The Boy from Virginia Weathers the Storm -Part 1- (The Concrete Chronicles)

October 2012


October was a month full of enough setbacks to make me feel like the most inadequate and incompetent punching bag in New York City. And most of those setbacks happened in the first week.


The day before the first of the month, I returned my key to the wonderful roommates who had tolerated me a month longer than was necessary and made my way to my new home on 129th and Lenox. Arriving at my new place felt like putting the final piece of a puzzle together. I walked into the one hundred year old lobby feeling as though I was one step closer to being where I belonged. I mean, I’d made it to Harlem, a place I’d craved since studying the Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes in the fourth grade. I was in the heart of it and life couldn’t be better. I went into my empty room, saw that there was no furniture and thought to myself ‘It won’t always be like this. And at least you have a decent sized closet.’ That night, after a brief check in with my new roommates, I fell asleep on the couch in the living room; the jazz of my new neighborhood singing me to sleep.


*          *          *

I ventured into work on the second day of October feeling a sense of anxiety in the highly polluted air. Something was amiss, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. So as I hopped off the train at 72nd street, the music from my iPod soundtracking my morning, I didn’t realize I was missing a very important text.


Once at work, I greeted my co-worker, who I felt didn’t care for me at all, and went into the staff room to prepare for work. I put on my apron and picked up my iPhone, ready to put it on vibrate and seal it inside my book-bag for the duration of my shift when I read a text from my roommate asking where my rent check was and stating that it was due by 2 pm that afternoon. Oh shit!


I’d completely forgotten to write the check for my security deposit and first month’s rent before I left the apartment that morning, because I didn’t want to be late for work. Also, I was well aware that I did not have the full amount of money I needed to pay the rent due to having to provide my own transportation to the shoot for NBC the week prior. In all honesty, I was $300 short of that full required amount that was needed and I felt my stomach drop. Panic swam around in my bloodstream as I made my way out onto the floor and said to my colleague, “I might need to take a long lunch today.”  I thought I’d posed my sentence as a question. Did I employ an upward inflection?


I expressed to her my emergency which may as well have been met with a shrug of shoulders. I understood that we were the only two people on the morning shift and there was a potential that the shop floor could get busy (but that was rare on a Monday), but I couldn’t get caught up in coulda, shoulda, woulda’s. I needed to pay rent or I would definitely pay some other price.

I didn’t expect for her to have empathy for me (Hell, I was in New York. I knew that no one truly gave a shit about your circumstances in the big city). I’d managed to go into the staff room and sneak a phone call to my mother asking her to foot me the money that I needed to pay my rent. Luckily, Superwoman was able to come up with the amount for me. And all I’d need to do was wait for her to text me that she’d put it into my account.


I was antsy on the shop for the next few hours. For one, I was under the watchful eye of my co-worker, who I need to be on my side that day. Two, I just wasn’t satisfied with myself that I’d allowed myself to be in a deficit. Even after paying the rent, I’d have no money to eat or buy groceries with. I became obsessed with getting through to lunch. But a bit of misguided banter (I playfully compared my co-worker’s managing skills to someone she didn’t particularly appreciate), didn’t help my cause one bit. Without someone with whom I could to commiserate dread settled in. Thank goodness, I’m an actor, though, because I kept up an “It’s all good” face around my customers.


At midday, a senior staffer arrived and as she was headed to the staff room, she asked me how I was doing to which I replied “Not good. Not good at all. But things’ll be fine.” I smiled, because that was my only option. I couldn’t let my panic affect the customers or, more importantly, the sales. But I noticed a flicker of discomfort in her face before she smiled back disappeared into the staff room.


Not long before she arrived, I’d gotten the confirmation text from my mother that the money had gone into my account and I could’ve punched the air in celebration if I felt I had time to do so. Instead, I ran onto the shop floor and asked if I might be able to go to lunch early so I could run and pay my rent. Both co-workers faces showed me that they did not appreciate that request. Nor did they appreciate me telling that that my errand would take about 45 minutes to compete. Lunch was a half hour. And it was a half hour that I desperately needed. I just didn’t understand why I couldn’t be cut some slack when all I wanted to do was rectify all my wrongs.


