February 12, 2012 around 4:00am
I crept into my shared Brixton flat still damp from the night out I’d had with my friends, a group I’d lovingly dubbed the BBoyz (which stands for both “Barcelona” boys and “Brown” boys). Somehow-as always-I’d allowed them to persuade me to spend “one more hour” out on the town and seeing as it was my final night in the United Kingdom, I obliged. I tossed my vintage London Fog trench onto my bed and tried to heat myself up. My tuxedo shirt was soaked though with my dance-sweat and my H&M combat boots needed to be peeled from me and packed into the suitcase I’d finished pre-loading only days before. It had been 2 years and one month that I’d spent in London, and the memories, trials and the overall tribulations had swarmed my mind in a rush of images. I blinked them away as I desperately tried to make sure I’d packed every single thing I needed and had all my alarms set so that I could hop on my one-way flight back to Virginia, a place I’d hadn’t lived consistently since I was 14 years old. Was home an accurate term for America anymore?
I had so many thoughts (a trait that has seriously become my downfall), and as I tried to filter them and make sense of the flurry of emotions I only thought I’d prepared myself for, my mind kept going back and forth between two things: the death of Whitney Houston only 2 hours prior, and what would soon be the end of the life I’d created across seas. Between my grieving for Brandy Norwood (yes, I thought of her heavily at the time because Whitney was her mentor) and trying to process how such a legend could be snatched away from this earth, I only kept thinking that if I were to die, I’d need to leave behind something of which I could be ultimately proud. I didn’t know what that would be back then, and even today, I’m not sure if what I have to give to this world is as significant as my voice. Yet, maybe the idea is merely to give freely of oneself in the best way you know how. Even in love; give. The taking is easy. The giving is courageous.
I’d given so much of myself to a country that had given me the worst exit process ever. Getting out of college wasn’t as difficult as leaving the United Kingdom (Thanks UK Border Control…), though even that was hard too, if I recall correctly. But unlike other places I’d given myself to, I felt like things were actually reciprocated in London. When I laid a foundation, my English universe around me helped me build a house. And I felt that in my journey to the past (England is five hours ahead of Virginia), I’d be demolishing the house that Tommy built. So I did the only thing I knew how to do in my mind: Deny. I denied that I was leaving for good and vowed to return if it was the last thing I did. So, with prayers for Whitney Houston and her family on my heart, prayers for my safe return home in about 6 hours, and a body that had finally got some heat from my duvet, I warmed up to the idea that a return home was not permanent and would ultimately be for the best.
February 12, 2012 around 9:00am
If I dreamed at all that night, I’m sure it was about something fun because I awoke prepared and with no fear.
My best friend -an Italian gent and former RSAMD classmate who I considered family-called my phone to tell me he was ready to accompany me to the airport. It was time. The leaving was real and I couldn’t deny it any further. So he’d come to flat early in the morning to help me schlep my luggage to the airport via the Tube system.. I said goodbye to my lovely roommate, who had become like a big brother to me, gave him my keys and he locked the door behind me. I walked confidently out of and away from my Brixton flat, luggage in tow, my best friend at my side. With each step I pressed into the pavement, the ground soaked up the despair I’d swallowed deep into the pit of my stomach. I felt the wind try its best to blow away at the thick skin I’d managed to wear that day. But the silly banter and conversation between my Italian brother and me served as a barrier to its breezy attempts.
As far as I was concerned, I was going to make it to the airport with no tears, no regrets, no sadness, because as I’d said the night before, I was going to return home to London. Period.
My friend seemed to have the same thoughts. He treated me as if we’d be hanging out at his house the next day, talking all things theatrical and gorging ourselves on homemade casserole. He was in denial too. And I appreciated him so much more for it.
An hour’s train ride later, I arrived at London Heathrow Airport and my brother and I looked at one another and basically gave each other hugs and both said, “This isn’t the end.” There were no tears (thank goodness, because I would’ve looked at him like he was crazy) and it was the simplest “see you later” I’d ever experienced with him. He watched me step through the door into the departure gate and if he did shed tears upon my leaving, at least he had the decency to wait until I disappeared behind the double doors.
I had two hours to kill until take off. So what better way to spend that time than to send goodbye texts to everyone? I decided if I was going to be schmaltzy, I would at least do it along the lines of of a high school yearbook (you know, “You’re an awesome friend.” “Never change”. “K.I.T *happy face*”)…but with my signature honest/ loving style. I’m very sure I sent all of the BBoyz a text thanking them for their contributions to my London life and for being my family when I felt I had none. I thanked every single person, teacher, mentor, coworker, friend I could via text. And the most important person I thanked was the last person I texted: a friend of mine who I credit with helping me discover the true meaning of “adventure.” He was a person I swore I would write a novel or a series about someday as his presence in my life gave me a confidence I’m certain I’d never have if I’d never encountered him two years prior (um…that was along sentence). So I told him all of this in the sappiest text message I have ever sent to him. And fortunately, I got a sappy text back. (But not a seriously sappy text as Brits still manage to keep a certain awkward, stoic, aloofness about themselves.)
“Now boarding…” began the announcement and I knew that after a flash of my ticket/ passport and after a walk down a long cold corridor, I’d be terminating everything. “Hasta la vista, London.” With departure imminent, I began to think…
“I’ve managed to perform a multitude of shows while I was here…I just performed a lead in a phenomenal workshop with a well known playwright…I have been well reviewed twice in this country by The Globe….I’ve been on a set with both Dev Patel and Ed Westwick…I’ve met one of the coolest British celebs I’ve ever come across and have been privy to see him multiple times in London…my agent has been the most phenomenal agent I could’ve asked for…my friends love me…I’ve done so many things that I’d never have done in America…I’ve been to SPAIN and spoke Spanish with the natives!!!… I’ve loved…have I made a difference here?…did I leave anyone behind who may have loved me enough to try and keep me here? (That last question is definitely going to remain unanswered in this lifetime I’m sure).”
I felt the plane pull away from the gate, and like the best move I’ve ever watched, I replayed the entire duration of my two years in five minutes. I saw myself getting on a plane in Virginia and leaving my family behind to start my graduate career and eventually my theatrical career in Scotland. I saw my first day at grad school. I saw myself graduate with my Masters at the age of 24. I saw me performing and being both happy and sad at some of my experiences. I saw loads of successful and rather unsuccessful auditions and conversations with my agents after all of them. I could hear myself singing at Cellar Door in Covent Garden and I could see how many times I’d hung out with the people who had become my family. And as the pressure inside the cabin increased, and I felt the plane begin its ascent into the sky, I descended involuntarily into tears.
Window seats can be blessings. I didn’t have to face the other passengers who were prepping the seven hour flight home by watching in flight films. So I looked out the window as the clouds began to blanket my view, and the city that had once appeared huge to me became a net of streets and tiny cars driving on the wrong side of the road. Had it been a dream? These past two years? Had I truly lived away in another country and gained love, respect and ultimately freedom for myself?
It felt like I’d gone over the rainbow, overstayed my welcome, and was being forced back into the world of sepia, black and white. And true…I guess there is no place like home…but what if you couldn’t discern which home was the right one?
I entered 2013 asking myself the following question: “Where the HELL have I been?”
Since the devastating event of last May where I lost my cousin to gun violence, I feel I have been wandering this planet with a piece of my soul sucked out from me. I’ve not been zombie-fied, but I’ve lived a very zombie-like existence where I have been fueled by one thing: fear. I’ve allowed this entity to consume my cerebral and emotional core. I gave fear power over even the miniscule part of my life. Not once in about five months have I placed dominion on my own actions or feelings. I relinquished my whole self away to fear. I guess it’s understandable for that to happen, however. Once you bear witness to the fragile nature of life firsthand, and when you see how fast a spirit can be snatch away from its vessel, it’s quite easy to comprehend how fear can overwhelm one’s soul.
My fear caused a pit of confusion and silence within me. I only broke that silence once, last year, in order to pay tribute to my cousin’s life. All other attempts to express myself were muffled by life and the journey that I was taking. (Trust and believe, this isn’t the first time I’ve written a blog since July. It’s just the first one that I’ve completed and published on here until I can make sense of the other ones) Part of me wants to go into full detail about why I left Virginia to come to New York. Part of me feels it’s a part of myself that might remain blank. Many of my readers have been privy to so much of the good, bad and ugly of my life, yet I still am on the fence about how much more to reveal. You see…since July, life has thrown me into the deep end and my ass has been constantly gasping for air, and choking a bit on the super salty water.
