudia Rankine calls my “white imagination,” despite this having nothing to do with race, but rather another’s disability. With the luxury of hindsight, I can now see that the blind man could hear the indignation in my voice, that in his mind’s eye we weren’t two human beings anymore, but rather a man who’d lost his sight and one who had not. I asked if he’d like me to turn around, to go the way his senses were telling him. He quietly said no. Ashamed that I’d possibly offended him, ashamed at the idea that he might still think I was milking him for a few extra bucks, I broke the awkward silence with each direction, to prove my honesty, although now, with the luxury of hindsight, I’m struck by the notion that he might never have been able to see, that he might never have taken that particular route, that perhaps my step-by-step directions were received as condescension, that perhaps he was genuinely scared, there in his darkness.
When we pulled onto his street, the blind man finally spoke again. He told me that his house was the one with the large, second-story deck. He cracked a joke about his yard being overgrown, that mowing was inching up his to-do list. “Do you still want me to wait?” I asked, idling on his car port. “We’re good to go,” he said, which I took, in my insecurity, to mean that he’d had enough of me, that he would request another Uber for his next trip. So I backed out, assuming he heard me scrape the bottom of my car on the lip of his driveway. Then, not five minutes later, I received a text from the blind man, asking where I’d gone. I immediately stopped and replied that it was a miscommunication, that I would gladly pick him up if he could wait.
“No,” was his reply.
I spent the rest of the day defeated, a sinking sensation in my gut. I even discussed the incident with some of my passengers, pleaded my case to people who could see, like a kindergartener who immediately produces tears and hugs the classmate he’s just punched in the stomach. And they did side with me, sided, of course, with my inherently biased side of the story. The commiserating didn’t satisfy me, though, didn’t satisfy me in this year of all years, didn’t satisfy my need for an answer to the question I’ve been posing, both directly and indirectly, since #ubernights began: What do we owe each other?
What did I owe that blind man in my car? In the very practice of overcompensation, did I fall so utterly short? In the very acknowledgement of his disability, did I put his blindness before his being?
One of my creative writing professors used to always stay on my case about meandering, about never starting my short stories in medias res, which is the Latin phrase for “in the middle of the action.” So he’d probably say that I should’ve started this post right where I left off with Part II, with Kaley and I halfway through our hour-plus ride, just as we’re ready to reveal what’s beneath our respective existential crises. But I’ve come to realize that besides being an unapologetic Southern storyteller, “in the middle of the action” is never actually in my car. I’ve come to realize that the action doesn’t happen until I turn off the Uber app, not until the experiences of my everyday life, the experiences I’ve had throughout my life, collide with the lessons I’ve learned during those hours spent with strangers. Without grappling with the backdrop of this historic year—without The Donald and Sister Hillary; without Philando Castille and Dallas and an unarmed young man who was shot in the back and a list that grows at a disheartening rate; without Brexit and ISIL (or ISIS, to hear Brother Limbaugh tell it); without my sojourn to Ireland during the centennial anniversary of the country’s first revolt against the British; without the cookouts back in my hometown with the men I’ve known since we were boys; without the front-porch sessions with my grandmother and my mother; without the nights spent alone in the dark, my laptop the only light in my neighborhood—#ubernights would be void of meaning. For what is lost “in the middle of the action” but nuance?
Which is why, after my ride with the blind man, I spent the rest of the day, as I have many days since leaving The Worldwide Leader, wondering about my preconceptions and my misconceptions and my prejudices, my shortcomings during these 910 Uber trips. I spent the day wondering about how we either own our truth or we deflect it or we justify it to get from one night to the next. I spent the day wondering what it is that I have to offer, if anything, in the way of knowledge or wisdom, being that I’m a privileged, able-bodied white male with all five senses who grew up a tad south of middle class, in a house of the Lord, never experiencing any real prejudice, other than the upper-class, overeducated assumption that folks who talk like I talk surely can’t string together sentences like I can string together sentences.
I spent the day wondering about my grandmother, what good it would do to try and explain to an eighty-two-year-old woman who had to go to a sewing room instead of high school what these educated folks mean by “systemic,” by “conflation,” by “white imagination.” I spent the day wondering how it is that I could explain to one of the kindest women in this wide world why it is that being a pen pal with the black lady who cleaned the insurance office where she used to work, the black lady who my grandmother invited to the company Christmas party when no one else would, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, that one act of kindness doesn’t begin to address “systemic,” doesn’t begin to address why that black lady held a mop and a broom, while my grandmother did her best to figure out a new-fangled contraption called a computer.
