It's weird the way words create – Seriously. The genesis of everything is phonetic, from alphabetic to tonal, regardless of the language. It's a creation-thing, in a Biblical sense; and, therefore, no bullshit. What we say is more powerful than we ever imagine: Even words we recite silently to ourselves. Once given voice, it's a done deal. Of course, just as words create, they can destroy. The words we think can shape our destiny and make or break our lives in the strangest ways. They can enthrall and intrigue us, as well as capture our intrigues in the amber of imagination for all time. This is why it's so important to command a well-developed vocabulary and take great care with how you put it to work. Because everything you even think to say will eventually manifest itself in your life somewhere, someway. You don't have to take my word for it, just keep talking, survive, and keep watching.
In the meantime, here's an anecdotal example for you: The Bicentennial winter of '76 was one of the coldest I ever knew, in more ways than one. Disco had just about laid waste to whatever remnants of the Woodstock-era remained; and, what had followed fast on the heels of Kent State was simply too much to adapt to, easily. The absolute terror with which everyone who possibly could copped out following that National Guard murder of four Kent State college kids was revelatory and heartbreaking. Our first backward, retreating step to where we stand now. I had Hippie friends who cut their hair, tucked away their tie-dyes, and disappeared at that time, and didn't turn up again 'til the Eighties when they reappeared behind the corporate desks of America. Some of them so self-hating for copping out, they wore their cynicism like a crown. By '76, the deal was done on the love, peace, and happiness thing and its hippy-dippy day-trippers. It was clear that stardust or not, we were not gonna get ourselves back to the garden anytime soon.
You can't really blame them. For the most part, they were corporate kids who'd really only been role-playing between the beginning of the great American murders of the Kennedys, Dr. King, and Kent State. Acting out and getting all that quaint Woodstock love and peace shit out of their well-nourished systems before moving on to become the baby boomers of today. In the meantime, while everything was going south, or, more accurately, turning right with manic fake it 'til you make it desperation, I was eagerly hitting bottom. It was four years since I'd seen one of my best friends' little brother's brains spilling out of his forehead through a crack made by a .22 caliber bullet. Four years since his funeral, at which a well-meaning pimp gave me my first snort of heroin along with some street counseling.
And so, 'round about midsummer '76, while preparing a morning dose of dope, I realized I was either going to prison, or I was gonna die. I said as much to Ed, the fellow addict with whom I was fixing in his mother's kitchen. Ed was my dope shooting buddy. He'd picked up his habit in Vietnam after being drafted when he made the ill-advised move of dropping out of college in the spring of '66. He was one of those guys who'd survived the war by immersing himself in Vietnamese culture and language: And dope. He used to send his brother joints of Vietnamese weed in the mail in those dizzy days before Tet, King, Kennedy, et. al.
I'd sit around with his brother and our high school buddies, smoking the pot and reading Ed's letters about his tour of duty in 'Nam. I enjoyed listening to him talk about 'Nam while nodding or hustling up funding for the next fix. He taught me colloquial Vietnamese phrases he'd learned from the farmers he befriended trying to survive our folly there. This dialogue seemed to somehow ease the guilt I felt over ducking the war by going to college: Even though my boy Calvin had warned me not to show up in Southeast Asia: Or he'd shoot me himself. It was about brothers always being put on point, leading the Sisyphean search for the North Vietnamese on their home turf. His letter came from a Vietnamese jail, where he was doing time for refusing to do it for the umpteenth time. He said he might go to prison. "I'm going to the penitentiary," I said, coming out of a nod. What would make you say some shit like that," Ed snapped. "Man, you gotta be careful what you say." I didn't answer. One could call it 'wishful nodding.' By December, those perversely hopeful words crystallized into action.
In late-autumn, I came down with pneumonia. I woke up in a fever at the home of a couple who were friends from high school. I had no idea how I'd gotten there. The last thing I remembered was watching "A Doll's House" on PBS under a pile of blankets that were the only heat I had at the time. Damned bleak fare for a jonesing addict with pneumonia, but for some reason, at that time, Ibsen comforted me. At some point during Act 2, I passed out. My friends, a very butch Lesbian and exceptionally feminine Trans man, insisted I remain with them until I was fully recovered. It was shaping up to be a historically frigid fall and winter. The warmth and tenderness with which I was nursed by Ava and Brent saved my life.
