November 17th, 2008

I had enough, man. Houston didn’t work out. I gave it my best shot, but after 2+ years, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I worked three jobs at the time: 25-30 hours/week at Jack in the Box, 25 hours/week at the Shell gas station across the street, and 10 hours/week moonlighting as a personal trainer at a small gym. I still couldn’t afford a car, and I had no time or energy to go to school or to even work out at the gym that employed me. I specifically remember daydreaming about a time where I’d be able to make $500/week after taxes, and how I thought that I’d literally have to work myself to death or sell drugs (I was never gonna sell drugs) to get there.

I think the worst part mentally was going to downtown Houston and seeing all of those really nice cars and well dressed people and walking through that majestic Galleria mall and window shopping for clothes I had no chance to afford and gorgeous women that I had no chance to attract. Some people see those kinds of things, being surrounded by seemingly unattainable luxury, as motivation (reminiscent of a young, hungry Scarface), but that scene only helped to emphasize the gulf between my situation and theirs. It didn’t help.

All of my original friends from Sumter were long gone at this point, with the most recent fallout bordering on comical. I had let him and his girlfriend stay in my apartment until they were able to save for a place of their own, and the results were disastrous from the beginning. I eventually kicked them out, but not before they created a $550 light bill that led to a bounced rent check, which somehow led to a bounced light bill check, which led to no lights and a 30-day notice.

For six weeks (three paychecks), my routine was working my ungodly schedule, cashing my paychecks, converting said paychecks into money orders, then giving those paychecks to my apartment complex. How did I eat? By stealing food from Jack in the Box nightly. How did I wash? The apartment complex’s pool and some deodorant. How did I sleep or really exist in general without lights or AC in the middle of a Houstonian summer (this happened in July/August)? A modern miracle. I still don’t know. Then my girlfriend left me after she figured that the weed dealer around the corner was a bit more appealing than hanging out in a dark apartment that could double as a furnace, and my life resembled more of a bad country song than a simple case of growing pains.

One day in August, after quitting my job at Jack in the Box, I tried looking for a job as a mail clerk. The older guy who received my application didn’t have a job opening for me, but he did have a message. “You seem way too smart to do whatever bullshit you’re trying to do. Join the military and get yourself outta here. I don’t wanna see you in here again.”

The military was literally the last thing I wanted to join. I thought of military people as unrepentant killers with overcompensation complexes. I didn’t want to march. I didn’t want to follow orders. I definitely didn’t want to hurt strangers. But I didn’t want to starve to death either. Poverty definitely has a way of bending your morals, and they bent mine to the point of showing up at an Air Force recruitment office the next day.

The paperwork and testing process went smoothly until the time came to pick from the available jobs. I opted for an “open mechanic” job, despite never using a tool before, under the premise that it would get me out of my situation quickly and that they’ll teach me everything I needed to know anyway. My recruiter assured me that I would be off to basic training by September, so I terminated the lease on my apartment. Three days after terminating my lease, my recruiter informed me that I wouldn’t be able to go until mid-November.

After 10 weeks of couch (and car) surfing, the day finally arrived. I packed up my worldly possessions (which consisted of one suitcase) and boarded a bus that took us from Houston to San Antonio, which is three hours away. To this day, I don’t know whether it was my own nervous energy, discomfort from the energy of others, or general happiness, but I laughed and joked for those entire three hours. Loudly. You would’ve thought that we were on our way to an amusement park instead of 8 of the most difficult weeks that most people endure. And to me, it was an amusement park. I’d get to eat regularly and not sleep outside, so how hard could it be?

The bus finally arrived at Lackland AFB, and that’s when my, and everyone else’s, laughter subsided. Reality had set in. What had I gotten myself into? The bus, now dead silent, came to a stop at an old brick building. The bus driver made a call on her cell phone. Three minutes later, this massive, angry guy with a weird hat stomped onto the bus…

“I HEARD THAT SOME OF YOU THINK THIS IS SOME TYPE OF GAME! WHO’S THE FUCKING COMEDIAN???? POINT HIM OUT RIGHT FUCKING NOW!!!”

