Friday, August 30, 2013

We; Sasha, and Zamani: Remembering Tokiwa Mitchell

On the corner of Gentilly Boulevard and Norman Mayer Avenue in New Orleans, positioned between the wide green lawns of Dillard University, and what was once the Norman Mayer Branch of the New Orleans Public Library sits a small, perfunctorily kept park area, with a brownish-green duck pond sitting in the middle of it. At the corner of this area, closest to where the Norman Mayer Branch once stood, on Norman Mayer Avenue sits the still and somber above ground crypt annex of a nearby memorial garden, known locally as Mount Olivet Cemetery and Mausoleum.
In one crypt, situated more or less in the middle of a bank of adjacent identical crypts, at about the height of an average-sized man’s stature, lie the mortal remains of Tokiwa Mitchell: a friend and former classmate.
I had known death before; but it has always been so far away that it didn’t seem to matter. In my experience it had always been someone older, someone sick, someone I wasn’t close to. In this instance, it was different. This time it was young woman whom, by all rights, should still be alive. This time it was someone, whom, by all rights, should have outlived me.
My memories of this vibrant young woman sometimes flood vividly back to the forefront of my thoughts even now, after all these years following her untimely demise. I know she’s gone, but somehow some part of me stubbornly refuses to admit it. Some part of me says it was all a mistake, and that she’s probably enjoying life’s struggles elsewhere in some other town, raising a family, forging a career like everyone else I went to school with…except, she’s not.
On the night of October 27, 1995, Tokiwa Mitchell was murdered in front of her home, shot to death while sitting in her truck. She was 21 years old.
Someone I knew, someone I talked with, smiled and interacted with on an almost daily basis, is no longer among the living, and for some reason this terrible loss has had a profound and lasting effect upon me.
Tokiwa Calvada Mitchell and I had more in common than not; but I didn’t find out about any of that until after her funeral. We both attended Francis W. Gregory junior high, and John F. Kennedy senior high school, but at different times: we were both members of our school’s choir and both ended up attending Xavier University of Louisiana. While I supported my educational endeavors by working as an office assistant at Xavier University, she did the same by working part time at a New Orleans Riverwalk eatery called “The Steak Escape.” I stopped by there once or twice to eat an early dinner after work, and each of those times she was on duty. We’d make small talk about school while I ate my meal.
So I guess if I had to put a name to what I’ve been feeling, I would have to call it regret. I regret the fact that even though we frequently interacted, I didn’t really know her as well as I could have; and if I had, I probably would have really liked and appreciated the person she was. Although we didn’t know each other as well as we could have, we did remember each other every time we encountered on another, and there was so much potential for more there that will never be realized, at least not on this side of Eternity.
If I had known then what I know now, and I knew that I could do nothing to change the outcome, I would have made certain that the times we saw one another were more frequent, and the conversation we shared was lengthier and more meaningful. I would have made more of an effort to know the girl in life that I grew to know after her untimely death.
In his book entitled Lies My Teacher Told Me author James Loewen asserts that many African societies divide humans into three categories: those still alive on earth, (i.e. we the living), the sasha, and the zamani. The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living-dead. They are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead. As generalized ancestors, the zamani are not forgotten but revered. Many…can be recalled by name, but they are not “living-dead.”
As long as I live, I will remember Tokiwa Mitchell; and my memories of that diminutive, feisty but funny dark-skinned girl with the radiant smile, are part of the memories that will keep her dwelling among the sasha, until we all become one with the zamani.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Long Hot Summer

