There are still firsts

Ignore the lumpy fro and look at the awesome background

I’ve lived life.  There are lots of big things I have yet to do, like skydiving and seeing Table Mountain; but as far as everyday, tangible things go, I’ve done a lot of them.  I sometimes forget that I still have a lot of everyday firsts left in me.

So last night, I participated in my first open mic.  I was nervous and my voice caught and I…may or may not have jumped around on stage to “Niggas in Paris,” (the ratchet burrows itself deep down into my 9th ward bones), but I did it.  And it was totally fun.  Despite at times feeling like I choked through it, it seemed the people in the place dug it, and that also made me happy.  I’m always conscious about how people will receive me.  I can only be me, but I also wonder if, when the pressure is on, I’ll be choppy or off putting.  And I managed to gulp down my nerves and make it through my (mercifully) short poem.  I liked the feel of the mic though, so I can’t say this will be my last time.  I guess we’ll see.

 

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My best writing lesson

…came from an American History teacher.

When I heard that Mr. Bronson’s AP American History class was comprised entirely of reading, discussions, multiple choice tests and essays, I was sold. These are all things that I excel at.  Reading? Talking? Writing?  I DOES THIS SON!  And with multiple choice tests, the answer is right there.  Additionally, I was simultaneously taking a creative writing class, which would further aid me in padding my essays with flowery language.  How could I lose?

Easily.

Because I discovered that the book we were reading was one of the most boring books known to man.  I can’t remember the name of it, but for me to call a book flat out boring, is saying something.  I read cereal box ingredients to pass the time.  My strategy was to take notes, read those, bluff my way through essays and get what I could from the multiple choice.  (Yes. I was precisely this dumb at 16.)  So, I took my first multiple choice test.  Have you ever had the answer to something staring you in your face, and you STILL couldn’t hit it with a bat?  Fifty multiple choice items, with four answers that looked like the same answer. Meh.  I’ll knock it out with the essay.

I used flowery words and my best prose.  The essay referred to Native Americans and my thoughts on manifest destiny.  It was a masterpiece of bullshit.  But bluff writing is what I do.  I accepted my graded essay the following day with a smirk.  I knew it would average out that whopping D I received on the multiple choice portion. “D- – Be more diligent.  This class moves fast.  Keep up with your reading.”  Was the “-” really necessary dawg?  A “D” would have been totally sufficient.

So, I tried…a bit.  I’ll be honest, gaining information comes to me rather easily typically.  When it doesn’t, I’m not always good at dealing.  Another test rolled around, and I tanked yet again.  Another D, minus the minus this time.  Another warning:  “You can articulate very well in class, and you’ve got the ability.  What happened in this essay?”  As time marched on, for some reason, it became a test of will.  He was determined to bring out the best in me, I was determined to ace by coasting. I managed to eke out an A- (with a note which said “Great work. Let’s make this habitual.”) on one test, and it fueled my lazy resolve.

By the end of the first semester, we were equally tired of one another.  For the first semester final, along with my straight up “F,”  I got a more pointed note.  This was 18 years ago, but along with tiny question marks in the margins, it ended with this general sentiment:

You’re too smart to provide me with this four pages of BS. Did you do the reading?  I know you can write. Show me that you can write informatively.

Yeah. He went there.  And he was right.  I really wasn’t putting forth the effort.  I’d decided that my writing was a tool for coasting, not a skill to develop.  Yet, I still couldn’t get into that class, but refused to drop it.  At the end, when I was ineligible to take the AP test, which would have provided me with college credit, he assigned a book to me: Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character.  I rocked the shit out of it.  I agreed, disagreed and challenged effectively.  I researched and poured everything into that essay. He was so over me and my big bag of bullshit, I knew he was going to pan it and give me a C.  Irrespective of my complete lack of effort, I’d convinced myself that he flat out didn’t like me.  So I thumbed through the essay looking for the familiar “??s” and “Don’t BS me here. Substance.”  I saw none of that.  A few sentences were underlined for emphasis, and I saw the unfamiliar, “GREAT OBSERVATION!”  I remember what I saw on the last page, I remember as though it’s right in front of me:

A++ AMEN!  This is what I knew you were capable of all year, and would have loved to see you try.  Write like this, informatively and with substance.  It’ll take you far.

