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.

The Dust Journals – Part IX

Monday, February 27, 2157

I found myself in a bed.

It has a white frame with arching head- and footboards made of metal. The sheets are clean and the mattress is comfortable.

It looks like one of those hospital beds you see in old World War II movies, but this bed looks too new to be 200-plus years old. Who knows. Next to me is a matching white night stand, tall and square, with a pitcher of water and a glass on it. Without thinking, I poured myself some water and drank it down in one gulp. Then I had some more.

I don’t know now long I’ve been in this room. The last thing I remember was pining for my books. I may have collapsed. I may be in heaven. I don’t know. I may be in the other place, but that I reject out of hand. I have been in the other place. It wasn’t like this.

I remember dreaming. The details escape me now as I collect my thoughts and myself. The one theme I remember from the dreams was the sound of ocean waves.

The ocean scared me as a kid, a fear I kept closely guarded. Whenever we took trips to the sea, I remember going close to the shore only with one of the adults in my life, never alone. It felt like a ritual I had to go through. I walked in small steps to the waters edge. My mom or dad or uncle or aunt would launch his or herself into the water with full abandon. I let the waters lick my feet while I stood motionless, eyes fixed on the enormity before me. I allowed the licking and teasing for a period of time, long enough to answer, yes, I played in the water, when ask if I had gone in. Then I would turn slowly and walk the other way. I made sure not to run. I fought hard not to display any of the fear that engulfed me. I would then spend the rest of our time at the beach making sandcastles, far away from the licking waters of the encroaching ocean. I never turned my back on it. My castles always faced inland. They lacked a proper ocean view.

Folks left me alone because they figured I just like making sandcastles. It was an effective front to mask my fear.

At night, as a kid, I dreamt of drowning. I knew how to swim. I learned in a pool. But I never applied that knowledge to the ocean or even a large lake because of the drowning nightmares I always had. They always followed the same pattern. I’m in the water, swimming, then suddenly, I was under the surface, going deeper and deeper. Strange sea creatures attended my descent. Then a panic hit me that I’m running out of air. I try to swim back to the surface, but can’t. My arms and legs no longer function. I’m stuck floating haplessly underwater until I’m able to wake myself up.

These nightmares began when I was very young, too young to have known about the changes the planet had been going through for 100 years before my birth. By the time I came around, though, at the dawn of the 22nd century, it was a done deal. So perhaps knowledge of what was came programmed in my DNA. Perhaps that’s where my fear of water came from, a fear so profound that I wouldn’t ever say or write the word, at least until quite recently.

But in this room, I can hear the waves as they crash on the craggy shoreline outside the window. Out beyond is the swollen San Francisco Bay.

My great-granddad put a lot of his faith in a barrier being built to keep the Bay from rising. It sat just beyond the Golden Gate. He told me how he would ride his bike across the Golden Gate Bridge and stare for hours as construction ships put this large dike together. He spoke of the progress mankind has made. We are ready for anything nature throws at us, he said. He said he understood the inner workings of the dike because of our Dutch heritage. We’ve fought the sea for centuries, he said.

The sea won that battle. The dike barely lasted 2 years after it was finished before it began to crumble and decay. The quakes didn’t help. Great-granddad never came to look at what happened. But he always had a vacant look in his eyes when he talked about it. In unguarded moments, I could hear him mutter, it should have worked. It should have worked.

Now the ocean fills the bay. Its force creates impressive waves. And I find their sounds soothing. The waves no longer frighten me. I no longer fear drowning in them. Again I mused that maybe I’ve died already, thus I have nothing left to fear. Except that in death, I do not think I would have hunger. And I’m starving.

Oh! Yes, I can remember one of the dreams I had. I was swimming in the ocean and I was swimming underwater. But I wasn’t drowning. Somehow, I could stay underwater for as long as I wanted without the need to surface for air. I swam among kelp beds and schools of fish. We all just hung out together. Had I evolved gills? I don’t think so. But perhaps I had evolved beyond fear.

Hunger is pushing me to go towards the door of this room and see what’s on the other side. And who. But I linger in my bed longer, sipping water, and listen to the waves.

The Dust Journals – Part VIII

Friday, February 24, 2157

Destitute was one of those words my great-granddad did not believe in. Whenever he heard that a group of people were destitute, the first thing he would ask was, Well, do they have a television? A car? A dishwasher? If they do, then they don’t sound ‘destitute’ to me!

