Dispatch from Home

I sit in a plastic chair on the porch.

A sweet scent. Maybe sausage on a grill. Beef. I smell fries and my mind tricks me into believing I can also smell the gravy about to be doused over them. The whole concoction will go into a box, fried wings in the next. There’s now a new carryout where the old banquet hall used to be. The Chinese food store is still there. I have my stories. About the store and gravy fries and cheese fries and wings and chicken boxes. Salt, pepper, and ketchup on my wings and fries.

Ka-joom. Clack-a-lack.

A trailer banging, tripped by the imperfections in the asphalt. The truck’s motor growls, yanking the still reverberating metal box up the road. And then another, probably headed South this time, maybe to Washington or somewhere in Virginia or North Carolina, maybe even to Florida or even somewhere out West. The road jabs and pitches these hulks all day and night. They always have, same as the #36 bus that stops across the street. The cars whose drivers, free of Downtown’s one-way-street grid, take liberty to fly towards the County line, a few corners away.

There’s a soul food store at the gas station, now.

Someone once shot at that gas station from the block, then ran. Altogether both stupid and smart.

Kids run down the block. There’s a fight at the bus stop. I run in, open the back door and it’s spilled all the way across the parking lot. The alley between the shopping center and the apartments keeps the kids in their khakis and powder blue and navy blue uniforms from dribbling over to the #44 stop.

In my day, fights transferred from line to line, line to neighborhood, line to block. I even got myself caught up in one once. But there was never more than that. We didn’t wear uniforms, either.

As soon as it heated up, it died out. When the cheering stopped, I knew.

Any out-of-towners driving by, perhaps hoping for a Wire-esque performance, complete with blood and the wailing of an ambulance and another brown-skinned mother, would have gone home disappointed. The police didn’t even show up. At night, they drive through the parking lot with lights flashing to show they’re there. Perhaps they want to own the night and have ceded the day to the kids.

The two boys at the corner watch excitedly for a moment, then as they probably have more than once, leave.

They’ve replaced me.

The hide and seek places — the bushes and trees I’d try to hide my husky frame behind; the knoll on the side of the apartments around the corner where we played minimally organized football and baseball games, against other neighborhoods and each other, where we coached ourselves and each other, patted ourselves and each other on the back; the blocks in the street where we used to jump and bounce balls and throw water balloons, all belong to these kids now. They own the bus stop and the Chinese store.

This is their time.

I wasn’t sure I’d ever be back here. Not to live. Visit? For sure.

I had finally found some peace with used to being from here, with someone else’s son or daughter taking the story over. I’d gone on to adventures elsewhere. Made some plays. Toured Harlem on foot. Driven the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

I’m not settled, yet. I’m still learning the new, like the Qdoba on York Road, the building on 33rd Street that replaced the frat house with the shoe tree in front; remembering the old like the Giant on York Road, how to get to White Marsh. Harry Little’s sub shop became a frozen yogurt store and now it’s about to become a juice bar.

It’s often slow going like when I first went to Jersey, but I learned it. Learned in some ways to love it.

Still, I don’t know if I can ever stake the same claim I had before. How much of this city, this area, can be mine like it was. While I’m figuring it out, I’ll watch the trucks from the porch. Eat a few coddies. This city made me who I was, but being away, letting go, helped make me who I am now.

National Book Lovers Day

National Book Lovers Day. Going to answer some questions I saw on Twitter earlier.

The Fire Next Time.

I always find myself talking about this book. Each time I’m asked what my favorite book is or if someone asks for a book I think they should read, for whatever reason, I always come back to it. Specifically the Letter from a Region of My Mind.

I think it’s one of the best essays ever written, if I may humbly say so. Baldwin not only sketches a broad picture of Black life in the early 1960’s, he places himself and his particular life and pains and joys in this world, creating a more complete and vibrant image of it was like to be Black back then. One that is still relevant today.

