I was sixteen, standing among adults in a parking lot on a morning in late summer. One of the adults was my cousin Billy Thompson. “Sorry about that,” he said to me, looking around at the cars and the forty or so other black folks in the lot. He used the word “sorry” the way my whole family and I do, the way that tends to confuse people, since we are not accepting blame for your misfortune, just expressing sympathy. Billy was sorry that from the look of things, no one else my age was coming on this bus trip from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. No doubt I shrugged and gave the other family line“Oh, well”which was meant to disguise what I was thinking: No other kids on this trip? No strangers I’ll be expected to interact with, whether or not we have anything in common, which, given my solitary and fairly odd nature, we most likely don’t? What’s to be sorry about?
I went on these weeklong bus trips with my mother, varying combinations of our relatives, and assorted strangers for three consecutive summers. This was the second. The bus/hotel package deals were the kind of thing my mother could afford now. She worked nights sorting mail at the post office, which brought her a good salary by the standards of our neighborhood. More to the pointand unbeknownst to meher life had become easier, financially speaking, with my father’s death five years earlier, because now he couldn’t gamble away her paycheck. My mother, who was then in her mid-fifties, had three grown children and a fourth (me) who was nearly grown; she was still taking care of her own mother, but, probably for the first time in her adult life, she didn’t have to worry about money. The bus trips were a way of finally enjoying herself a little. Beyond providing for her family, my mother, the most practical of people, had never wanted much, and her pleasures had been the simplest ones: a glass of scotch here, a can of Miller High-Life there, a good laugh. If I started to tell my mother something funny, she would laugh a little in joyful anticipation, rocking quietly, before I even got to the funny part, as if revving the engine of her mirth. With dentures to replace the rotted teeth of my earliest memories, she could now laugh without putting her hand in front of her mouth. My mother had her dark moods, too, times when she felt overburdened and underappreciated. “Don’t make no kinda effort to do nothin!” she once told me about my house-cleaning habits, a statement that is branded on my memory. But those moods were occasional and reserved for family; they never surfaced, for example, during the bus trips.
I say “bus trips,” but “bus vacations” may be more like it. With the destinations so far from WashingtonNew Orleans this year, Disney World the previous year, Chicago the nextno small part of our time was spent just getting to those places and back, always passing one night at a motel along the way, in a nondescript town in the Carolinas, say. And so a lot of the social scene took place on the bus: talking, laughing, playing cards. During the trip to Florida, the scene had included a pair of teenage sisters, one an overweight, retiring girl whose name and exact age I don’t recall, the other sixteen-year-old Tawana, light-skinned but dark-featured like an Italian, pregnant but not showing yet. Tawana liked talking to me, for reasons I didn’t understand, since her life experience which gave her the jaded air of a divorced forty-year-oldmade mine seem nonexistent, which it pretty much was. On the other hand, since I was unable to match her stories, I made for a good, sympathetic listener, easy for her to talk to about her past boyfriends and such. For several weeks after our return from Florida, Tawana would call me on the phone nearly every day, invariably responding to my “Hello?” with, “You busy?” That she might have desired more than friendship with an innocent like me was so ridiculous that it didn’t cross my mind; a third of a century later, I wonder. My roommate on the Florida trip was a twelve-year-old boy, Mike, who was related to meor wasn’tin that unclear way of large black families originating in small southern towns. Mike was built like a small tank, while I, three years older and taller, looked like a stick by comparison. (That word comes to mind because of what Tawana said about me: “Cliff ain’t nothin but a stick noway.” I forget the context.) Rounding out the group of young people was Mary, at fourteen a year younger than me. Mary was skinny, with medium-brown skin and chewed-up nails, and was neither ugly nor pretty. She could not have been more different from me. I was the kind of introspective kid who got good grades but could get lost in his own neighborhood. I used words like “sarcastic.” Once, for example, I said something to Mary that she didn’t understand, then explained that I was being sarcastic. She said, “How can you tell if a star-castic person is talking straight?” Mary’s intelligence, unlike mine, was directed entirely outward, toward getting the things she wantedone of those being me. Alone with me in my hotel room one evening, she feigned fright at the thunder outside, came to where I was sitting, and got in my lap. I didn’t protest, and she gave me my first kiss.
But all of that was the previous year.