After a quick negotiation and rearrangement of lunches, I bolted out of the door and down the street to my bank, got a money order and crossed the street to catch the 2 back to Harlem. The bank run was 15 minutes. A trip to Harlem would be 15 more minutes. My run to and from my apartment was 5 minutes. And my hauling-of-ass back to my job would be 7 minutes more. My entire trip was 20 minutes longer than my lunch period, but I’d had my money order back at home by 2:10 pm. Unfortunately, I’d missed my 2pm deadline (something I would later discover didn’t particularly matter), but I didn’t care. I was lighter in my spirit. I mean, I would still owe my mother and I’d have nothing to eat for a few days, but at least I’d have a roof over my head for the remainder of the month. In my mind, I was free.


That is, until I was set free by my senior staff member.


“Has it been a tough one today?” she asked me after pulling me off the shop floor and into the staff room.


“Yes, actually. I’ve been a bit stressed out this morning, but I think I’ll be fine now.” I even thanked my other co-worker for allowing me to go to lunch before her. I felt nothing but gratitude and I was happy to continue work knowing that I wouldn’t have to deal with any more financial crisis for the rest of the day. Somehow, my gratitude hadn’t translated.


“Well, you know what, I think we’ll have another co-worker coming in very soon so if you need to go home to de-stress, go ahead.”


“I’m fine. Everything’s cool.”


“Well, it’s just that when I came in and asked you how you were doing, you’re response was ‘Not good.’”


“Well that’s because I wasn’t, at that moment. But given that things have been resolved I’m cool.”


“Understandable. But when you say things like you’re not feeling good. It can come off as negative. And we need you to give your best on the shop floor at all times. Can you promise to give 100 percent? ”


“Well, no.” I said, quickly, readying to give her the mantra that had helped me through many situations. “I can give you 99.9 percent of what I can give you today. That’s all anyone can give, really. I don’t believe that anyone ever truly give 100% because you need .01 percent of personal energy. But I can promise to give you my absolute best.” This was an answer, I could tell, she wasn’t prepared to hear.


“Well given how tough today was for you, we feel it would be best if you…go ahead home. It’ll give you a chance to work out whatever’s going on.” She said this with a thin smile and in a fairy tale manner that made me feel like I should just go home, bake a cake, and life would be fine in the morning. Her tone of voice convinced me that she understood my pain. I considered what she was saying…tentatively.


“Are you sure?” Because I wasn’t sure going home was the best option for a guy like me with no money.


“Yeah. It’s fine. We’ll be fine here.”


My mind acted fast. I was being dismissed. Obviously. Somehow, it didn’t feel like a true dismissal. My gut told me, however ‘something about this isn’t right.’ I left work, however, two hours earlier than planned. I was about to get on a subway to meet a friend at 8pm that evening when I got a call from my senior staff member. This could not be good.


“Hey! We’ve given your shifts to another co-worker this week. We have too many hours that need to be covered and you’ve been doing quite a lot of work for us so…


“I’m sorry. What?”


“Yeah. We realized that another worker needs some hours and you need to de-stress…”


“But I am de-stressed.” And the conversation made me borderline distressed. I didn’t know what else to say so I said. “Okay,” and hung up the phone. I thought the worst immediately -which is what I do sometimes- and came to the conclusion that I was being fired. I went to bed scratching my head in confusion, and hoping that my stress would fall out like dandruff.


*          *          *


Because the phone call the prior night got my Tommy senses tingling, I decided to go into Times Square the next day and look into retailers where I felt I might want to work, if indeed, I was about to be laid off. It was while I was job-browsing, that I’d received a phone call from my assistant manager, who was on a work conference outside of the country. I ran under the awning of an unfinished “Hollister” Store which would be “opening next spring” to take her call and to protect myself from the rain that had begun to pour.


My assistant manager led the conversation with news that I would not be working for the rest of the week. I knew it! I was immediately in heart attack mode, and also confused. How had having a bad day led to a mandatory leave of absence? I wasn’t rude to customers, I still managed to make sales, and I was a daman good employee. Wasn’t I? I was informed that the managerial team felt that I was not in a good “space” to work, and that I was also a negative influence on other staff. ‘I will have to monitor my honesty in the workplace in the future,’ I thought. Luckily for me, my assistant manager asked me what went on the day before.