That summer we both worked as residential assistants at the college we attended.  As it happened, we both moved into our rooms at the dorm that same night.  There were two other R.A.’s scheduled to work at the dorm with us, but they hadn’t arrived yet.  We knew each other from having worked at the same place for campus work-study during the fall and spring semesters.  I have to admit I did think she was mad cute when we first met, but I can’t say whether or not there was an instant attraction between us.  I was dating someone else at the time, and that someone else had me pretty much sprung. So back then she was little more than an acquaintance: just another pretty face passing by in the office where we worked.  The extent of our conversation was usually “hi” “how are your classes going,” the pointless banter in between that, and “bye”. All of that changed that night during that hot New Orleans summer.  Sometimes in spite of our best intentions, or rather, in spite of the fact that we may have no intentions one way or another, sometimes, the most unexpected things just…happen.
I was setting up shop in my little monk’s cell that evening.  The narrow dorm rooms came equipped with a bed, a desk, and a shelf that was attached to the wall.  It was up to the occupant to personalize it in any way they saw fit.  I was sitting on the floor doing just that, unpacking my clothes, my books and my boom box when she paid me a visit.  As she walked into my room, I had a chance to notice from my vantage point on the floor what beautifully long, slender, copper-brown legs she had. 
It occurs to me in retrospect that I had always admired those legs, somewhere in the back of my mind.  Even before I started living the single life, I can recall past work days during the spring semester where I would secretly hope she was wearing shorts when she came to work that day; just so I could admire her from afar you understand, nothing more or less.  I wasn’t a bad boy when I was in a relationship with someone…knock-on-wood.   Anyway, as I recall, she rarely disappointed.  New Orleans weather was just about always mild enough for that, and as far as New Orleans summers were concerned, showing some skin was a given.  I know, I know, I’m digressing.
I let my eyes drift slowly up her shapely legs, admiring every other part of her as I did.  She was bronzed-skinned and about 5’, 8”somewhat tall for a woman, and athletically built. Her waist was slender, and her round, non-prominent breasts were perfectly proportioned to her slim figure. She had a heart-shaped face, framed with short, auburn hair, and large expressive brown eyes that seemed to smile at you even before her full, beautiful lips did, and when she did smile, it was radiantly infectious. Even with all these attributes, she always seemed unaffected by her natural beauty. Every time I saw her she seemed to carry herself in a somewhat tomboyish manner, even now, standing there as she did in her tee shirt, cut-off blue jean shorts and tennis shoes.  I got the impression she had little or no idea of the effect she had on the opposite sex.  I played it cool as she walked in.  I gave her one of my patented cocky grins and tried not to exhale too audibly.
“Hey Tee.”
“Hey.  How’s it going?  You’re not set up yet?”  She smiled.
“Uh, it’s little bit harder for me than for someone who was already living on campus Ms. Thang.
“Excuses!  I still had to move from one dorm all the way over to another one.”
Omigod! I hope you didn’t strain yourself moving a duffle bag full of books and dirty clothes across the quadrangle!”
“Dirty clothes?”  She puffed up in feigned indignation and turned around like she was about to leave. 
“Now see, you didn’t even have to go there…!”
“C’mon Tee…I was just playing…Tee! Tee!  I luuh you!”
She had been halfway out of the door when I said that, and when she heard me she stopped at the threshold and burst out laughing.
“You crazy fool!”  She said once she had caught her breath.
“Oh, so now you’re “Mister Tee,” huh?”  I laughed.
“Please!” She scoffed.  “ I’ll see you later okay?”
“Okay.  I’ll come up to your room and check out your progress.”
“You do that.  I’ll show you how it’s done.”
There was so much I could have done with that last one, but I decided it would be so much more appropriate to let it slide.
“…Uh huh…Later Tee.”
I continued trying to get my room in order, but now I was distracted.  I hadn’t thought about being down with anybody in a minute, and now I could feel my mind starting to wander in the same direction that Tee had gone.  My ex-girl and I had parted under some severely painful and emotionally confusing circumstances months ago:  I had been in and out of at least two more “semi-so-called relationships” since then (I guess you could go ahead and call them rebounds) so I was pretty much over her, and those other two by now. I was emotionally numb; and I wasn’t really looking forward to starting up anything new.  All I wanted was to do my job, make my summer money, and clear my head.  As far as the opposite sex was concerned, my attitude was like ya’ boy Franklin Swift’s, in Terry McMillan’s Disappearing Acts:  “I’m tired of women.”
 At least, that’s how I thought I felt, and that’s all I though I wanted.  In an effort to get my mind back into work mode, I decided to go out and inspect the rooms on my wing.
 But my heart wasn’t really in it. It was about 6 in the evening when, halfway through inspecting the second room, my mind was wandering again. 
My wayward feet soon followed suite, and I found myself up on Tee’s floor. As I walked onto her wing and down the hall I could hear the faint sound of a music coming from an open door down at the other end.  As I walked down the hall towards her room, I decided it might be best if I announced my presence on the floor.
“I’m here! C’mon down.” 
I walked down to here room reassured, (and to be honest, somewhat disappointed) that I wouldn’t catch her in an embarrassing state of undress or disarray.  I peered into a room identical to mine on a basic level, but with the exception of a feminine touch and a somewhat lived-in look to it.  I’d seen Tee’s room in the other dorm during the past semester at the height of finals week, and let’s just say she could be a bit of a pack rat.  Her radio was playing upbeat R&B courtesy of one our local radio stations.
“FM 98?”  I asked.
“Cool.  So,” I said, looking around, “This is where you hide the bodies.”
“Shut up.”  She said, laughing. “Come on in.”  

