Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Dreaming America

WE'D JUST ARRIVED ON LIBERTY Island, and it was hot. After waiting an hour for the ferry, then another half hour for the ferry ride, we now stood at the foot of what looked to be another hourslong queue spiraling three hundred feet into the Atlantic sky.

I'd had it with lines.

It was my 20th birthday and R_saura and I had already waited for elevator after elevator to the top of the Empire State. Then again to climb the World Trade Center. After dramatic 100-story midtown and downtown Manhattan views, I wasn't terribly enthused about the awaiting perspective from the low green crown of the Statue of Liberty.

"But M_rvin," she pleaded in an accent still lingering from some Spanish colony,"I'm here all the way here from Arizona. There's no telling when - if ever - I'll get back here again."

Till now, I'd never dreamed of going West, of its horizontal expanse. Never seen what rose beyond the flatness of Oklahoma. & so I struggled to imagine how far away her Arizona must be, struggled to imagine the red and rust rainbows ribboned across its Painted Desert, how far that desert had traveled to be here before me: this mirage of R_sauara's skin and burnt sienna eyes, of rolling R's and dark flames of hair - here, against this iconic vertical expanse of metallic green and harbor blue.

We appended ourselves to the line. Then, a sign snapping me back from the dream:


"If you've seen one observation deck, you've seen them all," I quipped, my back dampening with sweat, more than a little irritated from our daylong lemming act. Even more bothered that my Georgia blood betrayed me by boiling in this punkish New York heat - even in July.

"Look, we'll spend the rest of the day here for one attraction. We could visit 5 or 6 other landmarks in the time we'd be standing here."

Though visibly disappointed, R_saura agreed.


While waiting for the next ferry back to Manhattan, I looked for an untouristed photo op.

"Stand right there," I said.


"Yeah, right there. But stand up straight."

I framed R_saura's white halter-top and cheekbones of Navajo red - the full height of the 300 ft. statue rising behind her, juxtaposed just to her right. As I brought her features into focus, this was looking less of a Statue of Liberty postcard photo and more of an American poem.

Her chin up, her back straight, she squinted into the white sun. R_saura now dominated the picture; the Statue of Liberty, a spectacular footnote. Her madre, her abuelita, and generations of round, sturdy women shone through her eyes. Looking right through me, she smiled a hard smile. Towering taller than the height of colonialism, R_saura glowed with pride.

I snapped.

"Do you want one?" R_saura asked.

I realized that, prior to the moment she asked the question, I never once imagined how I might look framed in this picture. This picture, being America.

"Sure," I said. Unlike R_saura, both of my parents had been born on this soil, had worked its stubborn cotton bolls. And their America birthed my dreams: 2.5 children, a wife, a house, a corporate job. But in this moment, two decades on this soil, I couldn't figure out where to stand.

A consummate overthinker, I struggled to position myself in what I thought would make a good shot.

"Hold up... Okay, wait... What about?-" Then, I gave up and decided to trust R_saura.

She took a step back. "Oh, that's really nice," she said.

Then, she snapped.


Ten years later, I hold these pictures and ponder my place in this America: no 2.5 children, no wife, no house, and trying to leave my corporate job. Yet I am happy here - wherever this is, however long it may be.

I am an artist. I make it what I will.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Out of the Office

I've taken the week off from blogging to celebrate my 30th birthday.   Tons to report, just no time to report it.  It's been a blast so far.  I'll be back on Monday, business as usual.

If you happen to see me conscious on Friday the 23rd, I'm taking cash, checks, credit, WIC, and sexual favors!

See you on the other side,

Friday, July 16, 2004

On a Fieldtrip to the Botanical Gardens, Kenya Gets a Lesson (Not in the Lesson Plan)

If she could, she would choose
to be the color of Yellow cosmos, French lavender,
Texas paintbrush (or a Shasta daisy at the very

least): Anything but the color of pots
& kettles!
Which she is. Which is when
a chaperone (who happens to be her

Mother) rebuts: But Kenya, you are also the color
of night, whose splendor cannot even be contained
by Earth. Nor by expanding galaxies, wandering

exquisitely as the thoughts of God. The color of Infinity,
if it had one; of Eternity, if it ever paused
to be measured. Daughter, you are the blank canvas

of dreams, where Earth's first undulating volcanic
beaches bloomed in hues so heavy, no lesser flower
could bear it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Why I Wa$ Away from My De$k When Y_u Called Thi$ Morning


__a__a, sorry I missed your call. Right now I'm calling you from my cell phone, but I'll try you back in about 10 minutes - soon as I get back to the office.


