By Bryan Paul Thomas
Saturday night. Albany, New York. November. 1990.
If I had a nickel for every time a white friend of mine used the word “nigger” with me, I would have a lot of nickels.
They are careful not to use the word to refer to me personally. Not to my face, anyway. Most of the time they don’t use it to refer to anyone. Most of the time it comes out as a quotation.
Like when they will ask if I know what N.W.A. stands for, and I’ll say, “Yes,” and they will proceed and tell me that it stands for “Niggers with Attitudes” anyway. And I will want to correct them and say that it is actually “Niggaz with Attitudes,” but the silly look on their faces always forces me to say nothing at all, it forces me to stare at my shoes waiting for the subject to change.
Like that one time in high school. My all-white high school. There was this new kid who came to our school on the first day with completely red eyes. Apparently over the summer he had been beaten in the face with a baseball bat by six guys while he was trying to buy cocaine in the city. By the first day of school, all the the bruises on his face and around his eyes had healed, but his eyes were still completely bloodshot. I talked to my friend John about it while we were walking home that day.
“You know how it happened?” John asked me.
“I heard that he was trying to buy some coke in Albany, and some guys beat the shit out of him over the deal,” I said.
He giggled. “Is that what they told you? That is was a bunch of guys? That’s pretty funny.”
“Why, was it a bunch of girls?”
He giggled again. “When I heard the story, they told me he got beat up by a bunch of niggers.”
It wasn’t that I was hearing the word “nigger” coming from my friend for the first time. It wasn’t that all of my paranoid guessing had come true. It was the look on his face, that mischievous little grin. Like a kid who had gotten away with something, with saying a naughty word in front of his mommy and daddy. Because with the grin came those eyes waiting for the reaction. Always those anxious eyes and the anxious grin while I stare at my shoes waiting for the subject to change.
But it was different last night as Tony and I drove home.
“Why do black people call each other ‘niggers’?” Tony asked. The car was dark, and empty. We’d since turned off the radio, dissatisfied with what it had to offer at three in the morning, so it was very quiet too, except for an occasional passing vehicle and an earlier rain that lifted itself off the road and danced about the tires. At first I prolonged the silence, so Tony continued. “I mean, it’s just so degrading. It’s so stooopid.” Tony has a certain talent for bringing things into conversation that everyone else chooses to ignore. But there was no grin, and no anxious eyes, so first the first time I wanted to answer the question. And yet, I had no real answers.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just a word.”
That was, of course, a lie.
It began to drizzle again; Tony turned on the windshield wipers and I tried to lose myself in the steady rhythm of their march upon the pane.
“How are you clowns gonna know who I’m talking to when I say ‘Bryan’ tonight?” Tony asked. “I’m gonna have to call you guys ‘White Bryan’ and ‘Black Bryan’.”
I noticed the name on his friend’s jacket. I knew Tony because we had gone to high school together, but I’d only been introduced to Bryan a few minutes earlier. Apparently they’d become friends while playing for their school team in an intercollegiate rugby league; my own school was several hours away, and I was back in town on Thanksgiving break.
“You spell it with a ‘Y’, too?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Bryan. Do you?”
“Yeah. I could pull out my I.D. to prove it to you,”
“No man, you don’t have to do that. I believe you.” He didn’t realize that I was joking. “That’s excellent, man — you know, spelling Bryan with ‘Y’, it like gives you that identity, ya know, keeps you a little different, man. We should start a club, huh? The Bryan with a ‘Y’ Club.” He raised his hand to slap me a high-five across the table. This time I was the one who couldn’t tell if he was kidding. He kept his arm in the air. I had to oblige.
Tony poured the next round, and it was soon thereafter that the lone figure in the red jacket and the blue military beret passed by our table for the second time. The first time he’d nodded at me with that obligatory African-American etiquette, but this time he stopped and stood in front of our table, shaking his head back and forth as if in some great disbelief. The large wooden beads around his neck swayed back and forth as well, Tony and Bryan looked confused; I didn’t understand it myself.
“Mmmm, mmm, mmm, y’all ain’t gonna b’lieve this when I tell it to you,” he said, still shaking his head.
Bryan offered a wary greeting. “What’s up, man?”
“Y’all look bored sitting up in here, in this ol’ loud bar. I mean, I like this place, but it get so crowded on weekends sometime, you know what I’m say’n?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re saying,” Bryan replied.
“Say, y’all wanna go to a party up the street, man? Meet some new people, and shit?”
Tony and I remained quiet. “How far is it?” said Bryan. “Is it close enough to walk there?”
“Yeah, man, we could walk; it’s right up the street. Y’all wanna go?”
“I don’t know,” I said, straining my voice, searching my mind for some polite excuse. “I wasn’t planning on staying out too late. I’m kind of tired.”
