Our Band Will Never Sound the Same Again

Our band will never sound the same again. – Duke Ellington, after the passing of Johnny Hodges

Not a minute of this Thanksgiving will go by without my thoughts turning time and again on my brother Robert. This will be the first Thanksgiving since his passing. To be sure, we did not gather last year, either. By that point, he had had his operation, the removal of his tongue, and could not eat. Plus he was deep into his chemo and radiation treatments, which weakened him. We hoped he would get better. We hoped.

Robert played the bass in our family band. Louis played guitar. Tania sang. I played tabla. We jammed like this nearly every Thanksgiving. This tradition goes back over two decades. Now our bass player is gone.

Lester Young played with the Count Basie Orchestra at Newport in 1957, his first time playing with them since the early 1940s. Afterwards he said, “I always bust my nuts when I play with them.” I always think of that quote after playing with Louis and Robert. Both masters of their respective axes, they knew all the jazz standards, and more, and never tired of playing. The tabla player had to keep up. It was an honor to do so.

Robert always enjoyed the odd-rhythms I introduced. He loved 5s and 7s, but also get a kick out of 11, 13, even 17. The last time I played for Robert, over the phone about a month before the end, the first thing he said was, “I can hear the 7s.” He lavished me with praise for my skills, but he always had a deft sense of rhythm. He’s the OG master of tal.

I had a feeling this Thanksgiving would be challenging, and it is. My ears still hear the words he spoke at our last Thanksgiving together, in 2012, just as he left for the night: “This was the best ever.” Yeah, it was. I almost didn’t write this piece, but I had to say something. Before launching into new holiday traditions, I had to acknowledge the weight of what came before. Though we’re all doing our own thing this year, I have no doubt that the surviving Mighty Russell Players will play again one day.

Though, of course, our band will never sound the same again.

For you, Robert, I’ll play a little something tomorrow. I’ll make it an odd-rhythm. Because.

And Now We Know

During the Trayvon Martin tragedy, one question lingered in the back of the head: what if his killer, George Zimmerman, had been a police officer? Now we know.

There have been exceptions to the narrative, where an officer had to go to trial over a killing committed under shady circumstances. There was Johannes Mehserle, the killer of Oscar Grant. He did get indicted, did stand trial, and did get convicted. Though his conviction, and sentence, did not even qualify as a slap on the wrist. It was more like a wagging finger intoning a gentle “now, now.” But Mehserle’s killing of Oscar Grant had too many witnesses with cellphones for there not to have been an indictment. We all saw what happened on that BART platform that New Year’s Day.

There was the Rodney King four, a small subset of the group that savagely brutalized Rodney King. They had to stand trial, though of course all were found not guilty. But here again, there was the lone video, which showed the world what happened. To have not indicted someone would have looked quite ridiculous.

Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown away from cellphone cameras or other recording devices. He had only a small audience of witnesses, all of whose accounts the prosecutor and grand jury discounted. Had Wilson been wearing a camera, things may have happened differently. Had George Zimmerman been filmed, things may have happened differently. Sans video, we now know what happens.

Prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch feigned concern while delivering the no indictment decision. However, his astounding, 20-minute word salad, mushed together with the biggest wad of bafflegab imaginable, lacked compassion, lacked justice. His calls for peace and respect for the rule of law and for protesters to voice their concerns openly seemed contradictory and patronizing.

Protesters would rather not be protesting. They’d rather that this whole affair had never happened. We’d all rather that Michael Brown were home with his parents. But he’s not. He’s dead. And his killer will not have to answer for his actions because he’s a police officer and because no cameras caught what happened. It’s as simple as that. No word salad, no detailed description of cherry-picked facts can alter this sad realty, or bring justice to an unjust situation.


Stoney Burke: Master of the Free Speech Zone

Minstrels of various stripes have graced college campuses for decades. At 1980s UCLA, all we got were preachers. Some were local, some visited from afar. But they all had the same message: you are evil and are going to hell. One of my favorites was Brother Jed. He came with an entourage that included his wife, Sister Cindy, and an older woman we assumed to be Cindy’s mother. No one could throw the brimstone harder than Brother Jed. He danced, he leapt about, he gyrated his arms and hands like a magician. Pure entertainment.

And then he came.

I actually first saw him in Berkeley, wearing baggy, striped pants, his hair dyed some odd color, and carrying a weather-wore tan suitcase full of props. I couldn’t stay to check him out at the time. I was following a friend to one of his classes. But then a month later, this same man appeared at UCLA on Bruin Walk, same clothes, same hair, same suitcase full of props. He was definitely not a preacher.

“Ronald Reagan! Ronald Reagan! Scum-sucking fascist Republican! Scum-sucking fascist Republican!” he sang to the tune of “Frère Jacques.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but this lanky, double-jointed clown, who yelled profanities at the powerful and blew a police whistle against the complacent was the legendary Stoney Burke. A fixture at Berkeley for many years, he brought his adventures in free speech to UCLA, and our world would never be the same again.