Oh great, I’m getting kicked out of the military after 15 whole seconds. This has to be some kind of record.

“POINT HIM OUT, OR YOU’LL ALL HAVE TO PAY!!! WHY IS EVERYONE SO QUIET NOW???? HUH??? MATTER OF FACT, EVERYONE JUST GET OFF THE FUCKING BUS RIGHT NOW!!!”

Well, at least nobody gave me up. I’m safe, at least as “safe” could be with this massive human out for blood, for now.

We quickly lined up facing the door of the brick building that would mark the start of my military career. I was second in line. My absolute worst fear was to get picked for holding the door to let everyone inside. I literally prayed for this specific thing not to happen. Another lady with a weird hat opened the door.

“Everyone get inside as quickly as you can!”

“And you…hold the fucking door!”

Ohhhhhhhh God. This isn’t good. This will end badly. The only thing on my mind at the time was not laughing. Please do not laugh. They may kill me with my bare hands if I laugh. I’ll have the rest of my life to laugh. Just don’t do it now. I’m better off crying or pissing myself than laughing at this very moment.

As the rest of the busload hurried through the door, I tried sneaking right behind the last person, to no avail. The really angry lady with the weird hat stopped me in my tracks…

“Oh you really think this is some kind of game, don’t you? Lock it up!!! Do you even know who you’re fucking with?”

“……hahhahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha…ah shit I’m so sorry dammit hahhahahahahahahahahahahahhahahah awwwww fuck hahahhahahahha…”

Yeah. That did it. She pulled me by my shirt sleeve through the door and had me stand off to the side while the rest of the bus processed through, doing God knows what. She dragged two really heavy pieces of luggage towards my direction…

“Look at me. You’re going to hold this luggage at attention until I get tired from watching you do it. If you say a word, if you drop the luggage, if I see you even blink or breathe too hard, I’m sending you back to wherever the fuck you came from.”

I was off to a great start….

The State of My Former Besties

My previous visit to South Carolina, which was May 2014, was strictly supposed to be a “business” trip. Stewart, one of my best friends, was getting married to his girlfriend of a decade, and I made good on the promise that I would attend if such a event ever happened (I honestly thought it would never happen). While I was out there, I figured that I would indulge Rachel in letting her meet my family. Despite my relationship with them back then (there weren’t good feelings) and the fact that I hadn’t seen or talked to them in 8 years, I felt that it would be polite to at least show them what my future wife looked like. It’s not like I cared for their approval; if they said anything negative about her, especially the giant elephant in the room about my fiancee not being black, I’d simply leave and never talk to them again. But something felt wrong about marrying someone before meeting a single member of their family, and I knew doing that would give her some peace of mind, regardless of the outcome.

Rachel and I stayed in a hotel on the other side of town, hoping to avoid contact with the family outside of the bare minimum. She was really excited about eating at Waffle House, which I suppose is as much of a regional culinary monument in the southeast as Roscoe’s is in California. Unfortunately, the difference between the two restaurants is that Waffle House sucks, and although I already knew that, Rachel insisted on finding out the hard way.

Outside of the wedding, she gave me the freedom to come and go as I pleased, as long as I introduced her to the people who I was visiting first. So the very first place we visited was Trey’s house, and we passed my family’s house en route as if it never existed. Trey’s dad greeted us enthusiastically (he specifically said, “I would’ve bet the farm that you were never coming back here!”), but something was off. That “something” was his left leg. Diabetes had claimed half of his leg recently, and the tenor of the entire household was just off in general. Trey and Bill were there, and there was obviously tension between the parents and my two former best friends. It didn’t take long after the requisite pleasantries for Trey’s mother, never one to hold her tongue, to reveal the source of their tension.

Neither Trey nor Bill (who wasn’t related, but like me, was treated like family from our early teens) were really doing much of…anything. After life in Houston fell off the rails, Trey and Bill opted to return to Sumter while I enlisted in the Air Force. Apparently, they took their negative habits along with them. They were basically doing the same things at age 27 as they were at age 22, something that I consciously tried to avoid.

