LEARNING ABOUT THE AIR (Race in America: 1977)

(This is a new category which I’ve been thinking about adding for a while. Most of them will also be additions to my informal, uncategorized series which I like to call “Scenes From an Actual Boyhood” a play on Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, in which he fantasized about boyhood and left out anything and everything pertaining to boys that didn’t fit the dream life of middle-age soccer moms.)

Back in the Spring of ’77, a time in American history which seems to have left no trace on the future, I was in my junior year of high school in the Florida Panhandle, that part of Florida which is sometimes jokingly, sometimes wistfully, referred to as L.A.: Lower Alabama.

One Monday morning I showed up at school, stepped out of my ride’s car in the parking lot, and felt something different….something I hadn’t felt since the spring of ’74 when I was in the eighth grade in another part of the state known, then and now, as the Space Coast.

I had been in Lower Alabama for three years by then, but the culture shock hadn’t worn off. (Comes to that, I’m not sure it’s worn off yet–must be some reason I prefer living like a hermit.) That feeling in the air when I got out of the car that Monday morning was the closest I had ever felt to a real connection between the two places.

So I knew right away it had something to do with the one thing every Southern place shares with every human space occupied by what are now called “multi” cultures: Race Tension.

The Tension soon had physical manifestations: The sound of a body being thrown against a classroom wall. Black kids with picks and blades trying to decide whether they wanted to descend from the school’s back door to a parking lot (yes, the same one my ride parked in) full of rednecks standing next to pickups with hunting rifles hung in the back windows (the black kids thought better of it–first Rumble averted). Reports of a fight. An actual fight. Then another actual fight.

That was the first couple of days.

After that: A teacher promising to give everybody ten points on next week’s test if the violence planned for Friday recess (planned by who, nobody knew….the plan had its own life, like the new Air) failed to materialize. White boys muttering darkly about the privileges granted blacks. Black kids muttering darkly about the privileges granted whites. Me telling my ride how not entirely unhappy I was to no longer be riding the bus where, in my freshman and sophomore years, I had usually been the only white kid (an experience worthy of its own post some day, now that I’ve opened this can of whup-ass memories).

And, of course, discussions all around about “here it all came from.

A general consensus formed, among white folks at least, that a black kid from New York had moved to the area. Though he didn’t go to our school, he shared Vo-Tech classes with some who did. Word was he had a habit of calling the local kids Uncle Toms for not standing up to the Man, meaning White People, meaning….us. Word was some of them had decided to show him–and us–what they were made of.

It seemed outside agitators had come to Lower Alabama.

Once that idea took hold, no amount of Confederate cannon-fire could have dislodged it.

The additional word was this had all come to some sort of head–at a party? a club? an impromptu meeting of a newly formed local chapter of the Black Panthers?–the weekend before the Monday I showed up  at school and, from the nearly empty parking lot, with no evidence available to the eye or ear that suggested it was anything but another school week, I thought, unbidden: This feels like eighth grade.

Through all that I’ve described above and more, that feeling persisted and grew for two full weeks. Every day a little stronger.

There were moments when it not only seemed possible that some terrible thing might happen but that–no matter how many times we white kids reassured ourselves that it would be absurd, ridiculous, suicidal, for black kids to “riot”–there was simply no way it wouldn’t happen.

It was coming. There was no way to avoid it.

Because it was in the Air.

And what did I, no great respecter of the Air, do through all this?

I did what I always did.

i practiced the careful art of doing nothing.

Except for the day when the art of doing nothing sort of accidentally became the art of doing something.

My usual nothing consisted of sitting around during break times–recess, lunch, school assemblies I had a habit of spending in the library—with my nose in a book.

None of that changed during the two weeks of the Race Tension.

Come recess, lunch, assembly, you could still find me, alone in a room, or off in a corner somewhere, reading.

And the time you could be most alone, I found, was recess.

I actually did get out and about a bit at lunch. Even I had to eat.

And not even I could get out of every assembly.

But literally nobody else stayed in his seat reading a book during recess.

Which is why I found it a little odd, on Wednesday of the second week of the Tension–to find myself in Social Studies (my next class), during recess….and not alone.

I was sitting in my usual seat. Second row if memory serves (and dammit, memory, you better serve–this is a memory piece!). And there were several kids sitting behind me.

The room had risers, so they were not only behind me but above me. All black kids–four? five?–whispering among themselves. Whispering, I assumed, because they did not want to be heard by the only other occupant of the room. Namely me. The only white boy.