I was frank with my assistant manager about all the things that occurred prior to that moment, as well as all my verbal encounters with co-workers. I also informed her that I came into negativity that was already present on the job, which gave me a false sense of who I could and couldn’t express myself to. Having heard my side of the story, she informed me that she’d need a discussion with our boss before moving forward. But I was already feeling doomed….so I pondered my next move as well.


I expressed that I found fault with the decision to send me home for a week to sort out my “issues.” For me, it seemed the decision would be financially counterproductive and I deemed it a rash over-penalization for being honest about my feelings at work. In articulating my frustration to my assistant manager, and reeling from the attacks on my character, I couldn’t physically control the huge New York mess I was about to become: a man blubbering through tears on an iPhone, pleading to retain the job that was my sole source of income. The rain continued to fall, occasionally matching the drizzle of precipitation from my eyes. I didn’t own an umbrella (nor sunglasses) so I’d be under that awning for a long time. I know the tears helped nothing, but I hoped my transparency would.


That evening, I made my way to my favourite Harlem restaurant, where I’d showed a previous interest in working, and I told the hiring manager that I would like a job there. I left my resume and went home to pray. (It was definitely a time to turn to God)


On the third day of October, my phone rang, waking me up out of a very therapeutic sleep. “Are you available to cover a shift today?” was the question that almost made me furious. But I immediately lost the battle with my pride and principles, and decided money wouldn’t appear without my help. So I went to work that day, limited my interactions with others (to avoid spreading ‘negativity’), and sold the shit out of the products in our shop. When people attack who you are, the best revenge is being a better version of who you were the day before. Or in simpler terms: Prove those motherfuckers wrong about you!  That day at work, I was determined to give people the best 99.9 percent of what I could give that day.


I didn’t go into work the next day, but I did receive a call from the hiring manager at the Harlem restaurant saying that I could come in for training. I was amazed at how fast God worked. So that evening, I went in to have what was basically an interview, and I basically…trained. It’d been a year since I’d been a server. And I was a server in London, not America…so I’d have to eventually adjust to a new way of customer service…and an ancient computer system…and my new clientele (since it was a soul food restaurant). It would be drastically different than working retail in the Upper West Side.


At the end of that week my managerial team returned from their conference. I’d had another successful day at work and five minutes before the end of my shift, I gave my assistant manager an envelope. In it was my letter of resignation that I’d written three days prior. With all the to-do that had become my life that first week of October, I decided that the true way to de-stress, was to leave a bad situation before it could get any worse. It was the first time since moving to New York that I’d felt I’d actually given 100 percent of myself and realized 100 percent of my worth.


The Boy from Virginia Goes Up the Water Spout

Finally a Master

“I really don’t know what to say.” For most people, this phrase means: 1) The person is trying to be nice because what they actually have to say could hurt feelings, 2)That the person really has tons to say, and just used that phrase to preface all the ramblings that were about to follow, or 3) The person actually has NOTHING to say.  I’m on the fence between reasons 2 and 3.

Three nights ago (November 19th, for those of you who don’t feel like doing the math) I attended what was probably my final graduation ceremony. I say “final” because I have no intentions on getting a doctorate degree (college loans are expensive enough as it is without adding more debt to the debt I can’t pay off now). Usually one’s graduation day seems to hold about the same weight as someone’s wedding day. There’s hair to be tended, clothing to purchase, gowns to order for the ceremony, and tickets to request as every family member you know has been invited; Not the case for me in Scotland.

It was agreed a long time ago that to have my family over here from the US would be more than expensive. So, my mother agreed to let me go it alone (but only if I took pictures, which I did). I have enough trouble finding a barber over here that can actually make me look presentable without messing up my hair  -or lack of- too much, so I’d gotten the grooming taken care of Saturday before work. And since we had a dress code of sorts indicated on our graduation instructions, I realized I had to go no further than my closet to find what I needed for the ceremony. What I’ve just mentioned, however, were the least of my worries.

