Picture 9

It was a conversation of carefully considered words, and not one I could take part in. Robert Peace, the African-American Yale graduate whose life was tragically cut short in 2011, once told his Caucasian friend Jeff Hobbs in private that “there are niggers, and there are brothers. Niggers just like to start shit. They don’t value human interaction, let alone human life….” All they care about is “acting hard. Fronting.”
To which Jeff Hobbs said, “what about brothers?”
“A brother’s like me,” Peace replied. “He just wants to take care of his own and chill.”These remarks, which derive from Hobbs’ book about the death of his close friend Peace, a molecular biochemist who sank into the drug trade, came to mind while listening to the following exchange, as two black men quietly sparred over their separate perspectives on ways of living. In an interesting shift from expectations, Man 1 was the older of the two, around sixty-five, while Man 2 was a healthy twenty-eight or so, big-boned and tall.

Man 1: “Thinkin’ ’bout goin’ home. What choo doin’ tonight? Where you goin’?”
Man 2: “I’m goin’ home, Old School.”
Man 1: “Why you goin’ home already? You don’ like makin’ money?”
Man 2: “Wha’chu talkin’ about now.”
Man 1: “Street corner. Make a hunnerd dollars tonight, two three four.”
Man 2: “I been through that. Parents from Chi-town, I’m from Warshington.” Meaning DC. “I already been there, man. It’s a waste of my time thinkin’ about it.”
Man 1: “Man, whatchu know ’bout makin’ money. ‘Waste of your time.’ Where you goin’ das better?”
Man 2: “Said I’m goin home, to elevate my knee! I jus’ had surgery, bro.”
Man 1: “Where you goin’?”
Man 2: “I already tol’ you. Where you goin?”
Man 1: “Get my hustle on. You know.”
Man 2: “You ain’t goin’ home? Now you lyin’. Before you said you was goin’ home, now you say you don’t know. Now you say you hittin’ the street.”
Man 1: “I don’t need to go home, man.”
Man 2: “What? Everybody needs to go home. You gotta sleep.”
Man 1: “Don’t need no sleep.”
Man 2: “Everybody needs sleep, Ol’ School. You know what? I’m never gonna be like you.”
Man 1: “Wha’ sat mean?”
Man 2: “I’m goin’ up. Work. I’m goin’ to the top, goin’ to school. Goin’ to class, Seattle Central College. I’m a work my way up there.”
Man 1: “You believe that? Work get you to the top? You believe that?”
Man 2: “That work pays off? Yeah! Not the kind you doin’. Whatever that is.”
Man 1: “Pssh.”
Man 2: “I ain’t angry wit’ choo, Ol’ School. I’m not tryna raise no beef wit’ you. I just curious. Why you ackin’ up? Why you like dis?”
Man 1: “You don’t know no older folks is all.”
Man 2: “Aw, it ain’t that. I know plenny ol-school type a dudes. They happy! And, they sleep right now! To be happy you got to rest. Even a dog knows that.”

There was a sobering melancholy in the second man’s tone. He was critical but not hateful, less disdainful than disappointed that his fellow man wasn’t living up to his full potential. It seemed all he could do but say, “you’re better than this.” Some people lament their lot and blame the world as the cause for their behavior. Others look at the limited opportunities placed in front of them and wrest something out of it, taking control a step at a time, their can-do spirit building on itself, snowballing from a flickering whisper to an unstoppable force, reaping new dividends for themselves and others with each passing day; letting the momentum of their good character expand and solidify. As the second man left I told him he was awesome, but I wanted to shake his hand, or laud him in some further way. He had a vision of the world as a better place, a place where things can be accomplished. I admired him deeply for it.

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Nathan Vass is an artist, filmmaker, photographer, and author by day, and a Metro bus driver by night, where his community-building work has been showcased on TED, NPR, The Seattle Times, KING 5 and landed him a spot on Seattle Magazine’s 2018 list of the 35 Most Influential People in Seattle. He has shown in over forty photography shows is also the director of nine films, six of which have shown at festivals, and one of which premiered at Henry Art Gallery. His book, The Lines That Make Us, is a Seattle bestseller and 2019 WA State Book Awards finalist.