While they were nursing me back to health, I re-read "The Autobiography of a Yogi," trying to get the law of miracles once and for all. Because it didn't take a Yogi to know I needed a miracle. By the time I was over pneumonia, I was ready to put heroin behind me and maybe beat the fate I'd envisioned months earlier. I decided to check myself into the detox-ward at the university hospital. We put together a 'survival kit' for me to take with me: a few pain-killers; a lid of weed; a paperback, Crime and Punishment, which had me tripping on the power of guilt on the conscience. It felt someway connected to my vision of going to prison, and a nice warm housecoat my friends gave me. They drove me to the hospital and dropped me off. Two days later, I was in the county jail.
It's a long story with which I won't bore you right now because it isn't the point. Suffice it to say, my survival kit turned out to be a problem at the hospital. And when I, abruptly, decided to check out, it was too late. The law had arrived. And you know what JJ Cale said about the Oklahoma law. They even kept my damned housecoat as "evidence." But that is only the prelude.
The point of this story is the quest for the meaning of Rosebud – by Jailbirds. Why would anyone doing time care about Orson Welles' conceit? That, my friends, is the question. Like our beloved country, the County jail was segregated in the Bicentennial Year: As it probably is today. Following the guard thru the maze of tanks and cells for Black folks was like a neighborhood reunion of damaged kids, all grown up. Passing through, I saw a lot of cats who'd gone MIA from the streets over the years since they left public school. The '70s were hell on the 'hood. That's why I personally found it particularly ironic, if not downright chickenshit, that the Combine had anointed Disco the music of the era. That frenetic stacked heel, superfly, bullshit buck dancing. I was placed in a tank, Number 11, consisting of four double cells, housing 3-4 men each, and a day-room with built-in steel tables and a communal toilet, shower, TV, and radio. There were 11 men therein. The noise level was almost unbearable. I had a couple of cavities that were killing me, and I was a few days into detoxing. I knew quite a few of the guys, so moving in was no hassle.
The county jail was, sadly, simply an extension of our community. It was Friday night. The local FM soul station was filling the tank with music that made the time endurable. Denise Williams', Free, was in heavy rotation with Earth, Wind and Fire's, That's the way of the world: One musical irony after another, it seemed; if irony was your thing, y'know. It has always been mine. It was kinda my reason for being there. I can't be sure about the other men, but the tank noise decreased noticeably when certain tunes were played. And, a few actually invoked silence. Most of the guys were playing cards or dominoes – with future desserts, and selected jailhouse entrees like fried chicken, the primary stakes. There was a chess game being played on the table furthest from the mounted tank-television. I found an empty bunk and introduced myself to those I didn't know. The talk of the tank was the evening's menu and TV venue, which included Soul Train –the hot date- and, maybe, the end of a movie, just before lights out. Dinner was fried fish, cornbread, cole-slaw, Kool-aid, and apple pie. A great deal of apple pie hung in the balance of the various games being played as I checked in.
Regarding the meaning of Rosebud to a bunch of county inmates: I have never been to Stockholm. I didn't even know where it was when I heard Dear Old Stockholm, played by a Jazz trombonist, who probably had never been to Stockholm either, and damn near cried. I had crawled into the cool dark beatnik club around the corner from Carter G. Woodson School, where the landlady served free gumbo every Friday. It had been the middle of a Saturday afternoon, but the joint was as dark as if it were nighttime. There was a trombonist all alone on the tiny stage playing the old folk tune to no audience except a few stoned regulars in black turtlenecks and berets, and it moved me to tears. The musician's name was Curtis Fuller. There is a part of me that lingers there to this day, trying to understand just what that plaintive Jazz/Blues man was trying to say about a city in Sweden I'd only seen in the pages of National Geographic. I'd had a similar reaction a few months earlier, when by chance while delivering the Black Dispatch Newspaper, I heard thru an open window, the voice of an Irish tenor on television, singing, I dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair. I suddenly began to cry. I had to stop and curb my bike, mystified by the effect of that alien song on me. I'd never heard the song before in my life, but its singer had touched a level of myself with which I was –at that time- entirely unfamiliar. At that point in my life, I had never met a Jeannie, and damn sure hadn't met a girl with light-brown hair. It was much later that I learned that my family had come to slavery in Alabama from Toronto, after being auctioned off in Edinburg from a dying family of which they'd been an intimate part for decades.
