Who am I?
I wish this was a question that was easier to answer, but it's not. I've been yearning my whole life to formulate a correct self-image, an approximation of what it means to be me, to no avail.
Ever since the the earliest moments of my childhood - at least, the one's that I can still remember - I've felt "different" than other people. Not the sort of difference that is something to rejoice about; when I looked into the mirror, at my puffy-cheeked face surrounded my masses of curly hair, I felt foreign from everything else, to the point of being excluded by definition. I was a mixture. An other. Something I didn't know how to face.
Now, this something wasn't simply a product of my ancestry, or the clothes I wore, it was an individual quirk of my shadow, that peculiar way my jaw jutted out from it's proper place, the way that I smelled after running around the block, gasping for air.
This something was my essence, that which by design differentiated, and I wasn't sure if I liked it all that much. To make it easier for me now, I'll simply refer to this kernel of self as "NAF", the shortest version of my name that's still recognizible, the mark I often left on videogame screens at Lucky Lanes or Albany Bowl. NAF is something I can examine, a fragment that I can touch, and NAF is the section you're now reading, and the segments that are sure to follow in its stead.
NAF is me. Allow me to introduce myself.
1. When Brown is Grey
None of the Above.
Whenver I fill out a form for some "authority", when the questions naturally come to "what I am", it seems to all boil down to color. When I was younger, say in the late 70's, "Black" was still an official category, one that I was forced to shade in with my number 2 lest uncomfortable questions be directed towards me. Everyone could see that I wasn't "White", everyone could quickly determine for themselves what they though my place in life should be, and everyone was absolutely wrong.
Example. I would go to the Food Farm in El Cerrito - the one that Lucky killed and morphed into it's own image - with my mother when she still did most of the food shopping. Looking for good apples, begging for popsicles, tugging on her arm for a quarter to play Donkey Kong Jr. or Phoenix, there would always be that peculiar double take from someone, somewhere, subtle enough that I can only truly identify it in retrospect. The "What are you doing with someone else's child?" frown.
Excuse me. This is my mother. I am her son. Can't you see her in my hair, the way that I walk along side? Or maybe you can't see past the "difference", the color, what you term "black" but it's not, I'm not.
The midnight sky is black. Closets are black. I'm brown.
Wait a minute. Here's another example. My best friend until late elementary school - Demond - lived basically across the street from me. Besides spending an inordinate amount of time with his family, and he mine, there were occasions when I would go somewhere with his parents, to buy something or whatever. One time, we went to a company picnic at his father's job, and during the festivities the same looks were directed towards me, but in an entirely different way. The "Look at that beautiful hair! (must be a friend of the family)" smile. I was too "light" to be anything else but mixed, to diffuse to be mistaken by strangers to be a part of his clan, no matter how close we appeared.
O.K. My hair may be nice to grab at. My skin may take on a complicated hue. But it's just as bad to exclude me from being "white" as it is to pigeon-hole me into "black, only less so than others". Make up your mind. Make up a word. Name me, I dare you.
Mixed. Mulatto. You know. One of those....people.
Thanks for the reassuring humanification at the end there, for a second I though you were going to objectify me, or, better yet, to ask for a tissue sample. Fine. Let's satify the insanely curious, those who wallow in my otherness.
When I was in elementary school, I often used to make cake frosting with my mother. It always started out white, but every once in a while the recipe called for an elaboration. So I would fetch the viles of food covering, the one's at the bottom right corner of the cabinet, where I could reach without a chair, and choose my weapon.
What do you get when you add one drop of coloring - just one drop, mind you - to the powered sugar? Depends on the color, you say, but it sure isn't white anymore.
Equivalent story. I've always loved milk. Up until fairly recently, I always drank 2%, because anything stronger tasted like someone put a stick of butter into the carton when I wasn't looking, and anything weaker tasted like milky water. Even better than milk was the chocolate kind, the concoction you make with spoon after spoon of light brown powder - which traditionally comes in a metal, rounded-corner box with a lid that's you have to pry off with your spoon tip.
How many spoonfulls of chocolate does it take to make the perfect glass of chocolate milk? Don't know until I taste it, you say, but if you can still see the milk, add another spoonfull.
I love light green frosting. The chocolate milk at my elementary school tasted like paint.
I can always tell when I get dirt under my fingernails because it's darker than my fingertips. That, and the taste when I pick popcorn out of my teeth.
To make matters clearer. One birthday party I had was held at Burger King, a couple of years after it opened. We got a tour of the kitchen, and when we passed by the freezer everyone noticed my store-bought birthday cake, except for me. It had Disney characters on it; I remember sucking the frosting off of Donald's webbed feet. In the Polaroid some staff member took of me in front of the cake, my face is as red at a beet. Either I was embarrassed by the paper crown I had on and the enormity of the affair itself, or it was my Native American blood showing through.