As time passed, their voices got a little louder. This was a phenomenon I was already a bit familiar with, one which time has consistently reaffirmed: If you are in a room with a group of people from which you are for some reason excluded, they will begin by worrying about whether you can overhear them. If you are quiet long enough, they will become worried that you don’t hear them.

So their voices got louder. And, eventually, I heard them.

They were talking about the Rumble. The new Rumble that was going to be, if nothing else, more effective than the Rumble that had broken on the wave of all those rednecks standing next to all those shotguns. It was going to be more effective because it wasn’t going to be a Rumble. At least not according to any definition I had ever heard.

This was all going to be planned, rather like D-Day. Nothing would be left to chance this time!

Come Friday recess, every black kid was going to find a white kid–their special white kid, by prearrangement with all the other black kids, so there would be no duplication of effort–and “get even.”

This was the memo.

By the Wednesday before the Friday of the new, improved Rumble, everybody had gotten it. Some of the white kids were complaining because all they were allowed to pack was a pocket knife, which wasn’t much good against a steel pick. At least a couple of white kids were rumored to have started carrying their own steel picks (though I confess I never saw one).

And what the black kids who were sitting up behind me at recess on Wednesday in my Social Studies classroom were talking about–I see you Michael. I see you Daryl, Jeffrey, Ricky….Walter, is that you?–was the memo.

Who was going after who.

More time passed and I heard some names: “I got ____!” “You got____?” “Who got ____?”

I also heard their growing indifference to my presence becoming mingled with their increasing need to engage me–their awareness of my awareness of their awareness.

So, finally, one of them–Jeffrey, is that you?–speaking low enough to pretend he didn’t want me to hear and loud enough I couldn’t miss it.

“Who got Ross?”

At which point there was a small silence.

Apparently nobody had Ross.

Which I took for a good excuse to put my finger in my book, bend the page over the finger, and turn around.

I made sure to smile the smile with which Michael and Walter, at least, were intimately familiar and to shake my head.

Then I rolled my eyes.

Then I held up my book.

“If ya’ll get it figured out,” I said. “You know where I’ll be.”

At which point we all started laughing.

Did it matter? Did it matter that it was me? That it was them? That I reacted the way I did? That they reacted the way they did? That I was there, where I always was? That they were there, where they never were?

Who knows.

Maybe the Rumble–the Big One, the Efficient One, the One that Couldn’t Possibly Fail to Come Off This Time!–would have failed to come off anyway.

Maybe one of the hundred other things that can prevent such a thing would have happened and the whole thing would still have died on the vine.

Maybe one–or ninety-nine–of those things did happen and I never heard about it.

So far as I know, none of the others who were in that room with me, ever ventured any ideas about why it never came off. They certainly didn’t say anything to me. After the other kids started filing in, on the Wednesday-Before-the-Friday after recess, it was like it never happened.

What I did notice was that, for me–and I suspect for them–the air broke in that moment we all started laughing.

It broke because, in a single instant and all together, we realized how stupid it all was–and, far more important in our teenage world, how stupid it would all look….if it even tried to come off.

Suddenly, we all saw there was only one way for it not to come off stupid, not to come off looking the one thing no teenage boy ever wants to come off looking–and that was for it to never come off at all.

Coincidentally or not, it didn’t come off.

Of course, when I got out of that class an hour later and walked the halls again, amongst all those people who hadn’t been in that room, I realized that the Air hadn’t broken for anyone else. For everyone else the Tension was still real and palpable. For them, the Rumble was still inevitable and queasy-making. It was still all of that even on Friday afternoon, after first recess, then lunch, had passed into history, and the Rumble hadn’t come off.

Even then, the Air was still the Air.

It still promised we had come to a place–a place perhaps even teenagers in Lower Alabama in a time as lost as the late seventies must come to now and again to feel alive–where anything was possible.

And me and the kids who didn’t know the answer to “Who got Ross?” and everybody else, spent the weekend wondering what the following week would bring.

The confidence in the power of absurdity to finally embarrass everyone into inaction–the power I had felt so strongly in my Social Studies room at recess on the Wednesday-Before-the-Friday–waxed and waned.

Sometimes I laughed. Sometimes I shook my head. Sometimes I felt a little queasy.

What next?

Monday morning my ride took me to school like always.

Monday morning, on the drive in, me and my ride made some lame jokes to each other about what the new week would bring.

Monday morning, we drove into the parking lot and nothing felt any different there inside the car, where it was just us, with the Air left over from the weekend and the Friday before.

Monday morning, we rolled to a stop and then opened our car doors like usual.

