In the mid 1970s my parents, then with two young children and pregnant with me, decided they didn’t want to raise their kids in the homogeneous (read all-white) suburbs. And, for some reason, they thought it a good idea to move into a house two doors down from where my father was helping investigate a murder. My Mom told me that Maw (her Mom) cried and cried about our moving to such a terrible part of town. I can just imagine that conversation!
The house cost $9,000, but the banks had redlined the neighborhood so you couldn’t get a loan for more than $5000 to support any renovations. There was a hole in the floor in the dining room, the one room that was actually lived in, that the sole resident had cut to let the water from the leaky roof drain out. There were no sidewalks. There were no stop signs. And, we had a phone booth in the front yard primarily managed by pimps and prostitutes.
Just a short time into their renovations, my parents saw a young, local reporter named Oprah Winfrey and a camera crew in the park across the street apparently reporting on something for the local news station. Excited and hoping to hear a story about the revitalization starting to happen in this part of the city, they tuned in that night to hear something like this:
“Oprah Winfrey reporting: I am standing here today on the most dangerous street in the city of Nashville. Home to crimes ranging from car theft to drug deals, from simple burglary to cold-blooded murder. Today is no different. At approximately 1 PM in broad daylight, a man was shot to death just down the street from where I am standing. Witnesses say that two men, a middle aged, white man with tattoos on each forearm, a large scar on his cheek and a young black male wearing a black trench coat and black stocking cap began fighting. The young black man pulled a gun and shot the other three times in the chest. The confrontation appears to have been drug related. Police are looking for a black male, age 25-35, last seen wearing a black trench coat and running south on eighth toward the James Cayce Homes.”
Ahh, the same stories we would hear for the next 20 years. At one point, we had to change our route coming home from school because of several murders that had happened along it. We could not drive down the street a block from our home because there were crack houses, prostitution, dangerous vacant lots, and people hanging out in the streets.
At one point during their long process of renovation, for which my Dad actually stopped working (and he provided the primary family income which meant we were also broke), my parents returned to the house after several weeks away to find an extension cord running from our house to the neighbors where it was fueling the window unit air conditioning of a 7 apartment slum, with all the windows open, in 90 degree weather.
Residents of these 7 apartments included a Pentecostal preacher and just across the hall a prostitute.
The man in the house across the street would climb up to his third floor attic window and howl like a wolf at anyone walking down the street.
The nursing home a block behind us was closed, but was full of homeless people, and particularly junkies. Theirs were the needles and bottles I avoided when mowing my yard.
Boots lived in the house on the other side of the alley and spent much of his time walking around the neighborhood.
“Hey Boots!” I shouted as I always did despite never receiving a response.
It was OK. Boots was busy. He walked the street with the focus of a CEO working on a deal. Hammering out details, arguing his point, determined to be heard. His worn khaki left pant leg rolled to the knee, once explained to my Mom as being in preparation for a flood, his Tom Landry-style hat perched carefully on his head, and a worn, white button-up recalling a day when Boots was not so thin and frail. I really don’t ever recall laughing or making fun, I just somehow understood that yeah, Boots is talking to his elbow, his left elbow specifically.
He walked in short but determined steps, his heavy black shoes perhaps explaining the nickname and offering a timeline for just how long Boots had been walking the streets and talking to his elbow. His skin camouflaged in the muddled and muted tones of his now off-white shirt and his faded pants. His pulled-up black sock describing the shape of a left leg that was otherwise almost transparent. His face thin and gaunt with wrinkles tight and sharp was more a story of the shadow of his hat than a determining genetic tale.
I knew him by his clothes and his posture in the setting of the sidewalk across the street from my house. I don’t know much more.
If Boots is the earliest “street friend” that I remember, Walter and Flavio are two of the best. Walter and Flavio were drinking buds. Walter was an illiterate WWII veteran who brought his mail to our house for my parents to help him read. I have no idea where his mail was delivered. Flavio was the friendliest, floppiest, drunk you have ever met, and his speech flowed fluidly between Spanish and English.