If pushed further, he would say, Well, they probably did it to themselves, then. The folks that used to push carts around, hunting scrap metal to trade for money; the folks that used to hang out in parks talking to themselves while soiling their clothing; the folks that used to hang out on busy corners (when there used to be busy corners), holding their hands out, asking for spare change: they were all losers, in great-granddad’s mind. Losers.

I’m now a loser. I look the part. I smell the part. I feel the part. My mind inhabits the part. It is stuck there, in that mindset. Destitute. So now, I guess, I am a failure.

Or am I? If I lived in an A or B zone, in a nice house with lots of food and water running freely from every tap in the house, wouldn’t I be considered a success? But are such people successes? Through their own form of trickery, deceit, or plain dumb luck, they managed to have when so many, so very, very, very many have none. They’re doing it the easy way. Money always makes it seem so easy.

I have no money. Therefore, I am destitute. But am I a failure? Yes. But I realized long ago that I am a failure, so confirmation of that fact by my current circumstances is actually very reassuring to me. I realized when I was 20 that we’re all fucking failures. Look at us. I mean, look at us!

Great-granddad said that this region supported over 6 million people. I bet barely 600 live around the bay anymore. And we call that success?

Folks had jobs and money. Folks had food and water. Now most don’t. And we call that success?

No, there is no success. We destroyed everything. That some people are still able to use their money to cling to a past existence, the ghost of one, doesn’t make them better. Frankly, it makes them pathetic.

So what am I? A raving lunatic off his meds? A disheveled old fool nearly starved to death? That’s how folks would label me, an effective way to ignore the words I’m pouring out, more regularly that I pour out piss.

Maybe I am dying. And maybe I am having delusions.

I still can’t get over that hippy cult. That will stay with me for life. I still see those horrible children, those poor, poor horrible children, dying, puking themselves to death, poisoned by the filth force fed to them by their psychotic elders.

Those kids and that encampment are the very definition of failure. They are destitute incarnate. They are a fitting symbol of our society, of our world. What counts as civilization in the A and B zones are mere ghosts from the past, echoes of an era clinging on for its own sake. In reality, we are all The Hippies.

So now I’m starving. I had barely eaten anything before I ran into them, and now I haven’t eaten anything since. What little water I’ve had I collected at the drug store nearly a week ago. That I’ve stretched it out this far is a miracle.

I can see the desal plant. It looms in the distance like a scene from Kafka, dark greys and smokestacks. It looks so quiet in the distance. And it looks so near, but then you know, the mountains always look closer than they appear. You try walking towards them, and they forever recede from your reach.

That’s how this plant is treating me, forever receding.

And I keep finding things getting in the way. Inlets, lagoons, and estuaries, all cropping up along the shoreline, impeding my progress. I’m so tired I can’t think anymore. And if I can’t think, then I can’t figure out where I’m going or what I’m doing.

Dear god. Why did I make this journey? Why didn’t I just move to another area. I can’t even imagine getting back home. What the hell was I thinking?

My books. I so miss my books.

The Dust Journals – Part VII

Wednesday, February 22, 2157

I had to get out of there, fast. I exited as gracefully as I could, seeing how they took me in and listened to my tales of woe and fed me, etc. But I had to get the hell out of there.

I found out more about their “embrace” with water. It made me sick.

They call themselves evolvers. I’ve heard about folks like this, but always thought it was just another one of those tales that you heard, just some made-up bullshit. This was not bullshit. They are deadly serious.

So the idea behind the evolvers’ movement is that sooner or later, humanity will evolve and adapt to the planet in its current state. One group of evolvers believe that we’ll turn into human camels and gain the ability to go weeks at a time without drinking water. So camel evolvers put on lots of weight, thinking that their excess fat will store the water. From what I’ve heard, most have died from heart disease before they could find out.

But this group, the Berkeley hippy group, they believe that in time humans will be able to drink seawater without any ill effects. Natural selection will weed out those who can’t take it. We came from the sea originally, they explained, so why not return to it? At first I was amused.

But then I learned more, much more, more than any sane person would want to know and this is why I had to get the hell out of there.