Stoney says in his memoir, Weapon: Mouth – Adventures in the Free Speech Zone that he drew his inspiration from, among others, a street performer called the Swami. At that time, the Swami lived in semiretirement and hung on the Venice Beach boardwalk; I had seen him a couple of times. But really, Stoney is unique. Others have performed topical political comedy, long before Jon Stewart. Others have spoken out against the powerful on soap boxes. Others have trumpeted the sanctity of free speech. Stoney has, over his long career, combined all of these elements while literally putting his body in the line of fire. He recounts many scuffles with police.

Us malcontents, those of us who dared to raise our voices against evil and injustice, had found a kindred spirit. Hanging on Bruin Walk, a favorite pastime, became a lot more interesting. Early in Stoney’s residency at UCLA, Brother Jed returned for his annual visit. Bring the popcorn, we said, this is gonna be good! Stoney mimicked all of Jed’s acrobatics. He countered Jed’s conservatism with liberation theology. He reminded the good preacher about Jesus’ dedication to the poor. In the end Jed looked foolish, but he wore his defeat with grace. They knew one another, having crossed verbal swords on other college campuses in the past.

Stoney recalls some of his religious encounters in his memoir, including one at San Francisco State, where he went to school. He jousted with a fellow named Cliff about all manner of religious dogma. Stoney states that he knew he won when one of Cliff’s supporters threw lemonade in his face. The next day, a letter in the school newspaper called him a blasphemer. That same day, a group of Black Muslims took the free speech spot at SF State to call for Salmon Rushdie’s death for writing The Satanic Verses.

“Excuse me? I could have sworn that just last week, death threats were not included in this Free Speech game we play?”

Joust with words, never with violence. That game was reserved for the police.

I can’t recall a time when police gave him trouble at UCLA for one of his shows (they busted him at one of our anti-apartheid protests, but that’s another story), but it’s amazing how many times he did get into trouble during his travels, simply for practicing free speech. In his book, he tells a story of how on one campus a group of fans and supports literally shielded him from security officers so that they could not arrest him. He wasn’t always so lucky. One such arrest provided him the title, as well as a chapter, for his memoir. The arresting officer literally cited his mouth as a weapon. Doesn’t that sum up our society’s uneasy relationship with rights?

Those of us who engage in any sort of critical thinking risk running afoul of authorities, or at least getting their attention. I’m fairly certain that my shortwave radio listening, resulting in many letters sent overseas, attracted undue attention from authorities. I remember seeing this odd dude on a bike watching me from a distance while I watered the front lawn at my parents’ house. This was in South Central LA, and the dude was white so he sort of stuck out. Similarly, Stoney never escaped the notice of The Man wherever he went.

During one of his UCLA shows, Chancellor Young walked by with some of his functionaries. We interrupted Stoney with an off-stage whisper, telling him “hey, that’s our Chancellor!” Stoney grinned widely and got busy. As he needled UCLA’s longest serving chancellor about divestment from South Africa and other topical issues, Dr. Young looked at him with a small grin and pointing finger and said, “Oh, I’ve heard all about you,” as he kept on walking. How Stoney got on the chancellor’s radar was a mystery to us, but it really shouldn’t have been. As I said, those who challenge the status quo, even especially with comedy, will catch the attention of upper echelons, from university chancellors to high school principals.

Stoney appeared as the principle subject in a documentary by Swedish filmmaker Kåge Jonsson called “An American in America.” He went back to his hometown of Romeo, Michigan, to visit his old high school, crew in tow. They got permission to film Stoney talking with current students. Everything was going OK, until the talk got a little too real for the administration to handle. Then, the principal called the whole thing off and Stoney and the film crew had to leave. The principal, unlike Chancellor Young, had not heard all about him.

Weapon does not included blow-by-blow details of Stoney’s life, his upbringing, and so on. That’s not his style. His writing mimics his shows. The words are quick on their feet. Indeed, the whole book is a succession of vignettes, told in sharp, humorous prose, interspersed with newspaper clippings of notorious exploits and flyers of past gigs. The background info he does impart gives a clue on how Stoney became Stoney. For example, I didn’t know that he trained as a mime, and began his career in silence. But the training explains how he learned to use his body like a dancer to tell stories.

He presented his most poignant story early in the book, paying homage to his parents. He lived in an orphanage for two years, he writes, before being adopted by his then-foster parents.

“Betty Burke’s home cooking and Jim Burke’s hearty laugh would be like music to my ears once I walked in the door, back from another venture into the great unknown beyond the A&W Root Beer stand at the edge of town.”

The young Master Burke had vague knowledge of the volunteer work his parents did through their church on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. But one cold spring morning, the reality of race relations in the US slapped the 10 year old Stoney across the face, harder than any angry hand or any icy Michigan lake-effect wind. I won’t tell more than this. You must buy the book and read this extraordinary tale for yourself. I will say, though, that the silent dignity and courage displayed by Stoney’s parents, and by folks like them, is the stuff of American History, the People’s History as the late Howard Zinn called it. It is the reason why positive change happens in our land of the free.