Last Monday, I developed a tiny cough. I thought nothing of it, but I did hope that it wasn’t the makings of a terrible cold. But something in my heart kept telling me, this is something to worry about. Just the day before, I was on the bus looking at a fellow passenger with disdain because she coughed without covering her mouth. I instantly thought ‘This is how people catch swine flu, because of people like you.’ What a coincidence that on Tuesday my cough rapidly became a scratchy cough (which hurt my chest), congested sinuses, and a stomach that didn’t know if it was queasy or not. I was losing the battle to stay in control of my body.

My job at LUSH only had me scheduled to work on Wednesday. I figured, my sickness should be gone by then, but of course it wasn’t. That night, when I tried to go to sleep, I had to sleep in a hat, gloves, and socks and I was thisclose to actually putting on a coat as I was freezing cold. The heat was on full blast and I had actual goosebumps. To top it all off, I couldn’t touch my skin, let alone hair follicles because they hurt. Mind you I didn’t get proper rest that evening. But somehow the next day, I made it to work, with a running nose and a persistent cough and managed to make the money I so desperately needed…and still need to see to believe (I also got the devastating news that jobs only pay once a month here………can we say livid?).

Anyway, I slept from 2:30 that afternoon, until 10:45 that evening, and didn’t eat (as my appetite wouldn’t allow).  At that point, I hadn’t cared about what I was wearing to graduation. All I cared about was getting the piece of paper I’d worked all my life to have. For me, I have never known a time when I wasn’t in school. This would symbolize the end of academia and the true start of my life, whatever my life is supposed to be. Somewhere deep inside me is that excitement that one is supposed to have when he finished something big. But to be honest…It hasn’t manifested itself.

Yes, I smiled a lot during graduation day. I smiled during the ceremony (though all I wanted to do was blow my nose) and I smiled afterwards when I shook the hands of many and thanked tons for their kind words. Yes, I’d worked hard for this day. But something still felt like it was missing.

I wasn’t missing my family’s attendance (I did have a couple friends who showed up to support me). And of course I wasn’t missing “a special someone to share the moment with” (Do I look that pathetic?). But I was still unsettled. It would take two more days for me to discover why….

Last night, I was out to dinner at Oko Express, a small Japanese restaurant (which always makes me feel like I’m in New York). We were saying our goodbyes to a classmate who was heading back to Canada the next morning. It was all very chilled-out, no frills fun. When I was waiting at my bus stop, I saw a bunch of drunken Scotsmen yelling something indecipherable at the top of their lungs, causing a ruckus. Some uncouth guy, wearing a sweatsuit (yes…they wear sweatsuits and full tracksuits over here in the UK), had his hand completely down his pants, while another drunk man was trying to make some woman’s baby laugh (while the baby kept swatting him away). The bus finally came and as I sat watching the city of Glasgow race by me, the realization hit me hard….Just because I have a Masters degree doesn’t mean the world will change.

Now most people reading this are saying “Aw, C’mon, don’t say that,” while others are wondering “What does that mean?” Well…here goes….

My having a master’s degree is not going to make the world a better place. It makes MY world better, supposedly, but drunkards will still be yelling offensive shit at the top of their lungs. Young kids will still have premarital sex and father/mother babies they don’t know how to take care of. People in Philly will still cling to their stoops for solace and comfort.  And racism will still simmer under the surface of the new presidency.

At my graduation, I was the only black man present. The only one.  And I was seated smack dab in the center of everyone. (No lie) There was no way you could miss me. In Scotland, I will continue to stick out and I will continue to be made fun of by ignorant people because I would rather dress up and look presentable than be frumpy, or pretend to have “swagger” (whatever that means anymore). More importantly, I will still be financially struggling until “my day” comes. Lastly, just because I’ve achieved this goal doesn’t mean it will stop raining in Glasgow (which I’m sure is influencing my mood).

But all hope isn’t lost, people.  I’ve not completely out of touch with my faith. You see, my cold has subsided. And there is a song that has been on my mind since graduation day:

The eensy weensy Spider went up the water spout

Down came the rain and washed the spider out

Out came the sun and dried up all the rain

And the eensy weensy spider went up the spout again!


