Wednesday, April 27, 2016

bring them along

1. the tired ones

I was on my way to the ATM when I saw Tara.* She was camped out on the sidewalk next to the bus lot, and if I didn’t know her, I would have walked right by her, the way I do most of Chinatown’s street-corner characters. Someone had brought her a cup of water and a takeout box of food from the cafĂ©, and someone had given her a black and white umbrella, which she shifted from side to side as she talked. It shielded about half her body from the sun.

She talked rapidly but lucidly. She seemed annoyed at having to reside in her body. She was dressed as she always was, in black track shorts and a black tank top that showed the marks on her skin. From what? I’m not sure. From a hard life, I guess. Her hair was short and neat, graying at the temples. Skin shiny in the sun.

“I’ve tried to die so many times,” she said. “Why won’t God just let me go? I’m so tired. I was supposed to die three times.”

A few weeks ago, she’d been doing okay, coming to Homeboy’s classes, staying sober, taking her meds (I assumed). Then one day she’d shown up wearing a scary-as-hell matte-black mask that covered her whole face. She went about her business, just…masked. A couple of mornings later, I walked into work to see her being arrested in the lobby. Rumors circulated as to why.

“Homeboy only cares about money now,” she said. “That’s what money does to people. Me, I’m generous. The most generous people I know are addicts. They take care of me. They’re like, ‘Tara, do you want to stay here? Tara, do you want to shower?’”

Her thoughts jumped around and circled back to how tired she was, how she wanted to die. I knew she wasn’t living in a world of reason, but I said, “Well, I’m glad you’re here. I think you’re going to be okay.”

“Oh, I know I’ll be okay,” she said. “I know I’m blessed. I have God and that’s all I need.”

I could see the doom and the hope duking it out inside her, and it wasn’t unfamiliar to me.

“Why don’t you go sit in the shade?” I asked.

“I need the Homeboy wifi,” she said.

2. the lucky ones

People always talk about how working with traumatized populations can be difficult and draining. I’m sure this is true for the case managers and therapists, but I’ve never gotten particularly depressed hearing trainees’ stories—they’re like sad movies, and usually the person I see in front of me is the happy ending. I am moved and sometimes angry at the conditions that caused the sad-movie part, but the people who work their asses off to get their kids back or go to college or get a firefighting certification are real and really fucking inspiring.

I imagined this working-with-the-traumatized depression to feel the way the sad part of the movie feels; I imagined grief and empathy. I figured I must have some kind of jerky immunity that caused me to thrive off the blood of others. Or maybe grant-writing just gave me a little healthy distance, I don’t know.

But it had been kind of a bummer day even before I talked to Tara—just the trying-to-steer-a-huge-ship growing pains that make up daily life at an organization going from grassroots to established—and now, as I trudged uphill to the ATM, I felt worse.

What am I even doing here? I wondered. I’m not helping anyone. I’m not enjoying myself at the moment.

What no one tells you—or maybe they did and I missed it—is that this brand of depression doesn’t cause your heart to bleed for others. It just makes you feel really shitty about your own life.

The internet tells me someone named Kelii drew this.
Today I had a meeting with Homeboy’s new photographer, Eddie. He’s a low-key guy in a baseball cap—easy to laugh, pretty quiet at meetings. The third member of our meeting had to bow out, so it was just the two of us. He pitched a couple of interesting ideas for photo essays. I asked him what brought him to Homeboy.

“Well, I grew up in Boyle Heights, so I knew Hector and Fabian from way back. I always knew about Homeboy, and you know, a lot of guys I knew were in gangs and got shot. My brother was one of those guys.” He mentioned it almost in passing. “I’ve been sober for 16 years now, but I was all cracked out for a while there. I was lucky to make it out. And I feel like we have to live for the ones who didn’t. We owe them that, to bring them along.”

I told him my own story—that I don’t know how I got lucky (knockonwood), but I feel a responsibility to the cancer patients who didn’t. It’s not survivor guilt, exactly; it’s more like the deep humility that comes with knowing your existence is both random and precious.

3. the stapler coveters

A woman in my online adoption group who’s been fighting stage 4 breast cancer for as long as I’ve known her is not doing well. As in, her doctors advised her to bump up her family vacation. As in, she’s having trouble typing. I am no fan of her You’d Better Accept Jesus Or Else blog (not its actual name), but she’s a strong lady, a fierce mama and no one deserves cancer. And the kids she’s adopted from foster care certainly don’t deserve another trauma in their lives.

Milton. My friend went on an internet date with this actor once.
This week I’m thinking too much about my own health again. It’s a thing I want to grab and hoard; it turns me into that guy with the stapler from Office Space. I also know that the inability to hoard all the good things for myself is what forces me to open my arms and my heart to something bigger than me. Sometimes I worry that the corollary to this is that I will only be self-actualized when I’m ready to die. In which case I will happily waive self-actualization for another forty or fifty years.

But even as a fucked-up, greedy little human, I can still connect with other humans, and ride their highs and lows, and that’s the whole point, right?

*Not her real name.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

youth and its end, in prince songs

1991*: “Housequake”

Every afternoon for a week, my mom drives me and my friends from our junior high across town to the high school, where the incoming drill team captains teach a gym full of eighth graders a routine that begins with the words “Shut up already, damn!”

This is my introduction to Prince. I buy Sign O’ the Times on cassette at the mall so I can practice. The song is fast and frenetic. I am slow and awkward and—despite going over the choreography every night until bedtime—I don’t make the squad. I am devastated in a way that frightens my parents. I literally howl in despair, pounding my fists into the bed. It doesn’t help that my best friends, who were kind of meh about the whole prospect, make the cut.