Still, my limbs stil work, so as long as I can kick my feet, my journey ain’t done. And if I’m reminded, salt water can be used to heal wounds. And if only you knew how many different types of scars/scab I now have…
But my pain will be used to bring me back to life.
Most of you thrive off of other people’s pain. Some of you learn from other people’s mistakes. Few of you face your own pain. And only you can heal you.
My healing will take place over the next few weeks…before I return to London to retrieve the piece of my heart that I left there…
This boy is about to shine brighter than he ever has. And I’m chipping away at the coal that’s been blocking my illumination. By the time my truths are told…you won’t be able to see for all the brilliance. Project Illumination starts now…
I stopped praying the day after my cousin, Carlos, was buried. It’s not that I stopped believing in God, nor because I stopped believing in the power of prayer. To be honest, I can’t really give a specific reason as to why I’d stopped. Could it have been that for almost two weeks straight I’d been talking to Him non-stop? Maybe I felt like I’d been bothering God too much. Maybe I stopped praying because I couldn’t deal with the intensity of events that had occurred during those surreal two weeks. Maybe it was because I was so emotionally drained by the time that everything was over that my first thought was not to pray but, instead, to rest.
So I did. And have been resting ever since, it seems. Somehow during this “rest” period, I seem to be losing my motivation, my hopes, and my will to keep on a happy face when the air around me is so desolate and at times suffocating. I’m ready to breathe again. But what will it take for me to breathe more easily?
When I first returned to America on February 12th, I had so many dreams, goals, aspirations. I brought them across the Atlantic with me when I left London. I figured that the relative success I’d experienced over in the UK would accompany me through Customs and sit with me and my family at dinnertime. But I should’ve known that leaving London, I was leaving the future. (Literally…Brits live 5 hours in advance of those of us living on the East Coast). So after taking my journey into the past, it would become evident in the months to come, that focusing on my future would prove even more difficult. Here’s the crux of why:
In London, I created a family out of friends. They may not have been blood, but damn if they didn’t contribute to and help change my life. More or less they made my life more amazing. In Virginia, I have my family, and very little people I can call my friends…well…just a couple from my childhood. They haven’t been as privy to my life as (per se) my mother has been. Through hearsay, they’ve soaked in my triumphs…but I’m sure they’ve never heard of my failings. Then again…there was always one family member who knew what I was going through and made the effort to get to know me and accept my journey in this world. You see…it’s one thing to be proud of your family. It’s another to love them unconditionally and be present for their ups and downs. My cousin, Carlos did the latter…and it hurts me to my soul to no longer have him on this earth…It was just over month ago I was watching him in action, being the king that most men only wish they could be.
I can’t believe it was just over one month ago…
The fight, the commotion, the gunshots, my fear. Blood. Sirens. Tears. God, the tears. The montage would occur every single night for two week before allowing me a less chaotic sleep. And each night, I unashamedly made the ugly “trying-to-stop-your-tears-from-falling-out-your-eyes” face because I just couldn’t understand why this situation had to occur in the first place. In my life, I’ve only heard about confrontations that “spiraled out of control” as cliché as it all sounds. To witness such spiraling up close and personal is something I never want to experience ever again (and I know I’m not alone in that desire).
What I got to see, firsthand, was the aftermath of gun violence. This was not my first time losing a family member to gun violence. When I was eight, a cousin of mind was killed by a gun. He lived about three more days afterwards and then he died. I was too young to understand the circumstances or situation that lead up to his shooting, but I did understand that my cousin was gone for good.
From a young age I was exposed to death more than a kid should’ve been. That exposure showed me that life eventually ends, and the world keeps going. But then again…so does grief. At this point in my life, I’m certain that grief never dies.
Nor does shock.
I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that pure shock may’ve been the emotion that hit the surface first. I mean…how else does one respond to his first time of seeing someone draw a gun with clear intentions to shoot a person?
It was just an argument, initially; something that you might see on some VH1 reality show where females, who don’t know how to handle themselves with words, decide that each other’s faces would look better on each other’s knuckles. Well, once that skirmish turned into all out war at my Aunt and Uncle’s 30th wedding anniversary dinner, a deadly threat came out of nowhere. Fearing that the threat would become a promise, loads of us ended up outside. I, among many, pleaded for peace. Nearby a struggle to keep a hand down was lost and that same hand possessed the instrument which would spark fear into a group of people dressed in formal wear who were, only moments ago, celebrating a milestone of love. The hand holding the gun fired into the air.
PopPopPop. They sounded like fireworks, but there was no glittery cascade. Only the crescendo of screams. Then the scattering.
I remember vividly seeing the gun. And upon hearing the first shot, I turned away from what would be the scene of the crime because 1) I knew that if I stayed, I’d be in the line of fire. 2) my mother and her bestie were nearby and all I wanted to do was protect the two women I came to the function with. 3) If I were to be hit by a stray bullet, I at least wanted to make sure I knew my mother was alright. I kept thinking to myself (while I was running back into the venue shouting from the top of my lungs for people to “GET DOWN” and “GET BACK INSIDE THE BUILDING”) ‘I don’t care if I die as long as my mom is alright.’ Who knew that nobility would be a quality both me and Carlos also shared.
Gunshots continued behind me, along with the screams and the clacking of heels and dress shoes, as I ran into the building, mother in tow. We were safe. But bullets can come through walls, so I tried to get as many people to go into the main dining room as possible. I became frazzled. What do I do next? How do I remain calm? Is anyone hurt? Tommy, stay calm. Has anyone called the police? Tommy, fucking calm down? I’m calling the police!
I turned around and saw one of my first cousins: the daughter of the bride and groom. And I’ll never ever forget hearing her say:
“I’ve been shot”
My mind went blank, but my body didn’t. I breathed and couldn’t believe I was seeing blood trickle doen her leg. When my synapses decided to work, I thought…she’s been shot in the leg. She’s alive.
“Someone get me a cloth or something to tie her leg up with. I need to stop the bleeding!!!” The voice was from a woman who had already started some first aid on my cousin.
I grabbed the first thing I could see: the ribbon from the back of one of the chairs in the venue. Another man donated the shirt off of his back. “I don’t need it,” he said.
I think I muttered the word “shit” so much that night that it became ineffective. I muttered it as I called the police. I muttered it as the phone rang. I segued into a quick interlude of “why the fuck am I on hold” when the police dispatch didn’t pick up. My refrain of “shit’s” picked up once more when I went outside and was informed that Carlos had been shot. All cursing ceased when I saw him lying motionless on the ground; his lovely wife with him, devastated. His parents, my Uncle and Aunt, torn up with emotion. No one thought that a night that had been dedicated to love and celebration would end with casualties and an arrest (Yes, the shooter was caught).
I could spend pages elaborating on the hospital visits and the doctor & surgeon updates…but I won’t. Each day was like being on a see-saw. Emotions went up, then dropped. Patience was tested. Tears came and went. Faith was strong. Sometimes…it was barely there. Life went on.
I filmed an episode of a TV show to days into the hospital period. In it, I played a young gang member who robbed people at gunpoint…and also shot people at point blank range. I’d played men who used guns before, but as an actor I could at least justify why the character felt the need to use one. In this series, I played a person who showed a blatant disregard for human life. A cold-blooded killer who saw nothing wrong in what he was doing. I felt strange (absurd even) to be playing a killer, having witnessed two days prior what guns actually do to a human life; how a tiny metal bullet can cripple and utterly destroy internal organs, shortening the duration of time one has left on this Earth. Still, like a professional (who gives a flying fuck about professionalism at a moment like that?) I powered through, occasionally finding moments to smile.
I spent the hospital period thinking heavily about the myriad of people affected by my cousin. (Hell, they were showing up in hoards at the hospital.) My Aunt and Uncle were always on my mind. So were my other cousins, his siblings. I mean, his oldest sister understood his pain. She would eventually walk again, warrior that she is, but she understood. I next thought about his wife, the woman who I only heard about before returning to the states. And I thought about his son: his contribution to this world. And that’s when the pain hit hardest.
Let me tell you something. I may not believe in true love for myself, but I will say that my cousin chose wisely and very well. His wife is one of the most graceful queens I’ve seen walk on this earth. I knew from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet that he chose the love of his life so watching her deal with this situation really touched my spirit. And my little cousin, his son…to lose his father? I never understand it when God decides to take a parent away from his child. That more hurtful than anything.
Eventually, I would think about my mother’s relationship with him. It was a special one. He loved being around my mother and would visit sporadically and call all the time. He loved my mom and he stood in place for me when I couldn’t be there for my siblings. He was a mentor to my older brother and truth-teller to my sister. But what did he mean to me? Well…
My history with Carlos is both long and brief, it seems. I feel that during childhood, I only remember my cousin from important events: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Birthdays, family reunions, maybe a theme park trip? We weren’t necessarily the closest growing up….but who’s really to blame for that?