But the policemen were doing nothing now. Obviously, this was not because they had become more human but because they were under orders and because they were afraid. And indeed they were, and I was delighted to see it. There they stood, in twos and threes and fours, in their Cub Scout uniforms and with their Cub Scout faces, totally unprepared, as is the way with American he-men, for anything that could not be settled with a club or a fist or a gun. I might have pitied them if I had not found myself in their hands so often and discovered, through ugly experience, what they were like when they held the power and what they were like when you held the power.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1962/11/17/letter-from-a-region-in-my-mind

My favorite part, and probably my most favorite sections of any book, ever, is when he has dinner at the home of Elijah Muhammad. I was going to talk about why I love it so much, but you have to go read it, if you haven’t. Perhaps, you’ll like it to.

The last book I read cover to cover? Probably a play. I can’t think of one right now, since my books are scattered between here and home. I often read a book, jump to another book, come back, go back and read previous chapters. So I haven’t really read one in a long time. Even on my “Now” page, I’m not reading the books whose titles I post there, cover to cover.

I should read a book cover to cover.

Genre is one of those things that’s more suited for the bookstore than for the bookshelf at home, but I will say Essay. If that’s not acceptable to you, consider it to be Creative Nonfiction, even though that encompasses several genres. Otherwise, put me down for drama. Then poetry.

It’s like recommending a way to prepare chicken, but I’ll give it a try just the same — Reality Hunger by David Shields. Ask me another time of day and I’ll give another title. How about Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones? Book of Days by Lanford Wilson? (I did a scene from that in an acting class. Had a ball).

I think I’ll do some reading tonight. Perhaps Baldwin’s Letter.

A Brief Meandering on the Possibility of the Ravens Leaving One Day

Russell Street Report’s Tony Lombardi posted a commentary that may give some Ravens fans —e.g., older fans who remember 1984— a reason to be relieved. According to him, last June, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti called the idea of the Ravens playing anywhere other than M&T Bank Stadium “preposterous.” It certainly feels better than “I have not any intentions of moving the goddamn team. If I did, I will tell you about it, but I’m staying here,” but that’s mostly because of the person saying the words.

Still, Lombardi is not subtly hinting that at some point in the near future, The Bank, as it’s known, will undergo some kind of renovation. Again, assuming that the Ravens’ plan isn’t to build another stadium or perhaps move to another city. Whuh?

To even think this, let alone say it, would be as close to blasphemy as one can get for a Baltimore guy and Ravens fan. A day one Ravens fan. The problem is, before anything gets done between the Ravens and Maryland Stadium Authority, before Bisciotti makes any final decision, the NFL will have its say in the matter.

#

I’m sure if the NFL doesn’t know now, they will at some point, that Baltimore City is doling out a lot of development money in the form of TIFs and other public moneys these days. Upwards of $400M is going to Michael Beatty’s Harbor Point development, the new local home for Exelon, the owner of the local electric utility. Actually, it’s probably more, since he bought some of the bonds himself and will benefit from the interest paid on those.

Then, there’s the 20 year/$535M TIF being debated in public and soon to be voted on by City Council that will go to Sagamore Development, the development arm of Under Armour owner Kevin Plank, to develop their Port Covington project. Part of the project will be a new corporate home for Under Armour, other parts slated to be public parks and other such amenities.

While I’m sure the NFL won’t be concerned with local laws concerning the running of the electrical utility or the number of jobs Sagamore claims it will bring to Baltimore, they’re seeing big dollar figures being moved. Even in a city known for its striking areas of poverty. Forget the fact that stadiums aren’t even a totally local concern in Baltimore (except for the Baltimore Arena, somehow). When it comes time to discuss the stadium situation in Baltimore, the league is definitely going to inquire about the large sums of money being spent by the City to develop real estate projects.

#

Still, other than public statements to the effect that Bisciotti doesn’t want to move the team elsewhere, does Baltimore/Maryland have any leverage to keep the Ravens?

The growing sentiment around the country may be swinging towards kick rocks when it comes to public financing of sports stadiums. Las Vegas seems willing to say yes to the Raiders as we wait for their current home, but Oakland might not be interested in committing that much money. San Diego may ultimately be willing to part with the Chargers and spend that money on other things. In the event that those teams moved, their cities would be open, but would they have changed their minds about stadium financing?

What other non-NFL cities are there lining up? The league itself feels public financing is getting harder to get from cities.

