T HREE O’CLOCK IN THE morning. The moon-washed streets empty, the growl of a car picking up speed down a distant road. The revelers would be tucked away by now, paired off or alone, in deep, beerheavy sleep, Hasan at his new lady’s place-don’t stay up, he had said with a wink. And now just the two of us to wait for the sunrise, me and Billie Holiday, her voice warbling through the darkened room, reaching toward me like a lover.
I’m a fool…to want you.
Such a fool…to want you.
I poured myself a drink and let my eyes skip across the room: bowls of pretzel crumbs, overflowing ashtrays, empty bottles like a skyline against the wall. Great party. That’s what everybody had said: Count on Barry and Hasan to rock the house. Everybody except Regina. Regina hadn’t enjoyed herself. What was it that she’d said before she left? You always think it’s about you. And then that stuff about her grandmother. Like I was somehow responsible for the fate of the entire black race. As if it was me who had kept her grandma on her knees all her life. To hell with Regina. To hell with her high-horse, holier-than-thou, you-letme-down look in her eyes. She didn’t know me. She didn’t understand where I was coming from.
I fell back on the couch and lit a cigarette, watching the match burn down until it tickled my fingertips, then feeling the prick on the skin as I pinched the flame dead. What’s the trick? the man asks. The trick is not caring that it hurts. I tried to remember where I’d heard the line, but it was lost to me now, like a forgotten face. No matter. Billie knew the same trick; it was in that torn-up, trembling voice of hers. And I had learned it, too; that’s what my last two years in high school had been about, after Ray went off to junior college somewhere and I had set the books aside; after I had stopped writing to my father and he’d stopped writing back. I had grown tired of trying to untangle a mess that wasn’t of my making.
I had learned not to care.
I blew a few smoke rings, remembering those years. Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack, though-Micky, my potential initiator, had been just a little too eager for me to go through with that. Said he could do it blindfolded, but he was shaking like a faulty engine when he said it. Maybe he was just cold; we were standing in a meat freezer in the back of the deli where he worked, and it couldn’t have been more than twenty degrees in there. But he didn’t look like he was shaking from the cold. Looked more like he was sweating, his face shiny and tight. He had pulled out the needle and the tubing, and I’d looked at him standing there, surrounded by big slabs of salami and roast beef, and right then an image popped into my head of an air bubble, shiny and round like a pearl, rolling quietly through a vein and stopping my heart….
Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man. Except the highs hadn’t been about that, me trying to prove what a down brother I was. Not by then, anyway. I got high for just the opposite effect, something that could push questions of who I was out of my mind, something that could flatten out the landscape of my heart, blur the edges of my memory. I had discovered that it didn’t make any difference whether you smoked reefer in the white classmate’s sparkling new van, or in the dorm room of some brother you’d met down at the gym, or on the beach with a couple of Hawaiian kids who had dropped out of school and now spent most of their time looking for an excuse to brawl. Nobody asked you whether your father was a fat-cat executive who cheated on his wife or some laidoff joe who slapped you around whenever he bothered to come home. You might just be bored, or alone. Everybody was welcome into the club of disaffection. And if the high didn’t solve whatever it was that was getting you down, it could at least help you laugh at the world’s ongoing folly and see through all the hypocrisy and bullshit and cheap moralism.
That’s how it had seemed to me then, anyway. It had taken a couple of years before I saw how fates were beginning to play themselves out, the difference that color and money made after all, in who survived, how soft or hard the landing when you finally fell. Of course, either way, you needed some luck. That’s what Pablo had lacked, mostly, not having his driver’s license that day, a cop with nothing better to do than to check the trunk of his car. Or Bruce, not finding his way back from too many bad acid trips and winding up in a funny farm. Or Duke, not walking away from the car wreck….
I had tried to explain some of this to my mother once, the role of luck in the world, the spin of the wheel. It was at the start of my senior year in high school; she was back in Hawaii, her field work completed, and one day she had marched into my room, wanting to know the details of Pablo’s arrest. I had given her a reassuring smile and patted her hand and told her not to worry, I wouldn’t do anything stupid. It was usually an effective tactic, another one of those tricks I had learned: People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied; they were relieved-such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn’t seem angry all the time.
Except my mother hadn’t looked satisfied. She had just sat there, studying my eyes, her face as grim as a hearse.