So, why couldn't men who had been boys all too briefly for various reasons and had their boyhood ripped, or slipped, away by circumstance, relate to little Citizen Kane's artificial orphaning, lost Rosebud, and life-long quest to retrieve it? After all, my fellow criminals were, for the most part, brilliant, poor black boys with families from who knew where: Who had not managed to navigate America's newly integrated school system, for an encyclopedia of "reasons" synonymous with poor, black and bussed in '76. In any case, here we all were at the ass end of the Bicentennial year, with the historic winter outside (and a historic execution about to go down in Utah) on canteen night in the county jail with Soul Train on the TV schedule. Perhaps, to be preceded by a taste of "Citizen Kane," the classic cinematic mystery that had made Orson Welles … Orson Fucking Welles. The evening news was filled with information about the upcoming execution of a killer named Gary Mark Gilmore. Word was
Gilmore has chosen to die by firing squad. And, supposedly demanded no blindfold. That made quite an impression on the brothers in Tank 11. In between segments about the various aspects of Gilmore's crime and punishment, the network ads touted "Citizen Kane" as its Friday Night
We had voted to watch "Citizen Kane" until Soul Train aired on another channel. After the news, there was an hour wait for Soul Train, and I'd suggested we watch the first hour of the movie. A majority agreed and were enthralled by the mystery of what it all meant from the minute they saw the No Trespassing sign outside Xanadu, to the familiar-feeling scene of a kid being taken away, by mysteriously empowered 'authorities,' from his life and beloved sled to a dying man –Welles playing Kane- dropping a crystal bauble and whispering "Rosebud." When the snowy scene within the crystal globe became real, most of the guys in Tank 11 were enthralled by the mysterious meaning of Rosebud. I knew the answer but wasn't telling.
"Man! Who the hell is this Orson Welles, anyway?" one guy demanded.
"I don't know, but he's slick enough to have you trippin'," another replied.
"He's the dude telling the story, fools! Y'all don't pay attention", someone snapped.
"No, he ain't the dude telling the story! Joseph Cotten is the damned narrator."
"Narrator, man. What school did you pass thru?"
"Who the hell is Joseph Cotton!"
"Not Cotton, man, Cot-ten."
"Well, I don't fuck with no kind of cotton. Damn that plantation
"Very funny, Uncle Remus."
"Man, fuck you!"
"Shut the fuck up, so a man can pay attention, fool."
"I can't believe we even watchin' this when Soul Train's on"
"Be cool. Soul Train ain't on yet, and this rosebud business is buggin' me."
"Joseph Cotten is a bad motherfucker. I've seen him play some cold-blooded crooks."
"Yeah, well, that's him talking."
"Orson Welles is a brother," I mumbled. Mostly to myself.
"He's a brother, a white Cat with the Blues. A Jazz movie man, disguising his soul in a swinging story."
"No shit! Man, you went way deep right there."
"Yeah, brother, you sound like you know the man."
"I do, brother. And he knows you."
And so it went. An hour slipped by. I lay there on my bunk with a double toothache, digging it all, trying to remember the name of an essay by Ralph Ellison about interviewing the janitorial staff in the bowels of the Met for the WPA, and discovering, to his astonishment, that they were Opera aficionados. This wasn't quite the same, but I could definitely appreciate Ellison's surprise as well as how humbled he must've felt as a so-called Intellectual. As the saga of Charles Foster Kane unfolded, the men in Tank 11 grew intensely attentive, listening closely to the recollections of Kane's friends and associates. They took great pleasure in the protagonist's excess and eccentricities, as played by Welles, and, ultimately, crowned him "Cool." The flashbacks were confusing to some at first, but gradually they caught on to the device.
"Man, I ain't never seen a flick like this," someone remarked.
"Yeah, it's a trip. Dude got some tricky camera skills."
"Orson Welles wrote and directed it," I said.
"No shit! And acted in it too? Dude's a freak!"
"Naw, the man's tryin' to say something about vanity.
" All is vanity," said the Preacher.
"Yeah, well, don't start that preachin' tonight, man."
"It don't make no difference, dear."
"Shut the fuck up! And don't call me dear."
And they grew quiet again. Eventually, a guard came by. Curious about the quiet in our tank, he paused and looked in on us.
"Y'all not watchin 'Soul Train' tonight?" he asked.
"Naw," someone responded.
"Oh, why not?" he sounded concerned.
"We're trying to figure out what Rosebud means."
"Rosebud?" the officer responded, "What's that?"
"Shit, if we knew, we'd be watching Soul Train."
"Well, y'all got about an hour to find out," the cop cracked and moved on to the next tank.
The film was actually approaching its climax. The tank had grown eerily still. The men were so tense, they spoke only in terse whispers.
"It's just bullshit," one frustrated cellmate snapped, "His crib is like a damn mausoleum. That wife of his would drive anybody crazy."
"Shit, he's the one that drove her crazy."
"The whole damn story's crazy."
"No," replied the tank's only openly gay resident, "It's a metaphor for something."
"Oh shit, here we go into the damn dictionary-shit."
"Metaphor. A symbol for something else."
"Yeah, getting rich."