While the situation between the Ravens and Baltimore is different, as they deal directly with the State and its more vast resources than a city and with Las Vegas seemingly ready to come off the map of possible NFL cities, where else could the Ravens go and get as good a deal as they currently have? The stadium deal that Art Modell eventually took was a sweetheart deal he used to get himself out of the financial straits he’d put himself in back in Cleveland. Before L.A. and now Las Vegas, Baltimore was the city the league used as the relocation threat. Most of the TV markets larger than Baltimore are occupied with teams already. In moving to Vegas, the NFL would be moving from the 6th largest TV market to the 42nd. Would they want to stomach that again?

Having said that, I’m sure that most Ravens fans would rather not tempt fate by asking the question for real and hope that the Ravens and Stadium Authority can work out the future of the Ravens’ tenure in Baltimore, with the least input from the Jerry Jones’ and Stan Kronke’s of the world. Reportedly, the Ravens and Stadium Authority have had a great operating relationship through the years, so there’s no reason now to believe they wouldn’t be able to work out terms of a renovation of the current stadium. Or more.

Besides, losing the Ravens, if it came to that, would equal political suicide for anybody in charge for letting a 2nd NFL team leave Baltimore on their watch. Baltimoreans have long memories and besides, Ravens fandom in Maryland isn’t confined to any political party or the political boundary lines of Baltimore City (even back in the day, the Baltimore County Executive became involved alongside Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer in the effort to keep the Baltimore Colts. The outcome of this was the impetus for the creation of the Maryland Stadium Authority). Annapolis is as wedded to the Ravens as Baltimore is.

#

I want to say I know they’re not leaving now or in the foreseeable future. But it’s not that simple. I don’t want to be that naive. Bisciotti may think Baltimore is the best home for the Ravens, but what does the league think? The L.A. decision wasn’t just about one team.

The Falcons are barely 20 years into the Georgia Dome and they’re moving into a new stadium after this season. The Vikings are moving into a new stadium. The Rams’ move to L.A. was predicated upon their new stadium. Chargers and Raiders will be moving into new homes at some point. Even the Bills are talking about moving into a new stadium. The league is more than willing to take the PR hit from pulling up stakes. That shameless press conference announcing the Rams’ move is proof-positive that they don’t care.

All I can do as a fan is support my team and if this one decides to go, pack up my jerseys next to my Baltimore Colts pennant and get up the next morning like last time.

A Genius of Prince

I didn’t understand Prince when I was 7-8 years old when Purple Rain came out. All I knew was most of the talk I heard surrounding Prince was that with all the frilly, purple clothes, blouses, and such, he was too effeminate to be straight. Too effeminate for the real men I’d hear talking about him. Same for the boys talking about it at school and other places.

Didn’t matter how many women around adored him and wanted to be with him and whether or not he got the girl in the movie and whether that was his girl in real life –because the rumors were always there– Prince had to be gay and gay == bad.

Even if you liked the music, which by the way, wasn’t necessarily for us, it was said around me a lot, because it was laden with rock guitar.

Let’s go crazy. Let’s get nuts.

I didn’t know enough not to join in.

#

I wasn’t quite there in my teenage years, either.

Even if songs like “Adore” and “Diamonds and Pearls” weren’t just fun to sing, they told the stories of my growing infatuations with the girls I’d have feelings for or outright fell in love with.

Love is to weak to define
Just what you mean to me

Even if “Scandalous” and “Insatiable” and often mirrored the puberty-driven thoughts I would have in the later hours.

I got a jones, Martha.

Prince was still supposed to be too weird. And that weirdness, with the dress and the symbol and all of that, was still supposed to be too much. Especially with all the other reasons added in. Especially with a more religious-based homophobia that I’d added..

I still wouldn’t listen to my own conscience about the man.

#

At some point, once I became interested in my own art; and quite frankly, when I developed enough confidence in myself to not follow the pack and try to fit into what others did or thought, is when I discovered what I think is one of his greatest geniuses.

It wasn’t the fact of his musical virtuosity. Playing 27 instruments on an album says enough, but it wasn’t that.

