I am always fascinated when others share their views of who I am. That is mainly true because few who venture to do so see me for who I am. They tell me I am apples, and in fact I am oranges. My closest friends understand me well. However, I sometimes think that’s only because they are the ones who take me at face value. I am who I say I am.
Oddly, few people seem to be able to accept that concept.
So, when I run into a stranger who seems to “get” me right away, I am always pleasantly surprised. Such an occurence happened tonight. I was coming from a rather unfulfilling evening’s shooting at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, when I decided to stop in at Subway, appropriately located near D.C.’s main Metro station.
The place was empty, except for two customers, one of whom was asleep, and the young man working the counter. As he fixed my sub, he started up a conversation. He asked me if I was in town for the BET awards show. I assured him I was not. (Apparently, one needs to be attired in a ratty fur to gain entry.)
He toasted my bread, starting laying on the veggies, and gave me an odd look. “Are you a poet, or a book writer or something?” he asked.
Needless to say, I was taken aback. I am both, though people who have known me a decade never guess as much. I asked the kid if he was psychic, and he laughed, claiming he was not.
“No, you just have that vibe,” he said, gesturing to indicate my clothes. (I attribute it to the black fedora.) “You are just really calm, and chill,” he added. (Every single person who has understood me well has said that about me. Everyone else disagrees completely.)
I suggested he get out of Subway, and look into Sales. He has their key skill: the ability to read people, figure out what they are about, and connect with them. I was pleased to see that he seemed interested.
What is the point of this story? That sometimes, if you stop caring what people think, a few will be able to connect to the real you. That a random young man could determine that I was a writer by the way I comported myself while ordering a veggie sub, made my night. It is not often I get to see myself through others’ eyes. It has been decades since those who gave me feedback were even close to being right.
However, now, as I have rejected all the labels given me, and reclaimed the only one I ever claimed for myself – artist – people are beginning to see me as I see myself. Maybe I won’t need a new mirror after all.
But that happens to most of us, does it not? We are told who we are, and after a while, given the repetition of the labels, we accept them. We stop being cool, and start being mom or dad. We stop being silly, and learn to be professional. We are not artists, because we choose not to starve, and only those whom earn a living through their art can be artists. So, we hide ourselves in a little box that we open only on special days, and only when alone.
I wrote my first poem at age 9. The last time I checked, my mother still carried it in her wallet. I started taking photographs at age 12. At age 20, I was invited to become a full-time photographer. I turned it down, because by then, I had learned that being an artist was not my destiny. I had learned that from my teachers, the principals, the entire administration.
“You should be a doctor, or a lawyer, or an engineer,” they told me. So I tried to be what they wanted. This is despite the fact that every award I received in school was for excellence in English. Poet was not a career, they said. That was for Don L. Lee or Nikki Giovanni, not a kid who scored in the 99th percentile at a time when the world needed strong black leaders. (In retrospect, I’m guessing they had never heard of Maya Angelou.)
So, I plastered their labels across my forehead, and gave it my shot. I got my MBA. I was a good corporate soldier, for the cause. I fought at racism at work. I battled (and won) against fellow employees who tried to get me fired for being smart and black. I battled the old boy I worked for in the 1980s version of IBM, who confessed to having once been in the KKK. He blanched when I informed him I had once hit a Klansman in the head with a brick.
I fought the good fight, wrapped in all the labels they gave me. Nearly three decades later, I’m still here, having worked for one company for over 25 years. And I have hated every moment of it. Don’t get me wrong. My company rocks. I like my job. The pay is good. Yet, I spent 25 miserable years. Why? This. Ain’t. Me.
Market Research Planner. Program Manager. Subcontracts Manager. Capture Manager. Lead Business Planner. Financial Planner. Accountant. Quantitive Analysis Lead. Director of Boredom. Somebody-Please-Shoot-Me Analyst. Decades of labels. (I once tried to get my title changed to Business Pimp, but they wouldn’t go for it.)
You see, none of these labels fit me. I am still the same person as the 9 year-old-kid who got a “A” on his 1st poem, despite having only 15 minutes to write it. (I had been out sick, and the other kids got 2 days.) I am the same idiot walking around with 2 cameras, pointing them at anyone around. I’m still the guy who thinks in movies, rather than words. I still think daydreams are the most important part of the day.
I met, married, and had my heart shredded by someone who convinced me I was an artist. The end of that relationship was nearly the end of me. However, having failed in my attempts to die of a shattered heart, it also became my beginning. I am – finally – that which I had always hoped to be. The old guy who gives sage advice to any and all who seek it, then goes home, and writes shit.
At this stage of my life, I will accept only those labels I give myself. I am an artist. With a kick-ass day job. And some really cool hats.