I guess that one of the benefits of being on terrible terms with my family during a drastic decision was that I had no illusion of a safety net in the event of failure. Both Trey and Bill come from cohesive, supportive families who graciously accepted them after the move to Houston didn’t pan out. And while that is a very nice luxury, I think that it also created a barrier to how far they would truly strive to carve out a niche for themselves elsewhere. It’s difficult to give everything you have in a seemingly hopeless situation (and Houston got really, really bad for all of us) when you’re still in touch with your family and they’re begging you to come back for a fresh start and they’re wondering why your pride is keeping you from doing what’s best for your family in the first place. It’s really easy to fold your tent and say, “Hey, I can go back home for a bit, get a job, save money for a few months, then go on a new adventure.” Then boom, five years pass and you haven’t made any real progress towards your goals. I didn’t talk to them during this period of time, but that’s my best guess as to what happened.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago, and they both seem radically different, not only in terms of progress, but in terms of mindset as well. Trey bought a house on the other side of town and has a stable job with a wife and a brilliant, brilliant 3 year old daughter. Talking to him, as he casually solved a Rubik’s cube in 3 minutes (?!?!?!?!??!?!), I got the sense that he finally settled down and had his head in the right place. His daughter is light years ahead of any 3 year old I’ve seen mentally, and that is almost never an accident. That’s a product of consciously productive, targeted parenting, and I was beyond proud to see that he was taking his job as a husband and father seriously. He said that he had plans of joining the military after he cleared up his tickets, and while that isn’t a bad idea, I would like for him to aim higher than that long term. The question I kept asking him was, “So when are you gonna change the world?” He’s seriously one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, but he suffers from having so many gifts that he can’t seriously hone in on the one or two that can truly be life changing for himself and others. That admittedly nitpicky complaint aside, I couldn’t be happier for him, since I’m well aware of how much he’s been through and how easily he could have fallen off the proverbial cliff.

Bill, on the other hand, had actually fallen off that cliff, but grabbed on to a rock on the way down and is gradually climbing his way to the ledge again. A cocktail of drugs and a very toxic relationship led to jail time for a crime involving burglary, child endangerment, and a slow motion car chase. From everything I’ve heard, his life had only gone downhill from there lately. I didn’t even expect to speak to him, much less see him,  after a conversation with his parents led me to believe that he was in a rehab facility in North Carolina. I wondered to myself how bad he could have possibly gotten, but I stopped myself from asking his parents, sensing that it was still a sore spot for them. The next morning, I received a panicked phone call from Bill’s mom. She told me that he had surprised everyone by coming back in town for her 70th birthday party. After talking to him for several hours, it seemed like he was heading in the right direction as well. He had been drug free (even weed) for the last five months, and was taking advantage of the extensive flood cleanup by finding local jobs in the area in the hopes that someone would hire him full-time. His experiences in various drug treatment facilities led him to pursue a new goal, which was to get a degree in counseling and open a facility to help addicts, using the ideas that he gathered from his checkered past. He, like Trey, is still exceptionally gifted, and I was encouraged that he was developing a laser focus towards a particular goal.

Really, general well-being aside, all of the particulars about those two are secondary. For the first time in forever, we got to just hang out and do nothing in particular. We drank, traded all kinds of stories (the wildest of which being Bill’s three week fling with crack), and just…felt normal. The same way we did during our good and bad times in Houston. Or when we first started bonding in high school. Or when they were the only people to really embrace me after I let everyone down by getting kicked out of Rutgers. Regardless of what happens to the three of us from here, I think that we have a bond that time and distance will find really difficult to break, and I’ll always root for them now and in the future.

(Names have been changed. They won’t care. They’ll read this and ask to fight me. Whatever. Still love them.)

Flashback: When I Almost Ended My Career Being an Idiot

My troop got promoted to Staff Sergeant last week! He played it pretty cool in public, but he was absolutely geeked about it, and I’m geeked for him. For those who are reading this for the first time or unfamiliar with me in general, I’m a Staff Sergeant in the Air Force. The process, which involves a combination of standardized testing, annual job appraisals and good old seniority, is fairly pressurized,  and they publicly post the results of who got promoted from everyone who tested, basically reducing a bunch of military professionals to children trying to see if they made their high school varsity team.

