Steppin’ and the Talented Tenth

Do you know what this is a painting of?

Step Show, acrylic on canvas

To anyone who knows, it is instantly obvious.  To others, not so much.  I have shown this work in numerous places and it is often quite popular.  More interesting to me than the idea that some would like my art is the idea that so many who show an interest, have no idea what it is.

Sadly, the same can be said if I were to ask most what the “Talented Tenth” are, or use the acronym “HBCU.”  I have no doubt all would know what a Cryp is.

CJ, acting like his uncle's painting.

I used to know him as “Little Charlie”, now he is “CJ”.  He’s currently a senior at Sam Houston State and he hasn’t been little for quite some time.  His Mom does hair, his Dad is enlisted, and soon he will have a degree.  He plans to get two.

W.E.B Dubois wrote an essay in 1903 in which he argued that African- American men with an education and opportunity, would lift and lead their people, to not only gain, but prove they deserved, equality.  He called these initial young leaders the talented tenth.

Around this same time young black men began to be granted admission to some colleges but never gained acceptance.  In 1905 six African-american men were admitted to Cornell, none returned the following year.  In 1906 the incoming class of seven banded together to provide for themselves the support no one else would give.  They founded Alpha Phi Alpha that year and one hundred and four years later CJ joined them.

CJ is part of the talented tenth Dubois spoke of.  Other Alpha men have included MLK, Thurgood Marshall, Duke Ellington, and Jesse Owens.

To most of America “frat boy” conjures images of Animal House or keg stands and in most respects they are right.  No matter white or black, Greek does have some overlap.  But what most of “us” miss, is truly our loss.

Since the 70’s traditionally black Fraternities and sororities have incorporated rhythmic stomping and chanting in semi-militaristic fashion as part of their organizations.  Some trace it to African dancing, others to military drills, but no matter the roots, the results are pure cool.

The noise, rhythm, and explosion of movement that is a step show should be experienced by all.  Find one near you.  I don’t care if you don’t know anyone there, or feel like a lost grain of salt in the pepper shaker; just go.  You may be more inclined to watch ballet, or not be used to noisy crowds, but once they start you cannot help but become enthralled.  It is art.

I find it depressing that the masses all know how to throw up gang signs, yet so few know why athletes on TV raise their wrists to their head, elbows out,  with the palms facing down.

In our society where the sight of a group of young black men cause most to cross the street, or call police, I ask, does this look like a flash mob to you?

Make us proud CJ.

National Equestrian Headquarters

My wife and I were once invited to dinner at a friend’s home.  We were joined in the elevator by another couple headed to the same place.  All were fine company.

Upon entering the apartment it became instantly obvious that the hosts and the other guests shared the same passion; horses.  There were paintings and statues all about the place and the guest wife, not mine, glowed with excitement as she went from piece to piece.

“Do you ride?” she asked the hosts.  Both replied they had done so since birth.

“Me too!  Do you still?”

I saw where this was headed, I could not stop it.  I think it all fell apart somewhere around the word dressage or possibly saddle horn. 

“Wait, do you ride English?” 

 “No, western.”  Sad silence… 

“This roast is fantastic!” I chimed in.

While driving through somewhere in New Jersey, the sort of somewhere you don’t pay attention to, I started passing signs that told me there would be no saddle horns here.  I like this world, though I know little of it.  Clean white rail fences and horses with wrapped tails have a sort of charm, but not enough to stop the car.  Then I passed that one sign.

There was a large iron gate that inferred no entry, but the sign’s national nature emboldened me with a sense of entitlement.  When I hit the call button a female voice asked if I was at the gate, I replied I was, and it opened. 

Now I am not unaccustomed to barns, not even unfamiliar with living in one, but this was nothing like what I know.  Built by Wall St. tycoon James Brady in 1911, this barn was bangin.

Not knowing what to expect, but assuming the worst, I found the women working here surprisingly friendly and unperturbed by my presence.  With a smile and flip of the light switch, I was sent upstairs to the trophy room, while my host went back to work filing papers.

Ribbons, brass, wood paneling, silver, add in a green carpet, and the place had all the elements of a competitive while classy lounge.  There were no saddle horns; there were not even any horses.  There was plenty of history, the remnants of money, and fortunately no remnants of horses… if ya know what I mean.

I showed myself to the door, kicked dust off my boots, and went on my way… not really.  There was no dust and I wore driving moccasins.

Drunken Fixtures

He lives at the southern end of my block.

