Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Big Math, Bad Numbers 4: The Prick & The Photographer

Metal clanged and squeaked as our bus tumbled downhill to the North Central Avenue of Duluth. Double Bogey (our bus) must have been akin to Keith Richards in that it looked to be knocking on deaths door at every angle of its appearance, but somehow defied reality and all logic by living/driving  on. The Blend, my band, was on their last year of motivation to tour as broke and independent as we had been. The night would prove our final show in Duluth, a cursed and cold town housing the most recent lynching of an African-American in U.S. history.

It wasn’t the lynching or blatant prejudice toward people of color that made this our last run to Duluth. Honestly, the place was just too damn cold.

Arriving to Beaner’s, a warm-lit and well-taken care of coffee shop, the audience of a dozen or so people waited to either leave once we started blaring our amps or to stick around to see just exactly what the hell we were about. Without fail, as in the past several Duluth shows, a young white guy with his hat flipped backwards persisted in snapping shots with a high-powered camera worth as much as our drumkit. I’d met him once or twice, but would only recall his name when seeing it online next to the albums of live-show pictures he would post.

The show mule’d its way to the finish. We took our cut of just enough cash to cover half the gas it took to get there, and drove a lonely path back to Minneapolis in a short bus devoid of heater, full of fading spirits.

Back in the city before the night was finished, the fraternity was abuzz with whatever socialites dared conjure past midnight. Doug, fatefully nicknamed as Doug E. Fresh by our fraternity chapter, always held an open door at the house. Seeking anything other than Duluth, and just checking to make sure we didn’t drive through a wormhole on the way back to Minneapolis landing us in an alternative universe where Duluth was the last town on earth, I stopped by Doug’s place to chat.

“So…”, Doug said mid-conversation, a little confused how to even phrase what he was about to say, “Where do you get your money from?” It was an honest question, admirable in a way as Doug isn’t really the type to break etiquette and push an off-the-cliff rude natured assumption. More so, it was understandable. I hadn’t held a full-time job since knowing him, and only ever really talked of touring with music and theater troupes.

“I- uhh, I do music… I just travel to different cities and do shows” I answered. My retort was delivered sheepish as the question was asked. Doug and I were on foreign water. No one had ever asked me how I make a living up until that point, but it forced me into an immediate recognition of my purpose and career. Sadly the two of these don’t fall into the same pot for some people. I know many to have passion for a career outside of their job. The fear of stepping into undisclosed financial waters weighs a Westerner down- down far enough to take on a job & boss they loathe, but a paycheck that would repress rage from setting forth.

Checking the internet later, I saw the pictures from the Duluth show posted on Facebook. They weren’t bad, they looked almost as expensive as the camera that took them. Click, copy, paste- now, one of’em is my Facebook profile picture.

No more than five minutes passed- my inbox rang with a new message. “I appreciate you posting my photo as your new profile pic, but could you please credit me in the description on the pic? Thanks, Cal Carlyle.” Aha! The photographer from the show… Cal Carlyle. A name I had forgotten several times over, but would remember it from now on.

Easy enough, I credited his name in the picture, moved on… but not quite. It tumbled in my mind “Who asks a question like that? Does he seriously think people will look at my profile pic description and say “holy shit I wanna hire that guy”? I guess he’s trying to get his name out there, but what does it matter if I credit him on Facebook (the community enquirer, the local star, the gossip girl of little to no credibility)?” None of it mattered no matter how I phrased it. What lurked in the deeper recesses was far more simple than what I was asking: How did he know I changed my profile pic within five minutes of it happening?

Months later at a Blend show in Minneapolis, there he was again surveying our live performance, snapping shots with an even bigger camera than last. The lens protruded from the camera’s base as if he should be courtside at a Lakers game more so than our show. It was clear, Cal Carlyle wasn’t fucking around. Photography was his game, and he made for damn sure you credited his name. His business grew and flourished online dawning a website of wedding photos & crisp snap shots from live music shows to beautiful cityscapes. Between Cal and The Blend, one was swimming above water.

Cal Carlyle & I would make acquaintance a few times after his move to Minneapolis from Duluth; he helped me buy my first camera and traveled with The Blend on tour to document our life on the road. Time passing, shows accumulating, audiences growing and dissipating at the same time, Cal’s name began to dominate the Twin Cities for live show photography. What remained in the background that most of us musicians didn’t see was his wedding photo work. A hired photographer can charge a minimum of 3000 for a wedding, while a live band might make 1000 performing at a festival. Trust me, I was offered it for a festival on the east coast this year, no flight included. The disparity between the paycheck of a freelance photographer and a blue collar, independent, unsigned musician is Grand Canyon-esque, and was clearly out of my mind’s grasp as Cal & I began to drift apart… in business, and in good standing.

The Blend had finished recording its most recent, and what looked to be final, album “Breathing Without A Pulse”. The project lay unmixed in a northeast studio where I would need at least 2000 more to get it mixed and mastered, and possibly another 800 to get it printed. I couldn’t kid myself anymore, the guitarist had vocally expressed his want to leave the group, the bassist was as elusive as Edward Snowden and the drummer had moved four hours away from Minneapolis. I had to pull the plug.

Biking from the studio on a ratty 18-speed back to my apartment, the conversation with Doug bounced off the walls of my skull. If he had asked me the same question now “Where do you get your money from?”… I would have no answer for him. Something would have to give, otherwise I’d have to find a 9 to 5 and put writing on the back burner. I didn’t want to do it, and me being the stubborn asshole I am, I wouldn’t.

I reached out to Cal for a possible favor to shoot the cover of The Blend’s final album. We lined up a model and a concept, however the restaurant I worked at once-a-week called me in at the last minute detaining me from showing up to the shoot. Cal was pissed, and how could I blame him? I don’t know a soul that wouldn’t find it distasteful that I’d schedule a shoot at the same time I was on-call. I could have skipped, but getting fired and losing the extra hundred bucks a week would’ve pressed me against a wall I had no business being near in the first place. The shoot came out ok. However, when “Breathing Without A Pulse” was finally released, I went with a shot from a different photographer for the cover.

A text shot through the day to twenty some phones… one of which happened to be mine. I can’t recall the words in the text, but I remember the picture associated with it: my sister’s left hand with a giant rock tied around her ring finger. She was engaged… oh, and how we all knew it would be her before me (I look back, wink, drop on the shades and hit the gas to the motorcycle, here). As any good brother should do, I posted my congratulations to her and my future brother-in-law on facebook. In similar fashion to his photo credit inquiry, Cal Carlyle texted me less than 24 hours later “Never knew you had a sister? Sooooo, if she happens to need a photographer for her wedding, let me know.”

Always the business man Cal Carlyle was and still is. When all other options fell off the table, my sister took my advice to check out Cal’s website and covet him as a potential photographer for the wedding. My sister, blown away by his work, decided to go with him. The price tag was 2000 or more, but I knew Cal was worth it. Watching his work evolve over the years was a privilege and special opportunity I’d never had outside of music. To see an artist go from college freshmen to being hired year-round as an entrepreneur was a beautiful thing. Cal relayed a story to me of how he couldn’t even listen to his photography professors at the U of MN – Duluth for the sheer fact he knew more than they did. “If I’m sitting in your class, and I already know more than you about what you’re teaching… what does that say about you?” Cal exclaimed in a moment of humorous braggadocio.

Months passed, the wedding still on the horizon, I had started solo work rapping & singing over mixtapes with an producer/friend of mine Dr. Wylie. The solo project was reaching across the globe and catching online momentum faster than I had expected. In need of photography for the release of the 2nd mixtape, I decided to call Cal. He responded via facebook message- The bane of distancing yourself from anyone. You want to stay in touch, email. You want to get in touch, text. But if you want to convey “I don’t really have the time or want to expend energy on dealing with your ass… So, what’s up?” go with facebook message. Even without the prompt of facebook messaging, Cal made it clear his fees were above my head at this point in his career. He simply messaged that I most likely wouldn’t be able to afford him. “Christ man. Not even a number- just a “you can’t afford me”. Blasphemy!” I said to myself. I retorted with “try me”. Cal responded with “700”… and then hours later resent the initial number with “Actually, not even 700 pays my bills anymore, we’d be looking somewhere in the 1000 range.” And there it was, the nail in the coffin.

