Posts Tagged ‘memory’


The summer I was due back in school as a sophomore, I decided to change the game and get a Jheri curl.

That particular summer, nothing was natural. All my cousins, all the bus drivers… everybody from the ministerial staff at church to the gangbangers smoking on the corner just outside, had these dripping wet afros infused with greasy vinyl bands of hair corkscrewing down to the scalp. The Jheri curl was everywhere. Named after its hairdresser-inventor, Jheri Redding, the hairstyle was a perm, a two part chemical relaxer that after softening hair would curl it. To top it off, my mom was a hairdresser who kept a steady stream of customers running through our kitchen to get permed up. (Aside: This cost her the skin on her fingers for a while. They would flake and swell resembling fat caterpillars until the fad, and her desire to engage the hours long process, faded)

Everyone I knew it seemed had swampy black hair that left slug-like trails from wherever the wearer sat. Everybody! The basketball players at the park, the young men and women in my kitchen … from the globally worshipped Michael Jackson to the scowling Ice Cube whose St. Ides and Kill at Will posters I kept on my wall that year. Everybody was dripping grease and cool as an R&B album cover.

And all I had was dry black naps full of dandruff. I couldn’t get laid if I was fresh mixed concrete. I had to get a Jheri curl. Right Now.

My mom was fine with this. She just didn’t want to do the work since she had real paying customers every weekend. So she asked cousin Susie whom she anointed and approved of, to come in one Saturday and work on me. All I was asked to do was not wash my hair or scratch it.

Which was the first and immediate problem. Did I mention I had dandruff? Is that still a thing? I remember combing my hair while bent over a newspaper watching the gray snowfall pile up. I had acne, sure, but it wasn’t as bad as my wickedly dry scalp, for which pomades and Head and Shoulders barely helped. The afternoon I was to get my hair done, I went down to Pay N’ Save and bought a box of relaxer. My head felt as dry as if it could crumble and blow away in a steady wind, like the leftover from a campfire. Not to mention how it itched. But nonetheless!! I was undaunted! I was finally going to be cool and get straight A’s in pussy all that next year!

So for the first time, I entered my own kitchen sanctuary (which I usually avoided) as a customer! While my mom worked on one old lady, then another, and maybe one after that… Susie began pouring chemicals through my hair, soaking my head in something…

Something akin to fire. Something like agent orange. My entire head burned. The slow, smoldering sensation made my skin feel as if were made of burning embers moving in waves. I closed my eyes to keep tears from dropping. However dry my scalp was, the chemicals were doing the exact opposite of helping. I squeezed my hands, digging my fingers into my thigh. The ladies came in and left and everybody was admiring and curious and smiled while I suffered and gritted my teeth and did everything except scream stop. It took the bulk of the afternoon for Susie to finish.

And when I was free, my hair was placed in rollers and the entire thing covered in plastic. I had just had surgery. My mom gave me her prescription Tylenol’s, thanked and paid Susie, and I went back to my room to recover.

I burned, I hurt. My entire head smoldered and ached. I don’t remember the rest of that night. Did I eat anything beyond soup and codeine? Could I have chewed? All I remember was sitting up in bed with my head bandaged in plastic while searching for some comfort and solace in television.

I turned to Channel 26 which on weekends showed an hour of music videos hosted by a local radio DJ. I sat staring coolly at the television. Pain gradually eased.

And then– the DJ announced the next music video.

A song called Wuthering Heights, he said. By Kate Bush, he said.

Fade up on a woman in double image, rising from an arc of rainbow light. A piano begins like misting rain, as if its being gently tickled as opposed to played. The woman on screen wears a white dress, not as a ghost or angel even but more like a muse, a low end goddess who shyly demurs too much fuss or attention. Her hair is long and dark, hanging over her shoulders. She mimes, she gestures before a black background. Unlike the other videos I’d seen, this is without groupies, dancers, a band, or a set. The director doesn’t even mix crazy colors into the unused background. Its just her dancing alone, video effects echoing her movements so that her body smears across the screen and she appears to dance duet with herself. This video cost less than $20 to make and I was riveted.

It was her voice, mostly. Her voice froze me in place, stopped time. Her voice is tip-toe high and tinny, an unreachable bird drifting and sliding between thermals. Her vocal dips and moves, dancing as she dances, gesturing as she gestures drawing out words and phrases, sending her voice up cheerily then back down to a kind of longing wistfulness. The song is dramatic and sweet and busy. The song sounds so ornate and complicated– like the show stopper for some Broadway musical. The bridge, its me, Kathy, I’ve come home and I’m so cold– let me in your window, Heathcliff— is desperate and mournful and full of longing. Every lonesome twitch I’d ever felt is articulated in her voice, with that line.