Have you ever sat down and talked to a woman?  When I say “talk” I don’t mean “spit yo’ game” type of shit either, I mean really talk to her…. both of you on equal ground, no pressure, nobody trying to be anything other than themselves….

Neither of you making a conscious effort to talk your way into the other person’s pants? 

If you have, then you, like me, have probably discovered that the quickest way to talk your way into someone’s pants is by not trying to.   And talked was all we did for most of that evening.   We discussed our hopes for the upcoming summer semester, we laughed, we listened to music and we talked some more.  Every now and then as the radio played, one of us would exclaim, “Aww, sh…! That’s my song!” and we would momentarily stop talking and just sit and listen.

As the evening went on, FM 98 slowed their program format down to “The Quiet Storm” and after the smooth, mellow basso voice of the deejay, the next thing I heard was one of my favorite songs by a group named Troop….“All I Do Is Think Of You.”
Man! I swear whoever penned that song was a freakin’ lyrical genius! 

I can’t wait to get to school each day, and wait for you to pass my way, and bells start to ring, an angel starts to sing, “Hey that’s the girl for you… So what are you gonna’ do?”  Hey little girl, I love you (I love you so…) 
All I do is think of you (day and night) that’s all I do! I can’t get you off my mind, think about you all the time (all the time…)

“Now this,” I sighed, “Is THE song. If this had been out back when I was in high school, it would have been a part of the soundtrack of my so-called life back then.”  I closed my eyes, put my head back and softly harmonized my baritone with the lead vocalist’s tenor.
I was sitting on the floor with my back resting against Tee’s nightstand while we talked.  She was lying on her bed.  When I looked up at her I noticed her eyes were half-closed.  I figured she was falling asleep and was probably being too polite to say, “Get on your route.” Then I glanced at the clock on her nightstand and saw that it was almost 11p.m. by then, so I decided it was time to excuse myself.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Day in the Life: A Long Sentence

Waking up in the morning on a weekday is always a challenge and an adventure because not only do I have to get myself ready for the day, but my wife, my son and my daughter as well, and I say this not because my wife is an invalid, or because my children are necessarily lazy, but it's just that of everyone in the family, it seems that I am the one who is THE MOST anal about little things like "sense of urgency" and "on time is too late" so I tend to subject myself to a seemingly never ending cycle of love and repetition that begins with a short quick prayer in the morning, blending almost seamlessly with an early morning walk with my wife, followed by preparing breakfast for everyone, while simultaneously getting the kids dressed while my wife showers for work, then badgering the kids about brushing their teeth while I sign homework and notebooks before rushing everyone out of the door and into the car at 7:15 so that they can be on time to work and school even though in my opinion on time is too late and I REALLY need to take a mental day!