This year, as the closest thing to a kid on this trip, I was free to just think my thoughts, to be quiet until I had something to sayto be myself, in other words. My roommate was my cousin Billy Thompson, who had said he was sorry there was no one else my age with us: Billy, a bachelor of thirty-five, beefy and very dark-skinned, with a medium-length Afro and black-framed glasses of the kind they don’t make anymore, the lenses so thick they looked like skim milk; Billy the elementary-school teacher, irrepressible talker, and inveterate joker, Billy who lived with his mother (my Aunt Bessie, also on this trip) and had things whispered about him. I really liked him. Seeing me do things like make ridiculous faces as I swan-dived into the hotel bed we shared, he told me, “You’re as full of humor as I am.” I took that as a great compliment, considering some of the things he said and did. One night he talked in his sleepor so I thoughtcomplaining loudly about others on the trip while I said “Billy! Billy, wake up!” until he gave himself away, bursting into that great laugh of his. Billy’s pièce de résistance, at least on that trip, came during a rest stop in Alabama. Someone on that bus full of black people bought a local newspaper, which contained a quarter-page ad for a Ku Klux Klan rally. Billy, meanwhile, got off the bus carrying the covering he put over himself while napping. Getting back on board with whatever snack he had bought, he put the white sheet over his head like a Klansman, to howls of nervous laughter from everyone else.
We stayed in the French Quarter, taking tours during the day. It may have been during one of these that Billy spotted a white boy of about thirteen who he swore had been in Americathon, a now-forgotten movie he had just seen; I guess he was right, since the boy agreed to give Billy an autograph. In the main I remember two things about New Orleans: eating a great deal of very good food, and walking at night down the middle of Bourbon Street past a lot of wild-looking places I wasn’t old enough to enter. At one of them a moustached white man in a cowboy hat and cowboy boots stood in the entrance, repeatedly kicking the wooden swing door open to give glimpses of the women dancing inside. Safely ensconced in a group of adults, in no danger of being taken seriously, I feigned irritation at being barred from these placesnever mind that I wouldn’t have known the first thing to do if someone had let me in. Before one evening stroll I borrowed somebody’s mascara brush and painted a moustache on myself, pretending to think this would get me into someplace. Most of the adults laughed; a couple looked annoyed.
Human beings are peculiar animals, and just as the average income in a neighborhood can be a figure that matches no one’s salary, the hidden details of our lives, if laid bare, would leave very, very few of usI am convinced of thislooking what we call “normal.” My happiest moment of our New Orleans vacation came about not in that storied city but en route there, during a time when I was, you may not be surprised to learn, alone. It was late, past midnight, and we were on the bus. I had two seats to myself, and everyone else was asleep, or seemed to be. Quiet reigned. The only sound was the rush of the bus down the highway, the only things visible the lights from the small number of cars and trucks in front of usthose, and the book in my lap, illuminated by the narrow ray of the overhead light.
The book, which my older brother had brought along, was Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh’s The Complete Directory to Prime-Time TV Shows, 1946Present. Here were articles, ranging from a paragraph to a page or two, about every evening television show I had ever watchedand baby, I had watched a lot of themplus many, many more I hadn’t seen or even heard of. Here were Gilligan’s Island, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Good Times, and all the other programs I had actively viewed or had on in the background while I did my homework or played with my toys. Here were the sources of those flickering blue images (these were the last days of black-and-white TV) that infused the atmosphere of our little semi-detached brick house like dust mites, like the air itself. The articles recounted the shows’ premises, described the characters, and, in many cases, gave critical analyses. Reading the analyses was like looking down from a helicopter at the street where I’d lived my whole life, seeing utterly familiar things from a brand-new angle. In the entry about Sanford and Son, the sitcom about a cantankerous, ailing, sixty-five-year-old junk dealer and his resentful, complaining thirty-year-old son and caretaker, I read that the son, LamontI am quoting all this from memory“would never have left the old man.” No, come to think of it, I guess he wouldn’t have! “Although it was never thrown out at the audience,” I read about the warm, attractive, single main character of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary “could spend the night with a man she wasn’t in love with.” I had never thought to put it that way, but yes, that was probably right! The seven marooned individuals on Gilligan’s Island never made it back to civilization, which “was perhaps unfortunate, as this exceedingly simple-minded farce might have ended much sooner if [Gilligan] had found a way back.” Exceedingly simple-mindedha ha, yes! I even enjoyed reading about shows I’d never seen. One, on which real, ordinary people told the audience about funny incidents in their lives, “seemed like a good idea for television in 1948,” the entry drily and knowingly concluded.
Reading this book was pure pleasure. If someone had asked me why I was enjoying it so much, I would have said simply, “It’s a lot of fun to read about shows I’ve been watching my whole life.” But in retrospect, I think it may have been my first experience of a writer’s leading me, in a way I could understand, beneath the surface of thingsand then stepping outside those things to show them for what they were. I would not have used the word “criticism,” but this was the first exposure to it I can remember.
