Other Voices, Other Towns: Conversations With Complete Strangers

It was a little after 8:30 in the morning. I was sitting out on the concrete patio of a strip mall coffee shop in Dearborn, Michigan, still dead to the world due to the deficit of caffeine and nicotine in my system, when a man came up to me and asked for 90 cents. Since I had it on me, I handed him about 90 cents in small change and attempted to go back about the business of waking myself up, but shortly after seeing me light my cigarette, the man asked if he could bum one and I obliged. Ambling over to me, he took the cigarette from my outstretched fingers, placed it in his jacket pocket and introduced himself to me as Gary.

Gary was a light-skinned black man in his late 40s or early 50s, although he looked as if he could’ve been a decade older than that. He had a shaved head and was wearing a ripped light blue windbreaker with a pair of gray sweatpants. I doubt if Gary had seen a dentist in decades as, with the exception of his incisors, all of his front teeth were knocked out and the only remnant of his bottom row was a jagged little tooth that popped up in the gaps where his two front teeth should be like an iceberg jutting out in the North Atlantic. He was constantly playing with a hospital band on his right wrist as he talked with me.

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Biggby Coffee in Dearborn, MI

“Thanks for the smoke, man.” Gary said as he sat down in a slightly damp lattice-backed chair next to me. “I’ve been feining for one since got out the hospital this morning.”

“Don’t worry about it.” I told him. “Damn things are killing me anyway.”

“That’s what they want you to think, but the thing is, everybody’s different.” Gary said. “Look, some people, they smoke they smokes everyday and get cancer like a motherfucker when they’s 55 because they body can’t handle it. Other people, you know, other people might burn two packs a day and live to be a hundred and whatever. Why? Because they knew that they body could handle it, right? Doctors always try to scare the shit out of people with that stuff, but it ain’t always true.”

“So, you gonna be one of those guys who lives to a hundred and whatever?” I asked.

“Damn right I’m one of those people that going to live to a hundred. I know what my body needs and that’s just what I give it.” Gary told me.

He paused for a few seconds, scanning the patio for something to talk about when he saw my book lying on the table in front of me.

“What you reading?” he asked.

“It’s Orpheus Descending.” I told him. “It’s a play by Tennessee Williams.”

“Oh yeah, Tennessee Williams…Tennessee Williams…yeah, that dude was alright.” Gary said.“But you know who was a mastermind who, you know, never got credit during his time?”

“Who?” I asked

“Rod Sterling.” Gary said.

“Rod Sterling?”

“Yeah…Rod Sterling…the dude from The Twilight Zone. If he was around today, man. We would’ve had some masterpieces man. That guy was way ahead of his time, I’m telling you. I used to watch that stuff all the time when I was a kid. I used to read a lot more fiction back then too. Like, in junior high I used read a lot of fiction. But anybody can write fiction man. Even the dumbest dude can write fiction. All you gotta do is make shit up. But non-fiction…man, to write non-fiction you gotta do research. You gotta have facts for people to believe you, right?”

“Non-fiction certainly ain’t easy” I told him.

Exactly, man!” Gary said. “You know, I’m gonna write a children’s book one of these days. I’ve already been thinking ’bout it for a couple years now. It’s gonna be a children’s book for adults. ‘Cause, them children’s books back in the day were violent as hell. You know, ‘all around the mulberry bush…the monkey chase the weasel’…and then pop! There goes the weasel man. Gotta show folks what they doing to they kids.”

“Sounds like a plan to me.” I told him

“At the end of the day, it’s all about facts. Like that guy that’s been bouncing around from country to country; you know, bouncing around from country to country and everybody not giving America no respect. Dude found shit, you know, with those leaks. Facts, man. Don’t matter how small the leak. When shit gets to leaking, people get scared. And you want to know why no one’s giving America no respect?” Gary asked. “Why this dude is bouncing around from country to country getting shot down?”

“No,why?” I asked.

“Because there ain’t nobody in this world that likes White Americans.”

And with that, Gary got up from his chair, lit his cigarette and walked away.

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Categories: Interviews

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