Regarding common sense: If you look hard enough, and sometimes if you don’t, the mundane will reveal itself, unfolding unmysteriously, like a prophecy conceived, written, performed in the language of everyday life. At other times, they remain concealed, evading our understanding, except when we are able to glean some semblance of meaning from recognizable terms. What are we to do in such times, when things seem to occur outside the province of common sense? It’s anyone’s guess. The jury, as they say, is out.
This is such a great song, isn’t it? “It Was A Very Good Year.” Sinatra’s version (which, frankly, might as well be the only version). Half century later, it still resonates. The beautiful Brooklyn city girls who lived up the stairs moved me. I don’t know any “blue-blooded girls of independent means,” but still.
I mean, who could forget that opening montage in The Sopranos Season 2 premiere? James Gandolfini was a genius in the role, wasn’t he? Of this there can be no doubt. The song’s opening verse is even more compelling. I hear it now and think of other 17 year-olds–living and dead–as I sit reflecting on my own 17th year:
When I was seventeen
It was a very good year
It was a very good year for small town girls
And soft summer nights
We’d hide from the lights
On the village green
When I was seventeen
(“It Was a Very Good Year,” 1965)
When I was 17, a couple months after getting home from boot camp at Parris Island Recruit Depot, South Carolina, I walked into a tattoo parlor on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn. My inkman, Vinny, was meticulous and unsympathetic. He didn’t seem to take any sadistic pleasure etching the tribal panther on my chest, nor seemed to press harder as he filled in the outline that thorned and barbed and clawed its way into the unmarked areas of my skin. There was no romanticism from my end, either.
Wait, that’s not exactly true.
The impulse to have some kind of symbol that represented courage was driven by a somewhat romanticized notion of a tattoo as an example of primal badassness. And, having failed to be a marine, I felt as though I’d earned an alternative. Or needed one. Because, no matter what you tell yourself about needing to get out of something, there’s always going to be a part of you that misses it, still the odd dreams. It’s not magic: any break in routine will result in withdrawal. My particular break came when the “innocent” heart murmur threatened to become a bit more problematic. After a few weeks in Medical Rehabilitation Platoon (MRP) then Physical Conditioning Platoon (PCP), I got picked up by Platoon 2016. I’ll have some things to say about those days another time. My Senior Drill Instructor (SDI), SSgt Shaw was alright, as far as SDIs go. Very thorough. As I lay on the gurney after collapsing in the sqaudbay, for example, he came to make sure I didn’t have any “allegations” of misconduct to report–like the ass-whooping he gave me in his office (we called it a “house”) because he thought I was being a “little bitch.”
At 17, I weighed about 147lbs fully clothed, soaking wet, so he had little difficulty tossing me around the place. I was surprised when he lunged at me, but I remained compliant, using my hands only to get my balance or push myself up from the floor. That sucked, but we did a lot of push-ups, so I was good at it. I had it coming, I suppose, like the “blanket party” my fellow recruits threatened me with. I had it coming. I’d fallen asleep on firewatch, so (notions of implicit misogyny, abuse, and homoerotic tensions of military organizations aside) I didn’t feel the need to allege that my SDI had done anything out of order. Along with racism and religious intolerance, misogyny, abuse, and homoerotic tensions were the norm. I became hard. “Born-again hard,” as another movie-quoting DI put it.
Besides, when you’re breeding warriors–killers with the justifiable cause of war or some other sanctioned aggression–those kinds of things are to be expected. The bottomline for them was that I had no allegations. It was too much, and–let’s say, for now–I didn’t have the heart for it. Forms were signed, I spent a few days in Casual Platoon, ate great food at the good mess hall, and prayed to god and other miscellaneous sex deities that the stories I’d heard about saltpeter were apocryphal. Then I was on a bus back to Brooklyn. February 6, 1992.
Part of being trained to kill “the enemy” is becoming comfortable with the fact that you’re also a target. It’s common sense. So, at 17 and back in Brooklyn, when the NYPD rolled up and drew their guns on me and my boy as we got to my stoop on East 95th St., it didn’t occur to me to be afraid of what they could do. There was adrenaline mixed with the absurdity of an errant gunshot blocks away that we would have been more likely to be hit by than to have fired. No fear, though. Even with a 12-pound trigger pull, it was unlikely that they’d miss. Hard to miss at 15 feet. Harder at 2. But no fear.
This was no doubt an inheritance from boot camp, where I’d learned to bracket my responses to aggression. One of the other DIs, SSgt Allen, helped me put things in perspective. During training, in between the drills and the punishment, he and SSgt Crumbliss offered useful sayings in MRE-sized portions that would become lodged in our throats. This one remained:
You better wake the hell and realize where the hell you at.
The implication, in a no-frills context, was that we were asleep and, should we choose to remain asleep, would be in for “a world of hurt.” (Yeah, they quoted lines from films, too. Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Casualties of War. There were other films. Faces of Death was a favorite among us. When I was 17, my friends and I had looked at enough of them to anticipate the initial shock and nausea of human death–and, death notwithstanding, to laugh–normalized as we were to blood and other things. They were pleased we were becoming hard without noticing too much.)
It was an admonition to get ourselves together. Yes, but more than that. A civilian now, I could improvise. For me, it was more like:
wherever you happen to be at, you better wake the hell up when you there–or when you get there.
And, what’s more, you better stay woke.
We know what that means. Even if we’re not familiar with Erykah Badu‘s remix of “Master Teacher” and messages of hope and critique like this one that it inspired, we still know what that means, don’t we? Of course we do. We know because we are who we are and must stay woke. Mired at all times in discourses of desperation and survival, we know that justice for the dead is a task for the living, not because ghosts require any vindication but because we can imagine better. So we stay woke. I’ve thought for some time about these dynamics and have come up wanting of a resolution. We know. Especially when, bewildered by the desiccated ethos of a nation intent on leaving its hypocrisies unresolved, we take upon ourselves the responsibility to admonish those among us we consider complacent. We know that staying alive is an act of courage. It’s common sense.
They searched us, questioned us, and let us be on our way–back to the stoop, a few feet to the left. Cloaked in this skin of mine–this black and sweet and hated skin of mine–I had to become comfortable with the fact that I was a target. I hadn’t yet enrolled as a non-degree student at Medgar Evers College, but I was already aware of the normalizing, absolving powers of my society’s beliefs when it comes to how people like me are treated. I was aware, even then, of what a friend described as “the claustrophobia that is US racial discourse for black people.” It was then what it is now. What are the conditions under which I, a black body, can be assured of justice? At 17–hard as I was and with a couple guns pointed at me–I really wasn’t thinking about that.
I just didn’t want to be shot in the face. Or the heart.
I wasn’t. So I figured I’d earned a tattoo. Somewhat romanticized, I guess, but not really.