It wasn’t even the blend of sexuality and sensuality and spirituality in his music. Historians and musical historians will probably write volumes about the introspection and investigation of sexual identity in all the various forms that it manifested in his music and where it crosses with his notions of spirituality and love. Prince is one of the only artists who could merge the vulgar and the sacred to the point where you had to question for yourself where, if anywhere, the line of demarcation was.

But that’s not even, for me, his greatest genius.

As I think back to all of us talking about him, making jokes about him, mocking him and what we thought about his sexuality, there he was, not just making great music, not just beginning to change the world, but he was doing something that none of those people back then, I think can say they were doing — Prince was living life on his own terms.

As folks went back to their crap jobs and their crap coworkers and hated the whole thing, Prince was living his life by his own rules.

Yeah, look at the frilly blouses. Where was Prince’s supervisor or employee handbook that told him he could or couldn’t dress that way? Where was his compliance officer or HR director to ensure his pants were tight or purple enough?

Nowhere. That was just him. No bullshit. Sure, in a sense, he performed off-stage as well as on, but that was how he decided to live. Prince wasn’t being told when he could get off or go on vacation. How to dress. How to keep his hair. None of the same bullshit people had to do to get by. Looking back, that looks like it was always his plan.

Hell, he changed his name to a symbol to be able to continue to do his work the way he wanted to. Up until he died, he was working to get control of his masters.

He even redecorated Carlos Boozer’s house to suit himself and when he was finished renting it, he changed it all back the way it was. Regular people might ask why Prince would spend the money to do something like that, but he had a vision for himself and his life and compromise wasn’t part of it. How many compromises do many of us make before noon on any given weekday?

I wish I could go back and tell my child self to look closely — there was someone who knew who he was, knew his worth and value to the world, and lived that. He didn’t follow others and he didn’t try to fit in. He was who he was and anybody that didn’t like it, too bad. My child self could have used that lesson. Many of us now could use that same lesson.

Do I believe in god? Do I believe in me?
Some people want to die so they can be free
I said life is just a game, we’re all just the same, do you want to play?
Yeah, oh yeah

Opening Day Came and Went

I wanted to talk about Jake Arrieta and the Cubs. It was late for me, but still early for my father. Especially since he had retired and no longer left home in the dead of night to beat the L.A. traffic to work.

I wanted to talk about the buzzer beater that had just happened, what he thought of his Angels’ chances this season. If he thought the O’s had enough pitching to make it to the postseason, if he thought the Mets could get back to the Series this year.

We probably wouldn’t have agreed on any of it. We didn’t agree on much sportswise. The only thing I can remember us finding total common ground on recently was whether Andrew Luck would become a top-five QB in the NFL. And even then, his thoughts were twinged with some excitement as Luck was on his team. I didn’t care much for that. Despite the independence he’d instilled in me, part of me always wanted to be able to say that I rooted for the same teams as my father; that we he had shared that, even if he hadn’t passed it down to me.

I was ready to call. The impulse doesn’t immediately leave. Even when it’s almost been a year since he’s passed on. Sometimes, I need to call my father.

#

I did call on my birthday. Out of habit. Muscle memory, perhaps. The phone still rang. Nobody answered it, obviously. At some later point, I texted him. Just needed to say I missed him.

I wasn’t there when he died. Nor was I there when my sister buried him. We had a small, memorial get-together back in Baltimore. But with no ceremony, no artifact, not even the closing of a casket, the finality didn’t feel as final.

#

I shared baseball with my mother. I lived with my mother, so she shuttled me to practices and games. Ran me up and down the highway looking for the right black and orange cleats or 32” Easton aluminum bat. She learned how to keep a baseball scorecard. Until she couldn’t do any of those things anymore.

Back in California, my father got game recaps. Mailed copies of the player pictures they made like little baseball cards.

We never even talked much baseball until I reconnected with him.

#

He bought me a whiffle ball set for my 5th or 6th birthday, the summer I spent out there with him, his fiancee, and my sisters. It came with a little, blue hat. I told him I wasn’t going to become a Dodgers fan. I loved the Orioles and besides, my mother would be mad. He said he didn’t want me to. He wouldn’t explain to me until later years how loathsome he found the Dodgers. After the 1988 World Series, we agreed on that.

