Black Lives Matter, Part 2
Read Part 1 here, although it's not a requisite. Democracy, free will and all...
"One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa. This fact faced, with all its implications, it can be seen that the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again."
—James Baldwin, "Stranger in the Village," October, 1953
The first time I met a young black woman we'll call "Kamaria," I didn't expect to ever see her again. It was the middle of April, back before I'd started writing "Uber Nights" in earnest, much less had a website. I wasn't necessarily looking for a story then, and while the fact that Kamaria was black and I was white did matter—because it does matter—it did not put us in such stark contrast, at least not to her and not to me, not then. After all, Donald J. Trump was a punch line for president, and Philando Castile's girlfriend had yet to post his death at the hands of a Minnesota cop on Facebook Live.
As I write now, in the bitter cold of January, I can't help but wonder if Trump becoming President-elect and Castile's death becoming manslaughter foreshadowed what was to come in Chicago: the four black adults (two men and two women) who tortured a white male with mental disabilities and posted a video of the torture on Facebook. I watched both videos live—Castile slumped over in his car bleeding out and that terrified teen tied up in a corner—and my eyes filled with water on both days, in the heat of July and in the chill of January.
I can't help but wonder if Mr. Castile losing his black life and that teen losing a piece of his white scalp matters in the scheme of comparison. Or if maybe I have it all wrong, that connecting one act of hate to another, or any act of hate to Jan. 20, is me conflating matters, me stoking the flames of a fire I fear is spreading beyond our control. Or maybe the folks on Fox News have it right, that Mr. Castile's death was not an act of hate, but rather a cop making an error in judgment while in the line of duty. Or maybe the op-ed pages of The New York Times have it right, that the color of the cop is inconsequential, that my people—white people—remain the reason black hate has been instilled in American society.
I can't help but wonder if the deterioration of the nuclear family is at the root of all social ills, as the folks on Fox News have told me. Or if the religious idealization of the nuclear family is at the root of why Omar Mateen killed forty-nine humans at a gay night club in Orlando. I can't help but wonder how Esteban Santiago fits into this mess we find ourselves in, a mess that folks who are much older and much wiser say will also pass. That we, as Americans, shall overcome. Even our President, Barack Obama, believes our best days are ahead.
Still, I can't help but wonder if Meryl Streep's films will eventually be banned in the United States. I always liked Death Becomes Her, the idea that you could drink a potion and live forever. Now, I'm not so sure I want to.
Which is to say, that while America might not've been great, times did seem a tad simpler way back in April, when I picked up Kamaria around midnight at a local TV station. She'd just finished her shift as a part-time video editor and was headed to her apartment, a twelve-minute ride across town. I can't recall exactly what we discussed that night, only that she asked if I'd make a quick stop at the McDonald's drive-thru. She ordered two apple pies and a large sweet tea. This stuck with me because Kamaria would make the same request and the same order when Uber paired us again a couple of weeks later. I also remember this because she said she'd always been able to eat what she wanted and stay fit, that she'd earned her Bachelor's in Communications from the University of Tennessee while on a track scholarship. She was twenty-four now and missed her life as a sprinter. I thought then that she was an attractive woman, bright hazel eyes, her white teeth as polished as her red acrylic nails. I liked the way her tongue flitted against her teeth when she spoke, not an impediment, but a distinction, a specific enunciation that was enticing to me. The language belonged to us both, but the dialect was hers.
On our second meeting, which also began at the TV station, Kamaria told me that she'd made a weekend trip to Atlanta, where she'd met with a talent scout and discussed the possibility of modeling and acting. I looked at her now, really took stock—her slender face, wide smile, high cheek bones. She wore her dark hair in an updo, a beehive that reminded me of the singer and actress Janelle Monae. It accentuated her long neck line. And, yes, her skin was brown, and I could describe it for you, the smoothness, the shimmer it had. Kamaria had curves, too, and I could describe those as well. But I considered then what makes a woman beautiful, how subjective outer beauty can be, the same as the beauty of these words I'm writing to you. What if Kamaria were white? What if I were black? Would I describe her differently? Would you take umbrage with my adverbs and adjectives?