I spent the day wondering about an op-ed piece in the Aug. 4 edition of The New York Times, our country’s paper of record, written by Charles M. Blow, a black man who says that “Trump is an unfiltered primal scream of the fragility and fear consuming white male America,” a demographic he attempts to confine to “white men without a degree,” although only once and only surrounded by quotation marks. I spent the day wondering how I should feel about that one sentence written in our country’s paper of record, how that one sentence implicates the majority of my extended family, “white men without a degree,” how that one sentence would’ve implicated my father, God rest, and I wondered if my father—a newspaper man himself, a man who would turn ninety this year were he with us—would vote for The Donald or Sister Hillary. I spent the day wondering if a vote for Sister Hillary would absolve them, those white men without degrees, if it will absolve me.
I spent the day wondering if Mr. Blow read an article in the latest edition of The Atlantic, an article about “The Original Underclass,” about “white trash,” as we were, about how all this Trump business might be driven more by classism than racism. I spent the day wondering about how the white men without degrees around these parts (down here where Mr. Blow himself was born) probably haven’t been to a poll to take the exit exam, could probably give a damn what color the president is, so long as they have enough Natty Ice and crystal meth to get them to tomorrow; or if they ain’t drug-afflicted, then their emasculation lies not in the racial pecking order, but in their lack of employment, their inability to provide for their families, their inability to pull up stakes and find a fancy job in a tall building behind a desk, up there in New York City or up there in Washington, D.C., or out there in Silicon Valley, in an office with a Ping-Pong table—cause the job they used to have, well, it’s somewhere on the other side of an ocean.
(That is to say, as much as my mother and grandmother would have it be so, that we all just be treated equal on an unequal playing field, I’ve come to find that Horatio Alger and his bootstraps are full of s---, no matter what shade those boots happen to be, or whether they’re cowboy or combat or Louis Vuitton.)
I spent the day wondering if Mr. Blow is the one lacking nuance, or if it’s me doing the conflating. I spent the day wondering if perhaps the culprit isn’t classism or racism at all, but rather sexism, or if we must wait until Sister Hillary reaches the White House before we discuss such matters. Like the music, for instance, the music created largely by men who look like Mr. Blow, the music that objectifies women, the music that I spent much of my formative years listening to, the music I remain a fan of, couching it perhaps as voyeurism, justifying it perhaps as harmless entertainment—although how can I ignore the absurdity of young women who climb into my car and request songs that rate their worth by how much they can fit into their mouths, or songs that equate them to cocaine and dollar signs, to say nothing of the religious establishment I was raised in, that many of these young men who rap these songs were raised in, one that would not allow women at the pulpit? I spent the day wondering if this is also a systemic problem affecting this election, or if I’m conflating matters, if I’m confusing the issues, if I’m misleading the white men without degrees, if we ought to just keep it black and white.
Or if The Donald and Sister Hillary haven’t become ideologies manifest, if they haven’t become like the ex you’ll forever lament or regret, the one that becomes the idea, the idea of the life you could’ve had, or the reason for why you’ll never have it.
I’ll stop now, with this litany, what some folks a whole sight better and smarter than me might consider a rant in need of far more gestation, a rant that’s lost some of you, maybe even turned some of you away. I’ll put on my editor’s cap now and ask, What’s the point?
The point lies somewhere in my own insecurity, in the genuine fear that, with each passing #ubernights, I’m oversimplifying or overcomplicating, that I’m not able to be the blind man, nor am I able to see these topics or the people in my car from any vantage point other than my own. I worry about the validity of my unscientific polling, about whether or not I’m merely hearing the opinions of others in the relative safety that is my 2012 Honda Civic EX-L with leather seats, whether or not I’m merely offering these stories and these experiences in a space that is also relatively safe, a space where algorithms might divert this post away from the timelines of people who don’t look like me, a space where my readers (at least those who engage with a simple click) look a lot like me—although the blue thumbs and the hearts tend to come more from women than from men, which gets us back to the mirror, doesn’t it, just how much that selfie up there in the corner matters.