That summer, whenever we played any games, we’d take on the persona of a player we admired. He had a badminton set in his tiny back yard, but we didn’t know any famous people who played badminton, so we substituted tennis players. He called out that he was Jimmy Connors. I was John McEnroe (not a bad choice considering how pissed I got when I was losing). My younger sister, Kellee, was too young to know anybody, so I tried to assign her Martina Navratilova. My father said she should be Billie Jean King.

When we played with the whiffle ball set, I was Eddie Murray. Eddie was Mr. Oriole to me. My dad was Reggie Jackson, who had left the East Coast for California around the time my father did.

We hit balls towards the house. I wanted to hit one over the roof and into the pool in the back yard. Perhaps I dreamed I had a little Frank Robinson in me, too.

That was the only time my father got to see me play.

#

Since we reconnected, calling on these nights became a habit: opening day for the O’s. Sometime on the first Sunday of NFL football. Sometime during each O’s/Angels series. The day of Ray Lewis’ last home game was fun (mostly since the Ravens had put a hurting on Indianapolis in Baltimore, always a welcome occasion). He still wouldn’t let me recruit him to Baltimore’s new team from the team carrying the name of its old one.

#

I wanted to say “I told you so” about the Rams moving back to L.A. He swore no team would ever return there. Everybody there was a fan of some other team, he’d insist for years, whenever we’d talk about it. I told him that wouldn’t matter, the NFL would stick a team there. Probably the Rams or the Raiders.

I would have called and lorded my moment over him and we would have had a good laugh. I would have asked him how his golf was going and if he was finally ready to buy himself the new computer he’d been talking about. He would have asked me how my aunt was and if I’d been eating right. We would have talked at the next big moment.

When I was younger, I used to be sad about how much we’d missed, the things we hadn’t shared. Now it’s the big moments. I know they’ll come. The Mets may win the Series this year. The O’s aren’t too bad, either.

Medically Induced Sojurn

(Entirely paraphrased)

It’s a good thing you came in when you did, you might have died if you’d waited too long.

Or at the very least, lost your arm.


It’s an abscess.

We’re probably going to need to lance it.

(Are they using swords in the operating room these days?)

Surgery.

Surgery? Like putting me out, surgery?

Yes, surgery. With you under anesthesia.

Really?

If we don’t and this infection spreads, you might still die.

Well, hello to all of you doctors, bumrushing me with this news. Telling me I might die when you’ve barely introduced yourselves — that’s really heavy. Can I at least get a loved one here before you go telling me you’re cutting me open, lest I probably die soon?

I haven’t had any fevers by the way. Since I’ve been asked approximately 73 times since I’ve been in this hospital if I’ve had any, I take it that’s important. And since I haven’t had any, I wonder if this is really as serious as you’re making it out to be. As serious as my needing to be rushed into surgery in the next couple of hours.

Are night sweats as terrible a symptom as the fevers? I only ask because I have had those the last couple of nights … oh, they’re not? Then can we pump the brakes on you putting me under? The anesthesia sounds scarier than the actual infection.

It’s an abscess.

There’s no antibiotic you can give me that’s going to help? Surgery is the only way? What about after the surgery? You’ve got painkillers for sure, but aren’t you going to give me at least some antibiotics? Oh, they’ll work then?

You won’t know how bad this is until you get the pictures from the CT scan? Then, you’ll be ready to go slicing me up?

Well, it’s now busted open and is starting to pus. You said if it drained, that was good and I could avoid all this.

Put this on there.

Nurse, why are you smooshing it with a gauze pad? Shouldn’t we be pinching it or something to make it pus or bleed more or something? No?

(I’m going to have to figure out how to sleep with a butterfly clip in my arm? Guess I can’t sleep as wildly as I normally do.)

You don’t drink this contrast. We put it through your IV. You’ll feel warm inside.