Monday morning, we stood up in the actual air…and knew instantly that the Air was normal again, and that there was no more explanation for the return of Normalcy than there had been for its abandonment exactly two weeks earlier.

That was when I learned to respect the Air.

Since then, I’ve learned to pay attention to it as well.

It’s how I once knew something as historically insignificant as that it was okay to stay in our seats the last time FSU and the local HBC, Florida A&M, played basketball, even though a hellacious fight (which ultimately resulted in the suspension of the game) was breaking out on the court.

It’s also how I knew, as far ago as the summer before last, something as historically significant as that Donald Trump–a man I had never previously spent ten seconds thinking about–had a real chance to become President of the United States (and why I felt confident predicting his win on this blog).

It’s useful, respecting the Air.

Among many other things, it keeps you from being too surprised.

And, as I’ve mentioned here a time or two, it’s also defined my respect for artists, especially popular artists.

The best of them know the Air far better than you or I do.

They also know it way-y-y-y-y better than the highbrows do.

The Air belongs to the pulps, the singers, the comedians.

That’s why Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry were able to dream Rock and Roll America into being while the intelligentsia slept. It’s why Philip K. Dick’s “science fiction” novels have the jittery feel of the modern Security State down to a tee, while Norman Mailer’s “political” novels feel like ad copy and the famous dystopian models of Orwell and Huxley read like tracts. It’s why Ross Macdonald’s detective stories carry the weight of impending middle class doom and John Updike’s are strings of adjectives. It’s why Mary Weiss’s voice, from 1964, carries everything true that would come to pass in the cross-cultural maelstrom known as “punk” and why Johnny Rotten–who didn’t have the Air–always sounded like a fake to anyone who did. It’s why the primal scream of the inner city crack epidemic can be heard and felt, years earlier, in the voices of Al Green and Marvin Gaye, or the comedy of Richard Pryor, but not in the most beautiful or painful or lucid essays of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. It’s why the muffled moan of the “White Death” meth epidemic that has since descended upon Appalachia can be heard in Patty Loveless’s voice a quarter century ago.

The Artists–the real artists–know. They’re the canaries in every modern coal mine. They’ll tell you about the Air if you let them.

And they’ll keep on telling you.

Whether the big Rumble building just now comes to pass or not.



8 thoughts on “LEARNING ABOUT THE AIR (Race in America: 1977)

  1. Great and scary ruminations for me, Johnny. I could be wrong but I was taken back a bit to hear Marvin Gaye introduce his mother and his father, at the beginning of the song; for at a different moment of time, did not his father …..end his life? Perhaps, I could be mixing him up with another…for I am getting ‘long of tooth’! As to Donald Trump, quite another and very real, scary rumination! TCB Clementine

    • TYVM CLementine….Yes, Marvin was shot by his father….I really need to read up on that more in depth. I know there are some good bios out there that have covered it. A monumental tragedy in any case. As for now….we’re certainly in a complicated place!

  2. I really can’t think of anything to say except thanks for sharing that story. Well written and all too timely. Thunderclap Newman’s “Something In The Air” is going through my head now.

    • I know what you mean. That one’s been in my head so constantly for the last year and a half it’s now practically my personal theme song (I’m actually afraid to link to it for fear it might take over my consciousness)…But, hey, my theory that we’re in a time warp is gaining credence by the day! I SHOULD be happy!

  3. The record “Something’s In The Air” came to my mind as well, while reading this post. I’ve been listening to it a lot lately. It’s so scary that a record cut when I was three and a half years old is now just as relevant as it ever was.

  4. Holy cow! Where had you migrated from? Was this the first time you had ever seen such blatant white vs. black shenanigans? It must have been quite a shock indeed. Even in ol’ Bigotry Buffalo, I never saw anything quite so unapologetically pigment-divided.

    As a kid, I spent recess (well, as much time as I could) alone, too. When we moved to Albuquerque from back east, I was surprised at how much dirt lay all over the place. During second grade, I took a few months’ break from reading during recess to sit in the dirt in front of the school. I had discovered that throwing it a few feet produced “smoke.” I sat there pretending that I was the special-effects guy at a KISS concert. The teachers were worried about me.

    Anyway, I’m not sure this qualifies as a guest post, so I’ll share it here, simply because I think you might get a kick out of it. It’s reasonably on-topic. I wrote it a few years back, but didn’t wind up doing anything with it online. It’s a true story that I call “The Conversation.”

    2000. I’m living on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, New York. Four-story brownstone. Top floor. Don’t like hearing people above me. Or, apparently, using complete sentences when I’m narrating about Elmwood Avenue.