Give a man a week and he can come up with a G. It may not be legal or pretty, but given a week a man can get it. The number he threw out didn’t offend me, it was the condescension. Cal had a natural tone for talking down whilst talking casually, but this was the first time I could tell he was speaking it with intent. I cared nothing for it and wanted only to throw cash in his face like P. Diddy at any club in the late 90’s. To say the least, that shit hurt- it stung because it was a taste of the world passing you by while you do your damndest to keep up.

Cal was a fan from the start. There was no press inquiry or invite for him to take pics at all The Blend shows he did. He was there because he dug the music- now, he was anything but. The flight of a photographer during the plight of a band… it was a beautiful thing to watch both creative trains pass in the night, one crashing into oblivion, the other off to support a lifestyle, a family, a future. However, if I’m to become as much a prick as Cal became with that kind of money & work… then I want nothing of it.

Anyone can grab a mic or a camera and self-proclaim themselves an artist, but it takes talent to be a working photographer or musician. The devil between the two is the photographer is already an efficient entrepreneur only having to depend on him or herself, working jobs with one piece of equipment (a camera), and already at a vantage point for pricing. The photographer can slip in and out of any environment while chalking up their client’s tabs. Cal might’ve mistook the opposing natures of music and photography as something of the same. He could not have been more misinformed. I responded to his final message “I’ll pass on the thousand-dollar photo shoot. Hope my sister’s wedding can pay your bills”.

Months later at my sister’s wedding, carousing a ballroom floor in a tux more expensive than my car, I paced from the bar arm-in-arm with a woman to my right and a whisky-coke on my left. We stopped at a table with a laptop displaying photos from earlier in the day taken by Cal- He was still snapping shots throughout the night. “Ooooh, those are beautiful!” the woman on my arm swooned. She was right. Cal may be a rapscallion son of a bitch, but that man can take a picture.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

It's One Thing To Take A Crap, It's Another Thing To Lie About It

The sun blotted out by a hefty overcast, it seemed some kind of cold front was moving in. According to weather.com it should have rained several hours ago, but we didn’t give a huffle puff. We’re PMT (Paco, Morrissey, and Toussaint). Paco and Morrissey are two young men I mentor and work with for the summer. Since our inception last summer, we’ve lead a trail of definitive adventure, argument, and accolade.

Given the option to go to Valley Fair for the day, or wait ‘til better weather and take it up next week, we opted for the former. Trashed on overpriced funnel cake, mini donuts, and a sweltering vertigo from the Power Tower, I am not the man I used to be. There is a time in your life where you will abandon every activity and action from your childhood, and suddenly be wrought back to life with the simplicity of swinging on a swing at a park. Soon after that, your body will revolt with headache, stomach curdling, and questions of how old you really are. At this point, people usually stop, bid adieu to the swingset, and revel in content that they at least went back and tried it once. In hanging out with Paco and Morrissey for my summer job, there is no going back after that point one usually retreats from. I’ve developed caluses on my hands holding on the monkey bars too long, a distinct sense of balance from walking the tops of the swingset to escape during games of Sandman, and a stomach for any ride this carnival can throw at me.

Temperatures dropping to 60-something, we had to depart Soak City. It was just too damn cold to be dawning a bathing suit and inner-tubing down lazy river to not get hypothermia. Retreating to the food stand to eat for a few minutes, our conversation took a sharp turn from the sarcastic-potty-mouth-joke rants we go on to an actual topic.

“Morrissey, what do you think of the hall of fame for baseball. You think they should let those guys in if they used steroids?” I asked across the concrete picnic table.

Morrissey is 11 years old, and is a natural when it comes to baseball. Yeah yeah fn yeah, everybody’s dad says their kid’s a natural at somethin’, but I ain’t this kid’s dad, and I will be the first to tell you that an competing athlete is less than talented if they are. However, in Morrissey’s case, I’ve watched him throw a pool toy ball at a speed that just wasn’t intended for 11-year olds to be able to do. The kid displaces objects with his arm through the air at an accuracy I can’t keep up with. Attending one of his games, a little league style of play with actual pitchers and regional competition, he smacked the ball every time he stood up to bat. He’s the kid that pisses off all the opposing-team parents in the bleachers because no matter what over-hyped suburban talent is pitching to him, there ain’t a damn thing they can do to get the ball by him for a strike. It’s too early to say if he’s a phenom, but for now I differ to him for any baseball inquiries.

“I don’t think they should be let into the hall of fame, because y’know- if a guy walks into a bathroom and takes a small crap, then walks out and tells his team that he took a big crap- y’know- it’s lieng.” Morrissey casually answered.

A few moments pass as Paco and Morrissey still eat, while I all of a sudden froze from the answer Morrissey had just given to my question.

“Caruthers & Christ” I thought to myself, molliwhopped at the mere feat of trying to interpret the dialogue that had just gone down.

I processed what Morrissey had said as: a player on performance enhancing drugs could only exist as a lie. I’d never thought to interpret lying as more than an instance, whereas Morrissey was suggesting that the player, the player’s statistics, the physical movement of the player… was all a lie. There is no part of the player beset in truth long as he is on PEDs…

“Hey, let’s go to the Wild Thing one more time before we leave” Morrissey announced.

“I don’t know. The line looks kinda long.” Paco replied.

I finished my meal and affirmed with myself that I had the best job in the world… and woulnd’t trade it for anything.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Zimmerman Debt

A coffee shop will be whatever you want it to be as long as you’ve paid for something.

He sits with a blue-collar bronzing tan along his arms next to a Mountain Dew and round of chewing tobacco atop the table in front of him. He stares at the table with seemingly nothing going on for the Sabbath, but to partake in being out of the sun for a few hours.

At the cash register, a man chats with the barista about the Zimmerman trial while shuffling about. The chatting man looks stifled and eagerly discontent.

A new customer enters the shop. The barista must bid the chatting man adieu. Turning his prattle toward the sitting bronzed man, “Yeah man, I’m from Florida where that boy got shot” says the chatting man.

“Ya don’t say” replies the sitting man, somewhat endeared he’s made a new friend aside from his Mountain Dew.

“Yeah man, my mom was in a Wal-Mart out there when the verdict went down and people started flippin’ out. They had to take all of the Caucasian customers and line them up in the back storage so they wouldn’t get hurt” continues the chatting man. “Everybody wants to jump to a conclusion y’know.” He looks over to me.

For a moment I expect he expects me to chime in on his rant. Perhaps because he and the sitting man are white, and I am not.

The sitting man leans back from his table, “Yeahhhh… it’s a crazy world we live in” he says.

“Ain’t it the truth” the chatting man replies, and then opens the door to exit the coffee shop.

Unlike him, I don’t need a publicized act of sociologically charged injustice spattered across the headlines of every social media to know America can be whatever you want it to be for the right price. Unfortunately, for the less privileged, that price is our lives.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Ride Home With Roger

Reception to my T9-embarrassment phone in this basement bar is non-existent as the Vikings’ Super Bowl ring. It’s just not gonna happen right now. In the company of Mack, Francis, and Daniel, making crude comments to each other betwixt talking 90s baseball greats, out of the corner of my eye a man stumbled into a bar stool in the middle of the floor. I know this man, I’ve known this man, he’s visibly drunk. It wasn’t a pedestrian-passing move where it seemed his brain was cognitively avoiding the stool, it was a sliver of a second that his attention disregarded the presence of the chair. Not acknowledging an animate object in front of you is forgiveable when moving at a fast pace and an fng deer jumps out in front of your car, but this was plain-sight action that couldn’t be regarded as a mistake.

His next movements gather his balance, to which he then directs himself toward the nearest female. Whereas his face is smiling, the female’s is not. For a moment, I imagined the two knew each other and just now ran into each other after searching the bar for minutes on end. In reality, not my imagination, this is not to be. This woman clearly doesn’t know this man, and it is now clear that he’s blacked out.

Ahhhh yes, that region of the brain one has gone to upon over-consumption of booze, perhaps just one shot of tequila, or maybe just too little to eat paired with too much to drink.

What is intangible in this equation of 21+ adults, evening wear, peanut shells cracked about the bar floor, and spilled alcohol, is the bond I share with this blacked out gentlemen directing his solar plexus toward the nearest woman in sight- any woman in sight. Him and I were part of a fraternity in college, and aside from learning the cliché dos and don’ts of joining a house, you develop a connection beyond classmate- beyond brougham- beyond a friend… you bond with them as extended family. We can get into my entrance to a fraternity, later. Tis another story for another time, but nonetheless a good story.