Monday, August 26, 2013


More than anything, I’ll always remember my Grandfather first as a racist and a Cowboys fan.  And then, if I’m thinking hard enough, that my mother told me he used to be an alcoholic and would dip constantly, or smoke a pipe, and that when she was seventeen he drunkenly beat the shit out of her, which sent her running into the arms of her first husband, Mark, who wasn’t too bright but had a body like an “action figure,” and after they eloped they lived together in a trailer in the middle of nowhere, Mississippi, while my mother worked at Wal-Mart, Mark worked as a martial arts instructor, and my Grandfather supposedly started taking steps to get sober. He could never keep a job, I know, not because he wasn’t smart enough, or couldn’t do the work, but because nothing satisfied him. He always felt he could run the show better than whoever was running it, and it bothered him endlessly to report to someone he didn’t respect. He never had much money when I knew him, but he was clean and organized, wore dentures that you’d never know weren’t real teeth, loved ice-cream and soap operas, read a lot of John Grisham novels. He recorded and catalogued hundreds of films, had a veritable library of cinema spanning decades, and he would sit in his old gray recliner in the living room watching them for hours until he would fall asleep with his hands behind his head. I haven’t seen him since my Grandmother’s funeral six years ago, but I understand he’s found Jesus now and lives in a retirement home somewhere, where I imagine he’s still doing all the things I remember him doing, only lonelier now, more reflective.

Long Sentence - Waking

If I’ve still got my clothes on when I wake up I’ll check first for my wallet, then phone, then keys, until I’m sure I haven’t lost anything important, and then I’ll typically roll over and try to form some narrative out of whatever blurred scenes I can recall from the night before, concerned about any overt offenses I may have committed to friends or acquaintances but more concerned about whether or not any of them have found me out, gotten to the bottom of any number of my ongoing lies to discover that I actually hate their art or their band or their boyfriends’ friends, or that, yes, I was fucked up at work the other day, or, yes, I’m the one that’s been pocketing your extra percocet, or, yes, I’m sad and I’ve been this way for a while and the only way I can approach feeling alright is to try and feel nothing, and then I swallow some of those stolen painkillers and think about how lucky I am to be in America today and not a child soldier in Africa or a Jew during the Holocaust or a cat being tortured somewhere by some suburban adolescent psychopath and I wonder why my heroes all died young or killed themselves, wonder why I could never plan for my own life past 23, which is the age Joy Division’s Ian Curtis was when he hung himself in his kitchen, only days before he was supposed to travel with the band to the states for their first U.S. tour, and by this point I’m starting to slip away so it doesn’t matter—nothing matters after that.  

Midnight Run: Battling my Emotions

This past weekend, I went to Country’s Midnight Run, a 5k race held annually by Country’s Restaurant in Columbus. The race starts at midnight (hence the name), but my friends and I got there at about 8 pm. There were already tons of people there, watching the preshow and milling about the tents. One of the tents was Big Dog Running Company, which my friends beeline to, eager to see a couple of people I didn’t know. I stood to the side, awkwardly. One of my friends, Brooke, tried to make conversation, but I had nothing to say. My answers were short, and she gave up, letting me go back to people watching. I don’t know why I was in a sour mood. I had had a bad day, but usually being with friends cheered me up. I apologized to her a bit later, with a bottle of water as a peace offering.
            Everything seemed to annoy me that night. The dogs kept hitting me with their tail, I didn’t know as many people as I was hoping, no one was selling beer, and worst of all was the singer. She was talented, but she was a talker. Normally, I’d be able to tune out the pretentious babble of a pre-preshow singer, but tonight was my night to sulk, it seemed. The crowning moment of her prattle was, after inviting the United cheerleaders up to the ‘dance floor,’ she told them that they might not know the song she was about to play, but that their mom would. Then she started to sing “Hey, Mickey.” The biggest cheerleading movie of all time, Bring It On, features this song, and I’m sure most of those girls have seen it, or at least an ABC Family censored out version, which seemed to change even slightly risqué words into fluff that didn’t make sense (Although, anyone who was hanging onto every word of this movie in the hope of a philosophical Eureka! moment might have bigger issues to deal with). The anger that bowled its way through my other emotions to the front, even shoving annoyance to the side with fervor, was a sign that I might have bigger issues to deal with too.
            I took a deep breath, honed in on the conversation that Brooke and Katie were having (I don’t remember what it was about, but I know it was something I either couldn’t contribute to or just didn’t care about), and tried my best to calm myself. Once we moved away from the stage and met up with our other friends, I was much more composed. I even laughed at Nick, who had run from his house to the downtown Country’s instead of the one where the race was actually being held. I saw some people I wasn’t expecting to see, chatted with new friends, and even met the lead singer from the actual band I had come to see, Classic Addict. Overall, once I got over myself, I had a good night and made some pretty nifty memories.