I’m not sure how long he has lived there but my next door neighbor, the one who shares my stoop, knows his life story and he has apparently lived his life in the area, just maybe not on this street the entire time.  What I do know, is that however long he has lived here, he has spent the majority of that time on his stoop with a Miller Lite can in his hand.

I know his name but my wife and I call him Drunk Guy.  It seems more appropriate than the name his parents gave him and is probably more akin to the name his parents most likely called him.  My next door neighbor, the one who doesn’t share my stoop, calls him creepy.  He sits there, day in and day out, nodding and saying hello to me, but carrying on spirited conversations with all sorts of characters who wander up the block, whom I’m sure don’t live here, and by their looks I’m not sure they live anywhere.

He is just a fixture, part of the landscape more like the block’s one tree, or our one street light.  We are a small block and on such blocks some things just are. Like the falling down garage across the street, or the need to fold in your mirrors to avoid them being broken off by passing cars; this is just how it is.  Things just exist, right in front of you, you just deal with it.  That is Drunk Guy.

Till that one day.

I suppose the first, “one day”, was when he caught some petty idiot breaking into my pickup.  By “caught”, I mean called 911 a surprisingly speedy three times in three minutes.  The police responded, gave chase on foot, and by the time I was roused from slumber and clothed, the perpetrator was hand cuffed in the back of a squad car at that south end of the block.  The cops asked Drunk Guy if he would come to the station to help file the report, Drunk Guy said I should have to go since it was my truck.  I said I would go.  As I was locking my door the Cop asked if I wanted some “alone time” with the thief before they took him in. While trying to hide my shock at the offer, I casually declined.  My stoop mate, who had been at her door the entire time, laughed at this and said, “Not this guy.  He’s not like us.”  Somehow I knew the “us” was intended to be bigger than the small group gathered round my door.

The second “one day”, was almost a year later.  It was late and after helping parallel park my wife’s car at the end of the block, the fixture spoke as I walked past.  “I wish you would move your @#*! van.”  I stopped, startled by both the wording and the fact that he spoke.  “Pardon?”  He, in only the way that one half way through the liquor cabinet can do, explained how the place I had parked my van was an affront to the entire street and that I had done this regularly.  He told how everyone, especially my stoop mate, was tired of my parking habits and that he could not understand why I didn’t move the van.  Of course he said all of this using only mono-syllabic words, most of which had four letters.

I was tired and had no wish to have this nocturnal watchman plotting against my vehicle all night, so I moved the van.  I told him I had no problem parking differently and informed him that further grievances need only be voiced to be remedied, rather than complained about with others.  He simply repeated his complaints, more to himself since they were no longer applicable.  I had trouble sleeping, not because of the confrontation with the streetlight, but more due to the lack of communication from my stoop-mate.  I would have to address this in the morning.

When questioned the next day about her opinion of my parking, my stoop mate ensured me my van was in no way a nuisance and that it had a right to be parked anywhere I saw fit.  She said some conciliatory thinks about Drunk Guy as well.  I don’t remember the details of what she said but I do believe she used the word “Kenzo”.  I left it at that with some doubts as to her sincerity; she has displayed in the past a propensity to talk about things, rather than talk to those to whom, those things apply.  These doubts were dashed when later that day my stoop-mate’s husband knocked on the door and instructed me to punch in the face the next person who gave me parking instructions.

The most recent “one day” was a couple weeks ago.  Drunk Guy actually knocked on my door around 11pm.  His shaved head was sweaty and his eyes were bulging as he slurred his way through a request for me to get my expletive car’s tires off his sidewalk.  I stepped out onto the stoop. I looked south and saw his truck parked in the spot it had been in for the past five days, the same spot my van had previously vacated, and five cars, all with two tires on the sidewalk, one of which was mine.  Mine was indeed in front of his house.

I was mildly annoyed at being disturbed by the nonsense and grabbed my keys.  The fixture continued his complaints as if they were recorded on a loop.  He was agitated enough he was almost spilling his beer.  I paused only long enough to inform him that, as explained last time, if he had problems he only needed to talk to me, no need to use such words or carry on in such a manner.  It was like talking to street’s one tree or that one street light.  I moved the car and the verbal abuse continued.

I looked him in the eye.  I wanted nothing more than to take my neighbor’s advice and end the talking right then and there.  Maybe I should have, but looking down at his bald head, receding jaw, and soft midsection, I refrained.  I calmly told him that it seemed to me he had some issue with me personally.  I told him that if this was the case we could talk about it.  I told him I would in fact very much like to talk about it.  I proposed that one day when he was sober we would talk.  One day; if he is sober.  He went mumbling back into his house with my wife shouting in the background about pathetic lives and sorry existences.