So, as any brother to the house, I have to take care of this man and get him the fuck out of the bar ASAP… rocky. The first thing I make sure of is that he doesn’t get into a fight. If it comes to violence, I will undoubtedly throw down for him, but it’s the last thing anybody in here wants. I’ve seen this guy get brazen and it wouldn’t be pretty. Whereas most men talk until the fight comes to them, this man is the type to throw a hook at your buddy next to you, kick your other friend in the nuts, and then come after you. He’s a fighter, and nobody wants the tiger to get out of the cage in a basement bar.

“Roger, buddy, let’s get you outside.” I say to him, tugging on the underside of his elbow. “Hay hay! Let’s talk to these girls. C’mon, let’s-“ he turns his head to look at another girl, breaking his attention mid-sentence.

Now, racing to the bar’s entrance to exit to my car, where I can drive this man to his house, Roger paused at the sight of girl’s cleavage bursting into public eye. The damn things were calling more attention than a fire truck on the move. Roger places his hand on her back and smiles, she turns and giggles at the sight. Any longer, and the situation wouldn’t be funny. It was a novelty. She read the picture of a friend helping a friend to the door of the bar for reasons of belligerence bordering on the problematic.

“Roger, homestyle, we’re almost there. Keep up” I call to him. He paces away from the girl.
I pray now that every woman on our way to this exit is wearing a turtleneck. Any more cleavage and it’ll take more than me to get Roger out of here.

“Vwooosh” goes the entrance door as we barrel into the sidewalk from the bar. “Hahahahahaaaahahaa! You high yet homie?” Roger says. I can’t even understand the subject matter this man is inferring. We’ve now left the black out and are in the Twilight Zone. Beyond drunk, Roger’s mind is in a floating aquarium of random memory and impulse.

“Hey, how do I get to your house?” I ask Ned on the phone. Ned’s a mutual friend, and was hanging out with Roger earlier in the day before they all split up. Plus, Ned lives near uptown and would be an earshot away to drop off Roger and for me to get the f home. “Yeah, we’re near Hopkins” Ned answers. “Sweet Agatha Fng Christie” I thought to myself. “Ok, just text me the address, and I’ll be dropping Roger off in 15”.

Unable to imagine how far Hopkins was from where we were, I just began driving in the general direction. “Hahahahahaaaaa, man we high! You high yet?” Roger bantered. “Could really go for some food. I’m hungry. Hey… hey… Hahahaaaaaaa!”

The sheer ridiculousness of him made me snicker a bit. How can you not laugh at a grown man broken down to sporadic laughter and obscenity.

“Hey… hey…  remember her?” Roger toned down.

“Her who?” I said.

Roger then said a name that I have not heard for a damn long time.

“Yeah, I remember her.” I said.

“You know what… you know what, man?... She fuckin’ loved you… a lot” Roger said.

And right there, every memory, every story, all the colors of the past came rushing alongside my car as Roger and I steam rolled to Hopkins. The recollection of an ex-girlfriend, or someone speaking for them wrought the past up to speed with us on the highway. Along with the memory, came every reason why you had to part, why you had to move on, and why you love your life the way it is now. I could’ve thanked Roger, but he won’t remember this moment.

We coast to Ned’s. I drop him off to where he’ll wake up and wonder how he got there. They’ll tell him Toussaint brought you, but what they won’t tell him is that even in his state of blitzkrieg drunken madness, he was still able to recall a genuine feeling and share that with a friend… making the ride more than worth it.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Good Night Train Outta Crown Heights

I saw him earlier today talking to a brick wall, walking at the pace of a cripple, taking intermissions to turn his speech toward the sidewalk… and now, he’s sleeping on the bench next to where I stand. It’s 2am at the S station in Crown Heights. If you had asked me a month ago that I would make it this far, I would’ve said “not a chance in hell”, however… apparently I have a chance in hell… and as well as here standing next to a man sleeping at the S station at 2:10am. New York is in this man more than anyone I’ve seen thus far, and vice versa.

The weather’s identity crisis wrought a beautiful 70 degree mid-afternoon yesterday, and quickly turned to blustery cold speckles of rain at sundown. This man and I are the only two left awake, it seems, in Crown Heights. He’s also the only stranger I’ve run into twice at different times during my stay in Brooklyn. The scene is a surreal living picture, a moment of calm, you can nearly feel your soul waning from your body and a few centimeters outside of it. He doesn’t know it, but we’re sharing silence, and even with a complete stranger, sharing silence is a means of commiseration.

The S station at Prospect Place is a regal one at night, standing a floor above the street like an urban throne 2nd in command to some higher decree. The S is late… almost 20 minutes late now. Shit, did I miss it? Corina told me, once the S (southbound) passes you have approximately 10 minutes until the (northbound) S arrives. It’s damn late, or maybe I am.

These episodes throw my entire gravity off. I begin questioning if I’m even at the right station, the time of night- are this man and I stuck in an eternal limbo to wait for a never-to-arrive S train… guess I’d be ok with that. Tour for long enough, and you can feel the dissociative disorder set in- “Where am I?”, “What’s your name again?”, “What day is it?” The details smear to a gosling gray bearing little meaning and priority to your stage time, set length, and pay for the night.

I can still smell Doylestown, Pennsylvania in my hood. Performing at one of the last bars to go under the indoor-smoking ban, the room was a billow of poison with only the clientele to make up for its wrath of invasive nicotine. The people in Doylestown were damned nice. I’d take 2nd hand for that crowd any day, however later that night I had a dream that I smoked ¾ of a pack of cigarettes and then cried myself to sleep from shame… in the dream, not in real life.  I’ve never smoked in my life, so you can imagine the amount of unreasonable drama this dream took a turn for.

SHHHHOOOOOOM!!!! The southbound S passes, stops, continues on its trail. It’s now a fact, the northbound S to Laguardia is late. Not me, just the train. My flight leaves at 6am, boards at 5:30am, the motto is be there 2 hours early (4am), and it’s now brimming on 2:30am. I’d usually get a fit of anxiety from the sight of a situation like this, but if google maps is right, then I’m easy.

I’m beginning to wonder how this guy is sleeping through it all. The mere mention of living in New York City strikes a chord of intimidation in even the most adventurous of social butterflies, and this man doesn’t seem to be bothered by the slightest danger of sleeping at a station ‘til sunrise… outdoors- SHHHOOOOM! The northbound S arrives. Finally. I board.

There was something eerie about New Jersey. I couldn’t find a single coffee shop during the stay there, just beautiful strip malls of salons, bagel bakeries, and grocery markets. Everyone at the show in Long Branch, NJ was extremely nice to the point of suspicion. Coming from Minnesota Nice, I had to question the authenticity of these people’s generosity and good nature. Horrible, isn’t it. Get raised in a state of kids taught how to smile while attacking, and you hold everyone suspect. Na, they had to be good people. Those kids from the band Climax Race were jolly as you could get for a Tuesday night. Their damn bass player drunkenly fell off the stage during sound check, skidded across the floor on his belly like Mario 3, and popped up like nothing had happened, all in stride to gather something from his bass case and scurry back to the stage. Strangest part is nobody from the band flinched in the slightest. Shit, that was a Tuesday too.  Again, losing track of the days. SKREEEEEEE!!!!- just like that, I’m at my stop for the Q.

It’s cryptic dark in this station, cold too. I drop my bag to the ground just after its strap began cutting into the side of my neck. 3am, not bad timing, but am I on the right side of the station to get to the N? When lost, naturally, I look up. Perhaps to catch a sign or some kind of symbol that’ll assure me what I’m doing is right. I pause at the sight above me. Stars… the moon bouncing light directly off a tall warehouse in the distance. There is no ceiling to this station, hence the dark and cold. Truly geeked by the view, the picture reminded me of a scene from Final Fantasy VII or Chrono Trigger. Feel free to be utterly disgusted by the video game reference, and then kindly go screw yourself;) This is a sight I’ve seen in dreams when I was a kid. The picture would lose its detail as I moved into adulthood, but I could never forget it. Even at night, this view is absolutely resplendent.  If this voyage had ever shed any response to every time I thought “wait, what the f*ck am I doing out here again?” this is it. Entrapped and hypnotized by the sight, like Fievel fresh off the boat from Russia staring at the sight of America, it took a minute to pull away- wait, no “N” on these signs. I would find my way to the N on the other side of the station and ride what I dubbed as the “good night cloud train” atop Queens and Astoria to the bus stop for Laguardia.