It’s a wonder we don’t see hidden messages in songs until we get older. I am that eensy weensy spider. And damn if there haven’t been many times when the “rain” hasn’t come down and washed me out, made me feel bad about myself, and hurt my pride, or whatever. The sun always does come out eventually, and in the song the spider, as eensy weensy as he is, chooses to go back up the spout, knowing the danger of being washed out again. That is bravery. That is having faith in yourself. That is also persistence and patience.

That spider waited until the rain was done to try again. What is never said though is whether he makes it to the top of the spout, which leads me to believe, this up and down journey is something this spider will just have to deal with, as will I. It’ll be tough, but I want this spider’s resilience. Eensy weensy, he may be, but they wrote a song about him, and he’s making a difference in my world. That leads me to my next question: Did I really need a masters degree to make a difference?

At the end of my graduation ceremony, The Chairman said something to us graduates that will always resonate with me. He said, “You were extraordinary before you came here.”

If that were the case, then why did I feel I needed that piece of paper? To open doors? To make my family/friends proud? To join the upper echelon of Masters? What’s the significance?

Here’s the meat of why I feel I needed this degree…

To be blunt, I’m sure the number is small, but I know there are tons of people who could care less about my progress. Most of these people are black men. I’ve met these men before in my life and either we’ve had little in common, or they’ve never uttered a word to me. Instead these are the men who have ridiculed me from the age of 5 until even now, judged me because I never fit in with them or fit a stereotype like they did, and whose lacerating words/comments to me have been the reason I push myself so hard, even now. They dismiss me because my conversations are about substantial items as opposed to the mundane. Lastly, none of them wanted to be truly associated with me. (I dare people to refute this) Though my master’s degree will not change how they feel about me, it’s proof to some of these men that disliking me doesn’t stop my hunger for greatness and going about it through the proper channels, at that. These haters have reminded me, in little ways, of my father, whose heart means sooooooooooooo well…but he just never executed the job of being a father properly.

Though I love him, I always vowed to never be like my father, who I used to watch cheat on my mother. I vowed to never let opportunities pass me by, like he did. I also chose to not become the guy who “waited on foodstamps” to come to my house or use sickness as an excuse to not work. I needed my family name to be associated with greatness…not mediocrity. For far too long I needed full support from my father, but over time, he’s proven too inconsistent to trust, so I have to trust him to be inconsistent. That sucks, but its life.

I always had huge dreams and I had a mother who was there to see them flourish. She was someone who never got mad at my success and who ALWAYS found a way to support me financially and emotionally. She and I have been through too many rough times for me to even list, but it was always she in my corner. And she never thought twice about helping me. My mother  is the woman who told me two week ago that she has always been so proud of me and she’s happy I pursued the thing I loved the most and that she will continue to invest in me because she knows the outcome will be hugely rewarding. She is the woman who when I was in tears about having no money at all to my name here in Scotland, she said, “Shut up! And stop worrying yourself. I got something put away for you for a rainey day (so I could climb back up the spout).”

She also told me, “Tom, I have all the faith in the world that you are going to succeed. You just have to have that faith in yourself.”

I still have days where my faith in myself wavers a bit. How could it not when I’m alone in a foreign place? But I have my mother in my corner, my LIVE 5, my family, and my grandmother watching over me in heaven. I’ll be fine. 🙂

It’s still raining here in Glasgow…it’s light sometimes and sometimes it’s pouring, but you best believe, when there is a sliver of sun, I’m starting my journey up the spout again…

Life Changing Piece of paper

An American Guy in Scotland

On my first Thursday in Glasgow, I found myself sitting in a position that I did particularly care for: alone, in a restaurant (a Pizza Hut, mind you) watching the rain. This is such a typical vision of what a “romantic” American is to look like in Europe, I thought. But as I continued to sit among the stoic, oddly thin people around me, I couldn’t help but feel truly atypical. For one thing, here I am; a Black man from the south, who lived in the northern states for the latter half of my life thus far. And now here I am living across the Atlantic Ocean, in a country where knowledge of American history doesn’t seem to go past 1776. It really is quite fascinating! All the while, as I was sitting waiting for my Mediterranean Pizza, and breaded garlic mushrooms to arrive, I couldn’t help but think of her. Did she miss me? More importantly, did she even realize I was gone?