I still get misty when I think about that.  I’ve always loved words, and had a knack for writing them down, to the point that I’d come to take my talent for granted.  But I always look back at that time in my life as the period when I actually became a writer.  I’ve been in love ever since.

Tig Ole Bitties

Or How I Had to Talk Myself Down From Jumping Off The High Rise

So every morning, my parents would proceed  on the LOOOONG trek of bringing my father to work, then dropping us off at school Uptown.  Every day, we passed the dreaded entity, known to all New Orleanians as “The High Rise.”  The mere act of getting on THR was a major feat.  It often meant the difference between getting a ride and being told to kiss someone’s ass:

“Can you drop me off?”

“Um…I’ll see.  Where do you live?”

“On the other side of The High Rise.”

“SHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”

It was high, it was fast, and people had this habit of driving like the other side might not be there once you reached the apex.  (Either that, or the entire city was filled with morons, completely unaware of the laws of physics.  ACCELERATE!)  It was basically the bridge to Downtown, and Uptown, and Mid-City, and anywhere else that wasn’t New Orleans East.  Of course, this made it prime ad space.  There was always some huge billboard or another.  Around my sophomore year of high school, Hooters advertised there.  We passed it daily for months sans incident.  Ultimately, it was too much for my mother to handle.

“So…what is this Hooters?”

“It’s a restaurant,” Daddy replied, CLEARLY not wanting to continue the conversation with my three sisters and I in the car.

“But…Hooters? What’s that name about?  It doesn’t make sense to me.”

“It’s something about the women that work there.”  He really wants this to be over.  He REALLY doesn’t want her to ask another question.  But Mom isn’t letting up, and at this point, she’s giving him the complete Scooby Doo “ruh?” face.  “Hooters is a slang term.”*

“Slang?  For Women?  Like ‘yahoo’?!”

At this point, my sister and I look at each other in horror.  What in the name of all the fuck shit are they doing in that bedroom?   Yahoo? Bruh…bruh…my damie.  No.  I guess Moms Duke didn’t get pregnant five times playing gin rummy, but still.  Gross.

At this point,  Pops is over it, so he sighs deeply and says, “Lou, Hooters is slang for BREASTS.  All of the women who work there have extremely large BREASTS.  [How YOU know, my n-word?]  So they named it Hooters because of the theme – BREASTS.”  (Yes, he emphasized it each and every time.)

And Mom, cool as a fan says, “Well I guess they won’t be hiring me.”

There are things you can never un-hear, and the fact that I did not slide open the door to our Aerostar and make my peace with Jesus is really a testament to my ability to survive anything.

That’s also probably why, when I started driving myself around, I took the long way, aka the Danzinger Bridge.

*Yes, my dad said “slang term.”  He also says relations or intercourse, and refuses to use the word gay, it’s always “homosexual” – for men and women. He has no time for your fancy talk.  Sometimes, I really just can’t with that dude.

A Little Lagniappe

The recipe called for a lot of “1’s”:  1 lb. beans, 1 lg onion, 1 bell pepper, and so forth.  My trusting mother left me in the kitchen with her instructions, to make my first pot of red beans all alone.  She reappeared about an hour later, apparently pleased that in the process of “frying down” the meat, I’d managed to avoid completely smoking out the kitchen.  She looked in the, pot, stirred it up tasted a bit of the liquid and instructed me to chop another, smaller onion and she added a little more garlic.  Responding to my quizzical expression, she said, “Baking is a science.  Cooking is an art.  In art, there’s always room for a little lagniappe.”  My first pot of beans was a huge success, and I actually became the cook of the family.

My mother and her two good friends, Virgie and Shirley adopted an unspoken child care circle, where one of them always managed to be stay at home moms, caring for the broods of others.  Shirley was the one most often in the position of caregiver, charged with no less than seven children at a time.  Food was carefully watched over, as it always had to be made to stretched to accommodate the masses.  One glass of Kool Aid with lunch, another with dinner if we were still there that late; everything else was water.  One day I was having a particularly off day, and Aunt Shirley called me back into the kitchen after everyone else had been sent outside to play.  She extended an extra glass of Kool Aid to me, saying, “Child, there’s a time for rules, and there’s a time for lagniappe, so drink this and don’t tell anybody.”