These are rhetorical questions that I'd just as soon leave for you to answer. But why wait, why color the rest of the words I write with uncertainty, when we both know the answers: Of course it matters. Of course color would change the implication of every word I write, the beauty or the ugliness of each word in the English language, words that belong to us all, yet words that do not carry the same meaning for us all, words that we do not write and do not say in the same ways. It shouldn't matter—color—but it does.
And for those who insist that it does not matter, not to them, or that it would not matter if those of color wouldn't make it matter, I'll partly paraphrase the late black author James Baldwin: Your ability to find a lie more palatable than the truth is a hoax rivaled only by Trump's ability to convince the "common people" they were voting for a man in their own image.
Certainly hate, not color, lies at the heart of the matter. But for now, until we reach those better days that President Obama portends, hate and color are inextricably linked. Not until these prejudices and preconceptions are laid bare can we truly begin to see the beauty in our differences. Not until we face these differences can we uncover the beauty in our similarities, a beauty that lies not in our skin but beneath it, in our humanity.
Besides, what if Donald J. Trump had brown skin? Come on, bruh.
For Kamaria and I, the matter of color remained unspoken, at least in the infancy of our acquaintance-ship. And perhaps for Kamaria, her blackness remained in her subconscious, perhaps even in a place that she has suppressed, so as to not make me, the able-bodied white man, uncomfortable. After all, Kamaria is a young black woman who was raised and lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, a city that is roughly 75% white. She and I both received our Bachelor's from a university that is also roughly 75% white. Kamaria, for her own survival and sanity, has had to adapt to being the overwhelming minority, everywhere but within her own family.
Kamaria was vibrant and convincing when telling me about her audition in Atlanta. I could sense by the way she gestured, speaking with her eyes and her hands as much as her voice, that she was playing the part for me, the part of an actress, or perhaps convincing herself that she could play the part without any formal training. But I also believe she was playing the part of a young black woman who has had to put a smile on her face every day, in classrooms and offices dominated by white people, lest any of those white people label her "angry" or "entitled."
I can't empathize with the fine line Kamaria has had to walk, in a country where taking pride in ones own blackness is often misconstrued as disrespect toward whiteness. It occurs to me now that perhaps even Kamaria has become unaware of the fine line she is walking, that perhaps self-suppression can become as systemic as the racism that breeds that very self-suppression. It occurs to me now that perhaps Kamaria has had plenty of training, that perhaps she has become a master at playing two parts, the black woman who is acceptable in the eyes of white America, and the woman she actually is, a woman of African descent, a history that is not mine.
A few days after my second ride with Kamaria, I drove fourteen hours north to finalize the sale of my condo in Connecticut. The only home I've ever owned was the last loose end to tie up on my former life at ESPN—the years I spent shuttling between New York City and Hartford, the years I spent running from my father's death, the years I spent convincing myself I could live inside my own uncomfortable skin, that I was ready to love selflessly and unconditionally, and inevitably breaking the hearts of two women.
That isn't meant to reduce a tumultuous time in my life (and theirs) to a mere footnote. But, if we're honest, the complexity of our lives can become quite simple in the luxury of hindsight. Or perhaps wallowing in the complexity of our own lives is merely a means to avoid the problems that surround us, problems much bigger than ourselves.
I loaded my car with what was left of importance—a trunk full of pictures and mementoes from my father, dishes my mother gave me, lots of books—and I drove to Brooklyn, where I parked on a cobblestone street near a friend's studio. It was a Saturday, the last day of April, warm and sunny, and I walked to the banks of the East River. I nodded to the Brooklyn Bridge, gave it a wincing smile, that bridge I had traversed so many times surrounded by so many people, of every color and every creed, in a city that had seemed to birth the truest version of me.
I left East Tennessee when I was twenty-two and was swallowed up in the wormhole of the Big Apple—a man on paper but a man who was seeing the vastness of the New York City skyline through a child's eyes. That young man now understood there was a wider world, although he could not grasp his place in it, nor could he even begin to comprehend what being a citizen of it might mean. Nine years later, Brooklyn still filled me with possibility, the belief that the world can always be seen anew. I breathed in the dust off the concrete, the hint of salt off the tiny whitecaps, the faintest waft of marinated garbage that is ever-present in New York City, like the annoying tic of your best friend. Then I called an Uber to JFK, where I boarded a plane to Ireland, my first trip outside of these United States, at thirty-one years old, something my father never experienced in his seventy-four years, nor has my mother.