And this tale, told early in the book, explains Stoney’s devotion to free speech. He learned the lesson early: Simple acts threaten power. And what could be simpler than standing in a public space talking critically and thoughtfully about issues of the day – and being hella funny while doing it. He has taken his adventures to colleges across the country, to Europe, and to presidential nomination conventions for both parties. (Guess which party had him arrested from their convention? It’s not the one you think.) And he has survived to tell the tale. Thank goodness he took the time to write about it.

I’ve known Stoney for close to 30 years. I’m proud to say that my college roommates and I once served as a station on his Free Speech underground railroad. He crashed at our place for a week – my birthday week actually – around the time I was coming out of the closet. My coming out meant nothing to our friendship, needless to say. He lived in the Bay Area in the early 80s and thus witnessed the plague called AIDS from close quarters. So he had earned his stripes as an honorary queer in any case.

Stoney actually figures importantly in a story of my own. A group of us formed the nucleus of folks who pushed for the University of California system to divest itself from businesses with ties to Apartheid South Africa. In 1986, we held a sit-in at the UCLA career center and were arrested. The police got pissed that “we,” and not their billy clubs, caused a riot on campus, the first since the Vietnam War days. So to teach us a lesson, they sent us to LA County Jail, rather than released us from campus police headquarters. What fun that was. The sheriffs in county jail delighted in frightening us. I remember one dude slowly putting on gloves, placing the fear of a strip-search in our heads.

But before sending us off to the Fun House, the UCPD officers did grant us our mandatory one phone call. I called home, of course. Mom asked, “Well, are you in or are you out?” “I’m in,” I said. She figured as much. My mom and dad lived the Civil Rights Movement before there was a moment by virtue of being young, black, and intelligent freethinkers. It pleased them to no end that all of their offspring followed in their footsteps.

During our brief phone call, I lost my composure only once. Mom told me that Stoney had called to ask about me, to see if I was OK. That threw me for a loop. His kindness touched me deeply as I faced a night of unknown. It made that hellish night more bearable, knowing I had folks thinking of me, and proud of what I had done.

Some of the stories Stoney tells in Weapon I knew, some I didn’t. But all of it is fascinating and funny. Stoney truly is unique, almost an institution, having adventured in Free Speech for 40 years now. He represents a history of this country that one does not typically get to read about. Do yourself a favor, and read his story. It will make you laugh, and think.

Weapon: Mouth – Adventures in the Free Speech Zone (Regent Press, 2014) can be found at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and independent booksellers.

How to Lose a Democracy

When Scotland held their independence referendum vote, they achieved a voter turnout rate of an astounding 84.5%. I said then that the US would never achieve so high a level of participation in an election, least of all in a midterm election. I was right. The national turnout was about 36%. Pitiful.

A democracy cannot survive as a democracy with such a pathetic level of participation. 36% is a red alert. It is like your doctor telling you that your cholesterol is 280, and if you don’t do something, you’re gonna die. But no one seems to really care. We still eat fatty foods. Elections continue as they always have.

If we truly believed in democracy, the very bedrock of our culture, then we should take steps to improve participation in it. Election Day should be moved to a weekend or made a national holiday. I’m old enough to remember when my dad got half the day off on Election Day to vote. That disappeared a long time ago. Voting by mail should be practiced universally, nationwide, and so should same day registration. Maybe Election Day should become Election Week, a generous portion of days so that everyone can have time to participate, then the last day of that week would be the National Election Holiday. You should be able to vote anywhere, in libraries and coffee shops, in malls and schools, at home. There should be so many different ways to vote, that you’d have to go out of your way not to vote.

Important ancillary changes should occur, too, such as serious campaign finance reform. This midterm topped off as the most expensive in history, despite the pitiful turn out. One could say a lot of money went towards persuading few voters. Or one could say that a lot of money went towards dissuading people from participating.

But our body politic won’t implement even the most timid election reforms to boost participation or improve the process. Instead, we’ve clogged our arteries with voter ID laws, meant to suppress participation, not reduce nonexistent voter fraud; with unlimited money, thanks to Citizens United; and with milquetoast candidates that fail to inspire.

The Republican takeover of statehouses in the 2010 midterms allowed them to rework the voting process in their image, to the detriment of democracy. They gerrymandered congressional and other political boundaries in their favor, artificially locking in Republican majorities for years to come. Then they passed voter ID laws, a new kind of poll tax for the 21st century.