Such were the lessons of my upbringing.  A lot of life is following your routine, but when a little extra is needed, you shouldn’t balk at it.  Embrace it as normal.  There’s no such thing as not having time for another cup of coffee, or an extra moment for a hug.  If you don’t have the time to hear someone’s answer when you ask, “Girl, how you been?!” then you’re doing life all wrong.  We’re all living in these times of lean, where money is tight, credit won’t get it, and our day to day living is strenuous.  I don’t think that we should completely abandon looking for those stray moments, where “just a tad more” marks the difference between existing and living; functional and fabulous.

Now that I’m in charge of molding young minds, I teach them the importance of snatching little extras here and there, making all the difference in having a good day and a great one.

How Mr. Rogers Gets Kids Beat Down

Or How Plums Became My Favorite Fruit

This guy's advice >than all that bull you're talking.

You may have heard this before, but I was born a Maverick.  I didn’t want to breastfeed, I tried climbing stairs in a body cast, and I got in a fight on my first day of kindergarten.  This also marks the first time I received one of the most diabolical tag team beat downs in Beauty Jackson history.  What can I say? First day of school – go hard or go home.

August, 1981:  Sesame Street, Electric Company, commercials and of course, Mr. Rogers have me chomping at the bit to go to school.  Daniel Striped Tiger, Prince Tuesday, and Ana Platypus all got on Trolley -dressed in full school bus regalia – and soaked up knowledge.  New children would be everywhere.  School was going to be great.

I began losing the moment we went back to school shopping.  Instead of Nikes and penny loafers, I got Zips and saddle loafers.  Instead of the backpack I’d created in my vision, my mother took her time and actually sewed a bag for me.  In retrospect, I was an unappreciative snot.  To my four year old self, the indignity of my dreams deferred were unbearable.    And then:

Ma, how am I going to find out my school bus number?  What time does it pick me up?

It doesn’t.  Auntie Shirley is going to pick you up and drop you off.

But that’s not what Mr. Rogers said.

Little girl, Mr. Rogers don’t run nothing here.  I am telling you not to catch the school bus.  Your mother.  You live on Beekman Road, not in the Land of Make-Believe.

Just maybe Aunt Shirley could be the voice of reason.  I picked my moment.  Just as School Bus Trolley went through the tunnel into the Land of Make-Believe I asked, all kindergarten-cool:

Aunt Shirley, where does the bus stop around here?

Melanie, I already know that you know the routine.  I’m going to bring you to school and pick you up!  Rocky, meet her at her class after school.

These people were screwing over my entire life.  Nothing was going as it should.  In my first day despair, I didn’t want to go to school.  I had to be forced into the car. Once I was at school, I calmed down, and was delighted to discover a tin with my name on it, full of Play Doh! Mentally, I frolicked in celebration of kindergarten dreams fulfilled.

Had that beast child not bitten my arm, hence exposing her cheek and veritably begging me to bite it, this story may have ended differently.  However, since that did happen, and despite the fact that she started it, I was punished during Play Doh time.  I was 0 for everything.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the last damned straw.  At the end of the day, I had a message for my parents, Aunt Shirley, and even that unwitting snitch Rocky:

FUCK YALL!  You don’t know shit.  Mr. Rogers said I’m getting Play dough, and back packs with flowers, and PENNY loafers.  NOT FUCKING SADDLE LOAFERS!  Are we on a farm? Why are you giving me saddles?  I’m supposed to ride a bus!!!  Did Mr. Rogers say, “Okay folks, let’s all pile into the fire trap that is Aunt Shirley’s Buick?  Hell no!!! Trolley was dressed to the nines!  What’s wrong with you people?  Did Prince Tuesday try to bite a chunk out of Daniel Striped Tiger, then get mad because he left his cheek exposed and Daniel bit him back?  HE WAS A TIGER FOR SHIT’S SAKE!  If Mr. Rogers’ school day can end without a tiger biting anyone, certainly I should expect to go unscathed.   This isn’t kindergarten!! THESE ARE LIES!!! This is bullshit.  I’m catching the damn bus.

When they called for bus students at day’s end, I scooped my dreaded bag, and marched to the cafeteria.  This marked the first time I ever experienced terror.  As they called buses, the cafeteria began to empty, and I knew I would miss my chance.  I dashed through the door, breathlessly explaining that I would miss my bus. I was unprepared to hear, “Well, what’s your bus number?”  Blast.  I hadn’t thought that far.  Obviously, I couldn’t say, “Well, every adult and older kid in my life is conspiring to murk my dream, so I don’t really have a bus number.  Can we just ride around until I know what a bus feels like?”  What they didn’t know was that I had been reading since I was 3 1/2.  I saw the bus that Chad, my new boo in my mind, was heading toward, and blurted out, “FOUR-ONE-FOUR!”  They loaded me on.