He’s on his stoop right now.  I have gone back to walking past him and saying hello.  He has gone back to saying hello to me and carrying on spirited discussions with folks I’m sure grew up here but now live nowhere.  I continue to sweep up leaves left by that one tree, fold in my mirrors, and ignore the glare through the window from that one streetlight.  They are all just fixtures.

Modern Male

I do not have ADD, I have a Y chromosome.

I remember sitting with my kids watching The Incredibles and seeing myself.  There I was, oversized, crammed behind a desk, and completely stifled.

I am Mr. Incredible.  All men are.

We have bodies built for action, broad shoulders, muscle, and testosterone.  If stagnant too long, my leg shakes.  Occasionally I have an inexplicable desire to lift something, with no emotion at all I will simply want to throw punches at nothing, and when in the company of other men, I shove them for no reason.

Really, it’s not me; it’s this thing I’m inside of.  It wants to go. I like to read books and talk.  I like to write and paint; play chess.  It wants to run, lift, and strain.

My football days ended when college recruiters never called.  My rugby career came to an end with my first child.  My boxing career ended when I realized my brain was what paid the bills, and my opponents kept hitting it.  I tried running but got tired of never going anywhere.  So what I was left with was a remote control.

I think we men left our capes in the closet some time back in the 50’s.  Factories became mechanized, getting things from A to B was all done by road or rail, and soldiers began riding in helicopters more than marching. No seas were left un-sailed, no poles were left to explore, and Bally’s opened.

Look up from your computer and look over at him, wherever he is.  The phone is ringing, the guys want to go play ball, let him go.  He needs to go.  He must go.

I know the kids are screaming and the dishes are undone.  I know baths need to be taken and the trash isn’t yet at the curb, but let him go.  It isn’t his fault.  It’s not his fault that he was born in a place and time that has no need for his superpowers. He wants to read that bedtime story, but his leg is shaking under the table.

Just let him go.

Where is the Kid With the Surfer Hair?

“Where is the kid with the surfer hair?”

They were talking about me.  Matt had just had his head shaved against his will, and the seniors wanted more.  They scoured the locker room, the weight room, and the student parking lot with shears in hand, and treachery in their hearts.  I hid.  I would say I cowered, but you don’t really have space to do that after having stuffed yourself in a locker.  I would have been ashamed if I didn’t know that Cowley was doing the exact same thing in the very next locker.

It was funny to me, even in that moment, that I was actually hiding in a locker.  I had seen this on TV but never thought it physically possible, nor a real life necessity.  Better yet was that the guy in the locker next to mine, weighed at least 260lbs.  I’m sure none of this would have happened in a normal world, but this was football.

The lockers we were in were specially designed to hold shoulder pads and all sorts of equipment.  We were in football lockers because we played football, and the Neanderthals outside were our teammates.  Our suburban high school was relatively small.  Sophomores, juniors, and seniors all practiced together; all one big team.  There were no official try-outs, and no cuts.  If you showed up, and lasted, you were counted as part of the team.  We were thrown together, young men and boys, and this alchemy produced a team; with a tall side order of terror.

This head shaving incident was not isolated.  The day before the “sophomore sheep shearing”, one of my classmates didn’t show up to practice.  It took a good 30 minutes before a trainer noticed him shrink wrapped to a goal post down at the main field.  At lunch time seniors would make us carry their trays, before practice they made us caddy their helmets, after practice they made us fear.

We did not shower post practice.  It was not out of prudish modesty but self preservation.  The first one to try showering returned to his locker to find his school clothes clogging up a toilet.  On one occasion, while we were all dressing, an upperclassman swung the wire mesh security gate shut, locking the twenty of us in our section.  Immediately afterwards, bins of water were poured through the gates, flooding us like a colony of gophers.

It wasn’t really that bad.  We all thought it was just part of the dues we paid to play.  As with any hostile force there were sympathizers amongst them.  Cole was a captain and the physical superior of everyone else on the team.  He would keep others in check, give us one of those knowing nods to reassure us that we weren’t really going to die, and kept things from getting out of hand, sort of.

He did not really control Chuck.  Chuck was the varsity quarterback.  Some would say he had a Napoleon complex, I would say he had a Genghis Khan complex.  He was the one with the clippers.

