Dad: "That's your people."
Mom: "I didn't raise 'em."
So I travel. Last week I was in Florida. I hate Florida. The first time I was in that state, I was travelling with my uncle's family to visit some relatives I had never known. We drove from Ohio straight down I-75 in the summer of 1971. My aunt was born and raised in the Florida panhandle and I recall how fearful she was that our car might break down somewhere in southern Georgia on the way there. She almost convinced my uncle not to drive at night. I was 10 and not afraid of no Klan, and despite the fact that the desk clerk at the Atlanta Holiday Inn was quite certain that my uncle could not possibly have been Dr. Bowen and therefore could not occupy the room he reserved by telephone, I could not understand what all the fear was about. Yet I do recall while visiting in Tallahassee that for some strange reason, my uncle told us that we were leaving, NOW! Did I look at that ugly white man wrong? I may never know. What I do know is that I hate okra and rice but lived on it for a week at my great grandmothers small house off the dirt road, in Florida.
So now I design computer applications and stay in nice hotels. That doesn't stop me from looking for the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in every city. Funny, how certain people quote him as if he were a god when talking about the proper ways political action should take place, but that street never goes through their communities. I know where King Boulevard goes, and a brother has got to get a haircut. 2 + 2. This King was in Tampa, East Tampa. I arrived in the quietest black barbershop I can remember. There have been quieter ones, I'm sure, but this one actually had several brothers inside and two chairs working. The only sounds came from the buzzing clippers and the Whoopi Goldberg video playing on the grey shelf. Sister Act. Or maybe it was Sister Act 2. Finally, somebody spoke up, and then somebody else. One man's accent was completely undecipherable to me, then again he did have his mouth full. Somebody laughed at a Whoopi joke - no not about her, from her. Now for some reason, when black men are quiet, in a black barbershop, and they laugh with Whoopi and not at her, for some reason I tend to think about the deep, Deep South. Like...Florida.
I decided to go see that movie; "Don't Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood". One wonders if all the words of the title are properly capitalized. Well, it's a Wayans movie, so undoubtedly, somebody is capitalizing. It was playing at the Eastlake Mall. Hmmm. Sounds like Oakland. I announce that I am not familiar with the neighborhood, but I assume that it is the 'hood. The young brother next to me was probably too young to drive, knew the place, not the cross street. The man in the inside chair told me to take 56th Street to Hillsborough and then go east. Cool. The license plate on my rented Altima said Hillsborough, indicating the County. I was lodging over in Pinellas where everything, including one presumes a large number of arteries, closes down at 8 pm. It was good to see some black faces at ease. In the office, I saw no blacks at all until the mail came around, or the trash cans. It was that deep. Pinellas County had a bike path, Eastlake had high tension lines.
Driving through communities like this, I often wonder where people work. What keeps the average family alive? The barber said, Teco, the power company and GTE the phone company were the big employers. Damn. Phone bills, light bills and rent. Oh yeah, and the Post Office. The street-unwise kid who was sitting next to me was wearing a clean white shirt. He leaned forward to laugh with Whoopi. One of Whoopi's singing students was being sternly lectured by her mother that singing was not a dream worth pursuing. She had better hit those books and forget about that field trip to the Las Vegas competition. It was the voice of my aunt telling us not to stop the car at night. It was the voice of Pinellas County. The sins of commission and the sins of ommission. The barbershop was silent. Just before I burned rubber out of the small parkinglot, I had to turn up my sounds, loud. I was driving, I was moving, I was watching. I thought about that kid in the clean white shirt - trying to laugh and enjoy the movie in that depressing barbershop. I hope he finds another street.
Every time I go to a new 'hood where I have never been, I see something in teenage girls hair that seems to defy description, logic, and physics. This trip was no exception. I stood in line with my own clippings on my shoulders trying to find a precedent for this banged, peackock thing with pale blue streaks. Obviously, I haven't been watching enough Video Soul, because this was a shock. But the words and the movements were all familiar. Black kids, beat up mall, Saturday afternoon movie, loud conversations, some younger kids with their jackets open and sleeves over thier hands running weaves through clots of teens and directory kiosks. Way over on the West side, in Pinellas, there was an ice skating rink with rock & roll music. There wasn't even a boom box here. The girls in front of me counted out singles talking about how boring Waiting to Exhale was. An older woman struggled up the dirty red velvet crush steps with a baby carriage. She looked as if she was ready to curse somebody out, but she didn't. Everyone looked ugly, unhealthy and bored. It was nothing like Fulton Avenue in Brooklyn. Everything here was subdued and not even vaguely sinister. Even the security guard looked bored. Only one thing stood out. It was that hair.