Yesterday afternoon, I wrote a friend a check for 14 dollars. Yeah, so what's the problem?, you may ask. The problem is... there's only 9 dollars and 32 cents in my account! I should probably mention that this friend is a co-worker who works in my department. Which means if I write him a bounced check - a F-O-U-R-T-E-E-N-D-O-L-L-A-R bounced check - I will never live it down. Which is to say, I had to sneak out from work this morning and dash my a$$ to the bank for a cash advance to cover it.

QUESTION: What's the minimum amount you can request for a credit card cash advance from a bank teller and not have her write you off as hopelessly-poor-to-the-10th-power?

ANSWER: Obviously not $20.

I was too embarrassed to go to my branch within walking distance and face the tellers who I've become chummy with and charmed for favors; it would ruin my impeccable reputation! So I drove two exits to the next nearest branch where I could be anonymous.

Naturally, the teller I get would be in training. Which means now there's potential for double trouble - that is, not one, but two strangers all up in my broke-a$$ bizna$$.

I managed to avert all six of their eyes for most of the five-minute transaction, but the whole time I could feel the supervising teller's lukewarm lips smiling at me. So, I casually glanced toward the ceiling... because I could feel the curtain falling.

"You know," the teller said smugly. "You're being charged five dollars to get this twenty."

"And you'll charge me quite a bit more if I don't deposit it." I bounced a constipated smile back.

He looked at me quizically; then, down at his monitor. Then, a long sour, "Ohhhhhhhhhh...," as he read my account balance.


So it's 90-plus degrees and, to conserve gas, my broke-a$$ is now riding with the windows down as far as they can mechanically go. I'm calling you from the company cell phone, which I only have this week because I'm on call.

And even if I could afford my own cell phone, I love you and all, but I wouldn't be calling you right now because I'd be using daytime minutes.

I'll ring you back when I'm back at my cubicle.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Inside Cidade de Deus (City of God)

AFTER STARRING IN THE TWO-WEEKLONG MINI-SERIES Can't Keep it on the Shelf, I finally secured a copy of Fernando Meirelles (camera director) & Katia Lund's (acting director) gritty 2002 Brazilian docudrama, Cidade de Deus (City of God). Why my neighborhood Blockbuster only ordered 4 copies is beyond me; but all my stomping out of the store five times empty-handed succeeded in doing was building my expectation to a level no film - nor any worldly experience, for that matter - could possibly live up to.

Or could it?

In Portuguese with English subtitles, City of God is, in fact, otherworldly. Much in the way of Coppola's The Godfather, it is at once impossibly brutal, yet impossibly beautiful - a tale of contradictions. Set during the 60's and 70's in Rio de Janiero's poorest and most violent favela (a housing project created to isolate Rio's impoverished from its wealthy tourist sector), it follows the real-life stories of two City of God youth headed in drastically different directions - Lil Dice, an ambitious drug dealer, and Rocket, an aspiring photographer who stumbles onto the artform via a stolen camera.

Narrated by a teenage Rocket, a journalist intern, City of God is presented as a sequence of artfully interwoven flashbacks against a soundtrack alternating between samba, American disco, and loopy, blaxploitation wah-wah guitar. In the beginning, we find the main characters, Lil Dice and Rocket in the sepia-toned slum as preadolescents. Their teenage brothers, Shaggy and Goose, are part of the Trio, a band of small-time stick-up artists. Lil Dice, small in size but big in ideas, concocts a scheme to make the Trio some real money - to rob a brothel. The plans go awry when the Trio crashes their sleek stolen getaway car into a houseful of people, initiating a life on the run.

But life in the City of God is short. Where bulletsprays are more common than rainshowers, both Shaggy and Goose meet their deaths before the age of 20. Clipper, the third member of the Trio, walks into a chapel and finds God - the only mention of the deity in the film. Incidentally, we never see the famous 100 ft. statue of Jesus which overlooks all of Rio - an omission which subtly states that that God has no jurisdiction there.

