The Terminator?

I wore a Broad Street Run T-shirt to the corner store last night. While I was waiting for my egg foo young, another Black dude, about my height and build stood at the door, staring at me. I was focused on winning a match in this cheatin’ ass Yugioh Duel Links game on my phone, but I could feel his eyes on me the whole time. After I finished bustin’ that ass I looked up at the dude, and he didn’t turn away.

“Yo, you really ran that?” he asked.

“What?” I said. Here, I stood up, cause you never know with these kinds of things, better safe than sorry. The part of me willing to actually consider what he asked, or why I suddenly felt the need to be cautious was buried under years torment by other Black boys who were clearly not him, but also, somehow might be him if I let my guard down. I mean, I didn’t exactly think he was gonna sneak me while I sat, snatch my phone and run out of the store calling me a faggot; I’m too big for that now is what I often tell myself. Still, it makes me sick to my stomach that the thought could even cross my mind.

“The shirt,” he said, sensing my confusion.

Duh, dumbass, I thought.

Turns out he was a runner. We ended up bullshitting about the near death experience that was the Broad Street Run two years ago, in the cold and the rain, the ankle sprains and tight calves, soaking wet socks and the glory of finally making it out on the other end for free pretzels. We reveled in a soft, yet shared trauma that we both chose, and left it at that.

The other day this dude I went to middle school with checked into my job, as dudes I went to middle school with often do. Nothing emergent, probably an STD or something; I mustered the strength not to investigate. He didn’t recognize me, but I sure as hell recognized him. I had this really visceral reaction to seeing him though, like I needed to crush his trachea in my palm and then stomp his face into the concrete out front until I passed out from fatigue. After being smacked and antagonized to oblivion in the schoolyard, I used to sit and stare at him in class, imagining how much force it would take to crush all fourteen of his facial bones. I was really into bones back then. I also realize this isn’t a normal reaction. Especially not fifteen years after fact. I think it’s funny though how I never worry about writing negatively in regards to such people, because I’m not entirely sure they can read. I worry that I derive too much satisfaction from this assumed illiteracy. I worry about how often such illiteracy, and worse, is ascribed to me.  

I have only found the kind of trusting, emotionally intelligent relationship I desire–the kind that at least some women have offered–with one man in twenty-eight years. And I’m unsure if it would have occurred had we not deployed to Iraq together. And hated most everything together. That isn’t to demand the forging of bonds through collective loathing, or trauma, but I continue to have difficulty loving people who lack the grit, I imagine, that comes with making it out on the other end.   

 

Emergency departments are dumping grounds for intoxicated and/or mentally ill patients. Wet is poppin’ right now. And I can’t remember a time where North Philly lacked either substances or the need to use them. A few years ago, when a patient attacked another employee, I physically restrained said patient an he had a seizure in my arms. It was disgusting both physically and emotionally. Because I hesitated to stop him from harming another employee in the first place. Because of the fear that I’d hurt him. Because I wasn’t sure who or what I was doing it for.

We carried him to a room and strapped into a bed so he could be worked up, after which security came. Before said event, this patient, a Black man about the same age as me, sat “within arms reach” of me yelling and spitting and threatening me for several hours. He called me a bitch, a pussy, several faggots, my boyfriend a bitch ass faggot, my mom and her mom nasty sluts, chopped up my dicked work sneakers (which was kinda funny, I’m not gonna lie), berated my kids for being pussies if my faggot ass had any, etc. Nothing new. Not the worst or most unusual experience.  

In those regularly occurring situations, I do try to let it go. I think about the things they’d say to the women instead, albeit often less aggressively, when they think there’s a chance of fucking. I think, this nigga probably can’t even read, to my own dismay–both because of how white people assume intellectual superiority over me and my needing to do so in order to feel good in that situation. I think that people think he and I are alike. I think that people at work don’t think he and I are alike, so they say not-so-coded racist shit around me, thinking it’s safe. I want people to think we’re alike, because we are. It’s not safe.

But sometimes I want it to be. I want people (some) to feel at ease around me and it takes great effort. Whether it’s because of what’s been fed to me and internalized about Black men–the conditioning of my own conditioning–or dumb people and stereotypes, or the legitimate fear that a women might have of any two-hundred pound, six-foot-six man. No matter how many methods I’ve developed for social shrinkage, the hypervisibility always bubbles up. I know that white women diving into grass when they see me jogging, or people following me around stores isn’t me, it’s them, but still.