Why didn’t all of you tell me the contrast might make me nauseous before putting me into the machine? I just tried to throw up in your machine. The welt on my arm you intend to cut off isn’t nearly as painful as this even though it’s large enough to fit a small taquito inside it. Did I mention that I tried to alleviate this pain by throwing up in your machine? I had a bagel earlier. I tried to leave it in your machine.

(Later)

Looks like we won’t have to do surgery. It’s just on the skin.

Splendid.

Yeah, you squeezing this thing like tomato sauce in a tube stings like you’re jabbing something into it, but if the alternative is being put under, squeeze away.

Let’s make the hole bigger to help it drain.

And now, you are jabbing long Q-Tips into it. Again, better than the alternative, but I wish I’d gotten some of those painkillers we discussed before. I’ve been in hospitals before. Isn’t there some button I can press that automatically dispenses painkillers?

Oh, you’re just going to give me antibiotics and see how it responds? We’ve come full circle, haven’t we?

(The next day)

We may need to lance it.

(Are we going to Medieval Times for this procedure?)

The doctors yesterday said there wasn’t going to be any surgery.

Different team, different diagnosis? Kinda sounds like literature class as much as biology class, but what do I know?

(Later.)

Oh, no surgery? You saw the pictures. Just a skin infection? Swell. I’ll just chill here with these antibiotics.

This tomato soup is the best. Send me more of this. The chicken is pretty good, too, but the gravy needs some seasoning. Should I send out for a bottle of Mrs. Dash?

More antibiotics.

You’ll have to lay on here while we wheel you to your new room.

I have an infection on my arm, but my legs are fine.

It’s mandatory.

Fine. I’ll play along.

(The next day)


We’re here to take your vitals.

What time is it?

5:30

Well, I’m up. Painkillers are still working. You need more blood? How much blood do you need? Are you keeping some for me for later? Forget it. I feel too good. Take all you need. I’m going back to sleep.

(Later)

Yeah, it’s going down.

The infection is sensitive to the antibiotics.

(I’d rather not know what would happen if it wasn’t sensitive to the antibiotics.)

I can go home?

We’re sending you home with a prescription. More antibiotics.

You don’t say …

#WhyIWrite

Happy National Day on Writing. Only remembered this morning that today was the day.  I’m going to put it into my calendar so I don’t forget again.  People on Twitter have been responding to the hashtag #WhyIWrite, so obviously there have been some real gems floating about as well as some of the usual platitudes about writing.

I was working on something I rushed to finish so I could run outta the office, get to the library, and think about it before I wasted the rest of the day away letting my mind flitter back to technical things, baseball scores, and whatever’s on the DVR that needs to be watched.

So why do I write?  I used to have grand notions of changing the world, fighting and righting all the injustice once and for all, and telling stories that one day, people would read by the campfire and their bedroom night lights.  Along the way, I discovered I wasn’t up for changing the world, yet; I had to change myself first, or at least at the same time.  And I discovered that I loved theatre and drama as much as I loved straight ahead literature, and if people read plays as much in the future as they do now, I might not be read then as much as I’d hoped.

I also discovered that my goals didn’t have to be so lofty for me to do something important or valuable.

#

I used to hate writing.  Reading, too.  My sister Charlene recently told me a story about when I was five or so.  My younger sister Kellee and I had gone to visit her and my sister Robin, my father, and his fiancee, in California.  When my father brought us home from the airport, Charlene asked me what I liked doing and I told her, “read.”  She told me she thought, “I gotta loosen this kid up.”  I was pretty wound tightly on reading and writing then.  My mother had drilled and drilled and drilled me to the point where all I did most of the time was read.  She’d read with me and taught me how to read, but after I got really going, I did all the reading.

I read the Baltimore Sun and the Evening Sun, to my mom, often.  I had a set of Childcraft Encyclopedias that I pored over and read frequently.  My favorite book was the one on physical sciences (my least favorite was the gold one, which, if my memory serves me correctly, was on animals.  I thought it was insulting that people would always ask me about which animals I liked, just because I was a kid.).  I wore out the spine on the fat, yellow Childcraft dictionary, too.
In kindergarten, I loved this little book called Freight Train.  It was mostly pictures of the types of rail cars and few words, so after a while, the teachers didn’t want me reading it.  I hid it on a random shelf in the rear of the library, so whenever we were brought down to the library, I could find it and read it again and again.  It was a small diversion from the heavier stuff I’d be reading when I got home.