We then fast-forward to the 70's where the ambitious Lil Dice seeks out a Candomble priest to empower him to become druglord of the favela. Initiated into the orisha, Exu, the coal-complexioned Lil Dice takes on a new name, Lil Ze. In West African faiths, the orisha, Exu (alternately called Eshu, Elegua, Elegba depending on the country) is keeper of the crossroads. No ritual or ceremony can begin without making an offer to him lest it be doomed to fail. And within the City of God, the newly anointed Lil Ze quickly rises to Exu-like status.

Given an eleke, (a beaded necklace) which spiritually endows him, Lil Ze is also given the specific instruction to never wear it while engaging in sex. But on his bloody, ruthless rise to power, one of the first things Lil Ze does is rape a woman, setting up his inevitable downfall.

The remainder of the film focuses primarily on Lil Ze's rise and fall. Not even 20 years old, Lil Ze takes command of the favela's cocaine and marijuana traffic. Deadlier than the gang warfare of 80's Los Angeles, what was most arresting to me as an American viewer was not the brutal violence - but rather who was committing it: 7, 8, and 9 year-old children. Where stealing and murder are rites of passage, hopelessness becomes religion.

"I smoke, I snort," declares a member of The Runts, a City of God youth gang. "I'm a man."

In another exchange between preadolescents who can't yet read:

"Drugs. That's where the real money is. You start out as a deliverer and work your way up."

"I don't want to. It takes too long," another Runt counters. "You have to wait for one of the old people to die."

The "old people" to which he refers include Lil Ze - not yet aged 20.

After killing any, and every, one who stands in his way, Lil Ze, like God, creates a warped sense of peace across the favela. Insatiable, he possesses money and power, but the two things he lacks cannot be gotten with money and muscle: good looks and fame. Which proves to be his downfall.

Lil Ze has an eye for the girlfriend of Knockout Ned, so called because of his stunning good looks. But the only way Lil Ze can get sex is by raping a woman or paying for it. Which results in Ned's girlfriend refusing Lil Ze's sexual advances. Which drives the psychopathic Lil Ze and his gang on an Uzi rampage, murdering most of Ned's family. Which leads Ned to raise a rival gang with the sole mission of ending Lil Ze's reign. And his life.

As increasing violence escalates the story of the rival gangs into the Rio de Janeiro news, Knockout Ned - in and out of jail - receives all of the camera time. Which makes Lil Ze, hidden lord of the City of God, even more jealous. Which is where Rocket's childhood relationship to Lil Ze threads together the plot's fabric.

Rocket, now a new intern at the city newspaper, is looking for a break to get his first published photograph. Because of their fairer-complexions and lives of privilege, the paper's professional photographers don't have access to the Vietnam-like warzone of the favela. The result: Lil Ze in a photo, posing with a truckload of guns on the frontpage with aspiring photographer, Rocket, getting the credit.

Rocket's follow-up assignment is to obtain more photos of Lil Ze. But while on assignment, he finds himself in the film's climax - the center of a cyclone of bullets, the worst gunfire to ever hit the City of God.

Awash in sepia, bronze, and gold filters, City of God , despite its ubiquitous violence, is undeniably beautiful. The director, Meirelles, takes no soapbox against the cruel barbaric state of the lives of the children, but rather detaches and simply presents it. The frantic, unsteady camera shots echo the slum's lawlessness, while simultaneously giving the handheld authenticity of a documentary. Add to this, Lund's direction of 200 non-actor youth from the slums of Rio, and City of God becomes even more remarkable.

Ironically, the only authentic stamp missing in City of God is the film's location. It had to be shot in other neighborhoods in Rio because the real City of God was too dangerous.

Even now, over two decades later.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

The Tragic Mulatto (1936), or One Drop Rule* Hits the Silver Screen

Our brave White hero, upon un-
veiling his mulatto mistress' villanous
dark secret, slices her shadowy wrist; then
in the ultimate sacrifice, pulls it to his
quivering mouth & sucks a single drop
of her Negro blood, enough to become...

a Negro himself! The frenetic Whites
Only cinema - half in awe, half in disgust - half
applauds our newly-mulattoed hero & his lover's
fateful walk, hand-in-hand into the darkening
sunset. If I could, the green-eyed
director thought, I would have them


*Colloquial name for Virginia's 1924 Racial Integrity Act.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

"G" is for...

I'VE KNOWN I WAS A GEEK since 1984. Not that I wore Coke bottle glasses, nor that I ever sported Wrangler high-waters. No, it was when our 4th grade class clown, Joe Comer, one day during a joning session, said what he believed to be Dozens-worthy hyperbole:

"Marvin, you so smart, I bet you read the dictionary!"