So before I travel any farther (or further, if we’re being existential), I must admit that while I agree with those folks who serve as our national sifters, those folks like Ms. Rankine, who say we mustn’t conflate issues of race, with issues of class, with issues of gender, with issues of ethnicity, with issues of religion—issues that require the upmost nuance—I, like most humans, spend my days wondering about these matters in concert, not as solo acts, not with the singular focus Mr. Blow would like for me to.
Before I pen another #ubernights, I must admit my own truth, because if I do not knock down the fourth wall, do not remind you that these stories are filtered through the mind of one white man, do not acknowledge the limits in length and aperture of my lens, then I cannot, in good conscious, continue to write. I cannot, in good conscious, accept the comments that say my stories need to be heard, that my heart is full and my heart is kind.
We would all be naïve to not hold our authors, to not hold our orators, to some level of accountability, to not examine his or her preconceptions and misconceptions and prejudices, subconscious or otherwise, before we swallow words whole.
We would be, as the one and the only Brother James Baldwin might say, silly to only examine the piece of meat on the plate before us, and to not examine the environment, the system, in which the steak was raised and slaughtered.
And so here we are, back in my car, back on the Friday before July 4, somewhere on a back road in the hills of East Tennessee, halfway between the Knoxville airport and a cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains, winding through fields of hay and sunflowers, passed creeks and barns and the houses of good country people. Here we are, Kaley and I both untethered from our former lives, both liberated by our lack of constraints, both unsettled by that very thing, the loss of stability in structure, the loss of comfort in conformity.
I’ll say to you now what I told Kaley that day, after we decided to reveal whatever version of truth we thought we could handle: I’m still searching for the beginning, as evidenced by the two-part, long-winded wind up, never certain who this man is, this man writing these words, or if I’ll ever find the man who existed before they needed to be uttered, if that man can even be found.
“About a year and a half ago, I was lying on my couch in Connecticut,” I said to Kaley. “I called my girlfriend. We’d been together six years, friends for ten. I told her that I was driving to New York and that we needed to talk. I said, ‘I don’t think I love you anymore.’”
I told Kaley that the stress of ESPN, the stress of an MFA on top of ESPN, the stress of the 120 or so miles between us on top of an MFA on top of ESPN—I’d buried my best friend under my titles and my timelines and my expectations, that my priority list had been written in reverse. With the luxury of hindsight, I’ll tell you now that those words are my mother’s context, a safety blanket I’ve been covering up with at night.
“Then I dove right into a serious relationship with another woman,” I said to Kaley, “without so much as blinking an eye.”
“Had you already been considering it, with this new girl?” Kaley asked.
“They sort of overlapped…” I raised my hands off the wheel and slapped them down, disappointed that I couldn’t go more than a few sentences without veering off, only offering another half truth, not much more than I’d given Ms. Johnson way back in Part I.
“Kaley,” I said. “I cheated. I hid behind the ‘it’s me not yous.’”
The silence wasn’t endless, wasn’t awkward, as though Kaley had expected my admission, or was relieved by it, could feel the pressure ease. I assume now that Kaley could sense the messiness still festering inside me, could sense that whatever wound I’d created wasn’t curable in this moment, that she was merely a witness to my shame, simply part of an admission to be accounted later in the process of healing.
I purposefully called this exchange with Kaley an “admission,” as opposed to a “confession,” because I believe confessing is something you do to a person who holds you accountable, a person who must, after the confession, determine where now to place his or her trust, in you or not in you. That is why the admission alone to Kaley does not satisfy me, why this confession to you is something I feel I must do, if I’m to continue telling my stories and the stories of others.
I have confessed to people who place trust in me, and many of them have responded with stories of their own sins, sins they protect with layers that require examining and slicing open and dissecting, sins that they do not want to be viewed in black and white, sins that they believe require context, that require a safety blanket, lest they never find sleep again. I have been told stories by my mother, God bless her, stories about her and about my father, God rest, stories that are not mine to tell, stories that she hopes will help me lay down this cross, a cross that she does not believe is mine alone to carry. I have been asked why I’m shouldering this guilt when the collateral damage was minimal, when it was, to hear some tell it, a casualty of life.
Even now, though, as I write, I hesitate to qualify, to address any of Kaley’s follow-up questions, which were uttered without a tinge of disgust or of criticism or of blame, as though she too was grateful to know another person tosses and turns with such things, that another person stares at them on the ceiling at night. Even now, though, I hesitate to provide any more of my mother’s context, the context she told me, if I were to make this confession, I should have you know.