One Fourth of July, I was shooting fireworks in the park across the street. (The Fourth of July and New Years were always an interesting time as it became a favorite past-time of mine during these seasons to challenge myself to decipher gun fire from M-80’s.) I was shooting bottle rockets that day with a friend from school, one of the few whose parents actually would allow him to spend the night in our neighborhood, and I heard the familiar jingle of Walter’s shopping cart coming up the street. Walter strolled up, his cigarette appeared more stuck in a wrinkle in his face than in his mouth, and parked the cart on the edge of the street.
I wondered if Walter had just grabbed any old cart or if he had done some shopping around. His was one of the shiniest carts that I had seen, no rust, few dents, no remnant cola spills. It did, however, have the textbook front wheel that never touched the ground. It just hovered there, revolving seemingly of its own initiative, never a part of the rest of the cart.
As Walter approached alone, I noticed that Flavio was already passed out cold, sitting up on the wall on the opposite corner from our house. His head sagged like a medicine ball as if his body had just collapsed under its weight. I think if he had been left there long enough, the softness of his broken down leathery skin, the boneless mass of his body would have ultimately melted together leaving some sort of amorphous spillage. But that’s why Walter was there. I think it was his unspoken goal to keep Flavio from dissolving.
“Hey!” Walter squeezed out in a gruff whisper. “Hey, Anderson. Let me see one of those.”
“Let me see one of those rockets.”
“Oh. Ok. Here you go.”
Walter took a bottle rocket from me and walked slowly over to the chain link fence that defined the boundaries of the park’s softball field. He carefully propped the rocket in its web. By the time he got over there, Walter was so tickled at himself that he could hardly set the rocket straight. I looked at my friend to see if he was all right and he just looked confused. Watching Walter that day was like watching a kid my age who was up to no good and was having a blast at it. He was just one of us.
It took a second, but I soon understood what he was up to. Walter was aiming the rocket at Flavio. He turned to me and winked, grinning a charming toothless half-smile as he held on to his cigarette in the other half. He took the cigarette from his mouth and lit the bottle rocket. It ignited and took off. Fortunately for Flavio, it took one of those unpredictable curves and exploded a good 20 feet from him. Walter tried again. The next one took off and exploded right next to Flavio, about five feet to his left. Walter was growing increasingly tickled, I was laughing but also worried about Flavio, and my friend was still silent and dumbfounded. Third time’s a charm. Walter lit the third rocket and it shot and exploded right between Flavio’s dangled legs, right between the wickets.
Flavio didn’t budge. He remained there with his head bending the trunk of his spine like a ripe fruit unwilling to drop. A body had never looked so heavy while actually remaining upright. It was a delicate balance of physics I couldn’t figure out. To this day, I am not sure that anyone can really be that drunk. I wonder sometimes if Flavio wasn’t just having his own good time with Walter by not letting him win.
There were still other neighbors like Lash who are part of the fabric of my upbringing but who I only knew as part of that fabric. I only knew as a child looking, seeing.
Lash lived on the block behind us. I have no idea if he went by Lash, if my parents just called him Lash or what, but he was as dependable as the morning sun. For the virgin ears, the crack of Lash’s bullwhip muddied the other neighborhood percussion: bass, backfiring cars, fireworks and gunfire. But to me, it simply said, “it’s a beautiful day.” Lash and his bullwhip told you the weather before you could even step outside. If you heard it, the weather must be clear and warm. He stayed wrapped safely behind a chain link fence, never veering more than a half step away from presumably where his parents or caretakers (I never saw them) had planted him early that morning. Or perhaps he planted himself. I don’t know. I never saw him come or go. He was just either there or not. I also never saw anyone else who lived there with him.
Lash had some sort of significant intellectual disability, and I would guess was in his twenties, thirties, forties, who knows. His body showed the signs of someone whose physical and mental limitations had created a structure that was sizable but only temporary. He stood in the yard with his dirtied blue-gray button-up shirt and gray Dickies, softened to the point of pajamas. Lash stood alone with his shoulders slung way back as a counterbalance to a bulging stomach. His black shoes, with only the soles and toes peaking out, appeared to be a good size-and-a-half too large, strings torqued and tied in a strangle hold hoping to maintain their hold on his feet. He stood in the front yard of his house and bull whipped the old hackberry roots bubbling from the ground. No one knew why. At least no one I knew knew why.