You remember the poll tax, right? The Jim Crow South used them as a means to keep poor African Americans away from elections. If you can’t pay, you can’t vote. They became illegal during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, but now voter ID laws have brought them back, in a kinder, gentler, sneakier way. While the ID cards themselves may cost little or nothing, the process of getting them can be costly. In many cases one needs a birth certificate to get one, and they do not come cheaply. In some cases, one has to travel great distances to get a birth certificate, adding to the expense. Concerns about voter fraud supposedly give this new poll tax a patina of respectability, but really it does not. Study after study has proven that voter fraud is a non-issue.

In the face of this clear and present danger to democracy, promulgated by an increasingly more conservative Republican Party, one would think that the Democrats would rise to the occasion and challenge these and other disgraces. But here is where we encounter the milquetoast candidates. The funny thing is that Republicans effectively mask their true intentions by sounding like populists during campaigns – JOBS! JOBS! JOBS! – then once elected, they proceed to pass voter ID laws, women’s healthcare restrictions, and, in Congress, do everything in their power to put a stranglehold on everything President Obama proposes. In other words, everything, but JOBS! JOBS! JOBS! Democrats, however, do the opposite. Instead of sounding like populists, many try to sound like Republicans, tacking to the right, in hopes that the issues they (supposedly) care about will go unnoticed. And then they don’t get elected.

Kentucky senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes best demonstrated why the Democrats faired so poorly in the 2014-midterm elections. When asked during an interview if she voted for President Obama, she gave a non-answer, and looked foolish doing so. Some defended her stance, citing the privacy of one’s vote and all. I call bullpucky. Like far too many Democrats who felt threated from the right, she ran, not walked, away from the president during her campaign. Her pitiful attempts at distancing herself from the president, while at the same time embracing policies of his that she likes, made her look like a phony. And people generally aren’t motivated to vote for phonies. She lost handily to now Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The continued lack of a spine doom the Democrats to second fiddle status. Rather than trumpet victories – Obamacare, decreased unemployment, a stabilized economy – they shy away from these issues and hope no one notices, while at the same time beg people to vote for them. But when you run scared, you’re not really running for anything at all.

The Republicans continue to use fear and voter suppression to win elections. Ten years ago, antigay marriage laws helped motivate their base to the polls. This time they championed the trumped up horrors of Ebola, ISIS, and Obama. Fear motivates because it installs insecurity and it makes you look tough, at least superficially. One does not need to present solutions to these problems, just blind outrage. For their part, the Democrats who ran to the right failed counteract the lies Republicans told to stoke fear, allowing the fears to fester and ultimately win. They instead ran as Republican-lite, which almost never works.

We have way too many serious issues facing us today for the likes of the election system we have in place. We need candidates who not only sound alarm bells but also bring forth intelligent, practical solutions to problems, solutions that benefit everyone, not just those with money and power. So the milquetoast Democratic candidates have to go. Hard limits on campaigning have to be established, and adhered to. And the voting process itself has to become a lot easier so that we get an 80% or 90% participation rate.

A major correction is needed, or the body politic will die, and take us along for the ride.

Please Go Vote

US midterm elections are tomorrow (Tuesday, November 4). Midterms, so say the Pundits, lack the sex appeal of presidential elections, but that doesn’t make them any less important. Look at what happened in 2010. In a wave of indignation, Republicans took over the House of Representatives and a great many of the state houses across the country. The state legislature takeovers were particularly opportune. Occurring as it did right after the 2010 census, the newly Republican-controlled state houses redrew legislative district boundaries to their liking, fixing things so that Republicans could potentially control the lower house of the Congress for many years to come.

The other thing they did, of course, was to pass a bunch of voter ID laws aimed at curbing voter fraud. But we don’t have a voter fraud problem. Instances of voter fraud generally make up way less than 1% of votes cast in a given state — the article I cite above claims “31 credible incidents out of one BILLION ballots cast” (emphasis mine). Only one possible conclusion explains the true purpose of these laws: To a Republican, voter fraud is when anyone but a Republican casts a ballot.

Don’t stay home. Don’t sit this one out. If you are registered to vote, then go vote. This experiment we call American democracy will only work when everyone does her or his part and votes. Don’t believe the nonsense about votes not counting or it doesn’t matter. It does matter. Don’t let others speak for you. Speak your own voice with your vote.

Please go vote.

The Dust Journal – Part X

[Editor’s note: For earlier installments of this series, click here.]

Friday, March 4, 2157

What an extraordinary few days it has been.

His name is Walter. He alone takes care of the desalination station. Techs come out twice a year, he says, to service various systems that he cannot take care of by himself. Otherwise the whole place is automated. He stays here fulltime, alone.

I find myself reflecting on how lonely he must be, contrasting his situation with my own. All the years I lived in the arroyo, until recently, I had people around me. They came and they went, but there were always people about, in their homes during the heat of the day and in the streets in night’s relative coolness. And there was my roommate, until he departed. But even when I had a roommate in that enormous house, I was still alone.

Even with the people on the street, I was alone. Even during the times when we all took a communal meal together – which happened more and more rarely as the years went on – I was alone. I was surrounded by folks, and yet forever alone.