Behind a dune were several little mounds surrounded by rocks and seashells. I asked one of them, Lydia, what was this. She called it the resting place. I saw right through that euphemism.

Oh, I said, you mean the cemetery. She nodded.

But they were all so small, the mounds. Children? She nodded.

They didn’t make it, she said.

How sad, I thought. I didn’t see many kids around, maybe a couple. It wasn’t like they weren’t trying. I could hear it. Back in the day, we called it tent hopping. Everyone seemed to sleep with everyone else. Whatever, I thought. They were hippies, fucking the system in addition to each other.

But it all came together late at night. I couldn’t sleep so I got up and walked around. I came across them all, huddled in a circle with three kids in the middle. This big guy held each kid in turn while Lydia and some other woman poured seawater down their throats. They coughed and sputtered and cried. It looked like torture. I stood there, frozen.

Then, later that night, each one of those kids got really, really sick. I had never seen anyone that sick before. They’re barfing themselves to death, I thought to myself.

Come morning, turns out I was a bit too accurate. One of them died. One was still very sick. And the third seemed to be OK.

I asked Lydia about it in a voice flushed with emotion, not my normal tact. We call it the test, she said, casually. The one who survives will be mated with another survivor, when they both reach puberty, she said. Natural selection takes time, she said, and we have to push the process along. She thought that in a couple more generations, they should have developed a group of super-beings capable of drinking anything.

By killing your fucking kids???!!! I wanted to scream at her, but didn’t. Instead, I just packed my shit up and left. They offered food, but I declined, bullshitting that they needed it more than I did or something.

But what I really needed was to get the fuck away from those baby killers. So that’s what’s with all the bed hopping. They mate to have kids so that they can put them through the test. Uh-uh. Sounds like a fucking sick cult to me. I’m outta here.

*     *     *

I walked along the seashore all day. Distance did not abate my anger. Those poor kids! I began throwing things. What sort of sick, fucked up world have we made? I shouted, to the gods.

As if to answer me, the way capricious gods are wont to do, the voices in my head returned. They did not shout at me. They spoke in a dull roar, but not so dull that I could ignore it. The voices gnawed at me, gently chiseling a knot in my stomach. Guilt can do nasty things to you. And as much as you try to put it out of your head, as much as you turn to look away from the guilt, you can’t help but look back at it, again and again. You stare at the thing that revolts you in a steady stream of snatched glances. I’ve often wondered if this is some form of slow torture. Or perhaps it’s part of a coping mechanism. By looking at the things you hate, the things you fear or loathe, do you slowly build up immunity to them?

I tell myself this to help me cope, though I already know the answer. I took a couple of pills. I don’t know if they have any juice left in them, but they seem to have helped. The voices have stilled for now.

Though I still see those kids, those poor, wretched kids. That I cannot erase, no matter how many pills I take.

The Dust Journals – Part VI

Sunday, February 19, 2157

I found what looks like a large, concrete building along the shoreline. And as the sun shifted, I could see solar panels reflecting on its roof. So I started walking towards the shore and figured I’d let it guide me along to what I hoped was my destination.

That’s when I came across an encampment. People! I didn’t think anyone lived over here anymore. Despite the desalinization plant, this is an E zone. Folks aren’t supposed to live here. No services at all.

But these folks seemed to be doing alright. They were a bit thin, a little gaunt. But they’re OK. And they are very kind to me. I told them where I came from and they were amazed. It’s a desert back there; we didn’t think anyone lived there anymore, they said.

I asked how long they had been here, since this was an E zone. They said they didn’t believe in the zone system. It’s just a way to keep people down, fragmented, one woman said. Another person said, we are not letters, we’re people. For some reason, I wanted to giggle, but I suppressed it.

Great-granddad would probably have called these people hippies. Since the beach is in what was once Telegraph Ave. that fits. Is this the old People’s Park I heard about? I didn’t ask.

The one thing I didn’t understand, though, was what they did for H2O.

You mean, water? They laughed.

They used the word casually, routinely.

You must embrace the water. Water is life.

It took me aback. It’s one of those societal norms that you just didn’t questions. There were certain words you didn’t say anymore, like n****r or f****t. Water was sort of like that. Some didn’t say it for religious reasons. Water had become a deity to them, and you did not invoke its name. For most others, it was so rare and precious a thing that it became painful to speak of it, even in directly.