It was hypnotic and the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. This wasn’t the same cheese from the 70’s songs I’d give an ear to. This wasn’t Melissa Manchester or Debbie Boone. This was someone who took a wholly different approach to songwriting than I’d experienced. It sounded mature and classical. I’d be asked to read Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for school maybe two years later, but I’d never finish it. I made it far as the hounds and gave up, dropping my first high school English class out of bitterness towards a teacher I loathed. But I didn’t need that book. I preferred Kate Bush summarizing the novel leaving me the image of a woman waiting for her lover and dancing until he responds.

The song, her voice, saved me. Healed me. It was a balm to my ear and heart and I fell immediately in love and passed out for sleep.

That next morning, I woke up, removed my plastic headwrap, unhooked the curlers, looked at my new hair, and cried. It was horrible. More specific, it wasn’t Me. I no longer recognized myself when I looked in the mirror– not that I was all that excited beforehand, but now, with this, it was All Bad.

My mother, calmly: If you want to keep your hair from falling out, go massage some mayonnaise in your hair and wait a few minutes before shampooing it out.

By the time Susie arrived to see her work from the previous afternoon, I was already combing my freshly shampooed hair out. That curl didn’t make a full 12 hours. She stopped talking to me. I mean, she was paid… but for a long while after she would still look at me and sneer.

So: I went to school that next day, Monday, with a very soft and kinda curly Afro. My scalp, of what I could see of it, looked burned in patches, but it was alright. I would still have dandruff for a while, but it eventually eased up.

I remained a virgin. A nappy virgin at that.

(Well, not nappy– the chemicals completely changed the quality of my hair for years, softening it, leaving it wavy)

And I became a very committed Kate Bush fan. A couple of years later she’d release The Whole Story, her greatest hits compilation with a new vocal on Wuthering Heights, her voice having matured and come down an octave or two, but the song still offered a huge, cinematic sweep of sound. More years later and I found her box set of all her albums in a local record shop as an import from Japan and paid $200 without complaining.

I did not go to England for her month-long residency in 2014 at the Hammersmith Apollo. The wait for any video footage (none) or her eventual live album was agonizing.

She’s not an artist I can easily pass on to my friends. She’s not soulful. She’s not funky. She’s a dancer, certainly, but doesn’t care what a dance remix is. I wish she’d play more with unique sounds and different producers, and come up on more experimental dance tracks like this. But she’s a reserved, proper Englishwoman who’d sooner work with Chopin than Pharrell. Sooner drink tea than go Unplugged. She recorded with Prince, at least, so there’s that. And that live album is a stunner.

And all that is to say: when I heard Kate was nominated for this years class in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, over every other alum and nominee over the years, Prince, Tupac, Radiohead or Name Somebody, I realized I will go to Ohio to visit the museum there. After what she’s done for my spirit, I feel as if I owe her.


Seizure: being grabbed and tossed to the ground.  In an instant, I became a bucking horse, forgiven everything except this moment. In exchange for a mouthful of blackened bacon sweating grease, here is a chaser of carpet and the hail of a table’s debris.  It is unusual, to say the least, to awaken face down on a  carpet, having been mounted by electrical shocks and rendered, pardon me, dumb and empty and useless.  A man with a need for sugar and grease is of no use to anyone except the doctor or the mortician.  My morning trip to Farmer’s market cost me a leg on the coffee table that my legs violent thrashing kicked off.  The table showered me with a coffee mug, an ashtray, my laptop, half bottle of lemon water, a nail file.  The tremors stopped even as my head continued spinning and I got up off the floor disoriented like I’d had a years’ worth of sleep in a handful of seconds.  I surveyed my body from head to toe — what the hell am I doing here / what exactly just happened.  I got up from the floor, surprised by the sudden newness of everything.  I took aspirin, then unplugged the power strip from the wall seeing how the desk lamp had broken its neck and all bottles of liquid had spilled into a wet outline haloed around me.  After dropping the aspirin, I needed to lay down again immediately.  I couldn’t make the couch and chose the closest floor.  Have you ever been confused by your own body?  I was confused by more than that.  I looked across the terrain of the carpet.  The broken table, the broken lamp, the scattered ephemera  and the dumb luck of not electrocuting myself, at least.