I sat next to a middle-aged Chinese woman and her middle-aged Irish husband. They were making their annual sojourn to visit the man's homeland and the family he'd left behind in his early twenties. As the universe would have it, they met and still lived in Queens, in Sunnyside no less, my former neighborhood, which is lined with Irish pubs that are owned by Irish people and delis that sell homemade kimchi. The Chinese woman and I bonded over the deli on the corner of Queens Boulevard and 47th Street, the one that sells kimchi so spicy I had to chug a glass of milk after one bite. The woman was nice to me, inquisitive and kind, offering advice once she learned that I'd never traveled abroad. Meanwhile, her husband, who'd worked construction all of his life, slept against the closed window of the airplane.
When we landed in Shannon, a city on the Atlantic side of the country, the husband finally spoke to me as we waited for our luggage near the carousel. His hair was thinning and graying, but I could detect a hint of strawberry-blond to match his nose, which was as bulbous as his belly. He asked me to speak slowly—he'd had a stroke a year ago while on the job laying brick and the formulation of words was difficult for him, especially reading them, trying to decipher them from the movement of my lips.
"Brilliant country," he told me. "Simply brilliant. Lovely. Me and my wife were gettin on well, making plans to move back, build a fine home. But me stroke. Not so sure we can afford it now. You'll fall in love with her. Ireland. It's a simpler way like, the way the Americans used to be."
The woman and her husband were catching a bus to their next destination. He could no longer drive, and she didn't know how, having lived a life on subway lines. Our luggage in hand, we wished each other well, and I followed the signs—written in both English and Gaelic—to the car rental shuttle. It was 5 a.m. The sun had not yet risen and there was a steady drizzle and a heavy fog. My final destination was Dublin, but I'd scheduled stops in Killarney and Cork and Portarlington. While I could speak the language, I'd obviously never driven on the left side of the road, nor had I navigated so many roundabouts.
There was a joke I heard in one of the many pubs I frequented: "The Brits drive on the left, the Americans drive on the right, and the Irish drive in the middle." It was true. While in Killarney, I drove an hour south to the shores of the Atlantic, along hillside roads that weren't even as wide as the jet that had flown me across this pond. I could roll down the window and stretch out my arm and nearly graze the white wool of a sheep with my fingertips. Besides the left-side driving, I felt as at home in Ireland as I did in Knoxville, Tennessee—the lush greens of the knolls, the lakes, the accents, and the bar-counter storytelling. All the white faces.
Other than an Indian cabbie who was being pummeled with epithets by young Irish men, the Chinese woman was the only other person of color I would converse with during my eight nights in Ireland. I drove from Shannon to Killarney to Cork to Portarlington, and rode the train into Dublin. I hiked the Gap of Dunloe hungover on Bushmills. I climbed to the top of St. Anne's Church and rang the bells. I stood in line at Trinity College to glimpse the Book of Kells, the first four books of the New Testament written in Latin, a language I'd learned over three semesters and then spent a decade forgetting. But my most memorable nights were spent in thatched-roof inns, in front of fire places, pubs that were in towns not on maps.
While in Portarlington, I discovered The Fishermans Thatched Inn, about a ten-minute drive from my hotel, through quiet fields of hay. It was where I met Ned and the son of the owner, who was behind the bar counter. He taught me how to pour a proper Guinness. We were the only three men in the place on a Wednesday night, all of us as white as freshly fallen snow. I asked Ned what he did for a living.
"I drink," he said.
"What did you do before that?" I asked.
"I don't rightly remember," he said.
Ned lived across the street. His hair was gray and his nose was bulbous, like the man I'd met on the plane, although Ned had a gray mustache below his nose. I returned to Fishertown the next two nights. I met Ned's family on a Friday, his wife and his twenty-something daughter, and I met the owner of the bar, who wore a vest and used a pocket watch attached to a chain. I was the American who'd once worked at ESPN, a channel they knew to admire but didn't necessarily watch, seeing as how darts and snooker and rugby weren't primetime viewing, much less their favorite sport called hurling.
