‘Finally in the game’
As the LA riots blaze the spark of love strikes in Chico and a writer finds his way
Editor’s note: The following excerpt from Donnell Alexander’s book Ghetto Celebrity begins about 100 pages into the book and describes events that took place in Chico in the spring of 1992, six months after he arrived here.
The riots in Los Angeles broke out my first April in Chico. I had a housewarming party planned with Joe, my new roommate, and I’d never in my life harbored more antiwhite feelings. It had occurred to me to make the eight-hour trek down south and help burn buildings. That never happened. I had committed to a back yard full of Chicoans—friends, I called them—fuckin’ cracker-ass honkies that my heart had grown cold on. Our party’s gimmick was for guests to dress in a style recalling their favorite concerts ever, so I slid a long, black wig onto my close-cropped dome, put on tight shorts with sidelong piping—the Purple Rain tour was in 1984—and got liquored up. Something told me that if it were at all possible to forget the existence of white people in Chico, blind drunkenness would be a prerequisite.
I chafed hard at the verdicts, sat making the screwface in Duffy’s Tavern, watching TV helicopter coverage.
Before leaving Fresno State I’d concluded that my only valid expression was rebellion and thought even the closest of my friends defined me by my otherness. It was in my head that I could only be so close to white Americans, that they functioned merely as a conduit to my writing—the unacknowledged history between us formed too great a wall. Chico’s relentless honkification seemed not only to confirm that notion, but also to go a step further: I wasn’t feeling niggas either: corny motherfuckers, circlin’ the wagons and shit.
Until the riots. Feeling the chaotic uprising, but too far away to throw a brick or loot a store, I did what was my specialty: get tore-down drunk and write about the emotions I experienced at their most raw.
But first the party:
Joe and I had scored a two-bedroom house ($600 a month and a cat named Drexler) and used the vast back yard for our housewarming. Of course almost none of the locals we invited bothered to follow the party’s nostalgic theme. Either they sported a signifying set of earrings or combed their hair weird or maybe wore a faded concert tee. Everyone put on their drinking shoes.
I was hardly even lifted when this little green-eyed piece of sumpin’ sumpin’ chatted me up at the keg. This one, a crasher, didn’t even bother with a lame gesture toward thematic righteousness. For this, I gave her shit. She tried to smooth things over.
“Your hair’s really unusual. I mean, it’s pretty.”
“Yeah. I’m part Cherokee.”
“It’s a shame what’s gone on down there in Los Angeles.”
“Yeah. Right.” I stiffened. Yet another guilty liberal could only harsh my buzz.
“I mean,” she said, looking into her red plastic cup of Sierra Nevada, “so much coverage, and you never hear anyone talk about conditions.”
Conditions. Years of listening to Public Enemy had imbued me with a Pavlovian response to the word. Praise be, ’cause I looked over and talking was this healthy, pretty thing, pretty in a hillbilly way—gussy, my mother would call it. She was a ripe creature, but she came at me without even the least bit of come-on, which counted a lot. Rare was the Caucasian honey in my life who, if she noticed me at all, didn’t approach on the raw sex tip.
It didn’t occur to me to think, Is she going to be one of those? Would I have on my hands one of those white chicks who were getting back at Daddy (or America), visiting Africa and getting mad when there turned out to be no return trip home. No, she had that glint. She gleamed with a transparency not of this earth.
I thought she was on acid.
“You stay right there,” I said. “Don’t move.”
Amy was a photojournalist, two weeks out of the Midwest, and working at a paper in nearby Paradise. She had been set to work at a Native American publication farther east, but a college friend from Arkansas had convinced her to take this different job in northern California. Paradise, with its conservative municipal government and surfeit of seniors, seemed a cruel joke, and Amy wanted to go home, to be in Indianapolis, with her social worker parents and beer-drinking high school pals.
If the volume is right, I can fall in love a dozen times a day. Then I fall out. Amy though had me wanting to marry her before my brew was through.
Late that night, after the party broke up, Joe and Alita—a colleague from junior college days—and Amy were in Duffy’s. I was still sporting the wig. Otis Redding’s version of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” poured from the jukebox. At this point, LA burning had reclaimed my mind. I ruminated quietly with my back to the wall. Amy was adjacent, leaning on me as if in a dream.
“Ooh. His sound is sooo … My father has all of his records.”
I shrugged her off. Phony displays of empathy are the enemy of life, and alcohol is a really bad drug—worse than making you clumsy and sick, it makes you dumb. And tonight this woman’s expression didn’t even have to prove fake.
“I bet your father’s a real progressive cat.”
Then I walked away.
This was my mean-ass drunk-skunk phase, and within minutes I had completely excused myself and walked the half mile home.
A nigga still wanted to get married though.
