Saturday, September 26, 2009

Shadows of a Twilight Empire: Chapter One

Reading over the blogs of two of my friends, Jeff Crook and Browning Keister, i'm realizing that my style and format are somewhat lacking. I'm not really discussing anything of radical importance to any "scene," and most of the work i do in this blog is dealing with the convolutions of my own twisted psyche. Outside of a couple of halfway-decent poems, most of this is just rambling, and probably incredibly boring to the people who persuse it (assuming that anyone does). I'm experiencing a sort of mental version of writer's cramp . . . the mental muscles i've used for so long to write poetry have been focused primarily on what i might call "slammetry," i.e., poetry specifically written to be performed. It's ironic that, while living in one of the spoken word capitals of the United States, i took very little advantage of the opportunities that surrounded me at the time. I've also wondered why i haven't "blogged" about my adventures and misadventures while living in NJ and then in NYC.


I lost most of my material wealth thanks to a housefire. I had books, CD's, and all of my papers certifying that, yes, in fact, i AM Robert Todd Pack, a legal resident of the United States, not a terrorist--well, an ART TERRORIST, maybe. Also most of my clothes and some knick-knacks that, while not exactly precious, certainly had some sentimental value. Part of this was that, apparently, a large box of my stuff i'd packed up was either mistaken for trash or simply purloined by the people who came in to fix the house. I was lucky to rescue my cat, my computer, certain books, and a couple of tomes of hard copy of my poetry. Pretty much everything else was toasted, smoked, or soaked. (Even this small scattering of stuff was later partially destroyed when the basement of the house i had lived in in the Bronx--where a lot of my stuff was stored until i returned to Roanoke--was flooded). As far as my job in NJ was concerned, that was the least of my worries . . . my district manager was happy to transfer me to a store in the Bronx . . . and my friend there was giving me a rent-free room for 6 months. I thought, "6 months, cool, i can accomplish a lot in that time, and will surely find some other place to live by that time." Some of my earlier journaling in my blog reveals that optimistic state of mind. I was getting good hours at my job, but i ended up spending a lot of what i gained as simple "mad money." I've never been very good with finances . . . an understatement, to be sure.

About a month after i'd moved into my furnished room in the Bronx, i was sitting on my bed, writing poetry, listening to some music, just pretty much chilling out. Outside, i heard 3 loud sounds that i immediatedly identified as gunfire. I'd never heard gunshots outside of a few adolescent hunting trips (and, partly because i couldn't keep my big mouth shut even when hunting, there weren't many of those either, because i succeeded in scaring off anything living that didn't require a hearing aid). I turned off my music, and outside heard a loud crowd of people . . . it sounded to me like a mob. One voice shouted out over the other voices, "We're number one! We're number one! We're STILL number one!" Then, as the other voices died out, i heard a car, and the same voice in a lower tone say, "Come on, let's get out of here." The car drove off . . . not speeding, but not taking it easy either. At that moment, my brain kinda vapor-locked, and i thought, "Oh, shit, i'm living in the Bronx." I was the whitest cracker on the block. Later on that night, some detectives came around, asking questions. I simply told them what i'd heard. When asked by one cop if i'd looked out the window when i heard the crowd, i said, "No, sir, i did NOT look out. I distinctly heard three shots, which meant that even if the shots were fired from a revolver, there were three bullets out there, and i didn't want my name on any of them." The cops took it easy on me, they could see i was shaken up a bit. That was an understatement. The next day, i saw a shrine up by the bodega, for a kid--he couldn't have been older than 16, if that--called "Li'l Bit." I stopped and lit a stick of nag champa incense that i carried around in my backpack, and said a brief prayer for the kid's family and friends. Three Black guys who were standing nearby watched me carefully while i did this, and as i stood up to leave, one of them stepped closer to me and said, "Good lookin' out." I looked in the newspapers the next day, but not one mention of the kid. NOT ONE. No, instead, the front pages were plastered with the latest Hollywood scandal. THIS KID HAD BEEN SHOT AND NOBODY GAVE A SHIT. When people hear my ranting or pronouncements about the media, the "system," etc., they call my paranoid or cynical. My parents have even said that. FUCK that, that was REALITY that night, and my idealistic visions were shattered as sure as if it was the gunshots that hit them. Crack, crack, crack! I also realized at that time the simple reality that a lot of New Yorkers seem to accept without a qualm: this stuff goes on all the time. The people i hung out with at the park--"Park Rats," some of them even took that moniker on themselves--could just as easily have been that boy. I think of how i'd felt if it had been Spider or Smoke or Shadow or Papo or Pharaoh or one of the other guys i now called friends, who'd been shot. I mean, Pharaoh even had scars where he'd been shot before--i'd seen 'em. I knew that a lot of those guys were what the "norms" would call "criminals," "hoods," or "degenerates." Almost all of them drank, and several of them used cocaine. Almost everyone at the Park smoked pot--even i did (yes, i smoked pot, okay, fucking deal with it), but almost everyone in NYC either smokes it or has smoked it at one time or another (wonder what my Grandmother with her "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" philosophy would have thought about that, ha ha). Mostly, when i went up to the park, i was either involved in playing Magic the Gathering, or talking poetry, philosophy, and theology. It always amazed me how many of these streetwise kats were actually intellectuals in wolves' clothing. Or maybe just intellectual wolves. And there i was, a sheep in wolves' clothing, not dangerous, not a fighter, a whitebread guy from the South, and yet i was accepted. It took a while . . . and not everyone there trusted me, i found out later--in fact, the ones that didn't trust me were the least trustworthy themselves, and seemed to regard my honesty and lack of "hood-pretense" with suspicion.