“You weren’t married,” my mother told me. “You didn’t have kids,” my mother told me. “What is it that you think you did so wrong?” my mother asked. “Do you think you can’t be a good person and still make a mistake?”
I do not believe that, just as I do not believe context cuts only one way, that it can’t both exonerate and incriminate, that every thread of dirty laundry is soiled. But that is not what I’m here to air out. It’s the question I posed to my mother in return:
What are you left with, once you’ve lost your word? What do we owe each other, especially those people who place their trust in us, if not that? What are you capable of, once you’ve lost that?
I am not a criminal, at least not according to this society’s standards, and to even write those words might seem dramatic to you, me dabbling in hyperbole, considering all the divorce lawyers who make a fine living, considering all the ills in this world, all the sins that one could possibly commit. But to paraphrase some of the finest lines ever written by Brother Richard Ford, I do know now how you wake up one day to find yourself in the very place you said you’d never be in. And now you’re not sure what’s important anymore, not sure what’s left of who you thought you might be.
“Did you tell her, the girl you cheated on?” Kaley asked.
“Too long after,” I said. “Not until the lies had worn thin enough to see through. She’d moved on by then, had a boyfriend, seemed happy.” I told Kaley that my confession and my apology had become formalities by then, like I’d dropped them in with her mail, which was still being pushed through the slot in my door.
“What about the other girl?” Kaley asked.
“We had a connection,” I said, “but I didn’t have the maturity or the decency to tell her I wasn't ready for the responsibility, for the commitment.” I told Kaley that she had to deal with demons that weren’t hers to face, that she tried in earnest to love a man, to be honest with a man who was unable—or perhaps unwilling—to reconcile his own reflection. After wasting six years of a woman’s life, damned if I didn’t add another eighteen months.
“So, what about you?” I asked Kaley. “Why don’t you have a ring on that finger?” She laughed and I grinned, because what else do you do?
“This ride was meant to be,” Kaley said. “I've been with my boyfriend for seven years, and he doesn’t want to go on this journey with me.”
“How do you think it’s gonna play out?” I asked.
“We’re in limbo,” she said. “He likes the life we have. He likes being close to family. He wants to settle down. And all I keep thinking is: Is this IT for me?”
I told Kaley that I was just her Uber driver, but that I’d give her my two cents anyhow: “Tell him everything inside your head,” I said, “and don’t leave out a thing. If he’s gonna be your forever, then he’ll have to hear it all. Or it ain’t gonna be much of a forever thing.”
“Can I ask you a question?” Kaley asked.
“Do you even have to ask?” I said.
“Why’d you do it, lie to them, I mean, leave them both?”
“That’s my journey,” I said. “All I got right now are clichés, a bunch of grass isn’t always greener. I just have lines that keep me from going to lay on a couch with one of them people who have a diploma on their wall.”
I told Kaley that maybe I became a bad person for a time, like you can when you lose sight of the standards you’ve set for yourself, when you base decisions on convenience, on what will get you to tomorrow. I told Kaley a lot of people in life, people who you trust and people who you don’t, like to tell you what love is about. You listen to them, and some of it lodges in your brain, and then you meet love face to face, and you realize all those people don’t know a damn thing. I told Kaley that if I’ve learned anything, it’s that love is case by case, and that love is a choice, that love sure as hell ain’t destiny. And it sure as hell ain’t about lust or about loneliness.
“Love is about not giving trouble or inviting it—it’s about not being in that place you said you’d never be in,” I told Kaley, stealing a couple more lines from Brother Ford. “Because your trouble becomes their trouble, and their stuck in that place too. You don’t do that to someone you love.”
Kaley and I spent the rest of the ride mostly in silence, a silence that I believe was of mutual respect, two strangers, two human beings who had hovered above gender differences and racial divides, to have a conversation about their truths, their regrets, their hopes, their dreams. By the time we arrived at the massive corporate complex of cabin rentals in the Smokies, she’d found me on Twitter and on Instagram. She told me that she was excited to follow along with my journey. I opened the trunk and lifted out her suitcase. We shook hands, and I wished her luck.
“Best Uber ride ever,” she said.
I had an hour-and-change ride ahead of me, along those same winding back roads, through fields of hay and sunflowers, passed creeks and barns and the houses of good country people, although the sun was creeping lower and lower on the horizon, and I was alone now in the silence, in that space of my admission, which has become my confession.