“Y’all ain’t gon b’lieve it when I tell you the punchline,” he said. “You ain’t gon b’lieve it!”
“What’s the punchline?” Bryan asked.
“Y’all know Rakim? Mu’fuckah who played at the Palace Theater in Albany last night? Headlined and shit? Mu’fuckah is still here. Mu’fuckah is hanging wif muh boys at this party. Know what I’m say’n?”
We discussed it with our eyes.
“Y’all ain’t even reactin. Y’all don’t even know who he is, do y’all?” Then he caught my eye and began to smile. “These mu’fuckahs don’t know — but you know, don’t ya? Dat’s what I thought, my nig!”
I smiled back.
“Say, y’all, by the way, my name is Kevin.” He extended his hand to Bryan, who stopped for just a split second to ponder his answer.
“I’m ‘B’,” Bryan said. Tony likewise became ‘T’. I was still just Bryan.
“Look, I’mma go to the bathroom, and y’all can decide on it. But I’m telling y’all, the man is there, and the ladies is waitin there, too. And lookin fiiiine! Y’all think I’m lyin, but if I’m lyin I’m flyin. I’mma be back in five, know what I’m say’n? Peace.” He walked away, and I wondered if he would actually return to our table.
B spoke. “You guys, man, what do we have to lose? If we don’t like it we can leave. Let’s just finish this pitcher and cope with it.”
“I don’t feel like walking,” I said.
“Then I’ll drive,” said Tony. “I don’t feel like walking either. Besides, we got nothing to lose.” He began emptying the pitcher into our half full glasses.
“We’ve got a lot to lose,” I said. “For starters, ”’B’ just lost his membership to the ‘Bryan with a Y’ Club.”
Either he didn’t get it or he just didn’t think it was funny.
“I still don’t know who Rakim is,” Tony says. “Is he really famous?”
There are substantial pauses between our words. “He’s famous in the rap world,” I say. I look at the digital clock on Tony’s radioit displays not the time but the number on the radio dial, so I realize that it’s still on, it’s just that the volume has been turned down so low that we can’t hear it. “He’s in that Jody Watley video. With another rapper named Erik B.”
“That’s ‘Susan music’,” he says. Susan is Tony’s girlfriend of five years. He lumps all dance music into this category.
A pause. I look at the road; soon we’ll be out of the city.
“You didn’t believe him either about Rakim, did you?” he asks.
I pause. “I don’t know,” I finally answer.
“Homes, I know y’all thought I was lyin’! Y’all knew I was lying’. Ho ho! I tole y’all!”
We stood in the second floor apartment of the brownstone, dark save for one red light screwed inside a lamp fixture in a corner, and another faint light that escaped through the open doorway of a room up the hall. The furniture had apparently been moved out of the living room in which we stood to accommodate the music booming through speakers that could not handle the volume, to accommodate the people all around us, some moving through the crowd, some dancing, some grinding to the beat.
“Y’all didn’t b’lieve me! But I tole you he was hanging with my boys.”
Tony, Bryan, and I stood quietly. We hadn’t seen Rakim yet, though everyone at the party verified the fact that he was there.
“I’m really tired, guys,” I moaned, though I had to moan in a scream to be heard.
“S’up with dat?” said Bryan. He was beginning to absorb the dialect. He was also beginning to bug the shit out of me.
“Whassa problem, man? Come on, hang with the fellas, have a drink or somethin’. Come on, boy, follow me.” We turned into a train of four. Kevin, as the front car, would announce to everyone we’d pass, “These is muh boys, know what I’m say’n?”, pointing his thumb over his shoulder at us as we followed him.
We came to a thin hallway that was the kitchen; it was dark in here, too. There were some liquor bottle on the counter. “What y’all want? Y’all want some rum-and-coke? Y’all want some gin-and-tonic? S’up with dat, whatever it is, I’m yo man.”
“Set me up a rum-and-coke, homes,” said Bryan.
Kevin looked at me. “You want anything, man? T don’t get none, cause he’s driving.”
I rolled my eyes, more in disgust of the answer that was welling in my throat than by anything else. “Gimme some gin,” I moaned in a scream. “Straight.”
“Wooooah, boy whassup with all that tired you been talkin bout?” he asked.
“I changed my mind,” Isaid. “After all, I’m on vacation.”
The stiff drink became something for me to do while I stood there in the kitchen, leaning against the counter. It became something to stare into while Bryan went off with Kevin to meet some “ladies”, and while Tony started babbling to the girl next to him. I tried my hardest not to listen to their conversation while I sipped from the glass, trying to lose myself in the unsettling throb of the music, trying to hear the rain fall outside the window above the kitchen sink, trying to hear the individual drops splash upon the pane.
