Since G'maw couldn't handle lengthy visits in Richmond, Dad and I were left with quite a bit of free time. Dad was, of course, busy with scrutinizing insurance policies, securing powers of attorney, and tracking down the living trust documents - he had other things to do. My sole responsibility, on this trip, was to simply provide moral support for my father and grandmother.
I tried, but I don't think I'm very good at the whole moral support gig.
Someone once told me that I'm a "rock" when it comes to dealing with disasters and emergencies. I am no rock. Rocks don't move. Rocks don't do anything but offer momentary support along history's grand timeline.
At work, fine. Part of what I do, professionally, is handle disasters. I feel almost cocky in saying, yeah, I'm probably considered by a few folks to be almost an expert in the art of the "clean-up." Mold outbreak? Evaluate the infestation, determine the best course of action, pitch the plan and try to soothe nerves, and move forward. Patron complaints? Listen, evaluate, explain, report, and move on...
But personally? I'm too much of a fuck-up in my personal life to be handling emergencies as somebody's go-to guy. When emotions get in the way, I learned back in my reporter days to simply ignore them and keep on trucking. Deal with emotions later; eyes on the prize at all times.
At the hospital in Richmond, I know I made for absolutely lousy company. Emotions are bound to creep in - the realization that your last living grandparent came within inches and seconds of losing her life will do that.
So while Dad is trying to get information out of nurses, trying to figure out what accounts G'maw uses to pay which bills, trying to dig through the insipid bureaucracy that accompanies health care in this country, I'm chattering on about nothing in particular with G'maw, like just another friendly visit.
Even after nearly losing her life, my grandmother is still her normal feisty self - at least externally. She tells me I need to think about settling down and that I need to go to church more often. She asks me if I noticed the cute doctor from Pakistan (even through morphine and Codeine dreams, G'maw still tries to play matchmaker.)
I don't know if I was any help or not. I'd like to think so, but it's hard to tell when you're busy trying to keep your head on straight while still playing the charming, witty grandson.
* * *
I couldn''t sleep too well in G'maw's house - it's been years since I've slept in a single bed. I rolled off the bed twice the first night...
G'maw told Dad and I to make ourselves at home and even apologized, at one point, for not being able to be a good hostess. Aside from Dad and I hitting the Happy Hours nearly every day the first week, there wasn't much to keep either of us entertained. Dad hits the sack notoriously early (8:30 or so); my stress-induced insomnia wasn't exactly compatible.
I wasn't really comfortable going out at night. When I go home, I prefer to dodge situations in which I could run into folks from my past. The first few trips back to Virginia after I left in 1996, I'd run into people who'd heard all these tall tales about where I'd gone and what I'd become. I hate hearing the stories, the theories, the myths.
When I left, I didn't really tell anybody where I was going or say goodbye to a lot of people - only a few friends knew for sure which direction I was headed. I never thought of myself as being popular in high school, but I was, according to my sister, one of the more popular people. When one of the "cool kids" mysteriously disappears for no apparent reason, people's minds wander.
Over the years I've heard many urban legends about where I'd gone and what I'd become - I'd fathered three imaginary children, joined the army, won a Pulitzer Prize, worked for ESPN, worked as a lobbyist, become a drug lord in Mexico, worked as a hitman, joined the Peace Corps, become an electrician.
Gotta love the power of myth.
But I forced myself to go out, then, every night, if only for a cup of coffee. If I couldn't find sleep at night, then I'd find something relatively enjoyable to do, to recharge my batteries, to take my mind off the fact that my grandmother will face the surgeon's knife several times over the next few months...
* * *
Over the nearly two dozen trips I've made back to Southside Virginia in the last decade, I've learned to just hide out. I don't like those "where have you been all these years" conversations.
I don't really want to know where some of my friends ended up, either. I know some went to prison, some joined the military, and some went to college. Some became mechanics and carpenters, a select few doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, and some became case numbers in some social worker's file cabinet...