You know how you do something wrong, and the experience is awful.  Nothing about it is the way you thought it would be, and you find yourself learning a lesson for the ages?  That’s not what happened here.  Kids were laughing and shouting.  One of the big girls gave me a piece of candy.  We stopped twice and screamed, “BYYYYYE! SEE YOU TOMORROWWW!” to the departing student.  Glorious.  We arrived at the last stop – then known as Lawrence Creek Apartments.  The bus driver smiled and said, “Isn’t this your stop baby girl?  Time to go home.”  Obviously it wasn’t, but I hadn’t thought that far.  I knew the apartment complex.  Family friends lived  there.  Aunt Cassandra and Uncle Wayne.  They’d get me.  Total cakewalk.  As children filed to their parents, I debated turning left or right.

I halfheartedly called to them at the entrance of the complex, then started to cry.  A nice lady walked across the street, and I spilled my story.  She invited me indoors, but I was hesitant because she was a stranger.  Mr. Rogers told me not to mess with them, but I was admittedly out of options.  Plus, she had a little girl slightly younger than me wearing a Barbie shirt and eating a plum (exotic fruit to my apple and banana munching ass), so I’m winning again.  She saw me hungrily eye the plum, and offered me two.  As I was relishing in the taste of my first plum, she was calling the school to report that she’d found a lost child.  Within minutes, my aunt and the school principal pulled up to the house.

Dear Readers, I took one look at my aunt and walked to the principal’s car like I’d never seen that woman or Buick in all my days.  Though all smiles with the principal,  I knew that she was totally over me and my big bag of bull.  I was prepared for it to get really bad, really quickly.

Auntie Shirley, have you ever had a plum?  They are SO GOOD.

To this date, I believe that only fear of incarceration prevented her from putting the remaining plum in my sock and bludgeoned me to death.  Instructed to finish the plum,  I savored it as though it was my last meal.  For couple of epidermal layers, I’m sure it was.  Shirley had first dibs, then before my nose dried, Mama tagged in.  When Daddy got home and she explained the story to him, I took one look at his face and laid across the bed.  I knew the drill.

My family and I always recount this with a mixture of humor and terror; it could have been a really bad scene.   But, this is a story I’m sure I’ll tell well into old age.  I defied all odds to ride the yellow dragon, and lived to tell the tale.  Plus I still roll with plums.  HARD.

Misty and Water-Colored

Today I opened up my Gmail, and Dennis Hunt was offering me a job as a secret shopper.  I hate how they email you with normal names like they’re offering you this great  opportunity, when you’re really being hired to be a hypercritical asshole.  I’m sure someone is reading this saying, “Well this is to only ensure quality of service and if the person is doing their job meh meh meh meh meh.”  Screw you and you suck.  That’s one of those weird occupations that gives you a very small amount of power, and it invariably goes to the person’s head.  Only the douchey and desperate would even want such a job.

My first gig after I dismantled my babysitting empire, was working at a pharmacy counter as a clerk and a Pharmacy Technician. I thought I was the bees knees, partially because I was working for people who had charted out a career path and followed it, rather than settling into the first job they could find because life for them went left.  The people who surround you have a profound impact on your life, and I considered myself fortunate to have black professional women to influence me as a young’n, but I digress.  The actual “store” part, sucked.

We could almost always tell who the mystery shopper was, especially when we were busy, because they would not pick up prescriptions.  Why would you stand in a busy pharmacy line, if you didn’t need a pharmacist? Yeah…tell me that.  For the most part, my reviews were above par, but every once in a while, I’d hear, “We had a mystery shopper visit, and they did not feel that you gave them enough attention while the were on the floor.”  When I had a line full of customers and a stack of prescriptions to fill in the back?  Am I your mother? Get on up outta here.

