Apr/May 2015 Nonfiction

I Find Myself at 7:00

by Michael R. Hassler

I find myself at 7:00 am in the morning, at the dining table of a vacation cottage near Murphy, North Carolina, trying to explain to my wife why I wish Cliff Huxtable was President of the United States.

We had come to this peaceful cabin because my busy career had not given us time for a proper honeymoon; because my wife's company had laid off all her work friends of the past ten years and she was going through survivor's remorse; because I had yet to meet the newest member of the tribe, she-who-is-called "the baby." And the trip down from Garner had been a fun seven-hour bluegrass sing-along time, because we had Sirius satellite radio instead of the standard random am/fm blandness of our normal, finicky conveyance.

What I should be doing is working on editing my novel from last year's National Novel Writing Month (I am rebelling this year and not writing a new one, but am finishing my old, first, one). Instead, I am watching the CBS broadcast spectacle of the Ferguson idiocy and steeling myself to answer the quiet, earnest queries that my bride of three years is directing my way from the couch where our two lap dogs laze.

"I haven't been following this closely, but—and I'm flashing back to an incident in Garner where a young man was shot while sitting in a police car, I think—isn't it hard to do anything when you are handcuffed? I mean isn't someone pretty much restrained once they are arrested?" I am asked this out of genuine curiosity by a woman raised in a one-stop-light town in Michigan, a woman who loves me, a woman who knows that I have had at least one negative experience with law enforcement—as most black Americans do.

"I haven't been following this closely either, babe, only at a higher, topical or political level. But yes, if you are arrested, then your hands are usually placed behind you and handcuffed. Perhaps in the case of Michael Brown, he was never actually restrained..." The CBS news person had just dutifully reported some of these particulars after the non-indictment.

Placing my head in my hands and taking a deeper breath, I patiently explain my point of view that Cliff would have done a better job of managing the situation, that black people are killed predominantly by other black people, and that the whole thing in Ferguson is frustrating because my people are crazy, perhaps driven so. "It is a hell on earth."

"Oh, have you been there?" is her prompt, crisp reply.

"No, but it was predictable and..." At this point our brown, overgrown puppy, Sprocket, starts barking in his canine approximations of a two-year old human child with too much candy, and our mostly white (Saint Bernard-horse mix?) badger-faced Petula Clark shifts and staggers from the couch. My mother-in-law has just descended from one of the upstairs bedrooms and wants to know who wants grandma's love first. And the conversation abruptly ends.

Except in my head, I am playing back Saturday night's SNL skit where the fake news anchor attacked Cliff Huxtable (not Bill Cosby) and the audience's initial reaction was negative—an ironic twist where one black man, in newsman character, is mocking another black man's portrayal of a certain type of black man to the dismay of (one presumes) a predominantly white audience, with a taunt (again one presumes) written by a non-black; in my head I am comparing and contrasting what our good President has just said in offering political comfort to what the good Doctor would have said in offering parental solace—the maxim/cliché "Physician heal thyself" works on a couple of levels for me here; in my head I am briefly considering what my father and I would be saying to each other right now if we weren't currently estranged, an estrangement more Greek and mythological and less tragically Shakespearean than one would think. In my head, I am still talking.

My wife and her mother have recapped, and come to conclusions about, our prematurely ended conversation amidst the current scenes of violence and mayhem being montaged on the cabin's main television screen—"Thank God we live in a small town" and "I think life is a crapshoot as far as where you are raised" and "I think crime is determined more by who you associate with in your immediate circle as opposed to what the exact conditions of your neighborhood are"—and are now onto the topic of yesterday's portrait (i.e. the family portrait we had all taken and how adorable "the baby' was in continuing to essay a "Sucker!" and laughing every time the photographer asked her to sit still). I am thinking now of all the little times during our first vacation in years, our first family Thanksgiving, of how the issue of race has reared its head in the past few days.

How "the baby," my two-year old niece, has just met me in person for the first time and how it made me question what her impression of black men had been up to that time. How I contrived or seem to contrive to place myself on the very edge of all the previous afternoon's snapshots (my wife jokingly said during pillow-talk last night that I should send pictures, to the few members of my birth family I am not estranged from, with the caption "Merry Christmas from my new family! Signed, Waldo" and I non-jokingly agreed that it was a good idea). How when during the impromptu caravan that photographer took us on to the scenic vista south of Murphy, my initial thoughts ran to "Where are we going? How far from "civilization' will we be? What is my escape route back if this is some kind of ambush?" And how, while I know for a fact that some of these were my wife's thoughts as we followed car number two in the caravan to the then unknown destination, I also know that I encounter in myself an extra ancestral twinge of the black American male's fear to travel to heretofore unknown territory—a twinge I resist mightily in my regular and ordinary business travels to client sites; a twinge that does not go away even when all the restaurants and gas stations and grocery stores here in this beautiful mountain town have purveyors, perusers and patrons who treat my wife and me to smiles, earnest greetings and "how are you's."

I am thinking that because my generation—the one at the tail end of the baby boomer's and at the forefront of X—got our heroes and role models from the TV shows and movies of childhood, my own images of positive black maleness came from Roots and Star Wars, St. Elsewhere and Battlestar Galactica—as sparse as these sources were. (James Earl Jones counts because I knew there was a black man somewhere voicing that black computer suit.) So by the time Dr. Huxtable came along the stage was set to have that paternal figure cure my inner ills.

But I also know that there is no "Cliff," not one that heads the whole black American family. And I know that I am not really looking for one. I am my own Cliff and I can only head my family by being the best man that I can be for my family.

It is now after 9:00 am and my mother-in-law and her daughter have now moved on to the relatively safe "Now, who is the Sidney Poitier of our time?" This question posed to me after seeing a post-spectacle Wayne Brady offer deals to enthusiastic applause. I, in return, offer in no particular order Will Smith, Taye Diggs and Denzel to varying degrees of female consideration. So the world is back to normal for the time-being.

Except that this morning, I find myself thankful that we rented a brand new non-spectacular Toyota to get us back to Garner.


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