And then, I looked up at the silent black phone.  Perhaps you would have called any number of friends or family or even an ambulance.  I had no friends or family and the ambulance was a rubber banded roll of money chocked deep down in my throat I couldn’t get up.  In truth, there is a hospital four blocks from my building… but, but, but.  I looked at my phone, useful to me now as a toaster might be, and felt deeply sad.  Right then, I felt sorry for myself.  And I thought back to earlier that morning when I’d gone to the farmer’s market where I bought eggs and the aforementioned bacon which probably led to this absurd afternoons non-delight.  Smirk now as I tell you I walked past a man shoving kale and arugula into a plastic bag and kept walking.  I walked past another man standing in the middle of the flowing wave of shoppers.  He was speaking so loudly into his cell phone it seemed like a performance.  I thought I recognized him … and did.  He is my biological brother.  And as if this might explain anything, I walked past him while he stood blindly screaming: “What?? Should I give up my freedom to do what I…” and I walked past him, unnoticed and stopped listening after losing count of all the “I’s” shoved into his sentence.  He never saw me, unable to see anything except his own issues.  How to say: we are better as strangers than brothers?  More familiar to one another in thought than face to face.  As I walked past, I realized there were no memories I wanted to volley back and forth.  There was nothing I wanted to catch up with.  We emerged from the same biological muck, brothers in the dictionary yet strangers and useless otherwise.  He had sons, a daughter, an ex-wife, plenty.  He wasn’t adopted.  He was wanted.  Somehow it was just me who didn’t match the set.  It was me to whom my “birth mother” said, “lets agree to disagree”, before handing me off like a casserole.  I walked past him and bought cookies at a booth two tables down.  I preferred sugar and the kind smile of a stranger vending baked goods and fresh pasta.

I didn’t think of my biological brother again until later that afternoon when I found myself on the floor, table broken, dishes scattered across the floor in an awful tableau.   From my vantage point, I couldn’t think of a single name to call.  The only thing I thought of was him shouting into his phone and with that, my body flattened against the rug.  Depending upon him, I’d be good as dead.  The spilled items agitated me.  I pushed myself up, stumbled to the couch and waited.  I lay on my back and listened to my body.  Adrenaline is gasoline burning clean beneath my topsoil of skin.  My heart thumped even down to my fingertips.  I was glad to feel anything.  I spoke to myself, not a prayer, but how you’d test a microphone, and I sounded okay.  I flexed my toes.  Whenever a wave of thought whitecapped I breathed slowly until it smoothed out.  I watched the adrenaline burn and turn from red to orange to blue and then ease.  The day outside was so pretty and so bright and so useless.  I reached for my phone to make a doctor’s appointment then realized the next open slot was more than a week later.  Once I could move comfortably, I called medical services to expedite my appointment.  The woman-operator on the phone cheerily asked What Was Wrong.  I didn’t want to talk to her, I wanted to speak with my doctor.  She asked: It isn’t sexual is it? I used the word Seizure then the word Stroke and then a nurse was connected on the line and quietly urged me to call emergency.  Turns out there is a hospital but four blocks from my front door.  She talked me down from even trying to walk it, alone, especially before knowing what was wrong or whether it would happen again.  She said my appointment couldn’t be changed.  I hung up the phone and stared at the wall, breathing.

The nice folks at Two Hawks Quarterly have published my story Madagascar, my first attempt this year to send out something else besides Poetry. (Not That There’s Anything Wrong With Poetry). I sent it out on a lark just to gauge what would happen– what happened next was a huge surprise to me. It was encouraging at least. I’m digging like a badger through old journals for more salvageable stories. Hope you enjoy.

The Empty Room

Posted: May 26, 2016 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

Eye of Horus

On the way to the hospital, I walk past Mosswood Park and was compelled to visit the amphitheater. Speckled key lights of sun were spilled randomly along the ground. When was the last time I was here: the late 90’s men’s group meeting? I was quite fond of those Sundays when a bunch of male artists got together to talk openly about whatever and one of the first meetings we had was here, along the stone steps. Or was I last here for a video shoot? The small stage held young dancers that afternoon and we’d set up now antiquated video cameras and lights to record it while the producer marched around hugging a clipboard like a flattened teddy bear. Today there was a man stretched out sleeping soundly on the concrete steps, his arms folded, and beneath a baseball cap he snored gently. A woman walked her 10-speed down to the first row and sat on the concrete with a book. On the ground were the ashy remnants of a fire; hunks of blackened wood freckled with bright white papery ash. I just stood to look at the place through memory, then turned and pressed on to the hospital.