In the unknown of his world, the crack of the bullwhip must have been empowering. The energy generated from that raw leather strip, formed in his hand, Lash’s story, his word to the world. Action and reaction. Power. Production. It gave him an edginess, a danger, a virility. The sound of that bullwhip creating a sparkling explosion of color, of adrenaline. The vibration shooting through his body like an electrical shock. He felt every crack that we only heard. It must have been beautiful; he had been doing it for years.
Strangely, I haven’t seen Lash for decades and I still live in the same house. In fact, I haven’t seen anyone come in or out of that house for decades, and other than Lash 25 years ago, maybe ever! And yet, as I was writing this, a new neighbor who lives next door actually told me Lash still lives there with his family! His name is Billy. I am glad to at least know that now, but dumbfounded by the fact the he still lives there, that anyone lives there. Life is strange. (Update: Billy passed away in 2017.)
But, my neighbors like Billy weren’t always just eccentric or mentally challenged. There was a darker side in both perception and reality. The year I was born and the year after my parents bought their house, the Nashville Banner, one of the city’s leading newspapers, wrote the following about our neighborhood of Edgefield: “Out of the gutters, all you winos. Back in your raincoats, you perverts. Edgefield is going respectable.” Nice.
This was my community. These were my neighbors. Some were my friends. Others scared the shit out of me. And, there was no distance from which to stand and just look at them, much less judge them. I had to see them, I was taught to see them, by very diligent and patient parents. I had to see them for who they were to me and my family and my community, not as generic concepts of the poor, the vagrant, or as derelicts or statistics.
I am not trying to romanticize any of this or the brutal example of life that many of these people represented. It was tragic in many ways. The point is that as the white, middle-class, Christian-raised, heterosexual, mentally stable, educated male that I am, I was the odd ball. If you couldn’t see that, you weren’t looking.
I would come to understand years later after my Dad’s struggles with Depression and ultimate suicide that he, in fact, was more akin to our neighbors than I understood as a child. His empathy with their lives, pain, and circumstances was real, and reveals a lot about him and his own struggles.
So, I guess it’s perhaps not shocking that a kid cultivated in this environment would grow up thinking and seeing the world a little differently. So, it’s also probably not a shock that I would find my way to the world of visual art, or it would find its way to me.
Excerpted from: Creating Matters: Reflections on Art, Business, and Life (so far)
When we lose a music legend like Chris Cornell at a young age, the initial reports often describe the death as sudden or surprising, if there is any comment at all. “Cause of death” is rarely included – at least initially. Understandably, there must first be a formal investigation.
For those of us who live with suicide, the waiting for cause of death, or ultimately the omission of a cause of death once verified, reverberate intensely. It has nothing to do with the deceased being a rock star. We feel that same omission, but without any expectation of more information to come, in the untimely obituary of the doctor or lawyer, the mother or husband, the soldier or veteran, the teenager – where no cause of death is mentioned. We fill in the blanks with our own experiences of suicide, Depression, abuse, addiction, and what it means to still be here when someone we love takes his own life.
We know it’s complicated. We know people feel shame, confusion, guilt, and blame that exacerbate the incredible sense of loss. We know it is difficult to put into words. We know society doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to deal with our tragedy. We understand that omission – because it mirrors our own sense of loss.
When we lose celebrities, however, there’s a different and more troubling pattern. As a society, we are quick to wrap celebrity suicide into a neat box so we don’t have to deal with the complexity of its reality. We summarize their deaths with a ready and familiar story – a cliché of the partying, addicted, immature, or otherwise angst-ridden, but privileged celebrity. Perhaps we even perversely glorify their deaths by throwing around words like “genius” or “artist” as if that explains it all away.
Instead of the omission of information giving us permission to avoid reality, the cliché gives us such an exemption.
No matter what comes of this story, we can do more to celebrate and extend the life and work of Chris Cornell today than going and downloading more of his music. We can talk about his struggles with addiction, mental health, and probable suicide, and try to understand him and understand ourselves in more complex, messy, deeply human terms.