“Don’t you think you’re being a little casual about your future?” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean. One of your friends was just arrested for drug possession. Your grades are slipping. You haven’t even started on your college applications. Whenever I try to talk to you about it you act like I’m just this great big bother.”
I didn’t need to hear all this. It wasn’t like I was flunking out. I started to tell her how I’d been thinking about maybe not going away for college, how I could stay in Hawaii and take some classes and work parttime. She cut me off before I could finish. I could get into any school in the country, she said, if I just put in a little effort. “Remember what that’s like? Effort? Damn it, Bar, you can’t just sit around like some good-time Charlie, waiting for luck to see you through.”
“A good-time what?”
“A good-time Charlie. A loafer.”
I looked at her sitting there, so earnest, so certain of her son’s destiny. The idea that my survival depended on luck remained a heresy to her; she insisted on assigning responsibility somewhere-to herself, to Gramps and Toot, to me. I suddenly felt like puncturing that certainty of hers, letting her know that her experiment with me had failed. Instead of shouting, I laughed. “A good-time Charlie, huh? Well, why not?
Maybe that’s what I want out of life. I mean, look at Gramps. He didn’t even go to college.”
The comparison caught my mother by surprise. Her face went slack, her eyes wavered. It suddenly dawned on me, her greatest fear. “Is that what you’re worried about?” I asked. “That I’ll end up like Gramps?”
She shook her head quickly. “You’re already much better educated than your grandfather,” she said. But the certainty had finally drained from her voice. Instead of pushing the point, I stood up and left the room.
Billie had stopped singing. The silence felt oppressive, and I suddenly felt very sober. I rose from the couch, flipped the record, drank what was left in my glass, poured myself another. Upstairs, I could hear someone flushing a toilet, walking across a room. Another insomniac, probably, listening to his life tick away. That was the problem with booze and drugs, wasn’t it? At some point they couldn’t stop that ticking sound, the sound of certain emptiness. And that, I suppose, is what I’d been trying to tell my mother that day: that her faith in justice and rationality was misplaced, that we couldn’t overcome after all, that all the education and good intentions in the world couldn’t help plug up the holes in the universe or give you the power to change its blind, mindless course.
Still, I’d felt bad after that particular episode; it was the one trick my mother always had up her sleeve, that way she had of making me feel guilty. She made no bones about it, either. “You can’t help it,” she told me once. “Slipped it into your baby food. Don’t worry, though,” she added, smiling like the Cheshire cat. “A healthy, dose of guilt never hurt anybody. It’s what civilization was built on, guilt. A highly underrated emotion.”
We could joke about it by then, for her worst fears hadn’t come to pass. I had graduated without mishap, was accepted into several respectable schools, and settled on Occidental College in Los Angeles mainly because I’d met a girl from Brentwood while she was vacationing in Hawaii with her family. But I was still just going through the motions, as indifferent toward college as toward most everything else. Even Frank thought I had a bad attitude, although he was less than clear about how I should change it.
What had Frank called college? An advanced degree in compromise. I thought back to the last time I had seen the old poet, a few days before I left Hawaii. We had made small talk for a while; he complained about his feet, the corns and bone spurs that he insisted were a direct result of trying to force African feet into European shoes. Finally he had asked me what it was that I expected to get out of college. I told him I didn’t know. He shook his big, hoary head.
“Well,” he said, “that’s the problem, isn’t it? You don’t know. You’re just like the rest of these young cats out here. All you know is that college is the next thing you’re supposed to do. And the people who are old enough to know better, who fought all those years for your right to go to college-they’re just so happy to see you in there that they won’t tell you the truth. The real price of admission.” “And what’s that?”
“Leaving your race at the door,” he said. “Leaving your people behind.” He studied me over the top of his reading glasses. “Understand something, boy. You’re not going to college to get educated. You’re going there to get trained. They’ll train you to want what you don’t need. They’ll train you to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore. They’ll train you to forget what it is that you already know. They’ll train you so good, you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that shit. They’ll give you a corner office and invite you to fancy dinners, and tell you you’re a credit to your race. Until you want to actually start running things, and then they’ll yank on your chain and let you know that you may be a well-trained, well-paid nigger, but you’re a nigger just the same.”
“So what is it you’re telling me-that I shouldn’t be going to college?”