I didn’t want to go and yet pushed myself uphill. I chose not to think any names of the people I’d lost to this building or the promise I made to myself how I’d never come back. I took the hill slowly, mournfully despite the day being so lovely and warm. I was here because I’ve known Say 20 years, if not more. He’s been a lifelong sufferer of Sickle Cell. For whomever I’ve lost over the years to death or indifference, his friendship has remained steadfast, even as I’m often not the best friend in the world due to my chronic introversion. But when I talked to him yesterday, he surprised me saying he’d had his hip removed. I found myself half listening while unboxing a new external hard drive as he explained he’d been released from the hospital only to be rushed back when he found his body’s new problems. Between the last time we talked and this, a distance maybe of two weeks, he’d suffered more problems and pain on top of whatever the sickle cell crisis had put him through. I told him I’d be by after work tomorrow and this is why I walked up the hill to the hospital, finding a gate surrounding and securing the main entrance. Its’ been that long, huh?

I walked around the corner then up to the new entrance. The hospital smell leaking out of the doors out onto the now valet-parking controlled driveway. As I walked up, no one was manning the area, and several cars sat quietly. I walked in, approached the desk and waited. No one was in a hurry to speak or help me. One guard patiently finished his call, (the other was talking with a female employee) then called me over. I gave Say’s last name and he gave me a visitor’s sticker and directed me to the new elevator bank. I went up to the 10th floor, down towards Say’s room and found it empty. I stood in the middle of the room. The room felt cold and empty — so desperately empty– even with me in it. The bed was unmade, the sheets like frozen waves of snow. The pillow wasn’t on the bed, but rather on the chair across the room. There was a table swung away from the bed and near the window. His dinner sat sealed and sweating in front of his open laptop, the wallpaper image of an Egyptian eye of Horus. I looked back to the open door and the hallway where no one and nothing moved. Silence. No nurses, no sounds of TV’s in neighboring rooms. The white board on the wall offered scant information made in blue and black markers; Say’s name, a short list of goals, his projected release date, which when I looked at my phone appeared to be the next day. The television was black. Outside, the city was only light adjusting for the evening while a vein of cars ran along the freeway. I stood uncertain of what to do. Time stopped and I felt at a loss and weird. I took out my pocket notebook, tore out a page and wrote a note. It seemed important I end the note with I Love You, which I did, even as I feel myself a bad friend having never done quite enough. What could I do? I tore it out and first lay it on the top sheet of the bed, balanced between two waves of bedding. I looked around again half expecting the entire building’s lights to click off. I picked up the note, then wriggled it into the keyboard of his laptop. His dinner sat sweating beneath a plastic bowl cover. Everything seemed to wait, yet nothing was happening nor seemed about to happen. I looked up at the clock again, sucked gently on my lips, then walked out.

Closed doors down the hallway towards the left. A long hallway with some opened doors on my right. I walked back to the elevator. I pulled off my visitor’s sticker as if it might sting, rolled it like a joint and plopped it in the trash. Twenty feet down from the elevator bank, a heavyset young man sat across from a patient. That man very well could have been me. The patient he looked over at without speaking, unseen by me, was my mother. However many years its been, I’ve never left.

in your silent room
a shivering bed awaits
a heart holds its breath

SPOILER: I don’t. They write me.

I woke up in time to catch CBS Sunday Morning and the moment it was over, I clicked off the television, already annoyed by the Sunday morning crew newscast, and started getting myself dressed and my stuff together.

Four notebooks, some print outs of articles and Other People’s Poetry I found the previous week at work, two pens, one pencil. Some books I didn’t open.

I’m a morning person, obviously. If I can get out of the house before 8:30 I feel like I’m accomplishing something and there’s hope. I like it early when the streets begin to aspirate gently. What people there are move slowly. By rights I should walk, but the arthritis in my knees and my unreliable feet make that downhill mile more daunting than I’d like. I don’t wait long for the bus. From there, its a two block walk past the children’s playground to my preferred café. The other name cafe’s you’d recognize, with better coffee and pastries, have tables that are much too small. In their large communal rooms, only a couple of tables are appropriate, both at the window and against the brick wall (one inside, one out). Those tables usually go first to students staring into their laptops or seniors leisurely combing over newspapers. I found one café with strong coffee and kinda miserable Costco pastries and huge tables with bay windows overlooking the lake that’s dreamlike for me. Its owned by an Ethiopian family. And part of my effort to get here early is for a prime window seat. Both tables were taken by the time I arrived, but I found a large table, centered against the wall, a couple of arms length away from the window where a woman sat talking on her phone with her laptop yawned open. On my other side, a younger Asian male finished a breakfast burrito and stirred the white pages on his desk.