The mystery shopper’s job is to snitch.  Nothing else.  They come in their, slink around wait for something to go left, and rat.  If that wasn’t enough, on top of the mystery shopper, we had the loss prevention guy.  I think his name was Steve…or maybe it was Rod…it was one of those names frequented by douches.  He would visit the store, slink around, make sideways bigoted comments and then tell the manager that we were stealing.  Of course, his actual words were, “This store seems to have a problem with shrinkage.”  “Shrinkage” is a fancy word for employee theft.  Unfortunately, the pharmacy was housed near Crackville, and I don’t think there is an actual method to determine whether or not a customer or an employee has stolen merchandise from the store.  He would give all these alarmist reports to the store manager, who kept his ever vigilant eye on us.  Since everyone was a suspect, they brought in this new assistant manager, who happened to be the most bigoted fuck of them all, who bilked the company out of $35,000.00 USD in cash and merchandise.  That’s some shrinkage for that ass.

So Dennis Hunt, I would like to invite you, your mama, and your offspring to eat a plate of rusty dicks, because I don’t want your punk ass “opportunity.”

Four Sentences

This weekend,  I thought about Lance and couldn’t stop laughing.  He was a hurricane of animation.   Amongst our religious community, we bonded as outcasts:  Me for being, well…me; him for being both flamboyantly gay AND in the closet (if that makes any sense). We met when he was 16 and I was 18.  Having become so accustomed to judgment and scrutiny, we didn’t know what to make of one another.  Our friend that introduced us was in line at McDonald’s leaving us in the car.  He produced a hidden 40 of 8 Ball, and said, “You want half?  I’ve never had one of these.”  After we finished, and against sage advice, we went to the hood daiquiri shop and got two house specials.  As if that weren’t enough to cement our friendship, after my night of puking, I called him the following morning.  He answered the phone sounding like Dr. John and said, “I’mma call you back when I don’t feel like shit.”  How can you not love a person like that?

We weren’t sole hangout partners, but when we hung, it was ON.  The dancing was wild, the laughter was raucous, and the fun could not be contained.  And the hugs?  The best, tightest, longest hugs ever.

People liked to ask me, “Well, what’s his story? Is he GAY?”  I would give them my best version of, “The fuck should I know?” and keep it moving.  Now, his strut, manner of speaking, fashion sense, and insistence that we see “Too Wong Foo” opening weekend pretty much told me the story, but it was really a non-issue.  It’s amazing how, even when you’re very young, your elders will jump on you and attack because you’re different, and don’t fit into their norm.  I never got that.  It’s almost like they will force you to be something that you aren’t.

And that’s sort of what happened.  He got married and had a couple of kids.  I remember him working hard for his family (something a LOT of his heterosexual critics couldn’t seem to do). Trying to force something that doesn’t fit (and we were both doing it at the time) is an incredibly draining process, and we lost touch.  When we would see each other, we were both frazzled and distracted, trying to fit our square selves into these round holes of our own creation.  The hugs were tight, but more out of relief of being with a person that accepted and knew us as ourselves, not the facsimile.

We ran into each other at the store somewhere around the summer of 2005 and made tentative plans that included food and libations.  LOTS of libations.  Of course, tentative turned to never.  Those who know me, know how terrible I am at keeping in touch, so when I moved to Maryland, of course the plans faded to black.

So it when he crossed my mind this weekend, it was very random.  I kind of remembered hearing that he’d left New Orleans, but the details were fuzzy at best.  He lived here, he was moving there, no one had answers.  Our friend who introduced us didn’t even have a current number on him, as she was going through her own craziness.

Lance, though still married, had come out a couple of years back.  Additionally, my sister was not one to gossip, so when she asked me, “Have you heard about Lance?” though I didn’t know what to make of it, I knew it couldn’t be good. And when she told me the news, I couldn’t catch my breath.  And when I could catch my breath, I went to Google and typed my friend’s name in the search box, and I paused.  And my fingers hovered over the keys, because I couldn’t really type the word that would lead me to confirm the news about my friend.

“Murder.”

The very first link contained the news about my friend’s bullet ridden body being found in a parking lot.  They found him. No one knows who.  No one knows why.  Four sentences.  He was a husband, a father and a friend.  He was loving and would readily give you what he had or find it for you if he didn’t.  He got four sentences.  Five if you count the added fact that a man in a white tee and blue jeans was spotted fleeing the scene.  His grandchildren, whom he will not hold at their birth, will not be able to give testimony to the goodness of his hugs, or how his laughter would crack through the air and force you to laugh. What he means to people just really can’t be covered in four sentences.

That shit couldn’t be covered in four billion.