White, Black, and Other Colors from the Real World
When I was nineteen I was informed by a handsome and unique man whom I respected very much—my boss at the time—that I had a black heart.
Three of us were standing idle for the moment in our store, in the area we sometimes called the Bermuda Triangle. This was defined by three massive glistening stainless steel rectangles: the refrigerated makeline, the hulking slinking firing double-deck conveyor oven, and the two-sided box storage and cut-prep island on wheels.
His name was Bernard. He was in his late thirties, an African American—well, he would prefer the term black, and he said it with no indication he might be teasing. What’s more, I knew to take the remark as a compliment. My only response was a mild but warm smile.
Bernard hailed from a notable area of the country, one made famous as the home base of some youthful musicians going by the names Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, Yella and Eazy-E. These guys had gotten together out in Compton, California in southern Los Angeles and formed a group which took the still developing rap genre by storm. They did this by injecting heavy doses of the real world tensions and pent-up bitterness they were familiar with—much of which stemmed from the old traditional racism encouraging whites to look down on blacks and to oppress them, sometimes not subtly—into their songs.
So it turned out Bernard was “Straight Outta Compton” too, which surprised me more than a little. This was not only because such place had become connected to this rap super-group—called N.W.A., Niggaz Wit Attitudes—and all those kinds of things they sang about (Compton was to my mind so colonized by their rowdy lyrics I found it hard to believe my well-mannered, smooth-spoken, ex-military, Buddhist boss could be from there) but also because of the simple fact exotic southern California was thousands of miles from our drab red-brick slice of suburban Maryland.
But my sense of disbelief didn’t change the reality.
I remember Bernard explaining: “It wasn’t all gang activity and police rolling up on black youth smoking marijuana or black youth doing nothing, and jumping out to harass or arrest them. And it’s not like every black motorist was getting pulled over for no good reason. In fact around my house things were pretty quiet most of the time.”
It was my first job, a local pizza and subs place called Nelly’s, and this was the first spot I’d applied to after being prompted by my mother to get a job, any job, so I might pay my own rent. My parents were selling our house, the one I’d grown up in, the one I loved and knew I would miss for the rest of my life, and retiring to a more relaxed scene in North Carolina near some whoopdy-doo lake.
Much was destined to be new to me then, and surprise me. I was being pushed out to live on my own, wield keys of my own, make money of my own and tender it to the landlord on time on my own, keep my room clean and feed myself and process my laundry on my own. Arrange for and execute any beneficial recreation, on my own, etc.
None of this freaked me out at all. Okay the job did; everybody there was older and infinitely more conversant with, and inured to, the pressures and demands of real life. No doubt I’d be a little soft at first trying to function out in the full blaring world, pried away from my well-worn hiding places and cushiony havens which had always been there for me in our sheltering house.
I caught on fast answering phones, taking orders, though I remained very shy for several months in talking to the strangers choosing to call our establishment to bring pleasure and sustenance to their families. I enjoyed it though, I think in part because each call offered a tiny glimpse into people’s lives, glinting flashing lives that were strewn about like jewelry of the earth.
Funny thing though, about learning to fold the pizza boxes. I couldn’t do it. At least I couldn’t for many days running in the beginning. I remember the girl, a pretty one six years my senior with brown hair and lively brave blue eyes and a taste for the band Type O Negative; she was a part-time driver and the person assigned one night to teach me boxes in the back of the store.
Now it’s not like I hadn’t had close encounters with females of the species before, it wasn’t that I was inexperienced. Therefore it wasn’t my attraction to her, not alone, that left me feeling so baffled and dislocated in that moment, though I won’t deny I was very drawn to her, even to the point of awe. But that was because she seemed so comfortable, so embedded in herself, that is, in the way she balanced her body, her role in that humble store, and her looks which were so fetching even if she wasn’t a great bombshell.
She came across crisp, like a brand new twenty dollar bill (in our business we handled a lot of ratty tattered twenties, so this is saying something). And she was a fully initiated card-carrying member of the Real World Club, and I definitely wasn’t.
But the deep thing making me unable to fold the boxes was the medication I was on and my sedated semi-disconnected state. And part of my distraction was a gnawing feeling of embarrassment owing to my being overweight—a side effect of the meds.
Before moving out and getting a toehold in the brave new real world, I had one night ingested a baggie’s worth of magic mushrooms with two friends, both Gemini’s, and gone hurtling through the scenes of a bad trip--nefarious trip maybe, do they have those?