Did I mention that when I used to play little league - center field, mostly - I used to stare at the clouds, imagining myself among them, floating forever. All of this sky watching darkened my face a bit, but I never remember getting a sunburn.
Almost done. Until the end of High School I used to write my stories in pencil exclusively. I also used to draw a bunch, but I hated to ink in my work. There's something about the feel of graphite hitting paper, the way it blurs the line ever so slightly as you draw, the salty-bitter taste that the point makes as you chew on it, a little bit of the wood and yellow paint chips adding necessary seasoning. A blank piece of white paper was something to make airplanes out of; a piece of white paper with pen all over it was homework or a test; a piece of white paper with one tiny pencil mark on it was something to contemplate - do you add another mark, or reach for the eraser?
When I was younger I used to turn the color off of my TV set, because it invariably added interest. That is, until one day when my father told me to stop. You never know, it might get stuck that way. I frowned. I love shades of gray.
2. 3:13 AM
When I was born, Gretchen Miller was already 5 hours old.
I knew this ever since the 5th grade, when for some reason or another we revealed to each other the precise moments of our respective births. She was born on August 8, 1972, at around 10:00 at night, and I was born early the next morning. I don't know exactly where she was born (probably knew at one time or another) but I came into existence at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley.
The interesting thing about Gretchen is that ever since I understand how close temporally she was to me, I've always considered her to be something like a twin. Of course, we're not related in any way whatsoever, but little personality traits and predilictions that we both share always reinforced the connection I felt.
Before I go on about her, let me add a little background. When I was younger, particularly the time that I occupied at Fairmont Elementary School in El Cerrito (3rd to 6th, a period which I will inevitably keep coming back to), I read the daily horiscopes in the Oakland Tribune (and the Richmond Independent when it existed) "religiously", for lack of a better term. I didn't necessarily believe that such a blunt tool could say something specific about my life, so I approached it like a daily fortune-cookie, pieces of advice that were relatively safe to follow. Not one even remotely significant event in my life was mentioned before hand, but the periodic shoulder-nudges of "you will be lucky in love today" and "now is the time to change direction" always gave me something to look forward to, a little island of control. So, when it came to birthdays and the like, I was predispositioned to believe that some sort of correspondence between people could exist, either if their births were close enough, or they fell in the accepted spheres of compatable signs.
So, when I found out about Gretchen, I naturally began to look for the similarities that had to exist in an astrological, ordered universe. True, we both liked cloudy days, and rain was an extra special treat. Monty Python always cracked us up (a fact we didn't share until High School), cats were objects of worship, and we generally could complete each other's thoughts. There were other small things that it's hard to quantify out of context and in retrospect, but sufficed to say that we are strangely equivalent, if not compatable.
I use the term "compatable" in a very specific sense, divorced from all thoughts of romance. True, I did have a thing for her in 10th grade, and even back at Fairmont she always occupied a special place in my life. But that role was never designed to be that of a person I "liked", someone to become involved with if at all possible. No, she was my external reflection, a variation on the concept of the doppleganger - the fabeled "other you" walking around in China or some place as remote. I considered Gretchen my "looking glass" other, a fragmentary yet whole self that was as close to me as you could get, only different and uniquely individual.
The concept of "Gretchen" is me 5 hours removed, and Gretchen Miller was the person I had to meet sooner or later, as fate foretold. Lucky for my sake we met across a table in Room 9, when both of us were young enough to still appreciate the signifigance.
I don't read the horiscopes anymore, except for a good laugh. And I haven't seen Gretchen since we graduated from High School. But every August 8, just before I go to sleep, I always think of her as I brush my teeth. Is she there in the other room to the left of the mirror me? Does she still remember the time of my birth?
Probably not. But that's O.K., as long as I remember her's.
I talked to Minna Yost's cats.
Without the proper background information, this momentous event probably seems to be nothing more than an embarrassing admission to delirium. But it's not, and I did, and this is the story whether you want it or not.
You see, Minna was one of the two girls that I had the biggest crushes on during the 3rd grade (as did a number of my friends), and one rainy day I miraculously worked my way not only into both of their lives, but their houses as well. To understand the significance of this fact, I have to go back in time a bit, all the way to preschool. To my first "love".
Skytown, my first and perhaps best school, is a part of the First Unitarian Church of Kensington, which is a rather affluent hill-town that overlooks El Cerrito, Albany and Berkeley, California. Skytown has wooden and metal play equipment, bunnies and liquorice plants, gigantic pillows to read books on, and a two-story play house on the inside, complete with plastic carrots and baby-sized chairs. Skytown still exists, but not in the same way that it did for me when I was 2, running around with blocks in hand, or 4, reading the story of John Henry without any help. No, the Skytown that's important to me is dead, long since buried in the recesses of my heart, and even though I have pictures to look at, none of them tell of the pre-crushes that I had on all the girls, or the dreams of doom where death by train-wreck was greeted by mass mourning, and I could float above my grave and smile as everyone cried - "Oh, how we loved him so!" You know, the usual starry-eyed shit, the lonely stare that pressed on my chest from barely-conscious to post-collegic. It's true, I'm a hopeless romantic, and my first "love" is my only love, the same one that consoles and consumes me today. The faces have changed, and all are dear to me, but the concept remains the same: I'm lonely, then and now.