Sometimes I’m also conflicted about being the proxy defense against other men, specifically Black ones. It feels more complicated than the bouts in Black Boy / Invisible Man though. With increasing regularity I am tasked with providing a buffer between, most often, a White woman and Black man. There are times I question it, and times I don’t. With friends it’s automatic, almost instinctual, with strangers, less so. Sometimes said man is a rapey White guy on a college campus, as was the case when I was asked to guard the writing center because he was prowling and had sexually harassed one of the tutors. Sometimes it’s the likelihood of male violence, like in Antigua, when the women at The Snug would have me stay after closing to ward off aggression. I never felt dumb, or used in Antigua–I’d already made friends with them and was gonna stay whether they asked or not, but the workplace stuff (because it happens at the hospital all the time too) is a bit more complicated.

There’s no precedent for, or guarantee that campus security can or would do better–who, not coincidentally, questioned my belonging at SJU in the first place, always acting threatened until I gave them my I.D., then questioning me afterwards in disbelief. Still, it is a task they are trained, paid and legally protected to perform. I also have to think, who the fuck am I? The Terminator? Do I appear ready for battle? And what happens when I am forced to respond physically? Is everyone going to be absent at my arraignment for these assault charges? As they were as I sweat it out with a lawyer because of the hospital incident?  

Sometimes I don’t know what it is, and sometimes I ponder whether I even have the right to feel conflicted about it at all. Considering the whole grand scheme of things. And as helpless and angry as I felt watching my mother, and especially my grandmother routinely beaten by men when I was a kid, it warms me to be trusted as a protector in that way, until of course, I consider the circumstances that make it absolutely necessary. Until I think of the sheer joy at chipping this kid Kevin’s tooth after he slapped my sister. Until he went home crying. Until Earl was so proud of me for the only time I can remember.

But when a random White woman at a bar volunteers me to her defense, against what she perceives as a threat, but is really just another Black man, minding his own business, it’s…problematic. And then I’m tasked with triple checking against my own biases and hers.

Sometimes, at the hospital, a nurse will demand that I, and not security, become the buffer for a potentially violent patient and absorb all the complications that come along with it. Sometimes they’re not violent, just Black. Sometimes they’re both. And every time I can’t help wondering all of what’s implied about both me and them. About how much I might actually want to hurt the aggressor and how triflin’ I’d feel afterwards.

Which is to say I’ve never said no, never turned down a request, until today when I passed the buck to another man in the department, after suggesting that we enlist the security guards for that purpose. Even then I think of how excited security appears to hurt someone and I feel nasty, seeing a little too much of myself in both them and the mentally ill/high as fuck patient.

Perhaps I’m trying to capture things that I’ll never be able to. Either way, I’m way past 2,000 words today!

About Place: Philly

Today at the barbershop, this quinquagenarian hotep nigga said “I don’t care what nobody say. I ain’t eatin’ no pussy, that shit nasty.”

It was mid conversation that I hadn’t been paying attention to until then, so when I turned my head, squinting to see if he was for real, Johnny was like “Ignore that nigga, he a lil’ ass boy,” and just kept cutting my hair.

Hotep went on with the hotep shit in the hotep corner.

I went back to trying to think about place and writing, a prompt that began with Kiese asking about it in a roundtable at VONA. It was something that I, without interrogating it, had always kind of tried to escape, but not really.

I’d gone to the same barbershop since the first time I ever got my hair cut, even when they moved to three different locations, all underneath the EL along Frankford Ave. The first one was next to Birds, Birds, Birds pet shop where I almost loved every animal in the kingdom, imagining myself as a young, Black David Attenborough or Steve Irwin; it was also across the street from the little magic shop where I got vampire fangs for Halloween and those little plastic frogs that you leave in water overnight so they turn into these big gelatinous toads. It was next to the karate studio where I tried and failed at the week-long free trial and across from the best penny candy store Frankford ever had. Just two blocks away from the VHS rental place that I probably still owe money to.

Deni Park hill’s near vertical drop was behind it, where I used to rollerblade until getting jumped at said park where my friend Jonathan got his basketball taken. But two blocks further was the K-Mart where Jonathan and I got caught trying to steal Gundam Wing model kits (Death Scythe and Wing Zero from Endless Waltz, specifically).

The next barbershop location was next to the pawn shop where my Ganny sold the video games and Christmas presents. Between there and the third location is the alleyway where I first saw her with a John, the same alleyway the kids used for catch a girl freak a girl when the sun was up. Foulkrod street is on that next corner where the #5 bus stops, where I got off early in ninth grade because Ganny was on the bus high and I acted like I didn’t know her in front of my fake friends. Further down Foulkrod street, across from the fire station was where I met my first unrequited love, this tall, thick ass girl named Bianca who looked like she was 25 when we were twelve. I always made excuses to go around there to her corner store to get two dollar cheesesteaks even though they weren’t as good as the ones closer to Glenloch street, across from Red Brick projects and Harding Middle School, where I earned my first shred of respect because I was the first middle schooler who could dunk. Then I cut my hand on the net-less bucket rims across the street and it was the first time I ever got stitches, but we stopped going to that park after someone busted Jonathan in the head with a rock and ran away.