Frank’s shoulders slumped, and he fell back in his chair with a sigh. “No. I didn’t say that. You’ve got to go. I’m just telling you to keep your eyes open. Stay awake.”
It made me smile, thinking back on Frank and his old Black Power, dashiki self. In some ways he was as incurable as my mother, as certain in his faith, living in the same sixties time warp that Hawaii had created. Keep your eyes open, he had warned. It wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Not in sunny L.A. Not as you strolled through Occidental’s campus, a few miles from Pasadena, tree-lined and Spanish-tiled. The students were friendly, the teachers encouraging. In the fall of 1979, Carter, gas lines, and breast-beating were all on their way out. Reagan was on his way in, morning in America. When you left campus, you drove on the freeway to Venice Beach or over to Westwood, passing East L.A. or South Central without even knowing it, just more palm trees peeking out like dandelions over the high concrete walls. L.A. wasn’t all that different from Hawaii, not the part you saw. Just bigger, and easier to find a barber who knew how to cut your hair.
Anyway, most of the other black students at Oxy didn’t seem all that worried about compromise. There were enough of us on campus to constitute a tribe, and when it came to hanging out many of us chose to function like a tribe, staying close together, traveling in packs. Freshman year, when I was still living in the dorms, there’d be the same sort of bull sessions that I’d had with Ray and other blacks back in Hawaii, the same grumblings, the same list of complaints. Otherwise, our worries seemed indistinguishable from those of the white kids around us. Surviving classes. Finding a well-paying gig after graduation. Trying to get laid. I had stumbled upon one of the well-kept secrets about black people: that most of us weren’t interested in revolt; that most of us were tired of thinking about race all the time; that if we preferred to keep to ourselves it was mainly because that was the easiest way to stop thinking about it, easier than spending all your time mad or trying to guess whatever it was that white folks were thinking about you. So why couldn’t I let it go?
I don’t know. I didn’t have the luxury, I suppose, the certainty of the tribe. Grow up in Compton and survival becomes a revolutionary act. You get to college and your family is still back there rooting for you. They’re happy to see you escape; there’s no question of betrayal. But I hadn’t grown up in Compton, or Watts. I had nothing to escape from except my own inner doubt. I was more like the black students who had grown up in the suburbs, kids whose parents had already paid the price of escape. You could spot them right away by the way they talked, the people they sat with in the cafeteria. When pressed, they would sputter and explain that they refused to be categorized. They weren’t defined by the color of their skin, they would tell you. They were individuals.
That’s how Joyce liked to talk. She was a good-looking woman, Joyce was, with her green eyes and honey skin and pouty lips. We lived in the same dorm my freshman year, and all the brothers were after her. One day I asked her if she was going to the Black Students’ Association meeting. She looked at me funny, then started shaking her head like a baby who doesn’t want what it sees on the spoon.
“I’m not black,” Joyce said. “I’m multiracial.” Then she started telling me about her father, who happened to be Italian and was the sweetest man in the world; and her mother, who happened to be part African and part French and part Native American and part something else. “Why should I have to choose between them?” she asked me. Her voice cracked, and I thought she was going to cry. “It’s not white people who are making me choose. Maybe it used to be that way, but now they’re willing to treat me like a person.
No-it’s black people who always have to make everything racial. They’re the ones making me choose.
They’re the ones who are telling me that I can’t be who I am….”
They, they, they. That was the problem with people like Joyce. They talked about the richness of their multicultural heritage and it sounded real good, until you noticed that they avoided black people. It wasn’t a matter of conscious choice, necessarily, just a matter of gravitational pull, the way integration always worked, a one-way street. The minority assimilated into the dominant culture, not the other way around. Only white culture could be neutral and objective. Only white culture could be nonracial, willing to adopt the occasional exotic into its ranks. Only white culture had individuals. And we, the half-breeds and the collegedegreed, take a survey of the situation and think to ourselves, Why should we get lumped in with the losers if we don’t have to? We become only so grateful to lose ourselves in the crowd, America’s happy, faceless marketplace; and we’re never so outraged as when a cabbie drives past us or the woman in the elevator clutches her purse, not so much because we’re bothered by the fact that such indignities are what less fortunate coloreds have to put up with every single day of their lives-although that’s what we tell ourselvesbut because we’re wearing a Brooks Brothers suit and speak impeccable English and yet have somehow been mistaken for an ordinary nigger.