"Well, why not just say symbol, instead of showing off your jive-assed vocabulary."
My head was killing me. My decaying wisdom-teeth throbbed in my head.
"I wasn't showing off. I was just saying what the name was."
"Yeah, well, I don't need you to tell me nothin'."
"Dude was cool but he didn't know how to enjoy his money."
"Well, his taste in women was way off."
"Yeah, he got that game all wrong. Strange."
"Probably because of the way his mama just let him go. Did she sell him, or what?"
"The actress who played his mother, Agnes Moorehead."
"No shit? That's a hell of a name, brother."
"No shit. She was Samantha's mother in that witch show."
"Oh yeah! Bewitched. Man, I used to love to watch her. She was fine."
"Did she sell him to them rich dudes or what?"
"Mama more head, or whatever her name is."
"Well, looks like he finally croaked."
"Yeah, did you hear what he said? Rosebud."
"No matter how much money you got, you can't pay-off death."
"So, who was Rosebud?"
"Probably some long lost love."
"Who cares the motherfucker wasn't nothing but a rich-assed hoarder."
"Yeah, man. Look at all the shit he got."
"Man! All that stuff, and he couldn't fill that hole."
"Just like dope."
"Is dope, sho' nuff."
"Everybody got they own version."
My head was throbbing with pain. I couldn't endure another minute of their profane conjecture. "It's the sled," I snapped finally, as the flick drew closer to its denouement.
"Be quiet and watch."
"The sled!" another man said. "Of course. Remember when those dudes
first snatched the kid from his home?"
"Yeah!" they shouted. "The kid was just playin' in the snow, happy. And next thing he knew he was snatched up and shipped off."
"Yeah, the sled is Rosebud, a symbol of what that kid lost when them dudes took him away from his Mama."
"She wasn't his mother."
"My mama wasn't my mother neither."
"They didn't take him. She sold his ass."
"She didn't sell him. He was somebody's heir or something."
"Hey, what did the kid lose? Shit, they took him and made him rich. He could buy a thousand sleds with all the scratch he got."
"But, money isn't everything."
"Bullshit! We done got way too philosophical now."
"So, is it a symbol or a metaphor? Make up my mind."
"Shut up and watch. See, the name's right there on it! Rosebud."
"Yeah, man, we can all read."
"Wanna bet?" We all watched, quietly. Each man lost in his own thoughts as the little sled burned.
"Damn, they just threw it on the trash heap, and burned it."
"Man, all that stuff. All that stuff he had, and his dying thought was about something he lost when he was a kid."
"Like us," someone muttered. "We all lost our fuckin' sleds somewhere."
"Speak for yourself. I ain't never had no sled."
"I was talking metaphorically, fool." (One had to possess real power to be openly gay in county jail, in '76. That's the only reason I mentioned it earlier.)
"Oh shit, here we go again! I quit that class."
"Yeah, well whatever you lost damn sure ain't made you rich."
"That is not the point, How much is your youth worth to you? That's the point, brother."
"I never had one of them either - that I can recall. Metaphorically or otherwise."
"Shit! Who has?"
Not much more was said until the film ended. Even after having switched channels just in time to watch the dancers go all out as Soul Train's credits rolled, not much more was said. I kept thinking about the killer in Utah, Gary Gilmore, wondering if a blindfold was mandatory. Jailhouse word was he had declined one. That was strong, or crazy. Probably the latter. I'd always figured a man had to be out of his mind to kill somebody anyway. I wanted to believe I, too, would choose to look my executioners in the eye. But, how was one to know? And, who really wanted to find out? The Bi-centennial year was mercifully coming to a close; and, I was on my way to making my prediction come true. I felt relieved. I'd lost everything. But, I was still alive; so, everything was still possible. What youth? Indeed!
I lay on my bunk thinking. Replaying the scene in Ed's Mom's kitchen months ago. Some of the others continued, quietly, discussing the film in the dark. Eventually our keyman came by again.
"Y'all get that rosebud mystery solved?" he asked the cats still discussing.
"Yeah," one of them answered.
"Yeah? What was it?" he asked, lingering.
"Shit, we ain't tellin' you."
"Yeah, you gotta put in some work. Do your time and watch the flick."
"Okay, then shut the fuck up, and turn off that fuckin' television." he snapped, irritated. He sounded so childish, I wanted to laugh, but my swollen jaws ached too much.
Breathing, I eventually drifted off to sleep, trying to remember my own metaphorical Rosebud and a lot of other things I had not needed to forget. Like, who I was before I saw that kid's brains spilling out of his head. Once the precious vessel has been broken, you cannot hold them in. No matter what you do.