When real loneliness came, after everyone went away, for a time it did not feel much different. I only began to feel true loneliness after I started the trek to this place, to get water to take back home.

What a pipe dream. How the hell was I to lug it back? I fixated on Mad Max so much, in the days before I began the journey, I probably figured that I would find a vehicle somewhere on my travels and be able to drive it back to the arroyo, carrying gallons upon gallons of water with me. Pure fantasy. The one thing I have not seen in all my travels was a vehicle of any sort.

Walter says he has a little electric car that he uses from time to time, to get away. But they don’t like it when I’m away too much, he said.

He has taken very good care of me, making sure I felt OK and that I got my strength back. Only after he felt that I was doing alright did he ask any questions, where I came from, how I came to visit the desal station. I told him my sob story. He knew the area I came from. It surprised him that it went D classified. It’s very pretty there, he said. I guess there aren’t many places left where you can find trees. The flats here near the bay have some large shrubs, but no trees.

Walter has been the most gracious host, like he was born to it, like he did it all the time. We always have plenty to eat and of course water is not an issue. It didn’t even taste bad. I didn’t call it toilet water around him. I didn’t know if that would have offended him. And he’s been very kind to me.

I haven’t asked many questions of him. Though very friendly, I felt something reserved about him. I did not want to pry. Though yesterday I did ask if those hippies down south ever came by. He nearly spat when he said no. He said, I’ll have nothing to do with those baby killers. They’ll get no water from me.

Then I asked about being alone. I didn’t mean to. As I said, I did not want to pry. But he was as calm and collected by my question as he had been the whole time we’ve been together.

I don’t have to work here, he said. I am alone by my own choosing.

Yesterday and part of today he showed me around the desalination plant. What a complex. It hums constantly, like a living, breathing entity. He gave me the grandest of tours. Many of the doors we traversed said, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, but clearly he didn’t give a fuck.

In fact, after we went through about the third or fourth such entrance, he turned and gave me the most mischievous smile imaginable. I think it tickled him to break rules. Like I said, sometimes he goes on road trips, even though he shouldn’t leave the plant for too long. Three days, he said, that’s the longest I usual go for. Just three days.

Most of the rest of the time we sit and listen to music. He has an enormous library of music, mostly digital. But he also has old vinyl. My great-granddad had lots of old vinyl. He left some to me, but I wasn’t able to take it with me as I moved from one place to another.

The collection includes ancient classical music, old jazz from two centuries ago, and bogo music, the sound of rebellion for my generation. Every generation has a soundtrack for its angst. For mine, it was bogo from the 2110s.

I’ll never forget the time when something had put me in a funk and I put on some bogo full volume. I was probably 14 or 15 at the time. It was like pumping caffeine into my veins. I started bogo dancing and in the process trashed my bedroom good. Pictures smashed, holes kicked in the wall, my desk knocked over. I thrashed the place, everything except the player. I needed it to keep feeding me, fueling the rage I expressed without words or even grunts, just with my fists and feet. I got grounded for a long time after that, but it felt good to destroy that room.

I told Walter about this youthful melodrama, and he smiled. Later on, during one of our tours of the plant, we reached the main control room. He turned to me, that same mischievous smile painted on his face, and he said, Don’t get any ideas in the control room.

No sir, I said, no bogo in the control room. I think I may have been blushing.

I told him about my books, and how I missed them. He nodded, understood. He loved books, too. He had a modest collection compared to the one back at my house, but it was still nice to be around them, to touch them and breath in their essence. Nothing revives me faster than the scent of an old book. That and bogo.

It’s been an extraordinary past few days.

Just now, after dinner, he said that he wanted to show me something tomorrow. He said that it would put everything into perspective. He said nothing further, but now I obsess over it. What could he have meant? I thought we had gone through every forbidden room in the place. What more did he have to show me?


Another hiatus for the gar spot was not in the plans. But the fates dictated otherwise.

A week and a half ago, a medical emergency rushed me to hospital and kept me there for about 5 days. I then had a subsequent trip to the emergency room, where they kept me overnight. Nasty infections, in the blood and skin, triggered both trips.

The good news is that I have full health coverage and it actually works. The better news is that my sister is in town to help out. And the best news is that I really did marry that right man – not that I doubted that for a second – who has gone beyond above and beyond to take care of me at home, and during the crisis, to make sure that the doctors and nurses attended to me properly. No matter how good the the health care, one always needs a good advocate to make sure that things happen properly. My love fulfilled that role in spades. (Danke, mein Liebchen!) Though I will say the care I have received so far has been very good.

I was working on the next installment of “The Dust Journals” when this mess hit. But life happens. It will be there when I’m well enough to sit at the computer for an extended period. Meanwhile, I continue to rest and recoup.

the gar spot will return in the fullness of time. Watch this space. And thanks for reading.

