It was Super Bowl Sunday, and the game had ended. The roads were messy with post-game pandemonium; slipshod stop & go traffic; drunken football junkies and gamblers, either pissed or thrilled about the game’s outcome. Careless cars accelerated through yellow lights. Stop signs were suggestions. A tinted Hummer rumbled over the edge of the curb in front of us; sharp turn, no blinker. Middle finger.
I too had been ignoring signals and missing signs, for years, parading around in chic plans that impressed window-shoppers but afraid to wear the dreams that fit me. Years of social compliance had left me disoriented. Now I was off-track, like the drunk dickhead in the Hummer. I had no idea who I was, much less what the hell I was doing in Florida.
All night my friends and I had tried to reconnect. I guess we thought we could revive our mystical frat-house bonds by meeting up in some random southern city, drinking cheap beer and watching a football game. But the chapter house was four years gone now, we hadn’t seen our alma mater in almost thirteen-hundred miles. The men sitting at barstools in Miami weren’t the boys who did keg stands in the Midwest—no matter how similar the Busch Light tasted.
As we stumbled back to the Metrorail, a young black guy approached us. He was a local hip-hop artist who called himself “J-City,” and he wanted to sell us his homemade CDs. In other words, he had no plans to rob us, which meant we could safely blow him off. My friends stopped acknowledging his presence once they realized that, and part of me wanted to do the same.
But I saw something in J-City’s eyes, a shine I wish I could find in my own. He knew the odds were against him—the market’s thin for unsigned musicians who stand on street corners peddling shit they recorded in their basements. But he didn’t care, or didn’t seem to. It looked like he lived inside his heart, where the grassroots dream survived; where the underground mix-tape eventually finds the right ears and turns the homemade nobody into a household name. I got the impression he’d rather fail at Plan A, forever, than hunker down for Plan B, a surrendered 9-to-5 life.
How could I not support someone who had the nerve to do his own thing, rather than donate his productivity to the corporate mega-greed that consumes most of the rest of us? Ambition sells for so little these days; it’s rare to find someone whose dreams aren’t for sale. How could I not pull for J-City? It was inevitable. I stopped and gave him five dollars as the rest of my entourage shuffled on, shyly absent from the moment, unable to relate to someone whose future rested on the merits of his own creativity.
J-City wrote his cell phone # and email on the front of his CD, in Sharpie. I promised I’d call if I was ever back in Dade County and needed a rapper for a party; he assured me he could get me into any club in South Beach. Chances are I won’t take him up on his offers. But our encounter wasn’t so much about keeping promises as it was about two human beings from different worlds being willing to make a connection, to relate to each other. I wished him luck, and then jogged to catch my friends.
Up the block a few minutes later, a second black guy, less hopeful, sat on a different street corner. Before we even could see him, we heard him, singing, almost wailing, from a wheelchair. An empty coffee can doubled as his tip-jar and makeshift instrument. As we got closer and as he got louder I could feel the tension build among my friends, the air ripe for shitball comments.
Then: “I hope this guy’s not gonna try and snag our money.”
And: “Nah, dude, he’s just lookin’ for handouts, like the last cat.”
They glanced back at me, snickering, hoping for a reaction, since, after all, I was the sucker who’d hooked up ‘the last cat.’
“Fuck that,” I said. “That fuckin’ bum needs to lose the wheelchair and get a real job.”
Judging from their nods and approving cackles, my friends didn’t quite catch my sarcasm. In their eyes I’d just made a totally valid point: people in wheelchairs are greedy and lazy and out to annoy us, to gyp us out of our hard-earned pennies and nickels. If they can’t walk, it’s because they aren’t trying hard enough to walk.
My comment probably would have stood as our collective, final assessment of this man and his mess. My friends could have passed him in judgment and felt no pity, if only he had been one of those “normal” disabled people, whose broken parts are on the inside. But seeing this man’s mangled legs, and two stubs where his feet should have been, deflated the bullshit “hard-work” theory, and thus took most of the fun out of blaming the victim.
Then we noticed his cardboard sign:
“WAR VET… NO REGRETS.”
That was about all my friends could handle.
“Let’s cross,” one of them suggested.
I watched as they scooted between two parked cars, and perched, ready to dart between the moving ones. “You comin’ dude?” they called back.
Their commitment to avoiding this broken man spoke volumes about the company I kept. Black people received an unfair advantage, in their view. Even black homeless people in wheelchairs got a fair shake, and deserved to be laughed at. But apparently black homeless people in wheelchairs who also happened to be amputees made them feel uneasy and—especially if they’d lost their limbs in an American war. To avoid looking into such a person’s eyes, they would gladly take their chances with the drunken drivers.
I dropped some one-dollar bills and a handful of coins into the man’s tin can. The quarters clinked to the bottom, adding to the confusion in his wounded rhythm. I stood with him for minute, listening to his sad song, trying not to hear my own. Then I sensed that he was feeling self-conscious, or maybe I was. The light changed and I moved along.
This time I didn’t try to catch my friends, and they didn’t pretend to wait. Suddenly I wanted them vacant from my life, just as they’d been absent from all the moments I wanted to share with people not like us.
I know they “will little note nor long remember” the sight of others helping strangers. They won’t follow mine or anyone else’s steps toward a better world; not unless they’re ready to make that march themselves. Until then, we are and shall stay fundamentally different. I’ll continue to seem distant at reunions, and one day they may stop inviting me. And gradually I’ll stop looking for clues about the person I used to be, call off the search for some memory I can still enjoy remembering. Maybe then we’ll finally agree on something again.
Life’s too short to stay in touch.
I wrote the above in February, and then backed away from it to let it sit still for awhile. I needed some sort of resolution, a version of that night that would let me feel good and gracious and better than most people.
I hope I seemed sympathetic and open-minded in the story I decided to retell.
I hope readers interpreted these events exactly as I’ve chosen to remember them, without doubting my sincerity or my motives.
I hope no one feels compelled to ask the hard questions I’ve willfully avoided, such as: Did I see these strangers as real human beings with dreams? Did I care if their dreams came true? Or were J-City and the injured vet more like props to me, fulfilling my need to feel self-righteous for awhile?
It’s been three months, and I haven’t put J-City in my CD player yet.
The ex-soldier with the Folgers can is still utterly fucked—despite your prayers and your flag-waving and my $3.89 (or whatever amount fell out of my pockets). I left him as I found him, with no legs and no prospects, drumming on recyclables for pity and petty change.
Hopefully you’ll want to praise me, anyway, for being so in-touch and enlightened. Surely you appreciate this version of reality, where the world is a better place because a kind man endures uncomfortable moments that people in a less just world might clumsily avoid. I threw my spare change at two black men whom it didn’t help. And then I got to walk away—back to my laptop and my hot girlfriend and my cozy university—to spread the word about how thoughtful and generous I am.
See? There’s no racism. Inequality is just a hoax, an overblown throwback from harsher times. And where glimpses of it do poke through, white messiahs will always exist to make sure good beats evil. Hopefully this version satisfies you, as it does me.
Cross-posted at Jonestown.