After that night, Amy blew me off. But when she read what I wrote on the riots for the News & Review, she agreed to go out with me.
My friend Don was on the phone from Houston the night the cops were acquitted and LA burned. We grew up together in Ohio, and nowadays we talk each other through confused times. The last occasion was when Mike Tyson was convicted of rape.
CNN’s reactionary coverage could be heard on both sides of the phone line. We did nothing but vent our spleens. The suggested courses of action were rash and cruel. I’d never repeat them in print. Then the question came, the one I knew was coming, considering the context of the night. Usually, though, Don asks in an oblique way.
“So, how do you do it anyway,” he wondered, “hang around all those white people?”
Always a tough question. One a lot of traveling residents of African America can’t answer honestly.
White people, I explained to him, are not inherently evil, nor, for that matter, even inherently racist. They just do what they’re told.
I told Don, a graphic designer whose friends include members of the Geto Boys and who doesn’t follow politics in specifics, about the irony of The Cosby Show’s going off the air while the riots were peaking. No, we don’t live in the Huxtable house anymore, but on the other hand who ever did? …
“I just don’t like when people do things they say they aren’t proud of and then blame it on alcohol,” Amy told me the next time we met. She had to shout her comment so that it might reach me over the din of a third-rate Mudhoney knockoff pounding their instruments on the downstairs stage.
“Yeah, I hate that shit, too. I drink too much, especially for someone who doesn’t even really like alcohol.”
“My father’s side has Indians—I don’t know where exactly. I think that gives me a taste for alcohol, too. Anyway, Alita said I shouldn’t mind you getting mad. She said that when you were in college, you were a radical. She called you ‘Mr. Black Power.’”
I glimpsed Amy’s imperfect profile as she watched over the rail, pretending to be interested in Mudhoney Lite. Just gazing blew me away.
“You want to be Mrs. Black Power?”
Amy shot me a look of complete confusion.
“Say that again. This group plays louder than they suck.”
“I know. I said, ‘Do you have any interest in being Mrs. Black Power?’”
Then I laughed, relieved because I was gonna settle down and ask if she’d be my Sara Connor. Which would have sounded egotistical and obscure and she might have said no.
I felt like we had sealed the deal.
We finished our drinks, tripped down the stairs, then out through the advent of night to a sidewalk teeming with flannel and reeking of patchouli. In the park, across the street, I asked her to sit down on the bench. Without asking, I kissed her thin, soft lips. Amy pulled me so tight in a bear hug that I couldn’t fondle the breasts that had, from the moment I saw her, competed with her eyes for my ocular attention.
That night we slept together, and we’d share a bed every night of the next month. Not having sex, just sleeping in the same space, splurging affection. And after we did finally do it, our meandering talk focused on having a child. Amy said that if she had a little boy, she would like to name him Forrest. The previous year, while crashing at my sister’s, I’d been wowed by Forest Whitaker’s performance in the Charlie Parker biopic Bird. So now I nod-nuzzled in affirmation.
We would make love for entire afternoons, coming six, seven times apiece. Sometimes we did it in the orchards out behind her house. We had burritos delivered, as leaving home would mean we’d have to stop being naked together for way too long.
Or we’d jump in Amy’s white Nissan truck, reading to each other up the mountain ride past Paradise, where fresh, clear water cascades down and pools. Together on a boulder until the sun bakes her red. I want to shield this woman and absorb the rays, not only to protect her, but to insulate the love transaction.
At the News & Review, there is much freedom. Unlike in daily journalism, no one thinks I should be punished because I tend toward the marginal, and my reportage and discursive writing are treated with equal regard. The editor will retool my sentences at the drop of a dime, but almost any idea I come up with, Bob lets me take a crack at it, whether it’s about bungee jumping from a Feather River bridge, critiquing Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, or appreciating Dolly Parton. They let me spearhead the election coverage. I send my old friends clips, and brothers can’t believe how the skills have gotten. My journalist friend in San Francisco, Danyel, tells me I should come down, that I could make it.
In Butte County’s funny little rural crucible, I have gone from college dropout to young writer on the rise. It feels unfathomable, like a wormhole or a wrinkle in space. Somehow it’s become possible to make a legal living off the only thing I am exceptionally gifted at: consuming the stranger dimensions of popular culture and then talking about it. Now that I’m in a committed relationship, staying up late feels like work, but still, I could maybe ride this wave forever.
Chico being Chico, the writer groupies are out in full force. But I don’t get down because they aren’t there to me. All I can see is my purpose in print and the love of my life. Two fates, double helix intertwined. It feels as though I—bolder, tougher than I knew I could be—am finally in the game.
From the book Ghetto Celebrity by Donnell Alexander. Copyright © 2003 by Donnell Alexander. Published by arrangement with Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.