I took out a yellow legal pad and a pencil and wrote three pages. Those were pages of therapy. Cleansing out whatever stray detritus floated in my head. Last nights dream, my insecurity, shame, wishes for what I’d rather be doing, what I did the day before and what I didn’t do. I wrote without stopping, as if sitting across a therapist and free associating. Until finally I ran out. I sipped coffee, I pinched off a chunk of muffin.

In one of my notebooks I made a bullet list: What goals did I want to accomplish, Right Now, while sitting here? I wrote three sentences. My intent was to write about Prince, via three specific experiences. Friday morning, I wrote a page of stray inconsequential notes and phrases. I gazed at them again, then took up the essay I’d found on line the previous week. Then read a poem. If writing my head clear with a pencil is one thing, this act of reading harmonizes my brain. Pointing my imagination to a goal, a direction.

Reading was a way to jump start the conversation in my head. Where and how do writers begin– how do they track their feelings on the subject, in this case Prince. How are they successful and how do they disappoint me? The poem I read started with a truly lovely idea and image, but it kinda devolved into sugary gibberish as it reached its end. The essay I read was better: strong, beautiful, admirable and personal. He’d write a far better version of whatever it is I’m sitting here hoping will emerge.

I reminded myself there were three memories I wanted to try to capture. I took up another notebook and free-wrote thru one memory at a time. I couldn’t stop. It was like automatic writing. I watched the images in my head and like a journalist made notes on what I was seeing, thinking, feeling. Because it was a poem, I pushed the boundaries of what I remembered and attempted to add things, images, elements that didn’t happen but could have. I wrote quickly, almost trembling in effort to write faster.

I stopped and looked up. A half dozen spandexed joggers had come in and sat down. A dude with a very runny nose sat next to me, also with a notebook so I quietly wished him luck. I took up my second memory and turned it over in my mind. Hadn’t thought of it in years. Then picked up a pen and ran with it; When I couldn’t remember something, I made it absurd. Surreal. Sometimes its not just what the Thing is, its what else it is. I wrote quickly, choreographing all manner of insane things into a memory which was more like a GIF file stored in my brain. Same with that third memory. Crazy write, I think is the phrase.

I left my laptop at home. On purpose. Hand writing is like sculpting. Creating directly from the heart. Because you’re writing by hand, you work slower and become more specific in your word choice — or crazy in your word choice once you realize you can’t stop and check a thesaurus for an alternative. To stop and check something is to stop, period. I only found myself stopping and looking up across the room from time to time as if I were listening to someone on the phone and they just put me on hold. It was swimming a few strokes and coming up for air. Right now, the goal isn’t to get anything right, its just to Write: to dump out of my mind every crumb of imagery that wants to come up while turning something specific over in my head.

Consequently, to initiate something on the computer– as I’m doing now– is creating something directly from ego. The effort is faster, which isn’t to say better, more muscular and from a seat of certainty, knowing. Ego. I can end this, scan it for errors, and publish it quickly. Instead of being the best it could be, it’ll just be Done. Last week I found a quote attributed to Dylan Thomas: “The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flush, or thunder in.” I think handwriting leaves holes that allows for conversation to happen later once you re-approach the page. What I’m writing now, this blog, will be finished in a few paragraphs and never thought of again.

But yesterday… I left the café to go to a bakery for cookies. Then I returned home, put on Oscar Peterson, Art Blakely then a recording of Langston Hughes The Weary Blues. I cleaned up the kitchen, smoked half a joint, then typed up all the notes from earlier this morning. The typing showed me a lot of holes and clichés. How many different words can there be for heart? How many different ways can I say galaxy? Being high I made editing choices that were raw and interesting (and brief. High-James is not a great writer, but he’s a solid typist and edits well enough).

Those notes are marinating now. I finished and mailed them to myself for today, to print and go back over tonight when I leave work and to review ‘what happened’. I printed those pages blindly without looking, then slipped them into my notebook. To marinate your work seems most essential in writing– even more important than whether you type or hand-write. My brain is, even as I type this, very curious as to what happened in those notes. But forcing myself to wait while thinking other things, to let the words congeal on the page without me, allows me to approach my own work again, but with fresh eyes, a different face and new outlook. To read my own work as if I were a friend or critic of myself.