Lift Every Voice, Revisited

The bells at Berkeley will ring out “Lift Every Voice and Sing” today at noon, the end result of an effort spearheaded by the UC Berkeley Black Staff and Faculty Organization. I’m reminded of the scene I wrote involving that seminal piece of African American history for my book Sin Against the Race. In the scene, my characters Bill and Alfonso feel conflicted by their pride for everything the song represents and their knowledge that many at their church would treat them as “brother outsiders” for being gay. These feelings came from my own conflict, the result of hearing the song for the first time in decades at an all-black gathering celebrating recent law school graduates. It was a profound moment for me, as a forty-something, long-time out gay dude to feel such conflict. I immediately incorporated it into my story. I had to. The feelings were too strong.

Here is how that section of the book looks nowadays. The earlier version can be found here.


Sunday Morning, Beacon Hill First Baptist, The Huck – Southside, 10ish

Alfonso had to stay close to his family, but when he noticed Bill entering the sanctuary, he held back. They greeted each other with a setting-appropriate manly hug. Then Bill laughed at Alfonso’s hair. The other night, after their conquest of Boy’s Town, Bill slowly picked out his braids on the bus ride home – Cinderella turned into a pumpkin again. Alfonso’s hair looked wild and untamed when Bill finished, just like Enkidu’s in Roy’s drawing. Now it has returned to conformity.

“You ready?” Bill said.

“Just waiting for the end,” Alfonso said.

Their eyes communicated much, a code spoken inviolately behind the wisp of their lavender veil.

“Well, take care, bro,” Bill said.

Alfonso broke protocol and grabbed Bill for a more-than-manly hug. He needed it, and Bill was happy to give it to him.

Soon, both found and sat with their respective families in the pews. Bill sat with his mother Marilene and his brother Derek about 8 rows back from the front. Alfonso’s family occupied the front row, naturally. Both scanned the sanctuary. It looked fuller than it ever had on any previous Sunday. That gave them both pause. Did all of these people come out just because they felt their world threatened by the Carver Street people, by folks like me?

Each, in time, thought that might have been paranoia talking. This was clearly a major social event, a see-and-be-seen do. The sanctuary screamed money. Suits came well pressed and in three-piece. Dresses looked never worn. Fly hats saw first light out of the milliner’s. And a battalion of colognes and perfumes choked the air as they battled for supremacy. Even Bill’s mother thought it was all too much. Derek, shackled with a tie he hated, whispered to Bill, “Negro bling-fest.” No doubt, he said back.

Reverend Johnson strolled across the stage to the pulpit, passing the row of reverends sitting stage right, his teeth beaming at the throngs that filled his capacious church.

“Bless you all this good morning!”

“Amen!” the congregation responded.

“I say again, bless you all this good morning!”

“Amen!” the congregation repeated with greater volume.

“Yes, indeed! Before we start the program of this blessed day, I’d like to make an announcement. Just a short time ago, our police have removed the so-called ‘protest’ that for too long besmirched the northwest corner of the park.”

Applause erupted instantly and sustained itself as Reverend Johnson kept speaking.

“We have, my friends, we have Councilman Berry’s tireless dedication to keeping our community whole and safe to thank for this action.” He let loose his broadest, toothiest smile as an extended hand gestured towards Ford Berry in the front row. The Councilman stood and nodded modestly.

Alfonso clapped along with his sisters and his mother, but softly and largely for show. The applause rang loudly in his ears and his hollowed gut amplified it. All the while he thought of Eddie, after whom the encampment was named. None of these folks knew Eddie or saw him after the crowbars got through with him.

“We will start this blessed day,” Reverend Johnson said, as the thunder died, “with the singing of the national anthems. All who can please rise.”

The choir, composed of singers from all of the participating churches, stood stage left. The organist sat center stage under a huge banner that read UNITY. He led the choir and congregation through the Star-Spangled Banner. Most sang with their hands over their hearts.

After they finished, the organist struck a familiar set of chords to introduce the next anthem.

“You still remember how to play this?” Bill’s mother asked.

He nodded as he thought about the chords and their fingering. G7, C, E7/B, A.

Bill asked Anthony to teach him “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at their first session together. The old anthem served as a shield and talisman against the hatred and de facto segregation of his hometown and was sung at all ceremonies, large and small. Thus it held a deep meaning for him. It had been a while since he last heard or sang it.

Then a disturbing thought crossed his mind: was it still his song to claim? Like Alfonso, Bill felt depth charges pulverize his gut when the room erupted rapturously over the takedown of Eddie’s Grove. He could measure his otherness by each handclap.

Similar anxieties haunted him after his first break with the church. That summer, he and Gabriel spent their Sundays riding their hand-built raft down stream to their private spot to skinny dip. Their travels took them behind his family’s church. When they passed it, Bill’s stomach did mild summersaults. His worst fear was to have folks from the church look at him in his skivvies next to another man similarly clad. Would they stone him and cast him out of the tribe? Worse, would his family disown him? The moment never happened, but it remained a lingering threat.

