Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Cleansing at the Used Tire Shop

"Hey, Sol, look, it's the newspaper ma.., Oops, I mean our buddy’s here, Solomon.”

For years, whenever the rusted, tin bell above Sol & Sal's Used Tire Shop twinkled announcing my entrance, one of the elderly twin owners would shout: “… it’s the newspaper man.”

Stifled feelings of hurt and anger resurfaced as Sal struggled to define me.

I started writing about the brothers after I was hired as a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2003. Like Jess B. Simple, Langston Hughes' character, Sol and Sal are accumulations of my past and present -- people, real and unreal, cynical and optimistic who represent the hope and hopelessness that is black life.

I turn to my oracles when “my cogs are stuck,” Sol aptly phrased it in one of my early writings about the mythical shop.

Since learning of my termination in April, Sal, like so many other Post-Dispatch readers, is still adjusting to the fact that I am no longer with the newspaper.

Like Jess B. Simple, Langston Hughes' character, Sol and Sal are accumulations of the past present -- people, real and unreal, the cynical and optimistic who represent the hope and hopelessness that is black life.

Although I tell myself the departure from the Post-Dispatch was destined and will ultimately lead to new doors of opportunity, the sympathetic looks and comments from friends and former readers spur mixed feelings -- embarrassment, anger and … well, repressed fears about my future.

Unlike his usual reserved, reflective self, Sal's brother, Sol, rushed through the checkered curtains separating the storefront from the shop's repair area. Wiping his oil-stained hands on an oil-stained rag, Sol hugged me like a son returning from war.

"Youngblood, I was wondering when you were gonna stop by,” he beamed.

Though in his 70s, Sol is linebacker strong. I took comfort in his embrace and the fact that, no matter how old I get, with Sol & Sal, I'll always be “Youngblood.”

“Knew you had to get your head together, but I was startin’ ta worry ‘boutcha,” Sol said.

“Yeah, I thought you mighta committed sideways or sumpin,” Sal chuckled.

"Why would I do that?" I asked.

“Cause, you lost yourself one of dem good white-folk jobs,” Sal said. “Many a good brutha git all embarrassed, lose their way and take their own lives once sumpin like that happens.”

“Not this one,” Sol retorted, his arm still around my shoulder. “He’s a Souljah, born to battle.”

“Yeah, a soldier with no place and no money to fight those battles,” Sal shot back.

He didn’t mean any harm. It was just Sal's way. He’s old school, a realist. Sal follows a consistent motto: “Whites run it and blacks run around in it!”

Whenever I wrote about the brothers in the Post, most white readers seemed to side with Sal. They liked his Cosby-esque way of condemning “victimization.” Sal placed the onus of black problems on black shoulders. He had little patience for conversations about racism, denied opportunities or challenging “Da Man.”

On the flip side, Sol’s words resonated with many black readers. They agreed with his sentiments that racism is institutionalized, still damaging and the battle for its total eradication is ongoing.

Few readers understood that there was no “right or wrong” with the twins. Both represent my conflicting realities and sentiments I share with people of my hue and of my passions.

“I saw you on the news,” Sal interjected. “You did a good job splaining what happened. And I believe you were canned on trumped up charges and all, but … and don’t get me wrong, I just gotta ask … did you forget who you are?”

I had given the old man’s question a lot of thought before the visit.

“No, I knew my place, Sal” I answered. “Sure, there were arrogant, insecure bosses who seemed to draft rules and policies just for me ... but, to be real, that was all expected. I did my best to navigate the antagonistic terrain, serve the readers and live up to my journalistic standards.”

“See, right there, those last few words … your ‘journalism standards’ don't matta,” Sal shouted triumphantly. “You don’t make the rules, son, you follow ‘em. Face it, you were a shit disturber and there’s no place in corporate America for shit disturbers, especially black ones.”

Sol quietly considered his brother’s words before responding:

“With great opportunity, comes great responsibility, Sal. Youngblood had a valuable platform to challenge power, speak for the voiceless and try to implement change. Are you saying he should have just ignored his principles and played along, just to git along?”

“That’s ‘xactly what I’m saying, you old fool,” Sal spat.

I shared something with the men that a very blunt lawyer said after reviewing my complaints against the Post-Dispatch: “I have no interest in your principles.”

“See,” Sal shouted, as if vindicated. “He has no case.”

“I didn’t say that, Sal, ” I responded. “It’s just that the lawyers I’ve spoken with insist that I must go the discrimination route. They discourage pursuing a legal battle based on my principles.”

“And that bothers you, right,” Sol said knowingly.

