Be Like Charles.

When I was 19, I dated a photographer at the School of Visual Arts in New York. By dated, I mean I took the train up to visit him in Brooklyn to hang out and pray he’d notice. It was really more a friendship. He tolerated my hick Southern ways and I pretended to be more worldly than I was and flirt like mad. It never worked. He was one of those obsessive artist types, who live for The Work and focus on nothing else.

Those trips were quintessential 80’s vignettes. I’d arrive at Penn Station, subway out to Brooklyn, and literally run to his apartment because his neighborhood resembled Beirut, all bombed out buildings and burned up cars. He’d meet me at the door in his giant blond Mohawk and leather jacket. Punk rock dreamy. His roommates were painters. One was a blonde hippie chick who focused on giant vaginas and her boyfriend Charles was African-American, a political artist obsessed with Bruce Springsteen. When I say obsessed I mean fangirl-worthy. He owned hundreds of cassettes and played The Boss all the time, but especially while painting. Strange political art in black and white. Distorted cartoonish portraits of black men with sweaty faces wearing KKK hoods pushed up on their heads like they’d finished some sort of welding job. Weary men who looked as if all hope was lost. So stirring looking at them made you feel as if you weren’t doing enough with your life.

It was 1986 and I thought they were the coolest people I’d ever seen. The photographer and I spent our days scouting out dirty landscapes, which wasn’t hard. I remember a freezing night on the Brooklyn Heights walkway, traffic rushing under the open grid while he attempted to capture the Manhattan skyline in time-lapse. I was colder than hell, but there was no way I wanted to leave. I felt like I was in a movie. A really cool Jim Jarmusch vehicle. These memories are rose-colored with nostalgia as memories tend to be. Although I can’t recollect much more about the photographer, even his name, Charles is someone who imprinted himself on my mind and spirit as unforgettable. Not for his Springsteen obsession but for something he always did. Something I still marvel at because I’ve never seen anyone else do it.

Charles, Mohawk and I rode the subway into Manhattan every morning. They had classes to attend and I was the tagalong. This was before the big Disney cleanup, so the trains were still spray can canvases and the riders way more surly. But Charles? He ignored their grim demeanors, choosing to fearlessly make small talk with almost every passenger he came across. Simple stuff. Hello. How are you? How’s your day going? I marveled at this. They’d look up, giving him a glance as if to say, “Oh, another nut,” before staring at the graffiti-covered windows once more. A few nodded. Some responded. Most didn’t.

I found this act completely insane. Didn’t he know you’re not supposed to even make eye contact? But Charles was unfazed. Smile on his face and in his heart. And when he asked how you were, he genuinely meant it. You could tell. Every conversation was a precious stone of sincerity. And the more conversations he tried to start the more my feelings changed from disbelief to envy. I envied him. Because I could never be like that. No way.

This small act, one he did on every ride to and from Manhattan, was so different from his portraits. Where they left you hopeless, his nature, his genuine exuberance, his sincerity made you feel possibility. It also made you feel like you were doing something wrong by not emulating his good mood. Like maybe you needed to re-examine your life because guys, we’re all in this together. We only live once that we know of. Why not make each moment count. Even so, I worried someone would knock his block off for smiling at them the wrong way. It was New York after all.

With the news of recent weeks Charles has once again made his way to my mind’s forefront. In fact, now that I think about it more, I’ve thought of him my entire life. Whenever I’ve found myself in a situation I was unsure of I subconsciously think, “What would Charles do? How would Charles handle it?” When I find myself socially anxious, afraid to approach a stranger, or heading into an interview situation that scares me, I think of Charles approaching a 300-pound skinhead on the subway to ask him how his day is going and I feel a little braver. Because I saw him do that once. The guy smiled, nodded, and replied, “Okay. You?” Without incident. Which gave a lot of hope to my 19-year-old self. Shit like that was possible. Even in New York.

Charles was sunny. So relentlessly upbeat but not in an obnoxious, fake way. In a way you wanted to hang around him in the hope somehow some of that joy would rub off and become a part of you. In the hope of spreading it around the world a bit. To a melancholy young girl like me meeting someone who was so damn happy all the time was weird. And a possibility. That just maybe there was something more out there in the world than the angry broken home I had just left.

