Matt and I were in Manhattan’s SoHo. It was late afternoon, one of those seering, sunblazed days when concrete and asphalt work like steam radiators. We’d walked nearly the whole length of Broadway from 225th Street, counting down all 225 of ‘em, and now, with leaden legs, were wading through streets bearing surnames, only blocks from Battery Park, our destination. We’d covered nearly 16 miles, and were ‘long about Broome Street when Matt paused to ease off his backpack, pluck out his water bottle, and take a swig. I stopped a few feet ahead and did the same.
We were re-shouldering our packs when a voice called from the eddy of pedestrians, “Will you shake a black man’s hand?” Suddenly there jutted toward Matt a dark-skinned hand, followed by a wiry arm and slender body, on top of which was a smiling bucket-hatted head. Matt, grinned uncertainly and shook the man’s hand. I had already started to back away, when the guy, maybe in his late 20’s, said, “Dad! Whoa! Don’t go nowhere!” He shook my hand now.
Instinctively, I asked, “What you sellin’?”
He tossed his head back, raised an eyebrow, and mildly reprimanded, “Hey, Pops, now you gettin’ ‘head o’ me.”
What followed was—well—street theater, I guess, with this guy as star and director, and Matt and me in supporting roles. “You a black man!” he said to Matt (who is quite white). To me he barked, “You a white man wid a briefcase!” (he got it half right), and launched into a spiel in which race is only a social construct, but one used to exploit all kinds of people, including me, the white man wid a briefcase. He spoke knowledgeably of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Donald Trump. Throughout his monologue Matt and I were put in a variety of roles. We were, by turns, Italian, Irish, Asian and Native American, etc.
All the while the guy occasionally turned to passing pedestrians, speaking as if they, too, were in our drama, which prompted several to linger. Once, a large, touristy-looking white man unwittingly brushed against Matt’s shoulder. Our actor-director flung forth his arms like a shield, admonishing the man, “Hey, hey! Don’t touch him. He’s a celebrity!” which slowed the flow of pedestrians and brought curious stares Matt’s way.
And at that, while standing on this make-shift Broadway stage, I decided: I gotta give this guy some money because this is just too damn much fun! And then there came to mind a memory from 37 years earlier that goes like this…
* * *
I was a completely clueless 26-year-old, newly graduated from seminary, freshly ordained, and left in charge of a 1,300-member congregation in northwest Indiana because the senior pastor had skipped off to the Holy Land for three weeks.
On my first day at the helm, a late-1950s model Ford pick-up, smoking and steaming, squealed to a stop in front of the church. Out climbed a heavy woman, maybe in her late 40s, stuffed into a stained white tank-top and blue jeans, both of which were two or three sizes too small.
“Oh dear,” said the church secretary as we watched from the office window. Moments later, the woman was standing—more like sagging—before us, sobbing, “I ain’t a bad person. I ain’t a bad person.”
Does this sound moving? It might have been, except she lacked any semblance of acting ability. Her sobs were tearless drones; her sags were much overplayed.
I asked how the church might help her—the prompt she wanted in order to unfold her story. She said she’d been living with the family of her sister in Benton Harbor, Michigan, when “my brother-in-law done gone and climbed into bed wi’ me, and my sister th’owed me outta the house.” More sobs and sags. “And the thang is. We ain’t done nuttin’, my brother-in-law ‘n’ me. But my sister don’t believe it. She just th’owed me out. It was him what climbed in the bed! Why don’t she th’ow him out?”
The secretary and I didn’t have an answer.
“So what do you need from us?” I asked again. She said she was trying to get home to her mama in Nashville, Tennessee, but “done run outta money.” She needed cash for a motel and gas. Again she insisted, “I ain’t a bad person.” And, to make sure we knew she ain’t a bad person, she brought out the biggest gun in her story.
“I orta to be livin’ in a big ol’ mansion in Nashville. You know why?”
“Cuz my daddy is Ernest Tubb!”
While I’m no fan of Old School Country, I did know that Ernest Tubb was a Grand Ol’ Opry Hall of Famer.
“Ernest done gone and got my mama pregnant when she wudn’t but 16 and he ain’t had the decency to do the right thang!”
The woman’s story had dumbstruck us, which, apparently, she mistook as thick-headedness, for she flung her arms outward and clarified in a “duh!” tone, “I’M ERNEST TUBB’S LOVE CHILD!”
She launched back into the poorly performed sobs and sags but, at the sound of my voice, stopped abruptly.
“Well,” I said unsurely, “would you mind taking a seat in the lobby while we discuss this?” She did as asked.
I turned to the secretary and with some exasperation said, “Look, I’m totally new here. I know we have discretionary money and all, but how do we know she’s telling us the truth? How do we know she won’t take the money and drink or gamble with it?”
“Gerald,” the secretary said with a calming smile, “the story by itself is worth at least fifty bucks.” We gave her seventy-five—in those days enough to get a room and buy a couple of tanks of gas.
* * *
Back to last week in Manhattan. As the hand-shaking black man on Broadway established that race is only a social construct, that Matt is a black man (among other things), and that I am a white man wid a brief case, all the while working passing pedestrians in and out of his shtick, I thought: This story itself is worth some cash. Maybe not fifty or seventy-five bucks, but I’ll go twenty.
As if reading my mind, the guy wound down the show by whipping a wad of cash from his pocket. “Ain’t dat some money?” he chuckled with a grin that showed dire need of a dentist. “I even got dis Canadian sh*t!” he said, showing a twenty from north of the border. Then, from out of nowhere, his other hand presented several packaged CDs, fanned out like playing cards and bearing his likeness.
“I’m a rapper. I want you to have one of my CDs. I’ll take what you wanna gimme. Most people gimme ten.” I gave him twenty. He handed the CD to the sometimes black man, Matt, and smiled warmly at me. He thanked us both. Matt and I continued down Broadway. Examining the CD’s cover, we agreed that June Cancun was a fairly lit name for a rapper.
The next day, in the car on the way home, we popped the CD into the player. For what seemed too many seconds, we heard nothing and thought we’d been had. I was about to say it doesn’t matter because the show was worth twenty bucks, when suddenly beats came booming through the speakers and the voice of June Cancun was, in his way, drawing us back onto the stage.
“He’s not bad!” said Matt who listens to bargeloads of rap. There were sixteen more songs, each one revealing talent in composition and performance.
I thought, this guy’s on a much higher plane than Ernest Tubb’s love child. And I wished I’d paid him at least seventy-five bucks.