It was Spring and Summer, and i spent most of my days well into twilight and evening there, associating with riff-raff . . . or so some would say. There are no limits to friendship, and quite a few of them came to regard me almost as a go-to guy when it came to the Christian faith. I encountered some opposition because of it, but not as much as you might think. I was always willing to talk to someone who had questions, and didn't pretend to have all the answers, and i didn't try to cram my beliefs down people's throats. I felt like a Lone Ranger for a while, until Conscience and i met up and started to hang around. Jesus didn't get a corporate job or hang around with the high and mighty . . . He spent His time with the people who were lost, the "losers," the "outsiders." People knew that what i had, i shared. I'd buy energy drinks, candy, whatever, and just share them around. Smoke particularly started respecting me early on, because i brought him a matching hat, scarf, and a pair of gloves back when i was living in Jersey, after i'd started making a regular weekly trip to the park to hang out. Pharaoh and i had spent hours of time together at his place in Jersey, staying up all night playing "Soulcalibur 2." These guys weren't BAD people. Yes, they engaged in illegal activities. Yes, they did a lot of things that i wouldn't do, and i could have gotten "bagged" by association by cops who--in New York--are just as happy to harrass two for the price of one. I didn't have "respectable" friends. But i had friends who, at the very least, didn't pretend to be things that they weren't. Sure, they had flashy names, and some of the typical macho bragging went on, but everybody knew when it was real and when it was bullshit.

Whereto tends all this? Other than trying to give people a sort of play-by-play of my experiences, and how they've impacted me, i'm simply saying i'm fed up. I'm tired of the way these so-called "criminals" and "outcasts" are regarded by society. Even people who are close to me in every other way seem to look down on my friends. These are people who shared what little they had with me, and who helped me out in whatever way they could when i was down-and-out . . . i'll go into details about this in later posts (this has already turned into a rather wordy chapter). IF YOU CANNOT WALK AMONG THEM, YOU CANNOT HELP THEM. No amount of political action, ratification, "charity dinners," or other elitist posturings are going to do them any good. YOU DON'T KNOW THEM. And when one of them gets shot, you just label them "thugs," and think "good riddance." When you think like that, i want you to remember what the Ghost of Christmas Present said to Scrooge: "It may be that in the sight of Heaven, you are no more fit to live than this poor man's child."

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