I realize all through my life he’s come to mind. Especially in the past few weeks. How would he handle this? What would he do? Where is he now? Is he still painting? People change in 30 years, sure, but I bet he hasn’t changed much. I bet he’s still asking strangers how their day is going. I hope he’s happy. I hope he’s still listening to The Boss. And I really hope he hasn’t become yet another statistic of violence.

I could sit here and say it didn’t matter Charles was black. Anyone could be that happy and talk to folks on the subway. But we all know it did. Racism exists folks. Even today when I’m approached, whether on the subway or the street, I overcompensate to make sure they know I’m not giving my purse extra protection. I immediately wonder what is their agenda? Which in and of itself is a form of racism and profiling. Something I’m conscious of every day. And something which makes me infinitely sad. I absolutely hate it.

Charles’s fearlessness was amazing to me. But also made me feel guilty that I saw it as fearlessness and not just a great example of the Golden Rule or something more simple. The way we all should be and act in each moment of our lives. To say racism doesn’t exist in this world is just stupid. It does. What struck me, what still strikes me the most about Charles is he knew his race would be a factor in these interactions but did them anyway. That’s what I remember the most.

I know this piece reads like some privileged white woman talking about how she once knew this really cool black guy who wasn’t afraid to talk to everybody on the subway. How that makes her all right in some way, free of race guilt. Trust me, it’s not. I don’t expect the friends of color I have to reach out and say, “You’re okay, you’re one of the good ones. You’re absolved.” It’s not nearly that simple.

I do remember Charles. His personality made a huge impression on me and became a goal I continually strive to emulate each and every day of my life. I mostly fail but when the planets align I succeed. Sometimes. Offering up one experiential story doesn’t make me an expert with all the answers for white folks on how to handle Black Lives Matter. Are you kidding? I have no earthly idea what the answer is here. I’m a white woman of privilege. To presume I would have any earthly idea what the African-American experience is in this country would be totally asinine.

One thing I do know. The Black Lives Matter movement is fundamental. The All Lives Matter movement? It’s bullshit. Until everyone is included at the table any expression of Kumbaya is pointless and worthless. How do we get there? I’ve no idea. I don’t know what the hell to do. I don’t have any answers. I look at my Twitter feed full of recipes and pointless entertainment news and people promoting their website or podcast or latest blog post about Mommying and think, “What the hell am I doing?” I need direction like everyone else. I’m sad and angry and cover that up with way too much junk food and television just like everyone else.

I admit I live in fear that whatever I choose to write about racism will be construed as wrong or incorrect by anyone that reads it. I’m a big-picture kind of person. Who knew semantics would end up being so important in today’s online world, where words, not voices, rule the day? As I wrote this I went over each phrase again and again, looking for anything that might put me in the same category as that news anchor in Pittsburgh. Which I suppose is another part of the problem. But again, I set my jaw and choose to be like Charles. To be vulnerable and honest. To do what I know which is to write. To say how I feel and where I’m coming from because it’s more important to try than to be silent. To tell my truth as I know it to be. On this day at this time in this world.

When the shit hits the fan I write. Beyond that, when I’m out in the world? How can I make a difference? I go small. Start with myself. Me. Myself. Right here and now. And when I meditate on that for a few minutes three little words come up. Be like Charles. Be. Like. Charles. It’s not much. But it’s a start. And good lord, we’ve all got to start somewhere before it gets even worse. Be good to each other everyone. Start with yourself. Be like Charles. Because man alive, he was really something.

2 comments

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  • Mary Margaret Jones

    Reply

    I like it. Charles spreads positivity and that’s a sign of health and the seeds we need to sew to get things mor fun and interesting in our lives again. when it used to be like that more. I think it still is but people are just so focused on themselves

    • Jenée Libby

      Reply

      I completely agree. People are so focused on their phones now a days. Instead they should take 30 seconds to look up and say hello. Connect with other people on a face-to-face basis. It’s why I only do in-person interviews. Thanks for your comment!

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