            You see, Virginia cried when I left. Though she kept her sunny demeanour, tears managed to fall anyway. It was as if she were trying to keep calm under the pressure. And I appreciated it. Philadelphia, however, was a whole different story entirely.

            My relationship with Philadelphia was one of the most tumultuous experiences I had to endure. There were many days where she was just a plain bitch to me. She’d scream sirens in my ear or profess bloody murder on every street corner. Most days I hated to even walk down streets with her because I felt she was just vile and uncouth, and more importantly, disrespectful. She just didn’t give a fuck. I guess that’s why she was such a hood-rat to me. My little Philly had no concept of dreams. It seemed like she, as well as her children, couldn’t see beyond their front stoops and that’s where we clashed. She never desired to challenge herself, but she sought out fights whenever she could find them. To be honest, I knew from the start that Philly and I would be a temporary match.  I got the impression that she did not feel the same way. She thought I would be a part of her forever. I guess this is why she never anticipated my departure.

            The night before I decided to leave Philly behind, I tried to gracefully end our relationship at the restaurant that started it all: Ms. Tootsies. I wanted to tell her goodbye in a nice respectable way (over tilapia, macaroni and cheese, and collard greens). When I got to the restaurant, I was informed that their credit card machine didn’t work. Okay. Plan B.

            I decided to go across the street to Govinda’s, a nice vegan place that Philly introduced to me a while back so that we could get a vegetarian chicken cheese steak and a piece of cheesecake. My credit card would not work at that spot. Alright. Can someone say “sabotage?”

It was then I noticed that Philly was being difficult. She knew what I was trying to do and was intentionally trying to prevent me from going. So I stomped across her mean streets to Five Guys and purchased a burger and a Sprite. If Philly wasn’t going to be elegant about this, neither would I. Needless to say, the next day Philly was all smiles and sunshine (denial at it’s best) and I was trying with all my might not to make my exit more emotional than it had become.

            I got home to Virginia feeling happy, but simultaneously like I’d left something undone. I never got a chance to say my final goodbyes to the city I’d fallen in love with. You see, for me, the crux of love is in the arguing. Philly and I had many arguments, but somewhere deep inside, that’s where my love for her was. I wanted her to be better. I wanted her to dream and to do tremendous things. She didn’t share in my beliefs, and that’s why I, reluctantly, had to move on. Her negativity was becoming a deadly virus and if I would’ve stayed with her, well…we all know what the result would’ve been.

My eventual consensus was that maybe Philadelphia wasn’t supposed to be my girlfriend, but instead my homegirl: someone who, despite everything, pushed me be greater than I was. Maybe, she was just supposed to be my example of what not to be. Whatever she did…I thank her for getting me to this new chapter in my life.


            Now, after leaving my city behind and witnessing this new one which is prone to crying at inopportune moments, speaking garbled speech that I can’t understand, and introducing me to foods that would make American’s gasp, I can’t help but think of the girl I left behind. She was the only long-term relationship I’ve ever truly had. And it felt a bit weird sitting at a table alone, eating odd-tasting pizza (it’s not like American pizza) and listening to Usher croon “Burn.” Should I let my wick of love burn out for the place that developed me so much? Or will I soon be the one precipitating my feelings all over foreign streets?

            As I think this, a familiar piano melody trickles into my head from the PA system in the restaurant. It’s John Legend’s “Ordinary People.” I smile to myself because the song is appropriate. But then I wonder why is it that, no matter how ordinary you feel, we can’t seem to embrace the extraordinary elements in our lives? Could it just be that I’m an extraordinary person…who “still doesn’t know which way to go?” And is that a bad thing?

            As I got up to pay my bill, I thought about love briefly (as it is now my least of worries in this new continent). I thought of the loves I’d left behind (including Treasure  and other members of my Live 5) and the idea of it completely. For some reason, I believe my love will be more focused here. It will be my love of Theater that will help me endure. And those other twenty-four faces I met on the first day of class…well…I guess eventually I will develop a love for them as well.


            Before I close, I have some unfinished business: “Philadelphia…I loved you when we first laid eyes on one another, but please understand that my life deserved something more, which you could not give to me. If it was meant for us, then the growth we will achieve apart will eventually bring us back together. Until then, goodbye.” Class is now in session.