I fell into the H2O camp when I was young. Saw no reason to change.

But these folks just said the word over and over. That amazed me.

As much as they said the word, though, I still did not understand where they got it from. I mean, they had to get it from somewhere. They never really answered the question, though. In time, I reckoned that they “acquired” (that is, stole) it from the desal-plant, where I was headed to get mine. In theory, even though the desal-plant was smack dab in the middle of an E zone, no one from an E zone should be able to acquire any. That’s because no one is supposed to live in E zones. So the only way they could get water from the plant was to steal it.

Maybe I found my Mad Maxers after all. They didn’t have big cars or tanks or semis. Only a few of them seemed to have any edge to them at all. The rest seemed kinda squishy. But here they were, living and thriving and screwing the system. More power to them.

The Dust Journals – Part V

Thursday, February 17, 2157

I can’t write today. I know I should, but I can’t. I’m still at the mouth of the tunnel and the voices returned.

They won’t leave me alone and I left my medicine at home. I was stupid and didn’t think bring it.

I put it out of my head. No! Stop it!

I put it out of my head that this might happen.

LOOK, THIS ISN’T MY FUCKING FAULT, ALRIGHT??? I WASN’T EVEN FUCKING BORN YET!!!!!

I don’t know what triggered it exactly. The bigger bay, lapping around what used to be the Berkeley campus.

STOP TORTURING ME!

No, I know what it is. My eyes fell on them first. The leaning towers, way in the distances. They call the pyramid the dancing lady. They say she shifts from side to. . .

LEAVE ME ALONE!! LEAVE ME ALONE!! STOP TORTURING ME! IT’S NOT MY FAULT! IT’S NOT MY FAULT!

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

Does that help? Look at me. I’m weathered. I’m tired. I’m thirsty. I’m hungry. I have nothing. I’m so very, very sorry.

Just please leave me alone.

 

Saturday, February 18, 2157

I came down the hill, a haggard mess, ranting and raving. But at least the voices have stopped.

That was the worst attack I’ve had in a very long time. And to think, I did not have my pills. Well, I found a drug store, abandoned, of course, like most everything else bay side. But at least it was abandoned in the last year or so, because the pills are only just reaching their expiration time. I just took one, though. That shut up the voices for a bit.

If there was a shrink around, I could talk to her. But I haven’t seen a doctor in years. They all live in A and B areas, inaccessible to me.

What would I tell the shrink? I don’t know if I’m able to talk about that just yet. I did some reading, though, back at the big house that does put it all in perspective for me. At least I know, that I’m not alone in my — what do I call it — absent guilt? Ghost guilt? Yes, I think ghost guilt works best. I’m not the first.

So yeah, here I am, somewhere on the Berkeley/Oakland border. Piedmont is an island. My god, this bay is enormous.

It just occurred to me that I don’t really know where this desalinization station is located. The flyers said Point Richmond, but that’s been under for ages. So I wonder where they mean? I’m trying to stay on the high side of things so that I can scan around and find the place. It’s gotta be big, hard to miss.

The pills aren’t the only thing that’s got me calm. I also refreshed my H2O supply. Found a tap that worked. My lucky day. So now I have more than when I started out. I can’t tell if its bay toilet stuff or not. But at this point, I don’t care. It’s wet.

The Dust Journals – Part IV

Thursday, February 17, 2157

I made it through the tunnel, but I have to tell this story first.

The last flight I ever took – I was probably 14 or something – we were coming back from Europe. We flew over Greenland part of the trip. Great-granddad told me about how it was this large sheet of white. For miles and miles, all you saw was white. He said he tried to find the hills and slopes and canyons camouflaged by the white.

Needless to say, by the time I flew over Greenland, it was a lot less white. But there was this one spot, this one patch that I saw every year. Every time we flew, and flew the circumpolar route, which was virtually every time, we flew over Greenland and I got to see my little patch of white.

Seeing it told me that the world wasn’t really going to hell, that it was gonna by OK, just like great-granddad used to say. He said that the doomsayers were just whiners that hated progress.

Right. OK? So, I had a thing for the patch of white. It gave my reassurance.

Then, on that last trip back from Europe, it vanished.