Then something happened. I went away to private school. And while my relationship with my oldest cousin (his older brother) began to decline, Carlos made himself more present. I would hear word -through my mother- that he was asking about me and wanting to check up on me. We eventually exchanged email addresses and phone numbers.
When I went to college, he came to Philly to see me perform. Not only that, he also hung out with me and got a chance to participate in my “actor’s life.” We had drinks. We chilled. He met the people in my life who made me happy: my college friends. I was merely happy to have a family member in my age range hang out with me and be privy to what my life what about. Yet, nothing tops him giving me a hand when I didn’t know where to turn.
I was in Scotland, and I’d just signed with my agent and I viewed my first and only flat in East London. I knew it was where I wanted to live, but I had to make a decision fast. Even before moving down, I was booking castings left and right and remaining in Scotland would’ve been counteractive if I didn’t act soon. But I would never have afforded my security deposit or rent on my retail salary. My mom gave Carlos a call and no questions asked…he helped invest in my future. I don’t even think that he knew how much he was contributing to my life experience by doing that. Indebted to him? Yes. I am. Forever.
“Cuz” he would say. “You are doing a good thing with your life and I’ma support it. Besides I know once you get big, you got me!” He would express his support for me all the time. Still, anybody can express support. My cousin showed it.
I was fortunate enough to support him on the very day I returned home from London, February 12th. That was the day of his wedding dinner. He married his lovely wife the next day. People who know me know that I’m in a conflicted place about love. I don’t truly believe it’s an exclusive emotion, but in m€y life, I am randomly shown that it does exist exclusively for some people. Additionally, when love is genuine and it truly works, it shines. Both Carlos and his wife lit up a room when they entered together. Their union was one of the most perfect matches I’ve seen in a long time and to top things off, they have a wonderful son. I was very proud of my cousin for having it all and for handling his duties as a husband, father, brother, cousin, and friend.
The moment in which I was most proud of my cousin happened about 30 minutes before the chaos that ensued. We were on the dance floor at the wedding anniversary, me trying my best to dance but not sweat out my rented tuxedo. A younger cousin of ours was also on the dance floor and my cousin spoke to her in front of me. A sort of apology was occurring, it seemed. Some misunderstanding had occurred and my two cousins were making amends. But one of his statements to her was “You are too good for him. You are too much of a Queen for me to allow anyone else to treat you like that. You gotta know that about yourself. I don’t want nobody treating you less than the Queen you are.”
And just like that…my heart was warm and I knew that Carlos and I were of similar ilk. What a poignant thing to say to a young woman who needed to hear it. To be honest, what woman doesn’t need positive encouragement from someone who believes in her? That was the last time I had the privilege of seeing his light shine so brightly. But his final act of leaping in front of a bullet to save a life was when his light was at its most brilliant. The Warrior I had come to know had become a Hero. Just like that.
My thanks and gratitude should be extended to every single person who showed support during that time. My family wasn’t aware that I had the world praying for my cousin, but I did. What was most endearing was the outpour of love from friends near and far, strangers, and even Twitter/ Instagram randoms (yes, I asked for prayers wherever I could get them). Still, though the power of prayer was both electric and palpable, it didn’t have the energy to keep my cousin alive. I. however, have never been so proud of the love and humanity shown by others. I have been fortunate enough in my life to experience the kindness of strangers. My hope was that that kindness would extend itself to others who also deserved it. Luckily, I’ve not burned too many bridges in my life. I think that’s a quality I shared with my cousin, whose death has left a bit of an empty space in me.
But I’m being selfish.
I didn’t lose a son. I didn’t lose the love of my life. I didn’t lose a father, or a mentor. I lost my cousin. So why do I grieve? I lost one of the few family members to have ever been privy to the artistic side of my life. To have been privy to what made me happy in this world: my dream. I lost a family-friend, someone that I do feel is truly difficult to find. And I feel selfish for speaking about how much he meant to me when he was clearly many things to numerous people. Those who know me know that among the things I value most in this world are my friends and family. When you are my friend, my loyalty to you is unmatched. I’m sure it was the same with Carlos. Also, Carlos was a young black male who actually loved me. Not saying that other male members of my family don’t, but I can honestly say that I felt it from him. That makes a difference to me. In a world where people do not tell each other how much they mean to them, I had a cousin who always let me know “ I love you, Cuz” and “Whatever you wanna do, I’m with it. Just let me know so I can support you.”
Nothing can prepare you for the loss of a loved one. No matter how many losses you may have experienced beforehand. Each death is the end of a specific chapter. And it’s an ending that it completely out of our hands. But whatever lesson it is I’m supposed to learn from this situation…I just don’t know. All deaths make people want to love more. I try to do that every day. But it is hard to accept that an innocent life was snatched from this world. Not a day will go by that my family and I won’t yearn to see Carlos once again. He’s left bit of himself behind, though. Through his son, he lives on. Through pictures, he lives on. Through memories, he lives on!
I have a confession, before I close this entry: I’ve not deleted his phone number from my iPhone, nor his final text messages. We discussed his son and how inspiring his innocence was to us as adults. We discussed plans for a summer trip to Busch Gardens. I told him I’d just booked the lead in an episode of a crime-drama show called Wicked Attraction. His final reply to me was “ I’m proud of you cuz.”
To a Hero (and now Angel), I say, as I’ve said many times before: “Thank You, Cuz. I’m proud of your entire life.”
Your birthday was one month ago today. You would be 26. We all miss you down here…and like I’ve said before, Carlo, I’ll never ever forget the King you are. Love you, Cuz!
“Success” means a myriad of things to many people. For some it means living out the mythical “American Dream” of having a big house, picket fence, 2.5 (I still don’t get that .5) kids, and some sort of pet. For others it can mean riches. For some it means living another day. And so on and so on. I found myself wondering late last night what does being successful mean to me now, in this very moment?
If you asked me what success meant to me about three years ago, I wouldn’t have had a clear answer, but I would’ve expressed that it meant changing lives and social perceptions via the artistic medium. Today, I am certain that my success still has its foundations in remaining artistically relevant. Achieving fame and fortune, however, has ended up on my list of undesirables. Being financially stable is one thing (and necessary), but if there is anything I’ve learned from my experience in a failed/ unprofessional shows, it’s that selling one’s soul to make a buck is about the most draining thing one can do to his/her spirit.
Some people have made soul-selling into an art. And I guess it furthers what we perceive as their success. An unfortunate example: The Kardashians, who are now being paid forty million dollars for a “reality” show (which I am happy to say I STILL haven’t seen), when as a family their contributions to American society are the equivalent of what a hangnail is to a digit on the hand: unnecessary, lingering pain. And I won’t begin to mention any “real” housewives or “bachelors” or anything else that suggest “reality” at the expense of actual realism. My reality at the moment isn’t eventuful, nor is it lucrative, but it works for me.
I know that there are many who would ask me, “So if you got a chance to make millions of dollars for acting a fool on screen, you mean you wouldn’t do it?” Let me just say this: There are loads of people “acting a fool” on screen and the internet at the moment so joining their company isn’t going to make me feel like I’ve broken new ground. One of my favorite artists (who I can admit, I’m a HUGE fan of), Brandy, just did a VH1 Behind the Music special in which she said, referencing her time has a young artist in the entertainment industry, “For me to have had it all, I was the most unhappy teenager in the world.” If having it all means feeling like that, then someone else can have it.
But Brandy also said something else that was very interesting. She said that she knew she would be a star and she never ever doubted it. Then she went on to joke about wishing she still had that courageousness she once had as a youth. I understand wanting that feeling of invincibility to return all too well. When you’re young you feel you can take on the world. And every door seems to be opened to you until its closed, and even then, you think that you have the power to re-open those doors. As of late, I’ve been feeling as if I’ve hit some sort of plateau. But did I reach this place because of outside forces or because I stopped believing that I could be on my Michael Jackson status someday? I can only attribute my feeling of paralysis to one thing: fear.
Many people who read my blogs in the past have probably given up on waiting for me to write anything new, as it’s been so long. It’s not as if I haven’t had some fantastic topics to sift through. On the contrary, I would begin to write and then stop because I felt like I didn’t have enough, or because I was afraid that no one would really give a damn that I was writing anything, despite me having a readership (albeit a small one). Also, I had some crazy obstacles to overcome as well and when I was figuring out my priorities, writing always came in last place. I needed to deal with the tangible before dealing with the technological. If I am completely honest, I was much more fearful that nothing I would write would be as great as my “Breaking the Silence” entry which was so in depth and so full of me that I felt I’d given all I could give. (I guess I did put an invisible ceiling on my artistic life, just a bit.)