One night, I went out for a cup of coffee at an all-night diner reading a history of the Negro Leagues. All-night joints are a modern amenity that hadn't existed when I called Farmville home - it's a welcome addition to a community that's not exactly a booming metropolis.
The place is empty, except for two waitresses and a short-order cook. At a little past 1 a.m., three black women came in. One woman was dragging a young light-skinned girl behind her. The girl, decked out in Power Puff Girls pajamas and braids, was no older than five or six, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and sucking her thumb.
The three women sat down at a booth. They were swearing and raising a ruckus; they'd apparently been out drinking and decided they needed to get some breakfast. One woman asked the waitress to tell "that retarded nigger cookin'" to not burn her toast. Another woman, the one with the little girl, lit a Newport and started talking about how some guy named Antonio "ate pussy like nobody's business." The third woman grunted some affirmation then started discussing her need to get some "raw dicking" sometime soon...
The little girl giggled at the conversation. I kept wondering if that little girl would walk into some elementary school classroom, possibly a classroom that once housed the ol' ZenFo Pro, and discuss the intricacies of raw dicking or Antonio's pussy-eating prowess. Kids tend to repeat the darndest things.
I recognized two of the women. One of them had been in my kindergarten class, the other in a high school course. Both had been bright, beautiful kids. Now, both were rather vile examples of what happens when one doesn't leave the housing project that reared them.
You know what's funny? I can't remember either girl's name, but I can remember that both came from the Parkview Gardens housing projects.
Chuck D. once compared housing projects to cruel government experiments, and I tend to agree. Yes, it takes a village to raise a child; growing up in the America's housing projects can just as easily destroy a child, even in a rural area.
One of the women confirmed my suspicions about where the trio called home - she started bitching about how she couldn't afford to get her extensions redone because they'd raised the rent at the Gardens.
One of the women - the one from my kindergarten class, a girl who used to steal my crayons and ask why I was the color of paste and she was the color of the brown construction paper - noticed that I was watching them.
White boy, who the fuck you lookin' at? You better recognize I will drop yo fuckin ass in a fuckin heartbeat. I don't care who you think you is.
She was right. It was none of my business.
The little girl looked up and giggled. She was still sucking her thumb.
I tried to go back to reading my book, but my hands were shaking. Hard to read when you can't steady the pages.
* * *
One can't ever go home again, nor should they expect to find solace in a future based on some illusion of the past.
On the way home, I stopped by the Robert Russa Moton Museum. April 23, 2006, marked the 55th anniversary of one of the most important events in Virginia, if not American, history.
Way back in 1951, hundreds of black students walked out of this building to protest the injustices of segregated education, the simple evil of Jim Crow. The protest, organized and led by a young black woman named Barbara Johns, was one of the shots heard 'round the Segregated South, one of the first blows for free and equal education that eventually led to the landmark Brown v. Board ruling.
I take great pride in the fact that I graduated from Prince Edward County High School, the fully integrated successor to the segregated high schools.
I sat in the parking lot of this museum, which had served as home to my fifth grade class prior to its retirement, at two in the morning and thought about the young black kids who marched out through those doors and launched a revolution.
I thought about the power - the sheer, unfettered power - that these children were able to unleash on this community, this country, and the world.
And then I thought about those three women sitting in an all-night diner and that little girl who giggled as her adult keepers talked about eating pussy and needing raw dicking.
And I wept. I put my forehead on the steering wheel, and I wept.
The future is, sometimes, more terrifying than either fact or fiction, more potentially devastating than any legend of the past or reality of the present.
- Photo taken from Brown v. Board of Education: Virginia Responds. Online Exhibit. Richmond: The Library of Virginia.
- To help support the Moton Museum, visit their web site.
- Prince Edward is still in the rebuilding process, healing from the wounds caused by segregation and the massive resistance movement launched by segregation's supporters that led to the closing of Prince Edward's public schools for half a decade - the longest school closing in American history. For a personal account, click here.