This is hard… to say goodbye. Corina and I literally crash coursed the country on an epic journey starting in Austin, TX, trekking all the way to Brooklyn, and now back to Minneapolis for me. The concept of time has left me to a perspective and focus of what’s important: people that support and uphold your greatest interests, and the brief time you have with them on earth. Christ, I gotta visit my grandmother first thing when I get back. I’d be lying if I said she wasn’t the first and last thing I thought before I board a plane. Weird? F*ck that noise, you’re weird if you’re not thinking of the oldest living woman in your life when you board a steel bird to take flight across the country… I digress. Corina, and nearly every damn person I’ve met on this trip, has some kind of purpose in the grand scheme of things. Searching for that meaning is senseless. It’ll work itself out at some point like any mellow drama soap opera, rpg game, or Final Fantasy sequel… I take that last one back. Final Fantasy stories are religiously epic, but sometimes end in fatal and/or absolute disaster. However it ends with this (my) existence on earth, there isn’t a single part of this path I would regret. Riding a train in the sky between dense, urban township and cloud, back to your home- the scenario is too beautiful to leave room for something as menial as a regret.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Flashbacks From A Southern Withdrawal

Alessandra’s mother drove me to the Village so I could hunt down the nearest coffee shop in Houston. A lawyer for several decades and still practicing, there is no lack of confidence or contrition behind her voice. “So, you’ve lived in Minneapolis all your life?” she asks during the drive. “No, I was born in New Orleans, and moved to Minneapolis when I was 4, when my parents split.” I responded.

I found no hesitation in me to tell her my parents were divorced, as she had introduced herself as a lawyer that deals with divorce cases. I don’t know why, it just seemed natural to describe my venture to Minneapolis over such a reason.

Trees tangle the air over the street. The drive began to remind me of New Orleans. There’s a certain aesthetic to plants in the south, the way they grow could be deemed an eery beauty or just the simple state of something never having to regenerate leaves from a harsh winter. The sidewalks bubble and crack from roots growing beneath them where Alessandra’s mother drops me off. It’s 9:30am and the weather is already hotter here than Minneapolis in June.

After finding a coffeeshop, I continued to walk past it into the residential area. There’s been little down time apart from crowds and the internet. The tour leading up to now has accumulated over 24 hours of driving, 4 days of late nights at South By Southwest, and a mountain of dirty laundry. Walking, for now, is a short escape before I hit the laptop and visit the world outside of real-time (gmail). Pacing toward Rice University, I turned a corner where the walkway cut off. Across the street, the walkway opened up to a giant park. A swingset or jungle gym lied in the distance, but most of it remained brown and green grass. The simplicity to it, the absence of any “Land For Lease” signs, the nature of it brought me back to Audobon Park, a green giant square mile of grass, pond and wildlife right outside of Tulane University in New Orleans.

I never really came to understand Audobon Park until I made a return to it when I was 19. On a trek to Mardi Gras with a few high school friends, I understood how my parents could fall in love with such a city.
Before I could turn my back on the park and make way to the coffeeshop I’d so casually passed by, I noticed something moving in the distance. It was a bench or something, I couldn’t make it out. Painted red and yellow, moving like a pre-programmed machine, it couldn’t have been a car or park vehicle… it was a small train. The memory surfaced like an old friend; me riding some kind of street car or small kiddie train in some park in some part of New Orleans with my father or mother. The memories are blurry from back then, but they’re visible enough for me to revisit them. The few I can recall lined up along with the street car memory, another flashback of a daycare worker lifting me to a window. Out of the window was fireworks bursting in a night sky… it was the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans… I was 2.

Later on, I can remember walking in on my babysitter and her boyfriend, an interracial couple which seemed perfectly damn normal to me, but not so much to the rest of Louisiana… I was 3.

And then a memory of an argument between my mother and father. I was buckled down to a kids chair in the passenger seat of my father’s Jeep while he revved the engine. My mother, outside the car, was saying something to him. They responded harshly to each other until- VROOOM. My father drove away with me in the Jeep while my mother was in mid-sentence…

That was the first time I had ever experienced a human being end a discussion without bidding a proper adieu or goodbye. My father spoke nothing of it for the rest of the trip… seemed perfectly damn normal to me then… I was 4.

Amazing what a small train running through a park in Houston can trigger.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Velt: Chapter 3, Checking Out

I received an email from Michael, the principal of Roosevelt H.S. “Toussaint, we have a mess on our hands. I need you to call me asap.” That was it. Nothing else. It seems the poem I had performed to 10 different English classes created a backlash that went all the way to the top. I called Michael’s office, the secretary said she would give him a note to call me back. An hour passed, no word.

Christ man, I thought the guy said “asap”. I went back over Michael’s email… yep, right as rain he said “asap” in that email. So what was the hold up? Was he stuck in a vertigo stare at his computer per usual, or actually caught in a livid mess of parental disorder and students filing lawsuits?!?!

This was it. I’d gone over the poem several times and it was damn near perfect for what the Hip-Hop Theatre was looking to do. The setup was simple, however the response was uncontainable. How the students reacted to the poem was out of my control. The goal was to address every issue Michael had given me liberty to take on, discuss the student’s ideas and get the message out that Hip-Hop Theatre would be meeting every Monday & Wednesday after school. Simple, right?

I entered my first class room. The teacher introduced me as Toussaint Morrison emphatically, and quickly sat down to her desk to deal with a plethora of papers. She didn’t check out, but was damn near close. Let it be known, cops and teachers are potentially the most underpaid pillars of our middle-class society. They earn damn near peanuts for the work they put out. There’s no pay for the hours upon hours you put in grading papers off the job, managing stress while off the clock, and so forth. In my line of work, mentoring means you have a very specific goal and job to do, it’s manageable- whereas with teaching a high school class room, it’s a one-person show… performing cirque du soleil. Dangerous, time-consuming, and emotionally draining.

“Hi, I’m Toussaint Morrison, I’m with the Hip-Hop Theatre program after school. We meet Mondays and Wednesdays in the writing center in case anyone’s interested. We’re just conducting a quick survey of each English class for some research. 3 quick questions and then I’ll be outta your hair. Sound good?” I swiftly introduced. The class, in auto drive, reluctantly agreed. Bear in mind this is 9am at the heart of a 90/90/90 high school in the state with the highest racial disparity in the country. Yeah yeah, I know I keep saying that, but it still hasn’t fully registered with some people, even myself. To understand just how behind the circumstances are, I constantly have to remind / re-educate / research to keep my perspective fresh. Perhaps you grasp it differently.

“Ok, question 1. If you were in a track race, and you knew that one of the people you were racing against was faster than you. Would you A. Stay in the race, or B. Drop out of the race?”

The class almost entirely raised their hand in favor of A. One or two students raise their hand for option B, but would soon shrug it off as joking.

“Alright, 2nd question. If you had a test to take today and you hadn’t studied for it all. Would you either A. Take the test to best of your knowledge, or B. Skip the class, maybe go to the library and basically not take the test?

The class again favored option A.

“Last question, you’re applying for a job, but you just found out that hundreds of people are applying for the same job and the odds might not be in your favor, would you either A. Still show up for the interview, or B. Totally blow off the interview and not show?

Again, the class favored option A.

“Wow, that’s interesting. I really thought you all were going to be in favor of option B throughout the questionnaire. Wanna know why?”

Each class had a different response to this question- “Because we’re teens?”, “Because we’re young?”, “Because we’re in a public school” launched into the air. The latter always gave me a smile.

Whatever the array of answers were, my retort was the same, “No, none of that. It’s because according to the numbers less than half of you are expected to graduate high school.” A girl’s jaw physically dropped. “And the few of you that do graduate, less than half of that group is expected to be employed. So, when you think about it, you have a better chance of being poor or in prison than you do of making it to college, let alone graduating college… Man, dudn’t that piss y’all off? I’m mad and I don’t even go to this school.” Agreed, that part is harsh, however nothing the students couldn’t handle. Strange, when faced with facts of disparity and social politics, the language seemed to be more alarming than the discussions of vulgar and expletive subject matter I’d overheard from students as I entered the classroom.

The poem continued…

“I’m from the south side of Minneapolis just like you- had to deal with the same bad football teams and cold winters you had to fight thru. What’s wrong? Some of you look confused- either you’ve been misinformed or lied to. The facts are the facts, there’s no such thing as a slight truth.