Suffice it to say during the experience I convinced myself it was not possible for my mind and general mental faculty to go back to what it had been before, not after the hyper-elastic vivid gymnastics the psilocybin was causing me, my fundamental consciousness and self-perception, to endure. I felt like Dorothy with Toto in The Wizard of Oz when the cyclone uproots the house and they are swirling and soon to land in Oz. Like: “We’re not on the ground, Toto!” Then the chicken coop flies in and the rocking chair woman, although for me it was just so much bleeding color and morphing shapes everywhere.
Also the yellow and white bathroom tiles slowly hatched and grew the Giza pyramid complex all around me at one point, in blazing glittering sunlight despite the plain darkness out the window. So there was that too.
The torment lasted about eight hours.
Afterwards I seemed to flip back to normal. I thanked God, thanked whatever or whoever was responsible for the sturdy pliable construction inside my skull.
“Good brain, good wonderful smart brain,” I whispered alone one night like a pet owner whose dog has returned after rushing out the gate and wandering the woods all night.
But such gratefulness could not stop my grip on reality from slipping away from me over ensuing months.
I started having panic attacks. Soon I started having episodes that made my whole body shake and vision go snowy like static on an old-school television screen.
Because my sleep schedule was screwed up (a consequence of having excused myself from school at the time), I often found myself trying to keep it together by watching TV alone in the small black hours.
Once I watched Jacob’s Ladder, a flick I’d seen before and should have been prepared for. I knew the movie was spooky, an understatement, but I had affection for it. But this time around I found the material depicted even more terrifying, everything a bit too apropos to what I was going through.
I remember sitting frozen to the couch for some time, afraid to make any movement with the thick obscuring blackness of the night engulfing me, dwarfing me in my false little bastion of electric light, the idea of madness seeming to dance invisibly in the void whenever I could not defeat the dark temptation to peer out one of the several windows there in our family room bordering the woodsy backyard.
Another time I nearly went all the way to pieces watching an episode of South Park, one in which Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo is central. I found the entire thing quite literally unbelievable.
One early morning I couldn’t suffer my unraveling state longer. I went downstairs and accosted my father who was readying for work. He was there in his suit, all dashing and a paragon of responsible choices, briefcase leaning on the low kitchen cabinet adjacent to the side door we most often used.
“Dad, I’m sorry to approach you now. I am having a bad time, with my mind.”
Bless him. That man and I had been at war for several years but he responded with sympathy, heroic calmness. He might have been Abraham Lincoln reincarnated I thought later in good-hearted, if doomed, attempt to conjure a chuckle while my mind raced something fierce.
He followed me into the living room, sat down on the couch and listened.
I was beyond frazzled and exhausted as I hadn’t been able to sleep at all. I sat in the coppery-colored armchair across from him and spoke simply about what was happening. I didn’t try to hide the bombshell: I’d eaten powerful hallucinogenic dried fungus possibly born of cow shit, begun going through vivid hell right away and for many hours. In the aftermath of the event I had watched my typical recognition of the outside world, and my inner world, break down. It was to the point I now thought my trust, my basic belief in things, might be disintegrating altogether.
I felt better telling him. His reaction—protective, patient and never angry, meant the world to me. He asked if I could stick out another day on my own so he might go to work and when he returned he would take me to the doctor. I said yes, and thank you, thank you, thank you.
Lucy was the beautiful box folder’s name. I can see her standing there now on the red and brown tiles in the back room—lean nose blue-grey eyes brown locks sharp uniform—thinking nothing of demonstrating how to do it. About six folds in all for each one, that’s what it took to transform the long thin stretch of cardboard into a serviceable pizza box. Of course, each fold was indicated by a perforated line of dots stamped into the material. An average monkey could have picked up on how to do it with Lucy’s visual instruction. A higher-charting monkey could have figured it out after seeing an example of the finished product. Me, I couldn’t do it to save my life, not at first and not for a few days after even with the benefit of Lucy’s slow, repeated, patient demonstrations and helpful encouragements and even with the benefit of seeing what the finished product looked like and even with the further advantage of the perforations which some humans somewhere had programmed some machines to punch right in there so any person could see how to fold the fucking thing even if all other employees were too busy to give a tutorial.
My embarrassment seems so understandable when I break it down like this. There I stood not in the least bit stupid (perhaps this is true), but seeming like the biggest dolt in the planet. And there I stood thirty pounds heavier than normal with my arms chubbed up and face ballooned out at the cheeks. And there this gaunt-faced girl was all put together and sure-footed, this pizza-rocketing cash-pocketing total box-folding queen.