“Yeah, it does. Not only does it seem predictable but mounting a discrimination case might be fruitless. Sure, juries recognize the in-your-face, ‘you're a nigger’ kind of racism. But that other -- subtle, insulting, demeaning, death-by-a-thousand-cuts -- I’ve always had trouble getting readers to acknowledge or understand that that kind of racial discrimination exists.

Why would a jury be any different?"

Sol’s unflinching gaze unsettled me.

“There’s something else, isn’t there, Youngblood? You don’t hafta be a Souljah with us. Lower your guards, tell us what’s really troubling you.”

He was right, there was no need to hide from my muses:

“Honestly, I’m torn about this whole lawsuit business. Yes, I feel slandered. After 22 years of journalism, I now have this dark cloud over my head based on a lie. I can't help but wonder what the hundreds of kids I've spoken with over the years think of me now. I wonder if I will ever have the opportunity to work for another major publication. So, yeah, I suppose I want vindication in court..."

“There’s something else, isn’t there?” he asked gently. “You don’t hafta be a Souljah with us. Lower your guards, tell us what’s really troubling you.”

Sol didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. I was working my way toward the locus of my discontent:

“It’s just … all the years with those people, sharing stories about my childhood, my family, my wife and kids, my frustrations and my desire to help rebuild long-ignored urban communities – none of it mattered. I went from being a colleague to being like any other brother accused of a crime. 'Guilt' was automatically assumed without question,” I sighed. "After all those years of trying to convince readers not to treat blacks like stereotypes, I became one ... just another Nigga!"

Surprisingly, Sal flinched when I called myself the N-word. He shook his head as he spoke:

“I feel ya. But there’s a whole lot of Negroes crying about the injustice aimed at ‘just-us.’ The fact remains, you lost a damn good job and crying about it won’t change a thi …”

“Whoa, hold up there,” Sol angrily interrupted. “You missin’ the boat, Sal. He ain’t ‘crying,’ he’s cleansing -- because he can, with us. He has to, so he can git ta doing what he's 'sposed to do."

Turning back to me, he asked: "Youngblood, what color was yo Nigga at the Post?"

"What kind of a foolish question is that, man?" Sal shouted. "Erbody know the color of a Nigga -- doo-doo brown, mustard yella or black as the midnite sky."

"Yongblood knows what I mean," Sal answered cooly.

I did. Sol was talking about the color of emotions -- calm blue or seething red.

My head buzzed with memories of my battles with younger, white, male editors who had no clue or interest in my input, thoughts, experiences or my community involvement. I thought about my colleague who made almost twice as much money as I did, even though we basically did the same work. I remembered my efforts to learn blogging and video taping my stories and all the columns I wrote about saving the cash-strapped, struggling Post-Dispatch.

That constant "little boy" feeling returned when I recalled how often I was told my work wasn't "good enough" or that I didn't deserve a raise. As I dwelled on how disrespected and undervalued I felt at the newspaper, the "color" was evident.

"He was gray, Sol, small and gray."

Sol smiled:“You may have taken your sweet time getting by here, but we been watchin’you. Since losing that so-called ‘good job,’ you been spending more time with your family, getting back to your entrepreneurial roots. To me, you seem happier, less stressed -- like you're dreamin' again.

"I can't tell you what to do about suing ... that's yo call," Sol continued. "But I do have a question for you; What color is yo Nigga now?

I answered without hesitation: “Green, Sol but he's not exactly a Nigga anymore."

Sol winked at the revelation:

“Ah, Green .. the color of growth. Ya see, Youngblood, you’re back in your element – writing what you want, when you want, dreamin’ big dreams without white folk’s permission. 'Green...' Yeah, I can dig it!"

Frustrated, Sal threw up his hands.

“There you go, ya crazy old man … filling his head with foolishness. Jobs like the one he lost don’t grow on trees, you know.”

“No doubt,” Sol answered. “But fate won’t let Youngblood take the easy route – it never has. He put something out there. Now he has to be man enough to follow through. It’s that simple.”
He ain’t ‘crying,’ he’s cleansing -- because he can, with us. He has to, so he can git ta doing what he’s ‘sposed to do.”

As Sol and Sal debated, I rose to leave. It was liberating, sifting through my fears and emotions but, honestly, I had to distance myself, especially from Sal. Sometimes, his arguments are just too darn powerful, too intimidating.

The twin brothers paid no notice when the doorbell tinkled. Their debate continued as I departed the shop:

“ ... no company health insurance, no steady paycheck, no 401K, no security … what’s he gonna do?” Sal demanded.

Sol’s soft and confident reply gave me some comfort.

“He’ll be fine. Remember, Sal, he’s a Souljah.”