Two days ago, however while I was putting final touches on a cover letter that I was sending out to start my process of self-promotion, I felt a surge of energy…no…I felt a surge of power. It was a feeling of such surety that I became overwhelmed. I found myself happy and fearful simultaneously to the point where I was sure I would combust. It was like seeing something glow and knowing that glow you saw was actually coming from within. The exact thought I had at that moment was ‘Something spectacular is coming my way and I’m going to be so blessed’ and immediately after I thought, ‘Am I ready for the responsibility that comes with these impending blessings?’ I then thought one last thought: ‘Have I been working hard enough to deserve whatever it is I’m about to receive?’
There are some people who’ve been on this journey with me from the start and they will vouchsafe and say that I’ve never stopped working. I will say that I’ve been working as hard as my circumstances will allow me to. Every single day, I’m pissed at the fact that I’m not enrolled in some sort of class somewhere, but I also know that given the right situation, I’ll go out and get what I need and God will make a way, somehow. I will learn as many monologues as my mind can hold and I will practice songs for as long as my voice can tirelessly carry a tune. But I’m also not going to overwork myself either. Up until February 12th, I was in a country without any family, except the friends I adopted over the years, and I had to survive on my own. I worked every day to the best of my abilities and was fortunate enough to work in my chosen field and meet loads of significant people who have influenced my life in a positive way. Keeping myself afloat as a foreigner in another country was definitely hard work so if I give myself enough credit, then yes, I’ve not stopped working.
But after a fun yet tumultuous end to my London adventure (I had an emergency surgery during my final show in Scotland, had to fight with the UK Border agency to return to America, and ended up spending all of the money I’d just earned in a desperate need to come home), a holiday was in order…even if it was just an excuse to reintegrate myself into the life that I’ve been absent from for many years. Still, people who know me also know that I don’t know how to rest for too long.
After two weeks of just breathing and being with the family, I searched for local representation and got it, as well as some on-screen work which, so far, has been pretty rewarding. I even worked on my very first union film and I couldn’t have been more pleased. You see, a goal of mine when I returned, was to do my best to break into television and film as I’ve spent the past 13 years of my life gaining stage experience. I need a new challenge and I am ready to embrace it, if the opportunities come my way. Of course, I have to encourage the universe to work with me. How is anyone going to know what I want to do if I don’t put it out there, right?
After returning home and being privy to the success of many actors/ actresses who I’ve worked with or met in passing, I’m starting to feel like there is room for me to excel in this industry as well. Before I left London, I had the chance to witness my former classmate, Da’Vine Joy Randolph electrify the West End Stage with her original portrayal of Oda Mae Brown in GHOST the Musical. Having been Hamlet to her Gertrude in college, I felt triumphant knowing that someone with tremendous talent was getting to exhibit it in a phenomenal way! She is currently on Broadway showing the world, or at least NYC, her capabilities. Also, in late 2007, I was fortunate enough to meet and be inspired by Leslie Odom, Jr., who I discovered is a fan of my blog series! If you are not familiar with this gentle spirit, all you have to do is tune into NBC’s SMASH or go see him play Isaiah in Leap of Faith on Broadway. His skills shine! And I can’t even begin to mention all of my London, Philadelphia, or Temple University connections that continue to make me proud each day. Their successes have prompted me to take action.
In the past, I’ve been quite blessed in the way that good things did seem to just come my way. I was a chosen child, I guess. Or so I thought. If I took a microscope to all of the situations where it seemed like I was being “given” a wonderful opportunity, I’d realize that I’d already put in the work somewhere else. Rewards don’t come to those who don’t work. Nothing is luck. I’m of the school of thought that if you meet God halfway, then he’ll do the same. So two weeks ago, I began drafting out a cover letter to send to any casting director who is willing to read what I have to say about my overall experience as a performer. I intend to send about 150-200 letters because someone is bound to believe in what I have to offer. Someone is going to trust my talent enough to hire me and not be disappointed. Someone is going to care enough to give me feedback. Someone will hear how eager I am to stay in this business that I love, for all of its thrilling ups and dismal downs.
Funny enough, when I sat down to write the letter, I couldn’t think of a way to talk about me (which is odd because I write a blog that’s ALL about me). I fought with how I would be perceived, whether or not I was including enough information or too much. But mostly, I thought to myself…There are thousands of people in the U.S. trying to be actors and working at a high professional level. What makes me standout? Then I thought to myself…someone will think I’m perfect. To some casting director, myself will be enough. So yesterday, I sent out 11 letters (my first wave of them) in hopes that someone will say, “This Tommy guy is interesting enough to employ. Let’s give him a chance”
There are 139-189 more letters to send, but I’m sure this is going to be my biggest lesson in stepping out on faith. In the past, I left home at 14 only because I knew I’d be stepping into a great experience. I ended up at Milton Academy and subsequently Temple University. I left the country in September 2008 for the same exact reason: I knew greatness would come of going abroad. So far I’ve been lucky enough o continue working in my field since my return. Coming home may have not been my goal, and yes, my work will never be done as an actor, but there is a future here that has been waiting for me. (“We’ve had this date from the beginning.”) So in sending out the cover letters, I’m hoping I’m stepping into a future that I can handle. That’s all I can hope for when I step out on faith: A future that I can handle…and one in which I can thrive and showcase the best me that there is to show!
I remember being all smiles as I managed to achieve all of my goals for the day, so I was going to bring a bottle of the best champagne home to my family to show them how much I loved them and to show them that I’d finally advanced to the next level. But when I’d arrived home, it wasn’t quite the welcome I’d expected. Faces that usually uplifted me were cast downward. Every eye was red and puffy and when these eyes clocked me, they became daggers. My family -comprised of a sobbing, heavily pregnant sister, a boiling brother, and many disappointed cousins (their children in tow)- gave me a look so disapproving that it pierced my spirit to its deepest depths. I caught my breath.
The reason for their anger at me: my mother’s death. And it was my absence that killed her. I’d avoided every call from my family members when I should’ve taken time out to address the real issue. But no, I was so selfish and so absorbed in trying to succeed, that I only managed failure. I dropped the champagne onto the driveway, and as I parted my lips to speak –knowing that no words would form- I felt tremendous guilt. I felt so much guilt that when the bottle smashed onto the ground, I felt that I should’ve reached into my chest cavity and thrown my heart down there to shatter alongside it. Instead of ripping myself to shreds in front of my grieving family, I did something else. I woke up…
…and I glanced at the clock. The time read 4:blurry a.m. I turned over in my double bed and faced the person who’d run over at the first sign of distress; a friend. A true friend who’d literally dropped everything to come over and just be present. I turned back over and tried to replay the events of my life that brought on that awful dream. It didn’t take me long to recall what had kicked off my nightmare.
Only 6 hours prior, I’d received a call from home. I’d been at the cinema but the voicemail I’ve received told me that my mother had been admitted into the hospital. Hospital news always worries me, so I called my mother asap to figure out what the hell was going on. I ended up on a 3-way call between my mother and my sister.
“Hey Ma,” I said. Then sprinting to the point. “Why in the world are you in the hospital?”
“Go ahead and tell him,” My mom told my sister. She sighed. Her tone of voice was of someone’s who’s jig was up. Like she was throwing her hands up and saying “I’ve been caught.”
“Mommy had a heart attack,” my sister sniffled. At sixteen years old and with a baby on the way, my sister still managed to make me see the seven year old version of herself. Of course a myriad of questions bubbled onto the forefront of my mind, but all I could think of was how to remain practical and level headed.
“Well…(Say something that show’s you’re in control) Do we have a history of heart problems in the family?” I figured that was an adult enough question to ask. It made me sound official instead of panicky.
“Tom, I don’t know.” My mother was clearly exasperated with me. Maybe that wasn’t the most productive question to ask, but I damn for sure didn’t want to ask ‘Are you feeling ok?’
But then, as my mother tried her best to explain to me what was going on, she cried out. I could hear how sharp her pains were in her voice.
“Oh. Oh.” I envisioned her wincing and clutching her chest. Her following sentences were rushed. “My heart rate is dropping again. (To her husband, I assume) Ring the nurse. Tom, I gotta go.” The monitors crescendoed to a dramatic level as the phone went dead. I heard sobbing and remembered that my sister was still on the line. She’d done her best to informed me of what had happened, yet it seemed all she could produce now was tears. I attributed her emotionalism to her pregnancy, all while wondering why I wasn’t freaking out a bit more. I guess because I wanted my sister to remain calm. So I did my best to reassure her that everything would be alright (clearly unsure of that fact myself), and then when I hung up the phone, I stood in my kitchen stunned.