In doing so, we may actually give his life greater meaning than his music ever will.
Complicit with the unbearable lightness of privilege (see previous blog), oppression is a constant burden. Like privilege, when unacknowledged by the oppressed, it becomes a fact of life unquestioned and unchallenged as it is unknown. Instead of manifesting in lightness, oppression is weight. As I think I have made clear, I fall in the privileged category. I do not know oppression first-hand in any way, shape, or form. I have merely observed it through my upbringing and my work and I have read and learned about it as a way of deepening my understanding of my own privilege.
I fought against it every day when I worked with youth. The depth and breadth of assumptions and judgments they had about their own poverty, blackness, age, and even neighborhood were stunning and troubling – even to someone who thought himself enlightened. In fact, their internalized negative assumptions were the ultimate barrier not only to achieving the dreams they still had individually (their oppression yet only partially internalized) but also to the improvement of our schools and community. Their oppression was both individual and structural, implicit in their schools and community and fueling their early process of internalization. We had to start our work with every young person by helping them think critically about what they had internalized and how that impacted the choices they made and the opportunities they sought. Internalized oppression changes the way we dream. I recall one simple and brief conversation with a young woman who lived in public housing in a rather chaotic family situation who had told me she wanted to be a dental hygienist. I told her I thought that was great and asked her why she wanted to do that. As she talked, she expressed a broad interest in dentistry, the science, the business, the people. So, I asked without thinking why she didn’t want to become a dentist rather than a dental hygienist. It left her somewhat dumbfounded, which left me dumbfounded. It had never crossed her mind. It was the first thing that crossed mine.
Aside from this rather simple example, our work trying to liberate each other of our oppressions (and privilege for me) was often brutal work and had to be done in a safe way and in a manner in which we had time and space to deal with anger and confusion and more questions that it spurred for them about themselves, about the adults in their lives, the systems that were supposedly there to support them. As they became more critical and more liberated, they also began to feel that burden of oppression more fully. We were externalizing it. They went from living but never seeing it to seeing it everywhere they turned, while still living it. This was powerful work, but it was dangerous work. These youth needed to see their oppression so they could begin to liberate themselves from it, reclaim power from it, but it wasn’t something we could immediately just go out and change. We had to start small and individual and work from there.
While all of my youth and most of my community could point at and name experiences where they were treated differently because of their race, or their age, or their perceived income or whatever, they mostly processed those at the level of the interaction, focusing on the individual experience. They never saw the system that was supporting their marginalization; the structures that consistently and persistently delivered the same type of negative message for everyone like them. One of the stories we used to help process this growing awareness of systemic and institutional forces was the Parable of the Boiling Frog. While simple and fairly grotesque, the Parable of the Boiling Frog illustrates the fact that a frog that is dropped into boiling water will scramble for its life to get out. This obviously makes sense to most of us and is how we would react to such pain or danger. On the other hand, if that frog is dropped into room temperature water that slowly rises to a boil, it will never even try to escape. The frog will make incremental adaptations to survive the environment that ultimately leads to its death.
This is the story of internalized oppression. We adapt to messages about our worth, about our possibility, about the quality of our character or our family or community one message at a time. And, when those messages all align in a way that consistently and persistently tells us we are lesser then we begin to believe we are lesser. At some point, we accept the fact that we are lesser. We accept our slow death without ever even recognizing it.
So, how do we get out of that slowly boiling pot? Even as personal enlightenment and liberation unfold, the systems and structures of oppression are generations in the making and will be generations in the dismantling. Just because we liberate our minds doesn’t mean the systems are ready to change. We have to transform our personal liberation into something that impacts the world around us. Lest we become overwhelmed by this responsibility, we must remind ourselves that we have the chance to impact the world not just through grand social actions but through every interaction. We have the power to open hearts with every conversation, liberate minds by modeling our own liberation, by putting our own challenges and development out there for others to see, to find solace and motivation in.
image from: https://www.shapeways.com/product/J5WVPUPLB/triple-gear