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What Manner of Black Man?
The author gets personal. Part One.
I am often called to represent a black perspective. I understand the motivations behind such requests and while I tend to be fairly tough-minded about it in principle and in my writing, I am different about it face to face. Given a note I just got from a reader who got caught up in wonky complications about paid subscriptions, I think I should address this from a personal perspective. Especially considering the grief I give the Genius class.
I am the oldest of five kids born to a pair of sociologist parents. My grandparents were the sort who got married during the Depression. So the first thing to know is that I’m a big brother from the West Coast branch of a fairly big family. We lived in a normal stucco city house in a neighborhood that was standard middle class stuff. Three bedrooms one bathroom with a broken shower. Two trees in the front yard, two car garage. Big backyard with a telephone pole.
My neighborhood was black, white and Japanese in 1963 when we moved there. By ‘70 most of the whitefolks were gone. On our block there were four two-story four unit apartment buildings and the rest were normal detached single family homes. The local elementary school had a good reputation. If you go to this neighborhood in the West Adams district of Los Angeles, you can get a flavor of the charm it had before things went to shit in the crack-epidemic 80s. Now it is being gentrified in overdrive. What we bought for 36k in 1966 now goes for over 1 million. When I read Tom Sawyer as a kid, I felt that I was just like him. Adventurous, but not fearless, raised by strict disciplinarians with split loyalties between being a good kid and having badass reckless chums.
1974 to 1986
Everything about the 70s was true about me. I rode my bike everywhere, skateboarded like a maniac, had a giant afro to match my double knit bellbottoms. I was outdoors until the lights came on and played pickup sports of every kind. I was raised to be a scholar athlete. I loved Batman, Buzz Aldrin and Bruce Lee. I wanted to be an astrogator and became addicted to science and science fiction. I became a Cold War plane spotter and was fascinated and terrified by nuclear energy. I also rode public transit, sat in the back and made foul mouthed jokes at everyone’s expense. I could extensively quote Cheech & Chong, Richard Pryor and The Book of Common Prayer. I attended a parochial middle school and a Jesuit prep school. I skipped a couple grades and was accepted into USC’s School of Electrical Engineering at the age of 16. Then my life broke.
Since my parents were both employed by the County of Los Angeles, I blamed Proposition 13 for constraining the government budget and not giving them the raises that would help them pay my way through college. I understood nothing of private enterprise or money. After voting for Anderson, getting a union job, buying a motorcycle and an audiophile DJ setup, I wound up working for City National Bank on Pershing Square running the Certificates Desk when the prime rate was somewhere around 17%. I learned that the rich can get poorer and nobody has it all figured out. Finally after having been out of the collegiate loop for four years, I quit the management training program in pursuit of a computer science degree at Cal State.
My college years were a combination of frustration, boredom, social mobility and personal growth. I was frustrated by my own work ethic which surpassed any and all expectations whose discipline was about the 4th grade level. Cal State seemed super lax to me. I was bored by pretty much all of the material presented to me with the exceptions of microcode, LISP and Chinese history. I had to discover Thomas Sowell on my own, and so began to dress like an upwardly mobile immigrant. I was bored by the musical tastes of my contemporaries. I gained a huge amount of social mobility through my extracurriculars which included fraternity life, student leadership and all the perks union guys want but never get because we’re not in college. That also speaks to the lack of discipline. So I learned that thinking isn’t the only thing that matters. Of course that only added to my frustration because I was not networked into the Ivy League cliques I felt that I deserved. But I did land some internships and scholarships.
1986 to 1994
The most significant of all these led to Xerox El Segundo, where I discovered and adored the legendary D-Machines. I still remember sitting with awe as I opened the domain icon which was a portal to Shinjuku Mizuno. I met dozens of interesting managers and professionals few of whom had any inkling of what the digital revolution might become. I moved to the beach, took up beach vollyball and cycling, bought a BMW and started serious listening to jazz, studying Japanese culture and writing essays in my journal. With a couple partners I started yet another entrepreneurial venture in addition to the waning aegis of my computering day job, which all at Xerox had conceded to Sun Microsystems. I still loved my D-machine, but I should have picked a Unix.
The soca tapes my roomie brought from his annual pilgrimage through the Caribbean to Caracas’ carnivale spurred me to reconsider my aims for bourgie black highbrow. Having been stunned by Borges, Friere, Ishmael Reed, Public Enemy and Multicultural Literacy, I suddenly lost interest in the MBA track. After all, I already had the corporate gig. Before there were Silicon Valley VC firms, the center of the computing universe was still MIT’s Media Lab with the likes of Negroponte and Shoshanna Zuboff. PARC and XSIS basically went to nil. So when I had a choice, I decided to go east to Route 128 instead of north to Silicon Valley. In the meantime, why not figure out the ‘Afrikan’ diaspora? So things like the war in the Congo, the evils of the LAPD, the anti-apartheid movement and girls without perms became very interesting to me in those days. Then one day all that solidified when I began reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It was an order of magnitude more literate than anything called black I read before. In short order came a new short afro girlfriend, Derrick Bell, Audre Lorde, Kimberle Crenshaw and the entire black bohemian crew. I went from corporate role monkey to guerrilla videographer and performance poet. But I still mocked the Afrocentrics, because seriously? Fifty page books.