Until of course, I stopped there ten years later for a pickup game and one of my little brother’s friends lifted his shirt to show the gun on his waist and said “Yo old head, you want me to handle that nigga?” because some dude scored on me while we were playing man-to-man defense and started talking shit, as we all do anyway. Closer to Glenloch but still on Torresdale was the first place I was ever threatened with a gun, getting off the #56 bus some dude pulled his on me because he didn’t like the way I was looking at him, when really I was looking behind that nigga at the line for Rita’s Water Ice. I was just out of point blank range and I ran into the street towards home, then the bus pulled off, blocking his sight to me and mine to him, but when it passed I was long gone, and even though I only lived two blogs away I zigzagged through streets I shouldn’t have even been on in case he followed. When I got home my grandfather told me to stop being a pussy. Not too long after that my little brother was getting bullied by some kid on Granite street and when I went to rectify it their older brother flashed his waistband to end the conversation.

As I rode my bike to Amalgam thinking about place I passed through Kensington, where I discovered that White people do drugs too, and years later got my first tattoo. I rode over the bridge that crosses Frankford Creek where I used to hunt for Red Eared Sliders and frogs, never knowing they were invasive species. I kept going around there after I thought I outgrew the creek critters because I thought I was in love with this girl Maria, and the KFC by there had the freshest chicken.

And recently I’ve been stuck trying to finish my memoir. There are plenty of pages, but it’s out of focus; half of them are all over the place. But maybe place is the subject, or should be. It’s funny because when Aisha was my advisor she kept bringing up the weird references to specific places that would come up even in speculative fiction, though I rarely, if ever, noticed it. My sense of place has always felt trapped like in Holmesburg prison where my mother’s water broke, dwarfed by writing that explored real places, that other people knew and talked about. I think of Roberto Bolano’s Mexico City, Kiese Laymon and Jesmyn Ward’s Mississippi–hell the South for a lot of Black writers–I think of Zadie Smith’s London, of Samuel Delaney’s Times Square, Jaquira Diaz’s Puerto Rico and Miami, Junot Diaz’s D.R. and New Jersey, Aravind Adiga’s India, and so on and so forth.

Even though the first piece of memoir to  get published came from an assignment where I had to write about place, I never repeated the exercise. I’m not sure if it felt formulaic or why, maybe fear or laziness or denial. But as I prepare to leave Philly again physically, it’s hard not to accept how much this place has meant to me. I’m reminded of what it’s worth, good and bad, and I sit here to do nothing but try.

VONA Reflection

I am someone who has never truly had family–biological or otherwise my entire life–the concept/building of which has failed more times than I can count. Because of this, most of my energy has been devoted to subjugating myself in order to squeeze into some space or another, deferring to monolithic Blackness or  making White people feel safe, comfortable, etc. Anything rather than being completely alone. A couple of months ago, after switching antidepressants again, my shrink had me create a safety plan and I wasn’t sure what to put on it, so I scribbled down some bullshit and read it with enthusiasm like I was at a conference. I thought of hope, as a concept related to interpersonal connection, to be reserved for children and normies.

A lot of that has changed though. After a week-long nerd fest, boo loving with a gang of hyper intellectual, emotionally available, queer POC writers, coming back to work this week feels like falling backwards off the edge of a tiny VONA planet. Back to a world that lacks not only interiority, but the means by which to discover it. It’s hard to conceptualize that when most of my relationships were with static humans who order me to change. The whole VONA week though, I felt more comfortable, more safe, more seen, than I have in twenty eight years.

Now I can’t suppress my laughter when someone asks if I’ve watched “Underground,” nor can I suppress the tears when “We Belong Together” comes on. I can distinctly hear the voices of the Spec Fic (Rocketship) crew in everything I read alone, all double dutching into the critique as I underline passages and scribble in the margins, Tananarive facilitating her ass off, nodding her head, because it’s like she said; she chose us.  

I wanted to write a reflection on VONA but I didn’t really think I could capture it. I still don’t. Then I couldn’t write anything else until I wrote something about it, so I set a timer and started this rambling.

VONA has taught me not to suppress everything I think, feel or desire, especially if it’s in service to the dominant culture. VONA has taught me that our stories matter. VONA has taught me that I do have family, and that finding them is worth it. VONA has given me the ability to write slightly less grim story endings. VONA has encouraged me towards self-care and away from canceling shrink appointments. VONA has led led me towards global community and away from settling. VONA has changed my life. 

VONA may have saved my life.

I can’t thank everybody enough: The Spec Fic (Rocketship) crew, Tananarive, the VONA staff, hell, every single person I spoke to in passing or at the open mic. Ya’ll are the world’s greatest.