“The last couple folds are tricky at first for everybody, but—it’s like this, see?”
“Yeah these little flaps are throwing me off, and then the flipping part, but, I sort of see,” I stammered.
I remember her look of moderate consternation, wide-eyed and trying to restrain the bafflement.
I finally got us both off the hook by saying, “Hey I think I’ve got it. You can go see if you have a delivery, I’m good.”
That had been kind of smart, at least; maybe it would compensate for my astonishing inability to fold a single box all the way through.
But probably not. It was pretty clear I had already three strikes against me: too young and green; overweight and unattractive; stupider than certain zoo animals.
Still, I consoled, at least I wasn’t shaking apart to bits on the floor.
I was familiar with the music of N.W.A. because my best friend Stephen had at age 17 acquired a car—I don’t recall what kind, though the color was black—and gotten it fitted out with a killer stereo system with the help of relevant associates at Best Buy. I had gone with him, sharing in the excitement.
As we waited for the installation we shopped the CDs under the flooding fluorescent lights. What should we break in the new sound system with? What should we pump obstreperously around town like the full-blooded American teenagers we knew ourselves to be? This was before my fateful mushroom eating.
The answer we came to was N.W.A.’s Greatest Hits which included the well-known ditty “Fuck the Police.”
Inside the car we finger-wrestled the cellophane off the case, placed the disc in the glowing slot, turned the volume knob far to the right, and hit the streets.
I remember that night well the two of us motoring around going nowhere in particular, familiarizing ourselves with the testy tunes. We’d change the track if the vibe didn’t charm us fast, while we identified favorites and replayed these several times singing along. Was there irony in this—two lusty white boys driving around blaring N.W.A.? We didn’t think so.
It is noteworthy that we never did get pulled over by the Po-Po.
Bernard would not have approved. He was more a Martin Luther King type and a devotee of peaceful methods, subtler protests, of being buttoned-up and responsible in life with attention to dress and manners and impressions. None of this was the least bit superficial either. He was a humble man but possessive of quiet strength and immovable self-confidence. He was of sturdy build and as mentioned good-looking. He had a gorgeous wife who resembled the actress Halle Berry and they had a fine-looking son together. I know this because his family would come by the store and hang out in the office sometimes.
Over time I grew comfortable in the store—and indeed, folding innumerable cardboard pizza receptacles like a box-folding ninja—and chit-chatting with other employees during lulls. As Bernard got to know me he detected intelligent life after all, and he grew fond of imparting nuggets from his customized life philosophy. He told anecdotes from his time in the Marines, and once explained how he stumbled upon Buddhist practices as a young man, taken a shine to them, and come back for them later.
But Bernard was not the only employee I was learning to enjoy well, there was also Reggie. He was the only other black employee and the number one driver. He got the most hours and made the most cash. There was good reason—he knew all the routes, shortcuts and ins and outs of the delivery area a hundred times better than anybody. He was brainy and educated like Bernard, but altogether a different sort of cat than the boss. Reggie was in his early forties and not so hunky in appearance. He wore glasses much of the time, was implacably chatty, positive in spirit, loved to explode in laughter.
Though he had been a boy at the time he had followed the social movements in the middle and late 1960s. In his case he gravitated more toward Malcolm X than MLK. Of course, these were things I learned not because he broadcasted them around but because at a certain point he started opening up to me.
As I continued picking up responsibilities I was trusted to run the store for brief periods during slower daytime windows. Reggie and I found ourselves working together, often just us, for a few hours. When the phones weren’t ringing we talked, and it was obvious to me—from the jump, as he liked to say—that this man was also special, also carried a fire within.
He was well versed in many areas of life including first and foremost politics and economics, and then baseball and women. Or was it the other way around? One thing was clear, he was adept at doling out relationship advice and teasing people, in that good way, to coax them out of their shell.
Eventually I earned trust to manage the store for prolonged periods. I’d come in and spell Bernard on a weekday so he could dash home and relax a couple hours. He’d come back later and we’d work through the dinner rush until around nine when he would head off for the night and I’d stay on.
Usually I paired with Reggie and together we’d take the late night orders, count and deposit the last cash into the safe, break down food stations, sweep and mop floors, haul the trash, clean and sanitize surfaces and lock up. This development allowed larger more relaxed windows for Reggie and me to talk.