We ate nuts and crisps and drank enough Guinness for a lifetime. I even had a shot of an under-the-counter whiskey, clear, the equivalent of American Moonshine, they told me. That was my last night before driving on the left side of the road to the Dublin airport. That was the night I also met a bald man who seemed to be a friend of Ned's family. He was in his early thirties, round of waist, and his smile, like mine, belied his age. His head was smooth and white and his guttural laugh was contagious. He had a goatee, same as me, although his was fuller and tinted red. We exchanged pleasantries and bonded instantly over our lack of direction and inability to settle down, in the nuclear sense.
We were more than a few Guinnesses deep, plus the shot of clear whiskey, and the language turned a bit vulgar, some sexual innuendos, which I grinned off, not wanting the boys to assume I didn't know how to be a boy. And the women joined in, joking about the size of this and the size of that. Trump was a topic, that reality TV dolt us Americans might actually let get on the ticket. Ned and his family and the bald man didn't seem to be concerned about what Trump was saying, only mocking his political incompetence.
"Interesting time to be an American," I said, not wanting to broach this topic in a foreign land where I was as white as them, but a different white altogether.
"Better than a nigger in the White House," the bald man said and guffawed.
I could not speak. I did not grin. I might've widened my eyes for a second, then quickly readjusted them.
"You know many niggers back home, do ya?" Ned chimed in.
"Me and Ned were wonderin what you'd take for Samuel L. Jackson," the bald man said, as if Samuel L. could be bought and sold on an auction block.
Standing there in that thatched-roof inn, the fire place crackling, white faces warm and rosy around me, I considered walking out of the heavy wooden door. Everything felt too safe, too normal. I didn't know where I might go, or what I might do, but I was ashamed to be hearing what I was hearing and not saying a word. The hue of the light dimmed and the corners of the world blurred. My moment of clarity washed over. I was on auto pilot, like when you know you're dreaming but you can't keep the you of your dream from opening the door with the screaming behind it.
I had this sensation that time had warped, maybe even been turned back, as though I might find my father's white Mazda pickup parked outside, the radio blaring Randy Travis on a cool night in 1990. Growing up in Kingston, Tennessee, I'd heard white men of a certain generation speak like this. Not my father, but I did watch my father hang his head and aw shucks away the pejoratives, not sure how to not be one of the white boys among the white boys. I'd heard the "N" word be flicked off the tongue with malice, without a hint of hesitation, the same way it had rolled off Ned's tongue. But it had been a while.
I wonder now if the company I've decided to keep in my adult life has shielded me from these men, if maybe the conversations around the coffee pot in the back of small-town drug stores and around the card tables inside private golf clubs still sound something like this. How do you even form a response to this hatred, so ingrained, so woven into the fabric of a culture, a hatred we as Americans have spent more than a century doing our damnedest to unstitch?
This was surely the unanswerable question author James Baldwin must've posed when he descended on that remote Swiss village in the 1950s. As Baldwin writes in the opening line of "Stranger in the Village," he was the first black man, "from all available evidence," to have set foot in that village, high atop a Swiss mountain. He was a spectacle, not out of hatred, but out of utter awe, the fact that a human's skin could be black, as though the color could rub off on one's fingers, like he'd simply been dipped in ink.
And to think, more than half a century later, Baldwin would face the same stares if he were to happen upon this thatched-roof inn in Fishertown. But behind these eyes, the eyes of these Irish men, an emotion would flicker, one learned largely from a history that is not theirs, a pop culture they've watched play out from the other side of an ocean. I have discussed this phenomenon with friends I made up yonder, friends who were not born in this country. A former co-worker of mine, a man who was born in Bulgaria and moved to the U.S. at nineteen, told me: Of course there would be a war in Bulgaria if citizens of another country flooded across its borders. Of course Bulgarians aren't fond of people with black skin roaming their streets, as if Bulgaria is their country too.