I didn’t read any of the kids stuff.  Didn’t like it.  Even now, people talk about all the fun kids things they liked reading: Hardy Boys Mysteries?  Nope.  Nancy Drew?  Nope.  Judy Blume?  Nope.  I don’t remember how, but at school, they got me to read It and A Stitch in Time.  I cheated when reading A Stitch in Time.  I skipped a bunch of pages.  I got the gist of the story and my explanation of it seemed to satisfy the folks who had made me read it.  To the extent that I could bullshit my way through all the reading we had to do, I would.  I did the barest minimum I could get away with (which wasn’t that much, given how my mother was).  I tried, though.

#

This same story of my being assigned reading and my mother having to take drastic measures to get me to do it, carried on all the way to middle school.  I’d do the readings, but I hated, HATED them.  I still read the newspaper, always the sports section, but I even started doing that less.  I was reading my encyclopedas less, too.  I had indeed been seduced by the tube, but I was probably just burned out on reading.  With the exception of the sports section, I seemed to always be reading something I didn’t care to be.  This wasn’t fun, it was a chore.

I was trying to find out my thing.

#

My 6th grade English teacher, Ms. Baumgartner, was vexed.

She knew I was a good reader but couldn’t figure out why I just wouldn’t just do it.  Things weren’t in my favor, though, as I wasn’t doing too well.  I eventually felt safe enough to say out loud the truth I’d never felt confident enough to say: I really hated everything the school made us read.  Never liked any of it, ever, and given how stubborn I was, it took my mother almost yelling, screaming, and threatening me to get me into these books.

Ms. Baumgartner asked me what I really liked, loved, and would read about.

I told her baseball.

Baseball was then, as it still is, my favorite sport.  I loved watching it.  I loved playing it.  I wanted to be a baseball player when I grew up.  My love of baseball helped me get through 5th grade (another story) and in some ways then, changed my life and would change it even more (even though I didn’t know it then).

As much as I told her baseball because it was a real passion, I was being a smart ass.  I thought there’s no way she’ll ever let me read a book on baseball for class.

We went to the library and walked around until she found a book on baseball that would be suitable for me.

World Series Memories.

The drill was the same: I was to read this book and report back on what I’d read.  It was a good book.  I read it and even did the report.  Eventually.  I even didn’t mind it.  I even seek out more books on baseball to read (I found a few books on basketball, but I said no thanks, not the same thing), but what I’d discover later wasn’t just that I enjoyed books on baseball.  I didn’t care for those kids books because I really loved reading nonfiction.  Most of the books we’d been reading were some genre of fiction.

#

Back in 5th grade, one day, I’d missed a homework assignment.  How I got home the night before and back out of the house without finishing this assignment, I’ll never know.  Yet, there I was, sitting in class, without having written my essay.  And despite the fact that Mr. Marchetti was standing over me, ignoring the rest of the class for a couple of moments, asking where it was, and after getting my less-than-satisfactory answer, assigning me to do the essay over, right there, in class, I was not having it.

I’d hated writing.  The majority of the writing we did, that I remember, was book reports, responsive writing, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.  I hated it.  HATED IT.  Read this book, tell the teacher back what it said.  Why, I’d wonder when I was much younger, did I have to read the book and spit it right back out to the teacher?  I even thought once to tell a teacher that the whole enterprise was stupid, that they knew what the book said, and that my telling them what it said didn’t prove anything.  Especially once they taught us how to properly quote.  They told us to quote but not only quote, not only repeat the book back.  If I’m reporting the book back to them, wasn’t I just repeating it back to them anyway?  And why do I care what this person said in some obscure novel a few hundred years ago?  Why does this matter?

We didn’t do much other writing.  We read poems, but we didn’t dare write them.  Poems were for reading and analyzing and therefore, hating.  Which I didn’t, however.  This was different.  I started writing my own poems at home.  Bad poems that a 10 year old might write.  But I liked it.