ME: Hey!! I wrote seven pages yesterday!
NEW ME: Are any of them worth reading?
ME: Hater!

The praise dancers of the Apostolic Faith Church.  Louis Byrd photographer

The praise dancers of the Apostolic Faith Church perform during the Family and Friends Day morning service.

If you use a Yoruba chant to open a public event, welcoming the ancestors to join and be welcome in the proceedings, how do you close the ceremony and tell the ancestors, spirits– thanks for coming! shows over now, yawl can go back to the far reaches of heaven or wherever… I ask because a woman got up to do the opening welcome. Since she announced herself as a teacher– she did it ‘properly’, in Yoruba. Emptied a plastic drinking glass over a tiny but erect houseplant then proudly returned to her seat, smiling. Then sometime later, perhaps an hour or so, to my left from where I sat in the back, what appeared to be a chestful of blue cigarette smoke moved up the aisle and quietly dissipated into the air. Thin lines of embroidered smoke moved stealthily like the tail end of a dress swinging then appearing to step into nothingness. The poetry reading went on. Certainly no one was smoking or even vaping in here. A former librarian sat across from me, attentive (and resembled Michelle Obama if Michelle was fair skinned and had long dookie braids) No one except me acted as if they saw anything and I’m not sure I really saw it. But, of course I did. I’m getting way ahead of myself.

Saturday was the 26th Annual African American Celebration Through Poetry held at the West Oakland Branch Library. In spite of its 26 year run, I’d all but forgotten about it until having dinner with a friend of mine who forwarded me the flyer and call for poets. I read at this event at least twice before. The last time, an uncountable number of years ago, I read a story– a retelling of the John Henry folktale, only done as if Lord Buckley would do it, through his semantics of the hip. I read it one time only and shelved it for being ‘weird’. I have nowhere near the stage confidence of Lord Buckley, even if he’s basically a car thief of African American slanguage.

This time though, I had some poems to represent under the Black Lives Matter campaign and wanted to be in that room and share them.

It was Super Bowl weekend. The sky was polished bright blue. I got to the library an hour early and crossed the street to hang out for a while at de Fremery Park. The park has a long and involved history with Oakland and the Black Panthers, but a history for me also. I thought of the times I came here as a kid; the hours spent on slides and swings, the sand I’ve eaten. The picnics here with family. My grandfather lived a few blocks sprint from here and another block further from him was where my first best friend, Anthony, once lived. Yet another two blocks from him was the beauty school where my mom once taught. All memories moving at lightspeed away from me, it seems. I crossed the park and settled amongst a half dozen pic-nic tables to write. Across from me a group of men, all white I quietly noted, played basketball. A man walked his children over to the playground. From where I sat, I couldn’t see the concrete skater’s bowl just below the park’s horizon. I opened my backpack, took out some paper and notebooks and worked for a half hour or so.

I slowly strolled back to the library, passing the recreation center which after all these years I’ve never been inside of. Its a huge Victorian mansion I’ve never had courage enough to enter. Today I had no time. I walked past and saw a few girls in black and purple dresses getting ready for something; all preening and posing in front of hand mirrors. I wanted to be nosy, but being alone I was obviously a dismissible pervert, so I kept my head down and crossed the street.

50 or 60 or so chairs had been set up in the multi-purpose room; its tiny kitchen open; a bowl of mixed fruit and a carafe of coffee was already set out. Reynaldo, a painter was attempting to hang some of his paintings but the temporary hooks wouldn’t adhere to their surface, and twice his paintings slid off the wall and thwacked the ground loudly. Another artist took over the back table with collaged post-cards and flyers, then littered the stage with graffiti’d umbrellas painted with key words, affirmations and historical figures. For a while I talked with a man I knew from years ago. We caught up briefly while his wife sat across from us doing some last minute work on her laptop. He told me since we’d last talked he’d gone to Brazil but while there picked up some nasty infection of some kind. What got him to go to Brazil? I asked. While he answered, his wife smirked to herself and shook her head, as dismissively as a judgmental mother. She puffed herself up slightly like a bird and announced over us both the name of the conference she attended and the talk she had to give. But she mostly kept her eyes on the screen and shook her head. Her eavesdropping suddenly taking what little energy there was out of our chat.

Reynaldo came over to where me and the man was standing. He had found a display solution for his paintings since he couldn’t hang them. For all intents and purposes, he looked like me, if I came from Jamaica. Heavy set in a hand painted t-shirt, a wiry beard tracing his jaw and a red black and green skull cap on his head.

