Things About Me You Oughta Know, Part 2
"The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you." —David Foster Wallace
Last week I took a half-hour Uber ride from downtown Nashville to my car, which had been parked for two weeks while I gallivanted around up North. It’s interesting now to be in the passenger’s seat, knowing what I know, having seen what I’ve seen from behind the wheel. I can’t help but judge my driver based on how I would’ve done this or handled that, can’t help but think, “Man, I’m a waaaay cooler Uber guy than this dude.” But George was a nice enough fella, an older white man with glasses and gray hair, sorta like Bernie Sanders, although maybe that’s just where my head’s at these days. George told me he drives a Monday through Friday shift, 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then spends the rest of his hours on his own business, building bunk beds. His wife works part-time at Home Depot. They have a fine life, he told me. Then, after realizing we’d have a relatively lengthy trip down I-40, going east, George asked if I’d mind listening to Rush Limbaugh to pass the time. George, bless his heart, didn’t want to give away any affiliation, told me that it just tickled him to hear Brother Limbaugh crack a few about the convention.
And who am I to size up a man by what comes out of his radio? Hell, I figure George would have his own thoughts about me, if we were rolling down I-40, two white men from Tennessee, bumping Drake and Future and Young Thug. Besides, I’d like to consider myself even-keeled enough to get some enjoyment out of Brother Limbaugh, maybe even some perspective, as you sometimes do when you’re open-minded enough to entertain either side of the extremes. Not to mention this has been my year of listening, my year to re-connect with a world I’d shut out, damn near given up on, sitting behind a desk at ESPN, spending my summer nights praying a college kid wouldn’t do anything stupid enough to be suspended, or that another white man with gray hair wouldn’t be fired, at least not before our college football preview reached mailboxes.
So it was that around noon, George turned on Rush Limbaugh, who I probably hadn’t heard speak in thirteen years, not since he said whatever he said about black quarterbacks, abruptly ending his tenure as a sports pundit for my former employer. On this day, Brother Limbaugh’s wisdom centered around the speech of William Jefferson Blythe, the man who inspired me as a seven-year-old to take up the sax, the man who is married to the first woman ever nominated by a major party to run for president of the United States. I have to hand it to Brother Limbaugh—he gave ol’ William his due, admitted to the audience that Bill had killed in Philly, that his performance would be a tough act for The Donald to denounce. George gripped the wheel tighter, the sides of his mouth drooping slightly.
Of course, Brother Limbaugh does what he does because he’s a great panderer, a great performer himself, same as Brother Maher. You can feel it, hear it, if you just close your eyes, just throw out your biases and reason and logic. In this year of all years, you can feel these men priming their legions, riling them up, like revivalist preachers steadying themselves for the long-play, for the eventual payoff, that “Get Thee Behind Me Satan!” crescendo. Brother Limbaugh lingered on the word “performance," not "speech," mind you, but “performance.” His contention was that William Jefferson Blythe hadn’t necessarily lied, but that sweet Bill had omitted a harsh truth, a truth that Brother Limbaugh believes is being hidden from Millennials, the ones who weren’t even born when Monica and Bill did whatever they did in the Oval Office, or the ones like me, the ones on the cusp of this generation, the ones who were hitting puberty around that time. Brother Limbaugh’s refrain: “Why would a man cheat on such a wonderful, wonderful woman?” George smiled, tight-lipped, sure not to laugh, sure not to give away his affiliation. I couldn’t keep from wondering if Brother Limbaugh didn’t have a point. I couldn’t keep myself from wondering when the court of public opinion ever officially rests. I couldn’t keep myself from wondering, What does William Jefferson Blythe owe us up on that stage, all these years later?
That night I asked a friend who makes his living in the political sphere, a friend who admittedly digs his feet in on the left side of the box, what he had to say to Brother Limbaugh. “He loves that woman—there is no doubt,” my friend said of Bill’s devotion to Sister Hillary. “There is no question that they have a strong marriage, that they have a strong bond. Their sex life has nothing to do with that, absolutely nothing.” I was too afraid to ask the man who has become my best friend what he thought our country would’ve said had it been Brother Obama and Monica, to marinate on that, whether or not it would matter now, seeing as how so many of us have decided it didn’t much then. But I’ve come to learn during these #ubernights that some things, especially between friends, are better left unsaid, lest you risk losing them.