Wait, am I in the wrong place? Is this the Roosevelt High School: one of the most diverse high schools in the state where future ambassadors of the south side of the city come to study?  Where inherent queens and kings of Minneapolis come to learn? Nah, couldn’t be…

I seen y’all in the hallway actin’ cooler than Kool Keith, like your swag’s on a level that less than a few can reach, talkin’ that same jive just over a new beat- oooooohhhhh weeeeeee, it must be good to be popular, good to not care, good to have the hottest wear, good to be like “I’m too good to be up in here” – and that’s good. They’d want you to think that. Know why? Because you live in a city with some of the highest racial disparity in the country. So much that even the white students can’t turn the other cheek, ‘cos the kids from Southwest and Edina still look at them funny. That’s unacceptable to me, but all I hear in the hallway is “hey, did you make the basketball team?” Wow, y’all talk about hoops like it’s gonna save the school, when you’re in a situation where the odds don’t even favor you to be able to save you.

Man, dudn’t that piss you off? I’m mad and I don’t even go to this school.

By this time, the class had fallen completely silent barring a few situations, but we’ll get into that later.

Between your middle school completions, past achievements, parents, teachers, politic’n in the bleachers  whether the basketball team’s losing or leading, what you think will happen once you leave here, and your current demeanor to act like whatever it is I have to say- you don’t need it… it’s not what you thought it was.

Your teachers put in more working hours outside of the building than in. Your principal busts his butt so much, I’m surprised I haven’t seen his head spin over the general opinion outside of the building that Roosevelt  is nothin’ but a building full of Mexicans and Somalis. Man, people will say some of the darndest things when they don’t know what to call it. Personally, I find it appauling, but I’d hate to break up y’alls conversation in the hall about ballin’.

At this juncture, from the rhyme scheme and cadence I had delivered, the majority of the classroom understood what I was putting on was a performance. The element of invisible theatre had faded and everyone was on the same page. The reaction to this particular part of racial slurs went one of two ways: Either students broke out into laughter over the recognition that they had partaken in derogatory racial slurs before as well, or gazed an intensified stare at me that’d intimidate even the father of Wolverine.

We don’t make the news until our schools get shut down because the board decided they didn’t wanna pay the lease.

We don’t make the news until our classmates get shot and left to die somewhere in a hospital or street.

When the system’s not fair, it wants you to not care.

Man, I wish y’all had somethin’ to say about that. I don’t even go to this school, and I feel like yelling out loud.” A few beats pass… “Ok, that was a poem, could anybody tell?”

“Maaaaannnnnn whaaaaat!!!” was the usual reaction. The post discussion played as “Holy shit what just happened?” We’d go over some of the subjects and/or feelings the poem/performance evoked. Why did some of the students react the way they did? Why did it make you feel backed into a corner? Do we use this language day-to-day? So, why did it cause this reaction when I said it? We’d go on and on to the point I had to omit any more questions and relay the message that this is what the after-school Hip-Hop Theatre program emphasized; confronting social issues in and outside of the school building, then designating space for you to communicate those issues through spoken word and theatre.

Overall, the poem went stellar. Teachers stopped me in the hallway to request me to venture to their classroom at specific hours to perform the piece for their students. “Yeah, they really need to hear what you’re talking about. We try to have talks on race and stuff, but they won’t have any of it.” Exclaimed one teacher.

On the downside, and there’s always a downside, some students went Rambo during the performance. One kid in a classroom just couldn’t accept that I had said “white students” in the poem. It viscerally couldn’t sit with him. As he constantly interrupted the performance, I weaved the prose to interact with him. When he answered to the poem’s piece on “better chance of winding up poor or in prison” with “you can’t say that in here”, I simply retorted “Why not? It’s true. Want me to lie to you?” The rest of the class went in uproar either against me or against the riled student. The uproar subsided, and I’d continue the poem after the point was made that I wasn’t going anywhere and I wasn’t going to sugar coat anything. Later on, the same student would interrupt again during the reference to white students, which then again I responded “Are you uncomfortable talking about race? Why?” His response of “Talking about it makes it worse?” lead me to turn a question to the class, “So, does an issue go away the less we talk about it?” As the class in unison responded “no”, I continued with the poem.

It was bumps and hurdles such as that that lead it to- welp, the program’s demise. In one class, a student responded “HEY! YOU CAN’T SAY THAT!” during the line “we don’t make the news ‘til our classmates get shot and left to die somewhere in a hospital or street”. Again, my response “Why not? I have friends that got shot and killed in high school, why can’t I talk about that experience?” to which the student sincerely said “Don’t talk about that!”. Clearly, this student had experienced what I had experienced in high school / middle school and the performance wasn’t sitting well with him. He opted to leave, the teacher permitted it, and… welp, he left. I finished the poem, we discussed.

A teacher approached me amidst leaving a class. I was getting drained. Each class was like delivering bad news at a hospital. Nobody ever takes it well. “I was curious if you could come to my class on the 3rd floor and perform your poem.” I agreed and attended the class at the hour she had requested. This was different, something was clearly amiss here and there was no turning back. I had already entered the room and was at the woman’s desk before I knew it. The class looked to be a storage room turned to impromptu academic haven. This looked more a place for stowing away sports equipment, a large steel cupboard stood 8 feet tall next to the entrance. It just looked damning ugly and made no sense to be taking up a third of the room. A student sat behind the steel cupboard just enough that you couldn’t say he was avoiding being seen, but enough to communicate “I don’t give a fuck”. This entire classroom didn’t give a fuck. Excuse the French, but the situation was sad. This was it, this was the rock bottom. A classroom for the 4th and 5th strikes that didn’t exist in the real world. They’d stowed away these kids to some ridiculous out-of-reach corner of the building and left them to a young teacher trying her damndest and a television from the 90's.

The poem didn’t even play to this audience. There were maybe 8 kids in the classroom, not nearly enough to foster some kind of unison response. I literally finished the farce survey and we simply discussed their present circumstance and goals for the future. The student that sat behind the steel cupboard said with contrition that he didn’t care what the statistics said, and that he was going to graduate high school and complete college. I continued, but it was no use. A girl texted throughout the entire presentation, two girls chatted with one another, and several of the students interrupted with so many questions of “who cares?” that it was dead on arrival.

Leaving the room, I had relayed all the info I could about the Hip-Hop Theatre program, but felt suddenly devoid of a purpose in all of this. I was at the grassroots stage of organizing a group of students to give a fuck, to actually care about something- not even show up, but to care about the issues at hand. I confronted myself with the question “Am I parading on some self-righteous sociological cause for myself, or am I really trying to change something here?” The answer was the latter and partially the former. I’m passionate about this, I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t. How else do you bring a city to understanding its current state of affairs without recognizing it. The sad state of MN (pun intended) is that the discussion of racial disparity is absent from our culture. Sociologically, we’re screwed. I listened to NPR last week hold a forum amongst several scholars in higher up ranks of the MN Education System discussing the current state of racial disparity in Minnesota. The discussion got overwhelmingly sugar coated, bordering on optimistic. I immediately flashbacked to the kid behind the steel cupboard asking me “Where’d you get these statistics from?” After explaining to him that you can find articles on these stats from the American Psychological Association, U.S. Census, MN Compass, or really any published material in the past two years on racial disparity in Minnesota, he responded “Man, they can eat a dick”.

I set flyers out to each classroom after wrapping the performance, also leaving a poster in each classroom. Later that day, I had the largest turnout of students since I had started the program. 8 students not only attended, but brought forth personal stories of their experience with race, class, ethnicity, etc. The session was amazing. We went over the syllabus, drew out plans for the January performance, delved into the subject matter the students wanted to cover for the stretch of the program and went through a few Theatre of The Oppressed games via Boal. Success.

The stage was set for the next 10 weeks to engage and hone the skills of the students to give a slam poetry and theatrical performance for January.

Michael finally called me back. “Hey, Toussaint- yyyeeaaahhhh, we gotta big mess on our hands”.

“Ok, so what’s up?” I humored the tension in his voice.

“Welp, here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna pay you $500, and we’ll just call it quits. And if we ever need your services down the road, I’ll definitely give you a call”.  He said in the nicest and most passive way possible.

“Alright, sounds good”. Why I agreed to such a shorthanded offer, I still can’t tell you why, but I did. I was contracted for $3000. Do the math as you will, but it just sounds nastier when you hear "paid less than a third of what was promised." Cheers, here's to not committing that part of the story to memory.