I looked and looked and could not find it. I got irritated. I rang the flight attendant. Where it is? I asked. He said he did not know what I was talking about. I said, the white patch. There was a white patch down there. He sort of smirked at me and said, Sir, there hasn’t been any white down there for a long, long time.

I told him you’re wrong, you’re wrong. There was a patch, a little patch of white and I pointed towards the ground through my porthole, jabbing my finger on the window, as if I were pointing at a place on a map.

And he walked away from me. Sorry kid, no white. Not anymore.

I got kinda hysterical. My father slapped me. Don’t make a scene.

And I wept to myself, leaning against the window. Greenland passed out of view, replaced by ocean. I didn’t make it up, I kept muttering. It was there! It was there!

In just a year, it had gone away.

That, in a nutshell, is the reason why I never wanted to go through the tunnel. I didn’t want to see what had become of what I once knew. I didn’t want to find anything missing, like the patch of white snow. I didn’t want reality to smirk at me and slap me in the face, like it did on the plane ride.

But I’m here now, at the mouth of the fourth bore on the bay side.

I can see the children of my little white patch from Greenland, playing with its relatives, lapping on shores of what used to be Piedmont. I found my little white patch. It had metastasized into a giant.

The day Betsy and Sue-Sis got married

My sister Betsy and her partner Sue got married today. They had been together for 14 years, but the wedding was a spontaneous thing. They were getting ready for work, getting the kids ready for summer day camp, the usual routine. Then they heard that the court struck down the gay marriage ban. Betsy said they were in the kitchen together laughing at something silly my nephew Willard said when little Peggy heard the news. The kitchen got real still. Then Sue burst into tears. Betsy grabbed hold of Sue. Willard started fist pumping in the air. And Peggy started jumping up and down.

The scene lasted for a few minutes then they moved on, just like the newscast in the background. Betsy said she and Sue kept looking at each other and smiling.

Finally, though, Peggy said real loud, “So are you gonna get married or what?

Betsy giggled. Then Sue. Then they both started crying between their giggles. Peggy and her brother started clapping and chanting, “Marry! Marry! Marry!”

Betsy said she and Sue looked at each other with deep, unspoken emotions.

Right then and there, they decided. No work that day. No day camp. The kids started running around, going bananas. Willard said he’d even wear the tie he hated. Peggy dashed outside to cut some hydrangeas from the backyard. “I’m gonna be the flower girl!” she proclaimed.

Betsy called me first. “Can you come?” she asked. Hell yeah, I told her.

I was the first one Betsy came out to. It was pretty rough in our family. Our other four siblings reacted in various degrees of alright. Our parents took a bit longer. They didn’t reject her, but they didn’t necessarily go out of their way to be supportive. I called it passive hostility. It took a near tragedy to change that. We almost lost Sue-Sis – that what I call her – in an awful car accident. She’s fine now, just a slight limp when she walks too much. But it was a bad thing.

Betsy, calm, methodical Betsy was near hysterical. None of us had ever seen her in that state before. But it was Sue-Sis’s family that really changed things. Sue grew up in California, though her family, ironically, was originally from out this way. Anyway, Sue’s parents came rushing out after they heard. Now I’m sure you’ve heard stories about how families freeze out a gay or lesbian partner during a crisis. Uh-uh. That’s not what happened. Sue’s folks spent nearly as much time with Betsy as they did with their own. They cooked for her. They took care of the kids. They spent time with all of us. They treated all of us as their own.

I remember sitting with my mom one evening. We were watching one of the late shows. Dad had already gone to bed. We talked. First, she called Sue ‘Sue-Sis’ like I always did. Then she said what beautiful parents she had. Then she just started weeping gently. I went to the sofa and sat next to her. The next morning, my dad said to me, “Sue comes from a very strong family. Very strong family. God bless them.”

It took a near tragedy, but I think they finally began to understand what this “gay stuff” was all about. That it really wasn’t about anything, except folks loving each other like they should.

Needless to say, my parents were all exciting when they heard of Betsy and Sue-Sis’s plan to marry. Dad called Sue-Sis’s parents in California. “You got Skype?” He wanted them to see it live. He had come full circle and was all Mr. P-FLAG. For a wedding suit he wore his “Straight, not narrow” t-shirt. It was too much.

The county clerk’s office was a joyous mob scene. We thought we’d be early, but a whole bunch of people missed work that morning. It was the perfect summer day. A June wedding day.