I read until my eyes began to close, and then I turned out the overhead light, joining the others on the bus in darkness. The bus rolled on; we moved toward our destination, and I, like many young people who live in their own heads, had a sense of a larger, grander destination beyond that one, a place at which my arrival was all but assured, because I was smart, because I was creative, because I had so many years to get there.
Another moment in the dark: early December, the end of the year creeping near, not the object of immediate attention but visible in the distance. I was fifty years old. At around four in the morning I lay in the dark next to my wife, who was sound asleep while I, not for the first time recently, or the second, or the third, was unaccountably but completely awake.
One’s mind in these circumstancesmine, at leastis the way I picture outer space: a black, orderless non-place where thoughts, like comets or debris or light from dying stars, crisscross and collide. No beginning, no end. One point as good as another. Let’s see:
To my relief and my anguish, the days of playing on the floor with our two daughters, of making up bedtime stories to tell them every night and sitting next to them while they went to sleep, were behind me. One daughter was fifteen, bright and funny and just as introverted as her old manand, come to think of it, the exact age I was on that first bus trip, a year older than Mary (she of my first kiss) had been at the time, nearly as old as the worldly, lonely, pregnant Tawana. (What was Tawana doing now? Or her baby, now thirty-four?) Our other daughter was now twenty, this grown person who was somehow my child, who liked jazz and hip-hop and Johnny Cash, who read Hemingway, who aspired to beof all the things the daughter of an introvert could try to become an actor. Had I done a good job by them? All I could say for sure was that I had tried as the years slipped by, and that the job, done well or badly, was just about done.
I was just about done, too, emotionally if not otherwise, with another job: the editing career that had fed us while, in my off-hours, I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Writing was the route I had chosen to the destination I imagined so long ago. It had led me through miles and years of wilderness, a no-man’s-land whose end I had finally reached, or not. My recently published book of essays, much of it criticism, had appeared to an explosion of quietand then, miraculously, caught the eye of an award committee, and so transformed me from an aging, highly obscure writer into an aging, highly obscure writer with a prize. I was pleased and grateful for this award, given to those who show “promise” (promise!), but I wasn’t sure what, at this stage, that meant, or even what this stage was, or what was next, which was true of my life generally at this moment, that possibly being one reason why, at four-something in the morning, I was wide awake.
In the dark I thought of other things, too, many and small and random: grievances now two decades old that I should have long forgotten, things I wished I’d said back to this or that person, sex, snatches of old TV shows… I wondered sometimes what effect TV had had on me, on us all. Things had changed a bit lately, but in general, through TV’s history, life had tended to go well for its characters, provided they were decent folksand didn’t most of us think of ourselves as decent folks? What unconscious assumptions had we all taken from this? How many of us, because of TV, had spent our lives waiting on things that would never come? Was I among them? Well, hey, at least my formative years had coincided with Seventies TV, which had little touches of reality. Mary Richards of The Mary Tyler Moore Show never did find Mr. Rightdidn’t marry him, anyway. The dad on Good Times died, and so did poor Henry Blake on M*A*S*H, on his way home from the Korean War.
And, of course, for evidence of things not working out as they should, one need not look to TV. After my grandmother died, in 2000, at age one hundred and six, my mother got to enjoy some freedomwhich lasted five short years before her own decline began, culminating in her death two years later. Then there was Billy Thompson, who at age sixty, still single, overweight and with high blood sugar, stepped out of his bathroom one day and apparently sank from a standing position, sliding down the wall to the crouch in which he died. I thought of seeing Billy at a relative’s funeral in 1987, eight years after our time in New Orleans. We had reminisced about the trip, and then he pulled out his wallet, fat as a brick with photos and God knows what else, and retrieved from among innumerable slips of paper the one with the autograph from the young Americathon actor. That gesture made me sad even then. For what, for whom, did my funny, gifted cousin carry around this forgotten performer’s immature scrawl? What was the point?
That question, applied in most unoriginal fashion to the rest of life, was also on my mind at four a.m. During those trips in the late 1970s, I had passed the time by playing cards and playing chess as the bus moved on, heading to a place better than where I was. I was still, metaphorically speaking, playing cards and chess, butironically, given the late evidence of progressmy faith in the destination, or in the certainty of my arrival, was wavering. Or was my fear that I had already arrived?
Still, on at least one occasion, I had done more on the bus than pass the time. My sixteen-year-old self had a lesson to pass down through the decades, if only, lying there in the dark, I could hear it. Reading the TV book played its part in the opening of my mind to a new way of looking at the world, of being in it. I didn’t think of things that way at the time, of course. I simply immersed myself in what I was doing, managing to enjoy the ride without worrying too much about where I was going, or how much of the journey was left.
Clifford Thompson is the author of Love for Sale and Other Essays and a novel, Signifying Nothing. His memoir, Twin of Blackness, will be out soon.