At that moment, my mind was a cluttered attic of thought. Practically, I thought ‘Tommy, you are in a different continent. You can’t do anything but hope and pray that she’ll be fine. Go pack your bags.’ Another part of my brain was concerned about how I would managed to pack up my entire room in one night and move to a new flat the next day (as I was coming to the end of my lease). Another part of me wanted someone to talk to so I did what any sane person does: I hurriedly logged onto Facebook and posted a status asking all of my close friends for help, or a phone call, or anything. I needed to round up the troops and my crappy, cracked-screen Nokia wasn’t the quickest way to do so. However, I only received three responses from the 1,400 something friends on my list (proof that Facebook is a load of crap). And one phone call came immediately.
“What’s happened?” I told my mate the details as I knew them. “I’m coming over.” It was a declarative sentence, which mean I couldn’t dispute it. So I didn’t. I just needed to wait for him to arrive so that I could talk to someone about it.
Until then, I spent time thinking (which is really bad for me if you know me personally), and I came to the conclusion that the universe was sending me a message to love my mother more than I already do. Goodness, I thought I loved her enough. I definitely appreciate her to the fullest extent of appreciation. But I knew for a fact that I didn’t want to lose her.
Earlier that evening, I’d gone to see the critically slammed film “I Don’t Know How She Does It” (judge me at your own will), and I found it very ironic that after seeing a film about a woman who managed to do it all, that I would be in danger of losing my very own ‘woman-who-does-it-all” and has been doing so since I was born. I remember watching the film and thinking, ‘yeah, my mother isn’t some high end business woman, but I tell you one thing, she gets stuff done, and manages to make it look simple.’ And she didn’t need to have Sarah Jessica Parker’s wit and bewilderedness to do it.
Then my mind flashed back to the previous week, when my mother called me to say that she’d sent me a card, just because she was thinking about me. When I got the card, I cried because it was so perfect. It was such a perfect expression of love that it couldn’t be topped. The text of the card is as follows:
“I love you my son…
Forever, for Always and No Matter What
From the moment I first held you in my arms,
I knew you were special.
As I cuddled you, I was overwhelmed with love…
But suddenly anxiety swept over me.
With all the potential I felt
Radiating from your little body,
How in the world was I going to raise you to be the man I knew you could be?
Now, so many years later, I stand in awe before
The extraordinary man you have become.
Your compassion and generosity
Are a testament to your greatness.
I wonder what I ever did to deserve you.
You are my son…and I will forever love you”
My mother did not pen those words (someone at Blue Mountain Arts did) but she somehow found the appropriate text to display her feelings, and she was so proud of the card she’d sent me. I heard pride illuminate her voice when she told me it was on its way. All I could hear now was the doubts accumulating in my cerebral attic as well as the beating of my own, healthy heart. ‘Why was I blessed with such a healthy heart? Maybe we’d had heart issues in my family that I knew nothing about? My grandmother kept going into cardiac arrest before she’s passed away and we all knew it was a heart attack that took her out of the world. Or maybe my mother’s heart was too big. She was always doing for others instead of herself. Was it possible that having such a huge heart could cause a heart attack? No, of course not…Stress from caring too much about others can cause a heart attack.’ I was thinking too much. I had to do something…so I started boxing up the items I’d accumulated whilst living in Scotland and London.
I was in the middle of packing when my friend called me to let him into the flat that I would soon be leaving; the flat I’d spent the last year turning into my home, the only place I could ever call home besides Virginia.
My mate came upstairs and I immediately became aware of the kind of person I am when I’m in trouble: a domestic OCD nutcase. I started washing dishes, offering drinks and a bite to eat, trying my best to stay active as I was incredibly fearful of what would occur if I stopped and just allowed myself to feel what I was feeling: dread, fear, and most of all, panic.
While my friend kept saying what I already knew (that I couldn’t do anything from London, all I could do was live my life, I was probably imagining things worse than what they actually were, etc) I just kept thanking him for being kind enough to drop whatever he was doing to come over and listen to me talk, of which I did a great deal.
As I spewed forth details of my life, he became aware that this wasn’t the first incident where I’d almost lost my mother. I told him that she’s almost died when I was about nine or ten years old. She went in to outpatient surgery to have a bowel obstruction procedure and ended up in a coma for weeks. The procedure left me with a mother I could only visit in the hospital, while I lived with my grandparents.
I can remember praying to God every single night asking him to keep my mother alive because I needed her. I asked him to watch over my entire family, and I promised to always be good if only he’d keep her alive. I needed her to get well so that my cousin , who lived with my grandparents as well could stop bullying me (at one point, after chasing me around the house with a butcher knife, he’d locked me in the basement and when he finally let me out, I sprayed air freshener in his eyes. Clean Linen Glade was my revenge). People at church kept saying that prayer worked and I wanted to make sure it did. I was relentless in my praying. I didn’t want to live with my grandparents forever, not because I didn’t love them, but because they weren’t my mom. And my everyday routine was supposed to include the woman who birthed me. I remembered going to school every day and loving it because school was where I was the happiest. School was an emotional necessity, not just a mental one. Learning distracted me from what was soon to become my evening routine; sitting in a hospital from about 6pm until 9pm reading library books, old copies of Reader’s Digest and basically learning how to make the perfect cup of Folgers instant coffee (despite rumors that it would stunt my growth).
Of course, my mother, the fighter she is, pulled through. She emerged from her coma after 2 weeks and was eventually sent home. However, the wound she had from her surgery left her with a hole in her stomach that the family had to watch heal gradually on its own. It healed nastily and was a constant reminder that she was on the threshold of death at one point in her life.
My friend listened intently and kept the head nods and the reassuring smiles coming. Then I told him something that I’d only just realized:
“If I lost my mother, then I’d lose what love is.” She’s the only woman, my goodness, the only person in the world who loves me unconditionally, and if she left this earth, I would never know what that feels like again. Because she’s truly loved me, flaws and all, and she and I have truly grown together. There were times when I was growing up where we had nothing. I didn’t realize it until I got older because my mother didn’t allow me to live knowing that we weren’t privileged. But that’s what a mother does right? She always kept hope alive in me.
Some weeks prior to the card she sent, I’d showed her my previous blog entry. And we’d had a very candid conversation about its content and what it would mean if I published it and the truths that emerged from that session between us was immense. She and I had crossed yet another bridge which pushed our relationship as son and mother even closer. We ended that conversation filled with new information and filled with understanding of one another. So when news of the heart attack interrupted my life, I was feeling that we’d only scraped the surface of what’s yet to come of learning from each other.
During my talk with my friend, I suddenly found it harder to breathe as another epiphany hit me.
“Before my grandmother passed away,” I told him. I could feel my throat tightening up and the involuntary tears begin. I tried to swallow it all away. “…Before my grandmother passed away, she said to my mother ‘I can go now because you are in good hands. You have everything you need. You have a husband who loves you, wonderful children, and a home to call your own. You don’t need me anymore.’” And then tears gushed forth as I said the following:
“I can’t lose my mother because she needs to say those same words to me. I need to be in good hands before she goes and I’m not.” I cried into my shirtsleeves and turned away. Then I caught enough breath to say what was at the root of losing my mother. “If I lost my mother, I will never find anyone else who will love me as unconditionally as she does. And that fucking sucks. Because this kind of love will never exist for me again” I let the tears warp my vision as I was wrapped in a bear-hug.
During the embrace, the following came to me: if the doors on my mother’s mortality closed before my heart opened itself to actual, true love…then I’d know for sure that I’d never find someone to love me with the same fervor; someone who’d never give up on me even when I gave up on myself, someone who’d understand and excuse all of my idiosyncracies.3
Never in all my life has a truth hit me so hard about myself. I can’t fall in love unless it’s with my mother’s blessing. And I don’t want her to die without me being successful to the degree of having found love, whatever that means to me. But I’m hoping that whatever love I find will be as genuine, as diligent, as long-lasting as the love I have for the woman who birthed me. More importantly, despite the struggles, and the fights, and the losses and the gains we’ve made in our lives, she has managed to transform me into a prince. I’ve always known where I stood with her. And I’m lucky to be able to still have her in my life. It was in October that I found out that my mother’s heart episode might have been a one-off. She doesn’t have any signs of heart problems or anything and she is in the best of health. God hears prayers, and God knows that her work isn’t done. She still has lives to impact and she still needs to see her son grow up and thrive in his career and maybe…in love.