What college did Malcolm X go to? He said. He didn’t. But people at every university in this country study Malcolm X.

I asked him all of nothing, but he stood next to me and started talking. What’s weird: he kinda directly answered a question I posed to the universe a month or so back.

You don’t go to school to study art, Reynaldo said with a vague distain. You learn how to make art by making art. You learn by doing it, You learn by making mistakes. People ask me where I went to school. Schools come to me! You don’t go to school to study to be an artist. You make art! No one tells me how to make these paintings…

I looked at the paintings he displayed: the one on the end will make you think of Picasso. This one reminiscent of Matisse. All raw and powerful and well crafted. I listened and remembered: I never studied poetry in high school. I discovered poets by going to the library and choosing books at random, some based on the title, others on a name I kinda remembered.

I learned to write poetry as on the job training, I finally told him.

All art is on the job training, he said. Then ended our conversation and went back to his art table.

And maybe that was the ENTIRE reason I wanted to come to this event.

Otherwise, it started a leisurely half hour late. The host arriving 10 minutes before the 1pm start time. It was scheduled to end at 4 and I left a quarter before the hour and they still had several readers and an open mic to get to.

And the show itself; a community poetry reading which felt more like church fellowship. A lot of seniors,– myself included, I guess– in the audience and performing. The woman dressed most elegant who gave a lot of shade to her husband earlier, did the opening ceremony in Yoruba, which was nice. She was dressed in a dark pink business casual suit, not some flowery West African wrap. I listened to her vowel heavy words and thought how both Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou fueled both poems I planned to read. I remembered my grandfather and the cadence he’d use for his sermons, a cadence I certainly appropriated in my delivery.

The woman finished and returned to her seat, swollen with pride. The, ahem, smoke I saw moving amongst the crowd, I wondered if it remained here or if it came attached to someone in the room? Nonetheless, it was like a sheer skirt whose piping you could barely see before it vanished.

The first reader was a young high school girl who read a poem on her phone, then placed the phone on the speaker next to the mic while a gospel song played, she then Praise Danced. A curious development to emerge in Christian churches since I’ve been away… She pantomimed the lyrics, her long arms and legs swooping as if she were attempting tai chi and got the holy ghost. The readers varied from a man pacing while doing a mini-lecture before reciting Claude McKay’s If We Must Die then two original and brief poems. A buttery smooth senior who recited perfectly measured couplets in the old-school Toast style. A legendary bay poet who performed in a super-powered wheel chair and apologized for needing to leave early and making people buy her book. She set up shop in the back of the room before leaving. Activist Leroy Moore demanded we include honoring disabled African Americans when we honor folks during Black History Month. (Mental note: Get his book, Avoid Amazon.)

I awaited a couple more poets of legend and note to perform, both of whom I knew, before I snuck out. I was happy to’ve been there and read. I felt like I gave a micro-sermon. People were attentive and present and loving. It felt like church fellowship, too. If there is a proper closing ceremony in the Yoruba tradition, I missed it. But I’m glad the spirit (Claude, was that you??) moved among us and was even happier it didn’t follow me out of the library.

But seriously– how to show spirits the final exit and who tells them Thank You and Good Night?

gin and juice

By mid-day Sunday, Taqueria San Jose was packed. The gorgeous restaurant feels air lifted from Mexico and is bigger than you’re currently imagining, with an outdoor fountain on the rarely used and kind of small brick patio. I ordered lunch and armed myself with chips and salsa. As I hit the door to leave, right at that moment, Kevin is walking up the street and passing the entrance, calls my name. He’s so close to me at first I don’t see him. But we fall into a warm greeting. And quite frankly, as quiet as my weekend had been, I was open to greeting anybody.

Kevin is fair skinned with huge searchlight brown eyes. His beard quickly shadows his cookie complexion. His lashes are so pronounced and dark it appears if he’s wearing a touch of mascara, but really his eyes betray some Middle Eastern or Indian ancestor. His hair, which I remembered to be naturally wavy as if his mother drank curl activator while she was pregnant, was covered with a knit cap pushed back high on his crown. A bulging jacket sloppily dripped off his shoulders. Beneath was a V-neck T-shirt opened nearly to his liver, revealing long black and white gray hairs blossoming wildly across his narrow chest. Damn, we’re all getting old, I thought. A black liquor store bag hung from his fingers while he took steady shots from a huge bottle of grapefruit juice.