The theatre had its lights on when the movie started. I accept the fact that young poor black kids scare most everyone when they loudmouth, but the idea that they couldn't be trusted in the dark of a movie theatre hit me hard. Halfway through the opening credits, the film ripped. Slides of popcorn and Denzel Washington's name scrambled appeared on the screen; the noise level remained the same, as if they are used to this. Finally the lights dim, and the credits continue. Maybe they were using the music of the credits for entertainment.
If you liked In Living Color during the first season, chances are you will laugh out loud in the theatre. Eastlake is the place to be for laughing out loud. And so I did. I look at the picture. Genre: Brooks/Wayans/Zucker. This was funnier than Spaceballs but not as funny as Airplane. Funnier than Friday but not as funny as Hollywood Shuffle. Funnier than real life.
I leave the joint, carrying my backpack with me and do a loop through the mall. It is truly tired; like Assembly Square in Boston, like Eastmont Mall in Oakland, like Albany Avenue in Hartford, like the City of Industry, like Lenox Avenue and 144th Street in Harlem, like Bankhead Highway in Atlanta. How do these places get like this? Where has all the energy gone? Where is the Juice?
I am tired and leave to go 'home' to Pinellas County. But I need to eat something. Maybe I'll have a beer somewhere they play Bob Marley on the juke. Maybe I can find a good BBQ joint. So I take Hillsborough west. A lot of cars I see here, I haven't seen since California. VW Bugs done desert style. Slammed rides in pastel colors. Old cars that would have rusted to junk anywhere it snows; a Ford Falcon with Centerlines. I'm driving fast, thinking that I am too large for this entire place. I have seen this Saturday night traffic many years ago on Sunset Boulevard, and I was past it then. I need to chill out. Where is the place to be? Then it whizzes by, a black beauty supply store. Somebody there has got to know.
I flip a U into the lot. The car next to me has small children waiting for moms. I remember that. I walk in. The proprietors are Asians of some sort. I am shocked. The shoppers are all subdued, but there is an ample supply of Kimi Oyl on the shelves. Strolling around nonchalantly, I pass by the Creme of Nature Shampoo; the woman at the cash register is in her 20s and shapely. Her straight black hair runs halfway down her back. She might know where the spot is. Maybe. She is the youngest person in the store, her accent is thick. I don't ask her, I don't ask anyone else. I am just struck with an awful sense of futility. There is no place to be. That means I'm going back to Pinellas County, home of... home of... Jerry Seinfeld's retired parents, Publix, Sustecal, my contractual employer and of course the Ice Rink.
Of course, Pinellas isn't all bad. When my wife and daughter flew in the previous weekend, we drove up to the world famous Spongeworld. I still have a little natural sponge in my bathroom that we bought from one of the many Greek ethnic shops along the docks. We ate lunch at a fine (and huge) famous family restaurant which featured a damn good chardonnay. The spaghetti left a bit to be desired, but the salads were excellent. As much as I appreciate a good meal, it doesn't stick to my ribs like that feeling of death sticks in my gut. Death is what it was out east. The death of a spirit, the death of a city. And sometimes, when I think about it, I wonder if East Tampa had ever been alive.
You see Pinellas doesn't look very naturally hospitable. I have a hard time imagining Seminoles farming the place. Despite a majestic stand of oaks just south of Main Street in Dunedin, nothing that would sustain any sizeable community of people seems to grow there. Even the waters of the bays look barren. The soil is sandy, the water table is crusty with lime, the constant wind blows palm trees into permanent contortions. The houses of the area are distinctly post-war, except for those which were clearly some carpetbagger's opulent winter getaway. Again, it's Southern California: a desert brought to life through constant intervention. And today it's all retirement 'burb and tourist village. Steady. On the west side of the Tampa River, most things haven't rusted to junk. But only travelling buppies seeking a few negro services seem to find reason to visit East Tampa, or so it seems to me. There are far fewer pretensions there to any hospitableness, natural or otherwise. No orange trees, no gated retirement communities, no Publix, no Sustecal and damn few employers.