If I’m honest with myself, I want to eventually end up with someone who will take me from prince to king status. But now that I’m a lot older and I look back on my life so far; past all of the failed attempts at dating, the constant rejection from those who I hoped were worthy of my heart, and my general confusion about the emotion I thought I knew so well; I find myself wondering big time ‘When does real love begin? How does one spot its origins?’ I see a lot or people who are in it, and I recognize the genuine lovers from the superficial ones, but it seems I’m entering that stage of life where I’m constantly asking “How do people end up with one another? Why is someone willing to take a risk on just one person and hope that they will be their everything, when there are so many people in this world to choose from? More or less, will it take the death of a person for me to find love in another?”
One of my best friends in the world recently called me out on something. His words were as follows:
“Tommy, I know that you hate the idea of falling in love. But I’m just going to say this to you and don’t take offense. You know what I think? I think that underneath all that ‘I’m never getting married, never falling in love’ bravado…you are actually desperate for love. You need it more than anything. I just wish you felt that you deserved it.”
Real friends stab you in the front and my best mate definitely did that with his words. He was the only person I’d told that I didn’t feel I deserved to be loved. Well, that’s not true. I told him I didn’t deserve to be in a relationship with anyone. When I think about it…if I think I deserve to have friends (which is a type of relationship), why do I think I’m not entitled to deserve love? Maybe because I still, somehow, feel that to give your all to one person means eventual disappointment. I’m bound to fuck-up and I can’t stomach the repercussions of fucking-up (as a former perfectionist). I can’t afford to disappoint others because then I feel guilt and I feel like I’m failing myself. And if the faces in my bad dream were any indication of what letdown looks like, I don’t want to be responsible for those faces, ever.
But then I think I look at love in a different way than a lot of people. I love my friends to death. I feel that I’d never fall out of love with them. Even those who aren’t around me all the time or even in the same country as me still find ways to bring a smile to my face! I have loads of memories with people who have touched my life and vice versa that show me that love exists in more than one way. I’m still in love with my friends. With one-on-one love, there is the danger of falling out of it…and if that occurred, I’d see myself as a time waster. Romantic love is a bridge I may have to cross one day, but when I do, it’ll be with the blessing of my mother and the friends who have loved me even before I found “the one” who might potentially love me unconditionally. But right now, romantic love will remain an uncrossed bridge and I will focus on making sure that my new niece has all the love she needs in this world. The last thing she needs is to grow up looking for it elsewhere, when she’ll have it at home all along.
December 19, 2011
I remember when I said that I would never write about love. Then I made history. And I did.
I was hoping that I would never have to write a blog like this. Ever. I never wanted the information that I’m about to share to come to light in this way or at all even, but it seems like pent up anger inspires me to articulate my feelings in a more controlled fashion. If you are not in the mood to embrace reality today, CLOSE THIS ENTRY NOW. It would be of no benefit to anyone if you decided to read this and give up halfway through because it changes your mood.
My purpose with this blog: to attack ignorance, to inform that all actions have a consequence, and to encourage discussions about tolerance. Otherwise, this world’s future is in danger. Now, where do I begin…I guess it all starts with a sweater and ends in abuse…
September 3rd, early morning (between 2:00am and 3:45 am)
The whole day had been filled with anticipation. It was the day when I would go clubbing with my best mates; people who, in this huge city, would take the time out to acknowledge my existence in a genuine way. We’d been planning since Monday that we would finally get together (after not hanging out as a group for over 4 months). I decided that I would do something different with my clothes. There was a pink sweater in my closet that I had only worn three times that I could remember. Once was during my Master’s Program, the other was when I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in London, and the final time was earlier this February when I went clubbing. The sweater was always complimented by others as they thought it made my skin look good so I figured what the hell, I’ll wear it. And as a recent wearer of shorts (I’d boycotted them for years)I decided to bare my calves to the world. To top things off, I threw on my signature hat, which all my friends, family, and admirers love. My firm belief: If you are wearing something you really like, you’ll feel good about yourself. And for the bulk of my evening, I did!
My night was filled with loads of spontaneity (which I actually did attribute to the sweater and my mood) I caught up with someone who gave me my pink slip (in the romantic department), bumped into an old colleague from my former job, had dinner, and finally, after meeting ¾ of my friends in central London, we decided to head out to the club.
I’d managed to sweat through my sweater and hat by night’s end. My friends had managed to find other ways to entertain themselves as one got treated to drinks and the other got a treat to take home. I, feeling a bit worse for wear -and a bit down even- decided to take a stroll to the only restaurant I know that stays open late on the weekends: Balans in Soho. First thing on my mind: ‘It’s been over a year since I’ve eaten their blueberry pancakes and they were the bomb!’ So off I went, legs against the breeze, to eat where the food was delicious and the service was…camp.
It was 2:52 am that I realized, over my maple syrup-saturated pancakes, that the couple in the booth next to me was on a date. Here I was, sadly scarfing down breakfast and washing down the memories of my evening with milk. I thought to myself ‘Just like my favorite fictional literary character, I will never win at love.’ (Sometimes, I love a pity party, I must say.)
“What has you so down?” My waiter had crashed my party without an invitation.
“Oh, nothing” I sigh forlornly, wiping my mouth as to cover the dribble of syrup that’s oozed down my lip. I explain that my mates have gone their separate ways for the evening. I somehow end by saying, “But my friends are great looking. Of course they are going to have post-club fun.”
“And what are you?”
I think, making sure to squint my eyes a bit to make the pondering look more effortful. “Normal. Nothing spectacular,” I offer with just the right tone of humble blasé-ness. The waiter leaves. I cut my pancakes and prepare for another blueberry-filled bite when in comes a foursome of friends. My iPod Touch tells me that it’s after 3am, and I’m very concerned with the amount of energy one-half of the couple is exuding.
“Oh my God!!! This is crazy. We met right here in this booth!” squeals the enthusiastic party. I roll my eyes and chomp my pancakes to bits, hoping quietly that the rest of my meal won’t involve their shenanigans. For the next 15 minutes, I’m treated to watching the couple make-out in front of me. Their friends constantly reprimand them for being “all over one another.”
“I’m an Aries! He’s a Taurus!” the other half shares. That ain’t gonna last long, I think. But then I remember…they met in that booth, God knows how long ago, and it’s still lasting. I just wonder if that initial meeting was filled with as much tonsil hockey as it is now…
A thought suddenly enters my head: Maybe I’m on the wrong mission. Could it be that I’m going about life in the wrong way? What if my calling isn’t art? While I begin to get all existential on myself, the couple across from me begins to devour each other and I know at once, that kind of love definitely ain’t what I’m looking for. I’d rather ravenously devour the things I love at home out of public view (call me old-fashioned). My mission is clear: go home.
I take my hat, which is cold and damp because of my dance-sweat, pay my bill, and leave the restaurant. Onwards and Upwards, I think, though I know good and well this is a mantra that would take some convincing. One thing was for sure, I would not be taking myself out to eat at 2:45 in the morning again…
I crossed Shaftesbury Avenue to do my usual journey through Chinatown to catch my bus.
Before it even happened, I sensed the ominous air. There’s nothing like a good old dose of harassment to put you back on your guard after a successful evening on the town. I immediately felt a twinge of fear (let’s be real, the London riots were not that long ago) and as someone walking alone, I felt that the slightest retaliation could cause me to end up stabbed on the street. In my mind, I told myself “keep quiet, don’t say anything, avoid eye contact, keep it moving.” The hope was that I would blur right by the group, compiled of ten to fifteen black men in hoodies (and whatever else current urban fashion suggests), with as minimal contact as possible.
My legs were feeling the cold as I zoomed by but my heart raced faster than my feet as one of the thugs screamed out to me, “Ay! Ay!”
Oh, shit, I think. He’s talking to me.
My arms were folded, and I was walking with purpose. I hoped they couldn’t see my shivering. Granted, it was cold, but I didn’t want them mistaking it for fear.
“You gay innit?” His mates sniggered. Some mumbled insults that I couldn’t hear, but they slowed their speed expecting a response. I looked up at them, kept my eyes neutral, and looked back down at the ground thinking ‘Fuck!’ and hoping to God that this would be the end of it. I was still blurring by.
“You gay!” It wasn’t said as if it were a question anymore. That upward inflection had disappeared. This sentence was declarative. Fact. He was labeling me. I kinda rather have been stabbed.
“Yeah. You gay.” His confirmation statement. More laughter. “…And you need to take that hat back to the shop!” Roaring laughter this time.