Little had Reggie imagined, back when I was making my ghostly first impressions, that I carried and stoked quite the fire of my own. Little had he imagined as I imagine looking back, that I had read books like The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon’s groundbreaking work on the psychology of the colonized peoples of Africa and their struggles to hold onto their humanity and the dialectic of their rebellions. Little would he have guessed I’d read The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. Little could he have expected I had read other works, too, such as Black Skin, White Masks, also by Fanon, and The Black Panthers Speak, the compilation edited by Philip Foner.
No way in the world could he have projected that I, this bloated dismal-looking white boy who lived in that isolated house over on Navy Drive, was conversant with the names and work of Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, or that I knew what the Feds had done to Fred Hampton up in Chicago, or about the Panthers’ free breakfast programs in Oakland and elsewhere.
Once these cats were out of the bag conversations got pretty rewarding. Reggie had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X several times but never anything by Fanon, though he was well familiar with the importance of his work. But he had read works I hadn’t such as Soul On Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, Ellison’s Invisible Man and Richard Wright’s Black Boy.
So there began a kind of knowledge exchange in which we deepened each other’s database of reference points and general understanding. We were a regular little two person secret university, coming alive late at night while juggling phones and trays of pizza dough and sauce buckets, endless bags of mozzarella and stacks of cash and checks.
At some point Reggie asked me what had inspired me to read these works of Black History and Rebellion. I know my answer would have touched on a few key themes at least: guilt, disgust and determination.
I was a white kid who grew up in a nice house, with mostly white kids in nice houses surrounding me. Eventually I began to learn, though almost accidentally, about the monstrous project of the subjugation of large portions of a whole race that had taken place in my own country, a country both soaked in self-adulation and steeped in power vis-à-vis the rest of the world. I felt instinctively that the consequences of the years of Slavery and the years of Jim Crow Laws and the years of simple overt and covert bigotry against black individuals and families could not have been other than profound and ongoing. Slavery had been abolished and later the discriminatory laws overturned, and integration and equality were the norm. But those heinous things of the past were far from over; such phenomena could not be neatly concluded and forgotten. I had come to despise the way these issues seemed to be brushed under the rug, particularly at school. I noticed my peers weren’t so bothered about the whole business, though this was the outcome of either ignorance or lack of vigorous interest and was not simply a failure of moral feeling.
Not that I had read only Black literature. I was interested in the whole gamut of human experience along these broad lines. I read Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, and Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly, books I accessed when another good friend of mine, Nathan, went out to college in southern California and took a course in Revolution. Nathan would bring books back and I’d borrow and mainline them.
I was energetic and restless—burning to learn everything I could, to unlock every significant secret the world was keeping.
That’s how I ended up excusing myself from school for more than a year. Given my state of mind at the time, the curriculum there amounted to plain diversionary tactics.
I told Reggie also about my mushroom experience, about the slow-moving debacle touched off following the merciful end to the harsh hallucinogenic phase. This led to the heavy medication I was taking, which was why I was overweight and had appeared so distant and dull-eyed at first.
He was sympathetic but still cracked jokes. “Yeah you did seem a bit lost in space, that’s why my secret nickname for you was Will Robinson. Now I see it’s more like ‘White Malcolm,’ damn boy!”
His approach helped me dispel some of the dire associations I continued to cling to regarding the ordeal.
Meanwhile he told me much about his life: his college days and years on the baseball team before he tore up his knee, his attendance of protest rallies and majoring in economics. He told me about his studious and sexually dynamic girlfriend, about his going on to work in banking and his aptitude for reading the markets, his landing a hotshot job in New York and salary increase. He described meeting a new girl who became his girlfriend and his wife, how she was an aspiring singer-songwriter with a high-powered voice and how she turned out to be—or become—selfish, to the point she grew comfortable borrowing sums of money from Reggie on a regular basis for her projects.
Most of the money was never repaid and eventually he had enough. They got divorced, though they continued to have sex--very freaky sex—on irregular basis.
Reggie’s life had been full, thrilling, and impressive. For me, his tales were an incredible breath of fresh air. They came as vast relief and confirmation. His stories, vivid memories, gave me tons of content and color from the Real World.
Bernard was less talkative than Reggie but what stories he did tell indicated a no less remarkable life. He had his Buddhist beliefs and Marine training, and had been deployed around the world. He was versed in martial arts.