Well, perhaps not now. But then, back in the 3rd grade, I was slapped silly by smooth, smiling faces and all sorts of hair, by the way Minna turned our names backwards in Mrs. Lee's class, to produce the secret, sacred code that still pleases. "I'm Annim, and your Salohcin, and even though we barely know each other, turned around we're close friends." Turned around I could adore her openly, and whisper nonsense during silent reading that only she understood. Now, this bliss was temporary, of course - perhaps lasting a week at most - but while I overcame my shyness and stutter to reach out to her, and to all of the new faces that weren't around at my old school, I was happy beyond belief.
Happy when I played kickball during recess, or ran around Richmond Annex with Greg and Derek, or Demond and Spencer, getting into all sorts of trouble. There was the occasional theft - remember, shoplifting action figures and 5 cent candy really doesn't pay - but most of the time it was football-over-the-fence, let's-not-call-that-girl-yet-pretend-that-we-did, hide-and-go-seek and Freeze Tag: The Extended Version, with invisible shields and grenade launchers and magic bushes. Fun was fun, and we had more than our share of it to discover and sponge our faces with, but I still wasn't content. I wanted more.
Wanted to write a note and put it into Patricia Heuer's coat - "I like you" (which I did, anonymously, in the 4th or 5th grade - time blurs awkward pronouncements). Wanted to call Minna Yost - really call her, on the phone and everything - and be Greg smooth yet Nick shy, bringing back the turned-around world where we understood each other. I didn't know how to make this happen, but on one rainy day my feet gave up waiting for an heavenly epiphany, and walked me over to Patricia's house, as my yellow-rubber coat squeaked and my black-boots scuffed the sidewalk. I was heading towards Fairmont Elementary School, yet I was walking the Kearney St. way - her house was in my head more clearly than the theme song to Great Spacecoaster and Gary Gnu, and my toes reasoned in their dry safety that if they dragged me along with them to beside her lawn, and if I walked back and forth for 20 minutes or so, sooner or later I would be noticed, and something would happen. Well, something did happen. "What are you doing out there? Do you want to come in?" I wanted, and I did.
Little sweet snacks. Soft couch, warm feeling. I don't remember what was said, only that Pat and Minna were there, and I was talking to them, and laughing with them, and trying to stuff as much of that moment into my pockets as humanly possible, saving it for all of other stupid and dull rainy days future. I was almost out of room, when they decided to go over to Minna's house on Elm St. a few blocks away. "Would you like to come along?" I liked, and I did.
More snacks and a mother. Many chairs and another soft couch, and cats that snuggled and purred as we sat playing Sorry!. You know the game, the one that doesn't make much sense yet passes the time so cleanly, the one with stretched Hershey's kisses pieces and bold 60's graphics. Pat won and Minna won and I won, and I got to know her cats as the rain jumped back into the sky, as I looked at the mirror in her bathroom, and wondered if I was in the turned-around world or the real one. When we played it was real enough, and when I walked Pat half-way home, the final wave and yell gave me adequate acceleration to fly back up above Skytown, smiling as my friends pointed up in disbelief. "Oh, how we love him so!" I came down soon enough.
That day did and did not exist. It did exist when I saw Minna and Pat in times future, but it didn't when I actually tried to talk with them in the same way, or hazarded to brag to Greg and Derek about my accomplishment. They didn't need such tales, because they knew the phone magic and sweet talk that led to 6th grade spin-the-bottle at Johanna's house, and I didn't play - not for one second - because the girl I wanted wouldn't play either. Stalemate is the story of my love-life, and even though Minna moved away in the 4th grade, and Patricia remained nice yet increasingly distant, I was satisfied without actually winning the game. Sorry! seemed far better than most alternatives in my book.
So, what does talking to Minna Yost's cats mean to me now? It represents the possibility for wishes to actually materialize, if only on rainy days. It tells of how I have always longed for a comparable occasion to shine as completely, one that seems to come now and again, albeit for varying durations. And it reminds my turned-around self, the one that looks so awkward each morning, to listen to my feet more often, lest future dalliances go unmet due to halting shoe-steps.
For these reasons and more, I'm still playing that 3-way game of near-misses, and I don't intend on stopping any time soon.
[INSIDE] [SEE STUFF] [SEE THINGS] [SEE JUNK] [OUTSIDE]