Not only had they felt the need to question my sexuality (based on what, I still have yet to discover) but they insulted my favorite hat, the hooligans!
If I were in a sitcom, there would’ve been a close up on my face as my mouth dropped open in genuine surprise at the comment, and I’d have touched my hat as if petting it to give it comfort from the mean insult. Instead, my face was terse and my head was hurting. My stomach was in knots and I’m sure it had fuck-all to do with the pancakes. Instead, the pancakes were to blame. All I could think was ‘Fuck me for wanting blueberry-fucking-pancakes at 2:45 in the fucking morning. If I hadn’t…’
But was the problem pancakes? Was it me? Was it my pink shirt? Was it my demeanor? Was it the gang of hyper-masculine dudes? Why me? Would it have been someone else if they’d chosen to walk down that street in Chinatown? But what was hurting me the most was that people who looked like me (young, black, probably intelligent men) felt I was so different than them that they needed to call me out. They (all ten to fifteen of them) needed to feel what? Better than me? More manly than me? Stronger than me? No matter how you put it, bullying/harassment is not a tool for making people feel better about themselves. It is the result of a very intolerant mindset. But my belief is that no one should have to stand for intolerance at all.
I deserve respect, not juvenile taunts from a group of cowards who felt the need to prove their masculinity. I mean, for fucks sake, all I was doing was walking down the street, wearing a sweater and a pair of shorts and a hat! My arms were folded because I was cold, and while I was thinking “these shorts are no good against this London cold,” these hoodlums were thinking….well…they weren’t! That’s apparent. Why couldn’t I walk down the street without being left alone? Am I not allowed that luxury? Instead, these men would chortle away at themselves and their awful deed and I was to be left with the burden of mixed emotions.
Ever felt angry, powerless, sad, and guilty all at once? I have. I was angry because I said nothing. I know that saying nothing prevented me from the threat of unnecessary violence, but I felt like I committed a crime by doing nothing. I mean, this is the second time in the UK where I’ve encountered some sort of harassment (most people remember me being called the N-word in Scotland last year). For some strange reason, I thought -for a second time- that because I was in London, that I would be exempt from such behavior. (I mean, London is considered a cultural Mecca!) It is also the second time I said nothing. Last year however, I sort of laughed off the situation. Maybe because racism for me has been less frequent in my life. This Chinatown type of situation, however, has reared its monstrous head on more than one occasion with me over the course of my entire life.
I can recall so many instances in my life where I’ve been taunted/ teased/ disrespected whatever you call it. Funny enough, my effeminacy as a younger kid was to blame, I guess. I am willing to admit that flamboyant wasn’t accurate enough to describe me. I was constantly being told that I “acted like a girl.” And the moment it was said, something was sucked out of me and I went into fits of momentary depression, where I’d spend about 2 hours thinking, how can I change this or that about myself. I have a swish when I walk. Oh, no! Change it! I talk like a girl. Stop! Change it! In other words, when my “otherness” was pointed out to me by others, I decided that “me” was the wrong way to be. When I look back on how many times I’ve had to adjust myself, I think, ‘who in the hell am I, now?’
I think I’m the man I wanted to be when I was younger. I’m definitely living a life that will not be lead by anyone else. Happy and sad moments aside, I’m living the life I worked hard for. But I can’t help but think…the only reason I work so hard is to overcompensate for the fact that the way I’m perceived (as far as my assumed sexual orientation-something undefined-) is considered my biggest flaw.
When I had to make “adjustments” to my behavior as a child (as to not embarrass or bring shame to my parents/family, or to gain friends in elementary/ middle school, or to deflect conversation away from me in college), I overcompensated by reading loads, immersing myself in schoolwork, watching loads of television, and finding a story in every single thing I saw. The Arts was my ultimate escape (and I guess the reason I’m an actor has something to do with this).
I also became very observant. I watched women work hard to keep their grace while being single mothers. I also learned how they felt about the world they were living in and how everyday, they lived with a bit of caution as they walked down the street, drove a car past a certain hour, or fell in love. I grew up around these vulnerable, yet strong women who educated me from their perspective. I watched the way men talked to one another, about women, and about topics in their lives. I watched my father, my uncles, and other men who came and went in my life and I found them ALL disappointing in some way. Adultuerous, dilinquent, disrespectful towards women (because society told them they could/should be), materialistic, unreliable. I vowed to never be like them, but I also told myself that whatever masculinity they had, I needed to get as their version of masculinity meant survival. Survival to me meant less teasing and harassment by others. But these men didn’t teach me. Therefore I had to learn, over many years, to find a masculinity that was acceptable, yet didn’t compromise my spirit. Still, there was the little fact that my behavior was rooted in “otherness.” So…when I would slip (as I guess I did by wearing my pink sweater on Friday evening), I would get brought back into the harshness of this world by having someone try and ostracize me, usually publicly.
What I have failed to speak about thus far is the fact that the bulk of my shunning has come from members of the black community. Let’s be honest, ALL of it has come from the Black American community. If any of it has come from the white community, I have yet to hear about it, or I laugh it off (as I, personally, do not measure myself to the same standards as white Americans. White commentary is usually to do with the question surrounding my “mysteriousness”). Therefore it pisses me off to no end that the people I work so hard to make proud, the people who I hope I’m helping by living a very non-stereotypical life, the people who I grew up trying to help out in as many ways as possible, will never ever be proud of me because of how they see me in one word.
This fact keeps me working diligently, but it also makes me feel that my work is in vain.
You see, for those of you out there who can’t seem to understand why I should care that anyone is trying to label me, you do not understand that the issue IS “being labeled.” The argument is that labels makes people feel comfortable, but I think that someone stamping you with a seal of their approval is nothing but a declaration of power. It is someone saying, I know who you are already, and I didn’t need to get to know you. At all.
I have never understood the psychology behind being so preoccupied with someone’s “otherness” to the degree that you need to harass or taunt them about it. What I do understand is that this awful behavior begins at a young age. I believe that many parents, especially very ill-informed, intolerant, ignorant parent do not discourage their children from bullying others. In their heads they go “That’s wrong” and reprimand their child only because society tells them that that’s what they should do as parents. Yet, they don’t tell their kids about the consequences of their actions; how another child (the victim of the harassment), no matter how strong he appears on the outside, will go home one day and hang himself because his peers at school never accepted him. Or he feared his that his family would never look at him the same. Or he feared he’d never be able to move further in his life without being labeled first, and then taken seriously later. I’m generalizing a bit, but I can say this…when you are constantly teased, every single instance remains etched in the front of your mind for an eternity. You never forget the rudeness, the harshness of tone, the disdain, or even the disgust that hateful words can bring. Here’s my proof:
History of Harassment:
Age 5 (one of the youngest memories I can recall): I could scream in a high pitched voice. I did so a lot if I got excited or was playing outside. I remember before church one Sunday I’d screamed high pitched one too many times for my mother to handle. Her words to me: “Do you want me to put you in a dress? Because only girls scream like that. I can put you in a dress if that’s what you want!” Lesson learned: a lower voice makes you a man and keeps you out of dresses.
Between 5 and 11 all the taunts were the same from boys and girls alike. “He acts like a girl, talks like a girl, ugh! This statement was normally followed by laughter. Lesson learned: something about me was “not quite right.”
Age 11: I depart the after-school bus on an autumn day. I’d just gotten a new outfit and I was happy about it because it was red and I thought red was cool. The walk home normally takes 10 minutes from the bus stop and as the bus pulls off, I notice a car driving towards me. The car drives scarily close to me.
The teenage boys inside laugh, “Faggot ass!” The car zooms away, carrying their laughter with it. I say nothing. I keep it moving. Until I look up and see that the same car has circled the block and is heading directly for me. I run up on the sidewalk and the car follows me onto the sidewalk. I realize that this car is about to hit me. Or either they are trying to scare me…
They swerve away, laughing as if BET’s Comic View was playing live on their radio. The 4 of them in the car are screaming insults at me, but I am in tears. I wait for the car to round the corner and then I bolt home just in case they decide to circle the block for a third time. It took me 5 minutes to get home that day.
I tell my mother that I think a gang tried to hit me with their car because I was wearing their color: red. It was a lie. Lesson Learned: Lying can come in handy, sometimes.
