Howard and Willie Brown


FACEBOOK was full of memes on black people and white people and men and women. Howard guessed the article he’d read about how Russia was using social media to increase and enhance existing divisions was probably true. He hoped it wouldn’t work on anyone he knew, though there were already signs it was working like a charm. A comment thread on Fatback Freddy’s profile. A white guy had put down another white guy for “excluding a whole class of books” (by non-whites). This angered lots of Fatback’s friends, who teamed up on the white guy as if he were insisting they all read books by whites. This wasn’t what he was trying to say at all. Fatback tried to moderate, but the sense of the whole exchange was skewed.

Howard knew he had a lot of references to black people in his writing where that was the only descriptor. He only went into detail about people’s nature when they took part in the narrative. Not everyone did.

Fatback Freddy was one of the best writers he’d ever read or met, hardly using any words. His godfather was a gifted photographer and retired professor.

His friend Tewodros had been trying to rescue one of his daughters from the control of an ex-wife whose idea of good parenting was numbing her into submission with more and more brain drugs. “She needs to stop trying to act like an adult when she’s just a little kid. Or she can’t have it both ways. You act like a child, I’ll treat you like a child. Act like an adult, I’ll treat you like one. That’s my way of bringing her up, how I’m trying to parent.” Some friends had recently bought him a car, and already he had a traffic warrant for unknown reasons. He was dealing with a lot of stuff.

Those were some black people Howard knew. And he had that whole Willie Brown thing in his background, lingering brand from growing up in a culture full of different races acquainting themselves with each other second hand via movies like Crossroads or Eddie Murphy’s “White Like Me” skit. That probably also played into his subconscious notion of blackness somehow.

13322134_10153698408867939_226981451992006493_nRobert Johnson 1911-1938 – Ode to Mississippi by Kristi Wipperfurth

The 1980s was a blur of pop culture and TV conditioning. Lots of movies, routines, and catch phrases encoded with behavioral conditioning for customers. Howard could have chosen Ferris Bueller or Martry McFly as his first alter self, instead it was Willie Brown from a 1986 movie called Crossroads he started imitating, calling everyone “boy” like he was an an old bluesman from the past and they were all Ralph Macchio. The few friends he had joined him in this masquerade, but he was by far the most committed to imagining a side-world into being beyond his regular middle school one. This period lasted a couple of years, long enough for the voice to take purchase in his mental retinue of voices, emerging less frequently over the years, lately only in times of excitement or private rumination, to himself.

He started planning a speaking panel on Creative Response and asked Iraq war vets Fatback and Tommy Paris to join. After reading their books, all the cheap writing Howard had done on the ups and downs of his circumstances or whatever he thought he was trying to share, while these kinds of truths were being told, seemed overblown and fake. Tommy Paris was white, though, or French, or Latino, so it wasn’t a racial credential at stake, more a matter of meaning.

crossroads5Jazz great Charles Mingus’s memoir Beneath the Underdog was narrated by an objective voice recounting events in the life of “my boy” or “Mingus.” Reading it as a middle-aged man, Howard started thinking of that Willie Brown Voice in the back of his mind as an older, wiser, determinedly practical part of himself that would always come out when the reckless Ralph Macchio part needed chiding. Something like a rising sign, or Hegel’s Master Personality. Paris and Fatback’s writing affected him in the same way, a wiser voice with higher purpose redirecting him.

On Veterans’ Day, Fatback posted a picture of himself in a jumpsuit leaning against a wall surrounded by dials and switches with another submariner, captioned, “Man, we were so depressed.” White Tommy Paris posted a picture of himself flipping off the camera, captioned, “No, thank you for YOUR service.” Howard had been carrying his war hero football coach grandfather’s woolen hat of uncertain vintage styled to resemble a fedora from one cheap apartment to the next ever since discovering it as a teen ska kid, never wearing it because of his misshapen forehead. It looked great with the new one, though, and he wore it all the following day.

It was interesting times. This Nazi was the president and possibly Russia was behind his illegitimate election, or that was a scare tactic on the part of liberals, who may or may not have been pedophiles, or that was a scare tactic by the conservatives. There were detention centers for children and a yearly women’s gathering bigger than ever before in recorded history. The entertainment industry was part of the government and pot was legal lots of places and mass shootings were weekly. There was a government shutdown with no end in sight because the Nazi wanted to build a wall between the U.S.A. and Mexico, and no one would approve it. Migrant families separated at the border and detained in freezing torture tents.

Before the reading at PostNormal Café, Fatback said he had no trouble being one of the speakers at Camp Elasticity, a cannabis church full of psychedelic art, if that’s where the panel ended up being held. “That’s great,” Howard told him. “Some people might have issues with the venue.” Howard’s events would be cannabis-optional, which he hoped would increase the attendance.

Fatback’s reading that night was deadpan, all about the daily horrors of life on that nuclear sub, eating food UNFIT FOR PRISON USE, with less bunk space than the prisoners got, too. After the reading, Howard traded a copy of his latest shed skin for a copy of Freddy’s latest, rushing to the train through sudden, intense cold, teeth chattering so hard he came close to shredding his tongue. Next time I’ll remember to wear long underwear, he thought. The last book he’d written and sent to an agent had just been rejected, which meant he had to start again, but it felt like a threshold.


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