I’ve been writing this post in my head since that afternoon, been tweaking and chiseling with each new encounter, with each new disheartening headline in our paper of record, with each op-ed piece that I wish had been written with more nuance. I have been asked by a mentor of mine, a writer of immense talent, a teacher of exceptional integrity, a woman who I now call “friend,” why I’m choosing to reveal this version of my truth in this semi-safe public forum. The socials can be a terrifying space, but I guess my mentor and teacher means that this post will likely be lost to the algorithms, won’t be read in its entirety, and if it is, then it will be read by the people who will love me anyway, the people who are required by blood to love me anyway.
You are the people I want to speak to directly, though, the people who will be conflicted, who won’t know exactly how to square this man writing with the man you know, many of you since I rode around Kingston with my father in his white Mazda pickup, the top of my blond head all that was visible through the windshield.
For better and worse, Facebook and Instagram and Twitter have become the portraits of our lives, the pictures and words we choose to project out into the wider world. They have become, for better and worse, the tangible versions of our truth. I abstained from them because I couldn’t bear projecting an empty truth out into the wider world, a lie I wasn’t ready to face when I opened my laptop or scrolled through my phone. I’m choosing to write this now, in this semi-safe public space, because I can’t write another disingenuous #ubernights, can’t field another question about why I’m alone on this journey, without giving my rider and you the truth.
As for my mother, God bless her, she sits opposite me behind a desk cluttered with papers. We are in a tiny trailer at her husband’s used-car lot, the window AC whirring.
“Why is this so important?” she asks. “What is it you think you’ll accomplish with all this truth?”
My mother, God bless her, tells me that someone will take this truth out of context, that truth is for the birds on Facebook, that this will be whispered about at supper tables in Kingston and bar counters in New York City and company picnics in Bristol, Connecticut.
I recite a David Foster Wallace quote for my mother, the same one that began Part II: “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” I tell my mother that a former ESPN colleague wrote that on my farewell card. I tell my mother that if I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that we spill the secrets of others to justify our own lies. I tell my mother that if I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that once we lose control of our truth, it’s damn near impossible to grasp it again. I tell her the story of the blind man, how sometimes we only get one shot. I tell her I’m trying to not waste my chances.
I tell my mother that I own it now, my truth, and that while I have plenty more bones to pick through in my closet, that the truth is far from finished with me, those people doing the whispering have their own skeletons. I tell my mother they’ve got to live with them, lie next to them at night.
My mother has been scribbling on a piece of paper. She looks up at me: “Where is the little boy who used to smile? When did you start spending every day so serious, thinking so deeply?”
“Why do we ever stop?” I ask my mother.
I ask her what she once asked me: “If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?” I ask her at what point do we decide to hold ourselves accountable out of convenience, when do our lies turn from white to gray. I ask my mother when “learning to live with” constitutes living. I tell my mother that I don’t have any delusions about my words enacting change. But I ask her, does that render them not worth writing? I tell my mother that I don’t have any delusions about the two hours I spend with kids each week, that I don’t have any delusions about my time filling their systemic voids. But I ask her, does that mean I shouldn’t go and play?
My mother sighs and squints slightly. She tells me that shame can break a soul. She forces a smile. I believe that she is looking at me as a man, as I am her a woman. I believe we both miss my father. I believe my mother has accumulated responsibilities in this life—a son, a third husband, a career that is entering its last chapter—responsibilities that require a certain level of sacrifice. I believe that people who have accumulated these responsibilities in this life, people who have lived much fuller lives in this world than I, want to protect their children from the pain they have experienced, from a world that isn’t black and white. I believe, however, that we sometimes tell those we love what they want to hear, to help them avoid that pain, and in the process, we avoid the truth.
My mother and I get up from our opposite sides of the desk, and we walk out of the cold trailer into the humid East Tennessee afternoon. I tell my mother that I do not have a wife or a child or an employer. I tell her that I am ashamed of this fact, that the only way I can find purpose in my lack of responsibility is to write without apology, with as much truth as I can. I tell her that this is an opportunity I do not want to squander, that if I ever return to New York City, to that place of my ghosts, I want to walk by the windows of Trump’s tower and recognize the man staring back.
My mother has water in her eyes. She gives me a hug. My mother, who would like to hear from her son every day, says she will give me the space I need, that she will be here whenever I need.
“Just smile for me,” my mother says. “Laugh every once in a while.”