Age 12: I’d gotten into a fight with my best friend over a girl who once ‘went out’ (if you can call it that at 12) with me and then him. She found out he was cheating and somehow, I was blamed as the one who’d told of his adolescent infidelity, when I clearly had no clue. The day after the fight, all of his friends, who were also mine spent an entire school bus ride sitting within earshot of me. “Oh you know that gay ass n*gga right there? Don’t talk to him. Faggots always be trying to fuck up your life”
I was talked about from the start of homeroom -as my once-upon-a-time friends ridiculed me- until I was able to sit down at my desk. That encounter made me so depressed that I sought counseling with a very important woman, who eventually introduced me to an option that would free me of my closed-minded community: private school. If I could escape my community, I could escape feeling like shit every day. Lesson learned: Being smart could take away the pain, or at least help you run away from it.
Somewhere between 12 and 14: I recall going to my godmother’s house. At some point, talks of careers came up, to which I remember saying I wanted to be a model. “They make lots of money and all they have to do is take pictures.” The smile on my face was huge. While I was being encouraged by my god-mother…my mother threw in her commentary.
“Models ain’t nothing but faggots. Why you wanna be that?” I didn’t understand where that comment came from, but the harshness was there. Even if it was meant as a joke, it was a sick one that put a knot in my stomach. Uncomfortable laughter from the outskirts. The smile I had faded into oblivion. I felt like I’d been hit with a ton of brick and could say nothing back to the tyrant who’d birthed me. Humiliated isn’t an accurate enough word to describe how I felt. Lesson Learned: Model behavior was not to be coveted.
Age 14: During a Spring Break from high school, I’d gone home to visit a childhood friend. I discovered that my friend was friends with someone I considered my worst enemy: a short, twerp who hated every single thing about me, yet always needed my help when it came to academics. I saw him and retreated into the living room with the adults. I did not elect to play Playstation or hang out with the guy who represented what I hated most about middle school. My mother went to speak to my friend at some point, and when she came back, she had a look of calm on her face, but her eyes masked anger.
On the trip home, we have a conversation:
“That boy. He’s the one you don’t like right?”
“Is it because…he think you gay?”
“I heard him say it to your friend. I heard him call you ‘the gay boy.’” My mother’s tone was so calm. So comforting even. She sounded more hurt than me. Actually, she sounded as if she’d been the abused one, which proved to me that the slurs weren’t always directed towards me. Some of them were an attack on her as well.
“I don’t want to talk about it. I hate him.”
In my mind, I forgave my mother’s outlandish commentary from before because I felt, for once, she could see the harassment I was going through. We drove home with minimal conversation and pretended the incident never happened. Lesson learned: No matter how old you get, people still remember you as they think you were.
High school: I began to wonder whether or not what people had said about me was true or not…because up until then, I didn’t even know. Until I thought of killing myself during March of my freshman year of high school. A terrible winter season coupled with the loss of friends, made me consider ending my life. But one friend, who possessed a different type of “otherness,” saved my life and is now like a sister to me. There was also a teacher who gave me sagely advice. “All fiction begins in a wound.” I began to find ways of writing about my life and articulating my thoughts. I was finding my legitimate voice and possibly my manhood.
On the issue of harassment, despite one major incident of racism (I was called a “nigger” and a “black coon” on a voice message to my room), I escaped high school without one (direct) comment about my previously criticized “otherness.” I felt like I’d found me.
College: The bulk of my career is eclipsed by a rumor that I am inappropriately linked to my best friend. I have to live for four years with people thinking falsely about me and my relationship with peers. I have to actively distance myself away from certain male friends of mine, as being close to them would damage their reputation. Other incidents occur similar to the one below:
On a random night in Philadelphia, I’m finishing clubbing at the Walnut Room and the woman with me is hit on by some nondescript Philly man in an oversized t-shirt and baggy pants. She links her arm around mine.
“Yo, ma. Let me holla at you for a sec.”
“No thank you. I have everything I need right here.” She pats my shoulder, tenderly.
He looks at me disapprovingly. Up and then down. “You sure, ma? Your man here look a bit like a faggot. I know I can do much more for you.”
That good old dejectedness made a return. And while this sweet young lady on my arm went on to try and defend me (why she felt the need to, I’m not sure), all I could think about was going home and making myself more manly. But at this point in my life, was changing myself something I should actively try and do anymore? I was a man, but somehow, the type of man I’d become was not enough. Lesson learned: I am an obstacle of some sort…or I represent something that warrants a challenge/attack.
Have I brought these situations upon myself?
I have sat and wondered why am I writing this blog? I’m wondering “why now?” when the intolerant comments and bullying have gone on for 20+ years. I’ve analyzed my life so many times that it doesn’t take me long to figure out the answer to that question: Silence. In every single instance that I have been verbally attacked, or called out, I have said nothing. Nothing! Instead, I’ve retreated into myself. Yes, silence has been self-preserving, but as an active means of bringing change, silence has been destructive. The true lesson I’d learned in my life was how to counteract all the negative things said about me by being extraordinary and phenomenal. You see, I have a fighter’s spirit. I get that from my mother, the same woman whose toughness on me made me the man I am today. I get it from the friends with whom I have surrounded myself; who have loved me as much as my own family. I get it from being granted the privilege of waking up and experiencing everyday differently than the one before.
My story is not an exclusive one (which may have been one of the underlying purposes in writing it). What is exclusive, however, is my outcome: who/ how I am today. I always knew that I was worth more than the value of a single, restrictive word. Unfortunately, there are people out there (adolescents mostly) who are constantly victimized by the peers. These young men/ women feel that how they are described by their peers equals who they are and will always be. These are the people who are still searching for their personal strength to live on despite abundant ignorance and hatred. I know how they feel because I used to be one of them.
There was a point, not too long ago in my life where I would’ve preferred being called the N-Word as opposed to something regarding sexuality. My logic was that who I am automatically contradicts the nature of that word and that since it’s rooted in racism, I could easily prove to people that I am not solely my race. I have a myriad of other hats I wear as a human being on this Earth. But when it comes to labels in general, I feel that no one should have the right to place a label on me just to make themselves comfortable with me. I am simply Tommy. Period. Yet, when I am labeled, and there is a perceived negative connotation attached to said label, I mostly feel like I’m combating disgust. It’s a tone I can hear beneath the taunts and the harassment, and that tone unsettles me.
What unnerves me more is the fact that there might be someone out there experiencing the exact same pain as me, and may not be strong enough to stand firm in who they are. They are the ones who feel that ending their lives is a better solution than having to live in a world full of hatred and repulsion. While there is a campaign out there convincing ostracized children that it will get better, the feeling isn’t immediate. A goal should be to tell people that it will get better with time, education, and active change. Who will be in charge of making that change?
I urge parents to start the education at home. For those in the black community, we have to stop punishing “different people” with vicious words. Yes, we all have opinions, but my thought is that bashing is the same whether it’s with words or with fists. The effect caused is still pain. Instead of only teaching things like “Black is beautiful”, teach that differences are beautiful as well. In my life, I have learned more from someone who was unlike me than from someone who was too much like me. We keep ourselves boxed within these narrow horizons when we have the capacity to broaden them. We blame or get jealous of others who have declared their individuality within society. We envy their eclectic tastes in music, style, and culture, yet none of us go out of our way to develop our own selves in a similar manner. There is a huge difference between being in a community and existing as a part of a collective. The world is the collective whole. Our goal should be to find our place in this world, but to never alienate and ostracize those who are still finding theirs. Encouraging people who pursue a different life path than what is “normal” should be the norm. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go on that front when our mentality is so deeply rooted in fear, confusion, and ignorance.
Still, I get so fed up trying to counteract the mindset of narrow thinkers in the black community. Instead, I choose to be a living example of perseverance, tenacity, and success. At the end of the day, I’m surviving, right? I’ve acquired a terrific education up through the Master’s level. I’ve lived away from home since the age of 14 and I’ve even crossed an ocean to discover more about the world and myself. In my family, I’m a pioneer. Doesn’t that make me as much of a man as any?
Today, I think about my early Saturday morning encounter with more clarity. One small incident in my present day dredged up so many instances in my past. My link between them all was equal parts anger and silence. When anger boils does it turn into steam? Mine turns into words.
Words as we all know, have unforeseeable powers. Therefore the words I’ve decided to publish are my way of regaining the power I’ve lost to others. By allowing people to define me on their terms, I have relinquished my voice. But not anymore. The blogs I write are mostly for the purpose of examining my life and where/ how I fit into this world. At the end of the day, my experiences, my emotions, my thoughts are quintessentially human. So with the words that you have read, I hope I’ve made you privy to the “me” who didn’t believe his voice was necessary; the me whose silence was a cold sanctuary from bravery; the me who felt powerless. With these words, I stand firm in my humanity and my determination to bring forth light from the darkest abyss. Can a man try and change the world? Well I am a (Hu) Man, and I think I can!