Yeah... and?

I did. And the enyclopedia. Our house had 3 sets: a dingy ivory and turquoise World Book 1968 passed down from my grandfather; the glorious burgundy and gold Funk & Wagnalls 1979-80 we brought home one day from Food Giant; and finally a maroon World Book 1984-85 peddled to us by some Huey Lewis & the News lookin door-to-door salesman.

Whenever the whim struck, I could look up the native language of Laos, discover what was Euclidean about Euclidean geometry, learn what lightless life grows in the Mariana Trench, or find out the next time Neptune's orbit would scoot it further than Pluto from Earth. And for extra kicks, with volumes spanning decades, I could play: Watch My People Transform from Colored to Black to Negro to Afro-American... and Back!

And summers were the greatest. In the lull between the last head-first slide of baseball season and picking out new Nikes for school, it was just me and old F& W for hours on end. My 10 year-old fantasies weren't of conquering Zaxxon or of a night with Cheetarah, but of snuggling with a Downey-fresh pillow and the voluminous Encyclopedia Britannica.

But one dare not say such things as a 4th grader. And worse, one dare not have it said by an other's mouth - especially the class clown! It was my little secret; Joe Comer didn't know anything. And neither did his family. So, I told him:

"Joe, yo Mama so dumb, she stared at a container of orange juice for a whole hour... cause the label said Concentrate!"


A lot of things have changed about me since I've grown up, but what will never change is me embracing my inner geek. Sure, it's been years since I have even seen a World Book Encyclopedia, but I can hardly survive five minutes without my new-and-improved, super-souped-up 21st century omniscient replacement: Google!

I am the proud Google Fan Club President of North America, West Africa, and I'm working on a few unrecognized nations in central Europe. I use Google to google anything. And I do mean anything.

At the risk of losing my lifetime allotment of cool points indefinitely, here is a list of random things I've googled lately:

1) What's the longest one-syllable word in English?
ANSWER: Screeched. But also: scrounged, scrunched, stretched, straights, strengths.

2) What's so magic about Magic Hill?

3) Irene Cara

4) What are the top grossing U.S. films of all time after adjusted for inflation?

ANSWER (as of 2002):
1) Gone with the Wind
2) Star Wars
3) The Sound of Music
4) E.T.
5) The Ten Commandments
6) Titanic
7) Jaws

5) What time is it right now in Brasil?

6) The History of Blogging

7) Myself

8) If & is called ampersand, what's the name for @?
ANSWER: Though commonly known as the "at" symbol, it has no name in English. Other languages, though, have names for it:

German --> Affenschwanz, meaning "monkey's tail"
Danish --> snabel-a, meaning, "elephant's trunk"
Italian --> chiocciola, meaning, "little snail"
Hungarian --> kukac, meaning "worm"
Taiwanese --> xiao lao-shu, meaning "little mouse"

9) How to improve your flutterkick

10) Yo Mama Jokes

11) Of the world's 100 tallest buildings, how many are in our city?
ANSWER: 3 - Bank of America Plaza (#20), SunTrust Plaza (#57), IBM Tower/One Atlantic Center (#89)

12) The most common first name for a President?
ANSWER: John (4): Adams, Quincy Adams, Tyler, Kennedy

13) The most common first name for a First Lady?
ANSWER: Elizabeth (3): Monroe, Truman, Ford

Incidentally, if Edwards were to ever become President, the couple, John and Elizabeth, would have both.

14) Who is Dr. Lee Passarella?

The pleasures are endless. It's hedonistic. Because once you've googled to find the answer to your initial question, it opens the door to a zillion others (except for question 14). For example:

Question 11 leads to: What is the tallest building in the world? The answer: Taipai 101 in Taiwan, just completed this year. And on its site, I found that its design and specifications are based on the number 8, which happens to be a lucky number in traditional Chinese culture. Naturally, I have to know why! Answer: Because "Fa," the pronunciation of 8 in Cantonese, means to "make a great fortune in the future." And, for that reason, developers in heavily Chinese areas (even outside of China) will break their necks to incorporate 8 in their street addresses or phone numbers.

Plus, if you need graphic images, there's an endless supply using Google's image search. And for you bargainaholics, now there's Froogle.com for bargain shopping!