But what I didn’t like was essays.  And Mr. Marchetti was standing over me, demanding an essay.
I don’t even remember what we were supposed to write about.  Mostly because I wasn’t paying attention, but Mr. Marchetti gave me the option of writing what I wanted to write.  And that still wasn’t good enough.  I didn’t know what I wanted to write about.  I didn’t actually care.  I didn’t want to do it and to hell with it.  Plus, I’d forgotten the stupid essay format (which really was and is still, stupid) that we’d learned and really gone over in 4th grade (another story).

So I took the paper he gave me and on the top line, instead of writing essay, I wrote “SA.”  On the lines below, I probably wrote about how much I didn’t want to do it and how much I hated it.

That went over as well as one might expect.

#

I kept on scribbling my little poems.  By the time I was in 6th grade, my boy Brandon and I were rapping.  I still was fighting all of the whole entire school on reading and writing, but outside of school, I was doing my own thing.

#

The summer before 9th grade, though, I had a Come to Jesus moment, with my mother.

The school I’d been assigned to, Baltimore City College, better known to Baltimoreans everywhere as simply City, had mailed home the summer reading assignment for its Honors (A course) students.  My classmates everywhere were opening their mail to find out that we had three books to read that summer and we were expected to do exactly what I hated to do: respond to them.  In a journal.

Before, my mother had had to use one negative possibility or another as a means of motivating me to do the reading and the writing required in school.  Now, I was going to City, but that was a privilege.  The outcome of not doing well at City: failing out and being sent to my zone school, in this case, Northern.  Or if I was lucky, I might somehow get a shot at redemption at Mervo.  But even so, going to Northern wasn’t going to happen.  If I’d washed out of City, I’d have to go to California with my dad.  His brand of house discipline would be good for me in that case.

We went and got a marble notebook and the books.

I decided to read the shortest first.

#

Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind

People actually wrote like this?

I knew some of the church where he’d been raised, that he rebelled against.

Who were these people he’d dined with?  They believed that God was Black?  People talked about racism in this way?  It wasn’t just how things were?

#

My world started to lay itself bare the first time I read The Fire Next Time.

It opened itself up even more when I got to the next assigned book, Native Son.

I’d never read anything like those.

All the times employees followed us around Eddie’s Super Market or Woolworth’s or some other store.

The swastikas painted on the back wall of the gym at school.

The looks we’d get walking up or down Roland Avenue.

#

I’d understood these things in a prima facie way, but these great works put me squarely into the minds and worlds of great writers, great thinkers, which helped me understand my own.

This is one thing good writing can do.  There are many more.  Whole books have been written.

#

On the back end, my Aunt Brenda began feeding my growing love of books.  My mother must have told her about her struggles trying to get me to read something, anything, because eventually, my aunt would do what Ms. Baumgartner did: give me things I liked to read.  My aunt’s bookshelves were full, 2 books deep on each shelf, of books by black writers.  History, sociology, a few novels, essays, everything.  I had access to nearly her whole library.  All I had to do was read the book, not destroy it, promptly give it back.

#

Before I got out of high school, we’d read many more great books, many more great writers.  Achebe.  Morrison.  Shakespeare.  Those were among my favorites.

The writing continued.

We’d write our own poems in class in 10th grade.  Finally.  Sonnets.  Ballads.  Free verse.
In 11th grade, when we began reading philosophy, we didn’t have to just regurgitate what we’d read; no, we were encouraged to develop our own ideas about the subjects we’d been reading about, and to write them.

Even my history teachers encouraged me to explore my writing.

All of this combined with my rapping and poetry, I found a love of writing, of letters.  And in some ways, it did change my life.  Even through all the false starts and disappointments, I still love reading and writing.

A great book or play or essay or poem or memoir or biography or whatever, can do that.

#

August Wilson said:

I try to explore in terms of the life I know best those things which are common to all culture, so while the specifics in the play are black, the commonalities of culture are larger. There are universal realities in the play.

That’s the space where I want to be.  I want to explore the life I know best.  I hope I can one day, say some things that matter to someone else’s life.  The way that writers like August and James Baldwin and Richard Wright and many others have done for me.  That’s why I write.  Or at least one reason.