Black Liberal Guilt

Or: To Mr. Jay Jackson

Jamal Registre
Human Parts

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Photo: cc101 productions

This is a story about shame.

I was on my way home from work the other day. It was a chilly evening, and I’d just said my goodbyes to a close friend who volunteers down in the East Village. Having just made it to the corner of 8th street and 6th avenue, I thought I should have something to eat before catching the train out to Jersey. Something quick.

All I wanted was a hot dog, so I stopped into Gray’s Papaya. You could hear “Owner of a Lonely Heart” blaring merrily over the loudspeaker, and near the counter was a black homeless man singing, dancing and making forced conversation with the cook manning the register. The insinuations that he should leave had no effect.

I ordered my hot dog, and, without realizing it, I started mouthing the lyrics. Humming where the words escaped me. Bobbing my head. I was being obvious. It only took a second, but the man met my gaze. And, all of a sudden, we were singing together. He smiled wide, and all you could see was emptiness where his two front teeth should’ve been. He stumbled, and you could see he was a little shaky. He’d been drinking.

When he came over, I didn’t know what to say really. I tensed up, a little on edge. But in the end it didn’t matter. Pretty soon we were playing air guitar over the bridge.

“Yeah, I know the songs,” he said with some pride. “I may be a street nigga, but I know.”

A few more classics came on the radio, and we got to talking. He asked my name, and I told him with a firm if tentative handshake. We talked about music and a bit about living on the street. How he grew up in DC before coming to New York. How he’s an old man, and how he loves the old songs.

“Lady Marmalade” comes on, and he seemed excited.

“You know who sings this?” he asked — not unlike a teacher. I couldn’t remember.

“Patti LaBelle,” he chided. “My mother used to do her hair when I was growing up.”

It was another beat before he got into his pitch. He said something like:

“Now I know you know what I’m about to ask. I know. But you look like a good kid. And I can tell by the clothes you wear that you hang with the white boys…”

I cut him off. I offered him my hot dog and five bucks since I thought he was so cool. There was something about him. And I thought that would be the end of it. But when he took that five, he got excited and said he wanted to take me across the street to show me something. Something I’d remember.

Suddenly this wasn’t a cool guy who just happened to be homeless. This was a homeless man who might do God knows what. I had to get out of there. At this point, I told him I needed to get back home. It was getting late.

“Trust me, man,” he said. “You know what’s across the street? Electric Lady Studios. Jimi Hendrix played there. You know who Jim Hendrix was?”

I nod. “I know.”

“Then why you acting scared?” he asks. “Give a nigga a try...”

I turned my back on him.

His name was Jay Jackson. And if you Google a map of Greenwich Village, you’ll see he was telling the truth.

I’ve spent the days since feeling like I robbed Jay of his dignity. So much, from my initial reticence to my begging off at our conversation’s end, showed me seeing a homeless man first and a person trying to be make a connection second. That, even if I was smart to walk away, I was a coward. Because a connection, however brief, was made. Only to be squandered just as quickly.

But the worst part? The worst part is that I couldn’t remember Patti LaBelle. That, in his inferring by my shirt that I “hang with the white boys,” I had in some small way betrayed him. That my blackness was forfeit even before I walked through the door.

He’d be wrong. But I find now that my privilege colors me more than I ever knew.

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Jamal Registre
Human Parts

Freelancer living in New York City. Bon vivant. Oversexed.