A concluding couplet (to Joe Comer, who probably doesn't even know how to turn on a computer):

I should probably stop here, because I could go on all day.
Call me freak, call me geek, but just don't take my Google away!

Sunday, July 04, 2004

2 Brothas & a Weight Bench

"BUT THE BOOKS BY BLACK AUTHORS are tucked away in a nook on a dusty edge of aisle X in African-American Lit," I said. "So even if a Black author manages to get his product into the store, no consumer is going to find it unless they come in specifically looking for it."

I helped __ll___, guide the weight back on to the bar. Last set, he told me he was a store manager at Doubleday Books. He sat up straight and scooted to the end of the bench.

"To tell you the truth," he said, "my store doesn't even have an African-American section."

"Really?" I said. "What store do you manage?"



I was confused. Phipps Plaza is in the center of Buckhead, Atlanta's ritziest shopping district, center of Atlanta's buying power. And here he was, a Black store manager with no Black section. If he wasn't on Black authors' side, who would be? A Black writer myself, I felt bile rising.

All this time I thought your name was __ll___. Maybe I shoulda been calling you Tom.

I put him on the witness stand. "You mean to tell me that you're a Black manager at the Phipps store - which I'm sure is one of your largest volume stores in the Southeast - and you don't have a Black section." I raised my brow.

"Naw, we had to get rid of it," he said. "Because of theft."


"Let me explain. We do have African-American books in the store, but we had to scatter them around using their cross-reference. For example, Toni Morrison is in Fiction; Maya Angelou is in Poetry; and this new brotha that was on Oprah with his book on Down Low brothas? - he's in Gay Lit.

"You gotta be kidding."

"No lie. Your cousins kept comin into the store and stealin the books. We tried all sorts of things - strategic mirrors, moving the books to a shelf all the way in the back of the store...

"And magnetic security tags aren't cost-effective. So the books just kept disappearing."

"And the Phipps store... of all stores?"


Black authors can't sell their books because Black people are stealing them?

This wasn't the conversation I was planning to open. I piled more plates on the bar.

"So, Doubleday is owned by Barnes & Nobles. And so is B. Dalton's, right?"


"So, what about your stores in Black neighborhoods? You're not telling me that B. Dalton's at South DeKalb doesn't have a Black section."



"The store is closed."


"Due to high theft.

"Give you another example. Northlake? Just closed, too. For the same reason."

"Get the f*ck outta here!"

"And the store at Lenox. It closed a year ago. It's now a Waldenbooks."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

"And here I was thinking Black folk don't read."

"But do understand, they're not stealing Toni Morrison and Alice Walker," he said. "It's Omar Tyree, Tupac, Zane... Couldn't keep them on the shelves."

There has to be some other answer.

"So you're telling me with all of the brainpower at Barnes & Nobles Corporate - and all of the other urban markets - they couldn't come up with a solution?"

But before I could get it out of my mouth, I knew the answer.

"Listen to your question. Barnes & Nobles? Corporate?

"You think they really care about Black stores? About Black books?

"All they care about is what any business cares about: the bottom line."

And my own bottom line was that I refused to accept this as another Us vs. The Man scenario.

Having had enough politics for my Independence holiday, I lay myself back down on the bench. I stared at the black iron weights above me, at his brown face above that. I took a deep breath and said all that there was left to say:

"Yo bruh, I need you to give me a spot."

Friday, July 02, 2004

Beginning of a(nother) Story Yet Untold

GEORGIA POSSESES WHAT OUTSIDERS CONSIDER A PECULIAR quality. She suffers from bouts of dementia, which suspiciously result in her “wandering” onto her front porch, climbing like a rooster atop the most prominent point, flapping her arms, and melodiously throating the most scandalous neighborhood gossip - in full voice.

Her Baptism-white bungalow rises at the corner of Holy Street & 6th, the intersection of two of the most foot-traveled avenues of Piney Grove, our cozy enclave just beyond the shadow of Downtown. Which means, her house is en route to everywhere. Which means our community’s sundry citizens are perfunctorily polarized into two types: The Innocent, who stroll by casually, even pausing to admire Georgia’s demure violets and yellow zinnias; and The Guilty, who scurry by under ruse and wig, for fear of having some vicious personal secret — perhaps so deep and dark that they don’t even know yet themselves — exposed.

I considered myself as part of the halo-sporting class. Which was my mistake.


Zoe and I had been seeing...