That night in Fishertown, I was proud to be an American, although I'm loath to use such a loaded phrase. My mother always said to me, "If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?," as a reminder that my actions are mine and mine alone. To point to anyone else's wrongdoings as justification is to slide down that slippery slope between right and just a harmless joke. Our right to be an American should come with a responsibility to protect the First Amendment, but also to promote equality and to speak out against injustice, no matter if the color or the creed or the gender affected by the injustice is the same as ours. To hell with what Putin and the rest of the world might do or might say.
But there are days when I wonder if we've conveniently forgotten the first commandment of this great country, if maybe we've confused it with "I am the Lord thy God." Unfortunately, what it means to be an American, even all these years after emancipation, still becomes fuzzy when shined through the prism of color, to say nothing of creed or gender, prisms through which due light is not often shined.
I'm not proud of what little effort I put forth to combat the ignorance inside that pub. All I could think to do was to be direct, and to say, "Yes," I do have black friends, and that, "No," there are not slaves in America, that Samuel L. Jackson has enough money to pay for his own housekeeper and gardener, white ones, if he would prefer them. I'd stayed within the context of the joke, but the levity dissipated. I kindly shook their hands, and Ned pulled me in for an embrace. I'll never forget Ned's smile, how genuine it was, how his forehead scrunched, how his gray mustache twitched with laughter. I was conflicted because of how much I liked Ned, this man who'd welcomed me into his country and into his inner circle, a man who, as my grandmother might say, would give you the shirt off his back.
Nearly a month went by after Ireland before I received another request from Kamaria. I picked her up at her apartment, not the TV station, and it was daylight, not our usual midnight ride through McDonald's. It was the middle of June, and Kamaria was wearing a purple T-shirt emblazoned with the Boys & Girls Club logo in white. She told me that she was a part-time staffer to supplement her income as a video editor. She also admitted that acting had been a pipe dream, that the agent, a man, had lured her in for what she might do off camera, rather than on.
"I don't have no luck with a man," Kamaria said. "I'm focusing on my career. Doin me. That's all I can afford, ya know. I just can't..."
I recognized the desperation for stability, even though I'd been the man on the other side causing the instability. This was the first glimpse into Kamaria the person I'd been given. So I divulged my exit from ESPN, my retreat from the relationships I'd sabotaged, the messiness I'd created by selfishly hoping to regain trust I'd blown into pieces too tiny to put back together.
"You don't seem like the type," Kamaria said.
"I'm not sure if I am or I'm not," I said. "I guess that's why I had to get away—the distance to see."
"So, hold up—you worked for ESPN? And you quit?"
I shrugged. If anything has become clear during this existential crisis of mine, it's that matters of the heart can't be explained with logic or with reason, same as Donald Trump being elected president. So I told Kamaria, as I have many passengers in my Honda Civic, that I made a "calculated dumb decision," walking out on my last W-2, the closest I’ll probably ever get to being worth that many zeroes. But what do I mean by that? "Calculated dumb decision." I guess I mean that, logically speaking, I had a safety net in the bank. I’d done the math and knew, barring unforeseen ailments or catastrophe, that I’d saved enough to survive at least a year without bringing in a single dollar. Truth be told, though, the turn of phrase is a deflection, something to help people laugh off a choice many of them can’t fathom making. It’s a funny feeling, too, sometimes shameful even, having been raised by a mother who juggled as many as three jobs to bury my father when I was fifteen and avoid bankruptcy.
"My heart wasn't in it anymore," I told Kamaria. "My heart had gone cold. And that wasn't fair to the editors I worked with or the writers who trusted me with their words. It wasn't fair to the women who'd trusted me with their hearts."
"OK, so you smart," Kamaria said. "But you crazy, too."
"Agreed," I said.
We both smiled. "I want to help people with whatever I do next," I said.
"Well, come on down and volunteer," Kamaria said. "Just play with the kids. All they want is a little love and attention."
As the universe would have it, Kamaria's particular summer program was at an elementary school less than ten minutes from the house I rent. I gave her my number and the next day the program director sent me a text. By the end of the month, I was playing basketball with fifth-graders, Connect 4 with kindergartners. Some of the kids were black, some were white. Some boys, some girls. When asked, What makes America great?, one of the kids drew the flag of Mexico and a taco truck. And one of the black girls with braids, dotted with green and yellow beads, asked if I had a wife.