Slighted, hurt, and damn deflated I had to seriously ask myself if walking into a high school classroom and delivering the message I delivered in the way I delivered it was the right thing to do? More importantly, if given the opportunity again, would I have done it any different?

The answer is “Absolutely not. I would not have done a single thing different had I the same opportunity". Looking back at it now, several months passed, there’s undeniable hurt I feel at what transpired. I empathize with the student that walked out on the performance, as after I experienced the same tragedy of losing a classmate to gun violence, I didn’t want to hear any of it. I emotionally shut down in those instances, and can relate with his reaction. But (and a big BUT), still looking back at what happened, there was just no way I was going to walk into a classroom and lie. When a patient’s in critical condition, the doctor doesn’t tell them “Hey, it’s going to be ok”. Per request of Michael, the school’s principal, and several teachers who had requested me throughout the day to perform for their class and address issues of racial disparity and education, I was going to communicate what the current situation is and in a manner that got the attention of the Roosevelt H.S. student populous.

The success in all of this were the poems I received from the students that attended the final Hip-Hop Theatre session. The sad part was having to email them back, telling them to keep writing out their opinions and experiences, however that it would meet no stage in January due to the sudden cancellation of the Hip-Hop Theatre program. In addition to that, I found the unconventional success of addressing these issues unbeknownst to nearly every English class that day in Roosevelt H.S. Nobody had ever set foot in my high school classrooms and relayed that kind of information or empathy. Although I had many a great mentor outside of school, there was never anyone that dared step into a classroom to alert every student of color to the city’s current stratification.

The best way I can put it is if there were a fire in a building, damn right I’d go to every room and alert everyone- hey there’s a fucking fire in the building, spread the word and take necessary action. However, as I asked in the beginning of this post “Would anyone care if I told them the gravity of the situation?” the answer from the Roosevelt Faculty is “not enough”. The hollow nature Michael had exhibited in our first interactions was a clear red flag to me. He couldn’t have been interested in actually saving this school, the guy wasn’t even operating to the key of anything to save. What blew my mind was the sense of “Hey, everything’s going to work out” that Michael carried wherever he went. Perhaps I’ve gone cynical in my days of touring the country holding educational theatre performances on race, gender, sexual orientation and substance abuse.

It would take me nearly 2 months later to collect any form of pay Michael had promised, and several visits back to the building just to ensure the check was mailed. The result of the entire transaction is disappointment. In my opinion, there are a damn many gifted teachers and staff working for the success of its students, however the foundation from which they operate is already so flawed and gravely dysfunctional that it sustains the disadvantage for students of color and inner-city youth to graduate high-school at a college-ready level. Sugar coating nothing, Roosevelt H.S. is a disservice to its students.

The Roosevelt Student populous is a brilliant one with vibrant energy and ability to introspect. Ironically, like a sad joke, that brilliance and ability goes unfostered in a continual perpetuation of racial disparity by the same public school system promising farce equity.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Velt: Chapter 2, Seven Years Removed

Having mapped out the syllabus for a 12-week curriculum of slam poetry and theatre improv, the after-school program was prompted to begin. Michael, the principal of Roosevelt H.S., sat at his desk in the usual position of back turned and staring at his computer screen like an oracle. “I think we can start this as soon as next week?” I said with a slight question at the end. The entire operation had been tedious at best. Although Michael and Hassan had been brimming with enthusiasm to calibrate a theatre program- a drama program- some kind of program for the students to have an artistic outlet, their understanding of the syllabus seemed to be non-existent. I had engaged with Michael less than a handful of times and he was already entrusting me to teach a 12-week after-school extracurricular for $3000. I mean, the guy barely knew me, had never seen me perform a lick of theatre let alone slam poetry and was handing over the keys to a 90/90/90 high school after-hours to teach kids how to… speak for themselves.

Problem: Again, this is a fng 90/90/90 school. Reference The Velt Chapter 1 if you have no clue what 90/90/90 is, and also you shouldn’t be reading Chapter Deux if you haven’t read Chapter Uno- shame on you. However, taking you know what I’m talking about- a 90/90/90 school is in absolute need of an after-school organized activity to assert students to speaking for themselves in an artistic or formal manner. The opportunities were limitless in this position; we’d study Bao Phi, Augusto Boal, Neruda, Shane Hawley, Shakespeare, KRS-ONE- we’d cover it all. This is unprecedented. This wouldn’t be Hot Cheetohs & Takis, we’d turn it to Politics & Hegemony! I was excited, couldn’t wait to get down to business.

First thing was first, in any form of introducing a new class or event to a populous, time to print posters. I put together an 11x17 bill to promote the after-school’s presence and plan of action. Pause- what’s the name of the thing- I mean, what’re we calling said after-school activity? Politics & Hip-Hop- Slam Poetry 101- Fight The Power, Write For Hours? Christ, I hadn’t even thought of this. “So, I’m sending out the FYI to the faculty, what’re we calling this?” Michael said bluntly with his back turned at his computer. “Umm, Hip-Hop Theater” I said. It was ballsy, not over academic, but a bit much- almost an oxymoron. Hip-hop is theater, and theater isn’t necessarily hip-hop… jargon aside, it stuck. The kids had to know that hip-hop was involved, that they’re voice would be given a stage to say what they felt or had been feeling for some time and never had a proper setting to voice it. In the latter, they had to know that we’d be dealing with scenes that they’d be curating the scripts for and playing out reflections of their lives in and outside Roosevelt H.S.

A majority non-white high school, on the brink of getting shut down in a city that had all but pulled the plug on its life feed, was putting me in charge of a hip-hop theatre program… this is serious shit, man. There are no arbitrary moves made in this building, you can damn near see the tension wafting from the walls of Roosevelt H.S… from the outside.

After plastering over a dozen posters around the school, my time had come. Michael gave me the option of using the writing center’s room or going with an abandoned band room. The band room was a sad sight while empty. Outside of it sat a poster of Tapanga from Boy Meets World promoting kids to not drink and drive. Michael played a good Fix-It Felix for the while I was there, but at first sight of a poster from the early 90’s sitting on a door… it gave me reason to think twice. Was Roosevelt actually invested in seeing their students succeed, or was it just a farce with the name “Wellstone” tagged to its title outside the building? Something was amiss. Something didn’t sit with me well, like a rollercoaster I had already been locked into, my only options were to defy logic and make a bloody jump off the ride… or travel the predestined rails it had already set in place. Couldn’t back down at the beginning of a job. It would be a balancing act of trusting Michael and implementing  a space for students to talk about sociopolitical subject matter through art.

First day on the job- I avoided the dungeon/cavern of broken dreams from the 90’s (the old band room) and opted for the cushy writing center. Plus, the first day wouldn’t necessitate a lot of space, just room to sit and chat. The goal was to get a feel for the subject matter the students wanted to talk about, the direction they wanted to take their writing, and then integrate that into the hip-hop theater’s plan of action. I sat on the stiff red couch which looked more welcoming than it actually was. Felt like I had sat on a brick bench once I hit the damn thing. Ok, it’ll get better. Can’t wait to meet the students and see what ideas and words they wanna throw forth to paper.

Five minutes pass… No one in attendance yet. I grabbed some papers from my bag to go over the syllabus a 2nd, 3rd  - enter the first student… and another. Sidenote: I’m not going to go into any detail of anything discussed between the students and I during the after-school program. It’s arbitrary to the point of the story, and plus... that shit is private. Working with youth has been one of the greatest blessings I’ve ever come across in my lifetime, and now, engaging with primarily youth of color at a city high school to create poetry was beyond ideal.

The hurdle now, was getting kids to actually show up to the program… consistently. If we were to put on a performance at the end of the curriculum, how would we make it happen with spotty attendance? It was going to take a team, and after two weeks (4 classes) passed, it wasn’t working. At most, I’d had 4 different students show to Hip-Hop Theater and 2 students show at a time. The subjects and work we created for those two weeks were absolutely amazing. We’d covered sociology inside and out of Roosevelt, hierarchy within the household, and street politics.

The idea and space was creating a dim glow- some kind of light nonetheless, and I wouldn’t stop at it there. Wrapping the 4th class, I made an impromptu entrance to Roosevelt the next day to visit with Michael. Always busy with something or what seemed absolutely nothing, Michael welcomed me to his office. “The turnout for the hip-hop theater after-school program is pretty dismal, and I want to make a go of garnering more interest in the program.” I confidently declared. Brimming with energy as usual, Michael replied “Yeah- sounds great!”

