I honked softly, a tap two times. He turned– my hand in the air, a salute– and it landed. Our eyes locked at the last possible moment.
The next day he was waiting at Holden Street.
"Mister Kendrick,” I declared, like an MC announcing his guest. “How's life, man?"
"'Sup, how're you. You still modelin', bro?"
It took me a moment to put together that he was referring to the ad campaign* I’m featured in. “Ha! Somethin' like that! Somebody takin' pictures of me out there, I don't know who…"
"Just like that, kickin' it! Gettin' it said! Guess what though. You deserve it."
"Man, I appreciate you sayin' that."
"Don't let nobody tell y–"
"I hope that's true."
"I know it's true! I want everybody to prosper, bro. Prosperity is for everyone. That mean sooner or later I got the prosperity."
"Exactly, it's an additive thing, it's for all folks. Everyone deserves it."
"Everyone deserves it, just like that, man. E'ryone should get a turn. Iss good to see you. You blew at me the other night, bro."
"Yeah! I was like, 'that's my guy!'"
“You know what," he said. The sharing voice. "Some things touch your heart. Tha' touched my spirit, man.”
“Thank you so much. We gotta look out for each other,”
“I know man, tha's what we got, bro! That's all we got, man. We have to coexist–”
“Exactly. We have to figure out a way to make this whole thing work." Hafta. Our words, molding themselves into the regional vernacular, of their own accord. There’s a linguistic fascination in ‘hood cadence being comparatively consistent throughout most metropolitan U.S. areas;** I picked it up from my days in L.A. The sort of thing that sounds truly awful if you try to fake it, but which rolls right off the tongue if you’ve lived a certain somewhere. I feel like I have to hold myself back sometimes. They don't know where I'm from.
“Jus’ like that," he said again. I'm sensing a catchphrase here. "I can’t wait to, I wantchoo to meet mah little girls, man.”
“Oh yeah, bring 'em on!”
“Ah got three daughters, and they as cute as a bug. Paradise, Yum Yum, and Kennedy.”
“What's the middle one's name?”
“Tha's her nickname,”
“I love those names! Paradise, Yum Yum, and Kennedy.”
“Jasmine is her birth name, but as soon as tha doctor put her in my arms, we jus' instantly bonded, I said that's my Yum Yum.”
“She as cute as a bug, maaaaann… you know what? It's good to see a... it's good to see a good… man.”
He chose the final word with care, and said it with emphasis. “You a good man, bruh.” I had an idea of what he meant. It isn’t the first time discussions of masculinity have come up in the ol’ neighborhood. The discussion in more monied circles these days is rightly focused on the need for equal treatment of women, and the urgency, at long last, to take women’s voices seriously. Kendrick and others are highlighting an element that won’t become part of the cultural conversation*** until later– the flip side of the coin. What does it mean to be a good man?
Is there such a thing? How should a man function in a society where men have long been expected to be in control (though most of them never will be), fix everything, to not take part in communities but rise above them, who are raised and encouraged to be out of touch with their emotions, and who generally feel emasculated by the impossible expectations they’re held to?****
Perhaps by admitting we don’t have all the answers; embracing the vulnerability of letting down our guard, sharing in the “uncool” emotions of joy and fear and wonder we only pretend we don’t feel; recognizing that equality is not a zero-sum game but is instead additive, as Kendrick alludes to above. Prosperity shared helps everyone. It’s okay to celebrate something sensitive, and call it out as beautiful; that’s what our friend K-Money, ruffled black denim and voluminous black print tee to match, bald head shaved over a chain necklace– that’s what he was impressed by.
“Right back atcha,” I said, “especially like, talkin’ 'bout Father's Day and stuff,”
“Jus' like that man, thank you very much." He paused. "So whatchall… what route you was drivin’ before you came back to drivin' th' 7?”
“Yeah I was gone– doin' the 41, 65, lil' bit further north,”
“Okay, goin' through Lake City?”