“Did you really remember her?” Tony asks. He doesn’t wait for my answer. “I knew her cause she ran track. She was friends with that girl. . .that funny girl. What’s-her-face.” “I didn’t remember her name,” I said. “But I knew her face. I mean, there were only five other black people in our high school.”
“Hey, don’t sell yourselves short. There were at least six or seven of you guys,” he laughed. I laughed too. “Eight if you count the day I was joking around with your dad and convinced him to declare me an Honorary Negro. So I could run faster in track.”
“You don’t remember me, do you, Bryan?” she asked. “You see! I remember your name but you don’t even remember mine.” She smiled.
I looked over her shoulder to see Tony mouth her name. “Jennifer, right?” I said.
“Boy, you muss think I’m stoopid,” she said, pretending to shoo Tony away with her right hand without even turning her head to acknowledge him.
“You graduated with my little brother, didn’t you?” I asked.
“Your little brother? That little brother of yours is big enough open up a serious can of whoop ass on you.”
“Alright, alright, ease up,” I said. “My younger brother.”
“Do you know I axed him to the Junior Prom?” she says, matter-of-factly. “Do you know he turned me down for that cow Mary Sharon?”
“She’s not a cow,” I laughed.
“For that pig Mary Sharon. I shoulda opened up my own can of whoop ass.”
The street outside the brownstone was well lit with the orange glow of the street lamps, and across the way there was a surreal view of Washington Park. Several of us had gathered outside to try and figure out where we should go next, or more accurately, to figure out which club Rakim most likely went to when he left the party.
“Backstage!” Kevin said. “The mu’fuckah must have gone to The Backstage.”
A kid who looked just a little younger than Kevin emerged from the front door of the brownstone with the bulk of an oversized knee-length down winter jacket in his hand, approaching the car parked behind Tony with his keys in hand. “Damn, boy,” said Kevin. “Why you goin home? Iss early, man.”
“I ain’t goin home,” he said, almost softly. “I’m taking off this jacket cause iss hot as a mu’fuckah up in there. Them old goofy nigguhs up in there think they lookin’ in fashion with they big ol expensive ski jackets with the price tags hanging off, lookin stoopid, sweatin and shit.” He chuckled a little as he put the coat in the trunk.
“Damn, this a nice car, Michael,” Kevin said, rubbing his thumb against the edge of the Puegeot for effect. “You muss be selling some kind of a lot of crack to afford this car, huh? Iss gotta be in here, man. Come on, where’s the crack? Where is it? Miami Vice, man! Cop Rock! Cop Rock! Come on, man, cain’t no nigguhs afford no car like this unless they sellin crack!” Mike laughed as he closed his trunk. He made his key chain dance around his finger, and went back inside.
“It’s like being in a fraternity, I think,” I say. I’m talking with my hands, but I’m not angry, and I’m not lecturing him. I’m just involved. “It’s like a secret handshake. It stands for brotherhood, it stands for all the shit you go through during pledge period that earns you respect.”
There is a pause. Tony stares intently at the road, and I wait a while for his reply. “We don’t call it a pledge period,” he says, finally. “It’s pledge education.”
Usually it bothers me when he focuses on a point that has nothing to do with anything. Especially when it’s an argument he’s started. But tonight I think I’m arguing more for myself than for anyone else.
Finally, he speaks. “What about that kid with the car? What about when he said all those hip-hop clowns inside in ski jackets were sweatin bullets to look good, he was degrading them the same way that Axl Rose does in that Guns and Roses song. It’s not a handshake, it’s an insult. How come he can get away with calling them ‘niggers’ and Axl can’t?”
I didn’t really know the answer to that one. I didn’t think it had to be answered.
“Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the guy with the car went back into the party to hang with them,” I said. “And Axl Rose tells ’em, ‘Get out of my way’.”
There were seven of us in the car three in the front seat and five in the back. I’d been introduced to Stephanie by Kevin only moments before we piled into the car. Now she sat on my lap, still and quiet; I could tell she was anxiously waiting to jump into the conversation that was traded back and forth between Nancy, who sat in the front seat on Kevin’s lap, and Sonya, who sat in the back between me and Bryan. I fidgeted to find a place to put my hands without having to touch her, because I could tell that she was trying her hardest not to touch me.
“Ooooo, girl, did you see that man?” said Sonya. “Ooo, he was lookin so fine, girl. I cannot belieeeeeve we was at the same party with that man.”
“Rakim this, Rakim that,” said Nancy. “You sound just the same as when we was in the sixth grade, and you was talkin bout Michael Jackson this, and Michael Jackson that.”
“Michael Jackson?” she asked in utter disbelief. “That plastic bitch?”