And the bigots came, too. There were only a handful of them as we filed into the county building, no more than 6, I think. But they were loud. More than that, they were full of fear. You could see it etched across their faces. They enclosed their souls behind barbed wire.

This one man in particular seemed really bent out of shape, stiff as a board and mad as hell. He kept going after this guy ahead of us in line. He shouted “You’re a fool! Satan’s fool! Satan will have his way with you!” Peggy giggled. I don’t know if he heard my niece mocking him, but he seemed to lay a glare on all of us as we strolled by. Only I seemed to notice. I think Betsy and Sue-Sis could only see each other.

It was a total party inside. Folks talked loud and proud. I heard Etta James singing “At Last” from a dozen different smart phones. The staff at the office had a couple of tables set up with punch and wedding cake. It was too much. Dad caught it all on his phone. I loved when the crowd started spontaneously shouting and clapping, and then settled back into its din of chaotic happiness.

During one of those lulls between shouts, that little man came inside, the one that glared at us, the one that yelled “Satan’s fool” over and over. I saw him scanning the crowd, real slowly. I got scared. Shit, I thought, this kook has a gun. I kept my eye on him, but no weapon appeared.

He finally pushed his way through the crowd and passed all of us until he got to the guy he gave grief to outside. Then all the harsh melted from his face. He said, “I’m sorry I yelled at you like that. I couldn’t help myself. You look so much like Jerry. Your name isn’t Jerry, is it?”

The man looked at him tentatively, and said no.

“No, of course not. That was a long time ago. I loved Jerry. God, I loved him so!”

He totally broke down. I mean totally. He just collapsed on the floor and wailed.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry to all of you! I’m so sorry!”

Sue-Sis whispered to me about him. Apparently he was the local leader of one of those anti-gay marriage groups. I probably saw him in the news and ignored him. Boy, what a coming out. Usually these guys get outed by some escort they hired. And then there was the case of this congressman. He got outed while running out of a bathhouse that was on fire. The TV cameras caught him, wearing only a towel.

The fire that destroyed this guy’s closet was one of his own making. It had probably been smoldering in his gut for years. It just took one face, a likeness from the past, to spark it.

The atmosphere of love and joy in the crowded space caused something amazing to happen. Folks went to the man and helped him up. Someone brought over a chair for him to sit on. Another brought him water. He stopped crying, but was visibly moved by the tender attention he received from total strangers.

“I have to go to him,” I said to Sue-Sis. She nodded. That gave me the courage I needed. I went to the table with the wedding cake, took a piece, and then brought it over to him. He thanked me.

“What’s your name?” I said.

“Steve.”

“When did you last see Jerry?”

“High school. We were in high school together, long time ago. It was so long ago. All morning I was thinking about him, after the court decision came down.”

Steve sat at his computer for a long while and googled Jerry’s name. It was the first time he had the courage to do even that, he said. But then his group called about the picket. He thought of not going, wanting to stay at his computer, to find Jerry’s picture somewhere in cyberspace.

“Seeing that man there, I don’t know.” He sort of chuckled to himself. “There’s no way he could have been Jerry. Jerry is my age.” He chuckled again. “No, he’s not Jerry.”

I told him about my sister and Sue-Sis, about their kids, about my dad skyping Sue-Sis’s family back in California. He seemed overwhelmed, but a gentle kindness outlined his face. Barbed wire no longer surrounded his soul.

“Steve, if Jerry were here, would you ask him to marry you?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know if I could do that just yet.”

“What if he asked you?”

Steve’s face turned longingly back to the man he thought was Jerry, now exchanging vows with his soon-to-be husband. He said nothing.

I took off my ring. It was not an important ring or a special ring. I actually found it on the ground a year ago and it fit, so I kept wearing it. This seemed like a good time to pass it on, so I gave it to Steve.

“Here,” I said, “in case you find Jerry and change you mind, alright?”

He took it from me, then held my hand in both of his.

“Thank you.”

I went back to my group. We would be up soon. Dad reached Sue-Sis’s family and we all shouted into his iPhone at them. The crowd echoed our shouting. When the shouts softened to the din again, I looked back towards Steve. He began nibbling the cake I gave him. A bit of the frosting stuck to his nose. He didn’t seem to mind.