I told him I was just getting lunch then going home. He told me he was on his way to visit his mom who was staying in some elder hospital ‘down the street’. I clearly remembered his mom, and naturally thought of my own and how I knew several people who once stayed at that senior facility he vaguely pointed to. He was quick to complain about the staff, about the conditions of some of his mom’s hording neighbors. He talked and talked then stopped and said: Am I keeping you from somewhere.

I was just going to catch my bus, I said.

He agreed to walk with me, dumping stories and complaints I knew well about senior care, about nurses, about smells and ‘I better not see no damn rat in my mom’s room’ until we stopped a full block away from my bus to talk more. When a ghost cloud of marijuana passed between us, he surprised me by quickly getting away from there and asking again where I was going.

Somehow, it occurred to me to ask if he remembered Dru, with whom we both went to grade and middle school with and who’d just called me two days prior. Years ago, Dru sat with me on my front porch the afternoon of my mom’s funeral. As a child, I remember alternating my after-school afternoons between Kevin and Dru, but Kevin didn’t seem to remember the only white kid in our class. Dru, in comparison, doesn’t forget anything or anyone.

And we kept talking, though what we talked of wasn’t worth tracking. Flash cards as conversation. I remember and regret the last time I saw Kevin. It was lunch hour in S.F. and I was coming from the pizza place with a very good friend, and looked up to see Kevin approach in a wifebeater. Kevin, without question, would wear a wifebeater. As he approached, I regret whispering to my friend that I didn’t want to dwell with Kevin, didn’t want to be stuck in conversation. I regret dismissively telling my friend, Kevin’s crazy, because I wasn’t sure he was. I kind of regret, many years before this while I was in high school, asking class president Harold about Kevin– because they had the same last name. Turned out, they were cousins. I regretted asking Harold about Kevin because his answer was a distinct non answer. A shaking of his head, a defeat as if I’d just caught him doing something awful and he couldn’t lie and get out of it. I don’t remember what Harold said, only that I immediately regretted asking and I never asked again. I asked Harold a question and in turn Harold gave me a puzzle piece and clamped his mouth shut.

Kevin walked me over to the bus stop, having successfully filled my 25 minute wait for the next one. He asked me about movies, the last one I saw. I couldn’t remember. I hadn’t even seen Spectre yet. I remember many years ago going to see Prince’s Under The Cherry Moon when it came out. When I got to the theater, Kevin was already there and told me he was planning to stay the day and watch every showing, which he did. I told him Denzel is in the new remake of The Magnificent Seven and he nearly holy ghost danced. I told him Don Cheadle is doing Miles Davis and he almost fainted. (Not spilling even a drop of juice in the process, though)

We passed in front of a bus shelter where a Mexican woman sat with two small children climbing over her. We walked down to the stop I needed. Kevin’s eyes had swollen and glazed over from the woman. Though she’d been seated, he began describing her black pants. Ohh, boy. He said she knew he was looking and he stopped seeing me for whatever he was seeing in his mind. Ohh boy. He licked his lips and smiled knowingly… though I didn’t know. How did he see so much from a woman sitting down, children tumbling from her arms. He saw her and only her and stood facing me and describing her pants and body for a solid minute. Swig of juice. Smile. Kevin is not ugly, yet there is so much ugliness around him. The woman was first to get on the bus, lifting her kids onto it with the diligence of a marine. We looked at the same woman and saw two different people and two different things.

When I remember Kevin, beyond the vest and striped shirt and bow tie he wore in our class picture, I remember him alone. We didn’t spend a lot of time together as kids, but enough. We were friendly without the burden of ever being close. Our mothers knew one another and would talk from time to time, though I never knew about what. His mother, I’m sure, had her hair done a few times by mine. As I got older, I would see Kevin at random, on a bus or on the street, downtown Oakland or downtown San Francisco. He was usually armed with a complaint about wherever he was staying– for a while, a resident hotel near the Tenderloin on Market. But what to make of the story he told me about some woman who’d once seriously, specifically cut him, nearing cutting IT off? What to make even of his life? His reticent family? What does he do day to day? Has he ever worked? How is his mom, really? He’s never had any kids. I don’t believe he’s ever been married, even but for a month.

We kinda said goodbye, finally. Exchanging a quick pound or whatever. But mostly I remember climbing onto the bus, turning and seeing him still talking and quizzing the day and what else it wanted to bring him. The black bag pendulum swinging from his fingers. He kissed juice out of the bottle.

Who is he really? I’ve known him more than 30 years. I still don’t know.