Everyone laughed except Stephanie, who continued the discussion without pause. “What about Ace? Why you talkin so much bout Rakim — what about Ace?”
“Well, Ace is my man,” she said, speaking slowly, like a wise old woman finishing a long fable with its moral. “But Rakim is my nigga.”
“Why did you think that was funny?” Tony asks. “I mean, I don’t even get it. Who the hell was Ace?”
“Her boyfriend,” I say. “I mean, I guess it’s her boyfriend. All she was saying was that Rakim was her fantasy hero, he goes beyond reality. Like if you saw Cindy Crawford at that party and got to talk to her, you know what I mean? Susan is your girlfriend, but Cindy is your. . .” My words trail off into nothing.
“Well now I know who Ace is,” he said. “I still don’t think it’s funny.”
“Neither would Axl Rose,” I say.
There is a bit of a pause as I watch the pane and its wipers. The rain is heavier now, and the road is dark without the orange glow of street lamps, but I feel safe outside the city. I begin to smile when a certain thought comes to me, and I say it aloud, softly, even though I’m not really sure what it will mean. “And that which we call Axl Rose, by any other name, would smell just as sweet.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Tony asks, almost angrily, his eyes still on the road.
My smile remains, but it is a disappointed smile now, because at this very moment I come to know that he will never understand.
“He used us for a ride, didn’t he?” Tony asked me, as if I had the answer. “He didn’t care about us at all, he just wanted a ride to the party.”
“No he didn’t,” said Bryan. “I was hanging with him when we got there. We were hanging hard.”
“He was just laughing at you while you were trying to impress the world, you clown.”
“Shutup, Tony. He was cool. We were hanging.” Bryan leaned between the two front seats of the car to be heard over the radio.
I didn’t know Bryan well enough to agree with Tony outloud. So I just sat there trying to trick myself into forgetting about the pizza I was so hungry for. If I could forget about it, we’d be there sooner.
“I don’t care what you guys say,” said Bryan. “We were hanging. And besides, he introduced me to all of that eye candy.”
“Eye candy?” I asked.
“Like that one chick you were talking to. She was so hot, man. There was eye candy like that everywhere.”
I could tell where this was going, but I couldn’t think of anything to change to subject.
“Man, I love black women. I mean, if I had my choice, I’d take an Oriental chick, but you know, black women just . . .”
I can hear Mick and the Stones completing the line in “Some Girls” about how “black girls just wanna get fucked all night long”. But again, I don’t know Bryan well enough to say anything. I hummed it to myself in an afterthought, but it could not be heard over the car radio. We were silent in the car for the next few minutes until we arrived at the late-night pizzieria. I suppose that there was nothing else to say.
The street was brightly lit. The bars across the street were spilling over with college kids, some because they were eating pizza off of paper plates like we were, some because they just couldn’t get in the bars.
“You wanna just hang?” Bryan asked Tony.
“Check out the eye candy?” Tony laughed.
“I figured that you couldn’t eat and drive at the same time, so . . .”
“I’m really tired,” I said. “And by the way — shotgun.” So the decision was made with no further discussion.
We started towards Tony’s car, which was awkwardly and illegally parked on the corner just in front of the pizzeria. At this point I was already close to finishing off my slice, and I slowed down as I began to regret not having gotten two, but I was banking on the fact that Tony usually wouldn’t eat his crust.
We got in the car. Tony was still working on his slice, pushing it into his face as he positioned himself at the steering wheel. He rushed to get all of the pizza finished before he had to start driving, but impatiently started the car anyway with his free hand.
Then he reached for the gear shift.
Then the front right wheel made its way onto the curb.
“Hey bro!” laughed one member of a trio of students standing on the sidewalk just outside the car. “You’re driving on the curb!”
Maybe he thought that I couldn’t hear him because my window was up. Maybe he would just try to hide behind the literal meaning of his words and divorce himself from the condescending look on his face. Either way, something had to be said. Something I hadn’t been able to say all night.
I dropped the paper plate on my lap and rolled down the window.
“First of all, I’m not the one driving,” I said. “And second of all, I’m not your fucking bro.”
Tony and Bryan were silent as the kid began to laugh. “Ease up, homes. Just relax.” He looked over to his buddies for reassurance, and when he saw them smiling and laughing along with him, he continued. “What, is he on crack or something?”
I imagined opening the passenger door even though Tony was still trying to get the car off of the curb and into the street. I imagined stumbling out just as the car began to roll and take an awkward bounce. I imagined the laughter increasing and only stopping as I pushed the pizza into his face and forced him down to the ground. I imagined the blood and sauce on my fists as one sloppy shade of red by the time his friends pulled me off and begin to beat me. Then the crowd would gather, with shouts and screams, and laughter. And then the sirens.