“Exactly. And those are fine, but man, I had to come back here. It's just, I don't know how to explain it. I feel… this is where I belong, you know? Where it all makes sense. I feel right comin' out here.”
“I appreciate tha’. I'm tellin’ you man, you will always prosper, bro. ‘Cause two things that you are: you are so humble, and you are so thankful.”
Effusively thanking him, I added, "humble and thankful– you know, I remember you and me talking about that one night like those are the two things–”
“If you keep– those two things, I promise you. In time all things wi' be revealed. Ey, what time you leavin’?”
“Um, fifteen. Fourteen minutes.”
“Alright man. Always good, Kendrick.”
After the alotted time had elapsed, he materialized yet again, this time bearing gifts from the neighboring Rite Aid.
“Donald Duck orange juice,” I exclaimed, as he handed me the bottle. “How'd you know I love this stuff?”
“‘Cause you a good man, bruh. No matter what, you always– the thing I know about you? Is you treat the neighborhood good, man.”
“Thanks, man. I love this place.”
“You know hatta serve. That's next to Godliness, man.” He gazed out the window now. “Servin’,” he repeated, mostly to himself.
I would see him two days later, once again a figure in my periphery as I drove past. Was it too soon to honk hello once more? No. He was off the sidewalk, stepping through a dishevelled front yard toward the main entrance of a walkup. The bus moving past, his concentration elsewhere, my tap-tap travelling towards him, the sound taking form in his mind, given meaning, a signal a salute, him turning, me turning away, his eyes getting closer, his hand pulling back from the doorknob up into the air, knowing before locking eyes who that probably was–
–and there, right there, a fraction of a fraction of a second. We did it. We stopped time. Made it special, a freeze frame lingering long on a warm summer night.
*I still haven't watched this video....
**For more on African American Vernacular English, as it's called in linguistics, refer to this paper, especially section 3 (structures in urban AAVE grammar). It has some interesting bits about how rap has incorrectly co-opted certain grammatical elements of AAVE and why, as well as a new tendency toward minimizing certain AAVE grammar in later age, due its now disproportionate aspect as a marker of youth culture. If you don't want to turn your ten-minute coffee break into a 90-minute lunch, try this shorter but still terrific blog post summarizing AAVE history and characteristics.
***It's an exciting time, but it's not a new time. I haven't been alive long enough to live through multiple such movements, and while I'm incredibly enthusiastic about the direction we’re moving in now, I find the perspective from those older than me sobering, and instructive. “I remember thinking the same thing during the Clarence Thomas hearings, that the cultural moment had come and everything would change,” pioneering psychologist Louise Fitzgerald recently said. “But here we are twenty-some years later when people are suddenly rediscovering yet again that sexual harassment exists.”
In her landmark tome Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Susan Faludi delineates the principal complaints women aired on inequality during the 1970s. They're almost exactly the same as the ones we hear today. I'll refrain from repeating the line about history repeating itself, because I do believe incremental progress is being made, but having entire generations who've never read The Hite Report and have no idea who Betty Friedan is probably isn't helping. More for the reading list....
****I wish I could take credit for these insights, but they come from Susan Faludi. I’ve recommended her writing on my blog before (including thirty seconds ago in the footnote above, ha!), but I can’t help it. Anyone with the slightest interest in learning about gender issues from something besides a 101 class and a bunch of BuzzFeed articles will drink up her two 600-page mammoths, Backlash (about the backlash against Second-Wave Feminism in the 80s) and Stiffed: the Betrayal of the American Man (about male emasculation and the assumption of male dominance, with a focus on the 90s). They’re simultaneously devastating, difficult to get through, and impossible to put down. She channels her necessary frustrations into a level-headed calmness of prose that leads to insights our extremized culture tends not to reach.
Faludi was most recently a finalist for another Pulitzer for her memoir In the Darkroom, about her father coming out as transgender and undergoing reassignment surgery at the age of 76.