They did not find me or Cowley that day and I kept my hair.  They did find us later that week and we all enjoyed a “voluntary” leap into the glacier runoff up in the canyon on a hot summer day.  Possibly inspired by our trips up to the river, the coaches treated the whole team to a day at the community pool; a chance to cool off after a week of hot weathered and hot headed practices.  The seniors enjoyed a nice game of dunk the sophomore.  I enjoyed it as well; at least at first.

I did not dunk easily.  When Chuck tried I did not dunk at all.  I do not know if words were exchanged or how it all happened, but I do know it ended with me looking the quarterback in the eye while he was hauled off by three of his cohorts Cole included.  I just stood there bleeding from the lip, alone.

At the end of each practice it was our pleasure to run any number of 100 yard sprints.  Coach would yell out “sophomores”, and we would sprint.  He would yell “juniors”, and they would run, etc.  It was a time honored tradition that the sophs went first, seniors last.  This gave the upperclassmen the opportunity to run over or through any underclassmen who were loitering along the way.  One day I stood on the finish line, arms behind my head, desperately trying to regain my wind.  By some stroke of luck I saw Chuck just as he was lowering his shoulder, preparing to collapse my ribs.  I stepped aside.

My stepping aside had the same effect as Lucy’s pulling the ball right before Charlie Brown attempted his kick.  Expecting to hit me, he hit nothing, followed by hitting the ground.  I looked back over my shoulder as I started my next sprint.  Chuck was not pleased.

Chuck had one of those stares that television tries to portray with special effects.  The sort where he looks right at you and it is somehow obvious that he can see absolutely nothing else, except possibly the funeral of the one being looked at.  I saw this stare from 50 yards away and knew that stepping aside would do me no good this time around.  I squared up and took it.

This may have been even more of a surprise to my attacker than my previous move.  The net result was the same with me standing looking down on him as he lay in the grass.  On his third Kamikaze attack Chuck surprised me, and all of us, by veering last second and absolutely obliterating the sophomore standing next to me.  As the poor soul who thought he would only be a bystander lay in the fetal position, I called Chuck a name.  I used a word I would not repeat today and he heard it.

I did not have time to start the next sprint before he was on me and his classmates were on him.  They peeled him off and had my face not been protected by an iron roll bar, my lip would have once again been bleeding.

These sorts of actions do not win one friends.  I was a marked man and as such those closest to me in both emotion and age, could be found nowhere near me or they may suffer from peripheral violence.  I did not always win these contests.  There was a day in tackling drills where Blake decided I should spend the entire time prostrate.  Every time I attempted to rise he would promptly knock me down again.  There was the day I spent lined up in front of Vern.  He taught me every way an offensive lineman could hurt his opponent and not be caught by officials.  It was an object lesson I would not soon forget, nor soon stop feeling.

Over time this repeated pounding produced a respect and fear for my teammates that no opposing team could ever match.  I faced players from much better teams with much better bodies, but I was never afraid.  I recall looking forward to the day we played against others our own age as a welcome day of rest.  We were usually a bit less organized, as all our practice time was taken being cannon fodder for the varsity, but it was pure pleasure being the projectile for a change.

Happy New Year, 2011

The TV is on, showing me all that I have missed this past year.  Presented before me are the masses as if to emphasise how I do not belong.  They are in Times Square, I am on the couch.  They sing along to songs I do not know, sung by artists I have never seen; for the most part I am happy about this.  I use the word artist loosely.

I opened my journal to this day last year and put a check next to one bullet point out of ten.  The heading read goals and listed a number of things I did not do.  I remind myself this does not mean I did not do anything, just not those things.

What I did do was discover Great Uncle Cornelius’ Finest Spiced Ginger, and I’m glad I did.

I went sailing and surfing.  Both were on my life list yet strangely not last year’s goal list.

I reread the Great Gatsby but was more pleased to have discovered the pen of Wilfred Thessiger.

During all my travels this last year I never got lost but I surely went places I did not intend.  Not every wrong turn worked out for the best but in retrospect had I reached al my goals I may have missed the mark.

What does that mean?  Nothing but sometimes such rhetoric just happens.  It looks or sounds nice but is empty… like my last year’s goals.  But I’m writing a new list this year.  The list contains hopes and needs and if accomplished, I will be better off than I am now. 

Skydiving isn’t on the list.  Neither is becoming a millionaire.  If I accomplish either I will have failed at my intentions and become a success.

(photos by John Barclay… except the bottle)