As for George and I, well, Brother Limbaugh continued his “performance” routine, told his audience that the Democrats are eating up an act, that it’s all a charade. And I did what I’d told my even-keeled self I wouldn’t do. As if the doctor banged my knee with one of them mallets, I blurted out, “Limbaugh is so full of s---. Same can be said about Trump.” George jerked his head toward me, startled, his eyes as beady as Bernie’s. We didn’t say anything after that, although George never offered to switch stations. I don’t know if George sized me up then, as I had him the minute he dialed up Limbaugh. It bothers me still that I couldn’t maintain my composure, couldn’t be my even-keeled self, that I never even asked George what he thought, as I have so many others who’ve been in my car.
It bothers me that I’ve started to question this year of listening, started to question who exactly I’m supposed to be listening to, who exactly I can trust, yours truly included.
For those who’ve been following along (and I appreciate it), you know this entry has been a long time comin. Truth be told, I had it written and ready to post on July 15, three days before The Donald dropped down in Cleveland, Ohio, ten days before Sister Hillary and Brother Obama and William Jefferson Blythe descended on Philadelphia. But more to the point: I had it written one day before I would enter a pre-arranged vortex, which would include a four-day writer’s retreat in Mystic, Connecticut, a return to the state where I would reunite with friends and former ESPN colleagues and a girl who has been more than just a girl to me; a return to NYC, where I would witness Kendrick Lamar hold an entire island captive, make us believe for a night that everything’s gonna be alright, when everything in the morning would remind us that it probably ain’t. I would taste my first Peter Luger’s steak and meander around Brooklyn Bridge Park, filled with hope that the influx of tax dollars has beautified a once-blighted waterfront, although part of me missed those abandon warehouses I once jogged passed, the ones that served as tangible proof of how a neighborhood and a people could be forgotten, until the rich discover cheap, up-and-coming property, conveniently located near the subway, which begat farm-to-table restaurants on every corner, which begat yoga studios between every block, which begat over-priced bowling alleys.
That is to say, I realized perhaps I’d stopped thinking outside the box I’d subconsciously began to recreate back in the safe confines of Knoxville, Tennessee, driving around in neighborhoods where most folks look a lot like me.
But, again, more to the point: I had this post written before my ride with George and before I heard The Donald and Sister Hillary stump and before I did what I had promised myself I wouldn’t do. I let others read my words before you, I let that sense of doubt creep in, I let folks who I trust tell me that maybe the social spheres aren’t the place for this kind of honesty, this kind of nuance, this kind of soul-bearing. For a moment, I let myself think that these words needed validation, that without being between two covers, without the vetting of an editor or of a publisher, these words might be misconstrued, might not be as impactful as folks who I trust told me they could be, folks who said that the people who would appreciate these words are seldom on Facebook. I forgot in that moment that while art requires audience (no matter what that guy wearing a piece of tie-dye T-shirt for a headband might tell you), these words are as much about my examination as they are your discovery, that while every word I allow to exist in this most unforgiving of places takes on a meaning all its own, each one is for my own edification, albeit yours to engage with or to dismiss as something not worth scrolling passed this very point.
And finally, to the point: I had this post written before I realized in George’s Toyota Corolla, somewhere along I-40, that to fill this space with anything of substance, I had to quit skipping stones, that I had to at least dive into the water I have allowed to be still. I realized that I had to be honest about the depths of this journey, these 800-plus rides I’ve given to strangers, or risk being the hypocrite, risk listening and relaying the truths of others, without ever bothering to examine my own.
Nearly a month ago, back when my over-thinking commenced, I gave a young woman from Canada a ride. We'll call her Kaley, in the spirit of her heritage, but that isn't her real name, nor is this her confession to make, although she gave me her blessing to write about our paths crossing. Whatever you might believe in, whatever thoughts you might have about faith and destiny and the universe, Kaley was my tarot card, a sign to a second chance, a chance to say all that was left unsaid between me and Ms. Johnson (read Part I). It was a Friday afternoon, warm and humid and bright, the slightest of breezes. It was the kind of East Tennessee afternoon that I used to pine for while crammed inside a 7 train, commuting from Queens to Grand Central, eyes darting around, full of water, wishing I’d never left home.