    There were additional reasons to live so lofty in western New York. Flood waters wouldn’t rise high enough to soak all of my stuff, most of which didn’t need cleaning. Also, it was less likely that someone would break in and take my agreeably dry things if they had to weather several landings to do it.

    As it turned out, taking anti-noise measures by living at the top didn’t help much; airplanes flew over the area much more often than one would expect unless one lived near an actual airport, which, in this case, one didn’t.

    I locked my studio compartment and walked down the stairs around 10:30, just like I did on most mornings. I was looking forward to my Thursday shift at the Blue Moon Cafe’ about as much as a root canal. Without anesthetic. In a sandstorm. During a sneezing fit.

    Once on the street, I turned rightward and began my forty-five-minute walk to the restaurant. There was an old black guy who lived in my area and never seemed to venture beyond it. Regardless of when I found myself on his street, there he was, standing in the same place as before. He always wore the same clothes, but he never stank. He exhibited a perma-smile and always had music going.

    His way of life appeared to be, like the ways of life of quite a few people I knew at the time and millions of others I didn’t, a result of men in ties making decisions that only benefited other men in ties. It’s just a guess, but as far as guesses go, it’s hard to top. Imagine making it to your seventies while remaining a sharp guy who tries to do right, and spending the rest of your life in a crumbling roach hotel. Your kids would love to help you renounce the food stamps and live somewhere safer, but for some reason, they’re getting paid proportionately even less than you did at that age.

    Lest I give you the wrong idea, I should mention that northeastern America isn’t a vastly unappealing place or anything. Even the weather’s not as bad as you might have heard. Not to me, anyway, as I would always pick extreme cold over extreme heat, if forced to choose for some weird reason. I’ve been to Arizona, for instance, and you could only reasonably use the common defense for its climate – “But it’s a DRY heat” – if you also had nothing against persuading a kid to climb into your oven.

    How did I start? Oh, yeah: It’s not that northeastern America is a vastly unappealing place or anything. It’s just that it’s full of once productive industrial cities whose inhabitants grew so afraid of anyone different from them – or anyone who threatened to compromise their financial dominance – that they moved away from the cities themselves as they filled with these different-looking people who sought work. Suburbs were built around the perimeters. Then the alleged public servants kept most of the money away from the now inner cities.

    Areas full of breathtaking buildings falling into decay are packed with titanic amounts of folks without opportunities to change things or get the hell out. They’re not just black, Hispanic and Oriental anymore; the difference is no longer racial. It’s financial. Once you’re on the conveyor belt to poverty, it takes some kind of fluke to hop off, no matter how much you work — especially if you’re of the creative turn of mind, rather than the enslaved-workhorse one. I guess creative types who are greedy enough to sell out in some way might do well.

    Meanwhile, those responsible for the problem back-pat each other for living in nice houses, give each other awards for trivial achievements, send each other on business trips so they can avoid the middles of other cities, and tell their kids to do well in school, so they won’t wind up living in the bad part of town someday.

    In brief (compared with what, I don’t know), it’s not that northeastern America is a vastly unappealing place or anything. It’s just that sometimes, while walking around, one gets the feeling that not only is it all well past its prime, tangibly and also on some ulterior level of morale, but that it could, at any moment, get a hell of a lot worse. It’s like living near the Leaning Tower of Pisa and wondering what to make of that loud, creaking sound you’ve just heard through the window.

    But northern Michigan wins, brains down: It’s easily the worst place I’ve ever lived. Sport hunters have been left alone to breed throughout the Upper Peninsula, and at least when I was there in ’01, any guy who wasn’t a hunter behaved as if he’d gladly kill a deer, if only he had the intellect to find one. The women served as decorations for these hicks, but they didn’t do their jobs very well.

    Back to Buffalo: The black guy I’ve mentioned did not, contrary to what a lot of white kids are taught, beat me about the face and neck, inject me with narcotics and steal my shoes as I walked by his tree almost every morning. (It could have been because I never wear a tie, but probably not.)

    I say “his tree” because every time I saw him, he was against or around a tall elm in the middle of the grass shoulder that divided the sidewalk from the street. He smoked cigarettes and listened to Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and other Atlantic soul artists from the ’60s and early ’70s. He seemed to prefer them over the Motown people, although I did hear the occasional Marvin Gaye.

    His boom box was cradled in the lower branches, just above where his floppy brown hat tilted slightly upward every time someone strolled by. Sometimes he added, “How y’feel?” or “All right, now.” The world was twirling just fine because someone was walking past his soundtrack. I was the only whitey among them. I was greeted no differently than anyone else.