"No," I said.
"I'll be your girlfriend until you find one," she said, leaning against my leg.
"Deal," I said.
I went for a couple of hours each week, and I would overlap occasionally with Kamaria's shift. The barrier of Uber had come down. We were now two people outside of my car, no pre-set parameters, no start and no finish. While Uber allows you to be in contact with complete strangers, Uber also distances you, allowing you to reveal parts of yourself that you wouldn't to a complete stranger. Uber allows you to discuss delicate matters—matters of race and religion and gender—that might otherwise cause hurt feelings or create rifts among people who you must coexist with on a semi-regular basis. So there is a certain unease that comes with semi-regular customers, an unease born out of getting to know one another on a level beyond driver and passenger, on a level beyond black and white.
Kamaria and I would say hello, ask the, "How are you?" But I was there to play with the kids, as was she, so, other than seeing the up-right versions of each other, we didn't further our acquaintance-ship much. Then, barely two months into my stint, Kamaria was gone.
"My manager told me things just weren't working out," Kamaria said. We were sitting side by side on the stage overlooking the basketball court, waiting for the kids to rotate between gym and crafts and tech lab. "But I got interviews lined up at other stations. God has a plan. I'm just really gonna miss these kids."
With our feet dangling, Kamaria complimented on my shoes, blue-and-yellow Nikes I'd bought on sale. "I like yours too," I said, "although I don't think I could pull off pink." She had on light denim skinny jeans stuffed into her pink-and-white Nike high-tops, which matched her pink shirt and pink acrylic nails and her lipstick.
"You might be surprised," Kamaria said.
I don't do attention well, so I shifted to, "Best of luck," and said that we'd cross paths on my Uber rounds. But we didn't, not for the entire month of August, and I didn't think much about Kamaria, nor did I figure she did me.
On Sept. 7, I decided to drive to the Grand Canyon. I woke up early, packed a suitcase, and booked a hotel in Oklahoma City, a twelve-hour trip from Knoxville. My goal was to reach Flagstaff, Arizona, in two days. Just outside of Nashville, the music in my car cut out. My phone rang. As much as I've been hoping to revive the lost art of the phone conversation, text has tended to prevail.Who the hell's calling? The number wasn't attached to any name in my phone, but the area code was "865," which spells VOL, as in Tennessee Volunteers, in case you needed reminding that Southerners are sports obsessed, along with the rest of the country.
"Hey, LaRue, how are you?"
"Good," I said. It was Kamaria. I could hear her in the way she drew out the "you" to rhyme with my name.
"Just wanted to see how things are goin," she said. "See if you've found yourself and all that."
"Well," I said, "I'm driving to the Grand Canyon."
"Boy, you are crazy!"
"Figured I oughta see it before I'm gone," I said.
"Lord help. Have fun. Be safe. Won't catch me hikin no canyon," she said. "Call me when you get back."
I said that I would, but Kamaria nor I could've known that I wouldn't return until Sept. 20, thirteen days later. Or that my trek would include not only the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon, but also the Pacific Coast Highway, a casino in Mesquite, Nevada, and Zion National Park in southern Utah, as well as several stops to catch up with old friends along the way.
During those 7,500 miles, I put the latest albums of Travis Scott and Frank Ocean—both young black artists—on a loop between podcasts. I pondered the "we made it" relief in Scott's lyrics, the joy in his paychecks now being the size of the muscle between his legs, in being able to have sex whenever he likes with a woman of any color, and having the money to buy whatever drug he cares to take, the dollars to buy whatever car or piece of jewelry his heart desires. Then there was Frank Ocean, who deftly weaves in and out of the rigors of fame, the confinement of gender roles, and the shackles of not only what white people see in his skin, but what his own people see in his skin. It is no coincidence that the Ferrari in the album is a white one. It is no mistake that the word "gay" is sung only once, on "Good Guy," a track that is just a piano-laced, a cappella interlude, a poem really, hidden among the bells and whistles of a pop album.