“I’d like to go into a few classrooms and perform some slam poetry to give the kids an idea of what it is they could be a part of after-school”, I proposed. Michael again enthusiastically agreed. I was determined to turn the general student populous of Roosevelt High School’s attention toward their potential to speak through art for just a second, if even. I hadn’t performed serious slam poetry for over 7 years. Honestly, nothing scares me more than being on stage with no beat and my own words. It’s possibly the most vulnerable I’ve ever felt; to get up in front of a crowd of strangers and speak with the promise that my word is worth everyone’s time. I also, fucking love it- love being at the precipice of a moment to orchestrate a skill and instrument I’ve been passionate about since birth.

I couldn’t just roll up to each English class and rock a poem I’d written years ago about some opinion from some political or personal issue. I’d have to reach even the most checked out kid in the class room. Beyond 7 years of not performing serious slam poetry, it’d been even longer since I’d written a new poem. So, what better time to start than now- write a piece revolving around the issues Michael had communicated to me at the beginning of this whole thing; 90/90/90, lack of enthusiasm enrolling to a school that was your 2nd or 3rd choice, being the most diverse school in the state, student violence, etc. The list could rant if it wanted to, but I’d have to be direct. Make a straight shot to the heart of Roosevelt’s current circumstance sitting as an dim star on the edge of South Minneapolis. Question was, how would the students respond to the poem?

What occurred next was nothing short of an ugly success. (To be cont.)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Velt: Chapter 1, 90/90/90

It’s clear this room hasn’t been refashioned since the 70’s. With the makes of a studio police cubicle farm or library, I would not change a single thing within the Roosevelt High School Principal’s Office. I’d visited a principal’s office on more occasions for breaking something, disobeying a teacher, or fighting. My middle school days were notorious for running through the hallways without a hall pass, conspiring against authority, and prying the self-esteem apart from bullies older than me. All of this accomplished with dedicated partners in crime, Idrissen and Tony. We’d separate as we grew older, and little did I know that I’d be attending many principal offices in the future working with adolescents, special education, and now art.

Already late for the meeting, the arrangement was more official than I had presumed. I entered the glass encased office. A tall gangly white gentlemen, Hassan and a shorter brown woman who I presumed to be the principal sat at the only table in the room. I sat. “My apologies for my tardiness, traffic”, I discreetly fibbed as I pulled up to the table.

“Don’t worry about it, I’m Michael” introducing himself. “This is Denise, our assistant principal.” Realizing the tall gangly white man to be the principal I turned my attention toward him. The shorter brown woman I had mistaken for the supreme authority of the school still had an air about her that wreaked of “I don’t play that shit”. A little intimidated I let Michael  the talking. “So, can you all give me some kind of background on Roosevelt as of right now?” I asked.

“Well, we’re a 90/90/90 school, which means Roosevelt ‘s student population is 90% of color, 90% at poverty level, and 90% studying at or below grade level… “. My thoughts blanked for a moment. I’d realized working with the kids in pre-K and 3-5th grade that it was bad... Kids of color disheveled in classrooms, mentally checked out dealing with anything and everything outside of the building, leaving school to trek back to an abusive home, leaving school to enter a world of apathy and classism. When you’re standing toe-to-toe with a 9 year old that has emotional behavior disorder while clutching their forehead in frustration, there’s a point of understanding that this can get better, that we can potentially make it- that no one is here to fix or change you, but to see you become the person you were meant to be and quite possibly become the success your imagination has stretched to fathom. Fast forward half-a-decade and those same kids are in high school. Imagine it never got any better, imagine it got worse. This was the graveyard for the aspirations and hopes we had for our students in elementary school... this was a Minneapolis high school that didn't have the word "south" anywhere in its title, this was reality. Sitting next to Mr. Bradley and the clean-up crew, there is an understanding that it will get worse before anything begins to turn down a better path. In my head, I’d screamed “holy fucking shit man, let’s get these kids out of here.  90 90 90??!!?!?! This is bad man- fucking MAY DAY!” several times, but kept myself to sitting, smiling and listening.

Michael went on, “We also had a student who was shot and killed this past June just before graduation. It was a real tragedy. He was well known in the school, everybody was really impacted by this, and… yeah. Denise, anything you want to fill in on?” Michael spoke with contrition, but still there was something in the damn room that was missing. It wasn’t Michael the short brown woman’s intimidating army lieutenant demeanor, or Hassan’s concern to see this all work out- a necessity to this conversation was horribly absent. Not a second to waste man, get it together and listen to these people! They have money and they will pay you for art! I’d subscribe to the devil on my shoulder, but I was curious about this school and the mystique to a building that had been underfunded and neglected to near death.

With nothing to lose, but a job, I asked “Is the school in any jeopardy to be shut down due to everything you just told me?” Michael sighed and responded “Our enrollment has been on a decline for the past decade. Since I’ve become the principal two years ago, the school has seen its first incline in enrollment in a long time.”

Fascinated none, I continued “How many students attend Roosevelt High School?” “802” he answered. The discussion continued of Michael s vision to have every student involved in an extracurricular activity at the end of the day. Since he had graduated with a theatre degree from the University of Iowa, he was enthusiastic for me to work with the students on theatre and slam poetry. Pressed for time, we halted the dialogue to pick up at a later date.

Days later, I emailed Michael a schedule and syllabus propositioning the after-school theatre program we had discussed. It would take place twice a week (Monday and Wednesday) after school for two hours. The students would create their own performance, rehearse it, and present it to the city- blah blah blah the formalities of creating any performance between an artist and institution of academia. What drew me in further than anything was exact thing that had been absent in the room at the meeting. Although Michael's mouth was moving, the short brown woman carried the “no shit” attitude, and Hassan had a 200% genuine interest in helping the school- sweet Jesus, something was gone- something intangible. Wait, you mean to tell me a leader of the student body was shot on the southside of Minneapolis less than half a year ago, 90% of your students are performing at or below their grade level, and last year you cut the varsity football team! It boggles the mind that a high school rest on academic failure and have no football team to bury the conversation with it. I mean, nothing covers your ass like “we suck at school, but we kick ass in athletics”. My petty concerns aside, the subject that lambasted me was the enrollment of 802. Roosevelt High School is a huge building that could fit 2000 students, if I had to gander. To see it at less than half-mass is relative to watching a 2 on 5 basketball game. 

Minnesota is #1 in the country for racial disparity in education, meaning the gap of academic achievement between white students and students of color is largest in Minnesota…

Zoom in.

Minneapolis and St. Paul are the bane of urban culture in the state of Minnesota, carrying the country’s 2nd highest racial disparity in the country where people of color are 20 times more likely to be pulled over, coveted, or questioned by police than white people…

Zoom in.

Roosevelt High School has the highest population of students of color per capita than any other Minneapolis High School let alone in the state of Minnesota. To say it’s on the fringe of failure would be a lie. I will be absolutely truthful with you, the school is already a failure in a system that has already failed it. In a society where a C is a passing grade, there are places where anything below an A is failure- anything below an A is a means and request to do better. Here, at Roosevelt High School, the life support has been trashed and is a mockery of what it could be. We all may differ on standards of academic success, but I dare challenge you to challenge yours. Just because someone drew a line and told you it was where the race finished, doesn’t mean you should stop running.

Leaving the building, looking at the YMCA across the street my family friend, Barb Jones, had cultivated into a haven for kids of color, bi-racial kids, and interracial families, I remembered her brazen daily war waged against the societal standard set for the city of Minneapolis. Barb was from Cleveland, so you can imagine her perception of the Twin Cities’ passivity toward white privilege and race. She instilled a fire inside every employee at that YMCA to break the frame of their perception and re-calibrate their standard of success right now. Years ago, Barb passed away from cancer. With every fiber of me and minute of life I have on this rock, I can only hope to accomplish a fraction of what she had accomplished in her legacy. I want these kids to have a voice outside of a building that had become the crux of racial disparity amongst the worst in the country.