I won’t experience this exact mix of grief, envy and awareness of failure (my own and that of the meritocracy I once believed in) until I’m in my thirties and all my friends start having babies, even the ones who were kind of meh about it.

If you know how to rock say "yeah" (yeah!).
1992: “Gett Off”

Determined to make drill team on my second try, I take dance classes at Act III, a small storefront dance studio in Redondo Beach. Although Bonnie and Amy (my friends who Made It, who get to wear their green and white uniforms to school every Friday) take classes too, Act III is a world outside of high school.

Our teachers are older teenagers who wear baggy plastic pants rolled down at the waist and black jazz boots with the tops folded over. Stella is a junior, a talented choreographer and the first person I hear say “Asian” instead of “Oriental.” Michelle is the owner’s daughter and had a not-small part in the movie version of A Chorus Line. Zeke has floppy dark hair and amazing chest muscles, and I hear one of the other dancers say he’s gay, like it’s not even a big deal. Anita is a gymnast; I have a crush on her and I spend a lot of time trying to convince myself otherwise, which makes the abs portion of the class go faster.

A Chorus Line: "Different is nice, but it sure isn't pretty, and pretty is what it's about."
Most of the kids I know listen to KROQ, but here we learn dances to Prince songs. “Twenty-three positions in a one night stand.” We kick and slide and fall to the wood floor in our knee pads. The bells and the tambourine and the base. It will be the better part of a decade before I have a stand of any length, but now I know what sexy is.

At night the window steams up from all our sweat. People on the sidewalk stop to watch, and I feel like I’m part of a special club that doesn’t give a shit about stupid high school cliques, or drill team.

1993: “Batdance”

Well, I’m on drill team now. I hate our captain, a junior who barks orders at us and made us retake our team photo because her eye was doing a weird thing in the first version. The thing in pep squad competitions is to dance to professionally mixed medleys, so you can switch up the mood, have a certain kind of beat for a kick line, etc. Our “mix” consists of one slow Paula Abdul B-side, plus a short interlude of “Batdance” in the middle. For the kickline.

No joking.
One day we have a new coach. We don’t know where she came from or who invited her, but she’s an adult and we’re kids, so we listen to her. “I like how you bring in Prince there,” she says. It’s the only positive feedback she has for us.

A few days later, she’s gone, no explanation. This prepares me a bit for work life.

1994: “My Name is Prince”

Even though I’m on drill team, Bonnie and Amy are still ahead of me. They’re JV cheerleaders now. I’ve known Amy since sixth grade, and she’s always had great taste in music and been a kickass choreographer. Their competition mix kicks off with “My Name is Prince,” the eight cheerleaders in an X formation. They sit on the floor and rise and fall through the aaah-ahhh, aaah-ahhh, ah-AH’s part. When the beats kick in they jump up and change formation. The ah-ah’s are what anticipation feels like. I watch them with awe and envy. The song shifts to Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.” I can’t get enough. They are celebrities. They are funky.

Diamonds and pearls of wisdom.
1998: “7”

This is the year I edit the Arts & Entertainment section of the Daily Bruin and make my own mix tapes—mostly songs from musicals, but some Prince, too. I like “7,” with its a capella harmonies and mysterious lyrics. At this point in my life, almost every song is about being gay.

“They stand in the way of love/ And we will smoke them all/ With an intellect and a savoir faire.” Clearly it’s about loving defiantly and with style in the wake of a them that doesn’t understand.

I drive my 1987 Tercel and listen to my tapes and memorize lyrics as I fall in love with L.A. and my own sadness. I steer down Sunset to my bookstore job, where I develop my first acknowledged-to-myself crush on Nancy, a sometime baker from Arizona who’s working on becoming a screenwriter. When my shift ends at midnight, I take Santa Monica home, even though the nightlife traffic is terrible, so I can go slow and study the gay clubs.

I wouldn't mind being that blow pop. Just saying.

It’s only been a week since I miscarried, but I don’t slow down. I don’t want to make AK sadder, and concerts cheer her up. We go to the Forum with Nicole (K.), my best friend and a hardcore Prince fan, and two other friends, who will stop talking to me in another year, when my crises have piled too high for them.

I love a man in gold pumps.
Prince is not one to rest on his purple laurels. The show is guest star after guest star, lit up stage, groovy dancers, costume changes. When the songs slow down, I let myself cry. He has one of those voices that can make you want to fuck or it can break your heart. These days I look for any excuse to cry in dim lighting. Four encores, the last one after the lights have come on and janitors are poking around with brooms.

The next week at Trader Joe’s, I hear an older black woman talking to one of the employees—a young Latino man serving samples of hummus on flax seed chips—about the show, and I join in. Can you believe that show, we all say. Can you believe it.


I am visiting New York for work, happy to see my coworker Nicole (S.) and an impressive multicultural reading she put together. I have so much to tell her; in the months since I saw her last, I got pregnant, miscarried, lost my mind, kind of found my way back.

This is my apocalyptic year, and March, when New York is just beginning to thaw, is the calm before the storm, though I can smell something brewing if I’m honest with myself. The miscarriage is behind me, but AK’s and my near-split lies just months in my future. Cancer is only a little farther off.

But the night of the reading, I’m lighthearted. I accompany Nicole and her friends—a sort of who’s-who of young NYC poets of color—to a Brooklyn bar. The primary topic of conversation is: Who’s more of an icon, Whitney Houston or Prince? Whitney has been gone a month. But for me the answer is easy.

Rest in purple.

*Years refer to when I listened to the song, not necessarily when Prince wrote it.