I recalled the opening line to Baldwin's essay, "Many Thousands Gone":
"It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story." Blackness has long existed for me inside speakers, inside thumping bass lines and witty, tongue-in-cheek rhymes. Blackness has existed at a safe distance, where I can listen and visualize the struggles and the pain, even sympathize with not having a father during my teenage years, yet never have to witness the struggles and the pain up close, to be personal with it. The music serves as a tonic for the sting in the words, a tonic that gives us remove from a soul being bared, a tonic that allows us to listen to black music for the music, just as we once read Playboy for the articles.
It dawned on me driving through the desert, cacti and mesas for miles, that not until I started driving for Uber in February had a black woman ever ridden in my car. I have only been inside the homes of three black women in my life, all in Connecticut, all married to white men.
Kamaria lingered in the recesses of my brain, as I imagine she would any heterosexual male who'd received an unexpected phone call from a pretty woman. And I wondered: Could Kamaria actually want to go on a date with a skinny white guy like me?
I never had that question answered, at least not directly. I did call Kamaria, but she didn't pick up. She texted me instead. She asked about my trip, and she asked about Uber. Between the lines of each text, I attempted to detect whether I should ask her out for a drink, or if, like many passengers I've encountered, she simply wanted me to be her Uber driver. I've been asked frequently to be a personal Uber driver, told by people that I'm "normal" or that I'm "cool," compared to other drivers. But part of the allure for me is the randomness, the idea that I might only meet a person once, simply because of an app on my phone.
While small talk has become a forte in my new career, I've found it to be a waste of my day-to-day personal life, me succumbing to the banality which can result in complacency or, even worse, conformity, so as to not rock the boat of the white middle-class norm.
For why, in Heaven's name, would we want to watch the Golden Globes for anything other than entertainment? For why, in Heaven's name, would we want to turn on a football game and have our mind-numbing ritual be interrupted by a black man's protest? We, as Americans, pay actors to be actors and athletes to be athletes, the thinking goes. Let them be people on their own time.
So, after a few more empty texts, I hit the button shaped like a phone, and Kamaria, unable to avoid it, answered. "Do you want me to drive you to your new job or take you out to dinner?" I asked.
"Well, see, I'm trying to save up for a car, and I thought maybe I could just pay you a couple times a week. But we can get lunch some time too. On me."
The "lunch" and "on me" solidified my answer. I asked Kamaria if Tuesdays and Thursdays would suffice, and she said she'd be ready to leave work around 5:30 in the afternoon. I considered the exception, not spinning the roulette wheel. I could justify it mostly because Kamaria had a legitimate reason—and she had trusted me enough to assume I wouldn't mind accepting money "under the table," although Benjamin Franklin has since been proven wrong by Donald Trump: the only thing certain in life is death, not taxes.
The following Tuesday I arrived at Kamaria's new TV station, about a fifteen-minute drive from her apartment near downtown. The tall concrete building was nestled among the suburban strip malls of West Knoxville. It was a cable station, not a local news affiliate. I parked near a back entrance where I'd noticed several people walk out wearing business casual attire and security badges clipped to their waists. I was five minutes early, so I texted Kamaria. Five minutes, no response. I texted again. Five minutes, no response.
Irritation crept in. I'd driven nearly twenty minutes without a passenger and had spent ten minutes more idling for free. Finally, Kamaria texted: "So sorry. Come to front." The building was a few football fields long. I punched the gas and wheeled around to the front and could see Kamaria through the glass of the door. She pushed but it did not open, the glass only vibrating. She rolled her eyes. She turned and began to gesture vehemently, like a prisoner who's served her time and been given her belongings, but the guard won't open the gate. A white man emerged from the shadows and glare of the glass. He was gesturing just as wildly and pointing in the opposite direction. Kamaria stomped her right foot and disappeared through a door behind the man.
Another white man came into focus, conversing with the angry white man. This new white man, wearing a paisley plaid Oxford tucked into charcoal slacks, his security badged firmly clipped, walked out the door Kamaria was not allowed to open and approached my car.
I rolled down the window. "Are you picking up Kaitlynn?" he asked.
"Yes, yes. Kamaria."
"I am. Who are you?"