    An upside-down hubcap lay in the grass a few feet from the tree. It always contained a few batteries for his tape player. Those, not money, were what pedestrians threw in there. Most of them must have known him for quite a while.

    As I drew near on this enjoyably overcast morning, I picked up the sound of “In the Midnight Hour.” I faintly intoned, “I’m gonna wait ’till the stars come out.” He noticed. Showing countless teeth, he pointed at me, eyebrows raised, head turned just to the side, shoulders hunched.

    “If you don’t sing the next line, too,” he couldn’t have expressed more strongly with a holler, “my tape player will never work again.”

    While not used to this kind of musical openness from a stranger (or a bandmate, to tell you the truth), I wasn’t about to let him down. I assumed the rough voice of Wilson Pickett. Shoot, I can do that. “See that twinkle in your eye.”

    So that was his secret. Vocals somehow sounded better under the canopy of leaves.

    He was delighted. For some reason, I couldn’t just be on my way after that. I guess it seemed deplorably impolite. I had to wait for the song to finish, at least. Everyone else who sang with his soundtrack kept going, but I had just pointed out the twinkle in his eye, for christsakes. I sat on the front steps of the closest building and lit a cigarette of my own.

    An old woman passed by. They gave each other that “Hey, dude” nod. She sang, “You’re the only girl I knowwww” at him. This one mean-looking guy, who physically had more in common with a water tower than a guy looking any kind of way, told the old-timer that he was going to hold him in his arms. Another woman explained that it would just be him and her.

    In the midnight hour.

    They acted as if these exchanges were as typical as breathing. The actual words didn’t matter, of course. These folks clearly acknowledged each other like this all the time. Leaving lingering vocals with each other struck me as a much more effective way of communicating than, for instance, leaving live explosives.

    After an unusually communal rendition of an Aretha tune, during which there was nothing strange, for reasons that I can’t really explain, about the old-timer describing how much like a natural woman he felt because of various passersby, he reached up and hit “Stop.”

    He smiled at me again. “Gotta go inside and look after Mama. Take care, now.”

    Mama? Damn. She must have been 100.

    “You, too.” I felt that I should say more, but apart from possibly singing “Hit the Road, Jack,” I couldn’t think of anything.

    He took great care indeed as he removed his boom box from the branches. Then he went inside. Aha! So he did leave once in a while. I’d just never hung around long enough.

    I couldn’t very well show up for my crappy job after that, could I? Besides, the tips were never decent on Thursdays. I found a park, sat in the grass and listened to tapes on my headphones. There was, after all, nothin’ shakin’ but the leaves on the trees.

    • The odd thing is, I went grades 1 through 8 in Central Florida, which had integrated when I started first grade. By the time I was in fifth grade or so, racial tensions were VERY high, though more at the high school than elsewhere (the teenage girl who lived next door used to come over and give my mother weekly updates). When I moved to North Florida race relations seemed much calmer…until the eleventh grade stretch I wrote about here, which only proved how delicate the balance always is.

      The white/black mix was always about 70/30 to 60/40 wherever I lived (still is). That’s a pretty good ratio for trouble. A ten percent minority (whoever it is) usually wants as little trouble as possible. Once you get to a certain percentage, the chance of switching places begins to seem realistic. People on both sides of the divide then tend to act accordingly.

      I’ll have a few other stories along these lines as time goes by. It dovetails nicely with my mini-theme of Notes from an Actual Boyhood, which I started in response to my ambivalent response to the movie Boyhood. (Didn’t make it an official category yet, but I’m pondering it.)

      Loved your story, though. I have a deep interest in hearing experiences from other parts of the country or other time frames than mine. My shorthand Cultural History of Post-War America is that rock and roll called the tribes together and punk/rap was the reactionary, tribal response which sent us running back to the tribes. Or, as LIttle Steven once said of rock and roll America on his radio show–“Before the Empire divided us.” I’m not surprised the soul music of the sixties could be the catalyst for a moment such as the one you so eloquently describe–that’s what it was meant to do.

      Put in the longer view, America is an experiment nesting inside two thousand years of New Testament ethics and three hundred years of political enlightenment, all designed to lift us to a higher ground. My guess is, the Rock and Roll America I grew up in will be as close as we come. Certainly in our lifetimes, probably ever. Which is why I’d rather write about culture than politics. Seems more relevant somehow.

      Anyway, keep ’em coming! You ain’t annoying me yet! (lol)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.