No, he muttered, they can’t take this away from me. They can’t take this away from us.

Bill stared hard towards the front. He saw Gabriel on the pulpit in his fatigues, hoping the green would camouflage the difference that chewed inside of him. He saw Samuel Turner on the pulpit, presenting the gay youth that came to his store seeking shelter and comfort and acceptance. He saw Auntie Vera on the pulpit in her towering splendor reminding people of the humanity that vanished for her around the time she claimed different pronouns. He saw Anthony, his old music teacher, on the pulpit, too scared to do anything but play his keyboards, even when the sermons tore his soul asunder. Finally, he saw his sistah Alfonso on the pulpit in silence, looking towards his father, hoping for once to be seen and appreciated as he truly appeared.

Emboldened by the presence of those he carried with him, Bill lifted his voice louder and, like the old radicals did back home whenever they sang the anthem, he raised his left fist in a Black Power salute. Derek saw his brother and did the same. Folks began turning their attention from the pulpit and the Berrys to the Hawk brothers living large. Alfonso even turned and looked. When he saw what was happening, he felt vindicated. “Yes!” he muttered.

Marilene said nothing, but felt proud that her boys acted as they did in the sididdy crowd.

Hiding From Monsters

We all hide from monsters sometimes. Part of the Doctor Who legacy continues to be its penchant for sending its younger fans hiding behind the relative safety of the sofa, terrified of the monster of the week. We all hide from monsters, but sometimes for different reasons.

I haven’t written a word about Ferguson or the killing of Michael Brown in part because I hid behind the sofa. Though I kept up with the story, I found it hard to put words together. Hadn’t I said all this before? The Big Scary Black Man syndrome reared its ugly head again. This time, an obtuse police overreaction accompanied the unnecessary killing of an unarmed young black man. And a whole community was brutalized as a result.

I saw the military equipment and gear used by the Ferguson police department and all I could do was sit slack-jawed. The worst memories and stories from the past returned. My family lived well within the zone of LA affected by the Watts Riots. Tanks rolled down the streets, they told me. My parents had a hard time getting groceries, including formula for the youngest Russell at the time, the future writer and blogger, because the stores could not receive deliveries. South Central LA had effectively been blocked off from the rest of the city, indeed from the rest of the world.

My first thought about Ferguson was that it seemed a land cutoff from the rest of the world, a throwback to the 50s: a majority black town with a largely white government and police force. In 2014? This was a monster I thought we had defeated long ago.

The question isn’t about my hiding behind the sofa to spare my psyche from this rerun of history. The question is, who else continues to hide from the reality of race in the US? Who continues to believe that there is no racism? Who believes that unarmed black men should be shot when they don’t do or say exactly the right thing, whatever that is? Who thinks that it is normal to use military equipment, and loads of teargas, to quell peaceful demonstrators?

The true terror of the Ferguson experience is the revelation that all of these monsters continue to bedevil us. The Big Scary Black People doctrine remains as firmly entrenched now as it did in the 1950s and 60s. In the minds of those who adhere to this doctrine, the police reaction in Ferguson seemed perfectly normal. It’s a means to an end, to keep “those people” from getting out of hand.

Some folks fear black rage, not just because black people are “scary,” but because they know that black folks have been wronged for so long. They project how they would react to such a legacy of mistreatment then fear such a reprisal. Such people would rather hide behind their sofas, and let the police deal with it, rather than look within themselves and discover how their attitudes contribute to the very problem of race in the US.

I hide behind the sofa to maintain my sanity because being black 24/7 can be wearing on the nerves. But others hide to avoid the issue altogether. And that’s not helpful.

The Writing Process Blog Tour

Patricia Dunn and I stayed up long nights back in college to put together an alternative campus newspaper. She had a friend who owned a computer – exciting enough in the mid-80s – but it also had desktop publishing software. We were in awe. I remember having to space out columns the old-fashioned way in high school. But Pat hooked us up to the big time. We had big dreams, and we still do.

A couple of years ago saw the release of Pat’s kick-ass debut young adult novel “Rebels by Accident.” As she works on her next great book, she took time to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour, and she asked if I could participate.

Another story from the past: When Pat and I first met at UCLA, she talked to me about starting an alternative campus paper. I literally jumped up and down in excitement. She stared at me with a polite smile that barely hid her East Coast leery, “who-is-this-wacko” look. As noted above, though, we led our comrades-in-arms in making a pretty decent paper. (It featured, among other things, probably one of the last interviews granted by celebrated yippie Abbie Hoffman.)

This time around, it was Pat’s turn to, figuratively, jump up-and-down in excitement as she e-mailed to convince me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour. Urgency rang from her every word, and despite my leeriness of taking on another writing project, I quickly said yes.

So thank you, Pat, for your excited, though gentle, nudge. (Here is her entry for the Blog Tour published last week.)