He didn't seem to appreciate my question. "You should pick her up at the employee entrance, in the back."
"Yes, sir," I said. "You might want to learn your employee's name."
I rolled up the window and drove back to where I'd first parked. I watched more people trickle out in business casual attire, most of them white, their security badges clipped to their waists. Then came Kamaria, her security badge in her left hand. She was wearing her hair in her signature updo, and her pants were black denim, with flecks of white. They were that stretchy denim, giving them the appearance of leather or nylon, hugging Kamaria's curves. The handle of her black purse was dangling from the crook in her right arm, which was swishing along with her hips.
Kamaria climbed in and put her purse in the floorboard, sliding the security badge into a side pocket. She pressed her index fingers into the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes, exhaling. Her nails were black today.
"I'm so sorry," she said. "This has been the most horrible day. I've never had no man make me feel that kind of way."
"What was that about?"
"They wouldn't let me out—my phone died, and I found an outlet up front. Your texts popped up when my phone got charged. Then that man, who know good and damn well I work there, started tellin me I don't have clearance. Just to walk out the damn front door."
Kamaria had opened her hazel eyes now. There was anger in them but helplessness too. "He yelled at me," she said, "like I was some kid, trying to make me feel some kind of way. Uh-uh. No, no. You don't do that to me when I'm just trying to go home from work."
"I'm sorry," I said. "Who was that other man who came out?"
"My manager," she said.
"He didn't even know your name."
"I'm gonna get fired, I know I am," Kamaria said.
"Not over just that."
"That ain't all—I went out for lunch and didn't check back in to security the right way. They said I didn't show them my purse like I was supposed to. My manager had to come to my desk and escort me back to security."
Kamaria told me that the station advertised valuable merchandise, so she wasn't allowed to wear any jewelry inside the office. I noticed the three holes in the lobe of her ear, her bare neck and wrists, the bangles and necklaces that had been accessories of her style now gone. Kamaria never mentioned color, but her color crossed my mind, her tight jeans and updo in juxtaposition to the white women I'd seen with straight hair and in pantsuits, the balding white men in slacks and tucked-in Oxfords. I'm aware there is a uniform if you want to play this American game—I worked at ESPN, where my thread-bare T-shirts and multi-colored tennis shoes would've always relegated me to the creative kids' sandbox, cordoned off from where the big boys of TV played. I put my security badge in my pocket too, not on a clip attached to my waist. I can't change the rules of the game, but I can question them, remind you that they exist. I have asked, "Why?," before, but never been given an answer that satisfies me, other than to admit that conformity can provide the illusion of equality, when equality is the furthest thing from the truth, at least according to the direct deposits.
I wanted to ask Kamaria if her blackness mattered, or if she'd circumvented protocol unintentionally, an honest mistake in the line of duty. But she seemed completely at a loss about why her day had gone the way it had, and I admired her for it, for her not reverting to race and instead searching herself for an answer. Kamaria must've known, though, that groveling to the two white men would be her only ticket back in, that she was the "mad black woman" until she'd proven her mistake innocent, because she was already guilty in the eyes that mattered.
"I just want a career," Kamaria said, looking away from me out the window. "I just want a job doing what I went to college for. I have a guy friend I see now and then, and he must think I don't have no emotion. I told him it can't be more than what it is. I just have to find a way to take care of me—I've seen too many women lose it all because of men. Children they have to raise, money they thought would be comin in, then the man up and gone. Good women can turn hard that way, ya know."
I pulled into Kamaria's complex, the sun on the western side of the sky, nearly dark. I didn't know. I didn't know what it was like to be the black men I listened to inside my speakers, and I didn't know what it was like to be Kamaria, to have to view this largely white male world through the eyes of a woman, a woman with black skin, who must carry the weight of her pigment, same as the weight we expect to find in her backside.
Kamaria picked up her purse and slid her tongue across her teeth. She counted out the money we'd agreed upon, cheaper than the Uber fare, but enough to cover gas.
"Thank you," Kamaria said. "You must think I'm some kind of crazy. This day..."
"Not at all," I said. "We have these days."
"Always works out," she said. "I've done gone through worse. There's always worse."
Part 3 to come...