It was also the Friday before July 4, and I was still in a slight fog from too much Scotch the previous night, too much revelry with friends who are rarely in the same place at the same time anymore. So I decided to park near the airport—fewer trips per hour, time to lean back and stare at the sky, following planes as they ascended, wondering if I’d made the wrong choice to return home, wondering if my story doesn’t have a couple more twists.
As I've written in past posts, the beauty of Uber lies in its randomness, its lack of concern for how the makes and the models and the colors will mesh. I had no way of knowing when I accepted Kaley's request that she wasn't arriving, that in fact her flight had been cancelled and she was returning to a family vacation for an extra night, to a cabin in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. We had an hour-plus ride ahead of us, along winding back roads, through fields of hay and sunflowers, passed creeks and barns and the houses of good country people. Instead of asking her to listen to Limbaugh, I asked, jokingly, "You got some stories to tell?" "I'm packing up my life and moving to California," she said. "I have plenty."
Like me, Kaley had left a relatively lucrative career—hers in unemployment law—but unlike me, Kaley was leaving her hometown in Canada behind. She told me she’d reached an impasse, that a wider world surely awaits her, that her story surely has another twist. Kaley and I commiserated over too many hours doing something we learned we didn't love; over the loss of sleep and sanity while juggling jobs and second degrees; over the loss of that certain naiveté, the kind that allows you to believe in society's construct of success, to believe that something you can fold and put in a wallet, or words that you can capitalize and put in front of your name, will be what defines you—until you simply don't believe anymore, and you're left splayed open, forced to find a semblance of the person you thought you might be. We were self-aware enough to admit how lucky we'd been to climb the corporate ladder, the financial stability it has afforded us to make a deliberate, albeit potentially dumb decision.
"When do you think you'll start looking for work again?" Kaley asked. "I'm Type A," I said. "I have a panic attack every day, over where my money's goin and where it's comin from. But I can't go back, not til I'm ready. I can't be that person I was pretendin to be." "It would be easier, though, wouldn't it," Kaley said. "A nice paycheck. No more losing sleep over these silly feelings we have." I glanced up in the rearview. Kaley appeared to be about my age, just crossing into her thirties, or at least near enough to be concerned.
"We're not tellin each other the whole truth, though, are we?" "How so?" Kaley asked. "This journey we're on—it's always about love, ain't it?" Kaley met my eyes in the rearview and smiled, a hint of recognition. "Why not tell it all?" I said and grinned in reply. "Sure," Kaley said. "What have we got to lose?”
In that short yet infinite window before you uncork whatever it is that would be easier left bottled up, I considered the notion that I didn’t owe Kaley a damn thing. I've considered that notion often since I started letting strangers into my car, and by extension all of you into my life. Sitting here now in the dark on my screened-in front porch, the chirps of crickets the only sound in my neighborhood, I'm considering all that you know about me—and all that you don't. I'm considering how we can speak "truth" yet be so calculating about the lies we surround it with, how we can know everything about someone, and then in an instant, know nothing at all. There are many reasons why I write, but it's that choice, those varying degrees of honesty, those truths that we protect yet also become trapped by, that have me searching for an answer.
I didn't consciously upend my life to coincide with this year of upheaval, but I can't ignore the parallels, the uncertainty about who I see in the mirror and the country outside my door. What do we owe each other, as Americans? I don't have an answer that satisfies me, not yet, other than to say I owe it to myself to be as honest as I can for all those times I wasn't, to be as kind as I can for all those times I took kindness for granted. And still I fall short. And still my mother, God bless her, tells me that I don't owe anyone anything other than the good Lord, that she sure wishes I'd put myself before the strangers in my car, people who aren’t always going to be there for me, no matter what I write. And still I believe I owe it to them and to you. Otherwise, what are we learning and understanding about one another in this most historic of years? Besides what we already unfortunately believe we know: That in times likes these, you can't really trust anybody.
So for that one-hour ride with Kaley, I chose not to believe that.