The road to my rank and being responsible and not despised by my peers was arduous, and the time that I spent between earning the rank, losing it, and regaining it symbolized the direction in which my life was going. I can honestly say that I wasn’t ready for the jump in responsibility the first time I made it, not because of hindsight being 20/20 or God having a special plan for me, but because I was still speeding and driving drunk regularly. I was a fucking moron. Granted, I was a moron who tested well and could really use the extra money at the time, but a moron nonetheless. I was blowing tons of money, not taking school seriously and doing all kinds of other stupid things people do in their mid-20s. The knowledge that I was getting promoted combined with potentially leaving for Japan within the next few months basically ensured that I gave zero fucks about anything unless something drastic happened. Naturally, I lost my rank in one of the dumbest ways possible.

During Labor Day 2012, I drove to the front gate with my friend after a long night at the club. Normally, the guard checks the ID card for a brief moment then allows us to drive on base. Unfortunately, the car reeked of liquor, so instead of us being allowed to go home, we found ourselves being suspected for DUI. Hilariously enough, that was not what got me in trouble. I misplaced my driver’s license a few months prior to that night and never got it replaced because, well, I still don’t know why. On previous brushes with the police, I was able to give my license number from memory and give some bullshit excuse about how I left my license in the room. So sure enough, when the guard asked for my license/registration/insurance,  I was ready to spout off my routine again. Only this time, my license number wouldn’t appear in their system. I say the license number again. Nothing. Once more, nothing.

The cop suddenly remembered the reason he stopped me in the first place: he thinks I’m driving drunk. He had me undergo a sobriety test, which, I’m ashamed to say now, I was quite well versed at passing while being intoxicated. There’s something about being a black guy dealing with cops, along with my career being on the line, that sobers me very, very quickly. The first round of tests involved him shining a light into my eye and telling me to follow it. I passed, or at least I assumed so, because I haven’t been asked to exit the car. The next, and more difficult test, was to say the alphabet backwards. I took a deep breath…”Z-Y-X-V-shit I’m kidding-W-V-U-uhhhhh….-T-S….” He stops me at “L.” Suspicion of DUI over. Crisis averted, at least for now.

There’s still the matter of my license not existing in their system. After going back and forth with the cop about how I’m not actually an unlicensed driver, I had a decision to make: either come clean about losing my license and accepting my relative slap on the wrist, or bluff and tell him that my license was in my dorm room, hoping that I get off completely unscathed. I choose Option 2. He called my bluff in the worst way possible. He demanded to follow me to my room and stay there until I found my license. It was such an autopilot response that I didn’t even think about the fact that I DIDN’T EVEN LIVE IN THE DORMS ANYMORE. My actual residence was 20 miles away. In short, I am fucked. My friend is now awake in the passenger seat. He asks why there are cop lights following us. I tell him why. His response? “You’re fucked.” Thanks, friend.

In a last ditch effort to avoid coming clean, I “searched” for my license in another friend’s room, under the pretense that it was mine. I didn’t know what I was going to accomplish at this point. It was the equivalent of a hail mary being thrown backwards. My plot was blown after the cop searched the room and found an ID of the person the room actually belonged to. Now I’m in handcuffs. My friends, who have now all congregated to witness the lowest point of my career, have resorted to using thesauruses to find new ways to call me stupid. I head to the police station on base, get fingerprinted, give my official statement (go me for not having a lawyer present at the time) and get escorted to the 8′ x 12′ holding cell where I would spend the rest of the night. For a final nail in my emotional coffin, the cop who arrested me relayed a message as I incoherently rotted on the cot in my cell: my driver’s license was finally found in the system, and it was clean. What happened? “You missed the number by one digit. You said it was ‘*****384,’ but it was ‘*****385.’ Good night!”

I got “bailed out” by my First Sergeant the next morning, and after confirming that yes, I was indeed fucked, I finally got released to be on my way. I went to my friend’s house on base to charge my phone. The first message I see? My girlfriend at the time saying that she doesn’t want to be my girlfriend anymore. Yep. I thought my life was over.