As the profitability of the Reagan Revolution waned in the days before managerial computing had yet to take off in the mainstream, all of the business with aerospace dried up here in SoCal. So when I got an offer to run a project in Manhattan, I jumped at the chance. I finally, at the age of 30, got to lead a technical project where an actual MBA was working for me. Pig, meet slop. From this arrogant perch I once again considered working for the likes of Bloomberg who was blowing up at the time, but honestly I was doing just fine and still was unreconciled in my boho lifestyle. In the daytime, Nordstrom ties and wingtip shoes, at night leather boots, black jeans, tanktop and fingerless gloves. No photographic evidence exists of me in my Homeboy Suit, but it was very NYC. I had a top floor two bedroom apartment in Prospect Heights with roof access, EIK, French doors, hardwood floor, exposed brick, NAD separates and Infiniti speakers. I seemed impossibly successful. Women from Brooklyn didn’t trust that I was real. It was a strange time. I started to distrust American women in general. Now I looked to the Caribbean and the Continent.
I wasn’t rich. Not even close. But I started to meet black men and women who were. That was a revelation. Essentially, it boiled down to the following lessons for me. Remember this was just about that time when ‘The Rules’ was the popular dating guide.
You have run out of room for getting a trophy wife. You cannot afford one on your salary and non-Ivy League status. Be happy with brilliant non-hot or hot non-brilliant.
Hanging out with richer black men than you is an ordeal. They are a different class of Alpha Male than you. For example, the owner of the above boat will yell at you like a Wall Street bastard. Get used to it, or don’t.
There are 50 black people in NYC you must get to know, one way or another. Start hanging out at B. Smith’s.
In the end, I just didn’t go all out. So I didn’t get all in. It wasn’t an entirely unpleasant experience. The problem was that I was confused. I didn’t have a coherent existential platform. I wasn’t desperately hungry enough to want it all. I wasn’t blasé enough to settle for a random selection. Quite frankly I was becoming a bit too fed up with my own perfectionisms. Where I was once a smart ass, now I was a tight ass. It wasn’t delivering my desires.
I can see now in retrospect that I was much too much of a control freak. Then again, I just expected that when I went to a Spike Lee party, the right women would be in abundance. Ah. Forgot lesson #1. I wasn’t even a match for Big Daddy Kane. The video chicks could sniff me out. But. But. I really enjoyed my lamb chops at B. Smith’s. Every week.
Soon I was off to Boston. I got another promotion and now I would run tech support at HQ where HQ was a brand new building in Cambridge. Ah yes, to be in legendary Cambridge near Lotus Development and Thinking Machines. Heady days. I put myself on a diet, got in shape (Body By Jake). I expected to be married within a few years, so I started getting tactical about my dating, especially after the latest hot non-brilliant fiasco. I figured I could find somebody at Harvard. Unfortunately, I found that the Kennedy School was too woke for me, even back in 1993. I scoffed. I found women in Boston to be either scaredy, dumpy or desperate. Then my ex from LA called and gave me something of an ultimatum. She was so right. I asked her to fly out for a weekend. Before I knew what I was doing I proposed to her right in Harvard Square. Twice. Just to make sure.
I suppose we both lucked out, because that was one of the most volatile years in my life. There were 3 or 4 major options I was considering, including running off to Rio to start a division of the company, joining Peoplesoft on the ground floor, learning AVID when it was brand new or being a Visual Basic demigod at Microsoft in Seattle. Instead, I got married, became an independent contractor, and moved to Atlanta. 1994 was the first year I made six figures.
So that’s the high level. Information Technology is my day job and vocation. Writing is my avocation and takes up equal if not greater mindspace. I imagine that I can do more memoir-y stuff as the writer; that’s more interesting. It was about this time, circa 1992 that my writing became more serious than it was as the performance poet. I had already started a novel whose prospects I thought were dashed by the reality of the LA Riots. Mine was not quite tragic enough, though it was a tragedy. When I found myself writing about the Riots themselves, it was so awful. Kind of like those 2000 word paragraphs in the comments section where somebody tries to connect progressive politics, the uranium trade in Namibia, lyrics from Flava Flav and William Kunstler’s hair style to the fate of the black man on the street.
So as I do more of this kind of personal writing in the future, the theme will be the evolution of myself as a black writer, because between 1992 and 2009 that was really what I wanted to be. I was that black writer. By 2017 I rejected any half-aspirations to being much of any sort of black writer at all, having all racial inspirations drip drained out of my system. But the fact remains that I was one over those many years. I even have some working titles for whatever that memoir might be.
Up From Freedom
Diary of a Mythic Homeboy
The Crossover Kid
So there’s that.