There was a rumor he once foiled an armed robbery attempt in the store with a combination of psychological manipulation and some kind of super-cool karate kick which had sent the guy crashing against the wall. Somewhere in the altercation, before or after the action movie stuff, Bernard had lifted the offender’s gun.
I asked Reggie about this one night and he said it was true something like this had happened. Bernard confided in him soon after the actual incident, before deciding not to talk about it for his own amusement. However some of the details had grown distorted over time and the reality of what actually transpired was less glamorous.
“The guy’s gun wasn’t real. It was a plastic toy. Plus he knew who the perpetrator was, the man lives a few blocks from the store and his mind has never been right. But don’t tell him I told you this; he likes to stoke his legend, likes being a superhero in people’s minds.”
I assured him I wouldn’t and never mentioned it with Bernard.
Meanwhile it was obvious Reggie had been divulging certain details of my life to Bernard. It was easy to figure this out when on some weekday lunch shift my boss would out of the blue ask, “So you’re into the Black Panthers?”
Bernard was not political and counted himself conservative but he viewed my interest in Left politics favorably. I could read his facial expressions, subtle though they were, and he was not shy from giving his opinion when compelled. On this subject he volunteered his preference for the nonviolent approach and his view of the Black Panthers as well-intentioned but faulty in thinking. I pushed him and he conceded the militant organization, despite its propensity for flashing upraised fists and over-accentuating its cache of guns (not at all mere plastic toys), had managed to do positive things in the world and inspired many to be strong, take a stand, etc.
But the thing that mattered much more to me then, was the fact there was a mutual respect growing up between the two of us, and a friendship.
Of course this was very much the case with Reggie and me also.
I began to feel confident again. The medication still kept a fog over me—the tradeoff for ensuring no debilitating anxiety attacks—but I was looking forward now to the moment when I might stop taking the pills.
One day I just stopped. It went down something like my own little revolution: the groundwork had been prepared, the theory devised and set in place, and suddenly conditions were ripe and I was able to seize the day. “You need a little theory and a little praxis, baby,” as Reggie would say.
I remember the moment well. I can replay it like a scene from a movie. For some reason there is a feeling of an M. Night Shymalan film now.
I walk over to the book shelf in my room in the tiny apartment, and pick up the tall tinted orange cylinder with all my long wide pills inside, like a stockpile of tiny white torpedoes. The sun is slanting in through the large double hung window to my right, the light matching the container.
I stare at them, all my powerful little crutches. I shake them a bit like a baby rattle.
After a minute I put the tube back without twisting off the lid. I stare a few more seconds at the pretty orange, before directing my eyes out the window at the sloping green lawn below, drenched in pooling light.
“I’m gonna try this. It’s time to take the power back.”
I’d been at Nelly’s for two years when Bernard left for a better paying job, an office gig somewhere. We didn’t feel the need for grand goodbyes as he vowed to keep in touch. He would call the store line once in a while and check in with whomever answered, often me. Sometimes Reggie would breeze in from a delivery and be talking on his cell and I could tell he was speaking with Bernard.
Reggie and I stayed on at the store together for another year before I finally moved to another job, one I knew would better suit me at a local library. During this time Reggie and I talked endlessly, laughing and sharing the vicissitudes of our lives. I had begun seeing a girl; he was still staying in touch with his not so scrupulous but nevertheless loving and irresistible ex-wife.
And, though I did fall prey to some fits of panic during this period, I never cracked to the point I had to resume swallowing those torpedoes. I had gotten stronger, happier. I lost the additional weight, all of it, within three months of cutting out the drugs.
When I look back now I see that getting out of my childhood home and merging into the world to be tested in ways I hadn’t before was the only thing that could save me. Taking that humble position at Nelly’s was the key to everything—my salvation. But it is likely I would have benefited from accepting just about any position anywhere, that sooner or later I would have earned the confidence to cease the pill regimen and become comfortable in my own skin again.
Still I can’t help but think, even though they were hardly doing more than being themselves, that there are no two people who could have helped me more, with as much character and style, as Reggie and Bernard. I like to think there are no two better men on the planet I could have encountered on my de facto quest to rescue myself and learn to survive in the Real World.
I like to think also that what Bernard said that day in the store in response to somebody, can’t recall who, mocking and calling me a white boy,—“He may be a white boy, but he has a black heart”—is true. That is, I still like to think, to remember, that I am both white and black, and maybe orange and green as well, blue and grey, red and brown and yellow too.
And then very, very real.