“We spoke boastfully in bass voices; we used the word “nigger” to prove the tough fiber of our feelings; we spouted excessive profanity as a sign of our coming manhood; we pretended callousness toward the injunctions of our parents; and we strove to convince one another that our decisions stemmed from ourselves and ourselves alone. Yet we frantically concealed how dependent we were upon one another.”
–Richard Wright, on his childhood circa 1915
A century has passed by and the kids act out just the same. The reasons are like a virus you can’t remove from the bloodstream, something deeply embedded into the fiber of the state of things. There are teens I encounter who try with such strenuous effort to convince everyone they’re stone-cold killers. Sometimes I want to say, “guys. Stop trying to persuade the world how hard you are. We all have emotional highs and lows, tender spots and tickle points… do you really think you’ll be able to get the world to think you don’t?”
But theirs is the solution for when you have a support network of one. Without role models, or with lousy ones, when the home is in a state of collapse and the world outside is even less concerned, when the subtle but immovable might of institutional racism proliferates with an insidiousness nigh impossible to overcome… wouldn’t you entertain a similar attitude if you were afraid and alone in such a hostile environment? What faces do we wear on our way to combat, our way to prison?
AJ fronts as hard an image as he can muster. He’s short, thin, expressionless; the girls would think he was cute if he wasn’t trying so arduously to remove every trace of emotion from his face, all the time. The teenage years are vulnerable ones, and he hasn’t yet crested into that bewitching moment of easy confidence where he feels okay just being himself. These are the years beforehand, when we evaluated the cliques at school and chose one, wearing our false confidence with great energy, trying to be a vetted and existing “type,” for fear that we might be found out as mere individuals who don’t completely fit in anywhere– which, of course, is what we all have in common.
His slanted eyes don’t react when I greet him. I lean towards the philosophy of “trying and failing is the only way to succeed.” Regarding interactions, he seems to lean toward the opposite ethos of “don’t try, because you might fail.” Better to ignore something, for fear of no reciprocation. His friend Marcus spoils the effect, however: Marcus is tall, gregarious, and friendly, with a assured smile and a knack for conversation. I know their names because Marcus introduced us all long ago.
One evening AJ sauntered up from the back, slowly. Marcus was with him, but stayed a few steps behind and looked really awkward. No one else was aboard. AJ stopped right next to me and waited, as if searching for how to begin. I preemptively asked him how he was doing.
“Hey, me and my friend were kinda hungry tonight,” he said. “I was wondering if maybe we could have, like, five dollars.”
“Aw man, I appreciate you askin’ me, but I gotta say I can’t be carrying no money when I’m workin’. Especially on this number 7, you know? You know how it is. You know I would help if I could, but yeah, best I can offer is this transfer right here, but other than that…”
“I’m helpin’ out in spirit!”
“I know that don’t change things, but you know! I appreciate you askin’.”
“Yeah,” he slurred. “Iss all good.”
I’ll never know the degree to which he was telling the truth. From his highly suitable dress and well-kept friend the thought of him being actually hungry wasn’t immediately believable; given Marcus’ hesitancy during the interaction and AJ’s general devil-may-care attitude, I’m more ready to assume he just wanted money. I’ll also never know how close I was to getting jumped. I want to believe he instead asked me for money out of respect, in exchange for the appreciation and respect I’ve proffered him so many times. He didn’t have to ask, after all. We will never learn the true extent of the dividends of our kindness. I couldn’t help but think of the scene in Fernando Meirelles’ fact-based City of God, where the two young boys board a bus determined to rob the conductor, but can’t bring themselves to do it because the conductor was “too cool to rob, too friendly!”
Some months later I was driving a largely empty bus up Rainier Avenue, my last trip out of the Valley. A boy was slouched in the middle high-seats. Earlier he had sullenly gestured for a free ride at Othello, and I’d happily offered one. I try to always say “thanks for asking,” “thank you for asking,” or somesuch. I want the kids to know I appreciate that they offer the gesture of a request. They could just walk on without a word, and they know it. I’m moved when they treat me as human, and the sentiment seems to have gotten out: Nathan appreciates the human touch. On occasion I’ll get a whole line of high-schoolers stepping in, each one taking a moment to verbalize it. “K’ai ‘ave a ride? May I please have a ride? D’you think ah coul’ get a ride?”
Isn’t it positively delightful?
Halfway through the trip I realized the slouching boy was AJ. I knew he looked familiar. He’s harder to recognize when Marcus isn’t with him; the “Laurel and Hardy” component is missing. As he got ready to leave through the middle doors, I fared him well, calling him out by name: “Alright, AJ!”
That’s a smile! Reader, imagine my blissful rapture! We’re talking about AJ here!
“Alright,” he said, registering with nearly hidden pleasure the fact that I’d remembered his name.
“Have a good one!”
A day at a time, a moment at a time, just by being ourselves…