It was then I recognized what was missing in the room. Here, a school quickly becoming the nation’s leading definition of institutional racism, abandonment, and negligence… and nobody in the building acknowledges it. Although Michael, the principal, spoke with conviction toward Roosevelt’s situation, I had just realized that not a single student understood the actual gravity of the circumstance. I’d dare them to speak on it, write on it, and perform it through the program Michael commissioned me to teach at Roosevelt. The problem now lie in getting the students to actually care about something they had a stake in.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Velt: Prelude

I can’t withstand it anymore. The Spyhouse Coffee Shop has to go. Some of my best work was written there- entire albums, play scripts, most my literary livelihood can be credited to the damn place, it was a sanctuary for concentrating. However, the shitty internet connection and effortless condescension from the baristas have gone beyond the point of return. This morning has to be christened with a new venue, a fresh start, a place where no one knows my face or name… the Loring Park Dunn Bros.

I pack my belongings and backpack and make way to the new location to write. Enter Dunn Bros, any Dunn Bros, coffee bean scented with newspapers rustling about. It's perfect- this table’s comfortable, hell, I could start a new home here- Baristas are nice, the place is huge, beautiful view of Loring Park without getting held up for your wallet- I’m in. “Hello, you are Toussaint Morrison”, a soft voice in an East African accent quietly interjected to my left. “Are you still writing plays”, the voice asks. I turn, it’s a familiar face. I’ve seen this man- dammit he’s familiar as all hell- I feel like I’ve known him my entire adult life, but never exchanged a word or name with him. “Hi, I’m Toussaint” totally not answering his question.

“You know, you should come to Roosevelt. They need some kind of theatre there. You could teach the students!” the familiar East African man excitedly clammered. This guy clearly doesn’t know me as well as I think I recognize him. “I mean, I don’t know how much they could pay you, but the school could really use someone like you around”, he went on.

We ran track together- recognized him from the old city track & field showdowns at Washburn H.S... as well as the social grid of the University of MN. I’d been in proximity for the past decade with this guy and still didn’t know his name. “Hassan. I work at Roosevelt”, he said.

Teach theatre to kids? What would I say to them? Hi, I'm Toussaint. Most times I open my mouth, people get pissed off, I get slapped, I get paid, or I win a poetry slam?

Hassan, it is. I’ll take you up on the offer after I finish working out the details on this song about Risperdal and emotional behavior disorder. This should be damn fun. And by fun I mean I have absolutely no clue of the opportunity you just extended. The little I do know of Roosevelt High School is that it’s the alma mater of several of my best friends, several infamous athletes, and an easy target if you had to point your finger in the direction the school you most likely did not want to wind up at. Sitting right next to perennial academic success school Minneapolis South H.S. and a not too distant Minneapolis Southwest H.S. (#1 in the state).
Distressed by what I just said? Don’t be. It was the first thing I was informed of when I stepped into my first meeting at Roosevelt. “Most kids wind up here that applied for Minneapolis South or Southwest, and are a bit discouraged that they didn’t get in”. F that. I want to give these kids a voice, a stage, a mic- something in which to brand their creative thumbprint on their city.

Somewhere along the line, the city had failed the building, abandoned it beneath the shadow of South, Southwest, and a deplorable public school system that ranks dead last in the U.S. for racial disparity in education.

Some while ago, somehow… the bar was settled near the floor for the standards of Roosevelt H.S. I was going to challenge that- change it, even. Most importantly, I wanted to know what the students had to say about it.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Biggest Hands I Ever Did See

It was exactly what I had hoped would happen, to be socially stranded at some bar while my friends made off with their friends and be forced into the realms of the awkward. Brooklyn had been stand-off’ish, but nice up to this point. I had come to the Brooklyn Whiskey with Lucia to meet her Teach For America buddies, a circle of broughams from separate corners of the country all brought together for two things: to teach a low-income/neglected student base, and say “yes, I lived in New York for a time or two, let me tell you…”  They were a brotherhood of sorts, and as time passed on (20mins) the riotous pack of Teach For America fellows became enthralled with Lucia. It seemed as if they’d been denied something for the past, oh, year or so.

“What time do you guys usually have to be up in the morning?” I insisted to the tallest of the Teach For America fraternity pack. “Usually 5am, but not tonight. Tomorrow’s a government holiday.” He replied from the side of his mouth while scouring the scene of Sunday late-nighters and mid-Autumn skirts. I glance back to my go-to, the New Orleans Saints game on one of the dozen television sets hanging from the ceiling.

“I can’t wait to be the fuck up outta there though” the frat pack For America leader murmured from the side of his mouth again. “Really? How often you think about just up and leaving the Teach For America job?” I asked. “Every God Damn day” he replied still scouring the floor. “So why don’t you ?” I retorted. The Teach For America frat leader turned from his skirt scour and looked me in the eye from the half a foot he stood above me. “Because I made a promise. I gave them my word that I’d complete two years with the program. After that, never again” He grimly replied. The amount of integrity just emitted was beyond my limitations for the night, radioactive perhaps.  I had not anticipated words to be delivered with the contrition I had received them from this man.

“Shit, sucks to-“ Shit, Drew Brees just made a play and it’s under review. This could be the God Damn game. I broke from the conversation while pack leader corralled a circle of women. My gaze widening into the television set with hopes the Saints would break their two-game losing slump.

The referee trots to the center of the field, opens his mouth to give the verdict- BOOM! A hand slaps right in between my shoulder blades. My arms flail back for a split-second from the impact of the blow. This can’t be an accident. No one bumps into somebody this hard unintentionally. There was a purpose to this strike- a message I was being sent. Before I could gather my balance, the same hand that struck me pulled me in tightly by the right shoulder. I could feel each callus from the hand forcing me closer to the perpetrator- each callus a pillow, but the hand almost touching from the top of my shoulder to my elbow- is this person wearing a fucking catcher’s mit?!?!

“Are you fuckin’ Dino’s brother!?” a baritone voice bellows  to my left. “Ah- wha-what?” I respond in all respects, the bar so loud, this gentlemen speaking in a pitch that matched the DJ’s bass, I couldn’t make out a single syllable he was saying. “Dino’s brother?!?!?” He bellows again. This man is on a mission. I still couldn’t make out what he was saying, but turning into him was like turning towards your father for the first time as a toddler. The man was a giant. Short in stature, but his features absolutely huge in relation to everyone else in the bar. He would have no problem managing an NFL running back to the ground, he would give a pro-wrestler and career ending injury, he could quite break my arm right off with his drunken choosing. This man is a reckoning. Anyone choosing to physically oppose him would put himself in discreet jeopardy of losing his life or having to suffer multiple broken bones in the process of eeking out an unlikely victory. 

I've seen how these things work out- I've watched the treachery of drunken bar brawls end in skulls slamming against the sidewalk, internal bleeding, ambulance speed racing through the night to rescue some unnecessary violence spilled onto the streets outside some bar in some town over some bullshit.There would be no fashion or finesse in this situation if I didn't look this man in the eye. 

I turn toward face of the inaudible voice. Breath wreaking of dark booze, a bomb-shell cougar to his side, and a few other friends staring me down at the bar, I had to think of something quick. “Ahhh, no” I said. I had no clue what I was speaking to, but I figure to deny whatever this gargantuan gentlemen might be accusing.

“Really, you don’t know Dino!?!?!” he laughed. I could hear him now. “Ha.. no, no clue” I timidly smiled back. “Hey, you Dominican?!?!?!” he asked.  “Uhhh, no. I have an uncle in the Bahamas though” I shouted over the bar speakers. “Alright! Alright! I thought you were this motha fucka, Dino’s brother!!! I was gonna punch you right in the fuckin’ mouth y’know!” he confessed with a celebratory smile, almost relieved he wouldn’t have to deal out a mandatory ass whooping to the guy he thought I was. “Oh… Ha… Nope, not me. I’m in town from Minnesota. Couldn’t be me.” Still holding a nervous smile.

Our conversation continued onto complex subjects such as the ominous state of the Vikings and the potential bright future of the New York Giants. After bidding adieu, I returned to the Teach for America crew still corralled around Lucia, and exhaled a sigh of reluctance at the topic of discussion being once again Teach for America. It is memorable to stand toe-to-toe with another human being that admits they were going to punch you in the face at first sight of you, rather than to discuss how much you hate your job. Later that night in a taxi cab en route to the Fat Cat, the driver asks me if I'm related to ex-Major League Baseball  player, Moises Alou… again, Dominican. Alas, I am not. We chat in Spanish for the rest of the car ride, the least I can do for the deflated excitement he faced thinking I was related to baseball greatness. Whilst avoiding getting pummeled by the biggest hands I ever did see, the amount of reintroduction required to be racially ambiguous in New York City is enjoyable… when visiting.