Writing Process Blog Tour has four questions:

1) What are you working on?

the gar spot is approaching its fourth anniversary this fall. It continues to receive the bulk of my writing attention. Though admittedly, this year has been a bit of a slacker, for unfortunate reasons. However, I’m currently in the midst of a dystopian serial set in the Bay Area in the year 2157. The Bay has swollen and swallowed up much of what was once Oakland and Berkeley – Emeryville is history by this point. Water is strictly rationed. And my protagonist has to find a new source after he learns that the house he’s been squatting in for a long while, somewhere in the Lafayette area, will no longer receive regular water service. At the moment, he’s just been rescued from starvation and dehydration, but he doesn’t know yet by whom. To be continued.

I’m also starting a second book manuscript, about which I don’t want to say too much, adhering to an old James Baldwin superstition about talking too much about current projects. However, I will say that the story involves gay teen runaways and you can find hints of the story here and here.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Idol Duke Ellington famously said that he hated categories. The highest complement he paid someone was to say that s/he was “beyond category.”

the gar spot is best described by its tagline. In that sense, it is certainly beyond category. Fiction appears one week, ranting essays the next. It all depends on the mood.

I don’t know what genre my fiction falls into. General? Black? Gay? Categories, bah! A Jedi craves not these things.

However, most of my fiction deals with black and gay characters. How does my work in this area differ from others who have written similar pieces? Hard to say. I just see myself as part of a continuum, telling the stories.

3) Why do you write what you do?

For a time in the 90s, it was fashionable in queer lit circles to declare that the “coming out” story was passé, hackneyed. To this I say hogwash. First, there are likely as many coming out stories as there are snowflakes on a whitened field. Each snowflake is made of water ice crystals, but that’s where the similarities end. Similarly, each human story takes on different shades, nuances, and subtleties. Each story is worthy of its own telling.

Second, we have had a glut of boy-meets-girl/boy-lose-girl stories dating back to the beginning of time. Even Romeo and Juliet was a cliché when the Bard of Avon penned the play. And yet, there continues to be no shortage of such stories. Why should we stifle ours? I can’t help but wonder if some form of deeply buried, internalized homophobia is at work when queer writers complain about coming out stories.

In my mind, black gay folks are not well represented in writing. I write to help correct that omission. I am by no means the end all be all of black queer folks. Far from it. But I have a voice, and I strive to put it to the best use I can.

4) How does your writing process work?

Generally speaking I prefer peaceful solitude and a clean desk. I’m rather fanatical about having the desk where my computer sits free of clutter. The return can have junk on it, but the space I see while writing has only my computer, its speakers, the volume control, the keyboard charger, and my iPhone in its charger. That’s it. It’s a clear glass desk with a clear glass keyboard tray. I can’t untangle the clutter in my head if I’m faced with clutter. Distractions are deadly.

I stick to natural light during the day and keep the lights dimmed at night, using an LED task light – I’ve never been one for bright overhead lights. And, when I don’t require silence, I play instrumental jazz. (Vocals can cause a collision with the words trying to get out of my head.) When I’m editing a long work, like a book manuscript, then I typically turn to Wayne Shorter’s seminal masterpiece Speak No Evil. That sets the mood better than anything else.

I have software to help organize the writing process. I can do virtual flashcards, character notes, scene notes, and other such things on the computer. Sometimes I’ve been known to do an outline. But I usually rely on the “thought-experiment” approach. I think things out ahead of time – scenes, characters, emotions, actions, motivations. When a picture has crystalized, then I start writing it out to see where I can go with it. If it works, splendid. If it doesn’t, then I usually know because I get slugging about getting back to it again. A day or two might pass, then I’ll finally say, “Yeah, OK, that sucked.” That’s when I’ll tear it asunder and either rework it majorly or start over. It has taken a while, but I have finally trained myself not to “settle” for anything. “Good enough” means, “I’m sick of working on it.” That way leads to death.

Thank you again, Pat, for your enthusiasm and invitation to take part in the Writing Process Blog Tour.

I’m proud and happy to introduce Hans Hirschi, an excellent writer and blogger, who will continue the Writing Process tour on his blog Tumbleweed’s World next week. Here is more about Hans:

Hans M. Hirschi (b. 1967) has been writing stories ever since he was a child. Adulthood and the demands of corporate life efficiently put an end to his fictional writing for over twenty years.

A global executive in training and channel development, Hans has traveled the world and had previously published non-fictional titles.

The birth of his son and the subsequent parental leave provided him with the opportunity to unleash his creative writing once again. With little influence over his brain’s creative workings, he indulges it, going with the flow.

A deeply rooted passion for, faith in a better world, in love, tolerance and diversity are a red thread throughout both his creative and non-fictional work. His novels might best be described as “literary romance, engaging characters and relevant stories that won’t leave you untouched, but hopeful.”

Hans is a proud member of the Swedish Writers’ Union, the Writers’ Center in Sweden and serves as chair of the Swedish Federation of Self- & Independent Publishers.